I’m so incredibly excited to share a little Fly on the Wall conversation between two fabulous authors, Christine Feehan and Milla Vane. Christine Feehan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Carpathian series, the GhostWalker series, the Leopard series, the Shadow series, and the Torpedo Ink series. Writing under a pen name, Milla Vane is also an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of steampunk and paranormal romance. Milla currently resides in Oregon
Come with me as we take this little almost voyeuristic journey with two amazing authors that have a lot to say!
First, thanks for taking the time to do this, and I hope you are both doing well. It’s slightly dystopian how we start and end conversations nowadays, don’t you think? I typically stick with method/craft type questions for these interviews, but given our current circumstances, I’m sure your readers, old and new, will be interested in your possibly different takes on handling the creative process right now.
In the beginning…
Milla Vane: Okay, but first let me give a little fangirl squeal…because Christine Feehan! I remember when finding a paranormal romance was so incredibly difficult — there were some lines (like Silhouette Shadows) dedicated to the stories, but when you gobble up books like I did, there were never enough! And some single titles were available here and there…but it feels like Christine changed EVERYTHING and really opened up the market and demand for more paranormal, which was heaven to this reader.
Ahem, as for the question… When I began writing full time, I was working as an office manager for a construction company while also pursuing my master’s in literature — and I also had a baby around the same time. Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking or how I did it all (but this is also when I began drinking coffee, so maybe that’s the answer)! But one of the ways that I relieved stress was to write fanfiction. I had a long commute, so I’d spend a few hours driving and working through the story in my head, and then write it out at home. Obviously something had to give, and I was given a push when Cindy Hwang at Berkley contacted me out of the blue. She’d read my fanfiction and wondered if I had anything original — and since I’d been working on something, I sent it to her. That led to a contract and forced me to make a decision, because I simply didn’t have enough time for everything.
The transition to full-time was difficult only in the sense that I had to really learn to manage my schedule and finances differently (working for yourself takes some adjustment) and to set boundaries regarding how much other people could ask of me…and how much time I spend online or social media. That’s become more of a problem in the last few years — there’s so much drama and news out there to follow! — and forcing myself to really shove it away and block the internet except for a few hours each day is key.
So my days are filled with writing, and then I try to relax with a book or a movie, and spend time with my family (though my daughter is a teenager now, so she doesn’t want to spend time with me as much…unless we’re forced to, such as during a quarantine, ha!) I don’t read as much as I used to when I wasn’t writing full-time, which has been a sad trade-off, but I still try to fit in a book every couple of days. I’ve been reading a lot of shorter, novella-length romances as a result.
Christine Feehan: Hi Milla! Thank you so much for your kind words! *I am blushing.* I love the paranormal romance world so I’m honored you enjoy my stories. It’s good to meet you, even in a virtual setting. And thank you, Donna for taking the time to put this together.
As for what I did prior to becoming a published author – I taught martial arts. I also taught self defense classes to women. That was a full-time career and allowed me to have my children with me. It also meant they were raised in that discipline as well. I loved that world, and honestly, my identity was very much tied to it. I had that career well over 25 years. I earned a 3rd degree Black Belt as well as several other ranks in multiple disciplines. I trained with various law enforcement, such as FBI, DEA, and took classes in other platforms to better help women who had been victims of violence. During that time, I wrote stories daily for myself. It was my way of decompressing. When I was no longer able to continue that career for health reasons but still had children to support, a friend suggested I send the story I’d been working on to a publisher. That story was Dark Prince. I was lucky Alicia Condon at Dorchester took a chance and read it when so many others wouldn’t because it had vampires and it was paranormal, and no one was doing that!
The transition was extremely difficult for me. Not as a writer, because I already wrote every day, but I didn’t have the necessary tools, such as a computer, and I had a difficult time giving up who I was to be someone different. It took time to adjust, but fortunately my stories had always been that place of comfort and escape for me, so the actual writing helped tremendously.
Process: How do you make it work?
CF: I just usually have a character start bugging me, whispering somewhere at the back of my mind. Other times I look at a complete blank page and again a character will suddenly begin talking, until I know everything about him/her. I start writing, and the story unfolds like this amazing adventure I don’t want to end. If I plotted, I’d know what happens and not want to write the book. I enjoy the twists and turns. I love to see how the flawed characters grow and learn to react as they do. Research is important to me, so whatever the book is about, my characters have to deal with the reality as close as I can get it to them. I like knowing they have to fight out of impossible corners and win. They have to stand up after being knocked down. All the same things we have to go through, but in a larger than life and much cooler way (I hope).
MV: Usually an idea for me starts with a single scene or conflict. I don’t know where those come from! Sometimes maybe it’s just a glimmer of a question, like I see something or think of a trope and then my brain takes over. Like A Heart of Blood and Ashes began after I’d already imagined this barbarian fantasy world and established the worldbuilding in my head, but the book itself began with just a single scene that I imagined (of the hero intending to kidnap the heroine as revenge for a slight against his family, but instead of fighting she essentially tells him: “all right, let’s team up and kill my family.”) Then everything else I wrote was to get to that scene and then to tell the story of the fallout of that scene — and it doesn’t really take too long to figure out the general outline of the story after I work forward and back.
Mostly everything is organized in my head, because I don’t keep a series bible or anything. But I do like to draw maps (they also help me plot, because all of these barbarian books are road trips, so it’s easy to see the progression of the story as they travel along.) And as I write every book, I also have a spiral notebook (or three) full of ideas for scenes and where I will sometimes write a quick draft of a scene (when I’m stuck, sometimes writing longhand is easier.)
I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, and I start a book with one or two scenes very strong in my mind…but I find that after I begin, more scenes just start piling up in my head, so I’ll write little notes about them so I can come back to them when I get to actually writing that scene.
World Building Tips of the Trade
CF: Tolkien was always a hero. I loved his world and read his books to my children over and over. And Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. I was so young when I started reading those stories, and I got so caught up in those worlds. I am in awe of writers with such skills. When I start creating my worlds – and, trust me, I do not have anywhere near their skills, but I work at it all the time – I always start with the premise of whatever power my hero/heroines have and what weaknesses are equal to those powers. In other words, there must be balance in the world. If my hero is highly trained such as in the Shadow Rider series, his wonderful life is really a façade. Balance is always essential so the scales can’t be tipped too far one way or the other. The paranormal realm allows for my imagination to have no boundaries! My worlds expand from there.
MV: For me, worldbuilding is a process of asking “why?” a billion times, and also throwing in: “what would be fun?” I’m a top-down worldbuilder: my world starts with a simple scene or idea, then I start digging with the word “why?” So the barbarian fantasy world actually began with the idea (a story that we’ll see in book #3) of a woman on a quest, and she has to remain silent the entire time, and she has to serve this barbarian king she’s sworn to kill. So I began asking why? Why does she have to do this, why doesn’t she just kill him? And then when I had those answers, I asked ‘why’ again and dug deeper.
After a while, you get to the bottom of the world, hit that foundation and see that it’s solid because of ALL the answers you’ve already come up with, and then you can start decorating it on the way back up. And it doesn’t mean you have all the answers! Just the big ones, as if you’ve built a house—yet it still has a lot of empty rooms. So for every book, I ask “why why why” and form those details that make a single room so special.
As for those I admire, so many — paranormal romance is filled with so many AMAZING worldbuilders: Anne Bishop, Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Christine(!), J.R. Ward, and on and on and on. I also think historical writers are amazing worldbuilders — because truly, those are fantasy worlds that each writer must create. And sure, it’s based on history, and there’s more “real” information available, but then the writer has to establish a mood and their own “reality” for each book.
Outside the genre, the worldbuilding that consistently blows me away is for James S.A. Corey’s sci-fi series that begins with Leviathan Wakes (you might have also seen the excellent TV series based on it, “The Expanse.”) I have no idea how much of the science is “real” but it’s all consistent and *feels* real (which is what matters to me — it doesn’t have to be true, it just has to *feel* true). But the way in which humans create their different factions in the future, the future history that’s created and serves as a foundation for the series…it’s just stunning. From the cultural aspects to the racial aspects to the political aspects, and then how it’s all brought together in the crew and informs their characters and the plots. Just incredible.
Change is Good
CF: I have always had a problem getting bored writing the same world over and over, so once I finish a book my mind is automatically ready to leap into a new realm. Where I often have the problem is the order of publication. My series are published in order, so they are usually written in order. If a character from another series is yelling at me to write their story, it’s difficult, but I no longer have time to sneak it in. That can be very distracting to me. Fortunately, my martial arts background made me quite disciplined and I’m able to force my mind to be focused on the story at hand until it grips me, and I become passionate about it. I deliberately chose to write each series with a different voice and in a different world so I would love each of them. By doing so, I find switching allows me to regain my passion for each series when I come back to that world.
That said, I will admit I decided before I considered publishing them to write Torpedo Ink at night. I had an old travel computer, and I put a recliner in my bedroom, used that computer only, and would write at the same time every night. It took two months of persistence but now at night I can sit in that chair with that computer and write Torpedo Ink no matter what I’m working on during the day. I tell writers with children who have a difficult time getting a few words down that if they choose a time of day to write something, if they wrote a page a day by the end of the year, they would have a novel. And if they do it at the same time, they would train their mind to focus when they sit down to write. It does take persistence, but it can be done.
MV: I am not very good at this, but less because I’m shifting worlds and more because I’m shifting the voice for it. The barbarian series has a very specific, kind of archaic-sounding structure to the writing … so much that when I’m knee-deep in it, I even sometimes begin speaking/thinking that way! So on a day-to-day basis, I couldn’t easily switch from one project to another because my brain gets so mired in that voice.
So to go from one series to a different series, I have to completely finish one book, then take a small mental break and also re-read stuff from the different series to refresh the voice for that one in my head. Then I’m good to go, but there definitely is a process of clearing out one voice to make room for the other.
(It’s also hard for me to read a book with a strong voice when I’m writing something different! Like I know I can only read J.D. Robb when I’m between writing books, because I suck up that voice like a vampire for some reason, and it’ll come out in my own work. But other writers don’t click with my brain the same way, or their voice isn’t as strong, so it doesn’t happen.)
Social Media Balance & The Possibility of Unplugging
CF: Social media is extremely difficult for me. For one thing, I’m very technologically challenged. I also live in an area where my internet doesn’t work half the time. I hold my breath to see if my Facebook Live events are going to turn out or not, but fortunately, my readers are awesome and they don’t care when my dogs breathe too loud or my daughters fall off the couch. They just laugh with me, and I love that. I have a great community of over 150,000 readers. We established upbeat, positive discussions early on and, again, I’m so grateful to have such wonderful readers. Goodreads is another place I’m fairly comfortable with and can somewhat maneuver. Instagram, I try. I’m not the best but am learning. Thankfully, everyone is so forgiving and sweet. Mostly, I write my books. I get so caught up in writing I forget to do anything else until I’m nudged.
MV: I love, love social media and interacting with other readers and writers. I’m fairly introverted and face-to-face interactions are hard for me, but I love online interactions about my favorite things: romance, comics, action movies, and so on. Finding online communities in the 90s completely changed my social world.
But the past few years, I’ve had to really cut back on the time spent on social media, just for my own mental health and productivity. I’m not very good at limiting myself (the problem is that there’s SO MUCH to do and see and talk about) so I use a site blocker that limits the amount of time I spend on different sites. And truly, there’s nothing that can’t wait for a few hours.
Talking to Yourself
CF: My advice for a new writer is to believe in yourself and your dream. Readers want to read books. We love them. We love to find new voices. It’s like finding gold. I know I’m always looking. In today’s world of publishing there are so many choices but be prepared to be a business woman/man. You are responsible for your career (I got into so much trouble many times by neglecting this side early on), so learn everything you can. Enjoy every single step of the journey. Help others along your way!
MV: I would absolutely echo all of Christine’s advice, especially regarding business. It would be lovely to just wallow in the craft and the art, but that’s not the reality! You have to know the industry and the process of making and selling books, and even if there are publishers and editors who handle much of it for you, still you need to pay attention to the business side of it all. The other thing that I would tell myself is to write the books you want to read, and trust that there are other readers out there looking for those kinds of books, too. It’s always going to be a hard path, and trends come and go (as do pen names and sales numbers), but if you truly love what you’re doing, it makes even the difficult parts worth it.
CF: I actually used to give talks on this subject. I think as writers we never take the time to acknowledge our success. Starting out, we just want to finish a manuscript. All of us went through the stage of having an idea, writing awesome chapters, then getting another great idea when you ran out of steam… repeat scenario over and over right?
When you finally complete that manuscript, that is cause for celebration! But no, now we’re not a success unless we find an agent. We find an agent, we should celebrate, but no – we’re not a success until the book sells. Finally, after ten rejections it sells. Cause for celebration? No, because we have to make sure it sells to readers. It’s finally out. It made a list! Cause for celebration? Well… It was good but now your next book has to make that list and do better.
That’s what writers do to themselves. Looking back at each step, all of us can see every success we’ve achieved. I’ve had plenty of time to look over my life. I’ve been lucky in my careers. I loved being a martial artist. I know I was in a position to help a lot of people, and I call that a success. I have sixteen #1 New York Times bestsellers, and all seven of my series have hit #1. I call that a success.
I know my books have helped others, and I call that a success.
My greatest success? I’m a mother of intelligent, compassionate, hard working human beings. I’m proud of them. Without a doubt, although I’ve been driven to be a success in my careers, I know now what matters to me the most is raising those children and helping so many others along the way. (Although I’d never change a thing in my careers).
MV: Truly, it feels as if that definition constantly shifts. Back when I started out, simply signing my first contract felt like a huge success. Finishing that first book, holding the print copy in my hands…there was such an incredible feeling of accomplishment. That’s still true, but after I went through a huge burnout a few years back, climbing my way back toward finishing the stories I wanted to tell felt like a tremendous and new success that was completely different from the “finishing the book” success of before.
I also feel as if I’ve become much more confident about who I am as a writer and as an individual telling stories, and I would deem that a success, especially since that’s been something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’ve always loved what I write, but there’s been a constant sense of wonder and disbelief that anyone else does. That sense of wonder has never gone away (I’m still amazed and so grateful that I can do this for a living, simply because readers want the stories I tell), but I’ve become far less apologetic about any of it and have learned to embrace all the parts of me that grew up into this person telling stories about barbarians and dinosaurs and what it means to stand for something (or stand against something). There are so many voices in this world telling us to dislike who we are and what we think, so being comfortable with myself and what I put out into the world feels like a huge success.
Keep on Keeping On Especially in the time of COVID-19
CF: For me, yes, although writing is solitary, I have a large family, and Brian, my son, does writing power hours with me daily. We Skype, but it isn’t the same. I Facetime my grandchildren, and my daughter and sister stand 20 feet away with masks on to talk. I’m used to the little ones yelling for me to watch them jump and play and run around. It can be lonely. Work gets done, of course, but the heart is heavy.
MV: Writing is a solitary exercise for me, too — every once in a while, I used to go to a coffee shop just to be around people during the day, but usually I just sit at home at my desk. Our current lockdown hasn’t changed that TOO much. My husband is a teacher and he’s conducting classes from our living room (but I’m in another room, so it’s not much different from when he was at school.) And the same for my daughter: her classes are online, and she’s in her room most of the day.
Otherwise the day feels fairly normal for me…except that it used to be more structured, because I’d have to drive my daughter to school and pick her up, so my work day was broken up into regular periods of time. Now I have to make myself stop working and take breaks, and create a new structure. Focusing was especially difficult at the beginning, but then I started blocking news sites the same way that I do social media, and that helped.
Thank you, next!
CF: Shadow Flight is my next book in the Shadow Series and it comes out on May 5th.
After that I have Desolation Road out July 7th.
Dark Song out Sept. 1st
Leopard’s Rage out Nov. 10th
Reckless Road Jan. 26th
Next year I have five books coming out; a GhostWalker book, a Shadow Rider book (Emme’s story!), a new stand alone that I’m very excited about, a Carpathian book and a Torpedo Ink book.
MV: In July, I have two releases! The Beast of Blackmoor is a long novella set before the events of A Heart of Blood and Ashes and my current A Gathering of Dragons series, and features a warrior princess who has to tame a beast…who isn’t exactly what she expected. Then A Touch of Blood and Snow is the next full length book in the series, and it features a feral cinnamon roll hero who is desperately in love with a girl he’s known since they were children, but who doesn’t want anything to do with him after he exiled her from the kingdom. So much fun!
Rapid Fire Questions
Donna note: Normally I ask authors a few “rapid fire questions” that help me write up a catchy intro with irreverent and silly facts. However, Christine and Milla made me laugh snort a couple of times and I couldn’t make myself edit their answers down to single word catchphrases. Consider this a fun interview excerpt reel to lighten your load! I mean who is going to not laugh at puce?
Least favorite color
MV: Puce — not because of the color, but because of the name. PUCE. What kind of word is that? Ick.
CF: Puce I’m totally stealing Milla’s answer for the same reason because: Really???
MV: Right?? It’s awful!
Since we are all on stay at home lockdown, what’s the one thing you’ve learned you can’t live without – not family!
CF: My dogs. Absolutely my dogs. One, Drago, is 9 ½ very dignified and has no idea why I ever had the silly idea to get Vlad. He tells me this daily with sighs and sometimes even turning his back on me. But he’s fierce and would defend me in a heartbeat.
Vlad is 6 ½ but thinks he’s a puppy. He’s goofy and silly. He makes me laugh all the time. They’re Black Russian Terriers – 140 pounds and great company in isolation.
(Editor’s note: Sadly, Drago passed away shortly after this interview was completed.)
MV: My headphones! My husband is a teacher and the living room has become his online classroom. And I’m used to working from home, but not used to everyone else doing the same…and he’s very loud when he teaches, haha! This week, I heard a lecture on Animal Farm; and I love me some Orwell, but I did not need to go through all of that again.
What’s in your Netflix queue?
CF: Hmm… I’m probably going to have to pass on this one. I’ve been on such a reality kick. I haven’t watched a single movie in a while.
MV: Kingdom (a Korean historical zombie drama)
Last song on repeat?
CF: “Possession” by Jace Everett
MV: I can’t listen to music with lyrics when I write (sob) so I’ve had the Transformers: Dark of the Moon soundtrack on repeat while I write (wearing my necessary, Animal Farm-blocking headphones). It’s an incredible soundtrack to write to, with some poignant sections and rousing sections, which helps feed into every emotion.
The silliest thing on your desk or in your bag?
CF: Of course, you had to ask this question. I debated about whether or not to be honest. I look so normal and this answer will raise the question that maybe I might not be. I have a little red voodoo doll with pins my friend gave me. It comes in handy occasionally. Thank heavens you didn’t ask anything else!
MV: A Wonder Woman piggy bank! It’s a big pink pig with a Wonder Woman outfit on, and was a gift a few years back from a friend who knows how much I love Wonder Woman.
Shadow Flight by Christine Feehan, out now!
Chicago’s Ferraro crime family will do anything to protect one of their own in this thrilling entry in the Shadow Riders series from #1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan.
Nicoletta Gomez was a terrified teenager when Taviano Ferraro and his brother saved her life. Ever since, she’s been trying to rise above what was done to her, molding herself into a survivor under the protective eyes of the Ferraro family. All the while, she’s been falling hopelessly in love with the man who knows her darkest secrets.…
With one look, Taviano knew that Nicoletta was his, just as he felt their shadows connect. But no matter how much he wanted to claim her, he knew she needed time to become her own woman. When Nicoletta once again finds herself in the sights of dangerous men, a split-second decision has Taviano breaking all of the Ferraro family’s rules to keep her safe. And as far as he’s concerned, the reward is more than worth the risk.
A Touch of Stone and Shadow by Milla Vane, out July 21!
Milla Vane returns to a world of kings, magic, and passion in her exhilarating A Gathering of Dragons series, as a great alliance forms to stand against an evil warlord intent on their destruction.
Danger lurks in the western realms. The Destroyer’s imminent return has sent the realms into turmoil as desperate citizens seek refuge—but there’s no safety to be found when demons and wraiths crawl out from the shadows. Even Koth, a northern island kingdom left untouched by the Destroyer a generation past, is besieged by terrors spawned from corrupt magics.
When Lizzan leads the Kothan army against these terrors, only to see her soldiers massacred and to emerge as the only survivor, she is called a coward and a deserter. Shunned from her home, Lizzan now wanders in solitude as a mercenary for hire, until she encounters a group of warriors seeking new alliances with the northern kingdoms—a group that includes Aerax, the bastard prince of Koth, and the man who sent her into exile.
Though they were childhood friends, Aerax cannot allow himself to be close to the only woman who might thwart his treacherous plan to save their island realm. But when a goddess’s demand binds them together, Lizzan and Aerax must find a way to overcome their painful pasts. Or there will be no future for the western realms…