Nina Simon

At first blush, one might not think an engineering education could be useful for writing a bestselling murder-mystery novel. But author Nina Simon ’03 says the problem-solving skills she honed as an electrical engineering major at WPI helped her successfully pivot from a fast-paced career as a CEO to one where she’s plotting murders and considering how to reveal clues and plot twists.

“Writing a good murder-mystery starts with a ‘What if?’ question,” says Simon, just like in the scientific process. What if—as in the plot of her new novel, Mother-Daughter Murder Night—an older woman recovering from cancer treatments at her estranged daughter’s cabin saw something suspicious as she looked out of her bedroom window one night? “You ask a juicy question, then you explore it from all these different angles. That spirit of experimentation has been with me my whole career. I’m finding it such a joy to apply it to writing novels.”

The mystery-solving protagonist is a feisty real estate executive based loosely on her own mother, whose real-life battle with cancer was the catalyst for Simon’s abrupt career change. “The first draft I wrote 100 percent to make my mom smile. The main character is this outrageous, superhero version of my mother,” she says.

In the end, what began as a fun distraction turned into a Reese Witherspoon Book Club-endorsed novel now climbing the New York Times bestseller list.

The first draft I wrote 100 percent to make my mom smile. The main character is this outrageous, superhero version of my mother.

Her First Four Careers

By her own calculation, Simon is on her fifth career. Just out of college, she worked as a contractor for NASA in Washington, D.C., a job that evolved from her Major Qualifying Project. At the same time, she was working at a low-paying but highly fulfilling weekend job fixing exhibits and creating puppet shows for the Capital Children’s Museum. The creative joy she found at the museum infused doubt into her initial career aspirations. “I felt very much conflicted. A part of me felt very proud that I was a woman in electrical engineering,” especially at a time when women represented only one percent of workers in the field. “I thought this was my dream job. But I was sitting in a windowless room doing math problems. I just wasn’t loving it.”

Simon has always embraced both sides of her brain—the creative and the technical—even at WPI, where she described herself as “an engineer by day and a slam poet at night.” Using one side without the other left her wanting more.

After much introspection, she followed her creative heart and for the next eight years designed exhibits for museums around the world. Her most memorable role was as an exhibit design specialist for the International Spy Museum’s “Operation Spy,” an escape room-type experience that let visitors take on the persona of a spy. As part of her research, she spent time with many former spies, including the director of the museum (a former CIA agent) and the highest-ever defector from the KGB.

A move to California opened the door to her third career, when she took over as director of the then-struggling Santa Cruz Museum of Art of History. “I knew how to make a museum fun and engaging, but I also knew that the job was also going to involve fundraising and management, two things I’d never done before.” She reached out to new audiences, opening doors to make the museum more relevant to the community. After five years, “we turned that sleepy and struggling museum into the creative hub of Santa Cruz.”

Simon expected to be invested in her fourth career for the long term. She became CEO of a global nonprofit called Of/By/For All, an organization she founded to create inclusive, relevant, participatory community spaces. “A creative community organization should be of, by, and for all,” she says in explaining the organization’s name. “If you want to be FOR everyone in your community, you need to be representative OF them, and you need to be co-created BY them. That’s what I really thought was going to be my thing, what I had been building toward for 20 years. I have the vanity plate on my car; I almost got a tattoo of the logo.”

The organization grew rapidly, but just two years after its founding, she learned her mother had stage 4 cancer. “All I wanted to do was care for my mom,” she says, so she notified her board chair that she was quitting, helped recruit a new CEO, and stepped off the high-pressure leadership track to become a full-time care giver.

Love and Escape

Simon spent months with her mother trying to help her heal and get stronger. (She is quick to assure, her mother is doing well today.) “I was also working on myself to deprogram and let go of some of the intensity of all that CEO life. We both love mysteries, so I said to her, ‘What if I try writing a murder mystery, and make the detective someone like you.’”

At some point she decided to take “this little project about love and escape” and see if she could actually get it published. Simon’s husband was an essential partner in this undertaking and he gave his blessing without hesitation. “We’re both entrepreneurial and creative. We decided early on in our marriage to live fully and well on one salary so we could always say yes if one of us wanted to start a new business, or write a book, or take time off to help someone. We’ve made that trade about five times in the past 21 years.”

She tapped her engineering skills to deconstruct the technical craft of writing. “I’ve never taken a writing class, so I would take some of my favorite books off the shelf and diagram a scene to see, for example, how an author builds tension. I was trying to take it apart–like an engine–to see how it works.”

Simon describes finding an agent as a brutal experience that involved lots of rejections, but again she tapped her problem-solving skills. “Having an engineering education was helpful, particularly the design cycle where you start with a question, explore it, experiment, fail, try again in a different way, and try not get knocked down by failure.” She researched individual agents, A/B tested query letters, and populated spreadsheets that tracked every interaction.

The backstory of her mother’s cancer, as well as her multi-career background, appealed to publishing executives. “They loved the story of someone who has lived many lives. One editor said, ‘You probably have a lot of stories to write,’” she says. “My persistence and my energy and the continual learning finally paid off.”

She found an agent who worked with her to rewrite the book to flesh out two other main characters—the protagonist’s daughter and granddaughter—and they sold it to publisher William Morrow. Being the September 2023 selection in Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club gave it critical visibility that helped launch it onto the New York Times bestseller list. Simon also sold film adaptation rights to Kapital Entertainment, a production company now developing the story for the screen.

While she’s currently spending most of her time crisscrossing the country promoting Mother-Daughter Murder Night, Simon is also working on her next fiction project. “I’m staying in general genre of strong women and crime fiction,” she says. “I haven’t hammered out all of book two’s plot, but I’m sure there will be a dead body and some kick-ass women.”

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