April Henry gets most of her story ideas from the real world.
“I’ll read a newspaper story about a bone found in the woods, or I’ll think, ‘But what if my husband didn’t come back – then what?’ and I’m off and running.”
Henry’s newest book, The Body in the Woods, is about three misfit teens who join the Portland County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue and hunt a serial killer. Henry based the story on the teenagers who work on the Multnomah County Search and Rescue team. Before writing The Body in the Woods, she mostly crafted standalones, but she was so inspired by the work these teenagers do – which includes searching for people missing in the wilderness as well as collecting crime scene evidence – that she knew she had to make it into a series.
Of course, there are several differences when it comes to writing a standalone versus a series.
“In a series, you get to plant secrets – or leave room for future secrets – to be revealed in later books. You get to know your characters better and have more than one chance to watch them grow,” said Henry. But with a standalone, “You can potentially kill off everyone but your main character and never worry about needing characters to stick around for future books.”
While you don’t need to take the time to re-construct the world in each book of a series, Henry admits that you do need to be mindful of readers who come into a series late.
“A reader might initially pick up book two or book seven, and you need to help them feel comfortable and oriented, while not boring readers who have faithfully followed the series and already know the information you are trying to recap.”
Henry’s characters start most of her books in the dark about some secret or another. In one book, the main character’s memory is blocked. In another, the main character is blind. This isn’t something Henry does intentionaly.
“All mysteries feature, to some extent, people who don’t know something important and need to find it out.”
Henry chooses the point of view of the character who knows the least and start her books right in the thick of things. There’s no slow build-up or wait for the action to start.
“I was asked to blurb an adult mystery recently where the character wakes up, makes breakfast, talks to his dog, thinks about his life, looks out the window at his sleepy town, and packs for his fishing trip. The fishing trip was where all the fun began, and that’s where I would have started the book.”
Between a fast start and Henry’s attempts to keep word counts managable for reluctant readers, very few scenes get cut in her editing process. More scenes are added than removed, and for Henry, that often improve on the overall plot of the book.
Christy Ottaviano, Henry’s editor, suggested adding more scenes from the killer’s point of view for The Body in the Woods.
“It was hard to do that without giving away who he was, but I think it really succeeded in making the book more creepy,” admitted Henry.
With all the crazy things Henry has Googled for her murder mysteries, Homeland Security parking outside of her house is still a joke – for now.
“For The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, I spent a lot of time researching what diseases would make good bioweapons, deciding how to disperse the one I chose, and perusing laboratory catalogs looking at cages that could hold a thousand mice for producing the virus. A few months ago, I spent the day looking at actual autopsy photos of knife wounds.”
Henry always wanted to be a writer, though she once convinced herself that writing was an unrealistic dream.
“There have been multiple times in my career where I worried I would not get published or get published again. But I never, ever gave up. The only one who can say you’re not going to succeed is you. Other people can only say no to one thing at a time – not your whole career.”
Henry is currently working on the second book in the Point Last Seen series, where Nick will become a suspect in a murder investigation. She is also working on another standalone called The Girl I Used To Be, about a girl who returns to her hometown under an alias to solve the murder of her parents. Both were inspired by real cases.
The Body in the Woods comes out June 17th from Henry, Holt and Co. As part of her admiration for the teenagers on the Multnomah County Search and Rescue team, Henry will donate $1.69 to the team for every purchase of The Body in the Woods at Powells, either online or in person, during its first week available.
For more on Henry, visit her website.