This month we had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Miller for our Feature Guest Interview. Karen is an International best-selling Speculative Fiction author. She has written several series of books and the Rogue Agent series under her pen name K.E. Mills, as well as Star Wars and Stargate books. Please join me in discovering a little more about Karen as she gives us an in depth looking at her genuine passion for her craft by graciously answering our questions. Go check out more about Karen at http://thetalkativewriter.com/
Without further delay, here is our interview with Karen Miller:
Hello Karen! Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!
Hello back, and thanks so much for asking them!
When did you start writing?
I’m trying to remember. I know that when I was about nine I wrote my own version of a bunch of popular fairy tales, and illustrated them too. And no, I have no idea what happened to that masterpiece! When I was around the same age I wrote a play about medieval monks for class, and directed it. So my control freak director ambitions started young. Also, it seems, my interest in historical fiction! I also have a very very clear memory of writing and illustrating my first media tie-in effort – a Lost in Space story. I think I was still in primary school then, too. As well as all the compositions we had to write in primary school, followed by the creative writing exercises in high school. Basically, I’ve always loved stories. And on and off I just kept on writing. But I didn’t transition into properly published speculative fiction until 2005. Yes, it took me a very long time. But it only goes to show that we all must tread our own paths to publication and there is never only one right way to get there.
When did you first discover that you wanted to pursue writing as a career?
I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a storyteller, but I didn’t really believe it would happen for me until I signed my first contract in 2004.
In regards to when you first starting writing versus now, how have you evolved creatively as a writer?
I think I’m braver now. I’m taking more risks. My first duology, The Innocent Mage/The Awakened Mage, was – is – hugely important to me, but it’s a small cast and it takes place in a limited landscape. It’s also not terribly dark, tone-wise. Since then I’ve pushed myself to tackle more characters, more breadth in scope and more complexity with the range of characters and ethical dilemmas. Now I’m learning how to maintain the balance between challenge and reassurance. That’s the thing about this game – there’s always something new to learn.
Who is your favorite author and why?
I can’t give you a single answer to that, because there are just too many authors whose work I adore. So I’m going to give you a list, and they all have this in common: these authors’ books make me laugh, they make me cry, they entertain me, they teach me something about being human, they show me how to be a better writer. Every time I read them, I see something new. So, in no particular order, we have …
Terry Pratchett, Georgette Heyer, Reginald Hill, Antonia Forest, Elizabeth Peters, Kage Baker, Robert Crais, Peter O’Donnell, Dorothy Dunnett, Kate Elliott, Dick Francis, Nora Roberts, Lois McMaster Bujold, Diana Wynne Jones.
Are there any books that have inspired you while writing your own?
Aside from research books, I don’t really read while I’m writing my own stuff. I don’t like other people’s voices inside my head. The closest I get to it is what I call my ‘comfy slipper reading’ just before I go to sleep. That’s when I’m likely to read something very very familiar, that doesn’t rev me up and stop me from nodding off.
am_hammy asks: I took note that you like to travel. Are there some places you’ve visited that have kick-started your inspiration for any stories you’ve written?
Absolutely! Eaglerock Castle, which you’ll find in The Falcon Throne, was inspired by Heidelberg Castle in Germany. A truly fantastic place, and I highly recommend a visit. Also, I saw something while I was in Venice that sparked a train of thought which I’ll follow through on in an upcoming book. Warwick Castle in the UK is another place that really lit up my imagination. The countryside in the Loire Valley also got me thinking. That’s why I love to travel! It’s my favourite kind of research.
Do you have a particular process you go through when writing a book?
Hell, hell, agony, hell, crushing self-doubt, hell, exhaustion, more crushing self-doubt, raving insanity, fall over.
And boy howdy, do I wish I was only joking!
More specifically, the first thing I do is try and nail down a rough idea of where I want to start, some of the highlight plot points, and where I want to end. I can’t start without knowing where it is I’m going. I rough out an idea of the main characters, their names, their relationships, what they want and what they’ll do to get it. The kind of people they are, always remembering that they’ll reveal themselves completely as the story unfolds. I loosely decide which ones are going to be the point of view characters, which means working out whose story I’m telling. I spend some time working out the social and political structure of their lives, how this particular world operates. Sometimes I do this in conjunction with general historical research, because I most often find that research really feeds my imagination and helps me build a more plausible world. Once I’ve mishmashed the original rough outline with the research, I put together a more detailed outline, just so I can stay on track. But it’s not a straitjacket – sometimes the best inspiration happens through the writing process.
When my imagination is fired up – and most usually, once the characters come to life properly and start talking to each other in my head – then I start the first draft. For me this is the most daunting part of the process and I have to keep reminding myself that it can be crap, that’s okay. Just get the damn thing written! When I finish (and the length of time it takes to complete a first draft varies from story to story) I make notes about what’s wrong with it (because I usually have an idea of where the weaknesses are by then), set it aside for a couple of weeks, so I can go spend some time unconscious, and then I go back to it and start rewriting. As a rule the back end of my first draft is pretty sketchy and rough, but the story’s nailed enough so that I can start shaping the narrative from the beginning to reach that end point properly.
After that it goes to my editor and my beta reading team, and between them they point out all the crappy bits, and when I get it back I do my best to fix them. Then, unless I’ve completely screwed up, the manuscript gets fed into the big publishing machine and it’s all about polishing and tweaking on the way to publication. The biggest changes happen between the first and second draft.
R. Mountebank asks: How much time do you spend world-building or researching before starting the story in earnest?
That totally depends on the kind of story I’m writing, and – if it’s a multi-part story, like the Godspeaker trilogy, or my current project The Tarnished Crown series – how much research is left to do as each volume is completed. It also depends on how much I know already, and how much I have left to find out. Tarnished Crown is the biggest thing I’ve tackled, and it’s a case of ongoing research. I spent nearly a year before I started writing The Falcon Throne, reading and watching history docos on TV and DVD. I did a couple more months before starting bk 2, which is in progress now, and I’m still fitting in research around the writing. So far I’ve done two major research trips to the UK/Europe, plus various museum crawls in New York and Chicago, and will likely do another one next year. For Godspeaker it most mostly reading/watching docos, but I did make a trip to the University of Chicago’s Antiquities Museum and that was brilliant.
My existing knowledge of history at the time of writing got me through the Mage books, and also the Rogue Agent series which I write under my pen name of K.E. Mills. I did do some extra research about hot air balloons and dirigibles, though, for Witches Inc.
For the media tie-in work, that was a case of watching and re-watching the relevant episodes or films many many many times, and making notes to make sure I had the characters’ voices in my head.
Sulieman asks: When embarking on an epic fantasy/historical novel, how can you make sure you don’t let the plot get too convoluted?
The bigger the story, the easier it is to get sidetracked. I never truly grasped that until I started writing the Tarnished Crown series! Obviously I won’t know if I’ve succeeded in not getting too convoluted until I’ve finished, but at the moment I’m making ongoing notes that keep the various plotlines in order, plus the story arc for each character. I think, I hope, that if I keep the various plot threads clear, and make sure I refer to them regularly, and have a clear idea in mind where each character will end up and what the overall thrust of the story is, I’ll have a good chance of not getting tangled up. The key is to stay focused on the story you started out telling. If you can follow it from start to finish on your outline, and keep the narrative on track, you’ll be okay. Sometimes you will make adjustments, because stuff that was fuzzy comes into focus as you reach that part of the narrative. That’s why I believe in always having a clear start and finish for the story before you begin, with a fairly detailed outline if it looks like you’re telling a truly epic tale. For my current series I’ve got individual scenes jotted down on index cards, laid out in narrative sequence so I can stay on track. They’re blue-tacked to a table because the cat keeps wanting to sleep on them! I’d put them on the wall, but all my walls are full of reference photos and maps.
I also think it’s important to keep the story familiar as you’re writing it. Take a break to re-read what you’ve written so far, so you can see how the story’s unfolding. It’s easy to get lost in the writing process, when you’re tackling a complicated narrative.
How much historical accuracy do you try to aim for when writing?
There’s no simple answer to this one. If you’re writing straight historical fiction, then I believe you must achieve as close to 100% accuracy as you can, both in what happened and how the world worked in the time period you’ve chosen. Of course there’s always room for leeway, insofar as the minute you start writing dialogue for your verifiable historic characters you’ve gone from fact to fiction. However, in principle, provided you stay true to the period you’re okay. The minute you start changing the verifiable facts, for example having Napoleon win at Waterloo, you’re writing Alternate History – which would be speculative fiction, not historical fiction. Likewise, grafting modern attitudes towards issues like gender, race, slavery, class, onto your time period (when those issues were never part of a social transition or upheaval) means you’re distorting historical accuracy. Using modern slang, modern speech patterns, is also a mistake, for me. Anything that bursts the bubble, that takes me out of the story because it’s historically inaccurate, means I can’t continue reading.
On the other hand, if you are writing Alternate History, or if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction that uses our world’s history as inspiration for the world-building, then you’re in a grey area. It all boils down to creating a believable, consistent world. By all means, write a fantasy novel that bases its world-building on Medieval Europe, then introduce an anti-slavery revolution. Just make sure that you make the transition plausible, and ground it in the events and characters and history of that world.
The other thing to remember is that even though you might be departing from our world’s history, things still need to work. If you’re going to have knights, or a version of knights, or if you’re going to have some variation on Ninja warriors, you need to understand how they function in our world. To succeed, fiction needs to be grounded in the reality we already understand. If you’re going to change the rules, you need to change them carefully and clearly, so the reader can believe in the story. The better you understand our world and its various histories, the more successfully you can depart from them in a way that doesn’t make readers throw down your book in frustration.
Of the various books you’ve written, is it difficult to switch from historical to fantasy? Are there any similarities?
So far I’ve never written a straight historical novel. In writing historical fantasy, what I try to do is create a world that is grounded in our own history but with fantastical differences. What’s interesting is that in many past cultures there already existed a supernatural belief system/tradition. Look at the witches in Macbeth. They are fabulous fantasy characters. In Europe, it was the rise of humanism and the dawning of the Renaissance that pushed aside many of those old superstitions and beliefs in supernatural powers and entities. Really, the only difference is that in writing historical fantasy, I’m making those imagined powers and entities real. So in that sense, no, I don’t find it difficult. It all comes down to the world-building. At the end of the day, no matter what kind of story you’re telling, it comes down to the world-building. Make sure you understand the ins and outs of the world in which you’re setting your story and that makes it much easier to tweak things in the direction you need them to go.
InstituteMan asks: How would you categorize speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy?
To me, speculative fiction is the umbrella term for the genres that are based on the big question of What If? What if we could travel faster than light to other planets and meet other species? What if dragons were real, and we could ride them? What if when people died they came back to life as flesh eating zombies? What if my next door neighbour turned into a wolf every full moon? What if the leader of the free world drank blood to stay alive? What if I had a family of goblins living at the bottom of my garden? Speculative Fiction is the genre that makes the impossible possible, that breaks us out of the everyday world and into the realms of the fantastical. So any kind of storytelling that deals with those kinds of ‘unreal’ elements is speculative fiction, for me.
Sulieman asks: Is it alright to make fantasy worlds inspired by historical civilizations? Like a Chinese-inspired civilization meets a Roman-inspired faction? Can I let my imagination run wild and free?
Of course it is! That’s the whole point of writing speculative fiction, and historical fantasy in particular. You can imagine any kind of world that you like. The only rule is that you make it believable. There are some folk who frown on any kind of cultural appropriation – writing about any other culture than the one the writer was born into – but I’m not one of them. I think any part of human history is fair game. Of course, it might be safest to stick to the civilizations that are in the past – like the Spartans or the Persians or the Mesopotamians or the Egyptians. And I do think there are some contemporary sensitivities that should be observed, because to do otherwise is impolite. But I don’t agree with the idea that the only stories I should be allowed to tell are stories set in Australia, just because I happen to be Australian. That would be boring, for one thing. And anyway, I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell writers what stories they can and can’t tell. Bugger that!
Arthur G. Mustard: I was thinking about the wild west—those fantastic tales about carving out new towns and cities, starting afresh in a new land—coupled with the classic black and white westerns and greats such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Gunfight at OK Corral. Do you think or agree that this genre and style could be re-worked within the fantasy world, giving the characters and settings new names, but sticking to the main story line?
Absolutely. I think that any kind of story you can think of can be given a speculative fiction twist. As I’ve said, anything you can imagine can be turned into a story. All you have to do is make sure it’s believable. The trick with adapting an already established genre like the Western is recognizing that a great many people are pretty familiar with that world, and will be easily thrown if you change too much about the basics.
It’s also worthwhile to note, I think, that Joss Whedon had a go at mixing and matching SF and the Western in his seriesSerenity. Now, I am a huge fan of that show, I think it has some incredible writing – but my least favourite parts of it are when they try and marry space ships with horses, wagons and poke bonnets. I can see what they’re trying to do, but for me, the juxtaposition is just too jarring. I know it didn’t bother everyone, but that aspect of it did bother me. The more generic ‘frontier town’ aspects of the show I thought worked extremely well.
At the end of the day, I think it comes down to the disparity between the genres you’re wanting to mix and match. The wider the gulf, the harder you’ll have to work to make the marriage plausible and readable for your average punter.
Sulieman asks: What are you top three clichés that fantasy writers have to avoid if writing an epic fantasy novel?
Actually, I don’t think there are clichés, as such. There are no new stories. The human heart doesn’t change. People want what they’ve always wanted – love, sex, security, power, revenge, money, fame, success, family – and the stories we tell each other will always reflect that, I think. There’s that saying, you know? Everything old is new again. Romance novels never go out of style. Crime fiction never goes out of style. That’s because each focuses on a central, universally human theme that continues to appeal. But what does happen in the spec fic genre, I think, is that fashions come and go. Zombie stories. Vampire stories. Urban fantasy. Sword and sorcery. Space opera. Because spec fic contains so many sub-genres, they each take a turn in the publishing spotlight. And so everything old becomes new again. Swings and roundabouts. What was in last week palls, because there’s been a glut of that kind of story in the market, and suddenly there’s a brand new ‘hot story’ out there. Only it’s not anything new. It’s just been sitting on the bench for a while, waiting its turn.
So, within the sub-genre of epic fantasy, you could say that after a while the theme of ‘commoner makes good’ gets overplayed. Or the ‘evil dark lord’ motif. But you know what? At the end of the day, readers want a rollicking good story told well. And if the story is strong, and the characters intriguing, people will read it. What happens is that a handful of stories with that theme will come out, and they’ll be great, and readers are excited, so publishers push for more of that kind of story because while they might love books they’re in the business of making money … and after a while the readers get tired of that kind of story and look for something different. And we’re off again.
It goes in cycles. And because writers can’t control that, we can’t control what readers will want next, all we can do is write the story we’re burning to tell, the best way we can write it, and then cross our fingers. Write your story in your own way, look for what makes it personal for you, meaningful for you. Put your own authentic spin on it.
Also, here’s another thing to remember. Cliché is in the eye of the beholder. For a reader new to the genre, everything is fresh and fabulous and wondrous. For someone who’s been reading spec fic for twenty years? Not so much. That’s a reader who’s harder to please. We have no control over who picks up our book. We have no idea where they are in reading mileage. All we can do is write the best story we can and let the chips fall where they may. We will never please all of the readers all of the time.
Is there any advice you’d like to give an aspiring author starting out in the SF genre?
First of all, understand what kind of story excites you as a reader. What kind of story gets your heart pumping? Makes you laugh or cry or get angry? As a writer, that’s the kind of story you need to tell. You must be passionately engaged with your story. Writing is incredibly hard work, on many levels. If you don’t have that passion to sustain you, if you aren’t plugged into the personal, emotional truth of the story you’re writing, you’ll never make it. Ignore the current popular trends. Ignore what’s on the bestseller lists – unless it’s the kind of story you love to read. Then pay attention. Think about what it is in your favourite books that keeps you reading, that helps you get lost in a fictional world. Those authors have written something personally authentic that just happens to resonate with you, too. That’s what you’re aiming to do. You can’t force people to love your work. All you can do is hope that if you tell a truthful, emotionally resonant story, others will feel what you feel and enjoy what you’ve written.
The other important thing to do is work on your craft. There is nothing written that can’t be polished. No first draft is ever perfect. If you have a tendency to be precious and defensive, get over it. Readers don’t owe a writer anything. They paid money for your book. They get to hate it or love it or anything in between. All you can do is write as well as you can, as honestly as you can. That means opening yourself up to constructive criticism in the drafting phase, and seeking out people who will help you write the best book you can. It also means being ruthless in your own editing process. Never settle. Always strive to do better.
One of the best resources to help you improve as a writer is the Online SFF Writers Workshop. There you can get your work critiqued, and that’s useful. But I think the best thing about it is that in editing other people’s work you learn how to analyse and improve a work in progress. It’s where you learn to be a better writer. When you’re not emotionally attached to the story you can see it more clearly, and after a while you’ll find your own work improving because you’re training yourself not to make those same mistakes you’re finding.
Be selfish. Writing a novel is a marathon effort. You have to make the time, consistently, or it won’t get finished. So you have to decide how much it matters, and make sacrifices accordingly. You can’t have it all. Something has to give. You may experience resistance from the people in your life. So be it. Only you can decide what’s the right use of your time. The only way to be a novelist is to write a book. To write a book you have to spend a lot of hours at the computer. Those hours have to come from somewhere. Decide what you’re prepared to give up to get those hours, then get on with it.
Finally, take care of your body. Writing is very hard on you, physically. Not just the posture thing, and the lack of activity, but actually in your flesh and bones. Whatever you’re writing has an emotional component, and those emotions are reflected in your body. Your body can’t distinguish between imagination and real life. If you write a harrowing death scene, your body reacts as though you’ve been bereaved. Trust me, if you don’t look after yourself you’ll burn out. Make time to exercise regularly. You’ll last longer if you’re physically fit. Eat well. Writing uses huge amounts of nervous energy. If you’re improperly nourished you won’t write as well. Avoid getting over tired, because then you’ll be tempted to binge on caffeine and sugar for the short term energy hit. This is a very bad thing. If your brain is poorly supported, you’ll never make it. Invest in a standing desk, or some kind of ergonomic kneel/sit chair. Or sit on one of those big exercise balls. Do not spend hours at a time sitting in a regular chair. You’ll destroy your spine. And don’t curl up in an armchair with a laptop or the wheels will fall off your wagon. Seriously, folks. Without a clear mind and a pain-free body you won’t make it.
InstituteMan asks: Speculative fiction seems like a very diverse genre. How do you market any individual work in such a broadly defined area?
Marketing isn’t your job, unless you’re self publishing. I’m not an expert there. If you’re looking at going down the traditional publishing road, make sure you’re familiar with the accepted subdivisions within the genre. If you can honour the story you want to tell and remain within the popularly recognized boundaries, the job’s done. The further out you want to push the boat, the harder it becomes to market your story. And you need to understand that marketing departments have a big say in what new books are bought. An editor might love it, but if the marketing department can’t sell it easily to the booksellers and by extension the public, they won’t want to take the risk. Publishing is a business, something too many people forget.
Do you find it easier to connect with people using your website, social media, or a combination of both? Why?
Oh, social media. Urrgggh. Seriously. Just call me the anti-Scalzi. I can’t tell you how badly I struggle with it. For one thing, I’m a fairly private person. For another, I think I’m boring as bat shit. It’s not about me, it’s about the work. I do my best, but I’m not very good at it. The time I spend on social media is time I’m not spending on the next work. And given how much time I’ve lost this year to various health disasters, I freak out a bit at the thought of more social media stuff. Bottom line? I connect with my storytelling. I do what I can with the website, but when I’m deep in story mode it’s a struggle to get out of it. I never wanted to be an internet personality. I just want to write books!
InstituteMan asks: As someone who was admittedly unfamiliar with your work prior to seeing the opportunity to submit questions for this interview, the first thing I did was click on the link to your website. Impressive! Have you learned any lessons about maintaining an online presence as an author? Feel free to share any trade secrets.
Yeah. See my answer above. I am glad you like the website, and honestly, I do feel badly about not being a whiz bang super duper internet star. But it’s so not me. Look up ‘introvert’ in the dictionary and that’s my picture! To be honest, I find the push for constant media presence to be very odd. Nobody expects Michael Connelly or Robert Crais or Nora Roberts or Sue Grafton or any of the huge sellers in other genres to do it, so why spec fic writers are expected to be in readers’ faces on social media is a mystery to me. All it does is take time away from the books. If you love that kind of thing, fine. I’m jealous! But all it does is stress me out.
End of the day? You have to find your own comfort zone, and work within it. I love doing this kind of thing, talking books and writing, answering questions, passing on any tips I’ve learned. But banging on about me? Nah. The closest I get to that is sharing cute animals videos. *g*
For someone new to your books, which would you recommend he or she read first?
Ooh. Honestly? I don’t know. It all depends what you’re after. My work has a range to it, even though it’s all fantasy. The Mage books are probably the most traditional, and dare I say it, the most kind and gentle. I love those characters and I want to revisit them at some point. The Innocent Mage is the first one. If you’re after something that’s more gritty, with an emphasis on female characters, you could try theGodspeaker trilogy, starting with Empress. Some people love those books, some people hate them. They’re quite brutal in places, and not all the characters are easy to like. If you want something with a strong streak of humour, you could go with the Rogue Agent series, under my pen name K E Mills. The Accidental Sorcerer is the first one. I’m itching to get to the next one there. They’re not comedy, mind. They’re drama with some comic elements, mostly because of the character interactions. Then there’s my latest book, The Falcon Throne, first in a new series. This is the most sweepingly epic storytelling I’ve tried. Again, not all the characters are likable, but this book is the first act in a much larger story. Just be prepared for some tragedy.
Which book that you’ve written is your favorite? Why?
Truly, I don’t have a favourite because they’re all very different and I love them all for what they are. Having said that, I’m immensely fond of all the Rogue Agent characters, especially Reg. Let’s just say there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye. But I’m also hugely proud of the Godspeaker trilogy. The world-building in that series is very different, very visceral, and I turned a few genre expectations on their head there. And of course The Falcon Throne, because I’ve challenged myself hard with that one.
What are you working on now? When will it be available?
Right now I’m working on the next book in the Tarnished Crown series. Fingers crossed it will be out next year, as planned. Then I tackle the next Rogue Agent book, which is badly delayed. I have had a truly appalling year so far, with a series of spinal issues that brought me to a crashing halt, writing wise, because of a bad fall last December. After endless months of physio, drugs and rest, I’m back at the computer and playing insane catch up. This is why I was banging on about looking after yourself! I was in constant, searing pain with herniated neck discs for seven months, and pretty much lost the use of my left arm. Trust me, it does your head in and makes writing impossible.
Do you have any fun hobbies you like to indulge in when you aren’t working on your latest book?
Yes, when stupid life doesn’t get in the way! I love working in my local theatre, on the stage crew and as a director. I’m looking forward to getting back to sword fighting classes. And once I regain some small measure of fitness, I’ll be getting back to running.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
The website, www.karenmiller.net, is the best place. I am doing my best to keep it up to date and informative. Hopefully, with this crappy year in the rear vision mirror, I’ll manage to do a better job of that going forward!