Writer's Corner for October, 2005
It's hard to believe, but Kasey Michaels has been turning out some of the most wonderful books in romance for 25 years now and I'm proud to say that I've been reading those books - and loving them - for almost that long. I cut my proverbial romance teeth on Traditional Regencies (and, okay, Barbara Cartland, too) and those by Kasey Michaels rank very high on my list of all-time favorites.
But one thing Kasey Michaels will - clearly! - never do is rest on her laurels. Now writing contemporaries, European Historicals, and her wonderful series featuring a writer whose Regency hero comes to (often annoying) life in her New York apartment, I know each and every time I pick up a book from Kasey Michaels that I'm in good hands. Make that very good hands.
With several new books due out soon (this woman is one major league multitasker), I talked with Kasey - make that Kasey talked with me - about her books, her career, her characters, chair dancing, and the critical importance of sorting her M&Ms by color.
And, for the record, I don't think there's anything "accidental" about Ms. Michaels' panache.
Kasey, let's start with a little honesty. I've read and enjoyed your books for years. Really. I'm an especially big fan of the Regencies you wrote for Avon back in the 1980s, including The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane (my favorite). But the sad truth is that I'm no longer reading the books of many of the authors I read back then for reasons it's probably best not to detail. So, here's my question for you: How the world do you keep it so fresh?
Well, sure, Sandy, scare the heck out of me with the beginning of that question! LOL!
First, The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane is one of my favorite books, even after more than 90 of them. I wrote that book staying up all night two nights a week while pregnant with my fourth child and performing home dialysis on my then eight year old son three days a week, six hours a day for nine months (yes, the baby was born and three weeks later we got the transplant--a very strange nine months!). Anyway, there I was, there we all were, living in, well, living in hell, frankly...and there I was, staying up nights writing this funny book. I think writing that book saved my sanity. Either that, or I'd gone around the bend and hadn't noticed...<G>
One of the funniest things was that Aunt Lucinda, one of the characters, only spoke in quotes. Honest! She didn't even say "Good morning" or "Please pass the salt." Everything she said was a quote from a poem or something. That was a lot of work -- going through <B>Bartlett's Quotations<B> and many other sources, looking for just the right quote for Lucinda to come out with at always the worst possible moment (being a real glutton for punishment, I used Lucinda in two more books!). Some of the quotes had to do with a character's small illness - a head cold, I think. Lucinda would say things (paraphrasing here) like “Sometimes death is the best physician.” Just totally off-the-wall quotes. And my Mother found the file cards and got really concerned for me. She thought I was in a depression because of what we were living with at the time -- this really scared her. I had to explain Aunt Lucinda to her...and I think that may have scared her more. LOL!
Years later, Melinda Helfer, a reviewer for Romantic Times, presented me with a special award at a conference - a big pink Gund teddy bear I named Comfort - saying Miss Tamerlane was her “rainy day book”' the book she could pull out and always know her mood would improve. I doubt she had any idea how and when that book had been written - but it was an amazing compliment. Then, and now, I still have pediatric nurses and the mothers of sick children in my mind when I write - I want to give them a break from reality for a little while, because I know that break can make you stronger when you have to go back to “real life”.
Okay. Now to the hard part. How do I stay “fresh”? And the answer - hell, woman, I don't know! I have four kids; they keep me young (even as the oldest is getting a little too old to suit me! I'm going to have to start introducing her as my sister). I stay up with current events because I like to do that. I watch a lot of television, I read a lot of different books. Other than that, I think the answer might be that I just keep getting these weird, off-the-wall ideas, and, when I write them down, somebody buys them, thankfully, because otherwise they'd probably have to lock me up somewhere and teach me how to make baskets out of popsicle sticks.<G>
You write historical romance (wonderfully), contemporary romance (beautifully) and now even a fantastic series featuring the misadventures of a fading historical romance author who finds new fame writing a series featuring a Regency-era nobleman sleuth and his comic relief sidekick. Maggie does such a wonderful job of bringing her hero to life that she actually . . . well, brings her hero to life in her New York apartment. To me, this series is wonderful on so many levels, not the least of which is the conundrum faced by a modern woman meeting her Regency fantasy come to life because what's great when you're fantasizing isn't so great when it's in your apartment. I also can't help but thinking that the Maggie books must be therapeutic for you to write since they give you a real opportunity to get a few things off your chest about publishing, the sisterhood of authors, and . . . yes, reviewers. So, Kasey, what say you?
Hmmm...I began with Regencies because I was reading them and decided I'd like to write one - and, heck, nobody said I couldn't. I was lucky enough to meet some writers who became great friends, and they suggested I try my hand at Silhouette contemporaries as writing Traditional Regencies was not about to get me that mansion and a yacht I had always thought all writers had. My daughter was at that time dressing up like a Care Bear for a promotion at her department store, and the idea for Maggie's Miscellany [published in 1984 and not part of the Maggie series] was born and thankfully bought by Silhouette. So now I was doing both historicals and contemporaries.
As you can see, there's not a lot of career planning in that story - I just wrote because it was fun. I still write because it's fun, and I still don't have a career plan! I mean, I have so much fun sometimes (writing The Butler Did It comes readily to mind) that I sing, chair-dance, laugh out loud, and the occasional “Damn, that's good!” can be heard by my long-suffering family. I've always been my own best audience. If I like it, I just assume somebody else will...which isn't really true, because what makes us laugh is very subjective and different for everyone. Making people cry? That's easier - we all pretty much cry at the same things. So writing romantic comedy is more dangerous, in my opinion. Luckily, so far, people seem to like to laugh at a lot of the things that make me laugh.
And my ideas kept getting bigger. Too big for the Traditional Regency, too big for Silhouette Romance. I followed those ideas, and eventually editors believed that, hey, maybe she can do it -- so I'm doing it 'bigger' now, and loving every moment once again.
Maggie was "born" because one day I wrote a line of dialogue for one of my rather uppity (okay, sarcastic...<G>) Regency heroes and knew my heroine had to come back with something like “Oh, that is the outside of enough!” when what I really wanted her to say was, “Oh, stuff a sock in it!” Next thing I knew, I was writing about writer Maggie Kelly (and used that line in one of the books!) and how her imaginary perfect Regency hero one day just "poofed" into her living room. A near God, as a Regency hero, but not so easy to live with when he left the top off the toothpaste. First I had to come up with Maggie, of course, so I looked around to find a writer - and damn, there was one, right in the office with me. So, while Maggie isn't really me, that first book with the opening of a gal chair-dancing and sorting her M&M's by color, etc? That's all me, younger, and with much better hair...<G>
And, man, was Maggie Needs an Alibi a hard sell! I think I was rejected about a half dozen times, because nobody knew what to do with the books. They were mystery, sort of. Romance, sort of. Comedy, sort of. Paranormal, sort of. So everyone kept passing on the idea until Kensington finally said something on the order of “You're not going away until we buy this, are you?" It was something new, a hybrid, and there was no track record on how to market the idea...so I ended up in Mystery by default, I guess. I'll tell that story below.
Something that AAR readers complain about vociferously is what is certainly perceived around these parts to be the lack of diversity in historical romance. These days it seems to be that it's Regency or nothing. As a writer who came of age when it certainly seems to me there was a more adventurous spirit on the part of publishers, do you agree that there's less diversity and, if so, what - or who - do you think is responsible?
Yes, there is less diversity. No question. I had written my Pennsylvania township's Bicentennial History in 1976, devoting a year to research and writing - this is before I decided that getting paid for doing this stuff might be a novel idea - and there was so much great history in our area that I finally pitched a trilogy set in pre-revolutionary Pennsylvania. They were good books, she says modestly, but nobody knew how to market them (ie: Indian massacre on the inside, a bouquet of tulips on the cover), and they went over like a lead balloon, even though I still get very nice letters on those books. My idea, when I wrote them, was that the publisher give me another name, but that was a non-starter...and ended as I thought it would, with my readers yelling, "Hey, what happened to Regency England and your funny books?" So I didn't try that particular stunt again!
Same thing when I wrote Maggie Needs an Alibi. I begged for another name and couldn't get it. So the Maggies are shelved in Romance, totally missing the Mystery audience and the covers confusing the romance audience. Bookstores shelve you where you've been shelved in the past - that's just the way they do things. This is confusing, but once you've got any sort of’ name, changing it is just not something publishers are willing to do. I fantasize about writing a book as Cleo Dooley, Maggie's penname - one she picked because she decided O's look good on a book cover - can we all say “NOra ROberts”? LOL! Seriously, look around - see how many top-selling authors have O's in their names. This is one of the things I do in the Maggie books - have fun with publishing. O's in names is ridiculous - Nora could sell a million copies if she wrote as I. M. Abook -- she's just plain gOOd (notice the O's in that...<G>). I have some major fun poking fun at my own industry; being in it for over a quarter-century, I've certainly made many of the mistakes and seen a lot of ... well, read Maggie By The Book and you'll get the idea. I just took little things that could happen and went over the top with them, wildly exaggerated a career life that really isn't quite that insane, honest!
Back to the lack of diversity.
Publishers (like television execs: think reality shows) have this "thing." They find something that sells, and then they do it and do it and do it until they have killed it. If you're around long enough you'll see Medievals come in, be beaten to death, go out...come back seven to ten years later. Same with Westerns, Civil War, etc, etc. I was dropped by Avon in the mid-eighties because Traditional Regencies weren't selling and they weren't going to do them anymore. Ten months later, they called and asked me for three more. Now Traditional Regencies are dying again. I have my own theory on that - the publishers tried putting graphic sex in them, making them into shorter Regency historicals. To me, that was a mistake (not that anyone called and asked my opinion). Traditional Regencies were perfect little gems, never with a large following, but always there, always to be counted on by older readers and for young women just getting into reading romance; Traditional Regencies introduced several generations of readers to romance. Now they're about gone, killed off again, and that's sad. Really, really sad.
Reviewers? Okay, here's one. Publishers Weekly just said of my latest Maggie that it contained a certain sort of accidental panache. Huh? Did that mean I (a lowly romance writer, you know) did something right by accident? Or is there such a thing as accidental panache? Aren't I capable of doing panache without it being by accident? How does she know? Hell, I could have "planned" that accident! <G> Did the reviewer even understand what she/he was writing, or was she/he just making it up as she/he went along? Who knows? It's silly, really. But you'd better believe Maggie is going to do a riff on accidental panache in her next book! As long as Maggie is around, reviewers beware! LOL!
Staying fresh - getting back to that - is made easier by writing different sorts of books. There have been times when my mood was such that I took certain stories to different levels (usually writing my funniest books when not all that happy with the world, and darker ones when I am. Don't ask, I don't understand it, either...<G>). Legacy Of The Rose, for instance, my first Regency-set historical, was dark, dark, dark. And very ... sensual. I mean, everything that happened in that book was based on sex, one way or another. Why? I don't know. I got this idea, and I wrote it down. My editor at the time said no, no, change her from a wet nurse to a debutante, take her to London. But my wet nurse needed her story, my emotionally scarred, betrayed hero needed his story. So my agent shopped the book elsewhere for two long years and it finally sold. My mother, by the way, said now that I'd done it “you don't have to do it again, do you?” LOL - I didn't do it again, although adding more graphic love scenes is de rigeur in Regency historicals. I drifted back to more emphasis on romantic comedy, and just propped open the bedroom door. But I still love Legacy and I still get mail on it.
But then another idea hit me. What if the Devil - the real Devil - came to Regency England? And Come Near Me was born. E-gad, that one scared my readers who were looking for my usual silly sub-characters, let me tell you!
I wish I could use one name for my darker ideas, another for my lighter ideas, because I hate confusing the reader...but if I don't go where my ideas take me, yes, then I will get stale. I need the diversity, I guess.
I know you have a new contemporary coming out soon. Will you tell us about it?
That would be my first HQN contemporary, Stuck in Shangri-la, out in November. I wanted to call it Frogs and Flamingos and Cats, O-my! - so you can kind of figure from there that this is not exactly War and Peace. The house wanted Shacked Up In Shangri-La, but I believe in truth in advertising, so we settled on Stuck. It's the story of two hard-headed people who love each other and get stuck in Shangri-La (a house inherited by them) for one month, protecting a cat, Lucky, who also could inherit if nobody does him in first (Lucky can 'mind talk' with the ghost of Uncle Horry, who lived in Shangri-La and is sticking around to watch the fun). 206 pink ceramic flamingos and motion-detecting big green ceramic 'alarm' frogs line the long driveway up to Shangri-La, and that's just for openers when it comes to the gadgets Uncle Horry had collected over the years. Should I mention the disco ball in his bedroom? Nah, maybe not...<G>
This is another book I laughed my way through...and all I want from it is that readers get a few chuckles too, and feel like they've had some fun after a long day at work or with the kids or whatever. Pure entertainment (I hope!), no big messages about Life or anything heavy like that. Some of my books are just written about normal people who innocently end up surrounded by some very eccentric people, and have to then muddle their way through to True Love. I mean, do all heroes and heroines have to be neurotic or have Deeply Disturbed Pasts to be in romance novels? Not mine - I actually think “normal'” people can also fall in love, without a lot of angst, without dragging a mountain of emotional baggage along for the ride. For me, that means pink flamingos and frogs that go ribbit-ribbit when a car passes by. What can I say - you're talking to a woman who eats her M&M's by color.
And what about dear Maggie? Will she make a return appearance anytime soon?
And then there's Maggie...
I already told you about how bookstores refused to shelve the books in Mystery...so the first three in the series had very nice "mystery" covers that looked absolutely ridiculous in the Romance section. So, figuring if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, my publisher has moved Maggie into trade paperback and changed the look of the cover, changed the titles. I had done Maggie Needs An Alibi, Maggie By The Book, and Maggie Without A Clue (notice the use of the alphabet here - I mean, I had plans for keeping this going for a while....<G>). But now we've got the fourth book, High Heels and Homicide. Has very little to do with the book, but it's a nifty title, and the cover is cartoony and very cute. Hopefully now the book will be shelved in Romance, along with other trade paperbacks in the Chick Lit section. Seems I was writing Chick Lit and just didn't know it. That’s for December, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens....watch, with "homicide" on the cover, they'll stick the book in Mystery. LOL!
Silhouette is reprinting To Marry at Christmas, one of the first Silhouette Romances (sweet romance) that I wrote for them a million years ago, also to be out in November. It has a really pretty cover! Hopefully the story has remained fresh - but it is a category book and was never planned as anything else. The one constant is that these are two very normal, rational people who fall in love...and are surrounded by secondary characters who think they all know best how to plan the wedding. I love to plop rational people into extraordinary situations and watch them work their way out again.
Right now, I'm writing the first three books of a planned six book series set in Romney Marsh in Regency England. Darker books, more meaty, serious books all concerning the Beckets of Romney Marsh - a family unconnected by blood and with a horrible secret that haunts them through all six books, each book taking place in a different year of the Regency.
How did I get this idea? I don't know! But, boy, did it grab me! HQN seems to like it, as they will publish the first three in March, April, and May of 2006, then we'll see about pub dates for the next three, and they've even given me step-back covers (never had one of those before!). The first three are A Gentleman by Any Other Name, The Dangerous Debutante, and Beware of Virtuous Women.
It has taken all 25 of the years I've been writing to come up with the Beckets, each of them so different, each of them with such compelling individual stories. All my research just seems to have come together to form these people and place them in the times that will test them and lead them to triumph...and love, of course. Each one has such a different background, such unique personalities, and I think I've been sort of "method writing" these past eight months, sort of like method acting, except I do it with a computer. These characters have become so real to me I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of them "poofed" into my office, just like Maggie's Viscount Saint Just...
Can you tell that I'm psyched? LOL But the beauty is that with these first three very emotional books completed, I'm now off to write next year's Maggie, followed by next year's HQN contemporary romantic comedy, Everything’s Coming Up Rosie, that features a character from Shangri-La. Once those are done, it's back to the Beckets and the moody, mysterious Marsh...with a Desire project and a novella thrown into the mix somewhere (I don't sleep much...<G>).
It's rather like "cleansing the palate," I think. I indulge myself in Regency England, then get to jump into a contemporary with both feet for a while. Does this keep me fresh? I don't know. I do know it keeps me chair-dancing in my office...