Heather Gudenkauf is the New York Times and USA today bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and These Things Happen, and her newest novel, LITTLE MERCIES, will be out this June. I'm thrilled to have Heather here, writin gabout story world, setting and so much, more. Thank you so much, Heather!
A picturesque college town surrounded by craggy bluffs and thick woods and the desperate search for two missing children; a renovated bookstore settled near the banks of a rushing, winding river and the mystery surrounding the birth of one little boy; a close-knit farming community and a small, rural school breached by an intruder with a gun and unknown motives; a large Midwestern city where a social worker finds her world unraveling and a young girl who finds her world put back together again. All settings for my novels. Fictional accounts? Absolutely! Fictional locations? Not quite.
I’ve lived in Iowa most of my life and in the years that I have been a student and a teacher, school has been canceled for snow, ice, wind-chill, and floods. I know that an impenetrable dense fog that can close highways and schools in the morning can be swept away in just a few short hours by a warm, soft breeze. One year, on the first day of school, high winds ripped the roof off of the section where my third grade classroom was located sending it crashing through the ceiling of another portion of the school where children sat moments earlier.
That’s Iowa for you. And in each of my novels I have woven meaningful real-life locations into my fictional settings. In The Weight of Silence the Willow Creek Woods was fashioned from Swiss Valley Nature Preserve, a beautiful forested area with the twisty Catfish Creek snaking through it. I have spent countless hours hiking there and this was where the seeds for my first novel sprouted.
Also plucked from my own life and dropped into my second novel These Things Hidden is River Lights, 2nd Edition, my favorite independent bookstore that is the blueprint for Bookends where much of the novel takes place. River Lights is nestled in a gorgeous 1870s building, the former Pusateri’s Grocery, with its original wooden floors and tin ceilings, located in the heart of downtown Dubuque, Iowa, the perfect home to match the shop’s warmth and charm. Visitors are invited to bring their dogs into the store and will be welcomed with an organic doggie treat upon arrival. But of course the best part of the bookstore is the staff. They are always there to ask about my family and are always ready with a book recommendation. I am never disappointed with what they suggest. While the bookstore in These Things Hidden is the scene of a very dramatic (even traumatic) event within the novel, whenever I enter the bricks-and-mortar storefront it feels like coming home.
In my third novel, , the setting of the book, the small farming community of Broken Branch, Iowa, was inspired by the anything-but-broken real-life town of Wellman, Iowa. Wellman is a community of about 1,500 with a prominent Amish population and, along with my hometown of Dubuque, epitomizes what is common to so many Iowa communities: a wonderful sense of family and generosity to those in need. Wellman is also where this city girl learned about cattle farming and the difference between heifer and a cow – and there is a difference!
The setting of my current novel, Little Mercies is housed in bustling urban metropolis with a diverse population and a vibrant cultural backdrop. Within the pages of Little Mercies, a dedicated social worker faces her worst nightmare and comes to rely on those around her to help. During the course of writing Little Mercies I met a dedicated social worker who shared the joys and challenges of her work in serving families in crisis and in need. Her input was invaluable in the creation of main character, Ellen, as an authentic, believable character. In order to learn more about the medical profession and legal system I visited with doctors, a paramedic, an attorney and a chief of police. I even got the chance to tour a police station and walk through the steps of the booking process during the course of writing the novel. One of my greatest pleasures while writing Little Mercies was the people I met along the way and the wonderful conversations I was able to have with these home state experts that helped inform my writing.
Like the fictional townspeople in Little Mercies, communities all over Iowa come through for their friends and neighbors. A farmer you’ve never met will stop to help you when you are hopelessly lost on a barren county road (true story). When a virtual stranger’s son was diagnosed with bone cancer several Iowa towns took the family in as their own – saying prayers, sending notes of encouragement, raising money. Even a group of twelve year old boys without a second thought shaved their heads in allegiance with a classmate going through chemotherapy (another true story).
The best thing about all of this is that that’s just Iowa for you. You could close your eyes and stick a pin in a map of Iowa and the inhabitants of any city, town, or burg would react in the exact same ways. These along with so many other reasons are why I continue to write about my home state – full of little mercies - Iowa.