My guest for April 2023 – meet historical fiction author, Karen Heenan!
Welcome to By the Letter, Karen. Looking forward to getting to know the writer behind the books.
Tell us a bit about your day to day
I live in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania with my husband and no cats for the first time in nearly 40 years (but some coming soon). Lansdowne is a suburb of Philadelphia but it feels like a small town. We moved here 5 years ago because we wanted more space, less house, and more quiet for me to write.
I spent 30 years in a cubicle as a legal assistant, but in 2013 I set myself free and now I do a variety of things to cobble together an income: writing; sewn items for craft shows; two Etsy shops; online transcription; occasional gardening, which I barter with a neighbor for cover designs.
An average day includes housework (unavoidable) or working in the garden, then getting some sewing done, usually while thinking about my latest plot twist. After that I’ll eat lunch and take a walk, listen to a podcast, and maybe stop at the local coffee shop to think some more, and then come home and write. Generally I’m just getting up a good head of steam when my husband comes home from work, and I’ll keep going for an hour or so until we get hungry.
What kind of writing do you do and what led you to that?
I’ve been obsessed with historical fiction since I was a child, and while I’ve tried to write more contemporary stories, I rapidly lose interest and go back to the past. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to time travel – maybe that’s the attraction!
My first three books (The Tudor Court series) are set in 16th century England. The stories of Henry VIII and his wives got their hooks into me young, but when I decided to write about the era, I concentrated on ordinary people in proximity to power; it was more interesting to me.
Find the series here.
My latest series is set in Philadelphia during the 1930s, and was partially inspired by family stories I heard over and over while growing up. I think that’s going to be a trilogy, but don’t hold me to it.
Find the series here.
I like to stay faithful to history – inaccuracies in historical fiction can cause me to throw a book at the wall – but often you can get away from an inconvenient fact by simply working around it. Not everything needs to be mentioned, but if you mentioned it, it had better be right (or you have to explain yourself in the author’s note).
In the early days of writing, were there authors whom you consciously modelled yourself on?
There’s not enough room to list all the authors who’ve influenced me, but I would have to give Rosamund Pilcher and Dorothy Dunnett top spots. Both are wonderful storytellers, in completely different ways, and can make a reader see everything
How does writing begin for you?
There’s always some small thing that sets me off. In the case of Songbird, my first book, it was something I read in a biography of Henry VIII (that he bought children to sing in the royal chapel choir) and it wouldn’t let go.
One thing I’ve learned: if I get a bright idea at bedtime, I get up and write it down. It’s almost always useful, and I’ll almost always forget it by morning.
What is the most essential aspect of the story? The characters, the settings, or the plot?
Character all the way for me. I don’t have to like a character to want to read their story, though it does help. What’s really necessary is making me interested in them. If I don’t like them, make me wonder why they’re doing the thing I don’t like. Or surround them with people I will like, and I’ll follow along.
What is your most recent book about?
My most recent book (October 2022) is Coming Apart, which is a Depression-era story about two sisters whose lives diverged, trying to find their way back to each other and keeping their lives and families together during a very difficult period.
Growing up, my dad and my favorite aunt both told me stories about the Great Depression and the hardships people survived, and it always intrigued me. It also challenged me, because it’s a very underserved era in historical fiction (sandwiched between two world wars and outshone by the roaring twenties) and I wanted to shed some light on it.
I’m also really attached to this series because the photographs on the covers are all family photos and I love that I was able to use them!
Are you close to other writers and how does that help you?
I have several close writer friends, and they are invaluable. We bounce ideas off each other, read messy first drafts, and critique well because we know each other’s characters because we’ve listened as the stories were developed.
What do you want your readers to feel when they have closed the last page of your book?
Satisfaction at a story well told, and the immediate question: “Has she written any other books?”
What are your future writing plans and especially, when can we expect a new book from you?
The second book in my Ava & Claire series, Coming Closer, will be released on April 18. The third (and possibly final) book will be released in October, 2023. I’ve written about twenty percent of it, just not in any coherent order because I’m still researching. I take notes when my characters talk to me.
As an only child, Karen Heenan learned early that boredom was the enemy. Shortly after, she discovered perpetual motion and has rarely been seen holding still since.
She lives in Lansdowne, PA, just outside Philadelphia, where she grows much of her own food and makes her own clothes. She is accompanied on her quest for self-sufficiency by a very patient husband and an ever-changing number of cats.
One constant: she is always writing her next book.
You can find Karen at karenheenan.com