Santa Rosa mystery author scores half-million dollar book deal

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Heather Chavez found out she scored a two-book deal with William Morrow on a mundane workday morning. The TV had just died. Her husband wanted to watch the news while he ate breakfast and they were both huddled over the cable box checking the connections.

Then the phone rang: “Are you sitting down?” her book agent asked.

After more than two decades of writing unpublished novels, her thriller “No Bad Deed” had just sold for enough to buy at least 1,000 new televisions.

“My first thought was — now I can buy a new TV,” she said, laughing. “It just didn’t feel real.”

What Publishers Weekly first reported as a “rumored mid-six-figure sum” turned out to be spot on, as she would sign a contract worth more than $500,000 with foreign rights included. Writing novels since she was in her early 20s — manuscripts she now calls her “practice novels” — Chavez had finally hit pay dirt at age 49.

“It was life changing,” said the former Press Democrat copy editor turned public affairs representative at Kaiser Permanente. While the book was being submitted to publishers, “I had told a colleague I was hoping to get enough to fix my rotting (backyard) deck. That’s it.”

Now, one of the most common questions she fields is, “When are you quitting your day job?”

A few weeks ago, she dropped down to 32 hours a week, but she’s not abandoning the day job — writing newsletters, employee recognition, corporate messaging and advertising inserts — any time soon.

Due out in early 2020, “No Bad Deed” follows the downward spiral of Cassie, a mother and veterinarian who witnesses an assault alongside a Santa Rosa road late at night. Instead of calling the cops and driving on, she jumps out of her minivan and tries to stop a man from attacking a woman. From there her life spins out of control as her husband goes missing, her son is injured and her dark family history emerges.

“It’s about someone doing the right thing, with horrible consequences,” Chavez said.

To write Cassie’s workaholic character, she pulled from her own experiences as a newspaper copy editor: working until midnight nearly every night, often working weekends and holidays and the guilt that comes from not spending enough time with your family.

“It’s important for me to portray strong females and moms,” she said. “That’s what gelled for me when I was writing the book. Once I found her voice and her strength, all of a sudden it made sense.”

Over the years, her closest friends, including fellow Press Democrat copy editors, have played the role of confidant and sounding board, fielding random text messages like: “So how would you kill somebody?” prefacing a list of different methods. Or “If your husband didn’t come home after work — when would you start to worry? After a few hours? The next morning? When would you call the police?”

“It’s nice to have those people you can ask the off-the-wall question about how to kill someone and they’re not going to look at you strangely,” Chavez said.

A Kaiser colleague read an early version of the first chapter of “No Bad Deed” and said, “You know, you have a dark side that I didn’t know you had.”

Finally shining a light on her secret, the book deal validates all those years of writing novels that were only read by her husband and closest of friends. What was once regarded as mom’s little hobby or a copy editor’s wild imagination, now has looming deadlines, revisions and new relationships to forge with editors and agents.

“At first, you look at it as — OK, I have 24 hours in a day and I need to sleep at least six of those, and I have a job. So how much time can I devote to this hobby? So it’s kind of freeing to be working on the second book and have a deadline. This is a job now. This is something I’m getting paid to do.”

Born in Southern California, Chavez moved to Lake County in middle school, about the same time she wrote her first long-form work, a novella about a serial killer terrorizing a summer camp. She worked her way through UC Berkeley. After getting an English degree, she worked as a reporter for the Lake County Record Bee before becoming a copy editor and page designer at The Press Democrat.

Inspired by writers like Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, Dean Koontz and Gillian Flynn, she’s always been attracted to thriller and mystery genres, fascinated by tales of “ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things.” A meticulous planner, Chavez keeps spreadsheets to track writing hours and word count per day. It usually takes her about six to seven months to write a first draft. Unlike her previous “practice novels,” she compiled an outline before writing “No Bad Deed.”

“I like to know how the book’s going to end. I like to know what’s going to happen in the middle. But I don’t plot every scene extensively. The outline evolves.”

The book deal couldn’t have come at a better time, with her son in his third year at San Diego State, studying to become a physician’s assistant and her daughter studying singing as a senior at Santa Rosa High School.

And what ever happened to that broken-down old television?

“We went from a 48-inch to a 75-inch,” she says with a laugh, adding that they might even spring for that new backyard deck soon.

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