I am a Courtney Milan fan. I’ve read all her novels and novellas. She shines for me in two very clear ways. One, she is a superb novella writer. Two, she incorporates science into her books seamlessly and accurately.
I contacted Ms. Milan via a mutual Twitter friend and asked if she’d answer a few questions. She graciously agreed to do so.
I think of you as a one of the best novella writers out there. Somehow you manage to tell a complete story with complex characters and detailed plots in a relatively short format. Is your process of writing novellas different than your process for writing full-length novels?
Well, thank you! I really appreciate that.
(This answer has mild spoilers for The Governess Affair–but I think should be okay for most people.)
The answer about process is both yes and no. I basically write both full-length books and novellas the same way: I start with two or three basic ideas about the work in question, and then build up from there.
There are two differences that I can think of. The first is in what books I can write as a novella versus a full-length book. In a novella, the main driving plot points need to also be about the main character’s growth arc. Thus, for instance, Hugo’s character journey in The Governess Affair is about seeing himself as a person separate from his ambitions, and that’s very much also what the main plot is about.
That’s not always true in full-length books. The two are always related, and the plots intersect, but they’re often separate threads that get developed separately–perhaps through some of the subplots in full-length books.You can have a successful full-length book where the character’s growth arc coincides with the plot points, but I don’t think you can have a novella where the reverse is true. If the growth and the plot are not synonymous, in a novella, you’re going to have to either sacrifice a compelling plot or character growth.
The second thing is that in a novella, you need to be very careful with when you explore subplots versus when you close them off. So, for instance, in The Governess Affair, I felt like it was important to show Serena’s relationship with her sister, and so that stayed–but I had to hew the line very closely and make sure I didn’t make the book too much about what was going on with Freddy. Likewise, the things Hugo is doing to make money for the Duke of Clermont might end up as a subplot in a full-length book; in a novella, you just need to know that they exist, and maybe have mild hints at them.
Both the Brothers Sinister series and the Turner series feature three “brothers.” (In the Turner series, the men are biological brothers; in the Brothers Sinister, the men are related to one another and see themselves as bonded.) What appeals to you about that motif? Do you plot out a series before you begin to write it?
Books about family appeal to me. The fact that the thread tying these books together happen to be brothers is basically happenstance. I think family relationships have shown up in almost every book that I’ve written–Elaine and her mother inUnlocked, Serena and Freddy in The Governess Affair, Minnie and her aunts, Robert and his mother, in The Duchess War…
I think I’m better at writing family than I am at writing romance, honestly. The few things I’ve written where family relations don’t play a major role are the ones that I personally feel are my weakest.
I don’t plot out books before I begin to write them–that is, I don’t know the conclusions–but I do try to plot out the problems. So when this series started, I knew the hero and heroine of each book, and had an idea of what the main driver of the plot would be in each book (of the books originally planned–Lydia, Free, and Rose are all getting books that were not planned from the start).
Those basic bare-bones sketches were not really “plotted” in the sense that most people mean plotting. It was more like having someone say, “If you want to get to Leeds, go about a hundred miles that-a-way, and try not to fall into the bog.”
You are a ferocious advocate for the women you write. A Milan heroine overcomes the social and legal limits society and government impose upon her. Your women are determined and seek more than the traditional romance heroine goals of marriage and children. Do you think you’ll ever write a heroine who doesn’t marry at all and/or stays childless by choice?
In the 19th century, “childless by choice” and “involved in a sexual relationship with a member of the opposite sex while we are both fertile” is really difficult to achieve. It’s hard to underestimate how our lives have changed due to the pill and relatively safe, cheap, effective methods of birth control. This was compounded by a complete misunderstanding of human fertility and ovulation–there were actually some doctors at the time who believed that you were most fertile when you were bleeding, and least fertile about halfway through your cycle, so people who tried to practice some version of the rhythm method quite often got it completely wrong.
If you run the numbers on their birth control methods, the chances that someone of average fertility would not have children, even if they were trying not to do so, was not large–not unless they were limiting themselves to sexual choices that literally would not allow for such a thing. At the time, birth control was advocated to help spread apart female pregnancy–something that especially in an era when nothing was known about vitamins or prenatal nutrition, was an absolute necessity for women’s health. And while abortion did exist and was an option, it was extremely dangerous. Any kind of surgery, pre-antibiotics, ran a huge risk of infection and death, and the non-surgical methods had massive side effects.
That’s a huge aside on the question–but I say this because I think it’s important for us to realize how historically lucky we are today to be able to have so much control over when and whether we reproduce. This is not a freedom women have always had, and it has made a massive difference in all our lives.
I marvel at the level of scientific/medical detail in your books. Whether it’s the impact of epidemiological studies on 19th century medicine (A Kiss for Midwinter), the mathematical progressions of comets (Unlocked), or complex calculus (Proof by Seduction) your books bring science and math to life in ways that illuminate characters and enhance plots. Where does your love of science come from? What’s your favorite field?
Well, I was a science undergraduate (math + chemistry), and I have a masters’ in theoretical physical chemistry. My exact field of graduate study was doing computer simulations of glassy behavior, which is one of the great unsolved problems in physics. (Unsurprisingly it remained unsolved, even after I worked on it.)
The graduate work I did required me to know a lot of things. Mathematics, because any theoretical work requires you to have a strong grounding in mathematics. Chemistry (obviously.) Physics. Statistics. (Statistical mechanics is actually considered a branch of physics rather than chemistry in Europe.) And the stuff I was working on was a branch of the strange interdisciplinary science that gets called “complexity theory”–and so when you talk about things that exhibit glassy behavior you don’t just include window glass, but also things like protein folding (and mis-folding, in the case of something like mad cow disease) and traffic simulations and a number of other things.
So for a while, it was my job to learn math, computer programming, and everything I could about a ton of branches of science–from genetic algorithms to gene encoding. I spent as much time being a scientist as I did being a lawyer.
My favorite field is, “Wow, this stuff is cool, now how can we apply it to something totally different?”
You have a law degree and have both practiced and taught law. Many of your books explore the laws of the 19th century and the great harm the legal system inflicted on just about anyone who wasn’t a titled white male. Who had the worst plight in 19th century England: a poor man like William White (This Wicked Gift) or a titled woman like Louisa, the wife of the Earl of Harcroft (Trial by Desire)?
Well, it’s going to depend on the exact situation. The wife is in a worse situation vis-a-vis her husband, but if the Countess of Harcroft owes someone money, she’s way better off than William White. The Countess of Harcroft can’t be thrown in debtors’ prison or arrested in civil cases. And the Countess of Harcroft (assuming her husband is a peer and that’s not a courtesy title) gets many of the benefits of peerage, including trial before the House of Lords in the case of a felony.
But if her husband is a dickbag, she’s still stuck–although if her brother has any power, that’s going to play a role too.
But in general, I’d say the peeress is almost always better off before the law than the poor man, and by a fairly substantial margin.
Your Brothers Sinister series is self-published. What made you leave the traditional world of publishing? How’s it working out for you?
Let me answer the last question first.
As of my last royalty statement from Harlequin (sales through June of 2013), I’ve sold 34,569 English-language copies (print and digital) of Unveiled, the first book in my Turner series. I make between 56 and 65 cents per copy sold on that book (and pay my agent 15% on top of that).
As of the end of November 2013, I’ve sold 96,430 English-language copies (print and digital) of The Duchess War, the first book in the Brothers Sinister series, at an average of $2.31 per copy sold.
Unveiled has been out more than twice as long as The Duchess War.
Or take audio versions. Harlequin has credited me with a grand total of $554.07 on the audio version of Unveiled, which came out in October of 2011.
The audio version of The Duchess War came out on October 9 of 2013–so that would be 2.5 months ago. In those two and a half months, I’ve made a profit (after accounting for the costs of production and my assistant’s time in scheduling things and doing quality control) of $4,500.
And that answers your first question. Before I self-published, between the writing and the day job, I had no time. I didn’t take a day off for years. I neglected really, really basic tasks, like eating properly and sleeping (I was averaging around 5 hours of sleep a night). Never mind things like getting exercise and spending time with the people I cared about. There was a particularly memorable week I spent with my parents in Hawaii where I literally spent 9 hours every day of that *cough* vacation working on a book because I didn’t have the time to take a break.
At some point in late 2010 I realized I was hitting the wall. I couldn’t continue to write and have a day job at the same time, and given the costs of promotion and the reality of law school loans, I couldn’t afford to quit my day job on the income from my traditionally-published books.
I had to walk away from something. At the time, it was a choice between self-publishing and seeing if that would work for me, or quitting writing altogether for the sake of my health and sanity.
(We can talk forever about why the sales numbers above differed so wildly, but included among them should be this: as publishers go, Harlequin does not have a strong empirical track record of selling historical romances. Different publishers might, and do, yield different results.)
What’s next for you? I know there’s a planned fourth Brothers Sinister book featuring Frederica, the sister of Oliver Marshall (the hero of The Heiress Effect.) What else can your readers look forward to?
Next up is a series that I’m tentatively calling the Worth Saga. It’s about a family (tentatively two brothers and two sisters, but I’m still settling details so may delete a brother or add a sister, depending) of the last name Worth.
Their father was the Something of Something (title not yet decided because it’s totally irrelevant). Then the family fell into disgrace: the eldest brother, Anthony, was convicted of grand larceny and transported to Australia, and once attention had fallen on their family, it was soon discovered that their father was a traitor. He was tried by the House of Lords, convicted, stripped of all his possessions and his title, and committed suicide before he could be executed.
The three children remaining in England were left to make their own way with no money, no skills, no possessions, and no social status whatsoever.
Meanwhile, when Anthony Worth’s ship lands in Australia, he is no longer on board and there is no trace or record of where he has disappeared.
The series will start with the children in England, and move on to the question of what has happened with Anthony.
I call it the Worth saga rather than the Worth series because there are actually two entangled series plot lines–the one about Anthony Worth, and another about…another organization that I’m not going to say anything about because I’m still settling the details and also spoilers.
Lastly, will you ever write a redemptive story for Lady Cosgrove, the tragically bitchy cousin of Evan, the hero of Unlocked? Are there any other secondary characters in your books whose story you plan to tell?
I’m very unlikely to write Lady Cosgrove’s story–I’ve never had an idea for a story for her. Her problem is that she’s already married to someone, so do I conveniently kill him off (not my thing), or do I reconcile her with someone who’s treated her like crap and cheated on her for years? Neither option strikes me as a story I want to write, so no.
That’s pretty much the only criterion I use. Do I have an idea for a story? Is it a good idea? Do I want to write it more than I want to write the other things I have ideas for? If so, then I will write that person a story.
If I don’t have an idea, I’m not going to search for one just to write a story for a character, no matter how much I–or anyone else–might like that character.
I think I’ve announced all the Brothers Sinister books at this point: Free is getting a book, and there will be another book about someone named Rose Sweetly who is not-yet-appearing in the series. And then that’s it–I’m done, I don’t want to write about them anymore.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Courtney.
AAR readers: Courtney Milan is giving away three copies of The Countess Conspiracy to three lucky readers. Just leave a comment below and we’ll put your name in a random drawing.