By Wendy Tyson
What if cybercriminals were able to hack into the US Marshals’ Witness Protection database? Worse, what if the hackers sold witnesses’ sensitive personal details—details that, in the wrong hands, could get witnesses killed? In SECONDS TO LIVE, the first twisty tale of romantic suspense in bestselling author Susan Sleeman’s Homeland Heroes series, FBI Agent Sean Nichols and the RED Team must race against the clock to identify and stop a cybercriminal mastermind before a witness is murdered.
The Big Thrill recently got a chance to sit down with Sleeman.
The RED Team is a cyber investigative team—a unique and interesting premise for a romantic suspense novel. How did you decide to have each member of the team specialize in this area? What special research did you have to do to write this novel/series?
The premise of this series determined the team. My beginning question was, what if a hacker had compromised the WITSEC (Witness Security Program) database and is selling or auctioning off the data, putting witnesses’ lives in danger? So of course, I had to research WITSEC. It was no easy task as there is very little information available about the top-secret program. I did eventually find the resources I needed, but it took time to locate them.
I also attended the six-week FBI citizens academy at my local FBI office, so I have firsthand knowledge of how FBI agents operate and their mindset. And as a bonus I got to shoot various guns and blow things up with them. What a day that was! This gave me an understanding not only for procedures, but for the heart for service that these agents possess. I am so thankful for and impressed with the Portland FBI, starting from the top down. They are dedicated, professional and yet warm and caring, and we are all blessed by everything they do.
FBI Agent Sean Nichols, who is part of the RED Team, leads the investigation. Can you tell us more about Agent Nichols? What events from his past have helped shape the man he is today?
Sean grew up without knowing his father. For 17 years his mother told him that his father didn’t want to be in his life. When his mother dies, Sean decides to confront his father and tell him off. He learns that his father had always wanted to be part of his life and shows him letters that were marked “return to sender” in his mother’s handwriting. His mother had lied to him and cost him all these years with his father. She was the person closest to him. The person he’d trusted most. And he couldn’t be more hurt, fueling deep-seated trust issues. This informs everything he does in his personal life and on the job where he’s more serious and cautious. It also fuels his romantic conflict, as he doesn’t think he can trust Taylor and has to overcome that issue to find his happily ever after.
Are there any genre conventions you wanted to upend or challenge with this book?
I decided to have an underlying investigation run through all of the books in this series. Before SECONDS TO LIVE takes place, the RED team failed to find three missing teenage girls, and when the investigation went cold, their supervisor ended the investigation. The team is like those FBI agents I mentioned, and they can’t let it go. The failure to find these girls informs who they are as dedicated professionals and helps explain their internal conflicts. So they work on finding the girls in their downtime, and in each book they find a lead as they work to locate these girls.
You’ve traveled quite extensively and have lived in nine states. How does your travel and time spent living in quite diverse locales impact your novels?
The people in every region of our country are different, and oh, how wonderful that I had a chance to experience the differences. The area where you are raised often informs who you are. Sometimes deeply, sometimes as simply as whether you use the word “soda” or “pop.” I draw on what I learned about local cultures, customs, and geography for book settings as well as the differences in people when crafting characters. I am so blessed to have been able to experience so many parts of our fine country, and I use that information most every day in my job as a writer.
What did your path to publication look like?
I began writing when health issues forced me to sit for long periods of time. I wrote the first book having no idea how to do so, finaled in a contest, and then decided I should probably learn how to write a book. LOL. So I joined a writer and critique group and learned everything I could. I soon signed with an agent, and seven years and four manuscripts later I signed my first contract for publishing. Fun story: I learned about and received that contract at a conference on a stage in front of 500 writers in an event where the publisher publicly gave out a contract every year to an unpublished author. What a special day that was!
What’s something you’d like readers to know about this book, or your work in general?
People often think it’s easy to write a book—that you just sit down and it all spills out then your publisher publishes it. But in reality it’s far harder than it seems. After figuring out the intricate plots that suspense books require and determining the characters’ personalities, flaws, and conflicts, I write a rough draft of the book, and then edit this draft at least four times. During these edits I place each investigative lead in a spreadsheet and color-code it by the person responsible for following up on the lead, and then make sure the lead is wrapped up in the book.
In the current book I’m working on, that amounts to over 130 leads to keep track of. And, of course, I have to research the investigative techniques my characters use to be sure I’m following the right procedures, and there is also research on locations and occupations of the other lead in the book. So before submitting the manuscript to my editor who then reads and requests or suggests changes, I’ve done considerable work, but that is not the end of it. I then go through the manuscript three more times to implement and review these changes before the manuscript is sent back to the editor, who provides me with another round of changes. This is another three-step review process for me before I send it back. Then I get the galleys, which is the final read-through. So all told I have read through each book 12 times before it is acceptable to be published. So as you can see, it’s not an easy or quick process.
With that in mind, what advice do you have for new authors?
The best advice I can give a new author is to write, write, write, as it’s only in the writing that you hone your craft and figure out what works and doesn’t work. It takes determination to keep going in the face of rejections or harsh critiques, but develop a thick skin now because once you’re published that criticism will continue. Some positive, some negative, and you will have to learn to shrug off the unfounded comments and embrace the justified ones to develop even more as a writer.
What’s next for you, Susan?
I just turned in edits for Minutes to Die, book two in the Homeland Heroes series, and I am currently working on Hours to Kill, book three in this series. And I am finishing Dead Heat, book four in my Truth Seeker series. This is a series about a private forensic lab, and each book features one of the lab scientists as truth comes knocking at their door and they must find the answer to tough questions.
Susan Sleeman is the bestselling author of over 35 novels with more than one million books sold. She writes romantic suspense novels that are clean with inspiring messages of faith. Readers love her series for the well-drawn characters and edge-of-your-seat action. She graduated from the FBI and local police citizen academies, so her research is spot-on and her characters are real.
In addition to writing, Susan also hosts TheSuspenseZone.com. She has lived in nine states but now calls Oregon home. Her husband is a retired church music director, and they have two beautiful daughters, a very special son-in-law, and an adorable grandson.