By E.M. Powell
Lee Child has described Elizabeth Heiter’s new release, SEIZED, as being “suspenseful from the start and intriguing throughout.” That’s praise indeed and having read the book, I would agree it’s just that—and a whole lot more. It’s Heiter’s third novel in The Profiler series, featuring FBI profiler Evelyn Baine. A routine investigation for Evelyn goes badly wrong when she’s kidnapped by a dangerous cult of survivalists. As she’s held inside their compound, she realizes that the cult is not what it seems and fears she’s stumbled onto an emerging terrorist threat – and a leader who has a score to settle with the FBI. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team is closing in but if it breaches the compound, Evelyn’s dead for sure. If they don’t, the cult plans to unleash a surprise attack that could leave the whole country shattered. It’s a fast-paced, gripping read with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers guessing.
Evelyn is a complex and engaging heroine and from what readers have said in reviews of the first two novels in the series, Hunted and Vanished, she is very popular with them. Heiter explains that she got the idea for the character from real life: “Many years ago, I picked up a book about profiling—Mindhunter by former FBI profiler John Douglas— and I was fascinated. The idea of having a character who would go to a crime scene and look at the behavioral clues instead of the physical ones (the pieces of him- or herself the perpetrator didn’t even know were visible in the crime itself) sounded very different, and it was someone I wanted to create.”
But as Heiter continued her extensive research, the challenges of the job of profiler became only too apparent to her. As well as having to visit horrific crime scenes, there is the emotional toll of being away from home and family on a regular basis. Heiter recalls: “I wondered who could stick with a job like this? And in some ways, this was particularly true for a female profiler, because with serial crimes, most often the victims are other women. So, I decided my heroine needed a really compelling personal reason to become a profiler.” Heiter gave Evelyn the disappearance of her best friend when she was twelve years old. Her friend was never found, and it became the driving force in Evelyn’s life to discover what had happened to her.
As with so many writers who pen a successful main character, Heiter believes there is probably some of her in Evelyn, too. “We’re both determined to the point of being stubborn when we believe in something. And growing up, I was very petite, although I shot up a bit in high school and college, and it’s interesting how sometimes people view you as an easier victim because of your size. This is something I was familiar with when I created Evelyn, and I wanted her to have that added challenge as someone who needs to radiate authority.”
The latest plot that Heiter throws Evelyn into means that Evelyn is threatened with becoming a victim herself and has to use every ounce of that authority. SEIZED combines elements of survivalists, cults and terrorism in a tightly-woven plot. Heiter is a card-carrying outliner, although she allows her characters a little more breathing space these days. She also creates character sketches for each new major character when she writes a new book, so that she knows a lot about their backstory and their motivations “before I type a word in their voice.”
Heiter also explains that another big part of her plotting process is the research. “I love the research side of writing! Before I started the book, I’d already done extensive research on cults, survivalists and terrorists, so it was rare that I needed to pause my writing to go look something up, which helps me keep up the pace.”
She found her research often turned up the unexpected. “With the cult research, I read one book written by a woman who is often regarded as one of the foremost experts on the subject. She talked about how one particular cult was not included in the book because they had spent so much time and money suing and harassing her (and the power that cult had to be able to influence her writing through fear). I was also surprised to continually read that the more intelligent a person is, the more susceptible they can be to being drawn into a cult.”
With survivalist groups, it was the variety that is out there that intrigued Heiter, from individuals to families to groups who join together in formats like militias. And she hadn’t expected to see just how enormous and nice a bunker can be. “I saw some that cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were completely underground, completely off-the-grid, but had a lot of luxuries—and also weapons hidden in all kinds of surprising places.”
Her research also took her into understanding the workings of specialists such as the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG), the special group within the FBI made up of teams that can respond instantly to any serious emergency. Talking to the people who actually do those jobs was one of the things she particularly enjoyed. “Of course, I stack my bookshelves with FBI resource books, but nothing can compare to talking to someone who does the job. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to talk to a lot of current and former FBI agents, including HRT agents, about it and about specific details I needed for my books. You pick up details you never would have thought to ask.”
Some of those details can be unexpected. “One of my favorite tidbits came when I was at the FBI Academy and asked about handcuffs and placement—why an agent would choose to put them in a cuff case or through a belt loop, etc. This big weapons specialist at the Academy said he used a cuff case, then turned beet red as he explained that if you loop them over your belt loop, inevitably they’ll eventually fall in the toilet.” I think we’d all agree with Heiter that this is an extra reason not to get arrested. “You don’t know where those handcuffs have been!”
As with all research and background to a book, many things have to be left out. But Heiter reckons she doesn’t waste a lot. “I think probably 80 percent of the research I do for every book (if not more) ends up not actually going into the book directly. But that 80 percent still informs the way I create the characters, the settings, the situations, etc. In SEIZED, for instance, I was fascinated by some of the similarities between cult structures and terrorist groups—followers are often willing to die for a cause, the frequent religious component, the ‘training’ or ‘task’ elements in both. It comes into play in a big way in the book when Evelyn begins to suspect that the survivalist ‘cult’ that has taken her hostage is actually a terrorist threat.”
Heiter is of course a member of International Thriller Writers but is also a member of Romance Writers of America. SEIZED has romantic elements as well as being a great thriller. And Heiter’s reading habits are similar to her writing ones. “My bookshelves are pretty diverse, from classics to research books to nonfiction to poetry to fiction in all genres. But the biggest shelf space goes to mysteries and thrillers, and second to romantic suspense. What I love about having a bit of romance in my thrillers is that it increases the personal stakes for the characters when someone they love is in danger. As I think most people would agree, if you had to choose between having yourself be under threat or someone you love, most people would pick themselves. So for Evelyn’s love interest, HRT agent Kyle McKenzie, it was great to write the scenes where he’s outside the cult, preparing for a possible rescue, while Evelyn is inside.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Evelyn survives to fight another day. So what’s next for her? “Concurrently with the release of SEIZED, I have a short story connected to The Profiler series called Avenged, releasing for free, a chapter a day, on the Harlequin.com website. Next up, Evelyn will be returning in Stalked. In that book, a girl walks into her high school – and never walks out again. Police can’t figure out how she disappeared or what happened to her, so Evelyn is called in, and soon she’s high on suspects: the estranged parents, the new step-father, the college boyfriend, and she stumbles across a possible human trafficking ring that might somehow be connected as well.”
And for Elizabeth Heiter? “I’m in the middle of writing proposals for both my romantic suspense series The Lawmen and my psychological suspense series The Profiler! You can watch my website at www.ElizabethHeiter.com for more details on new books.”
Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.
Elizabeth graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Literature. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America.