Friday, July 19, 2024

Heather Guerre On Writing Realistic Captivating Romance

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Sometimes you read a book and it crawls inside your brain never to leave, and that’s how it feels to read romances by Heather Guerre, who has been self-publishing since 2019. I read Demon Lover in June of 2022 and then proceeded to read everything that she had published by that point and now consider myself one of her biggest fans.

At the end of 2022, Guerre published her first small-town romance and What Was Meant to Be, the second in the “Lake Lenora” series releases next Tuesday so I knew I wanted to interview her about the book and about her writing thus far.

Guerre’s work is incredibly detailed and captivating. She pitches herself as loving to tell “stories about complex, wounded, lonely characters finding their one—the person they can be vulnerable with, who they can trust wholeheartedly, who makes them feel seen and valued, and who’ll rail them nine ways to Sunday.”

Plus she has multiple characters who are over 25!

What sets Guerre apart for me as a reader is how captivating her books are. Immersing readers into the setting and making them relate to the characters is a skill that takes time to develop and Guerre’s first chapters grab a hold of you and don’t let go until you’ve finished the book, and even then you’re left thinking about what you just read.

In that vein (hah), I ask Guerre all about her different series and what we can expect in next week’s release and future books. Plus learn how she developed fated mates in her books and how they’re all connected!

FM: Thank you so much for speaking with me today! Tell us a bit more about yourself, what made you become interested in writing?

HG: I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little kid. I started reading early, so books and storytelling were hugely important to me, stretching back to my earliest memories. I’ve been writing for nearly as long. My earliest story (that I remember) was about a girl who found a cat and brought it home, where it turned out to have magic powers. I wrote the story for my mom, to convince her to let me get a cat. It did not work.

FM: How do you go about starting a new book or series? Do you have specific tropes in mind or characters? Are there any specific influences as you begin to write? Do you keep character or conflict at the center of your writing? Are there any questions you are trying to answer for yourself as you develop a concept?

HG: I have approximately 500,000 different story ideas percolating in my brain at any given moment, and they all want to be told immediately. I have ADHD and it impacts me pretty significantly, so I tend to write whatever’s holding my attention the best. I’m motivated the most by character development, and generally form story ideas around character dynamics that I want to play with, building the plot around that. I’m also a very linear writer—I start writing where the story begins and I write each scene in the order of the narrative. If I don’t force myself to do it that way, I’d jump around to write the fun scenes and there would never be any transitions or exposition in any of my books. I’d also never write the ending of anything, haha. The only question I ask myself when I’m writing is: “Then what?” I don’t really subscribe to rigid “beat” structures, so the only thing that matters is that the story has momentum—that each scene depends on a previous scene(s) and informs upcoming scenes.

FM: Currently you’ve got a sci-fi series, two different PNR series, two different contemporary series, and a new fantasy series that started in March. Are you planning to branch out further into different genres or create a new PNR series for example?

HG: Right now I’m concentrating on my existing series. I read widely, across pretty much any genre, so I can definitely see myself dipping my toes into other genres (with a romance twist, of course). But for now, I have to stay disciplined with what I’ve already got, or I’ll end up with twenty different series with two books each.

FM: One of your hallmarks is the dedication to exploring popular tropes in a genre. For example, in your Forbidden Mates series, you really grapple with what it means to have a universe where women are trafficked, a trope very common in the alien romance subgenre. In many cases it serves as, I don’t want to say easy conflict, but something readers know well and recedes to the background.

However, you don’t shy away the ramifications for all your characters and how the world you’ve built would really feel for them whether they’re the woman at the center of the drama or the Scaevens.

How do you go about exploring these different tropes? What makes you dig so deep?

HG: I can’t not think about the ramifications of every world-building detail and character decision. I’m a chronic over-thinker. I think it’s helpful when it comes to fleshing out worldbuilding, but one of my major tasks when I’m editing is to pare down excessive details and prune away tangential side-quests that don’t really serve the main story. In the end though, I’m a very character-focused writer, and so I can’t really gloss over the consequences of darker elements like human trafficking without my overall story feeling very hand-wavey. As a consequence, the grittier aspects of worldbuilding have to be allowed to have real impact and the characters have to deal with those ramifications, otherwise the story wouldn’t work.

three book covers with plants and stars
In Forbidden Mates, Scaeven enforcers must protect others from the brutal members of their race, and happen to fall in love along the way with the women they must protect.

FM: Currently that series is three books. I know you currently have books planned for your other series, but will you return to this one? The third one is a satisfying ending, but you left it open for so much more!

HG: I would love to write more in the Forbidden Mates series. I have books plotted out for at least three more couples (including Lyra’s sister Sofie), and more general ideas about further expanding the universe. Unfortunately, nobody’s really lining up to read them. That series is, by far, my least popular. The first two books in the series, Star Crossed and Moon Struck were the first two books I ever published. And I was definitely still figuring out my style, because those books are a bit different in tone and theme than the rest of my work, which seems to throw readers off a bit if they’ve discovered me first through my Tooth & Claw series or my contemporaries. I think if I were ever to find the time to return to the series, the tone would be more consistent with the third book, Heart Song, and more in line with the tone and themes of my other books.

When Autumn realizes the incubus in her dreams is real, she invites him to stay. Except he’s bound to the Underworld. Now what?

FM: What about Demon Lover (the first in Hellbound)? This was my first book of yours and it is still one of my absolute favorites. I’ve read plenty of books with incubi but yours was the first one that so deftly tackled issues of consent and agency!

HG: Demon Lover was the first book where I felt like I’d really figured out what kind of stories I wanted to write, and who I wanted to be as an author. I like stories that explore darker themes, and I’m partial to a sprinkle of angsty dubcon, but I wanted sweetness and warmth and genuine connection. I wanted traumatized characters who help each other heal, rather than wallowing in trauma for the sake of conflict. I wanted heroines who were strong but not “feisty,” who were realistically wounded by their past, and heroes who are strong and compelling without being, like, “Chad” meme dudes. And, yes, enthusiastic consent between both characters! I started reading bodice rippers at way too young an age (Johanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire rewired my brain at the tender age of thirteen), so I totally get the appeal of all of that, but I was kind of tired of that dynamic being rehashed over and over again. Which left me with a shy, sweet incubus and his lonely but fierce human heroine.

FM: Switching genres for a moment but Preferential Treatment is about femdom and billionaires and specifically asks what does it even mean to be a billionaire in a genre known for ignoring those realities in favor of romance. What made you pick this route for your first contemporary series?

HG: I’d been sitting on the idea of a sexually submissive billionaire hero for a really long time. But I kept not writing it because I loathe billionaires, and I couldn’t justify romanticizing one as a hero. (Which is not a judgment on readers and writers who love this genre—we all have different fantasies and different thresholds for what’s believable, and for me, a billionaire who’s worthy of love was just a bridge too far.) Until I re-read Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt, and I had this light bulb epiphany—he didn’t have to be a worthy person if he loved her so much that he’d do anything for her. He didn’t need to have scruples or a conscience if she could have them for him. And, thus, the dynamic between Kate and Mikhail was born, and the justification for letting one of my heroines fall in love with a billionaire suddenly made sense.

Heather Guerre's Preferential Treatment cover with chess pieces on the front
What happens when the CEO of a company wants a domme and his choice is an employee? #romance, that’s what.

FM: Will we get to see Kate and Mikhail again in future books in the series, or other cameos? Which… are we getting more next year?

HG: Yes! I have two more books planned for the series, and I will probably have at least one of them out next year. Kate and Mikhail will appear as side characters in both. Right now, I’m focused on my two upcoming releases, and once those are taken care of, I’ll be able to make more concrete plans for the future. (One of the perks of being an indie author is that your schedule accommodates you, which is great for us neurodivergent folks.)

FM: Of course, one of your most popular series is Tooth & Claw set in a world where werewolves and vampires are known to one another but there sure are a lot of misconceptions between the two beings. I might be biased but these are top-tier PNR, and I’ve been working my way through all the PNR on KU for the last two years.

Your focus on community (especially the Indigenous setting in Alaska in the first and third book) and how they reflect in the pack dynamics of the wolves was especially fascinating.

Can you tell us more about how this world specifically came to be? How did you decide what traits the werewolves and vampires would have?

HG: Oh, gosh, I could literally write a Silmarillion-style primer on the minutiae behind every world-building detail in the Tooth & Claw series, but especially Cold Hearted. It started with the idea for a story in which being preyed on by a vampire is a metaphor for suffering from depression–the exhaustion, the apathy, the brain fog, the memory issues, and so on. I wanted other elements of the story to adhere to this as well, so I chose a remote, isolated setting in a severe, dark, frozen environment. I initially had set it in northern Wisconsin, but I ended up switching it to Alaska because the setting was that much more severe, more remote.

As I reasoned out the development of the town and the community, it was important to acknowledge the first people who would have occupied the area. The modern-day pack are Indigenous in that regard, but I would consider them to be a Creole people rather than traditionally Native, as they also have significant European, African, and Siberian ancestry.

all four tooth and claw covers
Wolves! Vampires! Women who have been through it finding love and community! What’s not to love?

FM: How do you approach the idea of fated mates?

HG: As a reader, I’m an absolute sucker for the fated mates trope. One of these days, I might write a true fated mates story, but so far none of my books adhere faithfully to the trope. In the Tooth & Claw series, both wolf shifters and vampires form permanent, irreversible mate bonds with their loved ones–but those bonds are chosen. I’ve hinted that fate might have a little bit of play in it, but at the end of the day, the characters choose to bond with each other, rather than being forced by fate. For this particular series, the aspect of choice was important. In Cold Hearted, after what Grace went through with her terrible ex, Alex, a forced bond with Caleb would have just been new trauma heaped on top of old. Likewise, with Amos in Hot Blooded, his yearning for love and companionship wouldn’t have been so well-gratified if Tessa had just been handed to him by fate. And in Once Bitten, after Jules’s trauma, Max needed to earn his bond with her.

FM: Will we see other beings?

HG: Tooth & Claw is going to be strictly relegated to vampires and werewolves. That said, I kind of think of all my “modern” stories as existing in the same universe. So all my contemporaries and my paranormals are set in the same world. Autumn (Demon Lover), Kate (Preferential Treatment), and Tessa (Hot Blooded) live in the same Chicago that Grace (Cold Hearted) and Ashlyn (What Could Have Been) moved away from, and that Jules (Once Bitten) was captive in. So, theoretically, yes, other mythical creatures exist in the Tooth & Claw universe. We just won’t be seeing them in the stories. (Probably.)

FM: The fourth book, Twice Shy is slated for December. Can you tell us a bit more about what to expect?

HG: We’re returning to Longtooth, Alaska for this one. The big surprise introduced in Once Bitten’s epilogue (thralls! so many of them!) will be explained and explored over the course of the story. The hero, Connor Ankkonisdoy, was introduced in Cold Hearted as a hunting guide, and one of the locals who’d initially been interested in Grace. The heroine is someone we haven’t met before, but her arrival in Longtooth will upend a lot of the existing beliefs about both wolf kin (wolf shifters) and vampires. I’m so excited to share this one with everybody!

This novella sets up the world of Wild Magic!

FM: Your newest series is a fantasy! Spellbound was a novella introducing the universe to readers. Ailis and Ronan were surprisingly soft considering the context of how they came across one another. What are you excited about exploring this world? I know this will also be your first universe with MM or FF leads unless plans change to introduce that in a different series.

HG: I’m so excited to be writing a secondary-world fantasy. I’m a voracious fantasy reader. I’m also a worldbuilding junkie, so giving myself a whole world to build from complete scratch is a delight. I’m also very excited to be writing my first queer romances in this series! I love writing characters who had to become hardened by their circumstances but who’ve still managed to hold onto things like tenderness and vulnerability–or relearn them over the course of the story. The world of the Wild Magic series is going to be a harsh one, so there will be grittiness and darkness, but the romance in each story will be tender, even if there’s a bit of angst in the course of things.

FM: Next week is the release of What Was Meant to Be, the second in your Lake Lenora series which is set in a lovely small town. You set the first one in the holiday season and took the best parts of Hallmark holiday movies and created another Guerre masterpiece. What are you excited about for readers to see in this book and the series as it expands?

HG: This second book will have a more stretched-out timeline than the first, and will take place over spring and summer. The focus will be on the main characters, Wes and Rain, but we’ll explore more of the town of Lenora and meet a wider cast of characters. I’m really excited to write my first explicitly neurodivergent heroine–and other neurodivergent characters in future books. As somebody who got hit with both sides of the neurodivergent stick (ADHD and autism), I’m always on the hunt for nuanced, believable, natural-feeling neurodivergent characters who don’t fall into the same few clichés. There are a lot of amazing neurodivergent authors writing great neurodivergent representation, and I’m excited to contribute to that growing pool of characters.

I love these covers so much. They’re perfect for the vibes of these books.

FM: Does your approach to writing change when you switch from series to series or genre to genre? I would imagine that while all your books tackle emotion and people’s experiences of trauma, that writing in Lake Lenora is far different from Tooth & Claw or even writing in the Indecent Proposals series.

HG: In terms of my actual process, there’s not much variation. I tend to start writing the first few chapters off the cuff until I get stuck. Then I’ll draft a decent outline so I can get back to writing, and keep going until I finish the story. It’s not always a smooth process. I’ll hit a snag that gets me stuck for days on end, which sends me back to my outline, then back to the writing, over and over again until I’m finally typing “The End.” And I approach all of my characters in much the same way, regardless of subgenre. I consider the trauma of being stalked by your vampire ex-boyfriend with the same amount of thought as I do the trauma of growing up in poverty with neglectful parents. My characters are essentially real people to me, and I analyze them accordingly. If there are any differences between subgenres, it’s that some require more research than others. Once Bitten required the most research of anything I’ve written, and the writing process was constantly being interrupted by the need to figure out what time the sun sets in Arkansas in late May, or if you can find trilobites in northwest Arizona, and so on. What Was Meant To Be, on the other hand, required very little.

FM: Your books and worlds have been inclusive from the start with multiple characters of color, disabled characters, and gay couples for example. What Was Meant to Be has your first explicitly on page neurodivergent heroine though many of your characters are obviously not neuroconforming. How important was it for you to write worlds that are realistic?

HG: To be honest, it wasn’t necessarily something I set out to intentionally do. You write what you know, and the world I live in is ruled by my perceptions as a neurodivergent individual, as a queer woman, and as someone who has lived for many years now in a very racially and ethnically diverse community. After Hot Blooded came out is when I really took notice that readers were commenting positively on the inclusiveness, and from there, I definitely became more intentional about it. I really, really love that readers of all kinds of identities feel seen and welcomed in the worlds I created.

FM: Is it too early to ask what you’ve got cooking for 2024? Can we have any hints about what to expect?

HG: I am the worst at planning. I very, very cautiously say that I’m hoping the first full-length Wild Magic novel will be out next year, then the third Lake Lenora novel. I think a third novel will make it into the mix, and it will probably be the successor to Preferential Treatment.

FM: Who or what are you reading (or watching/listening to) right now?

HG: This is almost shameful to admit, but I have been in the biggest reading slump for a while now. When I can muster a few minutes of attention span, I have been very slowly working my way through Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes which is a lovely, warm hug of a book. Otherwise, I have been re-reading old comfort reads over and over again. KJ Charles’s Think of England, Alice Coldbreath’s Victorian Prizefighters series, and Grace Draven’s Master of Crows, have all been on regular rotation.

FM: Finally, is there something specific you hope readers take away from your books?

HG: I just hope they find enjoyment in the stories. Whether it was just a few hours of fun diversion, or a deeper personal connection, I hope my readers enjoyed the time they spent with my characters and in my worlds. I think that’s the most anybody can really ask for.

FM: Thank you so much for your time!

HG: You’re welcome!

You can find Heather Guerre on Facebook, Instagram, and of course on Amazon. Keep an eye out for What Was Meant to Be which releases next Tuesday!

Images courtesy of Heather Guerre

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