Ah, the merry month of May! Such sweet beauty invites romance and who better to talk to us about the subject than Donna MacMeans, who tales of love and seduction are just the right kind of sexy for summer reads on the porch or winter late-nights in a cozy chair by the fire. For those of you who are writers, Donna offers much good advice as she shares her writing story and the process she uses. Buckle your corsets, ladies and gents. Ms. MacMean’s has some wonderful answers for us!
Janet Irvin: Donna, what fun to have you as my author guest this month. Since readers may not be familiar with you, can you share a little of your writing journey with us?
Donna MacMeans: This is a fun story – but a long one. Hang in there with me and this will all make sense. I’m a CPA – one of those boring people who do audits and taxes and such. It’s about as opposite of a romance writer that one can get. However, I’ve always been a reader. Even as a business executive, I’d bring in some fiction to read (although I would never, NEVER, bring in a book with a cover of Fabio kissing some woman whose clothes are falling off. I mean, really!)
One day, I picked up a novel from the bookstore’s recommended reads shelf with the title Outlander. The cover looked interesting: a sword, a broken clock, a lot of tartan. I decided to give it a try and loved it! The first couple of pages listed accolades for the book and frequently referred to it as “romance.” I figured if this was a romance than I was an absolute fool for avoiding that genre. So I decided to try another romance…but I still wasn’t comfortable standing in the romance section – what if someone saw me? I found that if I stood in the cooking section of the bookstore, I could jump out and grab a book off the romance end cap. Fortunately, I found a novel similar to Outlander—set in Scotland, an English heroine and Scottish laird, not a time travel, but I could live with that—which was a good thing as the sales clerks were starting to look at me funny. 🙂
Even though this second book was by a NYT Bestselling author, I hated it. I knew the solution to the story question by the end of the first chapter. I thought – surely it can’t take almost four hundred pages to come to this same solution. Yet, it did. Now the book wasn’t horrible, it was just disappointing that the characters were too stupid to quickly resolve the issue. I told myself, “I can write better than this.” Which I now know are fighting words…so I tried, and got hooked on the progress. That summer I read maybe thirty romances to get the gist of the structure and discovered that I truly loved the genre. It’s easy to see why these books are the bestselling genre in fiction – which as an accountant, I truly appreciated. I wrote a romantic suspense based on a contemporary version of Outlander. That manuscript became a finalist in a big international contest – which “sealed the deal” for me. I mean, someone must think I can write to gain this recognition. Who knew? I started a second romantic suspense because I’d heard that if you write one kind of book, you’d better write two if you want a publishing contract. I was off and writing, and learning everything I could along the way.
J.I.: Okay… romantic suspense is not historical romance, yet historical romance is what you’re known for. How did that transition happen?
D.M.: This was in the early 2000’s when traditional publishing was the most viable way to publish. Like many others, I quickly learned that writing a manuscript was not the same thing as selling a manuscript. I’d completed two romantic suspense novels and other than that finalist thing, neither was selling or attracting notice. Then I heard that NYT bestseller, Lori Foster, was hosting a contest on her website. You would submit four pages of a story that showed sexual tension in either contemporary or historical romance and she would pick two weekly winners, one from each category. The two winners of round one would be sent to her NY agent who had a reputation of publishing the stories she liked. Lori happened to mention that she wasn’t getting a lot of historical entries so the odds were better of success there.
I had an idea for a reluctant striptease story. The heroine needed information of some sort and was sort of undercover. My problem, though, was that contemporary people don’t wear a lot of clothes. My strip tease would be a short story! Plus, removing clothes in today’s world wouldn’t have the same repercussions as it once had. So remembering Lori’s comment, I decided to make this an historical romance. Now what time period? Why would my heroine engage in this, what was her motivation? Who was the hero? How was he involved? Where did all this take place? Lots of questions. In working my way through to answers, I fell in love with this story. I set it in Victorian England as the women wore a ton of clothes back then – perfect. Now I had to figure out the layers of clothing which meant research. I never did enter Lori’s contest, but I developed a really good story full of sexual tension. The entire story is a striptease. That book eventually sold, at auction, with three NY publishers bidding on it and ended with a three book contract for more Victorian historicals. Oh, and in a side note, the person who won Lori’s contest in historical romance was a new author named Sylvia Day. Yes, the same Sylvia Day of erotic fame. Sylvia and I have shared some laughs over that.
The thing was, I think I discovered my writer’s voice in historical romance. That world feels comfortable to me. Sometimes, I discovered, it’s worth experimenting in different genres to find the one that best suits you.
J.I.: I loved The Education of Mrs. Brimley! So, you mentioned research and, of course, your historically-based novels involve a great deal of research. Do you do the background prep before you start writing or do you research as you develop the narrative?
D.M.: Yes, you’re correct. There’s a ton of research involved in writing anything set one hundred or so years ago – in a foreign city, no less. In fact, the idea of doing research scared me enough to avoid writing historicals even though I liked reading them. Now I read more non-fiction books in the name of research than fiction.
The idea that the research could be done ahead of time would suggest that I knew what research would be needed – and I don’t. I’m not a plotter. I tend to write until I hit a topic that requires research and then either mark the spot, so as to return to it later, or research right then and there. The difficulty is that research is seductive. Before you know it, you’re reading about things that you instinctively know can be used in other books. Fortunately, the more historicals one writes and researches, the better one acclimates to the time period. A foundation is built that I can use as I write later books. I wish, though, that I could manage to write a new book without tapping into something that requires yet more research – like my book about a heroine involved in the Temperance Movement and her attraction to a Scotch Whisky distiller (The Whisky Laird’s Bed). I remember my husband coming home from work to find me snockered as I sampled Scotch to know how to describe it and how much would it take to intoxicate someone. Did I mention that research can be fun? LOL.
There was a time when I thought I must lack what it takes to write historical romance. I believe my striptease story was initially rejected by every NY publishing house. I couldn’t understand why. It really was a good story. So I decided maybe I wasn’t a straight historical romance author. Maybe I needed to try something else. My very first publishing credit was for a paranormal short story. It got decent reviews. Maybe I should return to paranormal? As superheroes were the big thing on TV and movies at that time, I thought I’d do a story where one of my characters had a super power. I set the story in Victorian London because I’d already done all that research for the striptease book. I made my heroine turn invisible in moonlight. She couldn’t help it, it just happened – which could have serious consequences if she was caught walking down the street when the moon came out, or sneaking about London, naked, when the moon slipped behind a cloud. It turned out to be a really fun book. (When it was eventually published, it won the RT Critic’s Choice award for Historical Love and Laughter.)
The thing is, my assumption that if you sell one genre of book, you need to write a second and maybe even a third turned out to be true for both traditional and independent publishing. When Berkley offered me a three book contract, it was for three historical romances. All I had at the time was one completed novel (striptease) and the first two chapters of a new book – which they ended up publishing because it was historical. My research paid off.
J.I.: You say THE WHISKEY LAIRD was a fun book to write. I appreciate the humor you include in your stories, the subtle wink at the reader. Does this come naturally to you or is it a conscious element of your writing?
D.M.: Thank you, Janet, I think it’s a little of both. Even my initial romantic suspense books had humor in them… which tends to kill the mood when a serial killer is stalking my heroine, or the Tong is out to kill my heroine to get their drugs back. When I was shopping my Victorian striptease, I received a rejection letter that said that while the editor would not purchase this story, she appreciated the little bits of humor. She suggested that I punch those moments as much as possible. Her suggestion was eye-opening as I thought I was good at creating suspense, not humor. So the humor comes naturally, but once I see it in revisions, I do consciously try to give it more of a spotlight. To me, the ultimate compliment is when someone writes to tell me they laughed out loud at a passage or couldn’t stop smiling. Life is just too short not to laugh.
J.I.: For many writers, choosing the title of a book is not easy. I think your titles are spot on. How do you decide them?
D.M.: Thank you again. 🙂 A particular moment of pride for me is that my editor has never changed my titles as they often do to other authors. Here’s a story: I originally named my striptease book “The Education of Mrs. Brimley.” It’s perfect for a number of reasons. Before the book went up for auction, I received a call from an editor with an offer to buy the book. I wisely said I needed to think about it, but then we continued to talk about the book. She told me the title would have to go and did I have a different idea for a title. I suggested “The Art of Seduction,” which worked as the story revolves around an artist hero who seduces the heroine. The editor loved the new title, and wrote it on a cover art form. The moment I hung up the phone, I called the agent I’d been exchanging calls with. The agent said she could get me a 24 hour read by a bigger publishing house. I agreed and the book went up for auction. The editor that won the bid called me the next day.
“Donna,” she said. “I think we’ll have to change your title, do you have something else we can use?”
I replied, very dramatically, “How about The Art of Seduction?”
I paused waiting for squeals of delight, but all she said was – “Nah.”
I later learned that her concern was that a book with that title would sound too much like a how-to nonfiction, not a romance. I can see that. I now try to avoid that sort of confusion when I’m thinking of titles for my work.
The editor went on to say, “try to think of something that is unique to your story, that will apply to your book and your book alone.”
“You mean like The Education of Mrs. Brimley?”
Silence. She didn’t get my humor, but she’d given me the best advice ever. That is what I try to accomplish with my titles, something unique and specific.
You may note, however, that even though my editor wanted a different title for my striptease, the book was published with the original title. When she took the story to the marketing committee, the marketing people liked my original title more than the one she suggested. Apparently, her concern was that the book suggested adultery, which is a big no-no for romance. All in all this was very much a learning experience.
J.I.: What’s next for Donna MacMeans?
D.M.: I’m working on three projects right now. I’m trying to finish “How to Bait a Dangerous Rake” which is the third book in my Rake Patrol series. At the same time, I’ve committed to write a novella for a Christmas box set with other independent authors. I recently received my rights back on “Redeeming the Rogue.” I need to repackage the book and indie-publish the story as soon as possible. Once all of this is done, I plan to write the second Charm Gates time-travel, which I plan to call “Charming the Thief.” It follows the first book “Charming the Professor.” There’s always something.
J.I.: Will we see you at any conferences or workshops in 2019?
D.M.: Right now I’m booked into the Book Lovers Con 2019 in New Orleans for May 15th through May 19th and the Romance Writers of America conference in New York City from July 23rd through July 27th. I’m teaching at a writer’s conference in Cleveland in July, but the organizers haven’t given me the name. If any of your readers are at either any of these events, I hope you stop by and say hi. I’ll give you a peacock feather!
J.I.: Now, just for fun, who is your favorite author to read?
D. M.: Hard to pick just one. I love Julie Garwood, Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and, of course, Diana Gabaldon, the author of Outlander.
J.I.: How about your favorite comfort food?
D.M.: Graeter’s Mocha Chocolate Chip or Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip ice cream. Their chips are so chunky. It isn’t the best thing for the waistline, but what comfort food is? J
J.I: My thanks to Donna for joining me this May. Below are several of her book covers.
More about Donna: She has published six romance novels traditionally with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random and indie-published three novels and numerous novellas and short stories. While known for her historical romance, she also writes paranormal romance, romantic suspense, and time-travel.
You can drop Donna a line through her website — www.DonnaMacMeans.com or on facebook if they’d like to continue the conversation beyond the interview.