Interview by David McDonald.
Karen Miller was born in Vancouver, Canada, and raised in Australia where she lives today. Before she realised her dream of becoming a professional writer, she studied for and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (Communications) degree and a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature, and worked in a wide variety of jobs, including: horse groom, college lecturer, PR officer in local government, publishing assistant, and owned a specialist science fiction, fantasy and mystery book shop. She has been writing professionally since 2005, and since the publication of her first fantasy novel The Innocent Mage has written 19 novels. They cover epic historical fantasy, media tie-in work for Star Wars and Stargate SG-1, and the Rogue Agent fantasy series under her pen name K E Mills. Her work has been shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr award and the Aurealis Award. When she’s not busy at the computer, Karen enjoys acting and directing at her local theatre company.
As well as your original fiction, you’ve written tie-in books for some of the biggest franchises there are. Are there any skills you learned working in existing worlds that you have applied to your own books, or vice versa? How do the two areas interact?
First and foremost, storytelling is storytelling. For me, there’s no difference in the basic nuts and bolts of the job. But with original work, you’re God of your own universe, you make up the rules, and nobody can tell you it’s wrong. With tie-in work, you’re dealing with a universe that not only was created by someone else, but is shared with thousands of other readers/viewers, all of whom have their own interpretation/vision of that universe. And that means you will inevitably be wrong, for someone, when you’re telling a story set in that world. For me, that means my most important job is to stay true to the rules and facts as laid down in the existing canon. Whatever you write, however you portray those characters, I think you must have concrete textual evidence to back up your story. And without question you must know the world and its characters – as shown in the relevant films or episodes – inside out and back to front. If you’ve got a solid foundation, if you can re-create those familiar characters so that they feel ‘in character’, then you can maybe have a bit of a play, push the boat out a bit. But you’re on a short leash, because they have already been so clearly delineated on screen. Some people might find that restrictive, but I think it’s a lot of fun. I’ve written in franchises that I love, so for me it’s been a privilege and a joy to spend time there.
The one skill franchise writing doesn’t depend on so much is original world-building, because all that hard work has already been done for you. But I’ve found the world-building skills I’ve accumulated in my own, original work have really helped with the creation of new worlds in the franchise work. I feel that the new characters I’ve introduced have been very solid, because I’m used to working that way, as well as working with the characters that already exist on screen.
Last year you led an online workshop, hosted by Orbit Books, for aspiring fantasy writers. How did you find the experience? Is it something you would like to do, or have done, more of? If you had to pick one lesson, what do you wish you’d been told when you first started out?
I had an absolute ball doing the workshop. I love that kind of thing, and will happily talk writing any time, any place, for as long as people want me to! I’ve conducted a few workshops around various conventions, and find them totally inspiring and invigorating. Writing is an odd business. Absolutely there are skills to be learned and mastered, aspects of craft that apply across the board, but at the same time it’s strangely unique and idiosyncratic. We’re all looking to achieve the same result but how we reach it can be so strongly influenced by the kind of people, the kind of writers we are, as individuals. There truly is no One True Path when it comes to writing. Broadly speaking there are some approaches/techniques that hold true pretty much across the board, but beyond that? We all have to forge the path that serves us best. So I love talking writing, talking craft, discussing the elements of writing we need to master … and then exploring the different ways that mastery can be achieved.
Probably the thing I needed to hear at the start, and something that still resonates today, is the importance of establishing a routine or schedule for your writing. We all have different lives, many of us have busy lives, and it can be very tricky carving out the time and space to write. Establishing a realistic, long-term and sustainable writing routine is vital. It’s what carries you lightly over the rough ground of life, with its interruptions and disasters and setbacks. After 18 months of horror turmoil due to a string of health crises, I’m relearning the importance of routine right now.
As I said, I’ve lost close to 18 months due to stupid health and life stuff, which means the book that was meant to be published this year is only now getting finished. That would be book 2 of The Tarnished Crown series. Once I’ve finished the primary draft of that I’ll start working on Rogue Agent #5, and complete it hopefully by the end of the year once the editing of TC#2 is done. Then I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to go forward and resume my regular writing life and routine. I still have 3 more books in the Tarnished Crown series to write, hopefully more in the Rogue Agent world, and more ideas quietly bubbling on the back burner!
I really enjoyed Glenda Larke’s most recent trilogy, The Forsaken Lands. Its concluding volume, The Fall of the Dagger, was released a few months ago and rounded out a typically polished and enthralling Larke tale.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
The late Dorothy Dunnett, whose breathtakingly brilliant historical fiction has taught me and inspired me and left me awestruck at her genius.