I’ve got awesome news to share! My girl, Elena, has a new book out – the next one in her What We Need dystopian series. I loved the first one and definitely recommend it. I’m really excited to make time in my schedule to read this one, too!
Before we get to the blurb and excerpts for this, I asked Elena a few questions.
Did you notice any big differences in the writing process between WWNtS and WWNtD?
Major, major differences. First, I wrote WWNtS over multiple partial drafts over the better part of a year, trying out different perspectives and structures until I found the one I was happiest with—only then did I actually finish a full story draft. WWNtD, I briefly outlined before NaNoWriMo last year, then planted my butt in the chair and wrote in one draft over roughly six weeks during NaNo and the early part of December. It was a brutal experience, but it was absolutely what I needed to get into a productive mindset, rather than dithering about until inspiration struck. Inspiration strikes all the time, more than I want it to, in fact, but the important part is doing the work.
Now that you have the first two completed, will there be any changes in the way you approach the third book?
I’m still refining my overall process, but the most important thing so far has been quadruple-checking everything. I’m already into revisions on book three, and because of the changes I made during the rewriting stages on book two, I’m coming across continuity issues I didn’t anticipate, on top of the changes I already knew I had to make. It’s tedious, but necessary.
I think that no matter the genre, most authors tend to learn things about themselves as they create their stories. Would you say that’s been the case for you? And if so, and if you’re comfortable sharing, what would you say you’ve learned?
While I hope I’ve managed to move away from the self-insert characters of my youth, I’ve learned that my best characters are going to be like me in at least some ways, because the shortest route to writing someone real is to write from experience. I gave Paul what I consider one of my best strengths, open-heartedness. I make friends quickly, always have, and while he may be a bit more stubborn about it than I am (I would have backed off from someone as hostile as Nina was in the early days) it’s still a piece of me. Nina, on the other hand, got my tendency toward anxiety, and her sense of humor is definitely modeled after mine.
So the challenge is investing enough of myself into them to bring them to life, while not making them clones of myself, or of each other—that’s where inspiration comes in, and other people I know, and any number of character-development exercises and lists of traits and flaws and motivations.
(This is a fantastic answer. I love these insights!)
If you found yourself in the midst of a dystopian world, what are the top five objects you’d want to have on your person at all times?
A flashlight. A water bottle or canteen. Some kind of blunt-force-type weapon; I have no formal weapons training, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a gun, and knives are just as dangerous to an untrained attacker as they are to the attackee, but I think I could manage a baseball bat or a length of sturdy pipe. Dental floss, both for the obvious reasons, and because it’d be handy to have something string-like packaged with its own cutter. And, because I’m me, I’d still want a book or two.
(I’m so pathetic, the first thing I thought of was lip balm. You’d survive a lot longer than I would!)
Would you want to find a place where you could hole up try to defend it, or would you keep moving to see what was out there?
Aha! You’ve found a clever way to ask me if I’m more like Paul or Nina. I’m honestly more in the middle—to me, it would depend on who I was with, and what conditions were like wherever we were. I’d bow to reason, or failing that, go with the group decision. But on my own, I think my natural inclination would be to hole up and nest, to make someplace comfortable to live and reasonably defensible.
(That’s me. Sneaky and tricksy.)
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m still working on book three, and I hope to have this draft done by November, so that…
(You got this.)
Do you have plans for what you’ll be writing once this series is done?
…I can participate in NaNoWriMo again to kickstart my next project. I’ve been faithfully jotting down all my plot bunnies while I’ve been working on the What We Need series, and I’m hoping to read through all my notes and decide which one comes next. Though in all honesty, there is one leading the pack. Is it too soon to write about more musicians? Because I’ve also got librarians, nature witches, artists, or gamers on standby. Or a new idea could hit me before then, we’ll see.
(I don’t think it’s ever too soon to write about musicians. However, I’d be totally on board with librarians, nature witches, artists, and gamers.)
Here’s a little more about the awesomeness that is Elena:
Elena Johansen pursued a lot of interests in her life before she decided she really should have been a writer all along.
Now she is one. That whole rock-star thing probably wouldn’t have worked out, anyway.
She lives in Michigan with her husband.
Here’s the blurb:
Planning a future is a tricky thing, more difficult than picking the best route off a map–especially when the world lies in ruins.
Paul doesn’t have any doubts about Nina. She chose to follow him, and to love him, more every day. Life on the road will never be easy, but with her by his side, he can do anything.
Nina never hoped for much, before the plague, or after. Having Paul to love, and to love her, was more than she’d expected. No matter what else is wrong, being with him feels right, and she sets aside her armor to let him in.
But when Nina reveals her deepest secrets, Paul realizes the life he hopes to have some day might be out of his reach.
And when Paul shows her his darkest side, the piece of himself he can’t accept, Nina wonders if she’ll lose the man she loves to his own demons.
Will Paul and Nina allow the struggles of their pasts to define their future?
What We Need to Decide continues their story, begun in What We Need to Survive, following them as they face the dangers of a world that isn’t as empty as it seems, and the challenges of forging a strong bond under the worst conditions.
Chapter One – Destination
October 12th, 6:35 pm – OH-93, south of Oak Hill
Nina sat beside Paul in front of the fire and waited for him to tell her what was on his mind.
She sensed something weighing on him. His distant expression was more than the unfocused gaze of someone staring into the leaping flames. He peered through it, past it, as if trying to see into the future. The slight furrow of his brow meant he didn’t care for whatever chain of events he conjured up.
He’d been quiet all afternoon while they’d foraged for food in Oak Hill. With a solid set of wheels underneath them, they didn’t need to stop in every town to hunt for supplies. But when they’d found a small grocery next to the highway with no obvious signs of damage, Paul had pulled into the parking lot and suggested they investigate.
They’d found a case of energy bars and more honey-roasted peanuts than they could eat in a week. Not that Nina wouldn’t try.
They hadn’t talked much as they scanned the aisles by the beam of Paul’s flashlight. Without the hum of the air conditioners, the electric whine of the fluorescent lights overhead, or the bland pop music playing on the radio, their voices had echoed through the cavernous building.
Though no one would hear them, Paul had whispered, and so had she.
He wasn’t whispering anymore. He was silent, almost brooding.
Nina had needed time to get used to his easy, talkative nature at first—his effortless charm inviting her in, and how he kept trying to be her friend when she couldn’t admit she wanted one. Since they’d gone beyond friendship, she was having equal trouble getting used to his silences. He’d admitted to worrying he talked too much sometimes, or he’d bore her, so he overcompensated by shutting up for hours. And sometimes, he was just tired.
This quiet between them as they sat together at the fire seemed thoughtful.
Emulating Paul’s endless patience with her was a challenge, but Nina wanted to try. She sat beside him without fidgeting or filling the silence with small talk. She was terrible at small talk anyway—if she dove into it, Paul would suspect he was making her anxious.
Instead of demanding he spill his secrets, which tempted her, Nina made herself do something practical, something useful. Diverting her circling thoughts with activity wasn’t new—she’d done it plenty to calm her mind before she and Paul had gotten together.
But she still thought of him as the practical one, the one ready for any eventuality. She had to play catch-up, learning to be as self-reliant and self-assured as he was.
Their spare gear was stored in the back of the pickup truck. They’d already built the fire and eaten dinner, but they hadn’t pitched the tent yet. By the way the western sky was blazing orange and pink, sunset was no more than half an hour away. Nina wasn’t practiced enough at camping to be comfortable setting up the tent by firelight. She lifted it out of the truck bed and scanned the site for the best spot.
When Paul noticed what she was doing, he jumped to his feet to help. Together they cleared a space and put up the tent, a two-person dome barely long enough for Paul to stretch out in. They had one sleeping bag between them, which got unrolled, unzipped, and laid flat to serve as a mattress. Their blankets went on top, though they had no pillows. Nina supposed they could have taken theirs from the house when they left, but neither of them had thought to, and they hadn’t found new ones.
After they finished, Paul plunked himself back down at the fire. Not sure what else to do, Nina joined him. He draped his arm over her shoulders, and she leaned her head against his chest, grateful for the contact. But he was still silent, and she still didn’t know how to ask what was making him so somber.
Before long, she was dozing off.
“You should go to bed,” Paul told her after the third time she jerked her head up to keep from falling completely asleep.
A good idea, but it could be a better one. “Come with?” Nina asked, her voice small and sleepy.
He shook his head, trailing the backs of his fingers over her cheek. “I’ll be in soon.”
Nina’s skin heated from the caress more than from the warmth of the fire. After a few days together on the road, Paul’s casual affection finally felt natural to her. Building that part of their relationship was easier when they were alone together, with no one watching and driving Nina crazy with nerves.
But she sighed when she settled into their thin, inadequate bed, alone and not nearly warm enough without Paul beside her. Summer was giving way to fall, and already the nights were far colder than she thought they’d be. She curled herself tightly, pulled her blanket up to her chin, and tried not to worry. The sudden feeling of distance between her and Paul kept her too tense to sleep. She wanted the warmth of his body and the solid comfort of his presence.
He was only a few feet away, but it felt much farther.
Nina told herself she was overreacting, but it was still new to her, this intimacy of hearts, not just of bodies. Uncertainty ran rampant inside her head—she knew she should find out what was bothering him, but she didn’t know how, not without potentially making the problem worse.
Sometime later she woke, fuzzy-headed and night-blind, without realizing she had fallen asleep. Paul was in the tent. He’d put the fire out, so no light shone through the thin nylon walls, and in the dark, he’d bumped her getting into bed.
She made a complaining noise, and he kissed her hair as he gathered her in his arms. “Sorry, sweetheart. Go back to sleep.”
His heat thawed her chilled joints, and she melted closer to him. When she began to kiss her way up his neck, though, he pulled away.
“Not tonight, okay? It’s late, I think we both need the sleep instead.”
Nina laid her head on his shoulder, determined not to let him know by any sound or change in her breathing how even his gentle rejection stung. Not much, not unbearably, but she hadn’t expected the first time to be so soon. They’d made love in one form or another every night since they’d left, and more than once on a break from traveling during the day.
They were still new to each other, and both of them had been starved for real affection. Nina had a gnawing hunger in her, a craving for him she couldn’t seem to satisfy.
Until tonight, she hadn’t doubted Paul felt the same hunger. For those precious few days they’d had together at the house, it hadn’t mattered whose idea it had been to get naked. But on the road, Paul had been letting Nina make the first move. Either because it was his nature—which Nina didn’t believe, he was too passionate to sit back and wait for her every time—or because he was trying to be sensitive to her past. She remembered the horror in his expression when she’d told him about her time on the road with Darren, before they’d met.
She’d refused to go with Paul, at first, because of it.
Obviously, he remembered too, which made him hesitant.
Nina wiggled closer. Paul’s arms settled more snugly around her. His heart thumped beneath her cheek, steady and strong, a drum keeping time for the soft drone of the crickets outside.
He didn’t pull away.
Her anger and hurt eased with every reassuring thump in his chest. She could choose to hang onto them, or to let them go. Paul was trying to make her life easier by being undemanding. He was trying to keep her fears contained and quiet her anxieties.
And if he erred on the side of caution, wasn’t it another sign he cared?
With a deep sigh, she let it go, like dropping stones into a pond and watching until they sank out of sight. “Paul?” she whispered. “Are you still awake?”
“Hm?” he murmured, nuzzling her hair with his lips.
“I know you’re too tired to talk now, but something’s bothering you. Will you tell me soon? Because I’m worried about you.”
After a long pause, she wondered if he’d fallen asleep right when she’d finally figured out how to safely phrase her concerns. Then he said, “Not sure I’m ready to talk about it yet, sweetheart. Might be a bad idea.”
She pawed her hands up his body until she found his face, then drew him down to her for a kiss. A soft one, which she hoped he knew wasn’t asking for more. “Then think about it. Because I want to help.”
“All right, sweetheart.” He interrupted himself with a wide yawn. “I can do that.”
If he said anything else, Nina didn’t remember when she woke up in the morning. Early sunlight painted the far side of the tent a brighter shade of green. She rolled over to joke with Paul for letting her sleep past sunrise, but she was alone. Not even a memory of warmth came from his side of the bed.
Nina’s winter coat was draped over her, though, on top of her blanket. Paul must have done it when he woke up, and his care of her made her heart flutter, even if she wanted to be the one taking care of him.
When she emerged from the tent, shoving her hands down the arms of her coat, she found Paul sitting in the cab of the truck with the door still open, his feet on the step. His notebook was spread across his knee as he wrote. He wore his usual layers, shirt and sweater, plus his own winter coat, a rugged denim jacket, surprisingly warm and sturdy. Nina knew because she’d found it for him, delighted at the quilted lining and how it was big enough she’d drown in it. Which meant, she’d hoped, it might actually fit him.
It did, which made her happier than she’d expected to be.
Their coats had been stuffed in the back of the truck with their extra supplies, but the chill in the morning air must have prompted Paul to retrieve them. She hadn’t seen him wearing his yet, but the deep blue color, a few shades darker than his jeans, turned his hair a brighter gold. For a moment, she just stood in front of the tent and marveled at him, her long-legged songwriter with his shaggy hair and beautiful hands and quiet, considerate heart.
She’d had no idea love could feel this way. Maybe she should have tried it sooner.
But it wouldn’t have been with him, so it might have been all wrong.
When Paul lifted his bent head to smile at her, she couldn’t help returning his grin. Faint, dark circles shadowed his eyes, which made Nina wonder how long he’d lain awake the night before wrestling with whatever demons troubled him. But he kept smiling as he set his notebook on the dashboard and stretched out his arms, inviting her to step into them, holding her when she did.
“’Morning,” she said, muffled by his coat.
“Looks like you slept better than I did.” He kissed the top of her head.
She faced him, not sure what to say, and tried to keep the worry out of her expression. She didn’t want to ask again, because he might think she didn’t trust him to tell her when he was ready.
Despite her best efforts, some fraction of her inner turmoil must have lurked in her eyes, enough to crack the edges of his uncertainty. He squeezed her tighter for a moment, tight enough for her ribs to protest, then kissed her forehead before speaking. “I know we planned to avoid big cities,” he began. “And I still think we should. Except . . .”
“Except?” Nina prompted when he broke off, glancing away.
He closed his eyes for a heartbeat before meeting her gaze again. “I want to go home.”