In our last Writers On Writing interview, Secret Hunger author Satin Russell and I talked about the daily writing life of an author, plotting techniques and character development, and her latest to-be read list. Since our last discussion, she has released the sequel and Book #2 in the Harper Sisters trilogy, Secret Need. Learn more about the series, research in the writing process, and some of the challenges of writing a sophomore novel in our second interview:
Secret Need is the second book of the Harper Sisters series and your second novel. In our previous interview, you mentioned that producing this book presented different challenges from writing and publishing your debut. Now that it's finished, what advice would you offer authors working on their sophomore titles?
The biggest, best advice I could possibly give for new authors is to hold off publishing their first book until their second book is nearly finished. In fact, if the new author is writing a trilogy (which I highly encourage) then they should consider holding off until the whole series is nearly completed.
I know, I know…you have this hot new book in your hands. It’s your baby. You’ve probably been working on this project for months, if not years. You’re proud of your accomplishment and all you can think about is sharing it with the world! Holding off on the release of your first book would take an iron will which – quite honestly – I didn’t have.
But if you can delay your gratification and find a way to pivot to your next book and work on that, the pressure of producing another story is lessened. You don’t have to work under the weight of expectation – both yours and any readers you’ve been lucky to gain from your first book. You can be free to create unencumbered. Not only that, but you’ve given yourself the space to change details as needed. If you publish that first book, then certain aspects of the rest of your trilogy is written in stone and it’s much harder to make any adjustments in timeline or details.
Lastly, by delaying your release until you have another book (or two) in the pipeline, you can create a more comprehensive marketing plan that takes advantage of any momentum you may have gained from the previous release. You make a bigger, more established splash as a new author if you’re releasing a book every six - nine months and stay on the readers’ radars for much longer.
Secret Need focuses on middle sister Liz Harper as she finds herself at the center of a police conspiracy and drug ring, whereas the antagonist in Secret Hunger is a serial killer. Were there any differences in how you approached constructing the plot?
With Secret Hunger, the reader knew who the bad guy was pretty early on in the story. For Secret Need I wanted to keep my cards a little closer to my chest and slowly reveal who the bad guy was. It was quite a challenge! I constantly debated with myself how much and what information to reveal and when. I hope my readers get an “Aha!” moment by the time they reach the answer.
I also wanted to portray the opioid drug epidemic and addiction with some sensitivity. In Secret Hunger, the bad guy is a serial killer. There really isn’t a question – that guy is bad. But when you’re dealing with drugs and addiction there are more gray areas. You don’t always know who the “bad guy” is. A person could have a good heart and just be going through a hard time, or struggling with a weakness. There’s usually more to the story than what you see on the surface.
The Harper sisters are each skilled in their trade: Olivia is a gourmet chef, Liz is a skilled mechanic. What kind of research did you do as you created their characters?
I am not the cook in my family, my husband is. So, when I decided that Olivia was going to be a chef, it was a little daunting. I learned how to make pasta by watching YouTube videos and Food Network. The dish she serves Mason, the pumpkin tortellis in Secret Hunger, was inspired by an Italian restaurant in the North End of Boston called Bricco. (If you’re ever in Boston, it’s worth a trip!) Let me tell you, researching yummy food at fancy restaurants was not the worst part of my job!
With Liz as a mechanic, it was sort of the same thing. My husband is addicted to car shows and I’ve learned to enjoy watching them nearly as much as he does. I like that there is a practical element to cars – if it’s not built correctly, it won’t work – but there is also a creative element to them. They’re sleek and powerful and they have a place in our culture that goes far beyond just their function.
I’ve also experienced frustration that can sometimes happen as a woman who needs to bring her car in for service with a mechanic. It may sound like a cliché, but this particular exchange can be rife with sexism and has the potential to be quite intimidating. Making Liz a female mechanic was a way for me to reclaim some of that power and control.
What advice do you have for authors looking to build tension in their novels?
When I’m writing a book, there are three different layers of tension I’m thinking about. There’s the internal tension of the characters, the personal lessons they need to learn and challenges they need to overcome in order to grow. The tension between the characters, how two different sets of personalities interact and combine. And the external tension, what outside pressures are bearing down on the characters and preventing them from achieving their goals?
In real life, I am a people pleaser. I do what I can to accommodate the people around me and make them happy. This is not always the best quality to have as an author and one of my biggest challenges as a writer is making sure my characters don’t have it too easy. I can usually combat my urge by painting my characters into corners that I don’t always know how to get them out of. When I’m really struggling to resolve the problems that I’ve thrown in their paths, I know I’m on to something good.
You are vocal online about politics and social issues. How do current events inform your work?
So far, my politics haven’t played a large role in my writing. In fact, writing and reading has been a welcome respite from some of the more disturbing things that I think are going on right now in the world.
When I published my first book, everybody said I should refrain from posting anything too political or controversial in order to not alienate readers. I only lasted about six months. Luckily, conventional wisdom also stated that the best thing I can do as an author is to be genuine and present my most authentic self. Which is good, as I’m not interested in being anyone else.
The fact is, I’ve always been interested in politics and current events. Just because I published isn’t going to change that. If a reader would rather not know how I feel about a certain topic, then they are welcome to like my Facebook author page which is specifically book and writing related. But if they are on my personal page, then they should expect to see me post my personal opinions on various topics.
Already you've mentioned you started working on Book 3 in the series, Secret Dream. Any hints on some of the story themes?
Well, it’s still in the hazy plotting stage, but as of right now it is set in Maine Highlands. There is a plane crash, a search and rescue mission, a sexy Maine game warden, environmental intrigue, and a woman who is struggling to define for herself what it means to be a successful adult.