Bright Lights #6 - Heather Hutsell - The Quad

One of the wonderful things about the world of Indie Publishing is it allows writers to express themselves more freely with their own voice. Too often the machine swallows up the individual and some of the character is diluted. Indie writers, because they are doing all the hard work themselves, get to be true to themselves and stay unique.

Heather Hutsell is one of those unique voices I was lucky enough to bump into on Twitter. She's a writer who's also a seamstress, an artist who likes to act and an occasional djembe player. Smart and engaging, she has written several books and is in the process of writing several more. I asked her to stop by and take part in my Bright Lights series and true to what I already knew about her, she provided some great answers. Enjoy!

Heather Hutsell

Q - Hi Heather, tell us a little about your latest book.

Hi Gareth! My most recent book is The Quad—a dystopian version of the United States of America, set in the year 2028. Definitely the darkest book I’ve ever written, probably because it’s the most realistic. Very political, definitely a cautionary tale. I give it six months before it’s banned in this country.

Q - You've written several books now, how would you say you've improved as a writer since the first one?

I think I’ve gotten better at fine-tuning my details—not too much, not too little. I’ve experimented a bit more with vocabulary and learned to make my stories ‘meatier’. It’s always a learning process.

Q - How long have you been writing and what made you want to write your first novel?

When I was eleven, my class was involved in a Young Authors competition. We didn’t really have a choice in whether or not we’d participate: we did. The good news was that we could write anything we wanted to, so I wrote a murder mystery. My story was chosen and from then on I had a sense of not just being able to do it, but wanting to do it. I’m sure that external validation helped to kick-start what is now more of an obsession. Writing also came into play early on in my youth as a means of escape. Things were less ‘scary’ to deal with and there was always somewhere else to go, even if it was only in my head. Putting it on paper just meant I could revisit and eventually share it later.

Q - One of the things that caught my attention immediately about you is that you do costuming and you dress up to attend conventions and signings. Tell us a little about how that evolved. When did the costuming start?

I came from a family of seamstresses and quilters, so I was more or less doomed to at least learn how to do it. About the same time I started writing, I got interested in historical clothing. I just liked the look of period costumes and had read all of the Little House on the Prairie books. I would draw the image of a garment on one side of a 3x5” index card and the name and details of it on the other side. It’s funny—many years later I took a college course on the history of costume and dress, and we did almost the exact same thing with our note cards. A little ahead of my time, I guess. My serious costume construction started around 2003, when I got into attending Medieval Faires. (Another good way to escape into another reality, and at the time I wasn’t writing much.) My jump into designing original pieces entered into the picture around 2007 and things got crazy from there.

Q - You must stand out at signings dressed in one of your handmade costumes, do you think it helps you stand out from the crowd? And, would it matter if it didn't?

Yes, it definitely helps attracting people to me. My costumes tend to be identifiable, but still pretty unconventional. I come from a family where our unspoken motto is ‘If you’re going to do it, do it better, do it bigger.’ I try to tell myself I’m not competitive, but I am. I want to at least be the first to do some of these costume ideas, even if it means others will copy me later. I’m not sure if dressing up/not dressing up would matter, so to speak. My ‘normal’ way of dressing is still pretty unique, and how people carry themselves speaks volumes. I’ve gotten the whole ‘you could dress in a burlap sack and still get attention’ line, but there’s a lot of external work going on to make that happen. Besides, once someone gets to my table, my books have to stand on their own—costumes or no costumes.

Q - You've attended conventions as a guest speaker on panels, how do you like that experience? How did you first get into it?

This past weekend at SheVaCon was my first experience with panels. I think it may have been painfully clear that I was the newbie on the dais, but I still had great fun with it—I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I also crammed nine panels into two days, so I guess I got a good crash course on it. I definitely learned some things for next time! In this case, I was actually asked to come aboard, which made it that much greater of an honor to be there! There’s something to be said for recognition without prompting, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re lying.

Q - Now that you're in a position where you're being asked your opinion on writing, does that make you feel validated as a writer? 

I don’t think I have ever felt I needed validation since I made up my mind to start writing. I’d continue writing, panels or not, publication or not, and that still makes me a writer. I see a difference between validation and recognition—“Oh, you write stuff” versus “We know what you are capable of and we need you for this or that.” Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but one word holds more—value—I guess, than the other.

Q - You've got irons in many fires: a keen actress, convention speaker, maker of elaborate period costumes, artist and you've also been known to bang a Djembe every once in a while. On top of all that, you have to hold down a job, how do you make time to write? Do you allot yourself a block of time or write when you can?

This is always a hard question to answer in words. I’ll take any opportunity I can get to write—if I have to stop in the grocery store and scribble down notes on my shopping list, or write up and down both bare arms while stuck in DC traffic, then I will. I’m not currently in a position to set aside much time specifically for writing every day (70% of my writing time is daydreaming), but I will say that when the muses speak, I’d have better luck holding back a tidal wave. At that point, things get sacrificed (household stuff, mostly) and I do what I have to do to get the story out. I always have paper and a pen with me, so I catch as much as I can when it comes to me. At times, like now (between cons), I think my mind and my muses go into a sort of survival/hibernation mode and hide, so I can get the other, more critical stuff done. I’m pretty blocked right now, but I also have 2 major costume pieces to finish in the next few days.

Q - Do you have a favorite place to write?

I think the closest to a favorite writing place at the moment, is on my back porch when the weather is good. I’m out in the country, so the interruptions are minimal (other than a random black snake falling off of the roof a few feet from where I sit…true story). I have a studio in the works, but my husband and I are doing all the construction ourselves, and this is a 200 year old house, so…it will be finished some day. ;)

Q - What kind of story interests you? Do you read the same stories you like to write?

I confess that I am a terrible reader. We can get that out of the way right now. I am way too picky and even though I try not to, I tear books apart from page one as I read them—I don’t like the writing style, the dialogue is unrealistic, etc.. It’s a curse, really, and it comes from applying too much of what I know of things to what someone else has written. I can tell when someone is completely winging it or they didn’t take time to think things through, and it gets in the way of my reading experience. I know I shouldn’t be like that, since I know I have LOTS of learning of my own to do, but it happens. More recently, however, I’ve been trying to read books by the independent authors that I’ve met—which also means I’ve read more books in the last 2 months than in the past two years! The genres go all over the map, in that respect, which keeps things interesting. I was never a one-genre type in any situation, even when I did read more. Fantasy, in a non-dragons kind of way, is usually a good place for me to start. Romance, mystery and adventure are also good ways to keep my interest.

Q - Where do your ideas for stories and characters come from generally?

My story ideas are about 95% stolen right out of my dreams. I have some pretty weird ones most of the time, so there’s a good supply going on in my head. Don’t get me wrong—things get misfiled and I end up dreaming about my day job more than I care to, and that’s not at all useful for much of anything. I’ve also learned to recognize little triggers in everyday life, whether it’s a line, an object, a feeling, sometimes a particular face—everything we writers need for creation is always there with us.

Q - The common mantra given to writers is "write what you know", does this apply to your writing in any way?

Definitely. I didn’t quite understand what this phrase meant until my 11th grade literature teacher came into class one day and said he’d tried to ‘drown’ himself in the bathtub, just to see what it was like. I haven’t gone to such extremes—though I did get a tattoo to mimic a character’s experience, so I could write her scene in ‘real time’. Other than that, my childhood was…adventurous, for lack of a better term. My older brother and I got into all kinds of things (good and bad), being out in the woods and wilderness most of the time. I incorporate much of those moments into my writing, as well as many experiences from later years. Usually, just a bit of gentle tweaking is needed to make these things fit.

Q - Do you limit yourself to certain genres of story or do you write what you want?

I write whatever the voices in my head tell me to write. Seriously, my muses conduct me, not the other way around, and that can take me into a multitude of directions. I don’t mind. I’m not sure I could stand to write fifteen vampire books and nothing else. I’m way too fickle for that. It also forces me to do more research and by way of it, I learn more cool—and sometimes disconcerting—things.

Q - Tell us a little about how you took your books to publication, and why you decided to go the way you went?

Shortly after I completed Awakening Alice (a sequel to Alice in Wonderland), a friend of mine expressed that he wanted to read it. He loved it and asked if he could put it into a book, along with his poetry and that of two other friends. I said as long as I maintained full rights, he could. So that project went through, he self-published it and I helped, so that was how I learned the ropes to self-publishing. The next year I rereleased Awakening Alice, along with the 24 illustrations that didn’t make it into the compilation version. By then, I had a spin-off story with more illustrations to add to it. I saw how easy the process was, and the fact that I could maintain full control over all of it was appealing to me. I’ve never tolerated rejection well—it’s enough that we sometimes get it in everyday life without even asking for it—so I figured self-publishing was going to be my preferred route. I’m also rather impatient, so waiting to hear back from a publishing house just wasn’t going to work for me. I’m also a big supporter of budding artists, and when I can afford to get a cover done by one of them, I do.

Q - Do you use Beta Readers to look at your manuscripts?

I have two awesome editors that read through my manuscripts and each has specifics they are on the alert for. One of them is an English major and she is phenomenal at catching 99% of my typos and grammar blunders. She’s also great at giving me the ‘yes this works/no this doesn’t work’ bit, but her priority is more on the technical side. My other editor is a ‘no holds barred/no sugar coating’ sort, who is in charge of tracking continuity and flow (since I don’t write in a linear fashion, this is exceptionally crucial!) She devours my content and lets me know exactly what she thinks. I sometimes have to keep the ego salve handy, but she gives positive feedback too. Sometimes there’s crossover in what they both look for, and they’re pretty good at catching what the other misses. I’m lucky to have both of them involved in my projects.

Q - What do you think are your particular strengths as a writer? Dialog, action, description...what are you most comfortable with?

Definitely dialogue. Descriptions are a close second. I write the dialogue exactly as I hear it in my head—just as though it were coming from a film, and it keeps things realistic. Because of this, I do tinker with screenplays now and then, but those are a back burner hobby. With descriptions, I try to paint a clear enough picture without spoon-feeding my reader. You have your own imagination and I want you to use it, but I’ll keep you from straying too far from the path of the story.

Q - What compels you to write, drives you to keep going, even on the days you'd rather just throw in the towel?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a day where I even considered giving up writing. I will look at a piece and say it’s utter rubbish—The End, but never quit writing altogether. In fact, I’ve been known to say I’ll stop breathing before I stop writing: it’s just part of who I am, it’s in my blood. As long as the ideas are there—and they are always there—I’ll keep churning stuff out. I have my blocked moments and as frustrating as they are, I view them like tectonic plates—always shifting, even at a snail’s pace at times. Eventually something will give and the thoughts will flow again—sometimes in an overwhelming flood. When I have dry spells, I think about the times when I have cranked out 20 pages a day for two weeks straight, can hardly open my fingers, and I drain 2 pens in a week. Remembering that those times will come again helps me hang to in there.

Q - What inspires you to create?

Hmm…everything has the potential to trigger my writing. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a new movie with a favorite actor/actress or having a crazy dream, to something as complex as a little silver pendant on my necklace, or a piece of conversation that I’ve obsessed over. Everything has a story. We just have to figure out what the story is and where to apply it.

Q - What is the reaction to those around you, family and close friends, about your writing?

I’m sure my co-workers get sick of constantly seeing my head a notebook, but my husband is a good cheerleader and very supportive. He’s a musician and composer, so he understands the creative process. That makes a world of difference, because I’ve also been exposed to the complete opposite through past relationships. I don’t get much feedback from anyone else—even though I blog about whatever I’m currently working on, and that’s fine. I do tend to put my sister on the spot when it comes to naming characters, and we can spend an entire day agonizing over the perfect name. She’s really helpful with that process, though we can get rather ridiculous about it at times. Once in a while, a family member will throw out an ‘I’m proud of you’, but I think once you reach a certain level, it must not seem as necessary to keep saying it.

Q - You've got a lot of experience in the field, do you still suffer from nerves putting your work out there for all to see?

Ever since I learned about self-publishing, I think that has mostly gone away. No matter what people think, I’m going to put my work out there. If you want to read it, do. If you don’t, then don’t. I would like to think people read my books and enjoy them, but if they don’t, I don’t let it become my problem—there’s no way I’m going to please everyone and I don’t try. At that point it would become work and no longer my passion. I didn’t start doing this in an effort to pull in a paycheck (though it would be nice), even if the positive notoriety is always welcome. I think the more positive feedback I get, the more humble I get—but in a “You like that? You should see what I’ve got coming next!” kind of way. A kind word can inspire me more than cash, and always will. On the flip side, I’m not afraid to accept a challenge: You say I can’t do it? I say watch me!

Q - What are your thoughts on the uses of Social Media (Facebook, Twitter etc) for writers. Has it helped in your development as an author? 

I’m not sure if it has helped my development as an author, so much as it has helped me to connect with other authors and interested parties. I’ve noticed that a good amount of social media (Twitter being at the top) is used for advertising and little else that can be considered social. If I exclusively wanted that, I’d skip those medias and go solely to direct selling points. I try to keep a balance between linking to my books and just keeping people informed about me and what I’m doing. I think maybe that helps readers to get a better understanding of the author. In my case as a reader, it helps me to get through their books, if I know even a little about where they’re coming from. I’m not saying dump all of your secrets, but having a little peek at someone’s personality can pave the way to understanding how and what they write. I know that sounds wishy-washy, but insight can be crucial. That, and I’m just curious by nature—I like to see how things fit together, be it people and their stories, or what have you.

Q - On your blog you talk about all of your artistic endeavors, do you find blogging to be a useful tool? Does it help your writing? Or do you use it more as a promotional vehicle?

I use blogging for everything: promo for the things I make/do. It’s an outlet for writing when nothing else is coming to the page. It’s a good place to update people who are interested in knowing what I’m up to on a non-creative level. Mostly, it’s a catchall for my babbling, and I’m sure any psychologists who may read it are having a blast with the dreams I post. ;) Blogs are great for so much though. I try to think of them as the commercial breaks while people are waiting for me to get new books out, and hopefully it holds their interest and entertains them now and then. 

Q - Do you have any current favorite authors/books? 

My current favorite book is The Innamorati, by Midori Snyder. I checked it out from the library in 2000, and continuously for the next 2 years. I couldn’t set aside time to get past the first chapter. It held my interest, but there was no time to devote to it. It’s a very descriptive, fantastical book, so I needed to give it my undivided attention and just couldn’t. Around 2004 I gave up on the library and bought a copy, then had the same problem. I think I memorized the first chapter, almost verbatim, because of this. Finally, in November 2011, I put everything on hold—writing, costumes, etc—and was in a position where I could commit to it. I got through it in a month and it’s one of the best books—in every way—that I’ve ever read. I also love Saki. His works are a good reminder that there is humor in everything. Life is funny, death is funny, sex is funny. There is too much seriousness in this world and we need to remember that sometimes it’s okay to laugh.

Q - Have you ever suffered from writer's block? If so, any quick cure advice?

Oh, yes (Now). Some things work better than others, but advice I usually give to struggling writers: see a movie, read a book, take a walk, take a trip. Go talk to real people face-to-face—get away from the computer. Write a one-page blurb about an object—ones you’ve had for ages are the best, because you start to remember little things about them that were lost in your memory. Next thing you know, you have 3,000 words and an entire plotline. If you have other creative outlets, use those too. When all else fails: take a nap. Some of my most horrific nightmares come to me smack in the middle of the afternoon, and those make for good stories.

Q - How important is it for a writer to also be a reader? 

I think reading is a good way to keep us well-rounded—but you have to mix up your reading material and not stick with only one subject. Otherwise, you risk getting stuck in one particular genre with your own writing. Example: when I was reading bodice-ripper romance novels, that’s All I wrote. Reading is also a good way to feed our muses and to keep learning new things. I think I do more reading by way of research, than I do in just picking up another work of fiction. Aside from being fickle, I know that I can’t read someone else’s work if I’m in the middle of something of my own. I think it draws from the creative energy and it can make things confusing or distracting. You also run the possibility of picking up the other author’s style and it can end up reflecting—sometimes painfully—in your own work.

Q - Library or Bookstore?

Library—it’s all about the smell. That, and I find bookstores to be exceedingly overwhelming anymore—all that stuff, not just books. I avoid them as much as possible.

Q - Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what do you listen to? 

Music is great while I’m writing! All of my books have unofficial soundtracks and they vary from book to book, as far as artist and style. To generalize, I go more toward alternative, sometimes ambient music. I’m not one who can concentrate and write to classical, oddly enough. Except certain pieces from Swan Lake and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Sometimes all it takes is one particular song to inspire me and I play it to death while I’m writing. When that happens, it’s usually because I’ve hit on some connective energy within the music. You have to experience that one to understand it.

Q - How do you choose your next story? 

Again, a ruling of the muses. I have several stories going at once, so whichever muse speaks the loudest, is the one I go with…And some of them are pretty loud. ;)

Q - What are you currently working on?

Books 2-5 following Empress Irukandji: The Case of Charlotte Sloane; The Open Book—the final installment to the Twins Trilogy; Knight of the Fox—a one off. The prequel to By Blood, By Moon; A really….filthy erotica story that may or may not ever see the light of day. Three screenplays that may also stay in my notebooks until the end of time. I think what I listed are the prominent ones. I always have little bits and pieces of stories falling into place, or new ones pushing to be started.

Q - Do you have any advice for newbie writers? Those who are yet to start on their journey?

Just start writing. Don’t worry about your end result until you get there. I just learned this past weekend that approximately the first million words you write are going to be crap. That’s a lot of crap, so get busy! Don’t feel like you need to be pigeonholed into one subject. Start with what you like, work toward what you know, then write what you love. It will work itself out. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing!! Even the best writers are still learning—don’t let their fame fool you!

And finally - You're going to be stranded on a desert island (for a wee while) but I'm going to allow you to take 1 book, 1 piece of music, 1 movie, a bowl of your favorite dessert and 1 person you'd like to share the island with for a while (alive, dead, fictional or matters not) What are your choices...and if you want to elaborate...tell me WHY?

Hmm…working backwards: Who? Dame Judi Dench—because she’s talented and brilliant, and on a desert island might be the only opportunity I’d get to chat with her! Favorite dessert? Key lime pie—desert islands are hot and this is a pretty refreshing choice. Movie? The most recent Three Musketeers film, because it’s fast-paced, motivating and full of 2 of my favorite things: intrigue and innovation. (Certainly these will help Judi and me to get off of the island!) Music? If I have to narrow down to one song, I’m going to say Hevia’s “Tanzila”. It’s fast, I can’t sit still while it’s on—it’s a good upbeat, inspiring, working song. (If I get one entire album: I’d have to go with Mythos’ “Purity”. The tempos are all over the map, it’s ambient. Beautiful music.) One book? I’d say an empty notebook, but I think what you’re looking for is more like The Innamorati. I wouldn’t mind taking a second read through it.

Please check out THE QUAD and all of Heather's other projects at her website: 


  1. Fantastic interview! Loved learning new things about you, Heather. Happy sales!! :)


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