Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, R.L. Merrill – R.L. Merrill brings you stories of Hope, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll featuring quirky and relatable characters. Whether she’s writing about contemporary issues that affect us all or diving deep into the paranormal and supernatural to give readers a shiver, she loves creating compelling stories that will stay with readers long after. Winner of the Kathryn Hayes “When Sparks Fly” Best Contemporary award for Hurricane Reese and finalist for the Foreword INDIES 2019 for Summer of Hush, Ro spends every spare moment improving her writing craft and striving to find that perfect balance between real-life and happily ever after. She writes diverse and inclusive romance, contributes paranormal hilarity to Robyn Peterman’s Magic and Mayhem Universe, and works on various other writing and mentoring projects that tickle her fancy or benefit a worthy cause. You can find her connecting with readers on social media, educating America’s youth, raising two brilliant teenagers, trying desperately to get that back piece finished in the tattoo chair, or headbanging at a rock show near her home in the San Francisco Bay Area! Stay Tuned for more Rock ‘n’ Romance.
Thanks so much, Ro, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
R.L. Merrill: I feel like my writing style alternates between funny, quirky stories but then the feels kick in and I take readers for a ride. Always hopeful, always a little bit of music… Even my horror stories tend to have an HEA or HFN.
JSC: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it.
RLM: I’ve often written stories set in places I’ve visited, and there are definitely places I want to go visit to write about. Probably the one trip that I took that turned out to be the most lucrative as far as stories were concerned was a day tour of Virginia City before the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Reno in 2018. It’s crazy how you go someplace fairly close to home and get so inspired! The first place they took us was the cemetery and the woman who was giving us the tour said, “I understand you are romance writers, well let me tell you, there was no romance here. It was a hard, awful place to live, and people were only concerned about survival.” So of COURSE I was inspired! Don’t tell ME there’s no romance! Where there’s suffering, people look to each other for comfort!
JSC: How long do you write each day?
RLM: Not as long as I’d like. I don’t have a super tight schedule, but I touch my author business every day. For example, the day I answered these, I spent the morning taking care of email tasks, sending out prizes, working on proposals, etc. It takes me a bit to get into the groove of adding new words to a document. I like to work in the morning and then again in the evening and late at night. Naps in the afternoon are awesome so I can stay up later. I swear I should have been born in Spain. Maybe in a past life…
JSC: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
RLM: I do read them. I look for patterns, like did folks have the same issue with a book? Like the reviews for Haunted, several folks commented there were too many tears haha. I thought that was pretty funny and I definitely got the hint moving forward. Was there something they particularly liked about the story that I can build on in a different book? And then there are the “there’s too much swearing and vulgarity” and those I get a kick out of.
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
RLM: Hey, that’s what phones are for. If I’m driving, I’ll record a voice memo. Yesterday I was cooking breakfast and I heard a song that gave me a fantastic idea for a story and so I dashed out to my work computer and created a new google doc before I burned anything. I have a ton of docs with story ideas. I think I have PLENTY of things to write for the next several years!
JSC: Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
RLM: This is a tough one to answer because I do work part time, but I feel like the amount of hours I spend on writing stuff are probably full time equivalent. I’m not ready to give up my day job yet as I feel I still have something to give as a teacher, but I’m starting to consider making that transition. The pandemic really gave me a lot to think about in regards to my career choice, so I’m thinking of changes…
JSC: How did you deal with rejection letters?
RLM: I take them as a challenge. If I get feedback, I certainly read it and take it to heart. If there’s no feedback, I move on to the next one. There have been a few times I’ve been disappointed, but then something always happens to lift my spirits, usually a good review or a reader reaching out and telling me that they appreciated my story. I’m in this to become the best writer I can be, so any criticism is a learning experience.
JSC: If you had a grant to write any book you wanted as a freebie without worrying about sales, what kind of story would you like to tell?
RLM: I would continue telling the stories I love, but for me it’s more about having the time. If I had time, I’d indulge in a story that required a bunch of research or maybe I’d finally write a story about my mom’s family. She came from struggle and became a fantastic mother and successful human being who cares for others. I’d love to tell her story, but that will take a long time and lots of research.
JSC: What was the most valuable piece of advice you’ve had from an editor?
RLM: My indie book editor has given me plenty of good advice during my career, but she’s also been so supportive of my weird little voice. Recently she told me she thinks my longer works are stronger, and I took that to heart. I like dabbling in short but I think I need to examine what makes my longer books better and try to harness that energy. She also told me that she feels my strength is in unique, relatable characters, and great emotion. I definitely think I should focus on that.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for “A Peculiar Prom Night”?
RLM: I originally wrote the story to give away at a prom-themed event, so I wanted to focus on adult chaperones. When I was in my second year of teaching, I chaperoned a prom at the beautiful Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland and I asked the guy I was dating at the time to come with me. He was such a good sport, but I thought how odd it must be for him, for someone who thought they left high school far behind. For those of us in education, we never leave school. I wanted to write a story about folks who are in that world where kids are everything and relationships have to work around that.
JSC: What fictional speculative fiction character would you like to spend an evening with, and why?
RLM: Right now? Lucifer! Or maybe Maze. Yeah, probably Maze. I’m heavily invested in this show at the moment. I also watched Season 1 of Evil this past fall and wow, was that a creepy show. I’d love to have their job, investigating supernatural phenomena.
JSC: Star Trek or Star Wars? Why?
RLM: I’ve grown up loving Star Wars, but I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek over the past few months (my husband’s lunchtime TV preference) and honestly the way the show deals with differences and difficult situations. I love that they’re willing to go places no one has gone, and I’m not talking about space. I’ve been watching Discovery and there’s a lot to love about it, although they still make me angry sometimes. So while the child in me loves Star Wars, the writer in me loves the stories in Star Trek. Now, let’s talk about Orville…
And now for R.L.’s latest book: “A Peculiar Prom Night“:
- Four sexually frustrated chaperones
- Three hapless kids caught vaping in the bathrooms
- Two heated kisses
- One ghost ship on the San Francisco Bay turns this joyous celebration into one helluva creepy night…
Meet siblings Ramona and Ruben, veteran teachers at Baymont High School. They’ve been chaperoning proms for years, but tonight they’ll need all of their faculties to protect their students from beings who may or may not have evil intentions. Oh, and manage to keep their family’s secret while attempting to get closer to their respective love interests. No problem, right?
“My derelict friend, how are you?” Matthew shook Ruben’s hand and then pulled him in for a bro hug.
“Devious as usual. Thanks for coming, man. We’ve had a bunch of people out with the flu this week, and I wanted to be sure we had enough coverage for tonight. Things always go smoother when there’s an abundance of adults around.”
“My pleasure. Now that the girls have both graduated, I’m clear to participate. They would have died if their square dad showed up at a school function to chaperone. ‘It’s bad enough everyone knows you’re a judge, Dad. We don’t need you in our faces at school, too.’”
Not only was Matthew Pierce a stern-looking judicial-type whose scowl was scary as hell, but he was also a handsome black man with a great sense of humor and well over six feet with an athlete’s build from years of playing soccer. His head was shaved, his goatee trimmed, and he was currently rocking an expensive dark suite. Ruben had always chosen to joke with his friend rather than be intimidated by all he had going on.
Ruben sucked in a breath. “Harsh. Well, they’re gone, so you’re all mine now.” He hooked an arm around Matthew and walked him over to the check-in table. “We’ll get you signed in and over to your post. And hey, have you met my sister?”
Matthew paused in front of the table and smiled at Ramona in a way that had Ruben’s brother radar working overtime.
Oh, this could be interesting.
“Sister mine, I have a chaperone here, reporting for duty.”
Ramona had her head down, perusing the lists of both students and chaperones. “Name?”
“The Honorable Matthew Pierce, it should say,” Ruben joked.
Ramona looked up—and her eyes flared just the slightest bit. She stood and held out her hand, her smile just as suspect.
“Mr. Pierce, it’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
Matthew continued to grin at her in that crooked way Ruben recognized.
Ramona peeled off a label with his name on it and stuck it to the end of her finger to hand over to him. Matthew reached for it, but during the exchange, the label got stuck to her next finger and then folded, and they both blushed as their hands were now stuck together by the label.
“Oops. I’m sorry. Here, let me get you another one,” Ramona said. She pulled the sticker off of their hands and ducked her head, her cheeks still pink.
Ruben couldn’t help but be tickled to see his older sister having a reaction to a man, especially one who could also use some adult conversation and affection. Hmmm, this was an unplanned benefit to asking Matthew here tonight.
Ramona wrote out a name badge in her lovely script, and then she handed the badge to Matthew, taking care not to get it stuck this time. Then she noticed the long line of students waiting for her.
“It’s nice to see you, too, Ms. Gilman.”
Ruben had to drag his old friend away from the table.
“You do realize she’s my older sister and I should kick your ass for smiling at her like that.”
Matthew raised both eyebrows. “I didn’t smile at her like anything. She’s…she’s brilliant, Ruben. For years, my girls couldn’t stop talking about how smart she was. Zoey is majoring in Poli Sci because of the esteemed Ms. Gilman. What happened to you, by the way?”
Ruben knocked into him with his shoulder. “I happen to know your oldest, Clarissa, is majoring in Communications, a skill she got from taking my Leadership-in-Action class, so I get some credit for your brainiac kids, too, you know.”
Matthew clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll give you that. Your help is what got Clarissa that massive scholarship, so thank you. I don’t know what I would be doing if I had to pay full tuition for both of them.”
“You’re welcome,” Ruben said. He led him into the main hall and smiled as Matthew’s gaze traveled the room.
The hulking warehouse had been turned into a magical wonderland for the kids tonight. Golden lanterns were suspended from the exposed beams that made up the ceiling of the place. The giant walls of glass and brick showed the darkness of the Bay waters outside. If you looked carefully, you could see some of the lights from the Bay Bridge and San Francisco, however, the night was growing increasingly foggy.
“I never knew this place was even here,” Matthew said as he gazed around in wonder.
“We found it a few years ago and this is our third prom here. They’ve done a lot to make this an attractive space. It was a Ford assembly plant at one point and then they built military vehicles during World War Two. It sat empty for a really long time, until after damage occurred in the Loma Prieta earthquake. Then they decided to fix it up. I’m glad they did. You can’t find a space like this in the Bay that we could afford.”
Ruben caught sight of Victor heading their way, walking as though he were on a mission. He looked between Ruben and Matthew and—was Ruben imagining things?—he looked irritated.
“Mr. Villarreal, may I introduce you to Superior Court Judge Matthew Pierce? He’s an alum, and his daughters graduated from Baymont. He generously took time out of his busy courtroom duties to chaperone this evening.”
“How do you do, Your Honor?” Victor shook Matthew’s hand quickly with no change to his expression.
“Great. Nice to meet you, and Ruben is exaggerating, of course. My courtroom duties do not keep me busy on Saturday nights.” He gave Ruben a shove, and that certainly got a reaction from Victor.
“Well, I certainly won’t keep you from your chaperone duties,” he said, shooting a pointed look at Ruben. “Thank you for coming. Ruben.”
Ruben watched Victor head to his next status check. His fellow assistant principal, Mary Hernandez, was stationed near the door to the back of the pavilion where kids could go outside and check out the Bay. Ruben knew Victor had been worried about safety when they’d first booked the venue, but Ruben had assured him there would always be at least two chaperones outside or at the door to keep an eye on the kids. There was really no place for them to go, but he’d wanted his administrator to trust him. He wanted a lot more—
“That’s him, huh?”
Ruben let out a frustrated groan.
“Yeah, do you see? He’s so—”
“Uptight? Yeah, I see that, and I can’t figure out what you see in him.”
“Come on, Pierce. You know me well enough to know what gets me going.” They reached the back wall near an exit door and the hallway to the restrooms.
“Yeah, you like a challenge. What exactly happened on that home visit? Before that, you’d sounded like you were going to transfer or something.”
Ruben pulled him into the hallway, looked around, and then let his shoulders slump. “You’re right. I was thinking about it. He was just so…grrrr. Difficult. Had to argue with me about the purpose of everything I did. Like, dude, I know we need to take the education of our young minds into consideration every moment, but uh, having a DJ at lunch gets them into a good mood and helps build community, the dancing provides exercise and endorphins that help with mental health issues. I have reasons for everything I do, Mr. Villa-Royal-Pain-in-My-Ass.
“But then…the kid we went to see? Came out to his family, and Dad didn’t take it well. They fought and fought until finally the kid ran away. Then he went again. He was running to Grandma’s in Antioch, where he got more support. Victor was so good to this kid. He talked to him about the importance of taking your education seriously because when it comes down to it, it’s the only thing you have control over. He told the kid he, too, was gay, and that he’d had to struggle to stay in school, but when the dust settled, getting his diploma and then going on to finish undergrad, his Masters in Education and then his administrative credential meant even more to him.”
Matthew whistled through his teeth. “Bold move. Did you know he was gay?”
Ruben shrugged. “I hadn’t given it much thought. Maybe? At that point, I’d thought perhaps he slept in a cave or under his desk and lived solely to make my life miserable, but there he was being all perfect, and now I can’t leave him alone.”
Matthew chuckled. “As long as you don’t have to appear in front of me on a restraining order—”