Beginning in 2006 with Fools Rush In, Connecticut author Kristan Higgins—a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award—has published 14 novels, and No. 15 (the fifth in her Blue Heron series) is scheduled to hit bookstores before year’s end.
Romance is the best-selling genre in publishing, and Higgins is one of its stars. Yet her summer 2015 title, If You Only Knew (released in August from HQN Books), marks a shift toward what is known these days as “commercial women’s fiction” in the label-obsessed book business.
The affable and amusing Higgins has shared her writing wisdom with aspiring Fairfield writers more than once. She was a featured panelist in a lively group discussion the Library presented on romance fiction in February 2010. Then, this past September, she made the final stop on her book tour for If You Only Knew just down the street, at the Fairfield University Bookstore. It was there that the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) asked if she would be willing to answer some emailed questions about writing, a request to which she graciously assented.
Changing from romance to women’s fiction. FWB: You said the changes with your new book were not big ones. But what did they entail? Should aspiring writers try to check off genre conventions from the get-go, or just write the best story they can write?
Kristan Higgins: I’ve always straddled the line between women’s fiction and romance in that my books have never been solely focused on romance—my characters have issues with job, family, friends, the past. But for If You Only Knew, the biggest change was having two female narrators. In the past, my books have had only one first-person narrator, or the hero and heroine as point-of-view characters. This was the first time I focused on two women.
I don’t think there are any rules or conventions to follow other than exactly what you said: Write the best story you can. Understand what makes a good story, however. To do that, you have to read great authors.
Revising & editing. Your admission on what you do when you get stuck is, “I write crap! You can quote me on that.” You also said that you were a very good reviser. Can you describe how your revision process works. How extensive are your editor-suggested changes, and are those revisions easier or harder to make than the ones you make between the first draft and the manuscript you submit?
KH: It’s funny; I’m teaching an online class on revising right now. My process consists of being a stone-cold darling-killer. I think I have a very good eye for what works and what doesn’t, and I’m not sentimental about my work, as some authors are. The process isn’t that formulaic; it’s more like, “Cut the boring parts. Fix the crap.”
As for my editor’s suggestions, they’re rather general; she mentions an area or character that gave her pause, and she lets me decide how to fix it. Every once in a while, we disagree, and though those occasions are rare, she defers to my gut instinct. We have a lot of respect for each other. And affection, too, which doesn’t hurt the relationship.
Productivity. You said that keys to writing two 115,000-120,000-word books a year are your separate office space, your dedicated 9 a.m.-4 p.m. writing schedule and ignoring the internet. Should aspiring writers try to employ some sort of daily quota system to get words down, or just make it a habit of writing every day? Is the love of writing an often-unrecognized secret to writing productivity in an age of so many distractions?
KH: I do shut down my internet for chunks of time when I’m writing, because it’s just so easy to be distracted, especially when the book isn’t going well. I think setting goals is a must, though I’m more vague with mine. Rather than trying to hit a daily word count, I shoot for a weekly or monthly count. And yes, writing every day is helpful. Otherwise, the pressure builds up and an author can feel a little sweaty and panicked.
Humor & sex in the story. You employ easy humor so well in incident, word choices, dialogue, etc. Should a writer consciously strive for humor, or employ it only if it part of her natural writer’s voice?
KH: I think humor comes naturally. Your writing voice has it, or it doesn’t. Personally, my books get funnier as I revise, when I can home in on the humor and cut the dreck. I don’t think anyone should chase after any element of writing because it’s popular, whether it’s humor or, uh, spanking, for example. Honesty is probably the most important element in a writer’s voice.
At the romance panel that you said you didn’t include detailed sex scenes in your romance novels . . . .If You Only Knew has an inciting incident that involves “sexting.” Are you writing more, or more involved, sex scenes than before? Would you care to comment on what you feel makes a sex scene work?
KH: I’ve gotten a little more comfortable writing love scenes, but I still don’t write graphic details. As a reader, I find those really detailed scenes less appealing. Honestly, they can be about as explicit as a lesson from a gynecologist, and. . .well, that’s just not for me. And honestly, it’s a rare author who can write an explicit love scene without just regurgitating the same phrases that have been used for centuries. An audio book narrator told me if she had to read the world “shattered” one more time, she would punch herself in the face, for example. Lordy, that made me laugh!
I think the challenge in writing a love scene is to capture both the emotional and physical elements in a new way without getting ridiculous. We all know what happens (one hopes). What’s really original is the emotional component. That’s what I try to focus on, while still giving a strong sense of sexy time.
What makes a love scene work is just that—love. Why is this time is different and meaningful? How do you convey that? What’s the subtext? Otherwise, you just have Tab A going into Slot B, and Ikea seems to have that kind of description covered.
Setting. The last question comes from our Library writing colleague Alison McBain, who has read all of your books. “[Kristan’s] books are written in a similar version to how she presents herself—funny, quirky, down-to-earth. She also does an amazing job of incorporating local areas into her novels. How does she research/choose a location/incorporate the places in which she sets her books into the narrative? Her towns feel so real—I’ve rarely read an author who does as good a job in making the locations really come to life. She is a master at that. Does she have pages and pages of research, or are these places where she’s spent a significant amount of time herself?”
KH: That’s one of the nicest comments I’ve ever read, so thank you, Alison! I do visit the locations I’m researching. All of my settings are in the Northeast, and I’m a Connecticut Yankee, so I already have that sensibility. It would be tough for me to write a fifth-generation Texan, for example, because culture is so ingrained.
When I visit a location, I wander a lot and try to soak everything in. I take pictures of ordinary things. . .the pavement, the lamppost, a regular house, the grocery store. I also try to find a townie bar and eavesdrop. I ask questions once in a while; I’m always interested in what people want me to hear about, and what they don’t bring up. As with most things, the unspoken stuff is the most interesting.
Growing up, I was a little bit of a fringe character in my family and in school, which allowed me to watch and listen more than participate (save your tears. . .I wouldn’t have it any other way!). It’s translated into a really excellent skill as a writer. I think it’s true for most writers—we’d rather listen than talk.