For the Love of a Tree

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series published by the Alibi digital imprint of Penguin Random House. A Maggie Dove story will be published in an upcoming issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She teaches for Gotham Writers in Manhattan and lives in a small village on the Hudson River. You can find out more about her at

I teach fiction writing in New York City and one of my favorite writing exercises is to ask my students to make a list of their obsessions. You can only imagine some of the responses I get! But it’s a fun exercise because everyone is obsessed with something. There are those who are concerned about world peace, and those who are concerned about collecting sculptures made out of macaroni. (That student might have been teasing me.) But the fact is that all of us, writers or otherwise, are obsessed with something and this is what makes us unique. When writing a novel, I think it’s important to tap into those obsessions. It gives your writing energy.

My own list of obsessions would be topped by faith, family, friends and dogs (cockapoos), but hovering around number 8, would be trees. Since I was a girl I’ve been enthralled by trees. Possibly because I grew up in a very flat section of Long Island which was barren of trees except for some mimosas. Then one year my parents sent me to camp in upstate New York and I was floored to discover forests. The very first thing I ever wrote was a poem about a birch tree.

I’m partial to all trees, but am especially fond of oaks. There’s something very democratic about an oak tree. I like the way its branches always seem to be open in welcome. I love the shade they provide in summer, and the way they loom over me when I wander around the oak forest near where I live. (Though you do have to watch those acorns in the fall!)  This time of year, my oak trees are an almost neon green with their little leaf clusters. All in all, a very agreeable tree.

When I started working on the first of my Maggie Dove mysteries, I needed to think of a reason for the murder to take place. This to me is the hardest part of writing a mystery because I’m not an especially vicious person and you have to dig deep within yourself to figure out what would make you want to take someone’s life. Of course, if someone was threatening my family I would respond. But I wanted a motive that was a little different, and so my mind automatically went to my list of obsessions.


My protagonist, Maggie Dove, is passionate about the oak tree on her front lawn. Her father planted it, her daughter played on it. She loves that tree. But her new neighbor, Marcus Bender, is a grasping sort of person and is annoyed that that tree blocks his view of the Hudson River. He offers her money to cut the tree down. She says no. Soon after she notices the dirt under the tree bubbling with poison. Marcus Bender is trying to kill her tree. Soon after that she finds Bender himself lying under the tree. Murdered. And when her dear young friend is accused of the crime, she must figure out who did it.

How about you? Are there issues that obsess you? I’d love to hear!