Rachel, when you start a new book, do you tend to begin with a character and find her story, or do you have a story idea and discover who lives it out?
I am a character driven reader and writer so it all comes from character …and starts with character, too. After that inspiring Skype call with my agent about a female Sherlock Holmes character, I took a note book and a bunch of post-its to a favourite coffee shop and basically moved in for a weekend. The first thing I did was map out the characters and their worlds: their motivations, their alignment (Wink! Nudge!) to their Sherlockian counterparts, and what their end goals might be. After that, the fun happens. Most writers will tell you that there is a moment in the execution of those first chapters where the characters begin speaking and thinking for themselves and you are just typing!
With a mystery novel (a genre I didn’t really think I would ever write in… I thought mostly about straight historical romance), it took a different level of mapping: red herrings, clues, and motives for each suspect. There’s a tongue in cheek element to this as my girls are very much as amateurish at solving cases as I am at writing them – so they often stumble upon the solution. But, I never read a mystery for the brilliant end: I read them to see how the characters get there and what they learn about themselves, and human nature, in the process.
Another book featuring Merinda and Jem will release in April 2016. Can you tell us about it, or about the series as a whole?
YES! So much Merinda and Jem coming your way! I am contracted for three novella-length stories and three novel length stories all featuring the same characters. Of Dubious and Questionable Memory comes out Spring 2016, A Lesson in Love and Murder comes out early Fall 2016, A Conductor of Light takes us to Winter 2017 and the final book in the series, The White Feather Murders, publishes early 2017.
I mentioned a little earlier that the three novella titles come from Arthur Conan Doyle stories—that were not only accessible to Jem and Merinda during the time of their investigations (1910-1914) but also somehow relate to the cases they are solving.When I was first researching this series (and believe me, every weeknight and weekend for this career girl was spent at the Toronto archives), I read a book that single women of the time period might have owned called The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything: all tips and tricks for learning domestic attributes and luring a man. I thought that made a wonderful contrast to my girls who were too busy pursuing mysteries, so I drew from that. (When you read the series, you will see I have created my own “Bachelor Girl” handbook that Jem Watts follows closely) The second novel, A Lesson in Love and Murder, is actually very similar to an episode title in my favourite TV show Foyle’s War. I was stuck, my eyes ran over my DVD shelf (did I mention I am a Brit TV junkie?) and I saw A Lesson in Murder. There is a strong whiff of romance in my book so I added the ‘love’ part. The third The White Feather Murders is really the most plot-centric of the titles. While Canada is on the brink of the Great War in 1914, the girls investigate the murders of young men who are found with white feathers on their chests – even before the Army enlistment sheets go up!
Reading fiction can be a way to escape reality for a while, but those stories can still teach some valuable lessons. What points do you hope readers take away from your books?
I once told someone that when I sat in church I sometimes felt like “An Edwardian girl in trousers.” So out of place: there didn’t seem to be a Sunday School group for me. I was too old for the college age, I was not one of the marrieds…. I just never felt I fit in and I know that this experience is common. There are women in their 20s, 30s, 40s who, by choice or circumstance, haven’t been able to find a place in the domestic sphere – despite how valued it remains in our society. I wanted to reclaim a space for them and validate them!
I also love exploring a world on the brink. Everything was changing in the early 1900s: the class system was evolving, women’s suffrage was at a breaking point, the world would soon be on fire with a catastrophic war and, in Toronto, thousands upon thousands of immigrants were settling within the city’s borders (Toronto remains one of the most multicultural cities in the world today). What happened in those years very much determined the liberties we enjoy now. My girls are modern in views and often colour on the wrong side of propriety, but they are emblems of a world in motion.
I have been writing since I was 7 years old and was always too scared to show anyone. I have so many near-finished and finished projects that have languished in notebooks and USB keys. It was only about three years ago that I decided to finally pursue publication and while I found an agent quite quickly, the amount of rejections my first submitted book received taught me to be resilient. I kept every rejection letter and took all of the advice and comments that the editors sent with their passes in stride. I also was malleable and willing to learn. That first book is tucked away right now and might come back out into the world later, but I was willing to listen to my agent and immediately start on something new.
Pick a few “hills to die on” in your manuscript, but be malleable. You are eventually going to have to take people’s suggestions and comments and change your beloved manuscript and you need to be willing to do that.
Always have something in your back-pocket: while my first book was on submission I immediately started an entirely different novel. While that was out, I fleshed out another idea. I always wanted to be ready for where this transient industry might go.
I would also say read: read any and everything. Read and engage with authors online, find out what genres you might like to write in. Practice. Love writing so much that even if you never find that elusive contract you will still be fulfilled doing it.
That’s all wonderful advice. Anything else you would like to share?
A little note of encouragement: the first book I submitted got me an agent, yes, but was largely passed on by all publishing houses. This surprised me because I wrote the book that I thought the historical romance market would want. I coloured inside the lines and tried to subscribe to the conventions I was familiar with from my extensive reading. Instead, the book that blasted my personality on the page – this crazy series with my trouser-wearing, bowler hat sporting Edwardian lady detectives, was the one to pick up speed and eventually find a contract. Write your passion. The market will find a place for it eventually and hopefully readers will experience the zest and heart that you put into it.
Thanks so much for all the insight, Rachel, we’ve enjoyed it very much! Visitors, don’t forget to enter our drawing to win not one, but two, books from Rachel – an e-book now of A Singular and Whimsical Problem and a paperback copy of The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Murder upon its release in March 2016. What a great prize! Enter by clicking the Rafflecopter form below or answering this question from Rachel in the comments:
Where did Rachel get the names for her Herringford and Watts novella-sized adventures?
The winner will be announced on Friday. And if you’d like to learn more about Rachel and her books, here’s where you can find her online:
- Website: https://www.rkmcmillan.com
- Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/rachkmc
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rachkmc1
- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14165949.Rachel_McMillan
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rachkmc