By Sean Tuohy
Best-selling author Melissa Miller’s path toward becoming a published writer was not your average journey. Miller practiced law and became a small business owner before sitting down and dedicating herself to the writing craft.
Miller took some time away from her thrilling Sasha McCandless series to sit down and talk with me about how she became a published author, her research process, and how being a lawyer helped her writing.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Melissa Miller: I was one of those kids who was "writing" stories in kindergarten. Even then, I was a fan of the mystery and thriller genre. One early work involved mysteriously disappearing food. Spoiler: a raccoon was the antagonist.
I was a literature/creative writing major in college, but by then "writer" no longer seemed to be a viable career path. So I didn't complete my first (terrible, hidden in a drawer) effort at a novel until I was in my late 30s—a practicing attorney, a small business owner, and the mother of young children.
ST: How did your career in law affect your writing style?
MM: My legal background comes into play in the Sasha McCandless series and, to a lesser extent, in the Aroostine Higgins series. I don't think being a lawyer affects my writing style, per se. Legal writing and fiction writing are dramatically different creatures. And, as a lawyer, I could never fictionalize one of my client's situations because that would be a breach of ethics. But being a lawyer does make the legal research I do for each book much easier than it would otherwise be. And, while I know many lawyers who write romance or historical fiction or what have you, I think my legal career affected my choice of genre in the sense that I write what I enjoy reading.
ST: How much of yourself do you find in your main heroine Sasha McCandless?
MM: I joke that, like Sasha, I drink entirely too much coffee, but that unlike Sasha, I cannot kill you with my bare hands. There's truth in that, but it's also true that at least in the very early books in that series, the non-life-threatening situations that she had to navigate—big law firm politics, balancing work and live, maintaining a relationship in the face of career demand—were drawn from my own experiences. Sasha doesn't always respond the same way I would, of course. And as time has gone on, our paths have diverged dramatically. She's a danger magnet, and, to date, there hasn't even been a single attempt on my life!
ST: What is your writing process like?
MM: I typically begin with an idea, a topic that I want to write about. For instance, I find the use of drones in military exercises and the use of unarmed drones for commercial purposes to be fascinating. So I knew I wanted to write about that. However, I also realized that isn't a Sasha story—so I wrote Chilling Effect in the Aroostine Higgins series. If I'm looking for a specific “seed” idea for a Sasha novel, I pretty much follow her life trajectory. Each book in that series has a main thriller plot that derives from a legal principle and a subplot in her personal life that ties into that same theme.
Once I've got my theme, things get a little messy. On occasion, I write a synopsis. I sometimes outline; I sometimes don't. I sometimes write in a very disciplined, 200 words a day manner; I sometimes channel my inner law student and do a week of all-nighters. Eventually, through the application of copious amounts of black coffee and dark chocolate, I end up with a finished draft. From there, the process could go one of two ways: My husband (my first reader) reads the draft and gives his feedback. I either agree and accept it graciously or fight with him, whine at him, and ultimately accept it. That's not to say I make all of the changes he suggests, but I do trust him as a reader. After that first painful revision, I'm able to set my authorial ego aside. Subsequent copy editing, line editing, or proofreading changes, don't trouble me. I'll accept them if they add clarity, correct errors, and otherwise improve the story; I'll reject them if I think they interfere with the story I'm telling. But there's no more angsting after the first round of revisions.
At this point, I have several stories (in three different series) waiting to be told, so as soon as I hand off the manuscript to the editing team, I start noodling on the next thing I will write.
ST: Do you do a lot of research before writing?
MM: I do. I probably do too much research. But I'm a researcher at heart, so I enjoy the process of immersing myself in a topic and learning as much as I can. I probably use 10% to 15% of what I learn.
ST: What does the future hold for you and Sasha?
MM: I plan to continue to write the Sasha series as long as it continues to resonate with readers. Spoiler alert: she found out at the end of Book 7 (Irrefutable Evidence) that she's pregnant. Obviously, motherhood is going to create some new challenges for a crime-solving attorney. I have her next two books sketched out. I also have story ideas sketched out for the next books in my Aroostine Higgins series and my We Sisters Three Mystery series. I also have plans to give forensic pathologist Bodhi King (one of the characters from the Sasha McCandless series) his own medical thriller series. So, while I have plenty planned for Sasha, she's going to have to be patient and share my attention with the other voices in my head!
ST: What advice do you give to first time writers?
MM: I don't have anything groundbreaking to add to the annals of writing advice: read widely; write consistently; tell your story. I will say that it's important to avoid the trap of polishing your first three chapters forever. Write down the words and then move on. A finished draft is a huge accomplishment. Three perfect chapters that suck up all your free time and energy are likely to result in an unfinished manuscript that weighs you down. The first draft might suck, but it might not. And even if it does, you can fix it, but you can't fix what you don't write. That perfect story lives only in your head. Commit it to paper in all its imperfection and trust that it will resonate with someone.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
MM: Readers may be surprised to know that my lawyer-husband and I homeschool our children, largely by driving them around the United States in an RV, visiting cultural landmarks, national parks, and historic places.