Friday, April 11, 2014

Diane Hester: Finding success writing the book she wants to read

HALLIE EPHRON: Australian author Diane Hester may be coming to us from far away, but the opening of her riveting new novel RUN TO ME will be something terrifyingly familiar and every mother's dread: the sudden loss of a young child.

Two years later, Shyler O'Neil's the loss is just as raw as it was in its immediate aftermath, and she retreats to an isolated cabin in the woods. A little boy, on the run, finds her there and she gets a chance to save him and get it right this time.

Diane, can you tell us where the inspiration for this story came from?

DIANE: After my first eight novels were rejected by every editor I submitted them to, I began to lose hope of ever getting published.Then I heard the classic advice, ‘write the book you would love to be reading’, and I started thinking about what type of story I might love more than any other.
To help me, I wrote down lists of ‘my favorites’ – novels, films, protagonists, villains, settings, themes – anything and everything related to storytelling. I also looked at the people and places I love in my own life. When I finished, I went through my lists and defined what I loved about each item and then looked for recurring elements.


What I ended up with were the types of story elements that had deep personal meaning for me. I learned that I love uplifting stories about ordinary people acting heroically. In particular I’m drawn to damaged characters who find the strength to push past their traumas in order to help someone even more vulnerable. I also like feisty kids and wild settings.

Looking back at my earlier novels, I could see I’d incorporated some of these elements into every one, but never had I combined them all in one story.

So that’s what I did. I took all my favorite story elements, put them together and said, ‘Right, this is what you have to work with, create a story using these.’ The result was Run To Me.

HALLIE: There are so many really moving parts to this novel. Can you share any tips about how you write them?

DIANE: There are two questions I constantly ask myself as I’m plotting my stories: What type of person would be most challenged by the situation I’ve created? and What situation would most challenge the character I’ve created?

Answering the first question gives me ideas for my characters, and answering the second gives me ideas for the plot.

Besides that, I simply try to ‘follow the emotion’ and skip as much ‘empty’ stuff as possible. Which is probably just another way of saying, ‘drama is life with the boring bits left out.’

If I find myself reluctant to write a scene it usually means it doesn’t engage me emotionally and therefore probably wouldn’t engage a reader either. If I can, I’ll cut that scene. If I can’t, I’ll try to combine it with some other more interesting material.

HALLIE: You do such a great job with the setting: the woods of northern Maine. A long way from Australia. Is that somewhere you’ve spent time?

DIANE: I was actually born in New York and lived in various parts of the state until after I graduated college. On summer vacations, my father always took us somewhere in New England and to this day that is my favorite part of the world.

For my story I wanted a remote setting where my heroine would be as isolated physically as she felt emotionally. I knew from camping trips how wild parts of Maine are and had read that the northern part of the state is actually the last remaining wilderness in the eastern US. So the area seemed perfect for my story.

HALLIE: So how did a New Yorker end up living in Australia?
DIANE:  Before I took up writing I was a professional violinist. I attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and for a while played in the Rochester Philharmonic.

When I was offered a position with the Adelaide Symphony I thought it would be a good chance to see the world – I figured we’d stay a few years and come home. But my husband found a job he loved and when we tried to come back, jobs were in short supply in America so we ended up staying.

We’ve thought many times since about coming home (I miss it so much!), but both our children were born in Australia so it makes it very difficult. You never think about these things when you’re young! We’ve had to resign ourselves to coming home every other year to visit.

HALLIE: Is it true that you received a publishing contract after pitching your manuscript at a Romance Writers of Australia conference? Tell us!

I started out writing romance and joined RWAustralia early on. It’s a wonderful organization and I learned much from their newsletters and author events.

When I switched to writing suspense I realized I could still pitch my novels at RWA conferences as many of the editors and agents who attend are looking for genres besides romance.

At the 2011 conference I made an appointment with Beverley Cousins of Random House Australia to pitch my thriller Run To Me.
She liked the sound of it and asked me to send her the first 50 pages. A month later she asked for the rest, and on December 20th she called with an offer of publication, making it my best Christmas present ever!

HALLIE: Wow! Random house!! Congratulations. Love the crossover, too, from romance to thriller. What a truly inspirational story.

Now I'm thinking about where I went in the summer - up in the mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona. Boulders and pine trees and rattle snakes... Hmmmm.

So would your childhood summer vacation spot make a great setting for a bone-chilling thriller?


Joan Emerson said...

Congratulations, Diane . . . what an incredible, exciting story. “Run to Me” sounds like an amazing story . . . .

Since I grew up at the shore, there’s a lot of boardwalk and beach memories from my childhood that might morph into a great thriller setting, especially in the dark of night . . . .

Reine said...

Hallie, I love this interview with Diane— so many things to consider about my own struggles with writing!

Diane, your background is very interesting—where you come from and where you are now. Where you moved physically and where you moved in your writing bring up important points about adapting but more about discovery I think. It's a great thing to be able to look at yourself in new way and act upon what you learn.

I'm wondering what you think about the changes that the romance genre has made over the years and if that had any influence on your decision to move from writing romance to thriller.

Diane Hester said...

Thanks for the congrats, Joan. I think if you really love something it shines through when you write about it. So, boardwalks and beaches - go for it!

Ellen Kozak said...

Interesting advice, to write the book you'd want to read. There are so many books out there that I wouldn't want to read. Hmmmm.

Diane Hester said...

Hi Reine. (Love your name. The heroine of the novel I'm currently writing is Raina.)

I moved from writing romance to writing thrillers not so much because the romance genre changed but more because I changed.

I started out writing romantic suspense but publishers kept telling me my stories were too light on the romance side. So I finally made the switch to straight suspense. (I still managed to sneak a love interest into Run To Me though!)

Diane Hester said...

Hi Ellen, thanks for writing.

When I asked myself that question 'what book would I most love to read' what amazed me was I didn't know the answer. I actually had to go looking for it, I had to analyze the things I loved about other stories before I found out.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Diane, I love that way of deciding on a story--brilliant! And-extremely useful! SOrt of mining your inner territory. Never thought about dong it that way--terrific. Thank you.

MY summer vacation? We used to go to a lake-type resort-type place in Indiana called LAke Maxinkuckee. The cool part--it was near to Culver Military academy--a school that had a group called the--hmmm. WHat was it called...anyway, it had a famous troop of of mounted cadets, all of whom (as I remember ) were the handsomest guys 14 year old me had ever seen, and they were all on bay horses. It was--amazing.

How to make that sinister..well, it has the making of a very Nelson DeMille thriller, or a terrific YA romance.

Kristopher said...

Toni Morrison is quoted as saying:

"If you can't find the book you want to read, write it." (or something very close to that)

I think it is great advice, since as readers, we know what we enjoy and it is likely that others who enjoy that genre would share the same interest.

Diane, your book sounds great and will be going onto the TBR pile.

Hallie Ephron said...

So happy to "see" you here, Diane! I know right now it's late at night in Australia.

My first suspense novel is about the fear of losing a child, so I find the setup of Run to Me frighteningly compelling.

I recently taught a day of suspense writing for the Dallas Area Romance Writers. I was so impressed by the way the writers approach the craft. Very thoughtful, professional, asking all the right questions. And their in-class spontaneous writing exercises were extraordinarily good.

Diane Hester said...

Mining your inner territory. Yes, that's it exactly, Hank. That exercise of making lists of my favorite story elements was a real journey of self discovery.

Diane Hester said...

Hi Hallie. Thank you so much for having me on you blog!

It's just after 10pm here so it's not too late. Plus I had a nap this afternoon to prepare myself so I should be good for a few hours!

Diane Hester said...

Thanks, Kristopher. I really hope you enjoy Run To Me.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Diane! What an inspiring story!

Diane Hester said...

Aw shucks. Thank you, Susan. And thank you for having me.

Kathy Reel said...

Diane, what a great way to come up with what you want to write about! Making a list like that would be a great writing tool for others and for those teaching writing. I can remember facing the blank faces of students who insisted they had nothing about which to write. In particular, what movies they watched would be a good prompt. Your book sounds fascinating, with the isolation of the Maine wilderness especially appealing. Going on my TBR list for sure.

One place that my family used to go when I was growing up was Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio. To me, as a small child, it seemed like we were going to the ocean, with the vastness of Lake Erie. We stayed at the grand old hotel there, and I remember there was always a band playing at night in the pavilion. We were walking past, all six of us, one night, and my mother remarked that they were playing a favorite song of hers, Stormy Weather. I can imagine that grand old hotel being a setting for a thriller, picturing the meandering walkways at night with the band covering up the sounds of a murder on one of those paths.

Diane Hester said...

Hi Kathy,

That setting sounds fantastic for a thriller. And it's great that you recall so many resonant details that would make it come alive for the reader - even the name of the song that was playing. That's brilliant.

Your description also made me realize something. I didn't just choose Maine as my setting because it's isolated and potentially atmospheric. I also chose it because I love those magnificent New England forests. And as isolating as the setting was for my heroine, it was also her salvation, both emotionally and physically. Emotionally because it was a place she felt safe in and could escape to, and physically because she knows the area so well she can lead the killers a merry chase.

Makes you think, doesn't it - all the different uses for setting in a story, all the different influences it can have.

Anne said...

I read your book, Diane, and loved it. I read it in one day when I was sick in bed and couldn't put it down! Good luck!

Diane Hester said...

Thanks so much, Anne! It's a real thrill to hear you say that!

Hallie Ephron said...

Kathy Reel - Write that book with your mother in it and call it Stormy Weather...

Denise Ann said...

This post was just the inspiration I needed to get some writing done today -- write the book I want to read. Simple, powerful.

My grandmother's house in Sullivan County in New York was on a busy road "city people" took to the Catskill resorts. Her town, Bloomingburg, was a drive-through.

The house was huge, with a back staircase and crooked upstairs halls, a sleeping porch, a creepy old cellar, two outhouses, and a deep back yard that led to farmland. There were sheds and thick bushes on the property.

So many great settings for mystery.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Great method of exploring your own inner obsessions, which I think drive all great fiction, Diane!

We didn't have a family vacation spot because we were quite poor, but my childhood taught me that you can find danger and evil in the most humdrum, everyday places--and it's all the more frightening when you do.

Hallie Ephron said...

That sounds like a great setting, Denise Ann.

I so agree, Linda -- and it's the creepy in the everyday that floats my boat.

Kathy Reel said...

Hallie, I might just write that Stormy Weather. Thanks for the encouragement. The song has lots of potential for metaphor, and there was something rather dark that happened on that particular trip. Diane, it's funny how some scenes from childhood are just imprinted like scenes from a movie, isn't it? I like what you said about the different reasons for the Maine setting. I know I'm going to love your book.

Diane Hester said...

Yes, it's an interesting question, Denise. As writers we have so much power to write what we love, why would we ever write anything else? Is it an unconscious need to please others? To write the books we think others will want to read?

In my case I think I simply didn't know the things that had the deepest meaning for me and had to find out. But beyond that it's also a matter of trust. You have to believe that if you love something, you can write about it with enough passion that others will too.

Diane Hester said...

This discussion has got me thinking. Write the story you'd love to read. Is that always a writer's job?

You know how sometimes a story just comes to you, begging to be told? It might not be the story you would love to read most, but as a writer you almost have an obligation to tell that story - especially if it has a significant theme.

So was writing the story I love most an act of pure self-indulgence? I guess, again, it comes down to the belief that what has deep meaning for me will have meaning for others.

And anyway a little bit of self-indulgence now and then can't be all bad.

rowie said...

Hi Diane,
I love your novel - read it when it was first released in Australia and have read it twice since. I always get a bit more out of it each time! Never been to Maine but I felt like I was in the woods with them.
Our summer vacations were spent in remote seaside locations. At one of them, our accommodation was a 1920s train carriage. Very exciting. Thankfully it was no Orient Express.

Anonymous said...

A great story. Couldn't put it down. Alison, Australia

Sandra O'Grady said...

I absolutely loved this book. It was engaging and frightening and heartwarming right from the first page. Can't wait to read more of Diane's work and really enjoyed learning more about her during this blog.

Diane Hester said...

Thanks so much, Rowie. The train sounds like a great place to set a story!

Diane Hester said...

Thanks, Alison! Good of you to drop in!

Diane Hester said...

Thank you, Sandy. So glad you liked it!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Diane, congrats! I'm on the road so late to the party. My ear caught on Adelaide, as an acquaintance has mentioned what a lovely place it would be to visit and we are trying to plan our trip to Australia. Any tips?

I think being torn between 2 countries must be so very hard1

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Diane, congrats! I'm on the road so late to the party. My ear caught on Adelaide, as an acquaintance has mentioned what a lovely place it would be to visit and we are trying to plan our trip to Australia. Any tips?

I think being torn between 2 countries must be so very hard1

Diane Hester said...

Hi Lucy, thanks for the congrats.

Yes, Adelaide is a beautiful city. It's filled with parks with massive trees and has a glorious botanical garden. The Adelaide Hills are stunning - farms, orchards and vineyards; quaint old villages full of quirky craft shops and fabulous bakeries. (Especially check out the ones in Handorf!) There are also lots of wineries within a day's drive.

Port Lincoln is a great place to visit as well and only a 40 minute flight from Adelaide. If you ever get down this way please look me up!

Diane Hester said...

Also, Lucy, forgot to mention... If you visit in March there's the Adelaide Writers Festival, the oldest in the country. A fabulous week of panels, readings and discussions - with both Aussie and overseas authors.