The Writing Life of: Karen Heenan
This week I am thrilled to be interviewing author Karen Heenan. Karen Heenan will be sharing with us details of her writing life, telling us all about her latest book ‘Songbird‘, which was released on 2nd November 2019 and answering a few fun questions too. This post contains affiliate links.
Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia. She fell in love with books and stories before she could read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams – which include gardening, sewing, traveling and, of course, lots of writing.
Karen Heenan lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband, and is currently hard at work on her next book.
1) As a child did you have a dream job in mind?
I wanted to be a ballerina. I just didn’t realize at that age that ballet required more grace and coordination than I could muster up in my entire life. Good thing writer was my second choice.
2) Who was your favourite childhood author (s)?
A pretty broad spectrum, from Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes probably started my ballerina obsession), Maud Hart Lovelace (I still have my childhood Betsy-Tacy books), L.M. Montgomery (it was only a year ago that I passed on my Anne of Green Gables books to a former sewing student).
3) Was there a particular point in your life that you realised you wanted to be a writer?
It occurred to me at a fairly young age that someone had to have written all the books I loved, and there was no reason it couldn’t be me. I started writing at age 9, and never really stopped.
4) What is your average writing day like? Do you have any special routines, word count, etc?
There’s no real average day for me. I try not to stick to a routine or a schedule, because then if something disrupts me, I might not get back to it. I write when, where, and however I can. A large part of my second novel was dictated into my phone while walking around town, and then tidied up later when I got home. My writing space is a corner of what was the dining room, but which now houses all our bookcases, my desk, and a loveseat for reading/writing.
I try to do something writing-related every day, but it doesn’t actually have to be putting words on paper. Thinking about my plot, researching, doing edits, looking for inspiration photos, all qualify as “writing-adjacent” and sometimes that’s enough.
5) How many books have you written? Any unpublished work?
I’m not sure how many I’ve actually written – there were a lot of practice novels over the years, some finished, some not. I’ve had one book published (Songbird, November, 2019), with a second on the way in April, 2021, and another scheduled for the following April. These three, published through Authors4authors, are Tudor historicals. I’m also working on a 1930s historical set in Pennsylvania, which I’ll be self-publishing in later 2021, if all goes according to plan.
6) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little of each. I get an idea for a story – and it could come from anywhere – and I start writing. Generally I do about 20,000 words before I sit back and try to make a plan. Sometimes those words are keepers, and sometimes they need drastic rewriting, but I don’t consider them wasted because they’re how I get to know my characters.
I also tend to write a first draft more or less straight through (not in order, necessarily, but not stopping to do a lot of research). I leave myself notes in the text about what needs to be researched, and then once I’m done, I search all the highlights and do research to fill in what’s missing. I generally have a good enough idea of the period when I start that I won’t make any serious timeline errors – my notes are more about food, customs, travel, etc. The things that make a story real.
Concerning your latest book:
Publisher – Authors 4 Authors Publishing Cooperative
Pages – 300
Release Date – 2nd November 2019
ISBN 13 – 978-1644770429
Format – ebook, paperback, audio
Henry VIII. Tyrant. Husband. Music Lover?
Ten-year-old Bess has the voice of an angel – or so says King Henry VIII when he buys her from her father.
As a member of the royal minstrels, Bess comes of age in the decadent Tudor court, where one false note could send her back to her old life of poverty.
In a world where the stakes are always high, where politics, heartbreak, and disease threaten everyone from the king to the lowliest musician, Bess has one constant: Tom, her first and dearest friend. But when she strains against the restrictions of court life, will she find that constancy has its limits?
>If you’ve ever wondered what it was like “backstairs at the palace,” this richly-detailed historical novel is for you.
7) How did you go about researching the content for your book?
I’ve been obsessed with Tudor history from an early age. When I was 6 or 7, I was sick and my mom let me stay up to watch TV with her. It was the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII, and that was all it took. I read fiction until I ran out, and then I read biographies and histories, before trying to write my own fiction set in the era.
I have a decent library of Tudor history to pull from, plus there’s a ton of other Tudor-obsessed people online, with websites and blogs and podcasts, and they often pull from original sources I haven’t seen or am not able to get access to. My computer and my phone are full of links and screenshots and random things I’ve saved until later.
Songbird came from a throwaway fact in a biography of Henry VIII – that he was such a music lover he once purchased a child to sing in the royal choir. When I read that, it just wouldn’t let me go until I created a life for that child, and wrote until I knew what happened next.
8) How long did it take to go from ideas stage to writing the last word?
Songbird took literal decades to write, but much of that was because when I started, I truly was just writing for myself, to see if I could, and as a form of stress relief from a job that I hated. I joke that if my book were a child, it would be accruing college debt by now.
In contrast, my second book took about 15 months from idea to completed manuscript, then another 2-3 months for edits. It was interesting to see how little time it took when I was writing because something was expected of me, instead of just writing “for the fun of it.” (Though it was still fun).
9) How did you come up with the title of your book?
Songbird refers to Bess Llewellyn, the main character. She’s a talented singer, and the king calls her his songbird. There were several names prior to that, but Songbird seemed the most appropriate.
10) Can you give us an insight into your characters?
All my characters seem to have one thing in common – they’re all trying to figure out where they belong. Whether it’s finding their place in the world, realizing that they have to accept themselves before they’ll fit in anywhere else, or learning that giving people what they need often leaves little for themselves, they’re all on that journey.
Bess Llewellyn is a child sold by her parents. Into a far better life, as it turns out (and which she appreciates), but she has a difficult time building relationships because of it – she either attaches too hard or she’s afraid to become close for fear something will happen.
11) What process did you go through to get your book published?
I got an agent back in 2015 for Songbird, and she tried for a year to find a publisher, with no success. We parted ways, and I stopped writing for a while. But the story wouldn’t let me go, and in the autumn of 2018, I pulled up the book on my computer and did a full rewrite. In December, 2018, I did a pitch contest on Twitter, just to push myself to get out there again, and I got interest from two agents and a small publisher. I ended up going with the publisher because they offered a very collaborative experience and it was more immediate than having an agent pitch the book again.
Because of the collaborative aspect of their business, I had input into the cover of the book, the blurb, and I was able to supply my own voice actor for the audiobook, which has only just been released (and which I’m still waiting for Audible to upload, though it’s everywhere else).
12) What’s next for you writing wise?
My second Tudor historical will be published in April, 2021. It features a secondary character from Songbird, who spoke up and said he wanted his own story. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the first draft of my third novel, which – not surprisingly, features a minor character from the second book. It’s coming along pretty well. The characters are now acting independently and making me swear at them, which is always a good sign. When I finish that draft and let it rest, I’ll go back to editing my 1930s novel, which is a completed first draft which needs to be changed from third person POV to first person.
1) If you could have any super power for the day which would you choose?
My first thought was invisibility, but I know I’d end up seeing or hearing something that I shouldn’t. Maybe that’s the wisdom that comes with age – that I know I’m better off not knowing some things? I think I’d go with super strength, because I could accomplish all my projects in one day without having to wait for help. And then I could sit back and enjoy them.
2) Do you have any pets?
I’ve got two geriatric cats at the moment, Harriet and Nicky. They’re 17 year old littermates, and I’ve had them since they were tiny. They’re the last of what once was a house full of cats (13). I’d love a kitten or two, but it just seems an unkind thing to do to the old crankies, so I’ll wait.
3) If you decided to write an autobiography of your life, what would you call it?
It’ll Work. It’s something I’ve said for years, and it’s often driven friends crazy, but it’s what I believe. Over, under, around, or through – I’ll find a way.
4) Your book has been made into a feature film and you’ve been offered a cameo role, which part would you choose, or what would you be doing?
I would either take on the role of Mistress Edith (age-appropriate, and she’s a great small role – she “mothers” the children among the minstrels) or assist the costumer and drive her crazy by insisting on accuracy in the costumes.
5) Where is your favourite holiday destination?
That’s a hard one, especially now, since we can’t travel. My favorite destination is usually the one I haven’t been to yet, and we had to cancel a trip to Edinburgh because of the pandemic. I’m still setting part of my third book there, so I guess you could say I’m an optimist. I’ll get there eventually.
6) A baseball cap wearing, talking duck casually wanders into your room, what is the first thing he says to you?
“Shouldn’t you be writing?”
I would like to say a big thank you to Karen Heenan for sharing with us details of her writing life and for a wonderful interview.