omewhere between flirtation and romance, between lust and love, Shannon K. Butcher steadies herself on a writing tightrope, creating page-turning romantic suspense novels featuring handsome hunks and heroine hotties.
For Butcher, the line between romance and suspense forms a fine thread of space loaded with sinister killers, twisted plot details, and believable romantic tension.
Unlike other writers, Butcher’s original career path meant following in her father’s footsteps: she worked as an Industrial Engineer while her husband, sci-fi and fantasy author Jim Butcher, tuned his craft. Shannon learned the art of writing to help her husband, and even considered penning the same genres until she found love and romance within the pages of a novel.
Shannon’s debut novel, No Regrets, came out in 2007. She followed that book with three more romantic suspense endeavors—No Control, No Escape, and Love You to Death. Shannon’s paranormal novels, which comprise The Sentinel War Series, debuted last year with the release of Burning Alive and Finding the Lost. The third book in the series, Running Scared, will be released in May 2010.
Shannon shares her thoughts about suspense and its elements, romantic encounters on the page, and collaboration within a creative couple.
WOW: Shannon, welcome to WOW! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about romantic suspense with our readers. When a reader searches a bookshelf in the romantic section of a bookstore or contemplates writing a romantic novel, so many romance genres exist. Overall, what elements make a romantic tale stand out above the rest?
Shannon: I think there are a lot of things that can make a romance stand out: unforgettable characters, a unique setting, seemingly insurmountable odds, a blistering pace. As in so many different creative media, execution is everything, but the one thing that is a must is the most obvious: a heart-stopping romance in which the reader craves a happy ending but is unsure how it could possibly come about.
WOW: I felt that craving in Love You to Death! From the moment I opened the book’s cover, the suspense leaped off the page. Why is creating suspense such an important aspect in fiction writing? Is it THE most important element?
Shannon: LYTD was specifically written as a romantic suspense, so the suspense is definitely critical. However, if I’d been writing a lighthearted contemporary romance, chances are there would have been very little suspense throughout the story. Because suspense is very genre-specific, I wouldn’t say it’s the most important element. To me, the romance and suspense have to be balanced so one would not exist without the other. They need to hold equal importance and be paced so the reader doesn’t become bored with either aspect.
“I’ve always found it much more suspenseful to know something bad is on the way than to be surprised when it arrives.”
WOW: Like balancing on a tightrope. What elements do you believe are crucial when writing suspense novels?
Shannon: A villain with a driving motivation is definitely critical. A hero and heroine the reader loves so they care about what happens to the characters is vital as well. And it’s also important to continually raise the stakes. Sadly, those things are all a lot easier said than done. For me, I’m very careful not to confuse mystery for suspense. In other words, the reader tends to know what the villain has planned so they can anguish over what’s coming. I’ve always found it much more suspenseful to know something bad is on the way than to be surprised when it arrives. A lot of aspiring romantic suspense writers try to surprise the reader with a complicated mystery, but for me, that simply doesn’t work well when translated to the suspense genre.
WOW: It’s the anticipation that captivates readers. I felt a sense of panic for Ashley—and for Elise—in Love You to Death. Let’s talk about character development and its importance. The main characters in Love You to Death are strong (oh, and sexy!). Why are both physical and mental descriptions of characters imperative?
Shannon: Because we have to love or loathe the characters—or feel something equally intense so we’ll keep turning pages. Without those descriptions, characters are grey blobs of dialogue the reader simply doesn’t care about.
I am from the school of using tags and traits to describe characters. Physical tags help identify what they look like (smell like, sound like, etc.) or how they behave, while the traits help give the reader a sense of what kind of person they are inside. Without an idea of what makes the characters tick, the reader simply won’t care what happens to them. And without the physical tags that give a clear picture of those characters, sexual tension becomes difficult to build.
“I am from the school of using tags and traits to describe characters.”
WOW: Descriptions aid readers to capture a sense of character, as well as a sense of place. You live in the Midwest. Are all of your suspense novels set in the Midwest?
Shannon: I don’t set all my novels in the Midwest, though I do tend to set books in places where I’ve spent some time. Having moved across state lines eight times, I have plenty of places to choose from. But, since I live in the Midwest now, many of my books are set here. It cuts down on the time I need to spend researching setting, allowing me more time to craft the story, which is the part I love.
WOW: Researching the setting for a novel definitely takes time. You've also written a series of paranormal romance novels. What's the difference in mindset when writing paranormal and romantic suspense?
Shannon: For me there’s no real difference in mindset or story structure. I try to write an exciting novel with intriguing characters and disturbing villains in both genres. The main difference is that in the paranormals, I get to design the world whereas in the suspenses, everything has to fit into the real world. There’s more room to be creative while writing the Sentinels, but there is much less to remember when writing the suspenses. I love them both and find it refreshing that I’m able to switch between them and cleanse my mental palate.
WOW: Isn’t the power of creativity an amazing thing? Speaking of being creative, quite a few romance novels rely on a sex scene or two to keep readers intrigued. I’m wondering what you discovered about writing those steamy, fiery snippets. When writing sex scenes: how much information is too much information?
Shannon: If it’s part of the characters’ personality to think, feel, do or say something during sex, then it should be on the page. That being said, if one goes too far, it begins to effect the reader’s enjoyment (either positively or negatively, depending on the reader). For me, reader enjoyment is the point of writing to begin with. Because of that, I make sure my characters are having a good time doing whatever it is they’re doing so the reader can relax and enjoy it, too.
I find this kind of thing is self-regulating. People who are comfortable with the level of heat in my books will continue to read them and people who don’t, won’t. I try not to worry about it too much and just do what I think is appropriate for the characters and the story.
WOW: That’s a healthy outlook! And I agree, if someone doesn’t want to read certain elements, they have the power to close the book. With that said, can a book contain too many sex scenes? Do you plan those ahead of time or do they just happen?
Shannon: I don’t subscribe to the notion of there being such a thing as too many or not enough sex scenes. They have to be organic to the story. My method involves planning them out because they forward the plot in one way or another. Of course, every book/novella/short story contract has a word count limit, and your readers have expectations that involve parts of the story outside of the sex scenes, so as an author, you have to find balance. Each romance sub-genre has its own balance and expectations, so it’s important you read a lot of the sub-genre you want to write in so you get a feel for reader expectations.
WOW: Good advice for anyone considering romance writing. Does the same principle apply for sexual tension or how do you build sexual tension in a scene?
Shannon: I dwell on the details—the little things you only notice about a person if you’re really into them. I also use emotional descriptions to show how a character reacts in an emotional way to something the other character does, says or how they look, feel, sound, etc. Words become powerful because the same thing can be described in ways that can evoke vastly different emotions in the reader. In emotional descriptions, a character’s background can be displayed, giving you insight into both characters at the same time. When it comes to sexual tension, it’s all about the emotion.
“If I run into a snag or have some kind of problem, he’s there for me, ready with advice, support or whatever else I need to keep going.”
(Photo: Shannon’s husband Jim Butcher.)
WOW: The emotional connection builds multiple aspects of the story. Cool! You're married to fellow author Jim Butcher. How does your husband inspire you to write?
Shannon: After all these questions about sex, I find the juxtaposition of this question amusing (laughs). The answer—beyond the obvious—is that he is incredibly encouraging. If I run into a snag or have some kind of problem, he’s there for me, ready with advice, support or whatever else I need to keep going. Plus, watching him work on his career for nearly two decades has given me a healthy set of expectations for how things in the publishing industry work and the pace at which they move.
WOW: I imagine his advice is priceless! Do you and hubby collaborate? Edit each other's work?
Shannon: No, we prefer to stay married (laughs).
Back when I was learning basic craft, he read my writing and gave me feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Now that we both have our own obligations, time for that kind of input has dwindled. Because we work from home and doing that tends to make work overshadow our lives, when we do have time together, we try hard to keep the work talk to a minimum.
WOW: So, love is love, and business is business—a great balancing act for couples who work together or work at home together. Let’s discuss the start of your writing career. On your website, you mentioned in the beginning, you wrote "heaping piles of suckfulness." Why is it important for writers to get the words from the head onto the paper?
Shannon: One of the most critical things an aspiring author can do is to write. Write a lot. I know it sounds ridiculous to say such a thing, but it’s true, and there are always writers out there who need to hear it.
Every writer has some amount of work to do before her writing becomes publishable. Maybe it’s a few pages, maybe it’s a few dozen books. The one thing I do know is that anyone who wants to become an author can if she’s willing to put in the effort to get her work to the level it needs to be. Every word you write puts you that much closer to being sellable. It also has another important side effect. The more you write, the less valuable each word becomes. That makes cutting out the parts that need to be cut easier, which will improve your work that much more. If you’ve only written 10,000 words, cutting 2,000 of them is going to be much harder than if you’ve written 100,000 words. The less you care about each word, the more likely you are to do what it takes to improve the work.
“The more you write, the less valuable each word becomes.”
WOW: Wonderful thinking! I’m going to need to remember that! When I'm contemplating a story or article, I head outside, grab the lawn mower, and mow the yard. That's a problem in the winter months. What's your strategy for planning? Do you outline or just sit down and write?
Shannon: I’m definitely a planner. Not only do I outline each book, I also plan out each series. I create characters who may never make it onto the page so they’ll be ready to go if I need them. I also plan when I’ll start writing a book as well as when I’ll finish it, send it to my beta readers and revise it. It’s a bit of a sickness, but it’s my method and works for me.
I find spending those extra hours ahead of time thinking about the world and the characters and the story actually saves me time in the long run. Besides, I love it, so planning has never been a hardship for me. Of course things deviate from my plan from time to time, but since I have such a deep understanding of the world I’ve created (because of all those hours of planning), I can roll with that and move forward, implementing a new, shiny idea in the best way possible.
WOW: Writers, are you listening to Shannon? I am! Bouncing ideas off other writers and planning are a few secrets to success. You belong to the Heartland Romance Authors, a chapter of Romance Writers of America. How helpful are romance writing organizations? What do they offer authors?
Shannon: Writing is such a solitary business that it’s important to me to find others who share that interest so we can talk shop. When I talk about writing craft or industry stuff, they get it, which is not something that can be said of the general population. I find some things simply need to be discussed to get them from the deep recesses of my brain to where I can put them on paper. Plus, my group often discusses writing craft, and no matter how long you’ve been writing, there’s always something new to learn or something old to be reminded of.
HeRA is incredibly supportive of all their published authors. They provide a cheering section when we need one as well as a great place where newer writers can learn from the victories and mistakes of more experienced ones.
WOW: Awesome! There’s a chapter near me, and I’m going to investigate membership. Like you said, the general population doesn’t always understand a writer’s world. Your career keeps you busy, Shannon. What are you currently working on?
Shannon: I’m between books, so this week will include planning out book 5 of my paranormal romance series, The Sentinel Wars, revising a novella that will come out next year, reading through page proofs for Running Scared, book 4 of The Sentinel Wars, and planning my travel calendar for 2011. There’s always plenty to do, but this is truly the best job ever and I feel blessed to call writing my career.
WOW: I’ll second that! Writing is truly the best job ever! Thank you, Shannon for your insights on building hot-blooded romantic suspense.
Shannon: Thank you for taking the time to interview me.
More information about Shannon is available at her website, www.shannonkbutcher.com, where you can subscribe to her newsletter. You can also follow Shannon on Twitter - @shannonkbutcher.
LuAnn Schindler is a full-time freelance journalist living on the eastern slope of the Nebraska Sandhills on a dairy farm with 200+ holsteins. She currently blogs for The Muffin, the WOW! Women On Writing daily blog, and is a columnist for Premium Green. Her work has appeared in the Pregnancy, 2: The Couples Magazine, Denver Post, Rural Electric Nebraskan, Absolute Write, in addition to other publications. LuAnn is a member of the National Federation of Press Women and Nebraska Press Women.
Enjoyed this interview? Check out some of LuAnn’s previous interviews and articles on WOW!:
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