Timothy Miller: The Alluring Puzzle of Fact and Fiction

Screenwriter and novelist Timothy Miller explains how he came to write historical fiction and how research can help him drive his plot.
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Timothy Miller is a writer raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. He has produced two screenplays, Scanned (2010) and At War with the Ants (2010). He was featured on a morning news segment at Loyola University in New Orleans. Miller's love of the Edwardian long summer and golden age developed in grade school when he first read The Wind in the Willows.

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In this post, Miller explains how he came to write historical fiction, how research can help him drive his plot, and more!

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Name: Timothy Miller
Title: The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle
Publisher: Seventh Street
Release date: January 19, 2021
Genre: Historical Mystery
Elevator pitch for the book: Is Eliza Doolittle really a girl of the streets transformed or has she been switched with another woman, and for what secret purpose? Sherlock Holmes investigates and comes up against a dangerous enemy he thought long dead.

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What prompted you to write this book?

The characters first came together almost at random. I had no intention to follow them further than a silly exercise. First I had taken up poetry, then screenwriting. I wrote a handful of stories, then I decided to try my hand at a novel. Not this novel, but a children’s book which I’ve characterized as The Borrowers on acid. That encouraged me to tackle two stories—a fantasy and a mystery. I wrote them side by side, ping-ponging back and forth. Eventually, the mystery won out over the fantasy. I found the combination of fact and fiction an alluring puzzle. And since I’m now working on my third historical fantasy, with ideas for a couple more floating around in my head, I seem to have found my groove.

(Detailing the Past: 4 Authors on the Pleasures & Perils of Writing Historical Fiction)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

Well, the first time I brought these particular characters together was some 30 years ago for a short humorous exercise when I was teaching English in Milan—to illustrate English prepositions, in fact. At the time, I was hopelessly mired in another Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which morphed into my first screenplay and will actually see the light of day as my second novel. That one involves a certain Dutch painter.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

Oh, yes. I learned to waste no time in signing a contract because before I signed this one. I had a stroke which had me unconscious for five weeks and unable to write my name even longer. I learned my editor has the patience of Job. I learned the confidence that comes with having a really good team behind you. And I have a great deal yet to learn.

(10 Steps to the Past: How to Do World Building Right in Historical Fiction)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Innumerable. I’m not much of an outliner. I tend to charge ahead once I’ve got a beginning, middle, and end. So, I found I had lit upon a rich vein of similarities between Holmes/Watson and Higgins/Pickering on the one hand, and between Eliza Doolittle and Edward Hyde on the other. It really became a tale of the clash between the Victorian and Edwardian eras. And I learned to trust research. Did I need a member of the nobility who was interested in Eliza as marriage material? I found that the prince of Bavaria’s wife had just died. Did I need a traumatic experience that affected Holmes in 1903? Colney Hatch, the women’s madhouse, had burned down in that year. Excellent. It’s like having history as a writing partner.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

First of all, enjoyment. It doesn’t matter how deep your theme may be if the reader is bored. I try to step lively on every page. Second, a sense of the fluidity of personality and station in the modern world. That we can constantly re-invent ourselves. Both Eliza Doolittle and Edward Hyde are early avatars of this phenomenon, which we don’t generally realize is a new one in human history.

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If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

It’d been said before, but anything you do repeatedly you get better at, and that includes writing. Write every day, even if you think you’ve got nothing in the tank. Write your name over and over. Eventually, your mind will drift and shift into writer mode. Let it, and don’t worry about what you’re writing. You’re building a muscle, not writing the great American novel. Not yet.

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