Sunday, November 16, 2014

What We're Writing: Susan Elia MacNeal & MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: So sorry to be missing Bouchercon, but due to the recent death, I thought it was best to stay home and take care of my family. Although I'm sorry to miss all the fun, it's the right decision.

I do have some good news, however — MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY has just gone into its fifteenth printing! Yay! (Or, as Hank would say, "Whoa!")

I've also just received MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE (Maggie Hope #5) back from my editor (the amazing Kate Miciak at Random House), so staying home gives me more time to work. And yes, I'm working hard.

I love Kate's edits — and I'm terrified of Kate's edits. Generally, before I even open the package (yes, she's one of the only editors that still uses pen on paper and sends back actual manuscripts), I pour a glass of wine, spritz on my favorite editing perfume (L'Artisan's Passage d'Enfer — yes, for the name as much as the scent) and then read through the editorial letter and flip through the pages the pages. I prepare to smile, laugh, wince, and cringe.

Kate (who edits Lee Child, Laurie R. King, Alan Bradley, and Melanie Benjamin, among many others) does not, shall we say, hold back. And she's good. She's really, really, really good. She is great, really. Kate the Great. This is my fifth book that she's edited and I never cease to be amazed at her insight, acumen, and sensitivity.

Also, her edits are sometimes fun and occasionally funny. Sometimes, if one is very, very lucky, there is a red-penned heart illustration.

However, if one has not written clearly, or cleverly, there is the occasional "WHAT???"

And if something just reads as downright dumb (although it never did in my mind when I wrote it) there is, "SILLY." Oh, how I cringe when I see "silly" (which usually gets penned into any romantic scenes I write, thus heightening the cringe-factor).

And then there are the comments that induce cringing. Literal cringing. Right before I turned in the manuscript, I decided to change a new main character's name. I did a find/replace, but, somehow, I missed one. So, at some point near the end of the novel, one of the new main characters, now called Jack, is referred to as Tommy. "WHO THE HELL IS TOMMY?!?" blasts the red pen. 

Well, yes — good question. I mean, I suppose I could explain that Tommy was Jack before Jack was Jack. And I renamed Tommy because I have too much baggage with the name Thomas and also wanted a really great, confident, all-American name like Jack. So I suppose I could say, "Well, Tommy was Jack, when Jack was perhaps a bit more moody (a doubting Thomas?) and not as self-confident...." But, really, I'm just going to have a good cringe and then change it to Jack.

The thing is, as hard as it can be to go through all of the edits, at the end, your manuscript is so much better for it. 

And I'm very, very grateful.

Last time, I shared a scene with Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR, and Fala. 

Here's another section of the opening of MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE, which I believe will be released in the fall of 2015 — I hope you like it.

“Come on, Davy! Atta boy! You can beat that big ol’ Goliath, I just know you can!”
Wendell Cotton sat on the hard bed of his jail cell and watched his cellmates—a mass of fat brown shiny cockroaches—go for the breadcrumbs he’d put down for them. They’d been his companions since his arrival, although they were uninterested in him until his meager meals arrived. To assuage his boredom, and his loneliness, Cotton organized cockroach races, using breadcrumbs as a prize.

Two champions had emerged and Cotton could tell them apart. The bigger cockroach was Goliath, the other one David. Although Goliath usually won, there were some days—like today—when David gave the big guy a run for his money. Wanting to be fair, Cotton also saved crumbs, as consolation prizes, for the also-rans.

The roaches were his friends. His only friends. They all helped him with his nerves, made him forget for a few moments where he was. But it was impossible to forget he was in his tiny, solitary cell on Death Row at Thomas Jefferson Prison in rural Virginia. 

The sunlight that passed through the high barred window was dim—it didn’t so much shine as seep through the filthy glass. What light there was shone down on a narrow bed covered with a grey blanket, a washbasin and toilet.

Singing helped pass the time and made the loneliness more bearable, too. As the roaches gobbled their feast of crumbs, Wendell wrapped his thin arms around himself, swayed and sang, in a voice surprisingly deep for a fifteen-year-old:

I have had my fun, 
if I don't get well no more
My health is failing me, 
and I'm goin’ down slow
Please write my mother, 
tell her the shape I’m in
Tell her to pray for me, 
forgive me for my sin...

Sometimes the light touched his face and illuminated his features—large dark eyes with long thick eyelashes, strong features, with a dimple in his chin. He had the look in his eyes of a boy who’d been forced to assume the responsibilities of a man too early in life.

“Shut the devil up!” came a querulous voice from a cell down the hall.

It was the Row’s only other prisoner, Jimmy Waller, an older white man—bent over and gnarled, like a twisted tree—also scheduled to die. In Virginia, although segregation existed everywhere else, it didn’t on Death Row.

“We all niggas here, boy,” Waller had called out between the bars when he’d first seen Cotton walked in by four guards, white men in grey uniforms, their key rings jangling with each step. Cotton’s calloused black hands were cuffed and his long bare feet shackled. “We in nowhere-land. Like the Land of Oz. Like ol’ Cooter Brown.”

Both men flinched when they heard the gate to The Row being opened.  The newcomer was the preacher from Ebenezer Missionary Church, Ezra Johnson. He was a short stocky man, his black hair touched by grey, his face and hands marked with vitiligo, making his skin a patchwork of white and colored. 

Reverend Johnson took a stool and set it down by the iron bars of Cotton’s cell. Then he sat, Bible in hand, waiting for Wendell to speak.

“Thank you for comin’, Reverend Johnson,” Wendell said from his narrow bed, “but I pray to Jesus my whole life by myself—and I don’t need no preacher to pray with now.”

“It’s all right, son. We can just talk. If you want.”

Wendell threw another crumb across his cell. The roaches, en masse, scuttled after it.

The reverend stared at the roaches’ feeding frenzy. “What’s that you’re doing?”

“Races. I reckon they’re just as bored as I am, bein’ stuck in here. So I thought I’d give them something to do. Somethin’ to eat.”

Reverend Johnson nodded, and reached through the bars to grasp the younger man’s bony shoulder. “I’m here for you, son. Whatever you need.”

“You don’t need to absolve my sins. Besides, I didn’t do nothin’—nothin’ that weren’t self-defense. And God don’t seem fit to care these days.”

“Did you write that letter I asked you to?”

“I did.” Wendell slid over a piece of paper, almost transparent from folding and refolding, through the bars.

Reverend Johnson read Wendell’s large, child-like handwriting silently:

Like the song says, I been buked and I been scorned. I been talked about, shos yor born.
But even though there be trouble all over this world I believe in God I have asked God to forgive me. Even during these hard times I aint goin to lay my religon down. I don’t know if He’s heard my prayers, but I reckon maybe because he’s God and He knows all. He’s my judge, not the judge and jury of Virgina, and not the peeple. The Governor and the Courts don’t know all the facts.

Seems to me that some people get to make mistakes and have them forgivan, no problem. Some people get lots of these chances.
And then there’s some people that get no chances.

Do one thing wrong and its the electric chair for you.

I always worked hard to provide for my mother But he stol from me. Never work for a pore man or else he’ll steel whats yours, I say.
And now it means I die Every second means I am closer to my our of death. I’m getting ready to put on my long white coat and meet my Maker.

But I appreciate every step you good people do toards helping me I am a poor laboring boy 

All I want is one more chance at life.

“You really think that’ll go in a newspaper after I’ve died?” Wendell asked, looking younger than his years.

“Is that what you want?” Reverend Johnson replied.

“I’d like my side of the story told, sure.” Wendell took the preacher’s measure, then shook his head. “You church folk is crazy. Why you do it? Visit us dead men walking?”

The Reverend slipped the paper into his jacket pocket. “I want to bring you comfort. And there is still hope for you—for a retrial. This time by a jury of your peers, not white sharecroppers who can afford the poll tax.”

Wendell sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I know Miss Andi been tryin’ her best.” Miss Andi was Andrea Martin, assigned to his case by the Workers Defense League to stop the execution.

“Miss Andi’s been working day and night, and your mother too, to get you another trial. Miss Andi has some friends, who might help—friends in high places.”

Wendell’s face hardened. “Like who? Who gonna listen to some high-yalla Negro girl who dresses like a man and wants to go to law school?”

Reverend Johnson stood. “Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one. Miss Andrea’s been in almost constant contact with her and her office. That’s with the First Lady of the United States. That’s a heck of a big deal.”

“That and a nickel’ll get you a Coca-Cola,” 
Wendell snorted, tossing another crumb to the roaches to watch them scurry. “She ain’t the Governor.”

“No, but the President has pull with the governor. Miss Andi’s trying to get Mrs. Roosevelt to ask her husband to intervene on your behalf. To have a word with the Governor—so he’ll stay your execution. Maybe even get you a retrial. A real trial this time.”

Wendell crossed his arms over his boyish chest. “Miss Andi’s wasting her time. Ain’t gonna do me no good.”

“I want to read you part of a letter Miss Andi sent me,” the Reverend Johnson said. “ ‘Please tell Mr. Cotton that we want him to feel encouraged and to know he has thousands of friends all over the country. Tell him to keep well and strong because he has a tough job ahead of him. And please tell him that many people are praying for him.”

Wendell looked towards the light struggling to pass through the grimy window. He blinked, hard. “Please tell Miz Andi that I’m more than glad to hear from her and to know I have some friends out there.” He turned his face to the preacher, his eyes catching the light.

“And please tell her to work fast. I only got one week left.”

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Have a good Sunday! Please leave a comment — maybe about your own cringe-worthy moments in writing or in life? 


  1. Susan, a sobering scene for a Sunday morning. A time to be thoughtful and reflect.

    Too many cringe-worthy moments to spare--especially when you've been through the manuscript a jillion times and think--finally--that you've caught everything out of place.

  2. Commenting first, reading second. Just wanted to say "howdy"! Yesterday got to hear four awesome Colorado authors speak at an AAUW event-Helen Thorpe, Julie Moss, Margaret Coel and Megan Olson. A GREAT way to spend a cold snowy Saturday! XOs!

  3. There will be other writers' conferences. Next year I hope to see you in a fabulous Jungle Red pashmina in Raleigh, Susan!

    Intriguing tease there. I'm having a really hard time figuring out how you're going to get Maggie Hope there, though. Can't wait to find out.

  4. Love this excerpt, Susan! Can't wait to read the whole book...and what a HILARIOUS name for a perfume! Thanks for the laughs and intrigue!

  5. Beautiful excerpt! I can't wait to read the whole book.

    I'm waiting to get my very own cringe-worthy notes from my editor. This will be my first published book, so if you hear wailing from Pittsburgh in the next couple of weeks, you'll know it was me.

  6. Susan, you are so lucky to have Kate--she's a fabulous editor. (And she's lucky to have you, too!)

    Too many cringe-worthy moments to share... I still get hand-marked pages from Carrie, my editor, too, by the way.

    Love the scene! Can't wait to read the book!

  7. First-- I love the excerpt.

    Second, I have always contended that everyone needs a GOOD editor. I have had good/great editors and I have had mediocre/bad editors. There is such a world of difference. You are always lucky when you draw a good one!

  8. Just in from Church to find this lovely excerpt . . . Susan, I'm really looking forward to reading the book.

    Sad to say, my life has far too many cringe-worthy moments in it; they are best left unmentioned, unshared, and [hopefully] unremembered . . . .

  9. EXCELLENT!! And thank you so much for sharing it.

    I too missed this year's B'con, but by golly, I'm already registered for next year in Raleigh and hope to see you there!

  10. Raleigh, yes! That will be so much fun!

    I have no red pashmina.... : (

    Thank you for all the kind words.

    Joyce, all best wishes with your book! I hope you don't get too many cringe-worthy comments!

  11. Your stories are a marvelous blend of irresistible, horrifying, and marvelous history. Thank you I eagerly await the next installment.

  12. The last description of cockroach racing that I read was in Cuddon's "The Owl's Watchsong," one of the greatest travel books ever written. It happens to be about Istanbul, but my judgment isn't skewed by my love of the city. When Cuddon died, his obituaries labeled the book as I did above! (Looking forward to reading Mrs. Roosevelt.)

  13. Sara Hyman - i am a big fan of the series and can't wait for the book to come out - now even more intrigued

  14. I found your first book in a book store in Nashville, Indiana on vacation in February (yes, there's a Nashville in Indiana!) because I'm a fan of Churchill. Then I quickly read the rest of them throughout the year. Love them! What a treat to be able to connect with the author! Can't wait for the next one. I'm a fan of Eleanor Roosevelt too.

  15. Susan, my mind was so absorbed with the scene from your excerpt that I was startled when it ended. I have all, except this one, of course, waiting in my next-up reading tub (my specially ordered copper tub for books, as I've run out of shelf space long ago and wanted something classy for the living room book stash). I always have a series that I read in January, last year's was Rhys' Lady Georgie. So, if I don't get started on Maggie Hope before that, it will be my January series for sure. It certainly gives me something wonderful to look forward to in the cold, cold first of the year.

    I will be thrilled to meet you at next year's Bouchercon and have read all your books by then. I couldn't go this year, but I have my room reserved in Raleigh.

    I know that I'm a day late in my comments for this post, but I'm so interested in your books, that I couldn't help but respond today.