By Wendy Tyson
Award-winning author Elizabeth Heiter is back with her latest romantic suspense novel, K-9 DEFENSE. In addition to Heiter’s signature compelling plot and strong, intriguing protagonists, this book has an extra twist: canine character Rebel, a combat tracker dog. Together, Kelsie Morgan, ex-marine Colter Hayes, and Rebel search for Morgan’s long-ago kidnapped sister in the wilds of Alaska.
Heiter hopes readers take away from this book how important self-forgiveness is. “Colter Hayes lost everything in a single moment—his career, his marine brothers, even some of his mobility,” Heiter says. “Now he’s shut out the world, punishing himself for his survivor’s guilt by refusing to truly live his life. Kensie Morgan has spent most of her days since she was thirteen searching for the sister who was abducted right in front of her—and blaming herself for not stopping it. Through the course of the book, they have to learn to accept that they can’t change the past, and figure out how to forge a new future.”
Morgan and Hayes’ journey toward self-forgiveness, and the challenges they face along the way, will keep readers riveted.
With 11 full-length published novels to her name, Heiter understands what it takes to write a riveting crime novel. The Big Thrill recently had the pleasure of talking with Heiter about K-9 DEFENSE, the importance of networking, and her excellent advice for aspiring authors.
Rebel is a unique character. What inspired you to write about a K-9 tracker?
It’s a funny story, actually. My editor asked my agent if I’d be interested in writing a book that would have a hunky guy and a dog on the cover (kind of random!). Because I love to write strong heroines, my agent wasn’t sure I’d be interested, but in my mind, that gave me tons of latitude. I’d never had a protagonist with a child or animal before, because in suspense, that means managing where the dog or child is at all times. Since I usually write law enforcement characters (who might be away on cases a lot), that’s a challenge. But in this book, I decided I’d research what kind of dog could be an integral part of the plot and go from there. I came across military combat tracker dogs and was fascinated. From that, Rebel was born.
Hayes and Morgan are also intriguing characters. What about their pasts contributed to the strong but wounded people they are today?
Colter Hayes was once a confident, driven marine. He was close to his military brothers and although he and his parents didn’t see eye to eye, they still supported one another. While the ambush that stole his military brothers and some of his own mobility changed his entire outlook on life, the bond he developed in the military didn’t go away. It’s still obvious in the connection he and Rebel have and the way they take care of each other. The other thing that didn’t change was his insistence on seeing things through once he made a commitment. And once he agrees to help Kensie, it’s a new mission—both the worst and best thing that could happen to him.
After Kensie Morgan’s sister was abducted, her parents spent years doing everything they could to find their youngest daughter, sometimes to the detriment of their other two children’s lives. When Kensie’s younger brother almost died in a car accident, it was a wake-up call to their parents to re-focus on the kids they had left. It meant accepting what statistics said was a near certainty: their youngest child was already dead. At that moment, Kensie picked up the torch and vowed never to give up on her sister. In many ways, her life has been defined by trying to make up for the moment she watched her younger sister get abducted. Meeting Colter and Rebel forces Kensie to look at herself differently and think about what she wants for her own life.
The novel takes place in the Alaskan wilderness. How does the remote and harsh setting reflect the book’s themes and impact the relationship between Hayes and Morgan as they search for Morgan’s long-lost sister?
I’ve loved Alaska since I visited there as a teenager and I’ve always wanted to write about it. When I decided to write about a woman whose sister went missing as a child, I knew it was the perfect setting.
Years later, a note surfaces that might be from Kensie’s sister. Everyone—the FBI included—thinks it’s a hoax, but Kensie is unwilling to give up, even fourteen years later. The harsh weather, the isolated location, and the fact that the area can become completely impassable in winter all tied in so nicely to the seemingly impossible task of reuniting with a sister who’s been missing for so long. And as Kensie gets to know Colter, who’s hiding from everyone (himself included) in the remote town, it also reflects the challenges facing their burgeoning relationship. Both of them are suffering from survivor’s guilt—in completely different ways. For Colter, Alaska represents both a place to hide and also a place where one day he might be able to heal. And for Kensie, it represents a last chance to find her sister. For both of them, the unpredictability and dangers of Alaska reflect their situations.
Combat tracker dogs, the wilds of Alaska…what special research, if any, did you do for this book?
For every book, part of the fun for me is the research. In my search to figure out what kind of dog would be in my book, I stumbled across the relatively new military K-9 role of Combat tracker dog. They’re able to track from an explosion site back to the person who set it, which was fascinating to me. From there, I wanted to know as much as I could about both the Marine Military Police (where Colter served) and combat tracker dogs. I did a lot of online research, but I also consulted with people who’d served in the military for specifics on ranks, military strategy, and K-9 processes.
Many of the Alaskan descriptions come from my own visit to various parts of Alaska, but creating the details of the fictional town of Desparre meant doing additional research. I chose a general area where I wanted the town to be located and dug up information about the surrounding area, from the temperatures to the snowfall to the population and crime statistics. Research can be a bit of a rabbit hole, but I think being as knowledgeable as possible—and consulting experts whenever possible—makes for a stronger book.
You’re an active member of International Thriller Writers and a regular columnist for ITW’s online magazine, The Thrill Begins. You’re also a member of Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America. In addition to novels, you’ve contributed short fiction to anthologies. How important has networking within the crime-writing and romance communities been to your career?
I’m a big believer in networking and professional writer organizations. Before I was published, they gave me access to craft and industry knowledge that I couldn’t have gotten on my own—at least not as fast and with as many examples and options. After I was published, they gave me connections with bloggers, reviewers, and booksellers. And along the way, connecting with other authors has given me so much: people who understand the joys and challenges, who can offer suggestions, camaraderie, and share their own experiences, and friendships that go way beyond the job. Networking in these communities has changed my writing and publishing experiences for the better, and they’ve changed my life for the better, too.
Your work has been short-listed for numerous awards, and the heroine of your Profiler novels has been called “one of the most amazing characters created in print” by Fresh Fiction. When it comes to creating compelling characters, what one piece of advice do you have for authors who are just starting out?
Sometimes, within the mystery and suspense genre, plot is considered the most important piece of the puzzle and characters can become secondary. But I think the best books place equal importance on both. I also believe that every book has a right character. By that, I mean that any given plot should have the strongest possible personal impact on the protagonist and antagonist. A character who has more to lose—or more to gain—by engaging with the plot is more interesting than one who’s there solely because of a job or happenstance. And a character who has more standing in their way (especially emotionally) but overcomes it in order to defeat the antagonist is one worth rooting for. That can be especially challenging with series characters, but because every character should grow and change with every plot, each book can provide a new opportunity to pit them against their worst fears, most challenging opponents, or hardest things to face about themselves, someone they love, or life.
What’s next for you, Elizabeth?
I just sold four more romantic suspense novels (at least two of them connected to K-9 Defense in a K-9 Alaska series), so I’ll be working on those through the next sixteen months. I’m also finishing up a thriller, which I’m hoping to send to my agent within the next six months. And I’m about to do edits on a short story that will be part of an anthology next year. My motto is: better busy than bored!
Critically acclaimed and award-winning 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. Her novels have been published in more than a dozen countries and translated into eight languages; they’ve also been shortlisted for the HOLT Medallion, the Daphne Du Maurier award, the National Readers’ Choice award and the Booksellers’ Best award and won the RT Reviewers’ Choice award.
To learn more about Elizabeth and her work, please visit her website.