Today, I’m delighted to introduce readers to a dynamo member of Derby Rotten Scoundrels, the Ohio River Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime. Below is her bio and her responses to my interview questions.
Susan Bell was born in coastal California, then proceeded to travel the country in her role as daughter of a Naval officer. She learned to walk in the Mojave Desert, to swim in Virginia Beach, and to read in Washington State. She fell in love with Dr. Seuss and hasn’t stopped reading since. She combined her love of reading, writing and arithmetic and became a technical writer, working in the defense, aviation, and telecommunications industries. With deep roots in the Bluegrass State, she now calls Louisville home. Susan contributed “Summer’s End” to the crime anthology Mystery With a Splash of Bourbon.
I know you’ve had a varied and eclectic career. Can you tell us a bit about your professional journey?
A friend once told me, “Susan, you can’t decide whether you want to be a Capitalist or a Bohemian.” She was right.
In high school, I enjoyed math, science, and writing. So when it was time to go to university, I was torn between science and the arts. My father, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Louisville, highly recommended I major in engineering.
I spent two years in engineering, then started hanging out at the campus theater, where my sister was performing in The Women. I loved it. Though I enjoyed the rigor and clarity and sureness of engineering, being around a theater environment was like a tonic. I stayed involved, and eventually changed my major to theater. To the great disappointment of my Dad.
After graduation, my sister and I drove out to Los Angeles to make it big in the movies . . as they say. I had a lot of fun being a Bohemian in LA, doing some very odd jobs to make a living, and working in Equity-Waiver theater in the evening. But there was an excess of fun, an excess of partying, I spun a little out of control, and that eventually left me without a place to live (it’s complicated). The Capitalist spirit kicked in, and after a talk with my parents, I moved back to Kentucky and finished my engineering degree.
I landed a job with LA-based Hughes Aircraft – a premier defense contractor that had been formed by Howard Hughes himself. I was back in California!
The ensuing years combined technical writing with various creative activities, working in the theater, photography, or creative writing. I went on to work in Montreal (Bombardier Aircraft), Seattle (Boeing), and Savannah (Gulfstream). Though the Bourbon Anthology our Derby Rotten Scoundrels chapter published this year was my first fiction publishing credit, I have been published voluminously by the US Army and various commercial aircraft manufacturers. But they never put my name on the cover!
You’ve made your living as a technical writer, but you’ve also written fiction. Have you found your approach and process very different for the two types of writing?
Yes, the approach is very different, especially in the industries where I cut my teeth: military technical manuals and aviation maintenance manuals. Both are highly regulated and governed by specifications with respect to style and content.
With respect to process, though, there are some similarities. You often need to do a lot of research in technical writing. You need to ensure your writing is grammatically correct, no typo’s, consistent in style. You want your writing to be comprehensible to the reader. But you don’t care if it’s entertaining or suspenseful!
My work experience has been very helpful in mastering the tools of the trade – good grammar, good spelling, good editing, familiarity and comfort with word processing.
When you’re writing fiction, do you consider yourself more of a pantser, plotter, or somewhere in-between?
I would say somewhere in between. I might start with nothing more than an image, or a bit of dialogue, and write that up. But then, I brood on it. I try and flesh out a story from that. And I usually can’t proceed with the writing until I have, in my head, at least a general idea of what happens.
You recently co-edited an anthology, MYSTERY WITH A SPLASH OF BOURBON, with Elaine Munsch. I know your own work is included in the anthology. Can you tell us about the experience of editing an anthology, as well as the inspiration behind your own fiction in the anthology?
Editing the anthology was an act of love, mixed with frustration. I never would have taken on the task if Elaine had not been there working with me on it. The hardest part was just gathering the disparate manuscripts from the multitude of authors – ensuring we had the right version, revising the text, as needed, so each story and article conformed to the right format. We wanted to fulfill the promise that had been made to all those authors that their work would be published. It was very gratifying (and lots of hard work) to see that to fruition.
My story pulls heavily from my own experience visiting my grandfather’s farm in Casey County – the farm where my father grew up. The events are fiction, but the location still lives vividly in my mind, as does the image and character of my grandfather.
In addition to your fulltime job as a technical writer, you’ve donated countless volunteer efforts to the Ohio River Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime, Derby Rotten Scoundrels. Currently, you’re serving as Secretary of the Board, webmaster, zoom coordinator for meetings and events, and coordinator of a chapter subgroup writing a series of mystery plays for a local museum. In addition to wondering when you sleep, I’d love to know why helping the chapter is clearly important to you and what Sisters in Crime means to you.
This chapter specifically provided the opportunity for me to get published. That was a big milestone for me, and I’m grateful. So a lot of my volunteer work for the chapter comes from that gratitude, and wanting to provide someone else that opportunity.
In your down time, what kinds of books do you enjoy reading? Any favorite authors?
I read different genres, non-fiction and fiction, though I always love a good mystery, and I love a good plot. Some favorite authors: Emily St. John Mandel, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson, Cormac McCarthy.
When you’re not working writing, and volunteering, what do you enjoy doing? Any other passions and interests?
I love photography and it’s been a hobby for most of my adult life.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I think I’ve said enough.