Indie Ebook Winners Talk Royal Intrigue | SELF-esteem

Erin McRae & Racheline Maltese

This year marked the introduction of an overall honoree in LJ’s Indie Ebook Awards. In addition to winning in the romance category, Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese’s first book in the “Royal Roses” series, A Queen from the North, deservedly snagged the title of Best Indie Ebook of the Year. An alternative British history in which the Yorks and Lancasters never stopped fighting, it tells of a political marriage between Prince Arthur and Lady Amelia Brockett—with a touch of magic and an absorbing slow-burn romance.

LJ: Did either of you have an interest in British royalty before writing this novel?
RM: I think we had just watched The King’s Speech and had a strong interest in Colin Firth in uniform, actually. But Erin is also a huge history buff.

EM: The King’s Speech definitely had something to do with it. I had also just binged Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (about Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn) and was like, “I want all the stories about all the women living in impossible circumstances in England, and I want them now.” So that was my in to really wanting to sink my teeth into this kind of story.

RM: I also saw Kings Charles III on Broadway while we were working on one of the late drafts, and I remember calling Erin after I got out the theater and being really intense. That production clarified for me how much the setting of our book needed to feel scary and primal.

How did you decide which historical events to keep and which to change?
EM: We decided what to keep and what to toss/tweak by working backwards from what we wanted our final world to look like. Like the bit about George being a direct descendant of Anne Boleyn. In reality, Anne bore only Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I), who isn’t recorded as having any heirs. But we wanted that connection. We went through so many alternate-reality family trees and came up with all these complex political machinations—none of which made it into the book, but I had a hell of a lot of fun.

RM: I’m great at pattern recognition, but less good with details. Erin would bring me one of these family trees, and then I would see something else that adjustment impacted but has no idea how to fix it. So then she’d go back to the research and we’d try something else.

I found myself particularly invested in Arthur’s niece, George. Can you talk a bit about the creation of that character?
RM: Like all our characters, George was built out of her reactions to the constraints of her life. In her case, we wanted her to know more about those constraints than those responsible for them, which is the element of possible magic around her. The realization that George was nonbinary/genderqueer (an identity I share) wasn’t on the page [at first]; I think she told us that around the second draft, and then we needed to navigate that in the text.

EM: George is a really great example of one of those characters who knows more about themselves than we know about them. We knew from day one that she preferred being called George; exactly why was something we teased out from her over time. Her development as an ally of Amelia’s also happened over time, because as much as George was unsettled by Amelia, Amelia was unsettled by George. We had to keep writing different versions of different scenes—and even different plots—before we could finally work out whether and how George was even on Amelia’s side.

A Queen from the North deals with the rules and etiquette of royalty. What do you hope readers will get out of Amelia’s tendency to go against those traditions?
EM: I think a lot of people, including us, find royal life fascinating. Just look at all the ink that’s been spilled over Kate [Middleton] and [Prince] William’s wedding, or the announcement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement, and all the hoops Markle is going to have to jump through just to marry the man she loves. Those things can seem romantic or desirable on the surface, but once you look closer at them, you start to recoil at their cost.

RM: I had a very formal education, so I know a lot about forks and curtseys; all my classmates were in the Social Register. That world was extraordinarily beautiful, but also toxic. The beauty made it easy to not realize the harm; we were like frogs, being cooked very, very slowly. So every time Amelia says no, I’m on her side. Saying no is a muscle; it needs exercise. If readers of this book feel empowered to reject things that would make them quieter in the name of beauty, then that would make me profoundly satisfied.

What was the writing process like? Are there additional challenges when you have two people working on one novel?
EM: This was a book we weren’t supposed to write. But we had the idea and kept emailing about it. We were writing so much dialogue and so many little scenes back and forth, we finally started a Google Doc (which is where we do all our writing). Eventually the story got solid enough that we felt justified in all the time we were spending on it to move it off the back burner and make it a priority.

We wrote this book out of order, which we don’t normally do. This is also a slow-burn romance, which we don’t typically write. Since we were bucking our usual structure and method, we had way more false starts than usual. We threw entire plotlines away, which left us with gaping holes to fill. I think we basically rewrote the book twice.

RM: What can be hard is that outside of the core stuff that really resonates for both of us, there are concepts we come at very differently. We have had different upbringings, are 15 years apart in age, and for lack of a better way of phrasing it, have very different wounds. We send a lot of emails that boil down to, “more words?” Having to explain our assumptions and reactions to each other is where we get a lot of our best moments on the page.

What was your journey to self-publishing? What are the greatest advantages to publishing this way?
RM: Together we have been published with several small presses, and I also contribute to Tremontaine, published by Simon & Schuster’s SAGA Press. We had been shopping A Queen from the North to agents, when one of the small presses we were working with folded. Being with a small press is fairly entrepreneurial anyway, so when the rights reverted, going indie with the backlist was an easy decision. At the same time, [the book] was getting great feedback from agents, but a lot of that was some version of, “I love this, but I don’t know how to sell it.” And that’s when I looked at Erin and said, “That’s okay, I think we do.”

EM: For us, and I think for a lot of writers, the biggest advantage to self-publishing is the freedom, which manifests both on the creative side and the business side. While we always work with outside editorial professionals, being indie means we can write what we want to write. We can also market as we see fit, which has gotten easier the more we’ve done it and the more we’ve learned what works. So now we can keep up with shifts in the marketplace in ways we just couldn’t when we were going through a [traditional] press.

How do you handle essentially being your own business as indie authors?
EM: A lot of spreadsheets. A very finely tuned calendar scheduling scheme. I do most of our logistics, so as our business has grown, it’s mostly been an adventure in making sure what needs to happen happens on an increasing scale. Which sounds boring, and it kind of is, but bringing a book from concept to press by ourselves (and our creative team) is incredibly satisfying.

RM: I’m very into the hustle of it all, but it’s not for everyone. I love the sense of competing with ourselves in terms of what we’re writing and how it’s selling. I also love that being indie allows us to pay other wonderful, creative people. Our cover designer, Victoria Cooper, for example, has done all of our novels and reissues since we went indie. Being entrepreneurs and being able to contribute to other entrepreneurs is a great feeling, but yes, there is a lot of chaos, and yes, Erin has to control most of it.

Our writing is solidly 50-50, but the business side has a fairly consistent division between strategy (me) and tactics (Erin), and also between production (Erin) and marketing (me).

What are the best ways to build and keep an audience?
RM: I love social media. Be a person people can see. And don’t just talk about your books, talk about your life and the world and the context in which you’re writing. Be funny if you can. People will say, “Don’t talk about politics,” but cat pictures and politics is sort of how we’ve found our audience.

Conversely, I’m not a big believer in swag, Facebook ads, or any of that. Bookbub deals have been great for us when we can get them, but honestly, the time investment of visibility and getting our books into the hands of reviewers and loyal readers has been more important for us than spending ad dollars. It’s a slower path, but it’s stickier in the long term.

EM: From day one when we were working solely with traditional and small presses, people told us that writing is a marathon, not a sprint; you don’t build your audience overnight. And that’s just as true in the indie world. We just kept writing and finding new ways to engage with readers, and over time, we’ve begun to find the people who enjoy the kind of books we write. There’s no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. I wish there was!

Can you tease anything coming in the “Royal Roses” series?
RM: The next book will be called A Royal of Ravens, and it’s about George. It will, of course, also be a romance with elements of politics and magic. But it won’t be a coming-out story; George’s public identity as genderqueer and as “all the magic and birds in England” will have been partially dealt with in the time between. I’ll also confess we haven’t settled on what George’s pronoun choices are yet. I’m comfortable using “she” for my genderqueerness, but George may or may not take a different route.

EM: The book after A Royal of Ravens will be about Hyacinth, set a few years on when she’s twentyish. This book will spend a lot of time with our alternate-history Ireland. In this universe, Ireland was never under British rule and the Troubles never occurred, so its development has taken quite a different tack. My family is Irish American, and I can’t wait to delve into this book.

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Kate DiGirolomo About Kate DiGirolomo

Kate DiGirolomo is the SELF-e Community Coordinator at Library Journal. She received her Master's degree in Library and Information Science at Pratt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @KateDiGirolomo.

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