HAND OF DEVILS is a collection of three “Lord John” novellas: “Lord John and the Hellfire Club,” “Lord John and the Succubus,” and “Lord John and the Haunted Soldier.” (The first two novellas have appeared in print, in a mystery anthology (PAST POISONS) and a fantasy anthology (LEGENDS II), but “Haunted Soldier”—which follows BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE chronologically—is brand new.)
I should add that there is a “Book Seven” in the OUTLANDER series, to follow A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES. These massive books take me 2-3 years to write, but I am working on it, as well as on RED ANT’S HEAD, a contemporary mystery.
How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?
Not at all. I just wanted to write a novel, in order to learn how. Having decided that for me, an historical novel would likely be the easiest thing to do (no genre constraints—as such—and I was a research professor; I knew what to do with a library), I chose eighteenth-century Scotland on a whim, having seen a minor Scottish character from 1745 (in his kilt ) on an ancient “Dr. Who” rerun.
(Despite the “Dr. Who” connection, I should note that this had nothing to do with the time-travel aspects of the book.) It was a perfectly straightforward historical novel for about three days. At that point, I decided that, while I needed a lot of Scotsmen because of the kilt factor, it would be a good idea to have a female character to play off them and create sexual tension—and since I’d already decided to use the Jacobite Rising as a backdrop, if I made her an Englishwoman, we’d have lots of tension.
Mind, I knew nothing else about her, save that she was an Englishwoman. So, on the third day, I loosed her into a cottage full of Scotsmen, to see what she’d do. Whereupon she refused to talk like an eighteenth-century person; just kept making smart-ass modern remarks about everything she saw—and she also took over and started telling the story herself.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m not going to fight with you all the way through this book. Nobody’s ever going to see this; it doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do. Go ahead and be modern; I’ll figure out how you got there later.” So it’s all her fault that there’s time-travel in these books.)
Tell us about your publishing journey. How long had you been writing before you got a contract? How did you find out and what went through your mind?
Well…I got a literary agent before I finished the manuscript (not common; I was very lucky). When I did finish, he sent the ms. to five editors…and within four days, three of them had called with offers to buy it.
My agent called to tell me this. As I recall, my response was, “Oh” . “That’s…good, isn’t it?” “Very good!” he assured me.
Your first series was the Outlander, a time travel series. My husband and I both read them all and loved them. Was it a tough sell to publishers? If so, what kept you motivated to continue writing a genre that might not have seen the light of publishing day?
The OUTLANDER series is not finished, btw. I don’t yet have a working title for Book Seven (which is what I’m calling it, by default), but there is one. Or maybe two. I won’t know until I’m a lot farther into it.
Discuss how you approach the issue of the time-traveler and the time-resident realizing they’re not from the same time period.
I just wrote it as I saw it happening. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, I just take into account the personalities on both sides.
Today, time travel stories are a tough sell. Why do you think publishers and/or readers are hesitant about them?
Possibly because so many of them are Just Awful, would be my guess.
Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
No. I realized a long time ago that the only way past a writer’s block was the obvious: you write. It doesn’t matter if what you’re writing is difficult, bad, frustrating, whatever. If you keep doing it, it gets easier, better, more satisfying, whatever. If you don’t, it doesn’t. Ergo, you gotta writer’s block, you write. QED.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your writing journey), i.e. plot, POV, characterization, etc?
Nothing in particular. Just the constant necessity of finding words—the best words—and putting them on the page.
Where do you write? Do you have a dedicated office or a corner or nook in a room?
Well, I do have an office. But I can—and do—work almost anywhere. When I’m writing, I’m not actually where my body is, so it really doesn’t matter.
Do you have a word or page goal you set for each day?
Depends where I am in the book. In the early stages of a book, when I don’t know anything about it, and am doing a lot of research, I may only be writing half a page or so each day—but I do write every day. That’s important; if you don’t, the inertia builds up on you, and the prospect of beginning gets more and more daunting. If you’re writing even a little bit each day, it kind of keeps the gears oiled.
As I move into the book, though, and begin to have some idea of what’s going on here and there, my “walking pace,” as I put it, is about a thousand words a day. I maintain that through the greater part of the book. Then, as I approach the final phase—what I call The Final Frenzy—where I know everything, then it’s just a matter of how long I can sit at the keyboard without falling over. I may be working 12-15 hours a day, barely pausing to eat or sleep. Luckily, this phase only lasts a few weeks, or I’d die.
What does a typical day look like for you?
This would be assuming that there is such a thing. Well, there sort of is. If I’m not having to go run around the world, make commencement speeches at universities (I’m doing one next week; the university in question is awarding me an honorary degree: Doctor of Humane Letters (yeah, I did ask them what an inhumane letter might be. You’d think people who deal with undergraduates would have more of a sense of humor)), or drop everything to copy-edit a manuscript or rewrite the catalogue copy…
I get up around 9 AM (ideally), get a Diet Coke, and stagger upstairs, where I spend an hour or two answering email, doing interview questions, making a to-do list for the day, and possibly carving a little wood. Around 11, I become sufficiently compos mentis to work, and start writing, just to get a foothold on the day’s work.
Then my husband comes home for lunch, we hang around or run an errand or two—go get the car washed on our way home from Burger King, for instance–then I go up and work for another hour; maybe more, if the words are rolling.
If not, I may do research—go down to the university library or paw through my vast reference collection—or more business stuff (just saying “No,” politely takes a lot of time. Saying “Yes,” takes even more, because then the people who have invited you to do something next year start peppering you with requests for photos, bios, descriptions of what you’re going to do, hotel preferences (non-smoking and 24-hour Room Service. For some reason, the hosts never believe me about the 24-hour Room Service.
If you do evening events—which I normally do—though, chances are good that you’ll get back to your hotel after 10 PM. This means you eat out of the vending machine, or you call the nearest Domino’s and hope they stay open after 10 PM).
Mid-afternoon, I go run the household errands: dry-cleaning, dog to vet, grocery-shopping, Thuricide ™ for the grape-vines (yes, I am an organic gardener. Despite the name, Thuricide ™ is a biological agent—it’s actually a bacterium that, when ingested by grape-vine skeletonizers, causes them to starve to death. So much more humane than zapping them with Raid or DDT), etc. Then I work in my garden for awhile (herbs, vegetables, and flowers), exercise (I try to walk five miles a day, whether inside or out, depending on the weather), and fix dinner (love to cook).
Hang around with my husband for awhile. He likes to go to bed early, so I tuck him in around 10, then go lie down on the couch with a book—research or recreation—and if no one needs me for anything, I’ll fall asleep in 15-20 minutes. Then I wake up automatically around midnight or 1 AM, and go upstairs to work. My main work-time is between midnight and 4 AM. Then I go back to bed.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?
I don’t know. I do hang around with writers, and every now and then someone will say something that causes me to nod and go, “Yeah! What you said!” Don’t keep track of them, though; there’s a lot of good advice around—the only thing that matters is whether it’s what you need at the time.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?
Well…nothing, really. I didn’t waste much time. I should perhaps point out that while OUTLANDER was indeed my first novel, I was in fact a very experienced writer at the time I decided to try writing a novel. I was 36, a professional scientist, a university professor—and in addition to all the things one has to write in process of getting advanced degrees and pursuing that sort of career, I’d also been writing freelance (everything from Walt Disney comics to software reviews for BYTE magazine, computer documentation and tutorials, and articles on how to clean a long-horn cow’s skull to use as home decoration—basically, anything anyone would pay me for) for several years. I knew one end of a sentence from the other, and I knew how to write query letters, read contracts, and deal with editors.
And I was a research professor. I knew how to find things out, and I did—in terms of how publishing works (or worked; it’s changed quite a bit over the last fifteen years), finding a literary agent, etc. As I said above, I had an agent some months before I finished the book, and he sold it (and the next two books) pretty much immediately.
As for saving time in writing….kind of not the point. I know what you’re asking—did I spend months tangled up in my underwear and finally discover The Joy of Outlining—but no. I write in a very idiosyncratic way that depends in part on the way my mind works, and in part on the fact that I began writing fiction while having two full-time jobs and three small children. I.e., I write in bits and pieces, non-linearly, and gradually, the pieces begin to stick together; as I work, each book evolves into an n-dimensional geometrical “shape” in my head, and new pieces fit into it. I don’t suppose that this is the height of efficiency—but as I said, saving time and being efficient aren’t the point of writing a novel; the point is to write a good book. However you do that is the right way to have done it.
How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?
For the most part, Internet stuff: my website, and assorted interviews like this one. For my last book, the publisher suggested doing a series of podcasts, which were remarkably popular, judging from the comments I received. I don’t know whether the podcasts attracted any new readers, or just made the old ones happy , but it was a good idea, either way; I’d certainly do it again.
I don’t do a lot of marketing, save when a new book is about to come out. Then I’ll go do book-tours and the like. Otherwise, I have to pick and choose what I’ll do in the way of personal appearances, because after a certain point in a writing career, that stuff will just eat you alive, and you have no time for writing books, personal life, or anything else.
I try to keep it down to two or three big jaunts (I just came back from one of these; a three-week, six-city hop that encompassed a National Library Week gig in Virginia Beach, a visit with my eldest daughter in Charlottesville, a dinner with my sister in Washington, DC, a Spanish book-tour in Madrid and Barcelona, and a rendezvous with my husband in New York, during which I also had nonstop business meetings with assorted editors, agents, etc.) a year, plus one or two one-day events that don’t require a lot of travel—i.e., a day at the Arizona Book Festival, or a day at one of the sf/f cons in-state, or a public library appearance in California, Arizona, or New Mexico (anyplace I can reach and return from within a day).—a month. This means developing the capacity to say, “No,” several times a week—which is regrettable, because I really enjoy talking to readers—but it’s a matter of self-preservation.
For the new “Lord John” books, the publisher has asked me to do a “Long Pen” signing at this year’s BEA (BookExpo). Rather than flying me to New York (where the BookExpo is this year) to sign galleys in person, which would take three days of my time, they’ll instead have a technician come to my house and set up equipment that (theoretically) will allow me to chat with readers for an hour via a video-conferencing screen and physically sign their galleys. We’ll see how this works, but it sounds interesting.
Do you have any parting words of advice?
Sure. Gabaldon’s Three Rules on Becoming a Writer:
And (most important)—
3. Don’t Stop!!