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ON THE COVER
An avid reader since earliest childhood, native Floridian Sue-Ellen spent nearly twenty years working for the airlines as a flight attendant before deciding to try her hand at writing romance. She has seen the world, but no place ever captured her heart as soundly as the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland.
Between annual research trips to Great Britain, she often finds herself plagued by what she calls being "homesick for the Highlands." The best cure for this ailment is an airline ticket across the Big Pond. But since such a remedy is not always practical, she's found the next best way for her to return to the special place she loves is to sit at her computer, place her hands on the keyboard, and slip into what her friend, author Pat Cody, calls the writer's trance - a wonderful state of being that allows a writer's everyday surrounds to fade away, enabling the writer to melt into the world of their story.
Sue-Ellen lives with her husband and her muse (their Jack Russell Terrier, Em) in Florida. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Novelists, Inc, and her own clan societies, the MacFie Clan Society of North America and the Clan MacAlpine Society. When not writing or walking her dog, she can usually be found scouring the history section of used bookstores, trying to think of a clever way to ask her husband to build her some new bookshelves, or curled in a corner of the sofa late at night, happily lost in the pages of a research book on medieval Scotland.
IN: When, what, where did you first start professionally writing?
My first completed manuscript was horrible. It gathers dust on a top shelf of my office closet and shall never see the light of day. The second was a ghost romance that has a lot of potential and might eventually sell if ever I take the time to rewrite it. The third was another paranormal and is another one I might someday revive.
The fourth manuscript is the one that sold to Warner Books in 2000 and was then retitled as Devil In A Kilt. Not a Scottish-set ghost romance as my previous attempts, this was a pure Scottish medieval romance, although the book has some very strong paranormal elements. The manuscript sold within two weeks of landing on the editor's desk, so the change in focus worked. I found my voice with that book - the cozy-comfortable storyworld I feel most at home in.
IN: Why did you decide to write romance novels?
SW: Three reasons. One, I've always loved reading them. During my flying years, half of my crew suitcase was always crammed with historical and paranormal romance novels. Many of my colleagues carried snazzy layover shoes and outfits, I lugged books. Heaven forbid I might get stuck in some remote corner of the world and not have anything to read.
Two, I love happy endings and enjoy writing stories where hopes and dreams come true and good prevails. I may never be on Oprah or invited to a literary society luncheon, but I have a solid base of loyal and devoted readers who enjoy my work. I'm told that my books sweep them out of their everyday lives and into the magical world of medieval Scotland that lets them forget their cares for a while and, perhaps, believe that some of their own hopes and dreams might come true. When I read, or write, I want escapism and a happy-feeling (sigh) when I reach The End, and so do my readers.
Three, I just sort of fell into it. Unlike many writers, I never aspired to be one. My dream was to be a flight attendant and see the world. I did this and was very happy. That said, as with every other published author I know, I've been an avid reader and great lover of books since childhood. I just never thought I'd write one. I was encouraged by my close friend and romance author Becky Lee Weyrich who felt that I should write after she read my travel journals and lengthy letters. Becky's suggestion that I write romance put a bug in my ear and I eventually warmed to the idea. Then I asked her where to start and she pointed me toward RWA.
IN: What approaches or methods do you use when writing romance novels?
SW: The truth is, writing is very hard work. There are there no magic bullets. The only way to get a book written is to sit down and do it. Chapter by chapter, page by page, line by line. There isn't any way around the work. What's important is to find a way that works for you. There isn't a one-size-fits all method to writing. What works for one writer will be a trial of nightmares for the next. Many writers fly through a first draft, then go back and edit. I can't do that. I edit as I go, which means I'm a very slow writer. Each day, I read the pages I wrote the previous day, tweaking them until I am satisfied. Then I set aside a chapter and move to the next. That said, I do not tweak forever. I am usually finished with a chapter after that next-day read-through. There are two advantages to this: one, it works best for me, and, two, when I finish a book it is as clean as I can make it.
Also, I would say I am a combination between a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants) and a plotter. Being contracted by two publishing houses, I'm fortunate to sell on proposal or idea. A few sketchy paragraphs describing a story. So I always have a bare-bones outline of the storyline to work from. I have to have that so my editors can okay or decline a story idea.
I also always get my ideas in one great rush, immediately knowing who will be the hero and heroine, how the book starts and ends, and more or less what happens along the way. It's the along-the-way part that makes me a half-pantser. Characters take on a life of their own once you get into the writing, and sometimes something you planned for them no longer works when you reach that part of the story. When that happens, I take detours, following a slightly different road than originally planned. What matters is staying true to the character, and even with small deviations, I still arrive at the place I intended by book's end.
One method I ignore is critique partnering. Most writers have a critique partner or group. This works wonderfully for many, but not for me. I'm simply too private to let anyone other than my agent and editors see my work before it hits the shelves. I trust my own instincts and the experienced eye of my agent. She reads my work before it goes to my editors and I consider her input invaluable. I suppose she is my critique partner, but having one in the sense understood within the norm of writing just isn't for me.
Also, my best work occurs between midnight and about 2 a.m. I appreciate the stillness of night, sometimes working straight through until about four if I am having a good session. I always smile when someone says they write best in the early morning. I doubt I could write my name before 10 a.m. The more the day progresses, the better my writing. Simply put, there is no best way, only what works best for you.
SW: Without question, Becky Lee Weyrich, who encouraged me to write in the first place. Without her urging, I'm sure I would never have written the first line. Also, my agent, Roberta Brown (Brown Literary Agency). Her encouragement, support, and insight keeps me going. My editors: Maggie Crawford, now at Pocket, who bought Devil In A Kilt. I learned so much from her. Karen Kostolnyik at Warner who understands my heart and stories so well. She has the gift to read a manuscript and see instantly how it can be made better. Anne Bohner at Penguin/NAL who I also love working with and who made my Allie Mackay paranormals a reality.
Reading classic gothic writers whose work I so enjoyed in my teens - Victoria Holt, Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart, to name a few. I love atmosphere and these grand dames created it so well, transporting me again and again into the wonderfully vivid worlds of their stories. My deep appreciation for atmosphere in books goes back to my early love affair with gothics and really inspired me in my writing.
IN: What would you tell new writers that might help them establish successful writing careers?
SW: Beyond having faith in yourself, being disciplined, and developing a thick enough skin to keep plodding through tough times, it's most important to write what you love. Everyone says, write what you know, but that isn't enough. I write passionate Scottish-set books because Scotland makes my heart pound. I might be able to research Texas ranching and the rodeo circuit - but, it isn't where my heart is and that shows when writing. My cowboy/rodeo star romance would fall flat whether it was well researched or not. Readers sense lack of passion in writing. I was raised to appreciate my Scottish ancestry and have been studying Scottish history, culture, lore, and legends for many decades, I spend a great amount of time there every year. New writers should find their own Scotland. Not just write about what they know, but also what they are passionate about. Only then will the pages come alive.
In keeping with my theme of atmosphere, I can give a few tips for creating a vivid sense of time and place. This is very important. Only a vibrant, real-seeming story world will let your reader feel as if they are really there, experiencing the adventure along with your characters. The best way to do this is to show, not tell. No one wants to read passages that sound like a clipping from a travel guide.
Make the setting come alive by letting the reader experience it through your characters' thoughts, words, and actions. Use sensory perception. Make use of all five senses. And don't forget a character's emotional reaction to a place. Imagine you are your character and picture yourself in the setting. What do you see? What do you hear or smell? Are you touching anything? How do you feel? Choose one or two vital impressions and create reader involvement by showing your character reacting to these elements by using specific detail. "Animal" implies beast. "Dog" is generic. "Terrier" paints a specific word picture.
One last thing, unless you need silence when writing, consider selecting a few CDs as background music during your creative sessions. I love classical music and have certain CDs for each book. Mendelssohn's The Hebrides, instantly sweeps me into my story. Music sets the mood and acts as a mental trigger for me. It might help you slip from your everyday world into your writing world.
IN: How do you conjure up new characters and storylines?
SW: I believe characters and storylines are out there somewhere, floating around in the ether, just waiting for the writer to notice them. I am halfway serious about this because conjuring storylines goes right back to imagination. Imagination has to be there, from birth, you can't learn it. In good writers it's there, in spades. And there come your story ideas. The most simple things can spark them. And once ignited, your imagination takes over and the seed bursts into beautiful life.
Being so in love with Scotand - and atmosphere - most of my story ideas are sparked by special places I visit during my visits to Scotland. The place itself attracts me and since I always take care to look deeply into the history and legends of such places, the two often combine to give me story ideas. All it takes is one extra-special moment in some wild place or a chance happening across an interesting historical tidbit, and I am off writing.
Devil In A Kilt was inspired on a mist-hung afternoon at Eilean Donan Castle near Skye. This castle is one of the Highland's most romantic, and while walking around there, I "saw" the book's hero stride out of the mist. In that moment, the entire story popped into my mind. A classic example of a colorful imagination. Another book was inspired when I saw a tidal rock on Scotland's west coast that medieval lairds' used to drown people they wished to do away with. Stranded on this islet, they were left there to die with the rising tide. Again, imagination.
Characters also spark storylines. The wonderful thing about writing is that once you build a story world and populate it, new adventures for the various characters are a given. All the characters I create give me a never-ending source of new stories. Main characters, secondary characters, even minor characters can spark a new story. In the past, readers of my books have also offered or requested that secondary characters should have a story and my readers tell me that they enjoy seeing secondary characters emerge again as main characters in a completely different story. Once the first few characters are on the page, others come to life on their own.
IN: So story ideas and characters are everywhere?
SW: If a writer has a fertile imagination, such sparks abound. You need only grab hold of the good ones and get going.
Breathing life into characters is slightly different. Many of my characters are composites of people I know or have known. A little bit of him, a dollp of her, etc. That said, I believe that the best characters are those reflections of an author's own self. That is what makes writing so intimate and rejection/criticism so lancing. My stories have so much of me in them that when they are dissed, I bleed. A writer must delve deep into their own life-experiences to realistically paint a character's emotions, reliving on the page, all the giddy highs and deep, dark pits of emotion that life gives us. In other words, if you don't feel it, how can the reader?
SW: My first agent felt I must establish myself a name within the Scottish historical market before tackling paranormals. Trusting her, I waited and wrote my medievals, quietly looking forward to the day I could pen not only my Scottish medievals but also the Scottish-set paranormals I so enjoy writing. That day came three agents down the road and I am not looking back.
"Allie" was my grandmother's name and "Mackay" also a family name. I combined the two for good luck. I made the change because I wanted a Scottish-sounding name that would not just indicate a Scottish book, but would also signal the fun, sexy, lighter tone of the Allie Mackay books.
I'd wanted to use a Scottish name with my Scottish medievals and could have, as I was born a MacDuffie. But my husband (last name Welfonder) would have been hurt had I not used my married name for my first-to-sell romances. Therefore, when Penguin/NAL bought the first Scottish-set paranormal, I jumped at the chance to use "Allie Mackay." Sue-Ellen MacDuffie would have been a tongue-twisting mouthful, and so "Allie Mackay" was born.
Allie Mackay books allow me to expand on the paranormal themes I find so engaging. Writing for a second publishing house also means greater financial security. I take nothing for granted in this business and wanted a second foot-hold. I feel blessed to have two strong houses and two wonderful editors supporting me.
IN: How does a writer become a best-selling author with so many writing awards as you have?
SW: With a great deal of luck, I'd say! I've been fortunate to have achieved some awards over the years, and I appreciate them greatly. Most especially because the awards were ones where reviewers nominate the finalists from books they've enjoyed throughout the year. None of my awards hail from contests where the author pays a fee and sends in his/her book for consideration. I am very proud of that. As I am of the various bestselling lists I've managed to place on.
As to why my books might have achieved awards and best-selling status, I honestly have no idea. I can only think that it might have to do withwriting from the heart. I suspect that is the fairy dust that lifts contest-winning or best-selling books above other titles.
IN: When dealing with agents and publicists what suggestions can you pass along to writers?
SW: O-o-oh, boy! Publicists, I am so allergic to self-promotion that I do not have one nor do I want one. I am assigned a house-intern publicist by my publishers and these people are super-hard-working go-getters. I've seen their enthusiasm, and have tremendous respect for them. I also appreciate all they do promoting my books. As for hiring a publicist, no thanks. That route isn't for me.
Agents ... this is a relationship as important as marriage. Never enter into it lightly. It really is true that "no agent is better than a bad (or lukewarm) agent." I have seen so many aspiring writers jump into an agency contract at the first nibble - only to regret it every time. I can't say strongly enough that it is better to wait and sign with your "soul mate" agent, than to tie yourself to just anyone simply to be agented.
Ask around and get to know the agent before you sign on the dotted line. Don't take someone else's word that Ms. So-and-so is a fabulous agent. She might be, but she might also be a red-coated nightmare for you. It's all about harmony and personalities. Make sure you and your agent get along well. There is nothing more wondrous than a harmonious author/agent relationship. And nothing closer to hell than a bad one.
My agent is my best friend. She was that for many years before I asked her to represent me. I would trust her with my life, not just my career. She knows and understands me as no one else does. I went through two other agents before I finally signed with her. My reasons for waiting so long were that, as such close friends, I feared entering a business relationship might taint our decades-long friendship. But signing with her was the best career move I ever made.
SW: Heavy competition. With RWA bursting at the seams with new and hopeful writers each year, the competition is fierce. RWA offers a wealth of wonderful resources, teaching craft, support, and encouragement. All good things, of course. But, all coins have a flip side and with so many new writers honing their craft and swelling in numbers, fact is, the competition is not just fierce but well-taught, talented, and determined. That means it's becoming increasingly difficult to break into the romance market.
To do so, a writer must find her niche and then strive to excel in her chosen subgenre. Polish your work until it shines, never give up, turn deaf ears to those who would discourage you, and never stop learning the craft and improving your skills. Be true to your voice. Remember what I said about what would happen if I suddenly tried to write cowboy romances. It's Scotland or nothing for me. Find your voice, then sing your heart out - an agent/editor will hear you when you do.
Also, I suspect many new writers get caught up in the so-called rules. Some might get discouraged by rejection or harsh contest judge comments. It's a big mistake to let such things get to you. Remember, for every rule there is an exception. My only revisions to Devil In A Kilt were three, two of them breaking so-called rules:
1) Make the book hotter
2) Insert the hero's/heroine's point of view into this or that scene - i.e. head-hop!
3) Weave in a flashback
Number 1, that's understandable. The steamier the books, the better they sell. But head-hopping and flashbacks are branded as big taboos. Yet one of the industry's finest editors encouraged me to do these things - and I did. The book hasn't suffered for it either. Devil In A Kilt has not only won many awards, I've lost track of its reprints and foreign editions. It's still selling well and I continue to receive lovely letters from readers just discovering the book - even after all these years.
As for rejection, don't forget how subjective reading is. What one person loves, another will hate. That's just life, so there is no point in fretting about it. Keep your chin raised, your pen poised, and always believe in yourself.
SW: Definitely the interest my sites generate are regarding my books and Scotland. I receive a tremendous amount of email from people looking to visit Scotland for the first time, wanting travel tips from me. That delights me. I tell my Highland friends that I should be "Honorary Ambassador to Scotland" for my support of their tourist industry.
The sites also attract interviews, which is a lovely side benefit. A few years ago I was contacted by a BBC Scotland senior editor for an interview. It appeared in all the UK papers, including the London Sunday Times. A full page affair with a large color photo of me and several of my book covers. Since then, this man has made other BBC Scotland promotional opportunities available to me. He found me through my website.
I have a mailing list form on my www.welfonder.com site and many readers sign up. I don't know if they join because they've read my books or because they happened across my site. But since I don't harvest email addresses, the only readers on my list are those who signed on themselves.
I also sometimes hear from people in Scotland living in a location I write about - or, in some cases, even own an island I've mentioned in books. These people found my website by chance, contacted me, and, I am delighted to say, in some instances strong friendships developed.
And I've heard from a Scotsman or two who happen to share this, that, or the other hero's name. There is nothing more eye-opening than looking at your email in the morning and seeing your hero's name in the Inbox.
My websites provide all positives. Every author should have one.
IN: Do you manage the websites yourself or does someone else take care of them?
SW: Oh, no, I could never manage the sites alone. I'm not a technically-minded person. Messing with that kind of thing gives me headache. I have a wonderful Web designer who's been with me since my first sale. I tell her how I envision something, send her the texts, photos, etc., and she makes my wishes magically appear!
I also just don't have the time. I have constant simultaneous deadlines and they have to come first. Slow writer that I am, I can't afford spending time on a website. For this reason, and because I like my privacy, I also do not blog. I do write and personally send out my quarterly newsletters. It takes forever, but I know my readers appreciate them so it's well worth the time.
As for email, I used to answer it all personally, but the volume makes it next to impossible these days. Now I have a form letter that people receive when they email me. Many of the emails I get are not interested in me or my books, but are from people wanting to know how to get an agent or become published. My form letter directs them to a page where I have a number of resources listed. (I will be adding IN - it's great!) Other users email with research questions about Scotland. These queries are also answered by my form letter and the Scottish resources listed on my site.
I do respond personally to emails that fall outside the above-mentioned categories. If someone reads my books, enjoys them, and takes the time to write to tell me so, I always thank them personally. It takes time, but I do send a personal response to such emails. I appreciate them very, very much and would never let them go unanswered.
IN: What's next for you?
SW: More Scottish medievals and more Scottish-set paranormals. My next Scottish medieval is Bride For A Knight, coming from Warner Books in September. It is Jamie's story, a secondary character in my most recent Scottish medieval, Until The Knight Comes. Jamie, too, is one of those marvelous characters who become so vivid as a secondary it's impossible not to write their book. His excerpt can be found in the back of Until The Knight Comes.
My next Scottish-set paranormal is Highlander In Her Dreams, out from Penguin/NAL in November. It is a time-travel story sending a modern day American heroine back to 14th Century Skye. Not a ghost romance, but readers who enjoyed Highlander In Her Bed will see some familar faces all the same.
Otherwise, with the above-mentioned books already written and in the publisher's production phase, I am already into new deadlines. One is, Lady For A Knight, a Scottish medieval plus another book in my MacKenzie series. I'm also working on Hardwick's book, as yet untitled although it will be another Highlander title. Hardwick was a secondary character in Highlander In Her Bed and his story will be my third Allie Mackay book. He is a ghost and so his Scottish-set paranormal is another ghost romance.
So I am busy. But better that than not in this business. Best of luck to all the new writers who read this.
Until The Knight Comes ISBN 0-446-61729-6
Highlander In Her Bed ISBN 0-451-21981-3
Inkwell Newswatch (IN)
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