Shelley Burr works at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment in Canberra, Australia. She grew up splitting her time between Newcastle and Glenrowan, where her father’s family are all sheep farmers. WAKE is her first novel. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
In this post, Shelley discusses the less altruistic side of amateur sleuths in her debut crime novel, WAKE, her advice for other writers, and more!
Name: Shelley Burr
Literary agent: Sarah McKenzie
Book title: WAKE
Publisher: William Morrow
Release date: August 30, 2022
Elevator pitch for the book: WAKE is the story of Mina McCreery, whose twin sister Evelyn disappeared from their shared bedroom when they were nine years old. The case was a media sensation, and a favorite of amateur sleuths and true crime obsessives. Now a reclusive and anxious adult, Mina lives alone on her family’s destocked sheep farm. She is approached by Lane Holland, a private detective who wants her help to reinvestigate the case. However, Lane has his own agenda and dangerous obsessions.
What prompted you to write this book?
I went through a period of reading online forums dedicated to unsolved murders—one of those brief but intense obsessions that the internet pulls you into. There are some lovely, compassionate people on those forums who have achieved remarkable things—solving cold cases, raising money for DNA testing on Jane Does, highlighting forgotten victims.
But I noticed the way users would talk about the friends and families of victims—and found it creepy. These people didn’t seek out public attention, but they had complete strangers digging into any information they could find about them. I imagined how angry I would be in their position, and that rage became Mina.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I began writing WAKE on January 1, 2018, and it was first published in Australia in April 2022, so slightly over four years.
I’m a planner, so I started with an outline. From there I rewrote it multiple times, and it felt like it was evolving significantly with every iteration. But the day WAKE went to print I pulled out the original outline, and it is almost beat for beat the same as in the final story. I moved events around and came to understand the characters better with every rewrite, but the story itself stayed the same.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
In 2018 I went through an amazing program for emerging writers that my local writer’s center used to run. The first half of the program was creative—how to develop and edit your manuscript—and the second half was about the industry. What an agent does, the query process, various rights that you might sell in your contract, copyright laws, marketing, how your book gets into stores and libraries. I’m immensely grateful for that experience, because the publishing world is a strange place, and I would have been completely lost if I’d come in cold.
One of my favorite things I’ve learned is just how important and influential booksellers are. I was lucky enough to go along with my publisher’s account managers when they delivered WAKE proofs to booksellers, and that was an amazing couple of days.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
I kept accidentally pouring parts of myself into the story without realizing it.
I started to write on January 1, 2018. That was the 18th anniversary of the passing of my older brother Simon, who died of an illness when I was 12 and he was 15. WAKE centers on the loss of a sibling, and the looming 20th anniversary of that tragedy.
I didn’t notice what I had done, how clearly I had been influenced by my own feelings about that coming milestone, until January 1, 2019, when I marked both anniversaries.
I like to say that nothing about WAKE is autobiographical except all the parts that are.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
Once a friend messaged me after finishing WAKE to say that she hoped I didn’t mind, but she was imagining her own ending for the surviving characters, taking place after my original ending. I thought that was incredible, and my favorite thing about the way humans have always told stories.
I get to tell my part of the story, and after that it belongs to the reader. I hope I’ve created people they want to keep thinking about after they’re done reading.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
I wish I had realized sooner how important it is to have a writing community around you.
Writing is a classic solitary activity, but the real magic happens when you have a support system. I never get more done than when I’m working quietly with a group of friends. They’re there when I need an accountability buddy, sounding board, cheerleader, or someone to tell me to pull my head in.