Courtney Milan is one of my favourite romance novelists. She is best known for her incredible historical romances, though her contemporary romance Trade Me is my favourite. In her historical romances Milan actually discusses the realities of women’s lives in the 1800s and as wonderful it is to read about the parties and the dresses, it’s important to read about a woman’s lack of power in almost every spectrum of their lives from controlling their money to their bodies. Milan takes romance tropes and turns them on their head, gives them more depth and nuance, and creates characters which are incredibly life-like. I love her books and bloody hell are they sexy.
Having the chance to interview her was wonderful – enjoy!
Trade Me was the most recent novel of yours I read. It, like everything you have ever written, was tightly plotted. Do you plot your novels meticulously before you start or can vital elements of the story change as you write?
Neither. I don’t plot at all, at least not as most people mean the word. My process is much more complicated. When I start a book, I have some vague idea who the characters are (although this changes) and some vague idea of one or two events in the book. I write those events, no matter where they are in the book. Writing those events spurs me on to see what else I need to write; I then go and write those additional scenes. When I have enough stuff, I stitch it together into a horrible first draft.
I have to go through the book about six or seven times after that, making huge changes each time, to make everything into a coherent whole. My second draft I usually end up changing (deleting and adding) about 30,000 words, which is usually around 30% of the book, and the third draft about 10,000. It always feels like playing whack-a-mole—fix one consistency problem here, another pops up there.
I get consistency from the back end, not the front end.
Both the Brothers Sinister series and the Turner series feature “brothers” – either biological or in terms of friendships, and it seems to me that stories about family, with a connecting thread running through them all, appeal to you. Is this the case?
I come from a very large family, and so on an emotional level, one of the things that really appeals to me is writing about the complications that arise out of love: How you can love someone a lot and still have them hurt you, how you can love someone and still not see them, and so forth. Family (broadly speaking) is one of my favourite things to write about.
What I love about everything you write is how rich and vibrant the detail is. It’s obvious you do a lot of research. Has there ever been something you have really loved researching? And something that was the most interesting?
I love learning about new things, period. I wouldn’t want to stick to the same things; it would get pretty boring for me. So I try to shake things up quite a bit.
So, for instance, for Trade Me I read biographies of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison—a lot of the computer greats. And if anyone ever thinks that Adam and Blake Reynolds are too weird to run a company, honestly, go read any one of those biographies. Adam and Blake are actually pretty firmly on the “normal” end of the spectrum for most of these guys. Steve Jobs, by comparison… Yeah, I’ll just leave it at “Read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.”
I think that my biggest point of fascination, though, is with character: Why do people excel? Why do they do the things they do? I don’t care what industry it is. I want to know what drives people to succeed when there’s no logical reason to push that hard.
Your novellas are some of the best I have ever read. They may be shorter but each novella has an incredibly detailed and rich plot with wonderful, relatable characters. How different is the process of writing novella when compared to writing a full length novel? And when do you decide if a story will be full length or a novella – is it while you are writing or before you start?
It’s the same and it’s different. I usually know if something is going to be a novella before I start, and the question is really one of complications: novellas tend to have the main romance plot plus one or two complications that are closely tied to the main romance plot. Full-length works have the main romance plot and five or six complications, some of which veer far off the thread of the main romance.
I do the same thing: Write a handful of disconnected scenes, write more scenes, and then connect them. The difference is that in a novella I have to do more ruthless pruning, and stop myself from indulging in complications.
I can kind of tell the difference between a novella and a full-length book by the feel of the romance, too. A novella typically has a straighter romance arc—one breaking point between the hero and the heroine, I don’t know how better to describe it. Full length books usually have two.
In Trade Me your male protagonist Blake was a runner and while I don’t want to spoil his story for anyone, I found myself relating so much to how he saw and felt about running – are you a runner too? How did you go about creating his character?
I’m not a runner. In fact, I was physically incapable of running up until about a year ago—it turns out that I’ve been walking incorrectly my entire life, something that was causing me some serious tendon damage as I aged. I finally figured out the problem in December of 2013 and have been working on retraining my gait (and building the appropriate muscles) since then. Before that, I was never able to run for more than about thirty seconds before it became blindingly, cripplingly painful.
Since then, I’ve been working on running. I’m not fast—I’m not even moderately slow. I don’t think I will ever be fast. At this point, I can manage about a mile in fourteen minutes, which is barely even a jog. But since I wasn’t able to run at all before that, and even walking posed difficulties, this is a huge improvement for me. I finished my first half marathon last May, and I was extremely slow; I half-walked, half-ran (my speed), but I finished. I’ve come from the point where I couldn’t even walk half a mile without pain, to being able to run (slowly run) three miles straight, and walk fourteen.
So I don’t identify with Blake’s level of fitness on a personal level. For me, it’s been a very difficult struggle.
That being said, my husband is a runner. He’s done a handful (three) of ultra-marathons (50K, all mountain trails), and he’s working up to do more—he’s registered for four 50K races in 2015, one of which is the Rut in Montana, part of the 2015 Skyrunner World Series. He’s a huge fan of the sport of skyrunning. He follows all the huge names on Twitter, watches all the videos, and when we go on road trips, we listen to Ian Corless’s Talk Ultra podcast. He’s dedicated enough that we went to Telluride to spectate Hard Rock 100 (a 100 mile race in the Colorado mountains that goes over the major mountain passes in the San Juans—it has a cumulative elevation gain of 34,000 feet, and it is, as you might expect, hard).
So I’ve probably spent several hundred hours listening to podcasts, watching videos that he thought were cool, listening to him talk about races, and hanging out outside aid stations. I’ve picked up a huge amount about running second hand.
And like I said, my biggest fascination is with that drive to succeed—and whether it’s Steve Jobs or Kílian Jornet, I’m equally interested.
I love how you write your female protagonists. You create a life for them which is rich and fulfilled – I know that a Milan heroine will be determined and clever and break the mould society and tradition have imposed on her. Free, Tina, Rose – they are all these brilliant women doing things and impacting the world around them. How do you go about creating them? Does their profession or interest come first?
I wish I had a good answer to this. I don’t know how I go about creating my heroines. I do think that my underlying fascination with extraordinary people comes out in my books. If my characters don’t have that touch of the extraordinary about them in some way, the book is less likely to catch fire in my mind. A this point, I spend about 60% of my writing time hitting on a concept that I can fall in love with and the other 40% writing and editing it.
If I knew what the formula was for coming up with something that I want to write, I would probably be able to streamline the whole process and I would write much, much more. I don’t know how I do it. I just bumble around and finally stub my toe on something that works for me.
Both Talk Sweetly To Me and Trade Me feature protagonists of colour (something I am so grateful for). Unlike so many authors you don’t treat people of colour as being ‘other’ (again, something I am very grateful for) yet you do write about their experiences and motivating factors with such skill. How did you go about creating Rose and Tina? Have you ever received negative criticism from doing this?
For the record, my mother is Chinese. So I’ve experienced the rage when you read a book that contains someone who is supposedly Asian and watching the author create a caricature instead of a character. It feels like a punch to the gut—I always wonder, is that how you see me? Like a source of soy sauce and karate, and nothing else?
I feel like the mistake authors tend to make is asking themselves “What is a Chinese person like?” or “What does a Chinese person do?” You would never ask yourself this question about your white characters. It just doesn’t make any sense in a vacuum. When you build a white character, you ask yourself, “Where does this person come from? What does she want? What’s standing in her way? How have her experiences shaped what she wants?” You don’t say, “How do white people think about this issue?” or “How would a white person react?”
You do the same thing for a character of color. The difference will (or I should say, may) be in her experiences.
I hear people saying, “do your research” to authors looking to write characters of color. But I feel like the preliminary question needs to be, “Do the right research.” Otherwise you get someone who spends hundreds of hours researching Tantric sex, and never asks themselves why their historical Asian heroine would be an expert in something that she would have never encountered in her corner of the world, especially since said Asian heroine is inevitably a virgin.
In other words, they’ve taken something they identified as Asian and handed it to a heroine to make her Asian, instead of asking what her experience would be.
I try to start with the experience, and research the experience, and let the character flow from it. I try to do the same thing with white characters that I do with characters of color. The experiences differ. Sometimes they differ greatly. But I build people the same way no matter what their color is.
Your supporting characters are extremely well thought out and rounded. Is it easier for you to create these secondary characters as opposed to the main protagonists?
Some characters are easy. Some characters are hard. Some secondary characters don’t come alive until I write scenes from their point of view so I know who they are inside their heads; these scenes don’t always make it into a book. The stronger the secondary character, the more likely I’ve written something from his or her point of view at some point in the story.
You are a pioneer of self-publishing. What made you first decide to self-publish? What are the factors which just reinforce to you that this was the best decision? What is the hardest thing about the process?
I’m not sure I’m a pioneer of self-publishing. I came to it at the point when Amanda Hocking had already sold a million books, at which point it was fairly firmly established as a reasonable thing to do.
I did it initially because I wasn’t going to sign another contract with my publisher for the next book in my series for a variety of reasons (royalty rate differences, creative differences, and the feeling that they weren’t doing a great job marketing my books).
It turns out that I really like being in control of the process (which will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody who knows me) and that I can mostly do a good job of it. I’ve done really well, and I’m about 100 times happier.
The hardest thing about the process… There’s always so much to do, and making myself hold back on taking on myriad projects is really hard for me.
What is next for you? I know that Hold Me will be the next book in The Cyclone Series featuring Tina’s best friend, Maria – I can’t wait for this! What else can your readers look forward to?
I’m working on Once upon a Marquess right now, which is the first book in the Worth Saga. It’s about Judith Worth, whose father was convicted of treason eight years ago. Her family lost fame, fortune, and face, and she’s been making do ever since. The hero is her brother’s former best friend…and the man who presided over her father’s trial in the House of Lords.
Like I said for the first question, my books get written in an odd order, and until it’s done, lots of things can change. So I’m going to hold off on saying much more for now.
Thank you so much Courtney! If you want more information on Courtney or what she is working on then her website is definitely the best place to look. I hope you all enjoyed the interview, now go and read her books!
Thanks to Courtney for letting me use her cover images on my blog – all copyright belongs to her.