So who are you?
I’m an author of romance novels. In another life, before I did this, I got a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry, went to law school, and taught intellectual property law—things that people do not often associate with highly creative fields. I sometimes get asked whether it was difficult to transition from two deeply analytical fields to writing.
The answer is—basically—no.
Don’t get me wrong. Being an author is a lot of work, and learning the craft of being an author was hard. But I have never felt constrained by my background, and in fact, I think, it has made my life easier.
It’s hard to say how long I’ve been writing fiction. Technically I started when I was 9 or 10, but I wasn’t good. I tried to write throughout high school. In college, I decided I was bad at fiction so I did something else before coming back to writing.
If you write romance novels, you basically live in one, right?
I write romance, but my husband isn’t an inspiration — he’s too low drama. He’s far too reasonable and has no overwhelming childhood trauma. I’m really the unreasonable one in the relationship.
Then where do your ideas come from?
I think one of the reasons people may find the idea of transitioning from the world of law and science to that of writing intimidating is that they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the process of creativity—or if they have, they think that it’s a form of magic.
I honestly do not know what creativity feels like for a lot of people, but it’s not magic to me—it’s a muscle, and just like any muscle, you need to exercise it to get good at it.
I’m often asked “where do you get your ideas from” and the answer is always “everywhere, I’m getting ideas right now.” It’s not a lie—it’s a process of training yourself to see the potential for stories everywhere you are. This, by the way, is true of all forms of creativity—including those exercised in science and in law. That initial part of creativity is about teaching yourself to ask questions about your surroundings. Why is that apple hanging from the tree? What is happening with the water, and why? What is that noise?
Learning to do other things has helped develop my creativity a lot. I learned how the world works which gives me more building blocks to tell stories. I borrow information about trail running from my husband and friends. I think it’s irrational to run a hundred mile race, but that’s what makes it interesting!
Questions are the start of creativity, and they’re the same in all fields. The difference between being a curious scientist, a curious lawyer, and a curious author is what you do with the question once it’s been asked.
Here’s the catch: A huge number of those ideas are very bad, and an even larger number of them are incomplete. If you want a story, you need more than a few creative nuggets—and you need them to coalesce together in a way that is interesting. Understanding creativity is an on-going process. I learn more about my own creativity every year. It’s a life-long endeavor.
So you go from questions to ideas to books?
I can write a book in three to ten years, depending on the book. I always have free-floating ideas I want to write about.
I watched a documentary about sea urchin divers in California and I thought it was really interesting. So I thought to myself I want to write a book about sea urchin divers. But I don’t know enough about the subject for that to be a full idea. It floats around in my head and collides with an idea about a story about an electric bike startup owner, which creates a whole new idea.
I need ideas for who the people are in a story plus ways they can interact that causes conflict.
I let all of this stuff sit in my head and gradually it conglomerates into a book. And sometimes it doesn’t come together.
How do you keep track of all these ideas?
The way I work is an evolving combination of technology and personal habits, which works for me.
You need a system that can handle three kinds of creative thinking: idea generation, idea consideration, and idea combination. These require different formats or tools to work with.
- Idea generation: A place to store ideas, in an easy-to-find format, so that you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel, along with ways to find out a lot of free-wheeling stuff that may not be connected (obviously) to anything you see in front of you. This is a very diffuse way of thinking.
- Idea consideration: A way to explore the ideas you generate—like spelunking a cave when you don’t know where you’re going, which enables you to focus intensely.
- Idea combination: A way to think of all the ideas that you’ve had, and see how they fit together like puzzle pieces. Most creative outputs involve ideas being combined together, and this requires you to join A to B. It’s a combination of both diffuse & focused thinking.
What tools are in your system?
The tools that I use (in conjunction) for about 70% of my work are my iPad with Apple Pencil and a solitary app — GoodNotes. Along those lines, I should say that I use GoodNotes for a system that is like a bullet journal, except that under Goodnotes, this becomes a digital bullet journal instead of an analog one.
For some reason, I think best when I write by hand, and I spent years of my writing career painstakingly making hand annotations on actual paper, and fearing that I would one day lose weeks of work in a fit of disorganization. Using Goodnotes has changed all of that—it allows me to write by hand, on something that is very much like paper, except that:
- I can drag and drop entire paragraphs of handwritten text, or change their color;
- That paper can all be automatically backed up to Dropbox as I work;
- Goodnotes has automatic handwriting detection, and while it is not perfect, it allows me to easily search long, handwritten documents to find the section I’m looking for;
- I can insert pages as needed; and
- I can bookmark sections.
Let me explain some of the advantages of this system:
When I’m working on a book I will often need to go through idea generation (as discussed above) which means that I often have pages and pages of my writing out bad ideas. In an analog bullet journal, I would have to manually update an index with something like this: “p. 47-56, ideas for chapter 6” and then a little later, “p. 59-62, REAL ideas for chapter 6 ignore last ones they’re terrible” and then much, much later “p. 72-83 FINAL real ideas for chapter 6, ignore all others.” And then I might decide that the FINAL real ideas for chapter 6 were terrible and end up scrawling things in the margin of the second version that fixes all the problems with that idea, and then update the index to indicate that the ideas on p. 72 are now the crap ones and I really want the ones on p. 59, and also try to read my marginal handwriting on the side that fixes the ideas on p. 59.
If I’m trying to find all the chapter six ideas, I then have to go through the entire index to figure out which is the superseding chapter six.
In a digital bullet journal, I don’t have an index at all. Instead, when I finish the work on chapter six, I add a bookmark: “chapter 6 ideas.” Once I realize those ideas are terrible, I delete that old bookmark and add a new one for “chapter 6 ideas.” And when I realize I actually need to revisit the old chapter 6 ideas, I search for chapter 6, find that section, re-bookmark it, and add a page at the end of that section to make it all work out.
I end up having persistently bookmarked sections that are things like HIGH LEVEL OVERVIEW OF BOOK and MID LEVEL OVERVIEW OF THIS SECTION, and SKETCHED OUT VERSION OF THIS SCENE and (for me, because I am terrible with names and forget everything) NAMES OF PEOPLE APPEARING IN THIS BOOK ALONG WITH VAGUE DESCRIPTION.
This allows me to have all my ideas in one place. Furthermore, since Goodnotes syncs with iCloud, it means that if I am shopping in the store and have an idea—or if I’m on my laptop—I can open up GoodNotes on my phone and type a note in instead of hoping that I remember it once I get home.
From there I write an initial rough draft in Scrivener. I’ll write a list of things I hate about the rough draft. Then I’ll have someone else read it and add anything I’ve missed to the list. Then I write another draft. I’ll complain about things to friends. It’s the best method of brainstorming: the very act of saying there’s no way to fix “X” gives you a solution.
Given how nerdy some of your characters are, do you have to do a lot of research?
I have someone I trust read my ideas and writing as early as possible in my process. You can come up with a premise that is unfixable. You want to ask if the idea sucks before you write it, rather than waiting six months and pouring hours into something you can’t use. Always ask for feedback at the idea stage, especially when writing about marginalizations that are not your own.
Beyond that, the research process varies from book to book.
My current book is set in China, somewhere I haven’t written about before. I have a lot of background knowledge about England, so for books set there, I just make notes in the margin for adding details. But I can’t do that for Shanghai, because I don’t know what’s even reasonable for that context. More details have to be filled in than just what I can fit in the margin.
A lot of historical novels have more existing research to draw on. In The Countess Conspiracy, the main character, Violet, is doing research that was ground-breaking during the time the book was set. It’s essentially high school level biology today. I have an MS in chemistry, so I understand a lot of stuff about chemistry.
I get specialized feedback depending on what I’m writing, especially when writing a contemporary novel. For the Cyclone series, I knew I had less experience with major software releases, so I talked to professionals, watched every Apple event recording, listened to quarterly earning calls. I want to know what things sound like, what sorts of questions do people ask on the spot.
My priority is avoiding errors. And I still screw up. In Suffragette Scandal, Freddie, a minor character had agoraphobia. She was a minor character so I didn’t bother with a consult but got contacted by someone with agoraphobia about how I got it wrong. It doesn’t matter if people like a book if it’s hurtful to someone with the same experiences.
That’s a lot to remember — how do you keep track of the details?
I don’t keep track of side characters. I just vaguely remember they exist, so I give the maid a different name in every chapter. During later drafts, I make a list of those details and then edit everything to match the list.
I do keep track of information for series. In the Worth saga, I’m writing about six siblings over a decade with interwoven plots, so stuff in the second book matters in later books. I’m learning this as I go, because I’ve never written something like this before.
For main characters, things are very complicated. Some characters I know instantly. Others I have to write my way into, which can take into the second or third draft of the book.
Sometimes I know who someone is, sometimes I know what they have to do. Sometimes I’m surprised while I’m writing and have to go backfill personality.
Your ideas surprise you? But you’re the author!
My own ideas surprise me all the time. If you’re not surprising yourself, you’re not surprising your readers.
Your story needs to be surprising enough to surprise readers, but with enough foreshadowing that the surprise makes sense. Very often, when I’m dissatisfied, what I mean is that something feels inorganic to the situation and I need to figure out why.
Reality is weirder than fiction; fiction needs to live up to the inconsistency of reality.
You just like breaking rules, don’t you?
I like breaking most grammar rules. :)
Okay, that’s not exactly true. I don’t think there is such a thing as rules of writing. Grammar, in particular, can be a very heavy topic. It’s often used to imply dialects other than the ones taught in the poshest schools are inadequate.
But grammar rules are generally agreed upon. You mostly want to follow general procedures. But following similar paths sets up expectations. You can use rules to set expectations and then ducking out lets you do something interesting.
There are some rules I follow. If you only have one other woman in a book, you have a serious problem. And don’t assume other women are the enemy. That’s more a function of good writing: catty backstabbing women are lazy writing! It’s lazy conflict! The easiest way to make drama is to call women irrational bitches. I prefer to write better material.
Do you like your own writing?
Some books are easier to write than others, though I don’t think readers could necessarily tell. Unveiled, Trade Me, *and *The Countess Conspiracy were easy to write. The Duchess War was hard. My least favorite book I’ve written is Trial by Desire, but people like it.
My favorite of my own books is always the book that’s coming next. I don’t know how it will go wrong and it’s all shiny. Once I’ve written the book I know everything that could go wrong.
Courtney Milan’s books have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist. She is a New York Times and a USA Today Bestseller and a RITA® winner. Courtney lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, an exceptionally perfect dog, and an attack cat. Before she started writing historical romance, Courtney got a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry from UC Berkeley. After that, just to shake things up, she went to law school at the University of Michigan and graduated summa cum laude. Then she did a handful of clerkships with some really important people who are way too dignified to be named here. She was a law professor for a while. She now writes full-time.