I am excited to share with you all today some of our Spoiler free Q & A with Heather Gudenkauf. It was such a treat to have Heather join us and share some great insight into her books, characters and writing process.
Lindsay: Hi Heather! Thanks very much for being here with us! I’m curious to know about your writing process. Do you plan your storyline out ahead of time or start with an idea and let the characters take you wherever they go?
Heather: Hello! I tend to be a pantser – meaning I write by the seat of my pants. I get an idea for a story – usually from the news. And then I work on developing the characters. I keep a notebook where I jot down characteristics, histories, likes and dislikes, fears and hopes for each of my characters. Doing this really helps me make sure that the characters act and react in ways that make sense.
After I get the first draft down on paper, I really dig into the revisions and try to pull everything together.
Lindsay: Do you have a writing schedule? Do you have writing goals as far as how many words/chapters you want to finish per day/week? What does a day in your writing life look like?
Heather: My writing day is different depending on which phase of a project I’m working. When I’m working on a first draft, I shoot for 2000 words per day. I’ll sit down in the morning, work for a while and then take a break. Then I’ll sit down again and get back to work. Some days the 2000 words takes a few hours, sometimes all day.
When I’m revising a story, I don’t focus on word count, but on chunks of the story. I spend a lot of time reading and re-reading and jotting down notes on my manuscript. Once I have a list of what needs to be changed, I’ll dive in. I’ll do this several times during the revision process.
Lindsay: I thought Nola from This Is How I Lied was such an interesting character. Where did your inspiration for her come from?
Heather: Nola is a doozy! I didn’t have a specific inspiration in mind for Nola. Thank goodness I have wonderful siblings! But I knew I needed a character that was dark, complicated and unpredictable. As the story progressed, the more twisted Nola became
Brenda: Nola and Maggie are very different from each other and I loved the dynamics you created between them. How did you go about creating their voices? Was there one you enjoyed writing more or was more of a challenge for you?
Heather: I tried to create two characters who are so different than one another but who both loved the same person but went about showing it in different ways. Writing through Nola’s voice a very interesting experience. She is crazy smart, but doesn’t know how to relate to others. Maggie is more of the all-American girl but she has her secrets too.
Brenda: In This Is How I Lied you alternate between characters and we see Eve’s from the past. Did you focus on one before writing the other or did you write the story in the order they appear? Did you do the same with your other stories or did it depend on the story?
Why did you decide to write Maggie’s POV in the first person?
Heather: It really depends on the story! For This is How I Lied, I jumped around a bit. There were so many moving pieces to the novel that I had to create a timeline to keep everything straight. I decided to write Maggie’s point of view in first person because her story was the most overarching. She was best friends with Eve, her dad was the police chief and she became a police officer herself. I wanted to show how the horribly traumatic event of Eve’s murder impacted Maggie’s life and all the decisions she made.
Brenda: Are any of your characters inspired by real-life people or people you know? Are there any characters you can relate to more than others?
Heather:Such a great question! I can’t say that my characters are inspired by any one person but I’m sure the qualities of people I know are infused into them. I find that I relate in some way to each of my characters but definitely some more than others.
One of my favorite characters is Mrs. Oliver from One Breath Away. She is a third grade teacher who would do anything to protect her students. I taught elementary school for years and I think Mrs. Oliver is a conglomeration of every favorite teacher you might have had that can also be a bit intimidating. She’s super strict (I was not) but loved her students beyond measure.
Another character I really connected to was Amelia from Not a Sound. I was born with a profound hearing loss in one ear. While I can hear, I knew I wanted to write a story from the perspective of a character who is profoundly deaf. I love Amelia’s grit and her big heart.
Brenda: How did you come up with the idea of the story and the characters for Before She Was Found?
Heather: It was a very emotional book to write. I got the idea for Before She Was Found from a terrible event that occurred not far from where I live. Two young girls attacked their friend in the name of a strange online entity known as Slenderman. I wanted to explore the impact that peer pressure and social media and online danger has on a community. I wanted to spur a discussion mental health and the lack of services and understanding we have
Brenda: I had such a different reaction to the ending for Before She Was Found then I had before to a book. I loved that! I thought you wrapped things up well and even though I didn’t like the way it ended I thought it was a good ending for the story. It was thought provoking and we had a bit to talk about in our group read.
Did you have an idea of how you wanted it to end or did the story and characters guide you to the ending?
Heather: That ending was something else, wasn’t it? I did have a sense of how I thought the book was going to end, but wasn’t sure how I was going to get there. Without giving away too much, I hoped the ending would pack an emotional punch for readers. I want readers to stop and say, “What?” I think the ending is indicative of the world around us – sometimes we miss the most obvious, sometimes people show us only what they want us to see.
Brenda: I just finished reading Little Mercies and love it. You wrote about a gut wrenching, emotional “in the news” tragedy and humanized it and brought hope and a strong message to the story by showing me “the little mercies, the small kindnesses and good that come from the terrible” It was a perfect read for me right now!
This one and a couple of your other books explore vulnerable children. What attracts you to write about children? Is there one that stood out for you more as you were writing it or was more challenging for you?
Heather: As a mother and a teacher, I often feature children in my books. It can be very challenging to write about kids who find themselves in the midst of very difficult situations. I think the stories of Jenny and Avery in Little Mercies was the most emotional for me. It’s the story of a social worker, Ellen, who finds herself on the other side of the justice system because of a mistake she makes with her own child. I had to get up from my computer many times as I wrote because it was intense.
I think it’s important to write about topics that impact children and families and do so realistically. But equally important to me is that I infuse hope into the stories as well.
Two other young characters that are dear to my heart are Calli and Ben from The Weight of Silence. Brother and sister, the two have a unique, special relationship.
Brenda: What draws you to writing suspense novels? How do you go about creating suspense in your stories?
Heather: I think I was drawn to writing mysteries because of my dad. We used to sit on the couch on Friday nights and watch suspenseful TV shows. One of my favorites was Kolchak: The Night Stalker – an over the top, creepy show that I watched peeking out from behind a blanket. As I got older, I was drawn to suspenseful books by authors like Stephen King, Elizabeth George, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow and so many more.
One of the ways I try to create suspense is through the setting. Sometimes ordinary, everyday places can be very creepy but it doesn’t hurt to throw in a remote wooded area or a circuit of caves. I also find that by creating characters that the readers are invested in and care about adds to the suspense. By placing the characters in challenging situations, my hope is that reader will want to find out what happens to them.
Brenda: As a reader what do you like from a suspense story? Do you find yourself writing more on what you like or what you think readers like?
Heather: I love reading suspense novels that first and foremost have unique characters that even if they infuriate me or I don’t like their choices, I have to find out what happens to them. I love suspense novels that are fast-paced but pause long enough to give us a sense of setting and a sneak peek into the backstories of the characters.
For me, I’m a very selfish writer. I write the kinds of books that I’d like to read. I spend about a year (or more) on each book so I have to want to invest so much time on the characters and their stories. Hopefully the readers will enjoy it too.
Brenda: How important is the setting for you? How do you go about choosing your settings and developing them?
Heather: Setting is so important to me! All my books are set in fictional town Iowa. I grew up here and raised my family here. Many people think that Iowa is flat and consists only of cornfields. Of course we have cornfields (and they are beautiful) but we also have forests, and rivers and lakes rolling hills, craggy bluffs and believe it or not, caves.
To me, the setting is like another character in the book and I develop them much like I do with the other characters – I keep a list of descriptors and pepper them throughout the novel. If possible, I try and go visit locations that are inspirations for the specific settings. For example, in Not a Sound, I used the spots where I go hiking with my dog as a major location. For This is How I Lied, I visited some caves near where I live. Doing this really allows me to live and breathe the story. Now I just need to set one of my books in Italy, or Ireland or Greece;)
Brenda: What would you like readers to get from your books?
Heather: Books have always been an escape for me and I hope my books offer the same respite for readers. I know I write twisty, dark thrillers but I always hope readers leave with a sense of hope
Brenda: Are you working on anything you can share with us?
Heather: I’m working on revisions to my next book – yet untitled. Things always change a lot during this phase, so I’m hesitant to say much. But I can say that it’s a thriller set in an old farm house during a snowstorm and there is nowhere for the characters to run.