While many people move to Hilton Head Island to begin their retirement, Susan Diamond Riley had a different plan. Hilton Head opened up a whole new world for her. Rather than a second act, Susan said, “I like to think of it as a second chapter.”
Her “second chapter” began at her daughter’s graduation from the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Susan became inspired when she saw that some of the master’s degree candidates were her age and older. “I thought, ‘Wow! I could go back to school’”
At 50, it had been a long time since she’d been a student. “I thought that I had missed that boat,” Susan said. But when she saw people who had “hopped on that boat”, she decided to join them.
Driving home that night, she told her husband, “I’m going to earn my master’s degree.” She applied the next week. “I jumped on it while I was still enthusiastic and before I chickened out,” Susan said.
Choosing a Major
Susan had spent her professional career writing and editing. Even after she had left her full-time career to raise her children, she continued to do freelance work writing for local publications and taking editing jobs. But it was her work as a substitute teacher that inspired her to write for middle schoolers and led her to major in Children’s Literature.
“I had always had a goal of writing a novel, however it never took priority. It was one of those things that was a dream, but there were everyday things that took precedence,” Susan said. “I needed some accountability to make me do it.” That’s what going back to school gave her.
During her course work, she received an assignment to write a thriller. Trying to combine her interest in children’s literature with the assignment, she asked the professor if she could write a thriller for children. He said, “Hey, if you can pull it off, you can do it.”
The Origin of Her Idea
Susan was struggling to find inspiration for her assignment. While on a family vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, she asked her children and in-laws for ideas. Her children suggested setting the story on Hilton Head. Although Susan liked the idea, she found it difficult to imagine a thriller in such as idyllic setting.
“Maybe they find a skeleton in the salt marsh?” her mother-in-law suggested. Intrigued, Susan thought about the idea, but decided it should be an old skeleton to make it “less creepy” for her middle-school-aged readers. The story idea (which eventually became her first novel, The Sea Island’s Secret) began to develop. Soon Susan began thinking about how the skeleton could have gotten there, what event could have happened. She began researching the history of Hilton Head. “I discovered there’s tons of history in the Lowcountry.” Susan decided to weave that history and mystery together for a winning combination.
Part of that research involved taking a tour of Hilton Head with a local historian, who took her to a gated community. “There was so much history there. That neighborhood was the site of Civil War history, relics from the Spanish-American War, and it was the site of the start of the first self-governing community of freed slaves.” Susan said. “I told my husband that if we ever move down to Hilton Head full-time, we need to live in this neighborhood where we can be in the center of all that history.”
The Move to Hilton Head
Although many people move to Hilton Head to retire, that was not Susan’ plan. While writing her books in Charlotte, she had fallen in love with Hilton Head.“People assume because my books are set in Hilton Head that I was living there when I started writing them, but it was just the opposite,” Susan said.
So, shortly after she received her master’s degree, Susan and her husband of over 30 years, Steve, moved their family down to Hilton Head and into the neighborhood she had toured with the historian. Fortunately, her husband was able to continue working with his company remotely.
“Once I moved down here, I felt as though there was a lot of history in this part of the country that had been forgotten. I decided I would write books to tell those stories,” Susan said.
Her stories weave together historical events with some made-up fiction. As a former teacher, Susan loves the fact that the students are learning history that they might not learn in the classroom. However, at the end of each book, she devotes a section to clarify fact from fiction in the story.
What’s Special About Delta and Jax?
Susan’s books are about siblings from Chicago, Delta and Jax, who go to visit their grandparents on Hilton Head for the summer. They always encounter some kind of mystery from the past they have to uncover.
When asked why her books are so popular, Susan said. “The kids like the humor of the brother and sister and their friends. And they like learning about the history they haven’t been taught in their history classes.” In her books, Susan tries to give history context. “As they (Delta and Jax) are solving this mystery from the past, something’s happening in the current day too. They’re learning lessons from the past that maybe help them solve something they are dealing with in the present day.” She tries to make history relevant to her characters—and readers’—modern lives.
Bumps in the Road
Shortly after the move to Hilton Head, Steve’s company went through a transition and his position was eliminated. Although he had the opportunity to find another position within the company, he chose to take the severance package his company offered and retire at age 54. “We decided it was a sign from God,” Susan said. However, that was not without looking at the numbers and talking to their financial planner.
Then, just as Susan was getting ready for her second book to drop, COVID hit. “My second book The Sea Turtle’s Curse (exploring the Spanish explorers and Native Americans who called the Lowcountry home in the late 1600s) came out smack in the middle of COVID,” she said. She had a number of in-person events including a launch party, speaking engagements, and book festivals scheduled. “I had a full schedule of marketing events planned for the next six months,” Susan said, “and every single one of them was cancelled.”
Suddenly she had an open period, but she also had writer’s block. “Fortunately for me, other people didn’t,” Susan said. During COVID, many people took the time to do some writing, so Susan said, “I had a lot of editing business which I could do from home.”
She also began researching her next book which is due out in September, The Sea Witch’s Revenge. In her third book, Delta and Jax face a mystery involving the Revolutionary War.
During this time, Susan was able to do some virtual school visits and online writing and editing workshops for adults and kids via Zoom. She is also affiliated with the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC about an hour from her home. “They kept a lot of programming going virtually. So, I taught classes, did virtual author visits, and even a couple of videos for public television.
“But there’s nothing like really being with the people,” Susan said. She is now back to in-person events. After a recent visit with a group of 8th graders, Susan received a packet of thank you notes. “You don’t get those when you’re just a face on a tv screen in their classroom,” Susan said.
Making Dreams Come True
Although, Steve ended up retiring earlier than they had planned, the couple was ready for it.
“We started planning for retirement at 25,” Susan said. The plan had always been for Steve to retire in his 50s. They had always made savings a priority and fully funded their 401Ks. But the key to their financial success was simple. “We always lived below our means,” Susan said.
She explains, “When we could have moved to a bigger house, we didn’t quite yet. When we could have gotten a bigger, fancier car, we didn’t. All with the idea that we wanted to plan for the future.” Those goals didn’t only include early retirement, but also putting their three children through college.
Even today, if they have any major financial decisions to make, they call their advisor and have him “run the numbers.”
In her “free” time, Susan likes to take advantage of all of the activities on Hilton Head. “One of the reasons we decided to move down here is because people are so physically active and the climate makes it possible,” Susan said. “We thought we’d be encouraged by all the other active people.” She swims, plays pickleball, and takes walks on the beach. She sometimes plays golf, but her husband plays golf several days a week.
She loves making her own hours and having her husband have that same flexibility. “He is so much more relaxed,” she said. “We have been able to make so many friends here in such a short period of time because we have more time to socialize.”
In addition, her family has recently had some health issues to deal with and she said, “Our neighbors have come out of the woodwork to help by offering rides, making meals, and giving emotional support.” She said she doesn’t think it would have been like that anywhere else they’ve lived because people were busy working.
Because of the couple’s many new friends and active social life, “Our kids say it’s like we’re in college again except we don’t have to go to classes,” Susan said. “I highly recommend it.”
“We love it down here. We really do.”
Her biggest issue is that she needs to learn to say no. There is always something to do and she wants to be involved in everything. “I want to do all the things,” Susan said, but adds that she needs to balance her social and volunteer activities with her time writing the Delta and Jax mysteries and her “day job” as a freelance editor.
Health Care Before Medicare
For many people over 60, healthcare is a huge issue. Susan said they were fortunate to qualify for her husband’s company healthcare plan after he retired, but they did weigh all the options available. “We looked into getting private insurance. We knew there were good options out there. We could have gotten something for slightly less than we pay now, but a lot of those plans restrict you to a certain state,” Susan said. They ultimately chose a plan that wouldn’t restrict them to one state since Hilton Head is so close to the Georgia border.
“People stay in jobs that they frankly hate just for the healthcare,” Susan said. “It’s an urban legend that you can’t retire until you get Medicare because otherwise you won’t have health insurance.”
She encourages people who are using lack of health insurance as an excuse not to retire to look into insurance options more. “It’s not that black and white at all. There are a lot of options for health insurance in retirement.”
Advice for People Ready to Make a Change
Although, the word retirement does not exactly describe Susan’s life on Hilton Head, she and her husband made some big changes after 50. She began a new career and her husband retired from his. Susan often has to remind her friends, “My husband is retired. I’m not retired.” She’s self-employed and is learning to balance her work with all the other activities available to her, but she wouldn’t change a thing.
She has some advice for people looking to make a big change in their lives. “I’m a big proponent of lists. So, if you need to, make a list of the pros and cons. Then, check the numbers. Your chances of success are better if you know it’s financially feasible,” Susan said.
But even if retirement isn’t an option right now, Susan’s advice is to figure out a way to make your dreams a reality. Her philosophy is: “A thousand things can happen between now and dinner time. So, better now than later.” Even before beginning her new career as a writer, Susan and her husband were ticking things off on their bucket list including visiting all 50 states.
“If there’s something that’s on your bucket list, do it. What are you waiting for?” Susan said. “Figure out a way to make it happen while you can.”
Susan is enjoying her life on Hilton Head, her career as an author/editor, and life with her husband Steve. She is currently working on her fourth novel The Sea Devil’s Demise, set in the early 1700s and involving a reader favorite: pirates.
If you want to find out more about Susan and her career, visit her website at SusanDiamondRiley.com.
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