Author Spotlight: Rachel McMillan

Hello, and welcome to the latest installment in my "Authors Named Rachel" series (you can check out previous Rachels here and here)! I am super-excited to introduce you to my awesome, hilarious friend Rachel McMillan, whose latest book, Murder at the Flamingo, released this week!  Check out the blurb: 

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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. 

Doesn't that sound great?? I'm particularly excited for this book because of Hamish's anxiety issues; that's something I struggle with on a daily, and I'm so glad to see it represented in fiction!

Welcome to the blog, Rachel! So glad you're with us today!

Thanks for having me!

How did God change you during the writing of Murder at the Flamingo? What do you hope your readers take away from it?

I do not know if I can say I was changed at all while writing this story. What did change was the level of empowerment I felt at finally addressing something deeply personal to me: a lifelong anxiety and panic disorder.  I have always felt that if God wanted me to be someone else, He would have made me so and I have never been more settled in owning what I perceived my greatest weakness as I did in finally suffusing a character with it: hurdles and challenges and physical symptoms and all. I think that I sensed that this entire idea and the amazing way in which I was able to seamlessly move to a new publisher and tell this story was orchestrated by God. And very much, I hope, for the purpose of empowering conversation among believers and non-believers about their limitations.  At one point in Murder at the Flamingo, Hamish DeLuca recognizes that what he always thought was his greatest weakness—the limitations of his mental illness—is actually a great strength: it loans him an ability to sense inauthenticity (a great trait for a detective), and it gives him an added sense of empathy.

I hope that readers take away the ability to change their perception of a struggle or weakness they deal with.  What have they always thought was something lacking in themselves that may actually be a hidden power for good? Empathy, as Hamish’s father tells him, is the greatest gift: it transcends gender and race and class.  Is there something you struggle from that might actually give you an added ability to emphathize? If so, how powerful is that.

 

You frequently visit Boston while researching your stories. What are your favorite places there? Is there a must-see, “no trip to Boston is complete without it” spot for you?

I ADORE ALL OF BOSTON! I know, I know! So many things.  A lot of the series takes place in the North End of Boston which is very much the Italian quarter of the city. And it is by far the first place I head after I get the train downtown from Logan Airport.   The North End has a history that is this wonderful tapestry: it is where Paul Revere lived, of course, so it has the American Revolutionary history to it (a huge flavour of the Van Buren and DeLuca series). It is also home to the Old North Church---where the famous lantern hung signaling One if by Land, Two if By Sea.

As well as its Revolutionary history, the North End has long been home to immigrants. Hamish DeLuca calls it The Court of Miracles (speaking to where the Romany people congregated in his favourite book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). We meet Nathaniel Reis, a young Jewish man whose people have populated the neighbourhood and, of course, half-Italian Hamish immediately finds a home amidst residents who speak his second language. Primarily Italian to this day, you can eat at restaurants ---such as Cantina Italiana and Café Vittoria (which have been around since Hamish DeLuca’s time) and find the best cannoli in the world atMike’s Pastry. I do encourage readers who are planning a trip to Boston to reach out to me on social media. I get the question so often and spend so much time there I have created a document of my must-sees by neighbourhood J

Hamish DeLuca not only has one of the best names EVER but also struggles with anxiety. As someone who shares in that struggle, I love seeing it represented in fiction! What was your inspiration to include that element in Hamish’s character? What has been the most important thing you learned while researching that aspect?

Like you, I am a lifelong sufferer. But I have been lucky. I have a psychiatrist who has helped my quality of life, access to the medicine I need to keep from the constant hand tremor and stutter that are two personal symptoms that result from my illness (the symptoms, of course, vary from sufferer to sufferer) and enough cognitive therapy to lessen (though not completely eliminate) panic attacks.  I really felt it was time to write my history into a book to help empower the conversation in the fictional sphere but also to normalize it. This series is not an “issue” series. Hamish still solves crime and goes on adventures with Reggie and falls in love.  But I wanted to show how someone lived with it day-to-day in a time period where it was glaringly misunderstood and heavily stigmatized.  Of course, the symptoms haven’t changed over the years, but our medical perception has. I read dozens of medical studies from the time period as well as books on the history of psychology to understand how Hamish would be treated and viewed in that time period. What that research determined was how he was at very great risk of being fed with mercury pills, locked in a sanatorium or even exposed to shock treatment. 

Hamish’s greatest hurdle at the beginning of the book is hiding his symptoms: something his father taught him from a young age. At first Hamish assumes this is due to his father’s embarrassment, but eventually recognizes it is for self-preservation.

As you look back on your journey to publication, how did God open those doors for you? What event or connection that seemed insignificant at the time ended up being enormously important?

This book series story is an enormously important study in connection and God’s timing.  In traditional publishing there is a typical process in finding a publishing home. It involves an entire manuscript completed and your agent shopping to editors.  My first publisher (with whom I was very fond of working) informed me that they were closing their fiction line and while they would publish through my contract, they wouldn’t be pursuing anything else. I didn’t know what to do next.  My agent advised me  to get a few other things going (always have something in your back pocket) but I wasn’t sure what step to take. I am a writer who has so many ideas in numerous genres.  But I had sketched this idea of Hamish DeLuca and Reggie Van Buren in 1930s Boston as a follow up(which it is) to my Edwardian-set Herringford and Watts series.

This became very easy when the then-VP of Fiction at Harper Collins Christian reached out to my agent (usually it is the other way around) and started a conversation about my finding a home there. We told her about this project. Honestly, pre-pubbed writers, things rarely happen this way so I recognize how fortunate and blessed I am.  It is really one of those wonderful publishing stories. They ended up signing this series on three sample chapters and a proposal.  Of course, the final Flamingo looks nothing like the three sample chapters did lol. But, it is a great reminder for all writers that you are being watched: on social media, in your blogs, at conferences. There is so much more to writing than just one manuscript or contract.  Build yourself as a brand. You might be recognized or memorable. Your agent might get a call when there is a market need. So my connections in the industry definitely led to this amazing opportunity with a dream publisher.  

I also include this story because when I was a pre-published writer, I loved reading stories about the magic moments in publishing. The “See, it could happen” stories. They are rare; but they do happen! So be encouraged.

 

What does your writing routine look like, if you have one? What obstacles or challenges crop up when making time to write?

When employed full time, writing is something you do around work. So I have never truly been able to view it as a full time job.  It is an evening and weekend job that, if I am lucky, I can pursue through some weeks and holidays uninterrupted.  I try to write something every day. Whether it is for a contracted series or to work on a novella I will self- publish (I published my first contemporary romance, Love in Three-Quarter Time, this past winter, and I am doing more).

I never write chronologically. This is because time is of the utmost. I cannot afford to have “Writer’s Block” so if I am stuck on a scene, I move ahead and then loop back. I hold myself more accountable to the amount of hours I sit in a chair than to word count. Some word count days are better than others, but if I have the accountability of working through the chunk of time I set for myself, that is helpful!

If you could have coffee/tea/gratuitous amounts of carbs with any author(s), living or dead, who would you choose? What would you want to discuss?

This is super fun! Because this question always had the same response: Lynn Austin, who is probably my favourite living writer.  I had so many questions as a reader and writer and someone who has been so influenced in her faith journey by Austin’s work and heart and life.  I was at a bookish event in Grand Rapids in May called the Fiction Reader’s Summit and I ended up being able to spend one on one time with Lynn Austin and we talked about everything from books to the process to her research. It was incredible; but it does mean I have to come up with another author. 

Right now, because she is very much a part of a work in progress, I would say Charlotte Bronte. I am fascinated by her time in Brussels as a teacher and was there a few months ago researching her time there and because I have been so involved in that research wise, I would want the real story.

What is one question you’ve been dying for someone to ask you—either about yourself or your books—but nobody has? Go ahead and ask yourself that question, and give us the answer.

This is such a good question.  What is the book you most want to write, Rachel?  Well, Rachel, you have two: the first is the historical split time you have been working on for fifteen years long before split time was the thing, set entirely in Nova Scotia partly during the Napoleonic wars and featuring that amazing shipwreck and partly featuring the story of a remarkable young man in contemporary Halifax.   Next, your idea to write a female musketeer: someone who chops off her hair and joins the regiment to find her missing romantic interest. You have already done a lot of research about swordfighting :-)

How can we pray for you?

While I write (both series I have done so far) from a Christian Worldview, neither is blatantly Christian. Meaning: the gospel is sewn thematically. Indeed, the only mention of God in Van Buren and DeLuca (other than through the lens of The Hunchback of Notre Dame which I very much use to infuse a sense of morality) is from a Jewish character.  Christ is not mentioned overtly at all. But that doesn’t mean He is not there.

This is the first conversation I have had with both of my publishers now. We all approach God in different ways at church: by denomination, by how we engage with others and how loud or quiet we are in the pew. There are multiple ways to approach the Throne and I believe that to be the same for fiction. No two ministries look the same.  I pursue Christianity through character’s interactions and symbols. There are many times throughout Flamingo, for example, where Hamish DeLuca is the catalyst for acts of Grace: specifically in relation to his cousin Luca Valari.  His loyalty to Luca without expecting anything in return, is my way of exercising the theme of Grace in the book.  To add, Notre Dame from the Hugo book and the Old North Church are both symbols of an omniscient God. When Hamish is at the top of the Old North, he can look down and see humanity in a different way. I love using symbols like that to deftly drive a point home.

That being said, I know several readers of Christian Fiction who are upset or confused when they don’t perceive a blatant Gospel message in books published by Christian fiction publishers. I would hope that they recognize that sometimes in the pursuit of accessibility and to reach the widest readership, it is intentional to tell a story that infuses gospel truths in a different way. The right book will find the right reader at the right time. That is what God does! And it is miraculous!  In this vein, I hope you will pray that this book will find the reader who needs to see the power of Grace in a complicated relationship. I hope you will pray that this book will find the person who struggles with mental illness and finds through its pages a safe space where they are not alone.

You got it, Rachel! Thanks again for being with us!

Meet Rachel

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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. She'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.