This is the type of story Amy Gail Hansen used to write.
As a journalist from 2003 until a couple years ago, she covered the McHenry County area, often writing freelance stories about art, entertainment and food.
Now Hansen can officially call herself a novelist, though the title still feels a bit surreal when she says it.
"I think, 'Oh jeez, my little book I was writing at the library or in the mornings or while the kids were napping?' " said Hansen, who also taught English at Woodstock High School and was a founding member of the Algonquin Area Writer's Group.
"It's very exciting and overwhelming at the same time. I think you start to feel exposed. Now all of a sudden people are reading your innermost thoughts. It's sort of like, 'Look what's going on in my crazy head,' " she said with a laugh.
Hansen's debut novel, "The Butterfly Sister," published this month, already has attracted a fan base with overwhelmingly positive reviews on sites such as Amazon.com and Goodreads.com.
Formerly of Woodstock and Algonquin, 35-year-old Hansen now lives in Palatine. She's embarked on book signings both locally and elsewhere. And fans already are demanding a second novel.
Described as a suspense thriller, mystery, or a Gothic tale for women, "The Butterfly Sister" tells the story of Ruby Rousseau and what happens when a suitcase belonging to a former classmate arrives on her doorstep.
Hansen actually started writing the book in 2006, inspired by an experience she had a couple of years earlier while checking her luggage at the airport. She looked down and noticed her suitcase contained a luggage tag with someone else's name on it.
She had forgotten she'd loaned the suitcase to a college-mate years before. Always imaginative, stemming from her days growing up in New Orleans as a Nancy Drew fan, she thought about what would have happened if her bag had somehow ended up at that classmate's doorstep.
"I kept the tag, and I thought that was a really great idea for some kind of story," she said.
"It didn't take much to inspire me," she said of her interest in mysteries through the years. "I could just be walking down some creepy alley, and that could start a story. ... I was always an, 'It was a dark and stormy night' kind of kid."
At the time she started the novel, she'd only really written short stories. She wrote the first draft in 18 months, pitched it to agents and received rejections, as well as feedback.
"I realized what I thought was this really great manuscript was a first draft, and it needed work," she said. "I made a personal decision. I decided to just rewrite it basically from start to finish."
The entire process took more than five years. In the meantime, she still was freelancing for the Pioneer Press. She also wrote some nonfiction, including two books about Taylor Swift, including "Taylor Swift: Love Story."
Once the novel had been rewritten, she prepared to send a couple of queries to agents a week. But the first letter she sent to an agent received an immediate response. About a year and a half later, her book was published.
A mom of three, ages 7, 2 and 1, Hansen typically writes early in the morning before the kids wake.
"I carved out the time when I could," she said. "It was amazing what you can get done if you just work the three or four hours a day, seven days a week. That adds up."
A 1996 graduate of Woodstock High School, she taught English from 2002 to 2003 but left the career with hopes to be a writer. Becoming a journalist provided an ideal way for her to hone her skills, she said, and it gave her confidence.
She had a byline and the challenge to keep her vocabulary sharp, her word counts down.
"The thing that helped me the most was the determination of just sticking with it, knowing you've got to keep at it," she said. "I think reading is huge. You have to be a reader, and you should be really reading the genre you want to write."
Hansen hopes to release a second novel soon.
"You kind of have to strike while the iron's hot," she said. "I think I'll be motivated. I know this one has a great chance of being published.
Whereas with the first one I was wondering whether it would amount to anything, now I'm a novelist."By JAMI KUNZER - firstname.lastname@example.org