Heroine Takes on Writer’s Unique Career
by Laurie Fagen
Many writers tap into their professional backgrounds – as police officers, television reporters, FBI agents – to create characters and settings. So does Susan Cummins Miller of Tucson, but her credentials and interest in geology, oceanography, paleontology and archeology, to name a few, make for a distinctive protagonist in her “Frankie MacFarlane, Geologist” mystery series. She now has five books published, one due out in 2014 and another one she’s currently working on.
Following a decade as a field geologist with the US Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management and Minerals Management Service in Menlo Park, CA, Cummins Miller was “reorganized out of a job.” Her first son had just been born, so she began teaching geology and oceanography in the San Francisco area, and says she planned to return to field geology and pursue a Ph.D. when her boys were in school full time.
“But a move to Washington, D.C. confirmed that my eldest son was a special-needs child,” she explains. “Although no one could put a name to his particular suite of problems – much later identified as Asperger’s Syndrome – I recognized that he required a structured environment and intense parenting.”
Four years later, the family moved to Tucson, and Cummins Miller looked for a way to work from home that would allow her to keep her hand in geoscience, ecology, literature and history – through writing crime fiction.
Her first in this series, Death Assemblage, published in 2002 by Texas Tech University Press, sees Frankie MacFarlane studying Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks in the mountains west of Pair-a-Dice, Nevada. But the discovery of two bodies disrupts her research, and “embroils her in a web of ancient and recent murders, a manhunt, kidnappings and blackmail.”
Detachment Fault, 2004, finds her heroine investigating three deaths, the antiquities trade and international money-laundering, and the book was a finalist in the Adult Fiction category of the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Book Award, and received honorable mention in ForeWord Magazine’s 2004 Books of the Year.
In 2006, Quarry was published, set in the arroyos and volcanic mesas of the Cady Mountains in the Mojave Desert. It won the Turquoise Award in mystery for the 2007 New Mexico Book of the Year competition; was a finalist in Contemporary Fiction in the 2007 WILLA Award; was a Gold Award mystery winner for ForeWord Magazine’s 2006 Books of the Year; and was named Notable Book by the 2006 Southwest Books of the Year.
Hoodoo, 2008, revolves around the death of an environmental lawyer in the volcanic hoodoos of Chiricahua National Monument. It was a finalist for contemporary fiction in the 2009 WILLA Award; got a Bronze Award in mystery from ForeWord Magazine’s 2008 Books of the Year; and was the Panelists’ Pick (Notable Book), for 2008 Southwest Books of the Year.
Then Fracture, 2011, takes MacFarlane from Tucson to the San Francisco Peninsula to find clues about a valuable coin collection and a mysterious chess set. It was a 2012 WILLA Award finalist for Contemporary Fiction; 2012 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award Finalist in fiction’s mystery/suspense category; was a finalist in ForeWord Magazine’s 2011 Book-of-the-Year Award; and was a Notable Book in the 2011 Southwest Books of the Year.
The sixth in the series, CHASM, slated for publication in 2014, finds MacFarlane riding the rapids down the Colorado River.
Her current mystery writing project is Rift, where Frankie MacFarlane uncovers clues to the murder of her Lipan Apache great-great-grandmother, set in Rio Grande Rift in New Mexico.
Currently a research affiliate for the Southwest Institute for Research on Women (SIROW) at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Cummins Miller took a “detour” to publish an anthology: A Sweet, Separate Intimacy: Women Writers of the American Frontier, 1800-1922.
Short Stories, Writer Favorites
As a short story writer, the Southern Arizona resident notes her “Owlshead Stew” was published by The Story Teller through the Society of Southwestern Authors. It’s the story of a young woman living on an isolated West Texas ranch at the turn of the 20th century who brings her sister’s rapists to justice. In “The Diorama,” published in A Way with Murder: an Anthology by Arizona Mystery Writers in Tucson, a young boy describes discovering his mother’s body and the clue to the killer’s identity.
Cummins Miller says she loves the “classical” crime writers: Poe, Conan Doyle, Chandler, Hammett, Faulkner, Ross MacDonald, Christie, Flannery O’Connor and Graham Green. She says her “bookshelves are full” of John D. MacDonald, Tony Hillerman, P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Ruth Rendell, Joyce Carol Oates, T. Jefferson Parker, Sue Grafton, Laurie R. King, Elizabeth Gunn, J.M. Hayes and “too many others to list.”
Booksignings, Writing Tips
Cummins Miller will be at the Tucson Festival of the Book (TFOB) Sat. and Sun., March 15-16, 2014 on the campus of the University of Arizona, where she will take part in panel discussions and book signings. For her schedule, visit www. tucsonfestivalofbooks.org. She recently spoke at Clues Unlimited Mystery Bookstore in Tucson, at an event sponsored by the Southern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America; and was on a panel at TFOB earlier this month.
She shares this writing tip with members: “Books and stories come to fruition during the revision process. But, as a wise writing teacher once told me, ‘You can’t rewrite what isn’t written.’”
She adds that she’s never met an “overnight success” writer, though many “new” authors are touted as such.
“A successful career means tying yourself to your chair, putting words on the computer screen, finishing, revising, polishing, sending out, networking at conferences and workshops – and repeating that sequence ad infinitum.”
For details, visit www.susancumminsmiller.com.
Laurie Fagen, member and incoming president of Desert Sleuths/SinC, has her second short story published in SoWest: Crime Time, and is working on a crime fiction manuscript with a young radio reporter protagonist. An Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine honorable mention winner and former community newspaper publisher, Fagen is also an artist, art promoter and jazz singer.