Shawn Reilly Simmons is the author of The Red Carpet Catering mysteries featuring Penelope Sutherland, an on-set movie caterer. Welcome Shawn and thank you for taking time from your very busy schedule to visit with us.
James: How long have you been writing?
Shawn: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young, about eight years old. I was awarded Best Creative Writer of my graduating class in high school, and went on to major in English Lit in college, where I was encouraged by one professor in particular to pursue creative writing full time, and to start working on a novel. Being a writer was always my goal career-wise and I’m very lucky that dream has become a reality.
James: What motivated you to become a writer?
Shawn: I’ve been a big reader for as long as I can remember. My mother was an English teacher, and our house was always full of books. When I began to write from a young age, it was the one thing I was regularly praised for and encouraged to pursue. I also find a lot of joy in writing, it’s a true passion, which is important for any career, I think.
James: How many hours a week do you commit to your craft?
Shawn: I write every morning for two to three hours beginning around five. I sometimes will write again in the afternoons for an hour or so. The rest of the day is dedicated to all the other things that go along with a writing career: edits, marketing, promotion, coordinating appearances, etc.
James: Do you use a formula for your books?
Shawn: I write traditional mysteries, and there are certain parameters to meet when writing those. For example, my protagonist is an amateur sleuth who works as a chef, and my settings are small towns in a sense, because my books take place on movie sets, which are closed communities all their own. My books don’t depict graphic sex or violence, however they aren’t classified as cozies because I do address harder-edged themes than would appear in a typical cozy mystery. I wouldn’t say the books I write follow a formula, because I strive to make the books unique reading experiences each time. But there are certain parameters writers work within while writing different types of mysteries.
James: What is the source of your inspiration?
Shawn: I’ve been a fan of culinary mysteries for a long time and I’ve also cooked professionally, including on movie sets as a caterer. When I sat down to write my first book, I drew on those experiences to create Penelope Sutherland, my main character, and took it from there. There are lots of culinary mystery series set in pie or cheese shops, or that feature catering professionals of one kind or another, but I’d never seen a series about working behind the scenes on movie sets. I felt it was a unique opportunity for me to explore.
James: What are some common traps aspiring writers should avoid?
Shawn: I think the main thing for aspiring writers to remember is to keep plowing ahead, and write every day. It’s very easy to stop and go back to edit what you’d already done, which sometimes allows the self-doubt to creep in, and then they find themselves stuck, unable to move forward. The best advice I can give is to just get it all out, with very little backtracking in the beginning. Because you can’t fix what hasn’t been written yet.
James: What advice would you give to a writer whose manuscript has been rejected several times and told he or she will never make it as a writer?
Shawn: First off, never listen to anyone who says you’ll never make it. That’s not something anyone should say to anyone else. I think if feedback has been given (not just form letter rejections) and there is a common theme in those comments, meaning more than one editor has pointed to a flaw in the work, then maybe think about sending it out to some beta readers to see if that’s something that comes up with people you trust too. At that point, revise and resubmit. I also think it’s helpful, if a manuscript isn’t getting any traction, to set it aside and work on a new story, then circle back around to it a few weeks or months later. Sometimes when we get some distance on our work, we come back to it with a fresh perspective, and at that time can find more opportunities to strengthen it.
James: What is the most important tip you can share with other writers?
Shawn: Be consistent. I equate writing with any other activity that we’d like to be good at. I enjoy running and that’s not something you can do once a week and hope to be great at, and it’s the same with writing. Even if you can commit to just fifteen minutes a day, as long as it’s a consistent fifteen and your work in that time is solid writing (no research or Facebook!), the results will come.
James: What was one challenge you had to overcome to become an author?
Shawn: I think we all struggle with self-doubt, all the way from pre-published writers to bestselling authors. I’m still not quite sure how people will respond to my books when they come out, and getting those first few reviews is always a moment of relief. That’s been true for all six of my books, and short stories too, so I don’t see it changing anytime soon.
James: How did you overcome that challenge?
Shawn: I wrote my first book after my son was born and I became a work-from-home mom. I wrote early in the mornings before he woke up and during nap times during that first year, and it was really a fun and happy time (and exhausting, of course). When I got to that last chapter, I just stopped, and told myself I’d finish it soon. A few weeks went by and my husband asked me when I was going to finish my book. I kept telling him I knew what was going to happen, I just had to write it, but I kept putting off actually doing it. One day he told me that I shouldn’t worry, that people were going to like the book—he would definitely like it, and our moms would too, so counting me, that was four people already. That made me laugh and I realized how weird I was being about finishing and sending the manuscript off into the world. I sat down the next morning and finished it up. I think being afraid of writing that last line was very revealing to me (what if everyone hated my first book?). I’m grateful he gave me that little shove off the cliff into the unknown.
James: Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.
Shawn: This is from Murder on a Designer Diet (Red Carpet Catering #3). I chose this excerpt because I particularly liked it when I wrote it, and after the book was published I was in a Barnes & Noble in New York, and a woman from the book club who had just read the book came up to me afterwards and told me she really liked it too. It’s a moment I’ll always remember, connecting with a reader who quoted my words back to me.
“The elevator opened up to the rooftop patio. The oversized hot tub sat in the far corner, its cover stretched tightly over the top. A row of unoccupied lounge chairs were lined up against the wall beneath the railing. The rooftop patio offered a beautiful view and was brightly lit by the morning sun. Penelope walked to the railing and looked out to see as far as she could, just able to view the top of the Empire State Building in the distance. There were hundreds of buildings that housed thousands of people in the few blocks visible to her from where she stood. She thought for a moment about how hard it was to find anyone in this densely populated city, to locate just one individual in all the millions who lived on this island. She sighed and fought back her feelings of fear and of being totally overwhelmed by what might have happened to Max.
She walked to the corner of the roof where a row of rose bushes sprouted up from a concrete planter on the patio’s railing. She leaned down to smell one of the large yellow flowers and noticed a white moth had gotten caught in an invisible spider web between two of the bushes. It beat its wings uselessly against the web as it tried to free itself.
Penelope reached in, swiping at the web with her finger, being careful not to prick herself on the thorny stems. The moth fluttered away quickly, it’s tattered wings causing it to fly jerkily as it fled from the building. Penelope watched it go until she couldn’t see it anymore. “
James: Thank you very much Shawn for sharing your insight into the writing process and your personal experience as a writer. It was a pleasure meeting you. I wish you all the best. Write on my friend.