Kayne Milhomme is a historical mystery author who is part of the same critique group that I occasionally yammer on about in this corner of the internet, though we’ve never met in person. His debut novel, Grace and Disgrace, promises intrigue and adventure in a hunt for the Templar Diamond. He’s graciously agreed to answer a bunch of questions about his journey here.
Without further preamble, here’s the interview!
1) What draws you to the historical mystery genre?
I suppose there is a ‘double’ draw when it comes to the historical mystery genre, because both history and mystery are compelling genres for me.
History: I believe that history holds all kinds of hidden gems when it comes to storytelling. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and that makes for some good content. Not only in terms of entertainment, but in terms of gaining a frame of reference and perspective for certain events and ways of life that existed before our time. To be immersed in the past can be a very meaningful experience for a reader, and the same is true for me as a writer. So in short, history is a great device for building a story from components that are not only entertaining, but relevant to the study of who we are, and how we became that.
Mystery: This is a more straightforward answer. I love to embed my stories with puzzles, riddles, misdirection—even when I am writing in other genres, I cannot help adding twists and turns into the story. When I write mystery, those are expected—which makes the challenge of writing them even more fun.
Putting the two together truly creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts—historical mysteries are alive with the elegance, the brutality, and enigmatic nature of the past, and that’s a perfect atmosphere to set a well-crafted mystery in.
2) You’ve spoken about having been an agented writer, and then choosing to self-publish. What kind of adjustments did you have to make in order to do so? What would you say to other authors in similar situations who are considering the same?
As a debut author, the main adjustment was accepting the fact that my novel would not be picked up by a major publisher without an agent. It was basically losing a credible connection to the traditional publishing world, and accepting the fact that I would be tackling the problem in a different way than I had originally planned. I also had to adjust my schedule to allow for time to market the novel, which shouldered its way into writing time. These were all challenging adjustments to make, especially for a debut (i.e. unknown) author.
But there are so many tools available to the self-publisher, and a wonderful indie community that is very supportive—the experience has been invaluable.
It’s hard to give advice on this topic, because each author-agent situation is different, and a decision to self-publish is based on many factors. Mine was based on the fact that my agent represented the first version of my novel, and that version was not picked up by the major publishing houses. When I completed my second version (which is much better, by the way!), my agent believed I would have a better chance getting the manuscript with a new agent rather than having her resend the manuscript around again. That was the point when I knew I was going to take matters into my own hands and really try to understand the industry, and get experience on the marketing and publishing side. But that choice was based on my circumstances, which is why the only advice I would give is for authors, whether agented or not, to get to know the industry. Yes, as writers we should be focused on writing—but I don’t think we should ignore the fact that it is not only an art, but also a business.
3) When did you first know you wanted to be a fiction writer?
Very early on—I’d say the first tangible proof was in the third grade when I wrote a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ type short story for a class assignment. This particular story had the reader navigating a sailboat on a mysterious scientific mission in the deep ocean when a massive gale strikes, and depending on the reader’s choices, ending in several unpleasant manners: under a crashing wave, in a fatal confrontation with a sea monster, or landing on a deserted island, to name a few. I loved writing the story, creating the scenes, introducing the tension and the danger. I read it over and over, even though it was only a dozen pages, imagining stories within the story. It was certainly my favorite assignment all year. And I continued from there, simply writing stories whenever I got the chance—and of course reading voraciously. Lots and lots of reading!
4) What do you think is the main role of a fiction writer?
That’s a great question, and one I have never truly pondered before. I can really only speak for myself, and use that as a representative answer that may hold some truth for other fiction writers. For me, the goal is to produce an entertaining and meaningful experience for the reader that stimulates both an emotional response and leads to critical thinking.
5) As a first time author/publisher what surprises you the most? What was harder or easier than you expected? What is the biggest challenge, or the greatest joy you’ve experienced so far?
The amount of work to market a book. Even though it should not have surprised me (I had been warned), it did.
To be fair, I had just completed writing, editing, revising, reviewing, revising, reviewing, editing, revising, editing, setting aside, revising, editing, and publishing the novel (maybe not in that exact order), and (justifiably so, Ibelieve) felt as if I had completed a herculean task. As such, I thought it was going to be downhill from there.
But it wasn’t. Marketing is an entirely different kind of challenge to writing (for me, at least), and to someone who is not versed in the intricacies of how to market, the amount of time and commitment necessary to get the novel exposure was certainly a surprise. It felt like completing a marathon, and then discovering that the marathon was just a warm up.
All of that said, it has been an amazing experience. It is a tremendous feeling to get responses from readers (whether in person, email, or in a review on Amazon) about my writing, which makes it worth it and more.
Connecting with readers is a unique and very special experience, and is what it is all about for me. The fact that my writing has reached readers and that they have responded the way they have has been by far my greatest joy.
6) Would you describe yourself as a plot-driven writer or a character-driven writer?
The characters are what speak to me, and in essence, truly write the book. As soon as I become intimate with them, I feel as if it is no longer ‘me’ writing the book, but the characters sharing their experiences through me and my typewriter (ok, laptop—that just didn’t sound as elegant). In that way, it is almost as if I am the first reader of the novel, rather than the writer. However, even with that rich character-driven experience, the plot is a critical element. Without it, I can have a grand old time with the characters as they write their experiences through me, but at the end of the day, all I’ve done is captured ‘a day in the life’ without any true purpose. The conflict, the suspense, the tension, the mystery, the big reveals—all of those elements require plotting for me to get it just right. Therefore, I create the setting and the important plot points ahead of time, and then allow the characters to take me along the journey. I would liken it to a hike through the hillside without a path, but with certain necessary waypoints along the way—perhaps the winding river in the valley below, and then onto the thicket in the distance. The characters choose how to get there and therefore create the experience of the journey, but there are preordained destination points along the way that act as their beacons, assuring they stay on track.
7) When in various stages of draft how important is peer to peer feedback to your process? What advice would you give to anyone thinking about joining a critique group for the first time?
Peer to peer feedback is absolutely essential. I cannot stress how important it is to collect comments during the writing process. I may be somewhat unique in the fact that I seek out feedback both during the ‘live’ creation of the novel—each chapter gets an external review as I write—and then the completed manuscript (and revisions thereof) gets reviewed in turn.
My advice regarding critique groups would be foremost—join one! Second, find a group that is passionate about participating in the craft (and not getting together just to chat about the craft), and who can give objective, truthful feedback in a constructive manner. Pats on the back may be nice for a boost once and while, but if it’s not a true reflection of the writing, the critique is not worthwhile. Also, when being critiqued, I recommend refraining from responding with justifications or explanations to constructive criticism—you won’t have a chance to do that with your readers, so why do it with your reviewers? That said, open discussion and probing about a reader’s comments for a fuller understanding is fine—just don’t be defensive about it. Also, when you are acting in the role of reviewer, be honest and respectful to the author.
8) Once you’ve started writing a project, what keeps you motivated to finish?
The story itself. Once a story has formed in the early chapters and taken a life of its own, I become captivated by it—even if it’s no good. At a fundamental level, I need to know what’s going to happen next—I literally need to answer the questions posed by my own imagination. Yes, as the author I have (or should have) a roadmap of where the story is headed ahead of time (the outline of the plot), but in actuality I can’t be sure that the roadmap is exactly how everything will ultimately go; and even if the roadmap is followed, the journey is a complete mystery until I experience it. That mystery, and the excitement of experiencing how it is revealed, is what keeps me motivated. And to heighten the focus every so slightly, it is truly the characters themselves that I get attached to, so when I say that I become captivated by the story once it has taken on a life of its own, I mean their story—the characters themselves.
9) When writing Grace and Disgrace what was the most fun you had writing a scene? What was the hardest part to get right?
It’s hard to choose just one scene! In general, my favorite scenes to write were the character-driven scenes, which are the ones that explore the multiple layers and dimensions of the characters, as opposed to those that move the plot forward. That said, there were scenes focused on certain plot points that were also very enjoyable to write, especially those where certain clues or events critical to the mystery were introduced or solved. But to choose one scene that was truly the most fun to write—I’ll have to say it was the scene where Tuohay got his first experience riding in a new contraption known as an “automobile”. You’ll have to read it the novel to find out why!
10) Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how do you handle it? If not, why not?
Not really. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience the writing doldrums, though. But my interpretation of those experiences is more akin to what a runner may endure on a day-to-day basis while training for a marathon: some training days are better than others, and the reason behind that is sometimes clear, and other times a mystery. But the bottom line is that practice makes perfect, and in a craft such as writing, no matter how accomplished a writer may be, writing is always practice—even the finished product. So I simply keep at it.