Updated: Jan 2, 2021
Where do Harlequin suspense authors get their mind-bending story ideas? In the case of bestselling Missoula phenom Danica Winters, oftentimes the stories find her, thanks to real-life interactions with cops, special operatives—and one unforgettable serial killer next door.
Consider her latest Harlequin Intrigue title, “Protective Operation,” the fourth and final book in her Stealth series. In it, Shaye Geist, seeking refuge from her crooked Algerian prime minister father, tracks down gunslinger Chad Martin in the wilds of Montana, also on the run from terrorists. Their shared odyssey ratchets up a few notches when they find an abandoned baby, whose safety may cost them their lives.
Her newest book “Protective Operation” features stories drawn from real-life experiences of fellow Montanans.
“That was based on a friend of mine who was a military contractor for Blackwater,” Winters explains, “And I have a friend who trains canines for police work and we were talking about doing the same thing, because there are a ton of people here in Montana that are involved in the Spec-ops (Special Operations) world, SEALs and Deltas and Green Berets. That’s kind of how it came about, and we’re looking to expand that.”
Heroine Shaye Geist also has a real-life origin that speaks to the author’s commitment to women’s equality.
“Her name is actually a conglomeration of the names of two women who were the first women to graduate Rangers school,” Winters says. “That was just 2015 or 2016; it wasn’t even that long ago. I love writing those type of women who are just like ‘take no names, take no prisoners.’”
“My parents were Missoula blue-collar workers and stressed all the time with my two older siblings, both brothers, so I was the accident baby who was forgotten, sort of under the table,” she recalls. “I was way late in life for my parents, who thought they were over having kids, so I escaped into books a lot. Remember those books where you could pick your own adventure? I still feel like I’m living one of those, being a writer.”
Though she earned scholarships for poetry at the University of Montana, she graduated in anthropology, largely inspired by a love of the outdoors and travel.
“I studied a lot of forensics and did an archeological dig; I worked for the university and went up to British Columbia and did all of that. I like to be outside,” she says with a chuckle.
Was she tempted to stay in academics? Not at all, she says.
“When I was young and coming from Montana, I was told that I could be one of three things as a female: a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. And I was like, I don’t want to be a secretary. I worked at night in an ICU to put myself through college and just hated it. I have kids, 10 and 13, but I have zero desire to be a teacher for young children. I did not see myself following that typical gender role path.”
Instead, and somewhat ironically, Winters submitted a short story to a contest sponsored by a small publishing company. When she won, she was offered a job – not as an author but as a publicist within its marketing department.
“I did it for like three years. It was long enough to know that I had a passion there; I loved following books from creation to publication to sales and seeing people’s work being rewarded. It is such a personal journey. I went to my first writer’s meeting and they were like, ‘Are you a writer?’ and I said, ‘Nope, but I want to be!’ (laughs) So I sat down and wrote a business plan and said five years from today, I want to be with Harlequin, because they’re kind of the gold standard in romance. So every decision I made, including quitting the publishing house, was with that ultimate goal in mind.”
From Publishing to Writing
“It absolutely did, but in a good way. I’m one of those weird authors, especially working with Harlequin, where you’re producing so much that you don’t have time to get wrapped up in the little details. You know them, you have them, you write them out and put them down on paper, but like the next book, they’re gone. For a person who writes one book a year, they can really just get into their characters’ world, and their own worlds, too.”
Winters credits fellow romantic suspense author B.J. Daniels with helping to dropkick her out of publishing and onto the Amazon, Walmart and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists.
“I grew up here in Missoula. I travel a ton; I love to travel and experience as much as I can from the world, but I love coming home. I get homesick when I’m gone for too long. It’s pretty sad, but I can’t have no mountains; I need my mountains or I get lost,” she says.
“Actually, it was B.J. who said, ‘Write what you know, and Montana is something you really, really know,’ and I was like yeah. So the second I started doing it was the second I started breaking into the market as a writer.”
Since her first Intrigue novel, “Smoke and Ashes,” hit bookshelves in 2016, Winters has been busy reinventing the traditional Harlequin romance for a modern audience, at a mind-numbing clip of three to four books a year. In the process, she has acquired local sources in law enforcement and Spec-ops who have proven invaluable in helping make her fictional adventures credible – and at times, uncomfortable.
“I have one character that is based on a friend of mine that I’ve known since I was like 15 years old, and he’s a police officer now where I live and we’re friends. Our kids grow up together and play basketball together now, but I always go to him for questions about law enforcement,” she says. “The other day, I was researching a book and I said to him, ‘Hey, if in Missoula there’s a sniper and they’re sitting downtown and they do something, how would the police officers respond?’ and he’s telling me all about it. So three weeks later, there’s a sniper shooting downtown, the first one ever in the history of our city, and he’s like, ‘Where were you?’ And I’m like, ‘I swear, I had nothing to do with that! I drove through there at like 11 and it happened at 9.’ And he’s like, ‘OK, I don’t have to write up a report today.’
“It’s kind of this joke because several of the things that I’ve written about have happened. It’s so weird. This one was just off-the-wall goofy. That’s my next Harlequin to hit the shelves, the start of my next six-book series. I’ve made friends with some amazing people in this journey. We get to live a thousand lives and we get to do whatever we want to do and interview whomever we want to interview and it’s so much fun.”
Brushes with Real Life Crime
Winters’ casual acquaintance with Caressa Hardy, also identified in court records as Glenn Dibley, a next-door neighbor who was eventually convicted of murder, dug in deep enough to inspire the dark side of her fiction for years to come.
“In real life, my neighbor was a serial killer. It was a ‘Dateline’ [on NBC] and everything. The first time I met him, I was running, this guy pulled over and he had a kid in the car, and he was like, ‘Hey, you’re a beautiful woman, and I am almost as beautiful a woman as you,” and he was dressed as a man. And I was like, ‘Okay, congratulations, but I don’t care, nice to meet you.’ But that was a strange intro. And we got to talking and I said, ‘Well, your daughter is about the same age as my daughter and that’s very cool. Is she going to school?’ and he says, ‘No, she’s not going to school.’ And I was like, OK, whatever, I’m out. I don’t have room to judge anyone. I write romance novels and I get judged for it a lot, so whatever, float your boat, man.”
“So he, at that time, was dressing as a woman. We live in a little town outside of Missoula and you would see him occasionally at the post office dressed as a woman, and then he got implants. And I was like, okay, whatever. But it turned out he was keeping his girlfriend hostage in their house next door to me and he was stealing her identity. So he actually had taken her legal name and was transitioning into her, into looking like her.”
“It is crazy!” Winters admits. “So they had a couple of men that were in their house and I met those guys and there were some weird, hinky prostitution things going on… and I had told my friends who were the sheriff and the sheriff’s deputy that this dude is wackadoo. But at the same time, you’re like, am I keying into something because he’s transgendered or is it just a different lifestyle than what I live? In Montana, we very much have this live-and-let-live lifestyle. And so everybody is keyed in on him from the police department standpoint but he hasn’t done anything. So it turned out that he killed the two dudes who were living with them and was embezzling money from their bank accounts. They think that he would take these men from like Craigslist or Facebook… and kill them and take their money, and that’s how they were sustaining their lifestyle. He and his girlfriend had had 4, 5, 6 children throughout their relationship, and CTS had taken the kids in California, then they moved to Wyoming, then Montana, but they think that they were kind of killing the whole way and taking these single, older men’s incomes and signing their checks and taking their money.
“They caught the guy in 2017. I was actually in Florida when it happened, and my friend who is the deputy called and he was like, ‘Where would you guys hide a body?’ And I was like, ‘Hey, hypothetical? Or do you think I killed somebody?’ because I know I Google some weird shit. And he was like, ‘No. I’m standing in your neighbor’s acreage yard and we’re looking for remains.’ So we just kind of answered some questions and the FBI and all of these people got involved, and the guy was arrested, obviously. He tried to hire a hit man from jail to kill his girlfriend/wife/lady because she was the only one that can testify against him. Twice, he tried to hire a hit man. So I just got done writing that one, and that one comes out in May.”
“I fictionalized it obviously, …but it’s based on that story and my interactions with him,” Winters says. “It’s just such a crazy, crazy story. And every time I would see this guy, because he was just down the road, he would say, ‘You’re going to write my story someday.’ And yeah; it gives me chills, but I actually did end up writing his story.”
Hardy was convicted in May 2019 of double homicide of Thomas Korjack, 62, and Robert Orozco, 37. The bodies of the two men were never officially recovered and no death certificates were ever issued.
The author recently wrapped up another real-life first, a frustrating court case against an out-of-state online stalker who attempted to slander her, often in outrageous ways.
“It was bad and it was ugly and it was expensive,” she admits. “They were pulling stuff from my books and trying to discredit me. I had death threats on email. I did get a restraining order and I just settled because it would have gone on and on and on.”
Through it all, Winters not only knocks out four to five books a year, she also serves as business director for Self-Publishing Services, a Missoula-based self-publishing house she created with editorial director Clare Wood.
As usual, all of her future Harlequins will be set in Montana and feature female characters her grandmother could only dream about.
“I’m proud to be reinventing this genre in a way that puts women and women’s rights and the right to choose in the forefront,” Winters says. “As a brand, Harlequin definitely still has that feel to it sometimes; that older generation of writers who are still writing those kinds of soft, demure female characters. I have such a moral animosity toward that. I stick to my guns on very few things, but power women are something that I do and will constantly, forever write, because I am one!”
Learn more about Winters and her book list on their official author page at AuthorDanicaWinters.com.