Elizabeth Heiter on her 'Profiler' series
Elizabeth Heiter is author of the ‘Profiler’ series and Amanda Frost was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview her despite Heiter’s busy schedule. Heiter’s latest book, Seized, has just been released and is receiving high praise from followers of the series.
You have written a fantastic book series! You will have heard this a lot but I couldn't put it down.
Thank you so much! I’m always thrilled to hear when readers enjoy the book!
When do you know you have written something good? Is there anyone you trust that you send it to before a publisher? Or is it just gut instinct?
I think some of that is a gut instinct, especially after many years of writing and submitting. But I still always send the book to my critique partner before it goes to my publisher. I also work with a mystery critique group; they don’t read the whole book, but I bring problem chapters or anything I want to tighten up to the meetings for their feedback. My book proposals also go to my agent, who is always willing to serve as a first reader, too.
You've said in past interviews that you've always been interested in profiling. What attracted you to that and how do you research it?
I was perusing the bookstore, looking for some research books, and I happened upon a book by an FBI profiler about his experiences. I picked it up and after reading it, I thought, “this would make a great character”. I loved the idea of having a heroine who would approach crime scenes in a totally different way; instead of looking for forensic evidence, or suspects who knew the victim, or running down regular investigative leads, she would look at the behavioral evidence left behind.
After that, I picked up every book I could find on the subject and got to work! Once I felt like I had a solid understanding of the concepts, I tried writing my own profiles and compared them to the final outcome of cases to see how I did. When I felt confident that I was on the right track, I created the Bakersville Burier, the serial killer in Hunted who leaves his victims half-buried deep in the woods. Then I wrote the profile for my heroine, FBI profiler Evelyn Baine, would use to catch him.
I love how you write some chapters from the mind of a serial killer. What research did you undertake to get that dark perspective?
Thank you! I wanted to write from the serial killer’s point of view to give readers a sense of motive from the killer himself and from the FBI agent getting into his head. So, I did a lot of research specifically on real serial killers. I looked at it from both angles, the same way Hunted does: both from interviews and statements made by the killers themselves, and by profiles written by the FBI during the investigations. That gave me a starting point; I also did a lot of research in abnormal psychology so I could try to understand why a person like that would think and react the way they do.
Did your story idea come before you did your research or after? Did it change at all?
The story idea came in the middle of research, actually. I got the idea to write about a profiler after doing some research, and then as I built out my plot it required a lot more research, specifically on FBI details, how to run an investigation, and crime scene particulars. Usually, the way I like to work is once I have my main plot idea I do all the research I think I’ll need for the story. Along the way, I inevitably find more things I need to research, but that’s part of the fun! Nothing major changed in Hunted, but there have been some smaller changes. For example, I had a Special Agent read the manuscript and he pointed out that a scene I had in the original manuscript – when Evelyn shoots at a fleeing vehicle – was against FBI regulations. (She’s only allowed to shoot if she’s going to use deadly force; she can’t shoot to wound or to stop.) So, that scene had to change accordingly.
We were left without answers to Evelyn's childhood friend Cassie's abduction in Hunted. Where will your second book, Vanished, take us? Will we have answers?
In Hunted, I give readers some insight into Evelyn’s past: when Evelyn was twelve her best friend went missing (the final victim of the Nursery Rhyme Killer, a criminal who leaves behind macabre versions of nursery rhymes at the abduction scenes). Cassie was never found. In Vanished, eighteen years after Cassie’s disappearance, another girl goes missing in Evelyn’s hometown, and the Nursery Rhyme Killer takes credit.
Evelyn has to travel back there to find out if the Nursery Rhyme Killer is really back, or if it’s a copycat. Along the way, Evelyn’s also looking to finally find the answer to what happened to Cassie all those years ago. (And yes, I will answer that question for readers in Vanished!)
The third book in the series, Seized, has just been released so I assume you write these fairly close together. What is your strategy to writing a book series?
I actually have two series I’m writing simultaneously (this suspense series and a romantic suspense series), so I’ve been going back and forth a bit between the two. Most of the time, that means I’m writing one book, while researching the next one, while editing the one I’d just turned in (with revisions from my editor). So, I like to stay organized!
For every book, I write character profiles for each of the major players (physical descriptions, backstory details, and psychological motivations). I also create a list of all the big plot points in the book. I always know how the book is going to end, and every major turning point, red herring, and any other important detail before I start to write. Some of the specifics always change once I start writing, but this way, I have a solid structure for the book that I can follow.
In the books Cassie was the first girl in an all white town to befriend Evelyn which meant a lot to her. Was it important for you to make Evelyn of a different ethnic background? Why?
When I was initially creating Evelyn, I just imagined her to be biracial. There was no specific reason for it other than that’s how I pictured her. But as my story began to take shape, I realized that making her biracial in a primarily white town (even the grandparents who raised her were white) would make her an outsider. And in the FBI, as a woman, she’s somewhat of an outsider as well (the FBI is made up of 80% men). I realized that in many ways, that would help me create motivation and challenges for Evelyn along the way – making her an outsider in important times in her life leant itself to a character who would try to understand others, but never quite fit in (even as an adult, Evelyn is socially awkward). All of her backstory (not just the racial component) contributes to this, and I think it makes her a more interesting protagonist.
As a suspense writer, I also like the idea of creating diverse, real lead characters. All genres have stereotyped heroes and for suspense, it’s often a white male who’s got the backing of a government, has a tendency to go a bit rogue, but always ends up on the side of right. There’s room for that kind of character, but I wanted to do something different. So, Evelyn Baine is a small, biracial female FBI agent who’s socially awkward but extremely talented and driven, and she’s incredibly loyal to the people in her life. I love writing her, and I hope readers will love reading about her!
Why is writing strong female characters important to you? Was this why you made sure Evelyn conquered the serial killer in Hunted and not Kyle?
In the world we live in, with such a prevalence of discrimination and violence against women, I like to show women who are strong and capable, protagonists who represent women who have overcome some of these challenges. Evelyn isn’t perfect, and she definitely has her shortcomings and vulnerabilities. But to me, her strength is that she’s determined; she refuses to give up even when the path is hard, and she works very, very hard to do what’s right and to bring justice to the people responsible in her cases and closure to the families left behind. The desire to make Evelyn a strong, capable character (especially after facing doubts from her colleagues) is definitely why Evelyn was the one to conquer the serial killer in Hunted.
Lastly, who are the authors that inspire you?
There are so many authors who inspire me! Suzanne Brockmann inspires me with her determination to bring awareness to issues that matter to her through her books; Lisa Gardner inspires me with her ability to challenge expectations and continuously surprise; and every time I read a novel that makes me stop and think or makes me stay up all night because I can’t stop reading, I’m inspired to write more myself!
Is there anything else you would like the reader to know about your books?
Readers can learn more about Evelyn Baine and ‘The Profiler’ series, about my romantic suspense series (The Lawmen) and about the research, FBI acronyms and other “extras” over at my website: www.elizabethheiter.com. I’m also always happy to hear from readers!
Amanda Frost worked in administration at Swinburne University in Melbourne for six years, then moved to Perth to follow her passion for writing and editing. She is currently studying Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University.
The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 2 2015
Editors: Rachel Franks and Wendy J. Dunn