My ALLi author guest this episode is Karen Heenan, an author of historical fiction who spent thirty years helping lawyers improve their writing until she retired and began her second career. Being an author isn't as lucrative as being a paralegal, but she is more than compensated in her satisfaction with doing something that brings joy to herself and her readers.
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Listen to the Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Karen HeenanOn the Inspirational Indie Authors #podcast, @howard_lovy features @karen_heenan, a retired paralegal who found a second career in historical fiction. Click To Tweet
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Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Karen Heenan. About the Author
As an only child, Karen Heenan learned young that boredom was the ultimate enemy. Since discovering books, she is never without one in her hand and several more in her head. Karen lives in Lansdowne, PA, just outside Philadelphia, where she grows much of her own food and makes her own clothes. She is accompanied on her quest for self-sufficiency by a very patient husband and an ever-changing number of cats. One constant: she is always writing her next book. You can find Karen on her website, Facebook, X, and Instagram.
About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and X.
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Read the Transcripts to the Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Karen Heenan
Howard Lovy: My guest this episode is Karen Heenan, an author of historical fiction who spent 30 years helping lawyers improve their writing until she retired and began her second career. Being an author isn't as lucrative as being a paralegal, but she is more than compensated in her satisfaction with doing something that brings joy to herself and her readers.
I'll let Karen Henan tell her story.
Karen Heenan: Hello, my name is Karen Henan and I write historical and women's fiction.
I live in Lansdown, Pennsylvania, which is a small suburb right outside Philadelphia. It's a wonderful quiet place, so I get to listen to all the voices in my head. We moved here about six years ago, and that was really when I started writing for publication, although I'd thought about it my whole life.
I just put out my sixth novel. My first novels were a series set in Tudor England, and these more recent ones were set in Philadelphia during the 1930s.
I grew up in Philadelphia. I was an only child, which has a lot to do with much of how I've turned out. My mom was a big reader. She always had her nose in a book, and she was the kind of reader who, when I would come up and interrupt her, would, you know, raise the hand and say, just let me finish the chapter unless there's blood involved.
That really made me want to learn to read young, because I wanted to know what was in those books that was so much more fascinating than me.
My dad was the opposite. He was the youngest of 12 kids. He was a lot older than my mom. He was born in 1912 and he left school in sixth grade to help support his family.
So, while he could read, it wasn't something he would ever do for fun, but he knew what he'd missed out on by missing out on his education.
He always bought my mom books, and as soon as I was old enough to read, instead of reading to me anymore, or making up fairy tales and pretending to read, he would hand me his National Geographics and ask me to read to him. He called it practice for me, but I think it was also getting him off the hook.
So, that and our local library, where I went every week and carried out as many books as I could, and then took a few out on my mom's card because 12 wasn't enough; the book thing, it got the hooks in me young, and I've never recovered.
Howard Lovy: For Karen, college wasn't an option financially, so she stuck with the library and developed an independent curiosity about the world through books.
Karen Heenan: Yeah, I just read everything that interested me, quite a few things that didn't, things that I thought I should know about, and a lot of times when you pick up a book on a topic you think you're not going to like it, you find a way into it, and suddenly it becomes fascinating.
That's happened with a lot of my historical fiction, where I know I'm going to have to work on a period that I didn't find interesting, and once you find a way to look at it that resonates with how your brain works, all of a sudden it becomes a different topic.
Howard Lovy: As for her career, Karen became a paralegal, which was actually a great way for her to hone her writing skills.
Karen Heenan: I spent 30 years in a cubicle, basically supporting lawyers. Secretary, paralegal, nag, pain in various forms of their anatomy, they would tell you much more explicitly, but it was really useful because I also spent 30 years editing other people's work, because they had the education, but they were moving at the speed of light, and they would give me things and I would look at them and go, I can rewrite that.
Generally, they were appreciative, and it was just another way for me to use that part of my brain. I was always writing at home, but I wasn't writing with the idea of publication at that point. It was something I did to relieve the stress of a job I didn't really like very much.
Howard Lovy: Karen retired in 2013 and began making things for craft shows. Then she decided to focus more on her writing, which she had been doing on and off throughout her career.
Karen Heenan: In 2015, I decided the book that I had been working on off and on for I don't even know how long. I joke that if my first book was a child, it would be accruing college debt, because I wasn't writing it for any purpose other than myself. So, I just kept polishing and tweaking.
But in 2015, I decided to finally see what would happen if I started querying, and I think the number of rejections I got was 86. I did get an agent; she liked the book. This was my first Tudor historical. She liked the book, she had a few editorial suggestions, and I was inexperienced enough at that time that I took her suggestions as how dare you touch my perfect prose.
I did do them because I wanted the book published, but I was a little hard-headed about other people's opinions at that point.
She pitched the book for the better part of a year. She didn't get any traction on it, and we parted company in 2016.
I put the book aside because I really thought that was the only way it was ever going to get published, and when I was in my licking my wounds phase, I started listening to writing podcasts, and we all know the trouble that can lead to. I discovered Joanna Penn. I discovered ALLi. I started realizing that people who were self-publishing, it's not the same as the vanity presses of old, and I started thinking about that.
But before that happened, in December 2018, I participated in one of those pitch events on Twitter. Just pitch your book in 180 characters, and if an agent or a publisher likes it, you submit to them, and I thought what was the worst that could happen. So, I tried that, and I actually got likes from two agents and a small press, and when I picked myself up off the floor, I looked at their guidelines, and I sent in what they wanted.
The first agent still hasn't gotten back to me, so I'm taking that as a no. The second one, she requested a full. She liked it, but she said, there are certain expectations in this genre of historical fiction, can you rewrite it to make it sound more like this other author?
I have read the other author. Her books are fine, our voices are very different, and this is again where the only child kicked in, where if you tell me to do something I don't want to do, I will dig my heels in, and I'm like, I didn't wait this long to publish a book to rewrite it in the voice of someone else.
I will make edits for quality of the work, but I'm not going to masquerade as a different writer because then I would have to keep writing in that voice. So, I rejected that agent, and I ended up going with the small press. I stayed with them for two books, and it was a good experience. It got me out of my own way. I learned a lot. I think I occasionally drove them crazy by suggesting things I'd learned from podcasts that they hadn't gotten around to yet.
And when it came time for my third book, I thought about it. We were into the pandemic by this point, and I think a lot of people were just rethinking their life choices, and mine involved rethinking publishing through anyone else.
I really had the time to sit and learn everything I needed to, and I asked for my rights back for the first two books, tidied them up a bit. I didn't have to get new covers, because I was a bit of a control freak and I didn't like the covers that they proposed, so I bought my own and talked them into using them.
So, I republished my first two books and put the third book out in February of 2021.
It's hard, but I like the challenge of it. I like when something goes wrong, it's on me to figure it out. It feels more possible than if something goes wrong, having to talk to someone who might need to talk to two other people, and then there'll be a meeting to figure out what's wrong. I'll just walk around the problem in circles until I find a way in or fall asleep from exhaustion.
Howard Lovy: For Karen, historical fiction gave her an opportunity to learn new things about different eras while also focusing on human nature.
Karen Heenan: I grew up on the Little House books and other, what I as a kid called, old fashioned books, and I really just loved learning about different times and realizing that even though the times were different and the clothes were different and the manners might be different, people really haven't changed. We still have the same wants and needs and desires all the way through history.
What I tried to do with both my historical series is, you know, so many historicals, especially in the Tudor genre are Henry VIII and the Queens, and they're fine, and I know a ton about them, but I really wanted to write the books from the perspective of ordinary people in proximity to power, people whose lives were affected by the royals, but who weren't intimately involved in their lives.
The first book is from the point of view of a minstrel in The King's Music, the royal minstrels who travelled with Henry VIII. The Tudor series are linked standalones. So, the first book is the minstrel. The second book involves a male character who was a secondary character in Songbird. He ends up working for Thomas Cromwell, and that one involves the dissolution of the monasteries, which was one of those historical topics I didn't find interesting until I got into it, and then it became the centrepiece of the book. The third one is a minor lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth. So, a lot of what gets seen backstairs, because people do and say things in front of children and servants that they wouldn't in front of people of their own class, so it's an interesting way for me to explore that.
Howard Lovy: As for marketing, Karen is trying a little bit of everything.
Karen Heenan: I mean, other than throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks, I do Amazon ads for both my first in series, and those are generally pretty good, though there's a bit of a dip right now, but I think Amazon's been tinkering with something behind the scenes, because a lot of people have been saying the same thing.
I've done some Facebook advertising. I've done some podcast interviews. I do the occasional free or discounted promo just to try to get people into the series.
I don't think I'll ever do the lost leader, first in series free, at least not until I have a lot more books. Right now, with only six, I want to build more backlist before I do things like that, but every once in a while, doing a promo where the first book of the series is free, because I'm confident that enough people who get the book will try the second and third books.
The problem with free book promos is I know how many I take advantage of, and sometimes it takes a while for the free book to work its way up your Kindle, so you can't really judge the results of a promotion like that in any particular time frame, you just have to hope that it works out over time.
Howard Lovy: After spending 30 years working in a job that she wasn't always thrilled with, her second career as a writer has brought her more happiness, if not comfort.
Karen Heenan: This is definitely a second career that I'm happy with. I did the legal work for years because it paid well, I was comfortable, and it wasn't a job that I brought home with me, so I could do what I wanted. It paid for a comfortable life.
Writing does not pay for as many comforts, but I've also discovered that if I'm not stressed out about my job, I don't need as much retail therapy, or things like that.
I'm happy with what I'm doing, and I also think that I'm not putting a lot of pressure on myself. My goal is not to be a six or seven figure author. My goal is enough to have a comfortable life, enough so that I don't work so hard that I take the joy out of writing for myself. If I become something on that level, I'll be over the moon happy about it, but that is not what I'm working towards. I'm working toward a solid career writing books that I love to write and that I'm proud to release into the world.
Howard Lovy: As for the future, Karen has taken a break from the Tudor era and is writing about Philadelphia during the Depression.
Karen Heenan: I just released the third book in my 1930s Philadelphia trilogy, so I'm doing some promotion for that.
Those were actually based, not on family stories per se, but I grew up listening to my dad and my great aunts talk about living in the city during the Depression, and it was just such a stretch from writing about the 16th century. It was actually harder to imagine poverty in a time so close to our own than back in Tudor times, because whether you were a king or a commoner, then you didn't have indoor plumbing or electric light or central heating. But in the 30s, the distance between my two sets of characters is so vast, it's really difficult to think that people lived like that in a time that my parents grew up in.
So, I'm working on some promotion for those books, and I am starting in on the fourth book of my Tudor series.
He's a character who cropped up in the second book, had a minor appearance in the third, and he's been waiting patiently. Now we're going into the middle Elizabethan period and getting into a little bit of the wars of religion and spying, and a little bit of romance because every life has a little bit, and we'll see where it goes.
I'm not very far in yet.
Howard Lovy: Karen has advice for others who want to do what she's done.
Karen Heenan: Maybe don't wait until you're 50-odd to start. Nobody told me.
Mainly, I think it would be just to get out of your own way and to try things. If it doesn't work, there are plenty of other options out there.
I wouldn't recommend self-publishing to everybody. We don't all have the personality for it. But as an only child, I had all the toys, I knew what everything was supposed to do, and I like working with all the pieces and then hiring someone for things that I can't do myself, like cover design and proofing and copy editing, and things like that, but I like being in charge of all the moving parts.
I can certainly see why other people would prefer to get an agent and go through traditional publishing.
I think my other one would also be to just realize that the books, if you're comparing your own work to something else, realize that you're comparing your own early draft to something that's been polished how many times, professionally edited, and had blood, sweat, and tears dripped over it. We're not comparing ourselves to that writer's first draft. So, just being as understanding with yourself as you would be with somebody you cared about.