This is a terrific time to discover Susan Bernhardt and her cozy mysteries – The Ginseng Conspiracy, Murder under the Tree, and Murder by Fireworks – all set in a fictional town in northern Wisconsin and each set around a different season, from Halloween to the Fourth of July.
I’ve known Susan since shortly after the publication of her first mystery, The Ginseng Conspiracy, when I first began participating in an Amazon.com discussion group for writers (and readers) of cozy mysteries, so I don’t claim to be unbiased when it comes to her writing. Read the reviews, or read an excerpt, and make your own judgment there. Instead, I’d like to introduce you to Susan . . . which is especially interesting as her own life, her own friends, and her own community, inspired much in these mysteries.
Susan, like the heroine of her three-book series, is a retired registered nurse who lives in northern Wisconsin. Like the fictional Kay Driscoll, Susan volunteers in her local free clinic. She and her husband, William, have two sons, and love to travel, and travel (as well as the thousands of reports she penned in her nursing career) provided an early opportunity for Susan to develop her writing skills.
“At the beginning, I kept a journal of each trip,” says Susan, who still has those journals.
Susan’s hobbies and interests including working in stained glass, bicycling, kayaking, reading – especially cozy mysteries – and traveling. Oh, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate. In fact, readers should be warned that Susan’s cozies can be deadly to diets. Kay and her friends frequent a delightful patisserie, and the descriptions of the decadent desserts they enjoy are irresistible! (Hint: Susan shares the recipe for their favorite chocolate torte, which I have baked to much acclaim, on her website: http://susanbernhardt.com.)
Susan decided to try her own hand at writing cozies after reading M.C. Beaton’s The Quiche of Death. The result – The Ginseng Conspiracy – was published in January 2014. After publishing the third Kay Driscoll mystery, Susan began a new mystery based in Manhattan and featuring a retired ballet dancer, Irina, who runs a ballet studio for young children.
“A normally healthy neighbor becomes ill over time, dies, and Irina sets out to prove it wasn’t from natural causes. There’s a bit about Lithuania in the Cold War. Subplots include a lover from Irina’s college years at NYU who suddenly re-enters her life and a stranger obsessed with Irina who moves into her neighborhood in the Upper West Side,” says Susan.
Plotting the puzzle of the mystery, and all the thinking required to turn fiction into fact, is the fun part for Susan, and that part consumes her attention, whether she’s taking a shower, going for a walk or falling asleep in bed.
“When I am writing a mystery it is often all-consuming. I love writing the first draft, including anything and everything I can think of. I want those raw thoughts down on paper. I don’t ever edit along the way. Writing is very exciting for me. I love to write, and I really get into it. It’s fun and extremely satisfying,” Susan shares.
The hard part, as for other writers, is promoting the books.
Susan had intended to teach, but she went into nursing after an older brother who had earned an education degree had trouble finding a job.
“There were too many teachers at the time. Being a practical person, I went into nursing because I knew I would get a job. I received an academic scholarship and didn’t look back. My last paid nursing job was as a public health nurse in maternal child nursing. I loved it. I worked with mothers on medical assistance, doing assessments and teaching. I also developed the first Health Check in the Home Program in the state of Wisconsin. I’m quite proud of that.”
After completing all her college prep courses, Susan opted to take art and shop classes in high school rather than graduate early.
“I made jewelry, designed my future home, threw some clay, worked with acrylics and wood, etc. In college, I had a roommate who was an art major. I started painting in oil that year. Also in college I took two drawing classes with all art majors. I received some of my lowest grades in those classes, but I loved the experience. I took guitar in college, and did manage to get an A in that,” Susan recalls.
This love of art is incorporated in Susan’s fiction, both in the Kay Driscoll mysteries and in her current mystery-in-progress. It’s also formed a basis for some of her travels, taking Susan and her husband to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Guggenheim museums in NYC and in Bilbao, Spain, as well as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Prado in Madrid, and the National Gallery in London.
“I love Impressionist art,” says Susan. “A couple of years ago when I visited the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, I acquired an appreciation for Picasso and Cubism.”
Susan also shared some of her favorite reads:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – “I’m quite interested in NYC and the time period of the book, the early 20th Century. It was my favorite novel last summer.”
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron – “This book opened a whole new world of literature to me.”
The Angels Game also by Zafron, about the love of writing – “It’s also excellent.”
The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte – “It’s such great writing and contains wonderful description.”
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro – “It’s an exciting mystery with art as the main theme and deals with Degas, a favorite artist of mine.”
Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Polifax series is one of many favorites in mysteries.
Read excerpts from Susan’s series: