The White Feather Murders: Q&A with Rachel McMillan

I am so excited for this week’s post because I’ve had a major woman crush on Rachel McMillan for about a year now. Her debut novel The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Murder was such a pleasure to read and both sequels were equally—if not more—satisfying.
Her latest release, The White Feather Murders is in stores now and was the perfect vacation read! (Just in case you still haven’t figured out what you’re reading this summer!)

What inspired this story and characters of the Herringford & Watts series?

It really came in the most unusual way. My agent was having no luck when shopping my first book (a romance set during the Halifax explosion in 1917). Nonetheless, a lot of editors liked my style and asked if I had anything else. My agent, returning from a conference, said “everyone seems to be looking for romantic suspense. You love Sherlock Holmes. What about a female Sherlock?” I thought it sounded like a fun challenge. Then, I just holed myself into a favourite coffee shop for a weekend and brainstormed. I have a full notebook of things. I wanted to play on Doyle’s original name for Sherlock, Sherrinford, so Merinda became Merinda Herringford and I wanted to play on Watson so Jem Watts was born. I figured the girls needed some guys and Jasper Forth was born as a police constable and possible love interest for Jem. But…no! Jem needed someone who would completely shake her well-bred world. A muckraking reporter (who became Ray DeLuca) would be the perfect way to highlight the immigrant experience in Toronto during the early 1900s. He would also be the perfect “so-wrong-it’s-right” across-the-tracks romance for lady-like Jem. Once I had the characters, I needed to figure out WHY Jem and Merinda dressed in bowlers and trousers (for I was always most certain that they did), and a night in the Toronto archives led me to learning about Toronto’s Morality Police and how women were arrested for vagrancy and thrown into reformatories. Everything else stemmed from there….

Your stories are very grounded in place—Toronto is practically a character. How were you able to step back in time in your own town and really bring it to life?

I have always been obsessed with Toronto. Really, this series is a love letter to Toronto which remains the most multi-cultural city in the world. For me, it really was peeling back the curtain to imagine what the city streets would have looked like in Jem and Merinda’s time. Of course, many of the buildings and areas mentioned are around today; but giant skyscrapers counter them. Luckily, Toronto archives has a wonderful (and I mean wonderful) collection of thousands and thousands of photographs from the city in this period. Photographs, maps, the trolley and streetcar lines…everything was there for me to take around and compare. After that, it was just using my imagination. Some places were easier than others, of course, depending on the preservation and restoration. For example, the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres which I use a lot still very much look the same. As does Casa Loma, the inspiration for Pelham Park in The White Feather Murders.

You tie up a lot of loose ends in The White Feather Murders. What was most challenging and what was most joyous in ending this era of Herringford & Watts?

For me, the most challenging part of the entire series was the word count. Harvest House really wanted to try something new for our Netflix culture—shorter word counts, interspersed novellas—easy peasy. But packing history and character development into a book that would be shorter than most historical novels was a super big challenge for me. Luckily, I used footnotes and epigraphs and snippets from the Hogtown Herald, etc., to try and give myself some room to colour in what I couldn’t spend word count on in fuller description. Another challenge was saying goodbye. Not forever, but for now. I lived and breathed these characters for two and some years. When I wasn’t writing a novel, I was editing a novella and drafting another book in the series. They were everything. They really are some of my best friends because I was so immersed in them.  While I cannot see myself closing the door on Jem and Merinda forever (they still need to go to PEI! They still need to visit Benny in the Yukon!), setting them aside has been a challenge. I love them so much.

As for joyous moments, finally seeing that end scene with Jasper and Merinda in print. That epilogue with the two of them was the first scene I wrote before I even started on Bachelor Girl’s Guide. I always knew I wanted a scene like that and I love the way the book ends and I hope readers do, too! 😉

What character in the H&W series was the most fun to write? (And I’m disqualifying Hamish. We can talk about him shortly.😉)

Merinda. By far and away Merinda. Merinda was easy. Merinda just showed up with a voice and an attitude and her terrible trippings into amateur detection. I love her. I also really love any scene with the four leads. And Ray and Merinda standing off is a favourite. But, Merinda is so fun to write. When you create a character like Merinda, you really have the world as your oyster, because she can say and do the most unexpected things. I’m laughing about her right now.

You’re a fellow writer with a day job. How do you strike that balance? How do you orient your days to write?

Yes! True story: unless you have a husband to support you or are JK Rowling, you are most likely going to have to have a job while writing books, lol. The Herringford and Watts series had very tight deadlines, so any time I wasn’t at the office, I was working. Evenings and weekends and holidays are Godsends to writers who work. I would set weekly goals and I would stick to them. I have a subway commute to work, and I often read over what I wrote the night before and get some editing done. When it comes to concurrently marketing, I use my lunch hours at work for social media, interviews, guest blogs, etc. I can’t say it was always easy and I was often sleep deprived; but it was so worth it. My new series has somewhat more breathable deadlines.

What books, movies, music, etc. feed you as an artist?

OH! This is such a fun question. It’s no secret to anyone who follows me on social media that I am a broadway obsessed nerd. I listened to a lot of Titanic(musical) and Ragtime and Newsies while crafting Jem and Merinda’s world. I am such a voracious reader but I love historical fiction that has a super captivating and unique voice… that just pings with personality. A few loves are The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley and the Horatio Lyle series by Catherine Webb. Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series and Deanna Raybourn’s novels are the types of book worlds I aspire to create with my mysteries. In inspirational fiction, I have been so inspired by Lynn Austin and how she advocates for women heeding to God’s calling beyond the domestic sphere. Fire by Night and A Woman’s Place are both very influential to me. I don’t know if it feeds me as an artist, but my favourite film of all time is Master and Commander. I just love how it captures a 21 book series I love (by Patrick O’Brian) into 2.5 hours. I love historical films and books that capture the essence of a time period.

You’ve been talking a lot about Hamish via social. Is there anything you can tell us about his story? (Dying to meet him!)

Hamish DeLuca is really special to me. He’s Jem and Ray’s son and he’s completely the opposite of Jem and Merinda. When his cousin Luca Valari invites him to Boston for the summer to help open a new night club, Hamish never dreams that he will be tugged into the city’s underworld….and even a murder scene. He pairs up with ex-New Haven debutante Regina (Reggie) Van Buren and has to balance his attempts at deduction with his growing feelings for his “Girl Friday.” I think what sets Hamish apart is that he suffers from an anxiety and panic disorder: things that in the 1930s during his adventures were grossly misdiagnosed. In order to spare himself primitive treatments like shock therapy and mercury pills, he is forced to try and hide his hand tremors and panic attacks. (For readers of White Feather Murders, you can see how Hamish inherited a bit of this nervous disposition from his father). I hope readers will enjoy reading about a slightly different beta hero: a guy who has a heart of gold, is fiercely loyal, but is just a little bit shy. And, like Toronto in Herringford and Watts, Boston takes a starring role. The 30s is so fun and noir-ish!

What advice would you give to any yet-unpublished writers out there?

a.) don’t be married to your first manuscript. It might not be the one that gets you in the door. Be malleable. I write in a genre unexpected to me because I was willing to follow a market trend to get my foot in the traditional publishing door.

b.) always have something in your back pocket. While your book is on submission with agents or editors, start writing something else. Editors and agents want to see that if one book isn’t working, another might just be right to fill a hole in the marketplace.

I have an ongoing blog series called The Bible College Spinster where I explore the thoughts and struggles of happily single young women in churches or communities where they are the minority. Any thoughts, encouragement, or empowerment for my fellow “spinsters”?

I love that you talk about this; because this is such a big theme in my Herringford and Watts books. I once told a friend that I felt so out of place in church circles (unmarried, no kids, no boyfriend), that I might as well have been an Edwardian woman in trousers. With the current statistic of twice as many single Christian women than men, it may well be a certainty that you don’t end up marrying: either by choice or circumstance. Personally, I never thought I would make it to my 30s without marrying; but largely this was because my formative years were filled with the Church rhetoric that we should “pray for our future husbands.” Setting the expectation that marriage and families are the driving trajectory in a woman’s life can lead her into a ton of insecurity in her adult life when things may not fall into place. I would say that you don’t need to pray for your future spouse; but you do need to pray for your future.   I would also encourage women to recognize there is nothing in the world they cannot do without a husband or boyfriend. Instead of waiting for a partner to take that trip you have always wanted to go on, save up and go by yourself. Every woman, I think, should travel on her own at least once in her life. Take a journal and a book and go. Instead of waiting for a partner to go to that concert or play you really want to see, take yourself on a date. There is a lot of freedom in being single. Do I wish I would wake up and find my own Ray DeLuca around the corner? Absolutely! But I am not going to put my life on hold for that. And neither should any woman.😉

What question do you wish would be asked in blog Q&As and what is your answer to that question?

WOW! This is so cool and I have to say I have been asked some amazing questions over the course of the series. Including this Q and A! But I’ve never been asked what my first book was. And so I will tell you. My first book was written when I was 9 or 10. It was set in Switzerland. It starred a captured milk maid named Lahna who alone with her mouse Burly were trapped in the palace for a crime they didn’t commit. It also starred two twin brothers—both princes—one the evil Bradley and the other the good white knight Christopher. They both fought for Lahna. I bought a hard-bound book from the dollar store and copied it out in my best printing. And drew castles and mice. It was clearly legendary, LOL

You can buy your own copy of the Herringford & Watt’s series here (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3). Her book with Thomas Nelson releases summer 2018.

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