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Elizabeth Heiter | How I Write Suspense

April 9, 2018

At every new book launch, certain questions pop up again and again:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“What’s the process of writing a book?”

It’s different for every writer, and while my process has evolved some over the years, fundamentally it’s stayed the same through ten published novels:

The Big Idea: For me, every book begins with a big idea, something that gets me excited. Usually, it comes in the form of “What if…” In STALKED, my latest psychological suspense, it was “What if a teenager disappeared, leaving behind a note that said if anyone was reading it, she was already dead?” That first idea bloomed into more questions: “Was she really dead? Why would she leave a note like that instead of trying to get help before she disappeared? Was it really the teenager who left the note, or someone else?” The big idea stage can take a while: I may discard a lot of ideas before I find one that both excites me enough as a hook (something compelling enough to intrigue a reader to want more) and has enough depth and possibility to it to sustain an entire novel (100,000 words!). Once I’ve settled on that hook, I move to the next three stages, which overlap.

The Characters: I firmly believe that every plot has a “right” character and vice versa. The more the plot impacts the character, the more interesting it is – both to me and (I hope!) to a reader. When a character isn’t risking a lot in order to experience the plot – to engage with the mystery – then the stakes aren’t as high, for her or for the reader (who is vicariously experiencing everything through the main character). With a series book like STALKED, finding the right plot is even more complicated – it’s why FBI profiler Evelyn Baine has to constantly grow and change, so her character doesn’t become stale. Of course, there’s a lot more to creating characters, but this is where I start: how will this character be fundamentally changed by the plot?

The Outline: Since plot and character are so intricately intertwined, my outline and character development happen simultaneously. For me, an outline is a bulleted list that tells me (at a high level) what will happen through the entire book. What are the big twists? What are the red herrings (things that are meant to distract the reader or lead them in the wrong direction)? Where are my turning points (places where the character makes a decision that they can’t turn back from, and where the plot takes a major turn)? I also put character details in the outline, telling me how the main characters will change throughout the story.

The Research: Because I write suspense (and romantic suspense), accuracy matters. Writing an FBI profiler means poring through books on psychology and criminal personality profiling. It means practicing by creating my own profiles on real cases and comparing them to actual perpetrators. It means visiting FBI field offices, going to the FBI Academy, and firing weapons on the FBI’s shooting range. This happens in conjunction with the character and outline creation, but I try not to go too far in my story without knowing the research, because I don’t want to write a major plot point that turns out to be inaccurate! Luckily, for me, the research is a big part of the fun of writing a book.

The Writing: All the prep work I do means that when I finally sit down to do the actual writing, the words come quickly and I rarely end up on a dead end or have to backtrack significantly. I sit down (at home with a parrot on my shoulder or at a café with a mocha latte), put a little music on in the background (or headphones) and start writing! Usually, with every scene of the book, I really get going as soon as I’ve decided on my opening sentence, which sets the tone and the hook. I’ve been told that once I start writing, I look possessed and I type faster than seems humanly possible. Perhaps that’s just evidence that even with all the work that goes into it, there’s still a little magic in writing.

The Editing: Once a book is written, it’s still not finished. There are two types of writers: pantsers (those who don’t know what’s going to happen when they start and just sit down and write their way into a story) and plotters (those who figure out everything up front before they get moving). In reality, most writers are somewhere between the two. Although I’m a plotter, I still surprise myself along the way. But knowing the high points of a book ahead of time means less rewriting. Still, after “The End,” each book is read at least four more times before it goes to my editor, including once out loud (you hear things differently than you read them in your head). I get critiques from trusted writers and readers and incorporate their feedback. And then, once it does go to my publisher, it will get another three rounds of edits before it reaches the final version!

The other question that always comes up at book launches is “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” And the answer is “Always.” I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, and before I could write, I was telling them. Ten published novels later, I still have the same thrill when a new big idea hits, the same love of sitting down at the computer, and the same excitement of actually seeing my book in the bookstores.

If you’re a reader and want a chance to win a copy of STALKED, leave a comment letting me know what interests you about the process of writing books.

If you’re a writer and want someone else do to the research for you, I’m teaching a class next month about Writing Credible FBI Characters – you can learn more and sign up here.

About Elizabeth Heiter

Elizabeth Heiter

Critically acclaimed and award-winning author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range. Her novels have been published in more than a dozen countries and translated into eight languages; they’ve also been shortlisted for the Daphne Du Maurier award, the National Readers’ Choice award and the Booksellers’ Best award and won the RT Reviewers’ Choice award.

The heroine of Elizabeth’s Profiler novels was called “one of the most amazing characters created in print” by Fresh Fiction. Her novels have received praise from Lee Child, J.T. Ellison, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, R.L. Stine, Allison Brennan, Laura Griffin, Suzanne Brockmann, Hank Phillippi Ryan and Zoë Sharp.

The Profiler | Lawmen | Bullets and Brawn



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