Sustaining the Dual Levels of a Romantic Suspense

Being the Queen (or King) of Your Creative Domain
October 2, 2009
Mystery Wine Event
October 4, 2009

I was excited when Heather asked me to be her guest today. I was more excited when she asked me to write on a specific topic. You see, while it’s true that I’m a writer it’s also true that I struggle to come up with fresh, creative blog topics people may want to read about. Then I read her requested topic about sustaining the different levels of romance and suspense in my stories, and I thought “Yeek! She’s gonna make me think.”

I’ve debated ways to effectively tell you how I balance the different aspects of my stories. I’ve decided to entertain you (hopefully) while I make you think with me. I’m putting an excerpt from my upcoming release SOUNDS TO DIE BY. My thought is that you can read it and we can dissect it together. I hope you’ll play because I think this could be fun. And for those who do play (or comment), I’ll have a drawing to give away an ARC of Sounds to Die By.

Excerpt from Chapter 3. Ian and Kieralyn are in a jazz club chasing down a lead on her case.:

An attractive waitress stepped up to their table and sat two glasses of water down. “Sorry for the wait. My name’s Lisa. What can I get you to drink?”

Kieralyn smiled, though she really wanted to get back to the debate with Ian. He was mentally stimulating, if a bit irritating. “I’ll have a glass of your best Riesling.”

Lisa nodded and smiled at Ian. A glint of appreciation lit her eyes. “And you, sir?”

Ian smiled up at Lisa. The scars at the edges of his eyes crinkled and added to his appeal. “A Coors would be great.”

“I’ll get those drinks right over and take your food order.” Lisa strode away.

Kieralyn turned back to Ian. “All right. Out with it.”

“First, I’m sorry for being touchy. Your reaction got to me more than I’d thought it would.” He put his arm around her at the waist and leaned close. “Now, for what you’ve missed.”

“We’ll start with the man talking to the bartender. He’s the owner and shows it off by wearing a well-cut, high quality suit and an expensive watch. He’s right handed and wearing a gun under his left arm. He’s not afraid to do his own dirty work. He’s trained himself to speak and move as if he was born to wealth, but there is an almost imperceptible layer of the streets beneath his veneer.”

If he was the owner, was he involved in the case? Something from her recording had sent Ian here. If the recording had been made at the club, the owner would know. Wouldn’t he? If that was the case, he’d know about Lana. Or had something else tipped him off to her? “I’m going to get tired of asking, but how do you know that?”

“Fabrics are no different than places. They each have sounds that are as distinct as their weights and textures. His suit whispers.” Ian rested his hand on her knee and ran it up her thigh where he fingered the edge of her skirt. “Like these stockings you wear beneath this skirt. Both are silk, but the skirt’s fabric is woven with a poly blend to give it more weight than the spun silk of your stockings.”

Kieralyn swallowed the desire bubbling up and resisted the urge to shift in her seat. Her body pulsed and tightened in awareness. “And the watch and gun?”

“The second hand on the watch sweeps rather than ticks. It’s almost soundless. The holster forces him to hold his arm a little differently, which in turn makes the lining of his jacket rub less evenly than, say, Taylor, who is unarmed.”

“You can’t hear that over the music and conversation in here.”

“On the crowded street, I could tell from the shift of your silk shirt that you’re wearing a lace bra.” He slid his hand up her leg and over her shirt. His thumb brushed just beneath her breast. His eyes locked on her face as if he could see her. “Tell me, am I right? Or wrong?”

Moisture pooled in her panties. Her stomach clenched, and the muscles along her spine bunched. What was he doing to her? More important, how was he doing it? Men didn’t get to her. She’d had sex, sure. But no man had ever aroused her with a touch or the sound of seduction in his voice.

Ian Cabrera was not like other men.

“Am I right or wrong, Kieralyn?” His thumb eased up, closer to her breast. “Do you wear lace beneath your sensibly sexy FBI agent clothes?”

“Keep your mind on the investigation, Ian.”

“I can multi-task.” He nuzzled into her neck, his lips smiling against her skin. “You’re aroused.”

Here’s my quick dissection of this excerpt.

A lot is accomplished in the 619 words I’ve chosen.
~ You get an idea of what Ian looks like and that he wasn’t born blind because of the scars around his eyes.
~ You see Kieralyn’s frustration and attraction to him, and his to her.
~ You get an impression of Ian’s skills (both in regards to his listening abilities and with women).
~ And as sexy as this scene is, you learn a lot about the “bad guys”.

Every word in a story has to serve a purpose. To effectively blend romance and suspense, to keep the story from becoming unbalanced if you will, the scenes have to multi-task. In my stories, if the hero is alone working the case, he’s thinking a little about or talking about the heroine (and vice versa with the heroine). In my books, the sex scenes don’t really move the suspense plot forward, but if my characters are having sex it’s going to develop them individually and as a couple. Though, come to think of it, in my current work in progress the sex scenes do, in a round-about way, move the suspense plot along.

I have a process that I follow with my stories, but when I was trying to put it together for today it occurred to be that it’s in a constant state of flux and is varying by the story I work on. There are a few constants. My plotting board is one and there are some worksheets that I use before beginning. (Check my Writer Resources page on my website for the Conflict Grid and the Questions to Answer sheets. Those are my favorites.) Here’s a sample of a plotting board. I’m open to any questions you have whether they’re about the excerpt, the book, the board, the tools on my website, or whatever else you can think of.

SOUNDS TO DIE BY releases October 13 from Samhain Publishing as an eBook. Here’s a blurb, which may make that excerpt up there make more sense.

Rookie FBI Agent Kieralyn Beckett is in a delicate position. Her team refuses to buy into her theory that a string of kidnappings is connected. If she pushes too hard, they’ll discover the latest victim was her college roommate and boot her off the case. A garbled recording is the only evidence, and there’s only one man who can decipher it. The hard part will be convincing him to take the case.

Blinded as a child, NSA “listener” Ian Cabrera spends the majority of his time analyzing data while secretly searching for his father, a missing CIA operative. His plate is full, but Kieralyn’s passion and determination, as well as the erotic beat of her heart, spark his interest. So does the mention of his father’s code name on her recording.

There’s only one way to follow this new crumb-trail of clues without tipping her off about what he’s really after. Convince her she needs him to be her undercover partner, despite his handicap. Between her eyes and his ears, they make one beautifully orchestrated team. Every time they touch, though, the arousal they generate creates one red-hot element of distraction…

Thanks for having me here, Heather. I look forward to chatting with everyone! Don’t forget to comment and chat with Nikki Duncan for a chance to a win a copy of her upcoming Sounds to Die By.


  1. RKCharron says:

    Hi Heather & Nikki Duncan,
    Thanks for the fantastic post.
    I've cut&pasted it to my Writing folder.
    I'll be referring to it again & again.
    Thanks for sharing,
    All the best,

  2. s7anna says:

    Hi Nikki,
    I'm just in awe of the way you've captured Ian's character…I love the sensuality that's woven through the story…It's not about the sex as so much as the sexual chemistry that you're emphasizing in the passage given above….Even his description of the owner of the club…sounds sexy..
    Love it…eagerly looking forward to your book release!!!

    Happy Reading!!!
    Anna Shah Hoque

  3. Amy S. says:

    Great post! Sounds to Die By sounds great!

  4. SusiSunshine says:

    Wow..this excerpt is really great. The chemistry is so sizzling…
    Story sounds great!

  5. I think the excerpt definitely highlighted what you said. I like the duality of the conversation and how she kept trying to keep it business, but he turned it into seduction while keeping to the topic.

  6. Heather Long says:

    RK, I'm putting together a more in depth class on this that I'll be teaching at Candace Havens' Write_Workshop in a few weeks. If you're interested, check out her website for the links on how to sign up for the workshop. They're free.

  7. Heather Long says:

    Anna, you're absolutely right. It's not about the sex for my characters because while they're good in bed together I need to know that they're good outside of bed. And for me personally, the best foreplay comes from the attraction and connection outside of the bedroom. Ian and Kieralyn were very easy to write, well except the part where I couldn't describe things for him like a sighted man.

  8. Heather Long says:

    Amy and Susi, I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed writing it. I truly fell in love with Ian – maybe because he has my husband's smart mouth.

  9. Heather Long says:

    Linda, they did that focuses/nonfocused banter bit almost all the way through the story. None of my other characters have done that and as much as I loved it with Kieralyn and Ian I haven't found it working as well with anyone else.

  10. By reading the excerpt, I want more!

    Tracey D

  11. Heather Long says:

    Such a fantastic week! Of course, I am dying to read Sounds to Die By Nikki! I loved this blog when you first sent it to me and I'm loving it today.

    I should go away more often, thank you Nikki and everyone else who's stopped by to blog or comment! Thanks for making this a great week online and off!

  12. Heather Long says:

    Tracey D, I'm glad you like what you've seen. I really can't express enough how thrilled it makes me to know that people are eager for Ian and Kieralyn.

    And speaking of them, be sure to watch my blog and website this month because in addition to the blog party with giveaways I've got going, I'm going to be announcing a Halloween free read from Samhain that has Ian and Kieralyn and a few of their friends in it. I would tell you about it now, but it's not available for download from Samhain yet. So stay tuned.

    Heather, I am totally jealous that you are at Disney. I love that place as much as my kids.

  13. Cathy M says:

    Hi Nikki, love getting fun facts on the writing process, and your upcoming release is already on my wish list. The excerpts you pick definitely have me wanting to learn more about these two, plus I love romantic suspense stories.

  14. Addison Fox says:


    Great post and the excerpt is fantastic – I can't wait to pick up the book!


  15. Karin says:

    Great post, Nikki. Posting that excerpt is a great way of showing how important each word in a novel can be while also telling us why. It's a totally fabulous excerpt and I'm looking forward to reading Sounds to Die By.

  16. Kim S. says:

    Great post!! Very informative!

    Sounds To Die By sounds like SUCH a great read!! I can't wait to get my hands on it!!

  17. Bella says:

    Nikki — what a great post! I love romantic suspense (OK, erotic suspense 😉 ) And I never really thought about maintaining the different levels in the way you described above. I also love the shot of all the post-its ;-).

    You've been teasing us with tidbits of this one for a while, now, and I would love to win a copy cuz I am dyin' to read it!


  18. Nikki Duncan says:

    I'm glad you guys enjoyed today's post. It's been great chatting with you and hearing your thoughts on the story. I'm going to head to to pick a winner for the ARC. I'll be back in a few.

  19. Nikki Duncan says:

    And the winner of the ARC, based on and the number of commenters today, is Bella. Congratulations, Bella! Email me at to let me know which format you prefer.

  20. Bella says:

    WOOT! Thanks Nikki! You know I've been eagerly anticipating this one!!!

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