An interview with Michelle Morrison
Writer to Writer
What inspired you to become a writer?
The 1976 movie All The President’s Men. I watched it in ten years after it was released, but I knew I wanted to be a journalist who changed the world. My first journalism professor quickly cured me of that dream! I moved on to technical writing before reading my first romance book, and found my calling!
Who are some authors you look up to?
I really admire Lisa Kleypas because she is a consistently strong writer, her female characters are smart women who evolve in their power, and I always learn some fascinating historical fact from her books!
What advice would you give first-time writers?
Be a Buddhist when you’re editing. In other words, have no attachment to the words, the story, even some characters. Allow the story what it needs to be, not the image that’s in your mind. Release that ego, she’s not doing you any favors!
How do you start your story?
I always write chronologically from start to finish. This means I end up with significant revisions to the first several chapters as I get to know the characters, but I need that linear progression, it’s just how my brain works!
How do you get ideas for books?
I have visions. I kid you not. Like, full-on That’s So Raven visions. A scene will pop into my head—usually it’s a conflict scene between the characters where who they are is all out on the table, and then the plot follows. Sometimes that scene is inspired by a song lyric, sometimes by a news headline.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Thinking that you need the perfect pen, the perfect timeline, and the perfect research before you can get your words on paper. I will scrawl words in the back of a half-used spiral notebook while sitting in the doctor’s office or dictate key plot details to Siri while driving cross country and leave myself margin notes about research to do later.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before
beginning a book?
Research is important, but ultimately for fiction, the story and the characters are the most important. I will spend a number of days researching before I begin writing if the time period or setting or plot points are something I know nothing about, but then I tend to research as I go. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get stuck in the research black hole and never write a word.
For historical fiction:
- What drew you to this time period or moment in history?
I really enjoy the Regency/Victorian eras for one important reason: There is no technology that gets in the way of the relationships. What I love about Jane Austen books is how everyone is always going for a walk. There’s plenty of time to think and talk when you’re traipsing about the countryside. I don’t want texts, phone calls, or even telegraphs to get in the way of the characters interacting in person.
- What content or experiences helped you understand this historical period?
Reading good modern authors, reading authors from the actual period, and then reading social historian’s research. Yes, you can learn a lot about the politics and wars of a time, but how did they get on with one another? That, to me is the most important factor. I also dabble in historic recreation groups and I have to say, there is a different mindset that you find yourself in when you’re wearing a long medieval gown, or a corset. You hold your body differently, you move differently. And that, in turn, changes your outlook on your surroundings. It becomes easier to imagine what your choices might be if you really lived in a different time.
- What is your favorite romance novel trope?
I LOVE the unrequited love trope, specifically when it’s the male protagonist suffering (haha!). I love watching one character suffering while the other slowly realizes their own feelings. Also, love with no expectation of its return seems so pure to me.
- How do you pair two characters together? What do you think when creating a compelling leading couple?
I always gravitate to characters that need to grow in order to reach their full potential and I like to pair them with other characters so that as they help one another grow, their love can grow right along with them. Sometimes the characters are of opposite personalities so one’s strengths can help the other’s weaknesses. Sometimes the characters have similar weaknesses or lessons to learn and they grow together.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I love to sew historical costumes. My plague/lockdown project was to hand sew a replica of Eleanora di Toledo’s black and white gown. It took me 140 hours but it was such a satisfying project. I learned a lot about sewing and myself, to be honest!
What is the first book that made you cry?
I have no idea! But I do remember my most memorable book cry! I was reading Dragonfly in Amber (book two of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series) right around the time I was getting married. The book was so good, I couldn’t put it down and I was racing through it on the plane while flying to my honeymoon. I wanted to sob out loud at the end when Claire goes back through the stones, but I was on an airplane, surrounded by people (and on my honeymoon!). So I had to contain all that delicious misery—it was torture!
Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.
I had a Steampunk clothing line for about three years. I designed and made all of the clothes. I loved the design process and the clothes were a hit, but it was way too much work!
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It mostly energizes me. I love when I’m fully immersed in my characters and their story and I think about it constantly.
How many hours a day do you write?
This varies greatly from day to day. To me, it’s more important to write consistently, so even if I only scribble frantically for fifteen minutes, it keeps the characters active in my head and the next day I might write for two hours.
What did you edit out of this book?
Gah!! The whole backstory of Catherine’s first marriage and how she came to need to remarry. I loved the deep dive into her experiences, but it did detract from the NOW romance. You learn her backstory in bits throughout the book, but there were two or three chapters that were (rightly) edited out!
Do you Google yourself?
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
My first romance was heavily influenced by Judith McNaught’s Regency/Victorian books and so there was a lot of “mean girls” vibes and too much angsty man, which is not the style of story I like to tell. I half wrote a medieval story that took place during Tudor times, but the male protagonist either had to be a bit of a stick in the mud to stay true to his ideals or completely cast them off to make the story work and I couldn’t ask that of him. Finally, I have a half-finished modern, non-romance that is waiting for me to return to it. It cut a little too close to home at the moment!
What inspired you to write your book(s)? (Current title being promoted.)
I love reading and writing about women who come into their own. I consider myself a late bloomer and I identify with characters who don’t have it all together when the book opens. For example, Catherine in The False Countess didn’t question when her father married her off to her first husband so she would be secure. But as she discovered a love of reading and began to realize what a wide world there was outside her narrow experience. When she is faced with having to remarry, she dares to grab one wild experience. I’ve made a few scary decisions in my life that completely changed my course and this action of Catherine’s really resonated with me.
What is your personal favorite part of your book?
I love watching my characters fall in love and recognize the emotion. But in this book, two of my favorite parts are the interactions between Robert and Catherine’s young son. Writing those scenes came very naturally and feel very genuine. I also sob each time I read Robert’s interactions with his dying brother!
Do you draw from your own life when you write?
I didn’t use to think I did, but a few years ago, I realized that each of my characters has a different aspect of my personality that informs her actions. Now I consciously take parts of me that I want to examine and exploit it for the character’s benefit!
Can you give us some insight into what makes your characters tick?
Catherine wants to please people: her father, her first husband, her in-laws. But being a people-pleaser can leave you empty and with a bit of a wild streak that will lead you to take a daring chance!
How do you handle writer’s block?
Honestly, I haven’t had writer’s block since I started writing my books longhand, rather than typing them into the computer. I think there are two reasons behind this. First, I’m not distracted by the typo I just made or the squiggly red line that says I misspelled something. I am also not tempted to go look something up every time I need a bit of research. I write in a notebook with whatever implement is handy and I don’t worry about using the wrong their/they’re. When I need a historical bit, I put a note in the margins for later. If I don’t know the name of a character or a town, I put an XXX in its place and worry about it later. In other words, I don’t let anything stop the flow of words. The second reason this method prevents writer’s block is that I don’t write by hand as quickly as I type. Therefore, as I’m getting one sentence down on paper, the next is forming in my head. As I’m taking an hour to write one scene, the other is filling out subconsciously.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Maintaining the trust your reader places in you when they open your book. Don’t have characters change their personality type mid-stream. Don’t have glaring historical errors that pull them out of the story. Don’t interrupt the flow of their reading!
What comes first, plot or characters?
Hmmm…I know this sounds wild, but it’s the vision of a scene I mentioned earlier. Within that brief snippet, I get an idea of the personality of the characters and how the plot will help them grown.
If not for his mother’s plea and a promise to his dying brother, Robert Carlisle could have remained out of range of his father’s vitriolic ranting.
He clenched his jaw and wished he were anywhere but here. Not just this damned crowded drawing room, but England. The guests, who included actors, opera dancers, playwrights, poets, and courtesans, had gathered to celebrate the opening of a new play at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. Many noblemen and wealthy gentry mingled with the members of the demimonde—those not-quite-respectable-but-still-wildly-popular members of London’s society. Tonight, even members of the royal household shared in the laughter, ribald jokes, political debates, and overt flirtations that filled the room.
Robert should have been enjoying himself but couldn’t muster any interest. The weeks since his return to England after a three-year absence had been anything but tranquil, and he was done in. Life as the Marquess of Dunsbury was not the life of leisure most people imagined. He considered joining the play at the card table, but that appealed to him as little as any of the other amusements offered at the party.
“Gads.” He downed the last of his drink.
“I quite agree.” His friend, Lord Noel Wayland, shook his head. “I think Mrs. Wilson waters her drinks. Not a terrible idea considering the amount this crowd is likely to consume, but it does leave one in want of a decent brandy.”
Mrs. Wilson was a rather notorious courtesan, her favors so sought after that she could afford a luxurious townhouse where she hosted glittering parties.
Robert glanced at his empty glass and realized he hadn’t even tasted its contents.
“Shall we head to my club? We can get a decent drink there,” Wayland said.
“I suppose so.” No amount of alcohol could dull Robert’s ill humor. He sighed, feeling like the very type of man he disdained—the one who constantly sought new amusements, only to be unimpressed by any of them. It was quite fashionable to sport an air of ennui—but having spent the last three years traveling through war-ravaged Europe, he found such an affectation as ineffectual as it was annoying. Still, he could think of no other word for the mild restlessness that refused to let him enjoy the evening.
Wayland grinned. “Don’t grow too excited, old man. I shouldn’t want you to overexert yourself.”
Robert smiled. “Sorry. I’m not good company this evening. Tell me, Wayland, what’s worse, to be suffused with boredom or to realize you’ve become the very thing you’ve always abhorred?”
His friend laughed. “My, you are in a state tonight.” He flagged down a footman and took two glasses of champagne. “Here, drink up. It’s not brandy, but there’s no way to water down champagne. The bubbles will tell.”
Robert sipped the sparkling wine and tried to push aside his melancholy.
“Now tell me what’s nagging you. The Robert Carlisle I’ve known since Eton is never bored and would throw himself into the Thames before being classified as a pampered aristocrat.”
Robert’s attention snagged on the crowd across the room. Someone or something caused a stir, but he couldn’t see through the press of bodies.
“It’s your mother, isn’t it?” Wayland asked.
Robert frowned. “My mother?”
“She’s pushing you to marry, isn’t she? It’s no surprise seeing as you’ve been gone for so long.”
“What? No! Well, I mean, she’s mentioned it, but she’s not forcing the issue.”
“Gads, I envy you. My mother practically invites young women into my bedchamber.”
Robert choked on his champagne. “Are you saying your mother is a madam?”
Wayland laughed. “Certainly not to her face. Still, I can’t believe you’ve escaped the daily reminders about duty and preserving the title and all.”
Robert avoided his friend’s gaze. “Yes, well, my father is still alive, so the need is not as pressing as it is for you.”
“Oh, I’d heard— Well, I don’t mean to be indelicate, but my mother was under the impression your father was…on his deathbed.”
Robert’s stomach clenched at the mention of his father. It was a common enough feeling that he should be able to ignore it, but somehow, the sharp pang of betrayal never dulled. “Your mother is not wrong. It’s just that he’s been there for the better part of a year, and I suspect he’ll stay around to torment us all for years to come.”
He glimpsed Wayland’s sympathetic glance, though thankfully, he let the matter drop.
Robert returned his attention to the knot of people across the room who were laughing uproariously and cheering. “What is going on over there?”
“Perhaps something to cure your boredom.”
They wove their way through the room, trying to find a gap in the crowd. One young buck gasped, and as another stepped aside to take a flute of champagne, Robert ruthlessly stole the man’s spot. Though still at the back of the gathering, Robert could see a chess match between the Duke of Newcastle—Lord Chamberlain to His Majesty—and a woman.
Robert’s breath caught. He’d long scoffed at the poets who claimed love at first glance. To experience such a visceral and instantaneous reaction startled him. He studied the woman more closely. Light chestnut hair, gray eyes, a scattering of freckles, and a full mouth curved in a wry smile. She was pretty, to be sure, but there were a dozen ravishing beauties in the room, and none of them had captured his attention. He couldn’t understand why she had such an effect on him. She wore an elaborate gown, its red and white velvet bodice embroidered in gold that hugged her body more tightly than the high-waisted dresses currently in fashion.
He dragged his attention to the chessboard for a moment, conscious of how the woman played the game.
“I’ll be dammed!” A surprised smile creased Newcastle’s face. “She’s got me trapped!”
“I believe you call that checkmate, no?” the woman said in a throaty Russian accent. She didn’t quite successfully repress a smile.
Victory and mischief lit her eyes, and a hectic flush stained her cheeks. Robert’s body tightened, and for the second time in as many minutes, he found himself confounded at his reaction to this unknown woman.
The crowd erupted into cheers and good-natured ribbing of Newcastle, who was purported to be a master chessman.
The mystery woman stood and wound her way through the well-wishers. She passed Robert, and he caught a whiff of lemon verbena, a scent so quintessentially English it caught him by surprise.
He wanted to introduce himself but knew he would only be one of many fawning admirers. Instead, he let her pass and watched while she circulated through the guests, skillfully disentangling herself from the more eager men until she disappeared down the hallway leading to the retiring room. Robert bided his time, positioning himself where he could see all entrances to the room.
Wayland stepped up beside him. “Well, I fear your boredom is contagious. I suspect that chess match was the highlight of the evening. Shall we find a livelier diversion?”
“Boredom?” Robert asked. “I’m not— Oh.” He flushed.
“Ah, she’s intrigued you, has she?”
“Who is she?”
“Apparently, she’s a Russian countess, recently arrived in London. At least, that’s what Penny said.”
“Penny?” Robert asked, confused.
“The actress. Of the play that just opened. I say, are you drunk? You appear dazed.”
The countess in question re-entered the drawing room and paused just inside the doorway as if unsure of herself.
“Why is she in London?” Robert asked.
“No idea. As far as I’ve heard, this is the first event she’s attended.”
“A patroness of the theater, then?”
Wayland chuckled. “I’m sure I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“I shall.” Robert handed his empty glass to his friend then strolled through the crowd in her direction.
She watched the party with wide-eyed wonder as if she’d never seen such a glittering assortment. Her childlike air belied her confidence when she’d beaten the Lord Chamberlain at chess. Robert had heard tales of the opulence of the Russian court but wondered if perhaps she’d never attended. Certainly, this collection of London’s demimonde was colorful, but nothing compared to a formal ball. Robert had the absurd desire to take her to such an event just to enjoy her reaction.
One eye on her, he paused to exchange a few words with the hostess, then continued a few more paces to watch a card game before taking another glass of champagne from a waiter near the countess.
Gaze on the action in the center of the room where a young man loudly recited bad poetry to one of the actresses, Robert sipped in silence for a moment before saying, “You could have ended that game earlier.”
The countess turned to look at him. “I beg your pardon?”
He faced her and raised his left eyebrow. “The chess game. You could have had him in checkmate two moves earlier.”
She chewed her lip as she stared at him, and he wondered if she was not as fluent in English as he assumed. He started to repeat himself more slowly, but she inclined her head.
“This I know, but it is not always enjoyable to end things early.”
He grinned. “Indeed.”
She put a hand to her chest and blushed as she clearly grasped his meaning. So, she was not as sophisticated as he’d first thought. How had an ingénue come to be at a party such as this? While the crowd was certainly not of the lowest order, actors tended to be a rather bawdy bunch.
“I imagine this party must seem quite shocking to you,” he said to put her at ease. “Not all of London’s events are as indecorous, I can assure you. Perhaps your host should have taken you to a dinner party for your introduction to the ton.”
“London’s high society.”
The countess studied him for a long moment—long enough for him to see that her gray eyes held no flecks of hazel but were the clear, soft color of a dove’s wing, framed by lashes and brows several shades darker than her ginger hair. Her gaze lost its expression of naïveté, and she lowered her lids, looking at him through the fringe of her lashes. While the color stayed high in her cheeks, he had the impression her reaction was more excitement than embarrassment. It was almost as if the countess had pulled off a mask—or put one on—so great was the transformation.
“On the contrary. My only surprise with this gathering is it seems so much tamer than the artist’s parties in my home country.”
Her Russian accent sent an erotic thrill through his body. He huffed a short laugh. “Do tell, Countess.”
She narrowed her eyes. “For example, an—how did you say—indecorous party in Kursk would not allow a chess game. Unless, of course, it was disrobe chess.”
“Disrobe chess?” He lifted a brow, pretending not to understand.
“Dah. When you lose a chess piece, you must remove an article of clothing.”
“Interesting. Such play must make for uncomfortable games in winter.”
She waved a hand. “An Englishman may find it cold. A Russian has vodka.”
“And what happens in the case of checkmate?”
The countess shrugged. “The loser must remove his remaining clothes.”
She frowned, and her accent thickened. “You do not believe me?”
“To the contrary. I simply imagined it would be an incentive to master your strategy. So, tell me, how often have you found yourself in checkmate?”
“I am a very good strategist,” she replied, her tone coy.
“Perhaps you could teach me this Russian version of chess.”
A flicker of wariness crossed her face. “Sadly, we are not in Russia. We must abide English customs here, dah?”
Robert smiled at her sidestep. “Dah.”
She frowned. “Is it not an English custom to introduce oneself to a stranger before making unseemly propositions?”
“Unseemly? Well, if we’re being proper…” He executed a bow. “I am Robert Carlisle, Marquess of Dunsbury.”
“I am Countess Alisa Borodinicha, recently from Novogorod.”
She extended her ungloved hand. Robert swallowed at the erotic sensuality of her small hand in his.
She inhaled sharply and jerked her hand as if she intended to pull it back. Instead, she left it in his grasp, and he lightly ran the pad of his thumb over the softness of her skin. With a small shake of her head, she freed her hand.
“A marquess?” she asked, clearly trying to regain her composure. “Is that terribly important? I do not know your English ranks of aristocracy.”
A renegade curl slipped from the countess’s coiffure and dangled over her brow. He ignored the disconcerting urge to smooth it back then trace the curve of her cheek.
She arched a brow, and he realized he hadn’t answered her.
“How important can a title be when it’s simply bestowed upon you at birth?” he asked.
“This is an unusual belief for a man with a title, is it not?”
Robert grinned. “Perhaps I’m an unusual man.”
“Perhaps,” she said, though her suppressed smile and tone implied otherwise.
She didn’t flirt at all like other ladies, and he found he quite enjoyed it. The Russian countess intrigued him. She teased him, challenged him, and represented something he’d long ago forsaken. “Perhaps I’m simply trying to pique your interest.”
She frowned. “Why would you wish to do that?”
“Russian countesses are few and far between, especially beautiful ones. I’d wager you could have any man in this room at your beck and call with a mere snap of your fingers.”
“Do you think so?” Russian accents didn’t lend themselves well to expressions of delight, but the countess appeared enchanted despite her harsh Slavic pronunciation. She glanced around the room then caught her lower lip between her teeth. The abused flesh reddened, and Robert wondered how it would taste and feel if he had a chance to nibble on it.
He smiled. “I do.”
“And what would it do to beckon any of these men?” She flicked her fingers at the increasingly rowdy gathering. “They are nothing but drunkards.”
“A harsh critique from a Russian.”
She shrugged. “A Russian man who cannot hold his alcohol is no use to anyone.”
“Thankfully, I keep my wits about me even at the bottom of a bottle.”
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