Since her debut in 2015, Heidi Swain has quickly risen up the ranks to become a best-selling author with her hugely popular brand of “feel good fiction”.
The good news for her many fans is that earlier this year Heidi started writing full time – and that hopefully means we will get to enjoy even more of her wonderful books.
Speaking of which, the author’s eagerly awaited new novel, Sleigh Rides And Silver Bells At The Christmas Fair, comes out next month.
Before that Heidi, who is based in my adopted home county of Norfolk, agreed to talk to me for my latest Behind The Book post, which I am thrilled about.
Here’s what she had to say:
How did the idea for your debut, The Cherry Tree Cafe, take shape? How long did it take to write? Was it always your dream to write and publish a book?
The Cherry Tree Cafe was the second novel I wrote. The first, long since consigned to the memory stick, was an attempt to see if I had enough words in me to fill a book. I enjoyed the process so much that I thought I would do it again but this time with a plot that indulged my passion for cakes, crafts and friendship.
I can’t remember how long it took to write but it was considerably longer than my latest book and yes, it was always my dream to be published. At the Cherry Tree launch party a school friend told me that she could remember me scribbling away between lessons.
It was picked up by Books and The City (Simon & Schuster) following an open submission (and went on to be an Amazon best-seller). How did you find out they were interested and what was that like?
I had submitted the book to the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme and on the back of such positive feedback decided that this would be the novel which, one way or another, would be my debut. The Books and the City open submission came along at just the right time and I had an email a few weeks later telling me they loved it and wanted me to go to London for a meeting. I think I held my breath from then until I heard the magical words ‘we’d like to offer you a two book deal.’ It was amazing. Verification that I might just be able to spend the rest of my life doing the very thing I love most. I feel incredibly lucky.
Are you ever sad to see any of your stories come to an end? I imagine it’s almost like living with the characters, albeit in your head, after a while, do you miss them? If that’s not a daft question.
Not a daft question at all. You’d be amazed how often I’ll be out shopping and think ‘Lizzie Dixon would love that dress,’ only to then remember that she’s a fictional friend and not a real one…but I tell her anyway. Now that’s daft!
I can’t say I’ve ever felt sad to see a story end. If I’ve got the ending right it feels like completing a circle and of course with five books based in and around Wynbridge I know the characters will always have the chance to pop up again.
Can you talk about your heroes? Are they ever based, even in part, on real people, actors for example or someone you know? How do you make sure that they are appealing to the reader?
I’ve only ever written one character based on someone I know and that was because they were simply too irresistible not to include. I’m not telling you who it is though.
With regards to making heroes appealing, that isn’t something I consciously think about when I’m writing. I always make my main characters people I would like to be friends with, people who aren’t perfect but real and I think that comes across and strikes a chord.
What’s the most exciting thing to happen since your first book came out (besides publishing more)?
That is such a difficult question to answer. Hundreds of exciting things have happened but I’ll force myself to pin it down to two. The first was in May last year when I was asked to attend an event organized by my publisher, along with some of their other commercial fiction authors. The venue was incredibly swanky and overlooked the Thames and Tower Bridge. Lovely Jane Costello stepped out onto the balcony before the guests had arrived and said ‘today is a good day to be an author’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
My second standout moment was discovering that The Cherry Tree Cafe had been such an e-book sensation it was going to be published in paperback as well. Not only was this an exciting moment for me, but also the many, many readers who had been constantly asking if it was ever going to happen.
And I know I said I’d stick to two but Milly Johnson, who has been the most supportive author pal imaginable, supplied a quote for the front of Coming Home To Cuckoo Cottage this year and I just don’t think I can top that!
Do you write full time? Is it like a 9-5? Does it flow easier the more books you write? Do you ever get writers’ block? How do you combat it?
Yes, I do write full time now. In June this year, having secured an agent and written two books within 12 months for the second year running I took the decision to leave the day job.
If I’m working on a first draft I tend to write at all hours and all over the place. When the words are flowing it is paramount to capitalise on the moment. However, after the first draft frenzy a routine is re-established. I like to start as early in the day as family life allows with a view to finishing at lunchtime and then use afternoons for writing blog posts and catching up with social media. I try and keep weekends free. Apart from Twittering of course. I’m never off Twitter.
I don’t necessarily think it does get easier. If anything it’s harder because your expectations are higher. You are constantly striving to make the next book better than the last. That said, I’d written the first draft for Sleigh Rides in ten weeks whereas a previous one was a real battle. A lot of that was down to life throwing spanners in the works. You have to factors those in I’m afraid, but don’t let them stop you.
No, I haven’t experienced writers’ block. I’ve had tough times and I’ve struggled but I simply refuse to let those days get the better of me. I force myself through it.
There seems to be a strong community of lovely writers, particularly on social media, who all offer support. How important is that to your writing? Do you belong to a writing group or have help (aside from your editor?)
The online writing community is hugely supportive and that is incredibly important. I don’t currently belong to a writing group but I do have lots of author pals who are just a message away and I attend occasional local one-off creative writing day courses and RNA events to ensure I interact with real people rather than just stare at a screen or notepad all day. Being an author is essentially an isolating experience and for a chatterbox like me my author pals are a real sanity saver.
Can you talk about what you’re working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m balancing a couple of things. My Christmas 17 read, Sleigh Rides And Silver Bells At the Christmas Fair, will be published in October so I’m doing lots of promo for that while at the same time working on my summer 18 release and of course planning what will come next. It’s always pretty frantic but I love it.
Your Twitter profile says you write “feel good fiction”. It’s not only my favourite type (to read and write) but, under the broad umbrella of romantic fiction, it is always near the top (if not the top) of the best-selling and most popular genres. And yet, critics still seem consistently underrate it? Does it make you cross and do you ever feel the need to defend what you write?
No, I can’t say I ever get cross or defensive about that because I listen to what the readers have to say. As you point out ‘feel good fiction’ hits those best-seller spots all the time and that adds up to a lot of very happy readers, reading stories that they love and I feel honoured to write them.
When someone tweets or messages to say they’ve saved my book for their holiday read or that they were delighted to find it in their Christmas stocking, that’s an absolute highlight for me.
Any top tips for struggling writers?
Never stop believing and never give up. If you really want to be a writer then make that commitment and give it everything you’ve got. Once you’ve made the decision to succeed nothing will hold you back – you’ll make time to write, you’ll find a way to be published and you’ll wonder why you didn’t get on it with it years ago.
I can’t thank Heidi enough for taking the time to answer my questions, especially when she’s got so much going on at the moment. I particularly love what she said about making the decision to succeed. What do you guys think?
I will have two more Behind The Book posts for you next month.