This interview is part of a TLC Book Tour for Murder at the Flamingo
I’m very excited to welcome Rachel McMillan to my blog today—particularly as her character Hamish DeLuca has become one of my favourite fictional characters. ❤ If you want to find out why I love him so much, be sure to check out my review.
~ About the Author ~
Rachel McMillan is a history enthusiast, lifelong bibliophile, and author of the Herringford and Watts series. When not reading (or writing), Rachel can be found at the theater, traveling near and far, and watching far too many British miniseries. Rachel lives in Toronto where she works in educational publishing and is always planning her next trip to Boston.
The author’s initial response to a few key elements of writing.
Plotting: For this series, with the Broadway cast of Hunchback of Notre Dame in my earbuds while walking Boston for hours and hours and hours.
Editing: This is when my book really comes to life!
Spelling and Grammar: I try, darnit! My spelling is Canadian like me, so my American editors put up with a lot of extra ‘u’s.
Reviews: All exposure is good exposure. Once the book is out in the world, the reader has ownership and their experience is their own and valid.
I am quite disciplined about my writing time: Yes! Because I cannot afford to procrastinate. Evenings and weekends are when most of the magic happens.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
Developing characters. I love it. I love meeting new fictional friends.
What is your least-favourite part of the writing process?
Attempting to make my detective protagonists smarter than I am when it comes to excavating clues for the mystery. That’s why my sleuths will always be amateur sleuths and not the highest ranking police sergeant or a renowned and lauded inspector of Scotland Yard.
Where is your favourite place to write?
I love writing out and about— so pubs and coffee shops are great where I can feel the energy of a place and overhear snippets of conversation. I have some go-to places in Toronto: my neighbourhood Starbucks, and a Toronto pub called the Union Social House. In Boston, I tried very hard to write descriptive scenes in the places they are set. So I spent a lot of time with a notebook in the North End, also at the Warren Tavern in Charlestown (near where Regina Van Buren lives in her boarding house) and at the Parker House hotel, which is just down the street from where Luca Valari and Hamish live in Flamingo.
What is your worst habit as a writer?
Writing out of sequence. I get an idea for a scene and allow myself to follow it, only to find myself patching it into the manuscript later and obviously setting myself up for continuity errors. Luckily, I have had amazing developmental editors who help make me look good when I do this.
What is the average time it takes for you to write a first draft?
This one probably took about 8 months with 2 months tacked on for research.
How do you choose your characters’ names?
I do a lot of study for character meaning. Sometimes, for secondary characters, I use friends’ names or names I like or names that were popular in the period (thank heavens for web searches). I also use street names for surnames if need be. For Hamish DeLuca, his name was kind of ingrained in my first series. The surname DeLuca belongs to the hero of the Herringford and Watts series, Ray DeLuca. Hamish is a Scotch version of James (he has a half Scotch, half Italian background, so this worked well) and is believed by some to be the H. in John H. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories, of which his mother is a huge fan.
Which of your characters has been the most difficult to write so far and why?
Luca Valari in this series was a bit of a challenge. I love Luca but he is an enigmatic character who very much makes his own rules and slips over the side of the law. Hamish is very much his conscience. Balancing a Luca who looks out for number one with his obvious love for his cousin was an interesting balancing act. To add, I really wanted to keep the character human and likeable throughout some of his problematic choices.
Which of your characters has been the easiest to write so far, and why?
Reggie’s an easy character to write for me because she’s just so delightful. I give her a lot of gumption that I wish I had, and I pass on to her a lot of my quips and one-liners. She’s dreamy and adventurous and has a great sense of style; but she’s also kind. I really love writing her. I would say Hamish because he showed up so fully formed for me, but as I mention a little later on, it was a hurdle to fictionally invest in presenting some of his anxiety.
What is your go-to snack when writing?
What do you do when you get writer’s block?
I work ahead on something else. I will just keep writing: I am not someone who writes by word count but by time in chair. So, if that means opening another manuscript and working until I get my fingers and brain flowing, then I do that. If it means skipping ahead and working on another scene, I do that.
What is the best thing about being an author?
Two things: editorial support! I love the team work of working with an editor who helps me craft my manuscript into something wonderful. Who takes the potential and helps it become realized. Every book you read that you love is only as good as the editorial help it had. I also looove reader connection. I am a lifelong bibliophile who falls hard for books and authors, and I always loved when I would find a kindred spirit in a character or writer. I love being on the receiving end of messages where a character really spoke to a reader or met them and became their fictional friend at just the right time.
What’s something you know now that you wish you had known when you first started?
That there are huge periods of waiting. Waiting on manuscript edits, waiting on responses from editors considering your work, waiting on contracts, waiting on the book to publish. There is a lot of waiting.
How do you celebrate typing THE END?
I nose-dive into all of the books I had been ignoring during the last frantic stages of the manuscript and read the heck outta them!
~ About the Book ~
Hamish DeLuca has spent most of his life trying to hide the anxiety that appears at the most inopportune times — including during his first real court case as a new lawyer. Determined to rise above his father’s expectations, Hamish runs away to Boston where his cousin, Luca Valari, is opening a fashionable nightclub in Scollay Square. When he meets his cousin’s “right hand man” Reggie, Hamish wonders if his dreams for a more normal life might be at hand.
Regina “Reggie” Van Buren, heir to a New Haven fortune, has fled fine china, small talk, and the man her parents expect her to marry. Determined to make a life as the self-sufficient city girl she’s seen in her favorite Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn pictures, Reggie runs away to Boston, where she finds an easy secretarial job with the suave Luca Valari. But as she and Hamish work together in Luca’s glittering world, they discover a darker side to the smashing Flamingo nightclub.
When a corpse is discovered at the Flamingo, Reggie and Hamish quickly learn there is a vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots in 1937 Boston—and that there’s an underworld that feeds on them both. As Hamish is forced to choose between his conscience and loyalty to his beloved cousin, the unlikely sleuthing duo work to expose a murder before the darkness destroys everything they’ve worked to build.
What came first, the characters or the plot, and how did the story develop from there?
The characters and the setting. I always like my setting to become a character, so I spent a lot of time in Boston developing it. Hamish popped up in my head one day, fully formed and as soon as I “met” him, I knew that Boston was the place for him. Thereafter, it fell into place.
Who or what inspired your character Hamish DeLuca?
I had written Hamish’s parents’ love story in my first series (The Herringford and Watts mysteries: Hamish’s mother is the Watts of Herringford and Watts) and I really wondered what their kid would grow up to be. And he became this.
Why the 1930s? What is it about this era that attracts you?
The 1930s was chosen out of necessity, once I decided to pursue Hamish DeLuca because this is the era in which he would be a young man. As someone usually more comfortable in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, there was a lot of time devoted to learning everything from linguistics to clothing to makeup to speech to dialect and dialogue and popular words. But the more I immersed myself in the period, the more I became fascinated by the era’s dichotomy. Obviously, the Depression saw many at the very end of their ropes; but, in contrast, the glitz and glamour of the era’s night clubs and silver screen goddesses still prevailed. An interesting fact I learned is that even during the most impoverished years, lipstick sales never decline. People had fallen on hard times but still wanted to keep an essence of glamour or normalcy. This is a major theme in the first Van Buren and DeLuca book as Hamish and Reggie counterbalance the poverty of the North End with the ritzy Scollay Square nightclub life.
What did you find most difficult about writing this novel?
Hamish suffers from the same anxiety and panic disorder I have lived with my entire life. I didn’t ascribe any symptom to him I have not personally experienced, in order to loan the utmost authenticity to that aspect of his character. Thus, the hardest part was writing his panic attacks while in a clear mental state of mind. They’re not too fun to experience and getting back into a dark, unhappy place to describe them, I found difficult. I was very conscious to never write those scenes during the evening and to write them out of sequence if needed to preserve my mental energy and well being.
What did you enjoy most about writing this novel?
The characters first and foremost. I love writing characters. There is a moment when they begin talking for themselves and it is part of the magic. I also very much loved the numerous research trips to Boston (which is about an hour flight from my home in Toronto). Being a part of a city I love in pursuit of recreating it for a series was just fantastic.
What was the most interesting piece of research you did for this novel?
I loved the time I spent at the Old North Church in Boston: from crypts to bell tower and really getting a flavour of a place essential to Murder at the Flamingo but also to the rest of the series. I also really loved spending time at the Massachusetts Historical Society studying maps of the city from the 1930s. Progress meant that street names and directions changed (for example, Scollay Square, home to the Flamingo Club, is no longer) and I spent hours with gloves on leaning over old maps and taking pictures with my iphone.