Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kristan Higgins on Romantic Angst, Breaking In, and more!

ROBERTA: if I had the nerve to completely swerve away from the structure of writing a mystery, I would love to write the kind of books that today's guest, Kristan Higgins, writes. Since 2006, she's had four romantic comedies published, with the fifth due next February. And CATCH OF THE DAY won the coveted Rita award for best Single Title Contemporary in 2008. Welcome Kristan, we're delighted to have you today!
KRISTAN: Thanks, Roberta! It's a pleasure.

ROBERTA: Coming from a background of writing series where the main characters carry over from book to book, I'm in awe of the way you're able to manufacture an entirely new cast of characters and in fact a new world for each book. How do you manage?

KRISTAN: Sweating seems to be a big part of the process...a little bleeding, some flagellation. The truth is, I've only written single titles, so I don't really know another way. I admit that it's a big job to create everything from scratch...setting, family, career, friends, coworkers. Sometimes those things just leap to life; other times it's a bit more of a deliberate approach (I greatly preferred the "leap to life" variation, just for the record). I like to visit a setting to get a feel for the people and mood of an area, which definitely jumpstarts some of those elements. No matter what, I find that I have to really immerse myself into the characters...their personalities, their families, their neuroses, even their pets. Once I get there, the book really starts clicking along.

ROBERTA: We're interested in the deep dark secrets of your writing process. How much of the story do you know when you sit down to write a book? Do you work on a schedule? How do you keep yourself motivated?

KRISTAN: Well, I write full time, so it's my job. I'm motivated to write a really good book, and that means showing up, first and foremost. So I write almost every day...I try to throw in a day off here and there so I stay at least a little sane. I work when my kids are in school, and rather than having a set amount of hours a day, I give myself a page count. I start each day off by reading what I wrote the day before, fix that up, then get to work cranking out the pages. Once my first draft is done, I let it sit for a week or three, then rip and tear it to shreds. Because I'm a masochist, I don't mind revising...that's when my book starts to really spark.
I'm an outliner...don't believe in pantsing (for myself, that is. If it works for other writers, God bless). I like to know as much as possible before I start the first draft. I believe in outlines...it's so much easier to change a few sentences than rip out an entire chapter. That being said, something always surprises me during the actual writing. Usually something pretty good, too!

ROBERTA: What was it like to break into the world of romance? And how about that Rita?? Who are your role models? what do you like to read?

KRISTAN: Well, it was relatively easy for me to break in for a couple of reasons. First, I was a copywriter for 12 years before I tried fiction, so my writing muscles were quite buff (the actual human body muscles...not so lucky). Secondly, I began my fiction writing journey with a cold and calculating viewpoint...I wanted to sell a book. The whole "write the book of your heart" works if you're writing for the love of the activity, but it might not work so well when it comes time to sell. I wanted to do both: write the kind of book I loved and sell it fast. I'm very hard on my own work, and honestly, that helps a lot in terms of getting out the best product I can. At any rate, the gods must've been smiling, the timing was right, and voila! I got a fabulous agent (Maria Carvainis), HQN took a chance on a new author, and my first book came out about two years after I sent out that fateful query letter.
Winning the Rita was just amazing. I was operating under the model of "it's an honor just to be nominated." When my name was called, I practically spit out my teeth, I was so shocked. It truly was one of the happiest nights of my life. Plus, I got to wear a gown!
Role models? Hmm. Michelle Obama is a great role model, I think. She's well educated, well spoken, happily married and seems like a great mom. I like the fact that she compartmentalizes her days so that she's not always trying to be in every one of her roles...she's doing her mommy thing in the morning, then she sits down in her office, works till the girls come home, and tries to give them as much time as she can, the same way I do. We also both like cardigans. Honestly, I think Michelle and I are best friends waiting to happen. I can't believe she hasn't called me to the White House for drinks.
I read a wide variety of genres...I love historical fiction (just read a mystery called Silent In the Grave by Deanna Raybourn and can't recommend it enough). I read a lot of literary fiction, and of course, I love humor...Merrill Markoe, Elinor Lipman, Monica McInerney and Carl Hiassen are some of my favorites in that genre. And I love mystery, especially when the protagonists are people I can relate to. When it's someone who's a Jason Bourne type, I don't feel the connection quite so much, as I'm not a trilingual-black-belt-stunt-driver-assassin type (though Matt Damon is extremely cute).

ROBERTA: We know you're happily married so the romantic angst can't all come from real life. Where do you get the ideas for all those broken hearts?

KRISTAN: Well, I'm happily married NOW! You didn't have to screen the other guys!
In all seriousness, I try to find a universal feeling to base my books around. For example, in Catch of the Day, the heroine has a huge crush on the local priest. I think most women have fallen for someone completely inappropriate and have been trapped in some kind of helpless, impossible love. And heck, we writers are all thieves, aren't we? We just open the front door and look around, and it seems that everyone has a story.

ROBERTA: With mysteries, there is a structure: crime, detective, clues, suspects, red herrings. Does something like that exist for your genre?

KRISTAN: Sure, there's structure in a romance novel. It may be more of an emotional hero's journey rather than a plot that needs to be solved, but the structure is there. And just as you can pretty much expect a mystery to be solved by the end of that type of book, you can expect that the hero and heroine are going to end up better off when the sun finally sets on a romance novel. Better off for having loved each other, that is. I think that's pretty dang nice.

ROBERTA: And finally, tell us a little about the book that came out this summer. And what's up next?
KRISTAN: TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE is the story of a woman who makes up a boyfriend when her ex-fiance starts dating her younger sister. As I said, I try to tap into something universal when I write, and I'd bet the farm that most women have faked a boyfriend or three. (Yes, yes, of course I have!) I thought it would be fun to see how far Grace, my heroine, could take this while exploring the reasons why the fake boyfriend was more satisfying than a real flesh-and-blood guy.
THE NEXT BEST THING will come out in February. It's about a young widow trying to find another husband...but this time, she's going for someone she doesn't love quite so much, since her first husband's death just about broke her. She comes from a long line of widows, and she's definitely bucking tradition by trying again. This subject is near and dear to my heart, as I myself am from a long line of young widows. And my hubby's a firefighter. Taking out a hefty life insurance policy was one of the first things on my list, let me tell you! But the book is also about putting the past to rest and taking chances, even when the worst has already happened to you.

ROBERTA: Thank you Kristan for visiting Jungle Red! She is standing by for your questions and comments...


  1. Kristan,

    I find it so interesting how you can pick up a writer's style by just reading her answers to a Q&A.

    But your humor and way of looking at the world definitely comes shining through...no wonder your books are so good!!

  2. Nice to see another familiar face on Jungle Red!

    I have a question about your process. Your settings seem to be a big part of it. So, which comes to you first? Your idea for the characters? Or does the setting inspire the characters?

    Anyway, thank you for dropping by Jungle Red.

  3. I discovered Just One of the Guys at the dentist's office, of all places. I was my usual panicked, deranged self and the book was a wonderful distraction. I didn't expect to enjoy it so much that I had to (ahem) borrow it so I could finish the story. (I'll return it next visit, I swear.)

    I love the way you used humour in the story. Does that come from your days as a copywriter?

  4. Kristan - all that outlining really pays off - your writing sparkles! Can hardly wait for the next one (you couldn't speed it up a little, could you?)

  5. Thanks, Cindy! :-)

    As for the settings, Rhonda...I do try to choose a place that reflects something in the plot. For example, in Just One of the Guys, Chastity, our strapping lass, came from the Adirondacks, where she hiked and rowed and biked. The strong setting reflected her personal strength, emotional and physical. The Next Best Thing is set on a small island off the Rhode Island coast, a Jamestown-type place. Lucy, my heroine, feels a bit isolated and trapped by her own situation, so that worked, too. Sometimes, though, I admit to being shallow and just picking a place because it's beautiful.

    Darlene, thank your dentist for me! As for humor, I'm sure my copywriting experience helps, in terms of keeping the writing sharp and brief (one hopes, anyway). But humor is often a viewpoint...I think maybe mine comes from seeing little things that we all see, or admitting to those odd little things we all do but might not admit publicly.

  6. I'm reading TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE right now, and I know I'm going to have to go out and buy all your others, Kristan. Love reading about your process!

  7. Great interview, Kristan! I love your sense of humor and can't wait to read THE NEXT BEST THING.

  8. Kristan! Welcome..

    (Listen, you all, I am SUCH a fangirl of Kristan! She;s absolutely charming, hilarious and tender writer..I laugh out loud with delight at her books.)

    So, Kristan--your books seem so natural and effortless. (I know you're laughing now..) Do you do a tremendous amount of revision to get them to be so seamless?

  9. Thanks, Margo, Shana and Catherine! I'm trying to write faster, I assure you. Just have to raise a couple of kids and remember to shower once in a while...

    Hank, right back at you in terms of fangirl! As for the seamless/effortless bit...snort! As I'm sure you well know, writing has its days when the effort is so great you may as well be back in Labor and Delivery, pushing out a nine-pounder, sans epidural.

    But yes, there are days when the words flow and the story takes over. Getting to that point, though...it takes a lot of work. For me, anyway. Other writers might be blessed with better muses (in which case I simply must buy one), but from what I've heard, we all work tremendously hard.

  10. Kristan, I'm a plotter too. Like you I leave enough breathing room for the characters surprise me, and they always seem to -- at least once a book.

    I have to admit that I haven't read you yet, even though I adore you as a person. I'm going to fix that asap, especially after reading these posts!

  11. Welcome Kristan!
    You write the sort of books that are my secret pleasures. Funny and tender--that's exactly what I like to read when I'm overstressed and overworked (as pretty much always)

  12. If you haven'r read Kristan you're missing the boat. Or is it the dog? Kristan, you use that puppy theme in the books I've read.Do you have a pup in all of them?

  13. Hi, Kathryn! I think there's nothing better than when a character comes out with something that completely surprises the author. I don't generally believe in muses, but I do believe that characters take on a life of their own after a while.

    Thanks, Rhys! Funny to think that you mystery writers turn to romance for a break, and we romance writers turn to mystery...

    Thanks to you too, Bob! The dogs are a natural part of a story for me, simply because I've always owned a dog. Growing up it was Irish Setters and Golden Retrievers...we now own a lovely black Lab mutt and a yellow lab/border collie (not nearly as smart as she sounds).

    My next heroine owns a cat for the simple reason that it fit her life and personality better than a dog. His name is Fat Mikey, and I stole the name from my down-the-street neighbor. But for Book #6, it's back to man's best friend.

  14. Loved the glimpse into your process, Kristan. Can't wait to get my hands on a copy of THE NEXT BEST THING -- is it February yet??

  15. Hi Kristan,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. Great interview! It's always interesting to hear everyone's process -- I'm totally with you on outlining!!

  16. Lovely interview. I really enjoyed meeting you in this Q&A. I think I'd like your books.

  17. Have read all of Kristan's and each one is better than the last...truly painful, however, is the wait in between! :) Major props to you, Kristan.

    Also have read Silent in the Grave and all its sequels. Top-notch mysteries. You can physically feel the darkness in them.


  18. Have read all of Kristan's and each one is better than the last...truly painful, however, is the wait in between! :) Major props to you, Kristan.

    Also have read Silent in the Grave and all its sequels. Top-notch mysteries. You can physically feel the darkness in them.


  19. Even though we've worked together for over a year now, I feel like I know you much better after reading that, Kristan. What a great interview! I'm a plotter too, it just seems far more practical to me - like you said, better to change a few sentences than have to rip out a chapter.

    And I have Too Good To Be True on my TBR shelf - as soon as these revisions are done....

  20. Thanks, everyone! Sorry for the wait on the next book, which is ironically called THE NEXT BEST THING. My publisher pushed the release date back for promotional reasons. I assure you, I wrote it as quickly as I could!

  21. Great interview, Kristan! And your wip sounds awesome. I'll definitely be on the look out for it:)