I had the honor of interviewing Christine Merrill on her latest book, some of her adventures with writing and publishing, and to chat up Doctor Who.
Merrill is one of those authors who I can always count on to brighten up my day. No matter what is going on, I know that when I pick up one of her books, I will smile again, and, for just a while, all of the pressing things fade away. It turns out, she is just as awesome in real life, and I smiled often while reading her answers.
You have a new book out, The Greatest of Sins. What inspired you to write this?
I like taking Lois McMaster Bujold’s advice about thinking up the worst possible thing to happen to your character to give them a challenge. So I set about coming up with the biggest possible problem… and I had two possibilities.
I don’t want to give away what they are. But I used one for The Greatest of Sins and the other in the sequel, which is about the Duke of St. Aldric.
After reading what you did with The Greatest of Sins, I can’t wait to read what your second possibility was. How did you go about writing Sins?
My process, when I am writing is always 1000 words a day. Sometimes, I use a program called Writer’s Blocks, to help me structure the scene conflicts.
For Sins, I spent most of my research time looking up pictures of old medical equipment, and trying to come up with scenarios that would allow me to use a stethoscope.
I appreciated your Author’s Note, sharing the bit of history as to how stethoscopes came about. How do you research when writing historical romance?
Not nearly well enough. I am in awe of true history buffs like Louise Allen. She has forgotten more about the Regency than I will ever know. But when I am researching, I tend to hone in on a couple of details of the period, and try to learn as much about them as possible. For The Greatest of Sins, it was medicine.
My next book has a pregnant heroine, and the big detail I got obsessed with was Wow Wow sauce, a period condiment invented right about the time I needed something to satisfy a woman with food cravings.
I haven’t made it yet. But I will.
I’ll have to ask you about how that goes if/when I interview you for the sequel. What would you recommend to other historical fiction writers?
Travel more than I do, and do better research. But keep your energy focused on the people in your story. Readers love historical detail but a lot of them are reading a romance because they want to feel what the characters are feeling. The more real you can make that, the tighter you will hook the audience.
That tends to be my favorite aspect to your stories. The Greatest of Sins is the first of “The Sinner and the Saint” miniseries. How is your writing process different when penning a series?
I often end up with a series, even when I start out trying to write stand-alone books. I get distracted by side characters, and want to know more about them. If I have any idea of where the next book is likely to go, I will take a pass through the manuscript I am working on to add hints and clues as to what the secondary characters might be doing, when they are offscreen.
In the case of The Greatest of Sins and its sequel, I didn’t know that much about St. Aldric in the first book. But as I wrote the second one, I referred back to the first one, adding his view of events, and trying to keep the characters of Sam and Eve true to themselves, while filtering what I knew about them through the eyes of Michael and Maddie, who are the hero and heroine of the second book.
That sounds like a great approach, thank you. How would you define the romance genre?
A love story with a happy ending. Beyond that, I am pretty flexible. And I would consider a lot of what the RWA calls ‘romantic elements’ stories to be romances. Romance doesn’t have to be the primary plot for me. If there is romantic tension at all, I am totally hooked.
And yes, as a TV watcher, I am a ‘shipper’ [Someone who becomes invested in possible relationships within shows, whether established in the storyline or not; ‘ship’ is a shortened form of ‘relationship’ and ‘to ship’ is to pair two characters together. ‘Ships’ can be romantic or platonic.]
We could really go off on a tangent talking about ‘shipping’, but I’ll save that for another time. I thoroughly enjoy your love stories. Your contemporary romance and historical romance are unique to themselves, and altogether quite fun. What do you enjoy most about writing the different genres of romance?
I definitely like the fact that I don’t have to do as much research to do a contemporary. If I could write more of them, they would definitely be romantic comedies. But with a historical, you can do plot lines that just don’t exist anymore, like marriages of convenience. And you can marry a duke while wearing a fancy ball gown.
That cinches it; you’ve inspired me to become a historical romance novelist. What advice would you give to fellow romance authors?
I would want to remind them that, despite the fact that the job seems frivolous, our work is very important. There are people reading these stories in places like hospital waiting rooms, looking for a few moments of escape from harsh realities. With our true love and happy endings, we are providing what might be the only optimism in their day.
We won’t get to change the whole world in a blinding flash. But we are helping one person at a time.
What an awesome perspective, thank you. I also liked that you lived “firsthand the stages three through eleven of the Hero’s journey”. Please elaborate.
I may have to revise that, since I have no idea why I think the Hero’s Journey has that many steps. Everything I’m finding today makes it sound shorter. Or else, much longer.
But I tend to think of writing as both a divine calling, and an adventure. To a certain extent, the job chooses you, in that you have a head full of stories that you want to share with other people. It is a hard process to get those stories written down in an orderly fashion, and published in a place where people can see them. You have to find a mentor, submit and get rejected. You get your hopes up, only to have them smashed into the dirt.
But if you keep at it, you pass into the magical world of publishing. Not that it is really all that magical. But to a certain extent, you turn into an observer of life, and a reporter.
It has its magical moments, definitely. Like when you won the RWA’s Golden Heart contest — how long had you been shopping the manuscript around before you submitted it?
Once I decided that I wanted to write and publish a romance, which was about 1999, I entered at least one manuscript in the Golden Heart contest, every year.
For those of you who don’t know about it, it’s for unpublished manuscripts and is run by the Romance Writers of America. The final round of judging is done by professional editors, and even if you don’t win, it sometimes results in selling the book. It is excellent in building good writing habits, because you have to have a full manuscript ready before you enter. I got in the habit of finishing a book every November, and sending it off.
I entered every year, and every year I got stomped. Most of the manuscripts were romantic comedies. “Secrets of All Hearts” (which would be published as The Inconvenient Duchess) had been in it at least once before, and lost, of course.
I entered a bunch of smaller contests that year too, and got a lot of illogical negative feedback, along with one win. The editor that judged it a winner did not want to pursue it, as the story did not impress her. She wanted to know if I had any other historicals.
I didn’t. I had written it on a whim.
But in 2005, I became a finalist in the Golden Heart, and no one was more surprised than me when it won.
Persistence sure pays off! What was the process of publishing An Inconvenient Duchess like?
It was even more surprising than winning the contest. I spent the months leading up to the RWA national conference trying to impress editors and agents with the fact that I was a finalist. But no one was buying historicals. The market was dead. Did I have anything else?
Even at the conference, I felt like I had the plague. Then there was the major awards ceremony in Reno, on what was literally the biggest stage in the world. I won… and nothing happened.
The judges are anonymous, so there was no one there to thank. Although I had a bunch of contemporary stuff I had tried to write, I only had this one historical, which no one wanted, that was defining my career.
So I went home and put it on a shelf and tried to forget about it.
Then a couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail from a woman named Linda Fildew, who I had never heard of before. I opened it, assuming that she was someone I had met in Reno that I couldn’t remember. But she was the head of the Mills and Boon Historical line in Richmond Surrey, UK, and she was offering me a contract.
My manuscript had been judged by an editorial assistant named Maddie Rowe, who loved it and badgered everyone there to read it, and to buy me.
I would never have submitted it to an English editor, since I was just goofing around by writing a historical, still don’t even have a passport and felt like a complete poser writing about England at all. But when the shock of reading that e-mail wore off, I accepted the offer.
That must be cool to come full circle and have An Inconvenient Duchess republished as an e-book; will it always be free on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or is that free period limited?
It felt like I waited forever for that to be an e-book. It was out a few months before Harlequin started making everything digital. And I love that they made it free, since it’s brought me a lot of new readers. I think they will start charging for it sometime in 2013, since other writers deserve a chance at the promotion. Readers, if you haven’t already, grab up the e-book while it’s still free.
Why did you choose to self-publish Need to Know?
Short answer: no one would buy it. I entered that in the Golden Heart the same year I won with the historical, and when people asked to see something else, I showed them Need to Know. Most of them said, “Do you have anything else other than this?” (and the historical which they also didn’t want).
I had an agent excited enough to work with me on some rewrites, but in the end, the decision was that it was unmarketable. An e-publisher turned me down because the consensus there was that it would only sell a couple of dozen copies, and we would all be disappointed.
I tried to sell it until 2009. By then, the economy had crashed, my husband had lost his job, and although I was still writing full time for Harlequin, I needed money for Christmas. So in an act of desperation, I self-published.
I wish I could say it was a major success and I got rich. But I did make enough money to give me a boost for Christmas, and it is still selling. Mostly, it felt good to get it out there for readers. And, although I have been promising this for years, there will be a sequel.
I hope so! I loved the chemistry in Need to Know. How was self-publication different from traditional publication?
You have a lot more to be responsible for in self-publishing: editing, marketing, the cover, the print design and everything else are all on the author. That said, when it works, you get a much higher share of the profits.
That sounds like a fair gamble. What do you wish you had initially known about publishing (in general) that you know now?
I did a lot of research starting out, and knew more than many people who just sort of fall into their careers. But I didn’t know how much fun it would be to have a good editor. I’ve had two: Maddie Rowe-West and Jo Grant. They’ve taught me so much, and I can’t thank them enough, or give them as much credit as they deserve.
Nice! In approximately seven years, you have published approximately 16 novels and several novellas/short stories. Even being a full-time writer, how have you managed to deliver so much?
Discipline. It helped that I accidentally quit my job after finishing the second book. After I turned in An Unladylike Offer, I got a three-book contract with tight deadlines, and asked the boss to switch to working part-time so that I could write.
He said no. I wasn’t expecting that. I think we might have been playing chicken, each assuming the other would cave. But when he said “no”, I gave two week’s notice.
It is much easier to stay focused on writing and to avoid writer’s block if you dump the safety net on a whim, and still have bills to pay.
That will do it. As your biography illustrates, you found the way to enjoy the life of your dreams in the life you have. What would you say has been the driving force behind that development?
People telling me it couldn’t be done. I am very stubborn, and I hate to be told NO. There was a long-term job I had, before the one I accidentally quit. And during a performance review, I essentially told the boss (despite the fact that I’d been there for five years) that I considered myself a short timer. I was going to quit someday, when I got published.
And she said, “But suppose that never happens?”
After that, I doubled down in my writing, in an effort to prove her wrong.
Awesome! What lies in your future?
More writing. I am looking at a variety of projects: another historical, which, I think, will be an amnesia story. I want to finish the sequel to Need to Know, which is called “Wetwork”. I am trying to refresh an unsold contemporary rom com, to get it ready for sale. And in my spare time, I am playing around with a first-person YA paranormal.
I’m first in line! Last question — as a fellow Whovian [fan of the British TV series Doctor Who], I have to ask: who is your favorite Doctor and why?
Of the old doctors, I would say Peter Davison. I was a big Tom Baker fan, of course. But thinking back, I really liked the overall arc of the Davison episodes, with the Dark Guardian.
Of the new doctors, it would have to be Christopher Eccleston. I loved how war-damaged he was at the beginning, and how a season with Rose healed him.
Yeah, it’s too bad we only got one season with Eccleston, though my favorite (of the new) is David Tennant. We could talk forever about Doctor Who; thank you so much for your time and gracious answers.
Thank you for interviewing me!
(For more on Christine Merrill, visit her website.)Powered by Sidelines