Monday, July 21, 2014

Interview with Irene Hannon

Today I am happy to share my interview with Irene Hannon. I have loved Irene's suspense novels and have forgotten, at times, that she is an accomplished Women's Fiction author as well. When I was in Atlanta in June, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet her and sit down with her for an interview. We chatted on Monday, and then I discovered at the ACFW Press Conference on Tuesday that she is a finalist not once, not twice, but THREE times for ACFW Carol Awards - twice in the Romantic Suspense category for Trapped and Vanished (click the titles for my reviews) and once in the Short Novel category for Seaside Blessings.

I'm so excited to finally meet you because I love your books! You are really talented because not everyone can write in two genres and have a following in both. In fact, I sometimes forget that you write the contemporary romances because I associate you with your suspense novels because that's where I first discovered you.

Right. And most people who read primarily trade books know me through my suspense. When they find out I'm writing the contemporary romance women's fiction, their response is, "Wow, that's really nice that your branching into a second field!" I have to laugh because I've been writing contemporary romance forever! But I was writing it as series books, the smaller mass market paperbacks – in recent years, for Love Inspired. So I've been writing those longer than suspense, but my suspense readers tend to only know me through my suspense, so the other seems new to them. These contemporary romance books are longer with more complex stories and more points of view, but I'm not new to the genre.

So is marketing – or cross-marketing – a challenge, since you have two audiences that don't necessarily know about the "other side" of your writing?

It is somewhat of a challenge, and a lot of people have discovered my contemporary romance women's fiction novels because they've read my suspense books and they've decided since they liked those books, they'd give the others a try. I've found that there's tremendous crossover. Once people find out that there are the two genres, and they sample them – unless they are just a die-hard suspense fan and that's all they read – I've had huge crossover, even from my smaller Love Inspired books. Those people have tried my suspense books and now they've moved on to my longer contemporary romances. The kind of stories I write, which tend to be very character-driven. I'm not into the super high-action, adventure thriller books, which some people gravitate toward. My main interests in any book I write, whatever the genre, are the people. I want to know what makes them tick. The genre that I pick is really just a device to talk about people. The tone in my books, from romance to suspense, is similar in terms of the character development. People who sample both tend to like them both unless, like I said, they're just die-hard suspense fans and don't read anything else. So I don't see a whole lot different marketing-wise. I tend to emphasize the fact that if you like the people you've read about in these books, you will probably like the people you read about in the other books. They're not that dramatically different. It's not like I'm writing prairie romance and sci-fi.

And even in One Perfect Spring, since you have to have some tension in a plot, there is some suspense in that story.

There is. And that's naturally how I write, no matter the genre. There have to be pieces of information that people don't know, that they want to know, that makes them keep reading. In One Perfect Spring, you want to know what happens with this older woman and what happened with her son she gave up for adoption. And this young guy who is the main hero, what is in his background that's really bothering him about this whole assignment he's been given? So yes, there are questions and there is, in that sense, an element of suspense in the book.

So, the age-old question, how do you come up with your ideas? And how do you decide which genre to plug an idea into?

Some of it is dictated by contract, because I do have contracts out pretty far for both genres. So I look at what's due next and shift gears to think about that. In terms of where do I get my ideas, I envy some authors who say, "I have this whole file of ideas that I just can't wait to get to!" I wish I had that but I don't. My ideas come as the books happen. Once in a while I'll get an idea for a future book. But usually, it's as I'm sitting down to write, I start trying to come up with an idea. Often it's something very subtle. I'll overhear a snippet of conversation or I observe something or I'll read something in the newspaper, and it just plants this little tiny seed of an idea and I start the "what if" process and build from there. There's no magic formula to it, and if someone were to hold up a book, such as One Perfect Spring and say, "Where did the idea for this come from?", 99% of the time I could not go back and identify the moment that inspired it because it is so subtle.

The only exception I can think of, and it's pretty dramatic, is the first book in my Private Justice series, Vanished. That idea was a very specific incident. I can tell you exactly how it came to me, in fact for the entire series. I was driving home from church one night, in the dark on a narrow road, and a bicyclist appeared in my headlights. There was no shoulder so he was right there, really close, so I swerved around him and thought to myself, "Wow, that was pretty dangerous." That's when I started thinking. What if a woman was driving out in the country in a rainstorm and a figure appeared in her headlights? She jams on her brakes, swerves out of control, knows she hit the person, hits the tree. A person stops and says, "I saw the accident and I'll take care of it. Sit here since you're hurt." She blacks out and then wakes up and there's no evidence that anything ever happened. The person who stopped is gone; the person she hit is gone. She calls the police and they see no evidence and tell her maybe it was a deer or something. But she knows she saw something and she lines up a private investigator to help her. She's an investigative journalist so she's not letting this thing go. That all came from this moment of seeing this bicyclist. Not only did it give me the idea for that book but for a whole series with PI's. I can tell you for that book but for most books, it's a real subtle seed that gets planted. And once I have that seed, then I'll start to think about what kind of people might be involved and how can I best put people together that would interact well. From there, I move on to what might happen in the book. Most of the book develops as I write.

I do know how it will end because I write romantic suspense and I know it has to end happily. Regular suspense writers don't necessarily have to do that, but I know I'm aiming toward that happy ending. Once I have my people centered in my mind, I think about what would make the most dramatic opening scene, and then I just walk into it and go from there. That's how the process works for me. I can't really set out ten steps to follow in writing a book. Every writer is different.

So are you more of a "pantser" than a plotter?

It's probably a hybrid because I think about my characters a lot and really develop them before I start, including the villain. My books are not mysteries. I tell you who the villain is pretty early in my books so the suspense doesn't come from "who did it?", it comes from "are they going to succeed?". Because I introduce the villain early on, I take readers right inside the head of the villain, which can be very spooky. The readers know more than the hero and heroine know.

Yes, it makes me hold my breath to watch them walk into a dangerous situation!"

Right! You want to say, "Don't open that door!" Since I spend a lot of time focusing on the characters and know them so well, it's not a pantser in that sense. I know the basic plot but beyond that, I just let it flow.

Does your manuscript ever take off in ways you don't expect it to? Or do your characters ever surprise you?

I can't say I've ever been totally surprised by the direction of a story because it evolves naturally and I let it go where it needs to go. I don't try to control it that much. I have been surprised, occasionally, by my characters. One of my darkest villains was really spooky and he scared me. I thought I knew him pretty well, and then five or six chapters in, he revealed he had killed his mother, which I had no idea he had done! I stopped typing in the middle of the page and said, "You did what?!" But it made him a much more interesting character. I had to adjust a few little things that had happened prior to that in order to make it work. That was not planned! He literally told me that he did that.

Oh, I love talking to authors like you and hearing you talk about these characters in your head talking to you! Y'all are so delightfully weird!

I know! If I say that to someone who doesn't know and understand writers, I get the "Okaaay, I'm leaving now!" look.

Brandilyn Collins would say, "Careful, we're around 'normals' now."

It's true! The way the writer's mind thinks is pretty weird sometimes!

I know you don't write the heavy suspense, but have you done things like taking the Writer's Police Academy?

The research piece of my work is huge. You lose credibility so fast if you make mistakes, and the whole law enforcement aspect was very intimidating to me because I had no background in that. I did as much research with that as I could. I only had one contact in law enforcement initially. That was a police detective who ultimately connected me with an FBI agent and US Marshals and private investigators. But I started with one. I did take the Citizen's Police Academy in my town and I expected to learn something but I assumed it would be pretty filtered and tame. I was blown away! They brought in the top people from every division—the canine officers, the SWAT team, the medical examiner, etc. It was the best education I could have ever gotten and it was free! It was amazing. One of the things that they offered was a ride-along with a police officer. I knew that would be good since I could observe and listen to the lingo and look at the equipment. That was really all I wanted out of it. I signed up for an early evening shift in a nicer part of town, thinking it would be a quiet few hours. Well, we weren't an hour into the shift when he gets a call for a domestic disturbance in a really nice neighborhood. I know it happens everywhere but I thought "wow, this is intense" and was really a bit scared while he was talking to them.

So you went in with him?

They told us in the instructions to stay in the car but when we got there, the officer said, "If you stay in the car, you're not going to see anything, so come on." He actually took me in and I'm thinking I should have stayed in the car because it was so tense. We got through that and ten minutes later, he got a call for an in-progress burglary. And it had gotten dark. He hits the lights and the siren and takes off, weaving in and out of traffic, and I thought, "I'm going to die tonight." When we got there, I honestly think the poor guy had to peel my fingers off the dashboard when it was all over. (I did stay in the car for that call.) I tell people I learned a lot from that ride-along! But the biggest thing I learned is that I much prefer my suspense between the pages of a book. Real-life suspense is not for me!

But I do try to make sure the books are accurate by doing a lot of research. If I make a mistake, someone will find it, and my credibility is just gone.

I agree. I'm a nurse and it drives me nuts when medical stuff is inaccurate or they violate HIPPA regulations.

I always vet my medical stuff with medical people. My very first suspense, Against All Odds, focuses on an FBI Hostage Rescue Team, which is an amazing group of guys. They're hard to research because they're somewhat under the radar. They're like Navy Seals but on the civilian side. So I did all my homework and really researched it and I got a weird email a few months after the book came out. It said "I read Against All Odds and really enjoyed it. But I chewed tobacco; I didn't chew on a cigar." I thought that was a weird email. Then I looked at his signature and he was a former commander of a Hostage Rescue Team who happened to have the same first name as my fictional commander. I had no idea when I wrote it that any commander had this name. I wrote him back and told him it was a total accident, and he wrote back and said he was amazed how well I had captured his personality. He also said, "I have to commend you for your research because you had everything right, down to the actual radio call signals that are used during a mission." That made me feel so good because I work so hard to be accurate, and to have a commander of Hostage Rescue Team tell me I got it right was so nice.

I think it would be hard those of you who do write about some of these subjects because there are some things the FBI and the military can't tell you. There's a fine line between being accurate and pushing limits.

Right. There are certain things they won't tell you. My FBI source is a recently retired FBI agent, which actually is a big advantage because he will tell me more than if he were currently active. They are very close-mouthed about a lot of things. It can be a challenge to research some things.

Even for my contemporary women's fiction, I make the same effort to be accurate. The heroine in my book coming out next summer is a cranberry farmer in Oregon, so I actually tracked down a cranberry farmer in Oregon who was very delightful and willing to help me with all of the research for cranberry farming. I do all of my book research and online research first because I never want to waste people's time. I generally go to them with questions that are unique to my book. It's amazing, though, how much of the online information isn't 100% accurate. He did correct a few things. So I try to be accurate for all my books, no matter the genre.

It would be like someone writing a book about Texas and having bluebonnets bloom in June. They only bloom in late March and April and are gone by the first part of May.

Right. And it's easy to make those kind of mistakes. Look at the huge audience who would immediately say, "Well, if that's wrong, what else is wrong?" You lose a lot of people right away.

Plus, it's distracting and pulls the reader out of the story. I'll be immersed and all of a sudden stop reading because an erroneous detail jars me and disrupts the flow.

Exactly. Pulling people out of the story is the number one "sin" for a writer. You never want to do that, ever. I've also found myself being pulled out of a story if a writer dumps a lot of backstory in. A reader can read a bunch of facts but then they're not in the story anymore.

Yes, and some authors know how to do that better than others. Historicals, especially war novels, are a particular challenge. I've ended up skimming paragraphs and even pages when they include too many details.

It becomes a history lesson more than a story. It's a challenge for any writer, whatever the research is. I usually end up with one hundred single-spaced typed pages of research notes and citations for a suspense novel, and I probably use five percent of that in the book. I need to know the information to be sure I'm presenting it authentically but my readers don't need to know it, and they don't want to know it. They just want to know enough to know that I know what I'm talking about.

One thing I've learned, and I was sharing this when I spoke to our local writer's group about what makes books get good reviews, is that, even if a character needs redemption, the writer still has to give them some likeable characteristics. I told the group that I'm one of the few people who doesn't like Gone with the Wind, and the reason is that Scarlett O'Hara is such a brat. I don't see any redeeming qualities in her!

It would be okay if she started out the way she did, but she never had a change of heart. If you never have a character change and learn something, that person will never be a sympathetic character. With my villains in my suspense books, I'm not into black-and-white, plastic characters. My villains are interesting people because a lot of them have really good qualities. In Vanished, it was a physician who was doing wonderful work and, for reasons that become clear in the book, ends up with mixed-up notions about ways to make sure that work continues. It was appalling but in his mind it was the greater good that he was working for. But he was a good person, basically, who did bad things. I don't want people to end my books thinking, "I hated that guy." I want them to say, "Oh wow. I can almost see why they did it. It's wrong but I understand the motivation." I think that makes for more interesting reading.

It's like several historical authors have done with many of the prostitutes in the 1800's. It was wrong but there were not many options for women without husbands back then! It gives you more compassion.

Right. It does give you a different perspective. You still don't approve but you can understand how that could happen. It opens your mind a little bit so that maybe you're not so quick to judge. And I think most situations are like that. People aren't black-and-white. Even the worst people, in general, have a few redeeming qualities.

And maybe that will translate over into our real lives, that we will extend that grace and compassion to others.

What do you like to do when you aren't writing?

I love to sing and perform in community musical theater. I do that whenever I can.

You aren't the typical writer introvert?

When I'm onstage, I love it.. Now when I'm in a crowd, I wouldn't be the one to come forward. In my private life, when I'm not onstage, I'm definitely quieter. I don't like mingling in a crowd, especially with people I don't know. I do love one-on-one interactions, such as interviews.

What's coming next for you?

The final book in the Private Justice series, Deceived, comes out in October. That's in final production. (And it's available for pre-order!) In April, I'll launch a new suspense series called Men of Valor. It focuses on three brothers who all have Special Forces backgrounds and have now moved on to other things but they have this really interesting background that they bring to their current jobs.
The first book is called Buried Secrets. I'm most excited about that book because my heroine is actually a police chief and my hero is a pretty new police detective in a different municipality. She's more experienced than he is, and he's assigned to help her with a case. It's an interesting dynamic. She's a really strong character; I like her a lot. The story will hold a couple of surprises that people won't see coming. (She says with a sly grin!)

Ooh! That sounds wonderful! I can't wait!

I also have another contemporary romance women's fiction coming next summer which is set on the Oregon coast in a little seaside village, which I think will end up being the setting for other stories as well. I can tell there are more stories in that town!

Thank you so much for talking with me. It is so wonderful to finally meet you!

Readers, you can learn more about Irene Hannon and her books at her website,, as well as follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Whether you like romantic suspense or women's fiction--or both!--add her name to your reading list!


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Irene Hannon said...

Linda, thank you for the wonderful interview. It was such a pleasure meeting you in Atlanta.

Sally Shupe said...

I loved this interview! I would think of a question, and when I got to the next section, you asked that question.

I laughed at the Against All Odds email from the commander of the Hostage Rescue Team. Great job! Can't wait to read more of your books, Irene!