Claire Ashgrove has been writing since her early teens and maintained the hobby for twenty years before seeking a publisher. Her first contemporary novel, Seduction’s Stakes, sold to The Wild Rose Press in 2008, where she continues to write steamy, sexy stories. Claire’s paranormal romance series, The Curse of the Templars debuted with Tor in January 2012. The second book, Immortal Surrender, was just released in September, and the third follows in March 2013. For those who prefer the more erotic side, she also writes for Berkley Heat as the National Bestselling Author Tori St. Claire. She is an active member of Romance Writers of America, and her local RWA chapters. She lives in Missouri on a farm with her two toddler sons, and too-many horses, cats, and dogs. She can be found online as @ClaireAshgrove on twitter, on Facebook and via her website and blog.
SFFWRTCHT: What got you started with speculative fiction? Which authors, books or movies inspired you?
Claire Ashgrove: What got me hooked was an infusion of R.A. Salvatore, The Hobbit, and Steve Berry. More than anything, I got hooked in fiction. Escaping to different worlds. Making my own. I love world building. Steve Berry is a huge influence on my speculative fiction… I’m also a huge fan of R.A. Salvatore and his Drizzt books. Of course, I read romance, and Meredith Duran I can’t put down, along with Karin Tabke/Harlow, Maggie Shayne and Shayla Black. I adore Faulkner as well. If I can ever make an impact like “My mother is a fish”… I’ll have reached my personal goal.
SFFWRTCHT: So how did your interest in writing come about? And how did you learn your craft?
CA: I don’t really know-I’ve written for as long as I can remember. Actually. I started writing regency romance when I was a junior in high school. In early 2008, I joined Romance Writers of America and that really helped hone craft. I met wonderful authors who knew the ropes, knew the demands, and were willing to teach and share their knowledge. My mentor, Alfie Thompson, came from my RWA association, as well as the great critique group I now have. I can’t stress the value of RWA enough for romance writers-particularly when learning craft and the business of writing. Beyond that, it was practice, practice, practice and perseverance. I’m still practicing now.
SFFWRTCHT: Did/do you write a lot of regular romance? Or do you tend more toward paranormal and SFF?
CA: Gosh that’s hard… both? I have 23 published works. And they run about 50/50 between regular romance and PNR. Let me qualify that — 23 in stages of contract or published. There’s a whole ‘nother element with the PNR world building. There are awesome worlds out there in PNR.
SFFWRTCHT: The Curse of the Templars is about Templar knights who are immortal but slowly dying through demons sucking their life energy. And so they need seraphs, their mates to make them whole again and keep them alive. Which came 1st, plot, character or world?
CA: I started plotting this in 2008-09, and the history parts came first. So I have to go with characters. I knew I wanted to write about the Templar, and my research involved creating the knights. Then the world they live in now.
SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?
CA: On average, forty-five days. That gives me time to spend with the farm and the children and not become totally impossible to be around. I usually end up somewhere between 100 and 110K words. I have robots in the fingers.
SFFWRTCHT: Are you a pantser or an outliner?
CA: The Curse of the Templars was always designed as a series. I didn’t write a word until the series was plotted in whole. I outline like crazy. It is usually broken down by chapter. Includes major elements for both hero and heroine and the hook to the next chapter. And I edit as well, so while I advise authors turn off the editor as they write, it’s fairly natural for me. Different approaches for everyone. Some folks write quickly. Others take longer. It’s all what works for individual authors. It depends on the book. But I’ll spend a good thirty days minimum researching while writing another project, and when I have all the research lined up, I’ll set aside an entire weekend to knock out the outline. Working all day.
SFFWRTCHT: Why use religious history so heavily in a romance novel? Isn’t it supposed to be about passion, love, sex?
CA: I used it because, above all, it makes for a fascinating world of paranormal events. There are so many avenues to work with. Kinda like a philosophy class-how many ways can I ask, what if? I think the inclusion made the book richer, plus it added to the realistic purpose of the Knights Templar and the historical reason they were founded. As for the love, passion and sex part? A romance is about the emotional journey and bond that is part of human nature. How deeply an author wants to illustrate these bonds is author preference. But more than the between-the-sheets action, it’s the compatibility, how hero and heroine are forced to work with the circumstances and each other.
SFFWRTCHT: For those who wonder, does plot matter in paranormal romance or is it just a device between sex scenes?
CA: Compared to early genre books, plot is an integral part of any romance novel’s success. It has to be to be competitive in today’s market. Paranormal Romance and Urban fantasy romance, in my opinion are some of the strongest plot-driven romance books on the shelves. World building too – amazing stuff out there!
SFFWRTCHT: Do you consider any of your PNR closer to Urban Fantasy or to Romance? What’s the difference between Urban Fantasy and PNR?
CA: In many ways it’s like having to know fantasy plus the addition of romance. My Templar series is probably closer to Urban Fantasy than my others. It does have a somewhat epic subplot. I think the difference involves the romance elements. PNR is going to be more about the relationship than about the plot per se. You may have romance elements in UF, but it’s the dominant event in PNR.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you ever consider writing straight Urban Fantasy or traditional fantasy as well?
CA: I actually have a traditional fantasy in the works, and I have a fantasy romance series 85% finished that I’ve had to set aside for current contract demands. I hope to be able to pick both up again later this year.
SFFWRTCHT: Where’d you get the idea for your characters, especially the six key knights?
CA: Almost unfailingly, my characters just come to me. I knew I wanted to use the Templar, but as far as each individual knight – they just showed up as I was plotting out the series. I know that sounds like an easy answer, but I swear it’s the truth!
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music?
CA: I am pretty plain-Jane when it comes to writing. I wait till the house is asleep and then just tick away. 99% of the time, it’s silence. In some action scenes, I’ve been known to drag out music that compliments what I’m writing. Usually it’s musical scores. Something that can convey drama and give me pictures in my head. Otherwise, I write strictly in Word, I write till I’m satisfied with a scene, then move to the next.
SFFWRTCHT: Immortal Hope, book 1, centers around Anne McPherson, a doctoral student studying Templar history and the oldest knight, Merrick du Loire. It introduces all the knights and the history as well as Azazel, their archangel leaders, etc. Enjoyable with some good action, swords and such, not just between-the-sheets action. The Templar rank with Dracula and King Arthur for “shelf-glut.” Do you worry yours will get lost on the shelves?
CA: Now, I’m not sure what may be available in small press or indie press, but for romance, the Templar are not common. So, no, I’m not really worried about that. And I’m not competing, so to speak, with other fiction works on the Templar. In fact, I’ve invited some of them to my blog!
SFFWRTCHT: So tell us about Merrick and Anne. They struggle to get along a bit.
CA: Merrick and Anne are… at cross purposes. She has visions of his death, which keeps her from accepting her role. He, believing she belongs to another knight, struggles with duty and honor versus his growing feelings for her. Book 2, Immortal Surrender follows the war against Azazel, with the guarding of the Sudarium of Oviedo, which, when paired with another relic (as yet unrevealed) will de-code the language of the archangels who’ve hidden the other relics. It’s the knight Farran’s story, and his preordained seraph, the atheist, Dr. Noelle Keane. Both Farran and Noelle have some significant personal issues to overcome, but they’re dynamic, and they melt my heart.
SFFWRTCHT: Farran was a bit cold and hard to like in Immortal Hope making him an interesting choice for a male lead. In fact, several of the knights behave oddly, even with malice toward each other, and yet they are sworn brothers. For modern audiences where loyalty and oaths don’t mean as much, why that choice? What makes it compelling?
CA: I think you hit the nail on the head in the question – they simply don’t mean as much today. It’s sadly a historical rootthat can be presented as `new’, in some respects. Plus, I’m old at heart. I’d cut off fingers and toes to go back to those eras. Writing about it is romantic in and of itself, despite all the human hardships that earlier civilizations and man faced.
SFFWRTCHT: How do you make the characters distinctive when there’s a (more or less) set arc for how the romance develops?
CA: Conflict is pretty much the bottom line. A variant conflict, that stems from different backgrounds, lends to varying goals and motivations. While the generic arc might be similar across most romances, it’s no different than the generic arc that fantasy adventures rely on. Yes, they are different between the genres (the romance arc is different from that of fantasy novels), but in each of their own genres, the tiny nuances create the meaningful differences. It’s like crafting the difference between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
SFFWRTCHT: For those who might love traditional romance, but have shied away from PNR, what does PNR have to offer that might be worth their exploring it?
CA: I think the one thing to point out is that PNR isn’t all about werewolves and vampires. PNR is very dependent on world building, and it’s those elements—the ability to make the paranormal normal and believable—that makes the genre unique, engaging, and ultimately fascinating.
SFFWRTCHT: For those who don’t typically read romance, because of the cheesy Harlequin bias and other stereotypes, why might your books and other PNR offer them more than what they’d expect?
CA: Plot. I’ll be the first to say that romance at one time was cheezy bodice-ripping light reading. But those early books that unfortunately have stuck as a stereotype, won’t cut it in today’s market. Plot is a hefty demand, and you’ll find fabulous plots and subplots in Paranormal Romance almost every time. The craftsmanship can truly be magical in many of these romances. They’re true stories, with lots of action, and really unique in their setting.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
CA: The worst – I don’t think I can answer that. Every bit of advice is useful in some way. It’s a matter of disseminating it. And seeing how, or if, it applies to an individual’s goals or immediate circumstance. It may not work for me, but it might for someone else. The best – write your query like the back cover matter on a book in your genre. Once I did that, I definitely started moving from `form rejections into better interest with agents and editors alike.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you write short stories as well as novels? If so, do you approach them differently?
CA: I do write short stories as well as full lengths, and no, there’s not really a difference in thought process… just tightening.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
CA: Right now, you’re catching me at a time where I’m wrapping up contracts and pursuing the next opportunity. So I don’t have anything concrete except to continue my Templars and my historical romance pirate quartet. You will see more from my Tori St. Claire penname, but I can’t comment on what exactly yet. Sorry to be vague. But you can keep track on my blog or my Facebook. I love to connect with readers!
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.