Psychics, shapeshifters, and paranormal romance: an interview with writer Nalini Singh

What if telepathy existed, but it drove the telepath mad? Take that concept, add shapeshifters, and you've got the basis for Nalini Singh's best-selling Psy-Changeling series. We spoke to her about Pern, world-building, and why every series needs an ending.

Singh's paranormal romances are set in a parallel world where psychics — faced with the fact that a crazy person with telekinetic powers can wreak serious havoc — chose to banish their emotions. The changelings with whom they share the planet are deeply suspicious of this approach to life. While on tour to promote her tenth book, Kiss of Snow, the author offered up some insight into the world she's created and how it came to be.

In your Psy-Changling series, you've combined this very old folklore about shifters with this very modern portrayal of how psychic powers might work on a large scale. What inspired you to combine those two element?

It's hard to say, but I think it's a case of a lot of my interests coming together. I've always been interested in the idea of extrasensory powers, like telepathy or telekinesis. I've also always enjoyed shifter stories. And I've always had a lot of interested in what the future might be like, so the series is just set a little way into the future. All those elements came together. I guess they were circulating in my subconscious.I got this idea and I was thinking, what if being psychic wasn't a good thing? What if it drove you mad?

Why fast-forward to 2079, as opposed to putting the series in a more contemporary setting?

Part of it was about my interests. The second part was I felt particularly the Psy just fit better into that slightly futuristic element. Only it's an alternate reality, so I could've set it in a contemporary time. But I just felt having that little 70-year gap is like giving an assistance to make the concept of the Psy stronger. I've got those futuristic elements around them to build up the race's character.

You started out writing categories for Harlequin's Silhouette Desire line. What inspired the shift to paranormals?

I've actually always written paranormal stories, as well. The very first short story I ever won a contest with was a paranormal. I also enjoyed contemporary, but I think I needed to have that big paranormal idea that was really strong. The things I'd written to that point, my other paranormal manuscripts, some of the stories i think were good, but I didn't feel that spark, you know, when a story really sings. And I had that with Slave to Sensation, which became my very first published paranormal. So rather than a shift, I think of it as just developing my writing skills and my ideas to the point where I could write a strong paranormal story.

Did you find it difficult to make the jump from contemporary category stories to paranormals?

Not really, because they were so very different. It wasn't like I was going from writing romantic suspense to hard suspense. I went from writing contemporary romances to writing paranormal romances, short categories to longer books. It was just such a drastic shift, I think, that it just completely broke me out of it. When Slave to Sensation was first published, a lot of people actually thought I was a debut writer because there wasn't much overlap in terms of the audience of the category desire novels I'd been writing and the paranormals. So it was kind of like starting afresh. It was more a case of establishing myself as a paranormal writer.

You said you've always been interested in science fictional stories. Who are some of your influences?

It's really hard to pinpoint certain authors, because I've always been a really voracious reader. Growing up, especially when I was a teenager, I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, as well as romance. It all fed into my growth as a writer. I read very widely and quite prolifically and I think all those pieces come into my work. I've got elements of fantasy, I've got elements of science fiction, and maybe even a tiny little bit of suspense now and then. I like to say that everything I've ever read has had some impact on making me a better writer.

Do you have any particular genre favorites?

In terms of fantasy, Anne McCaffrey, who is a really fantastic writer. Mercedes Lackey. Andre norton. If we shift away from fantasy, in science fiction, J.D. Robb is a huge favorite of mine, the "In Death" series. Christine Feehan, the big paranormal writer. I read her before I was published, and I think she was one of the first big paranormal series. Sherrilyn Kenyon, also.

I read everything from historical romance to contemporary to science fiction to fantasy. And I think it is good for me as a writer, because its showing me lots of different things, you know?

You mention Anne McCaffrey — did you read her stories about telepaths?

I did. I really enjoyed that series, as well. But I think my favorite is probably Pern. That was one of the first worlds where I could imagine it so realistically that I could imagine living there. That's the kind of world I want to build, that kind of really coherent, strong world, where people find these characters that you get to know book by book. You're not just writing stories about a couple in isolation. You're seeing the surrounding community. That was an influence on teaching me what kinds of worlds really worked for me.

Did you build the world first, or do you create characters and build the world around them? Do you just have reams of notes about the world, or do you allow it to emerge as you write?

I let it emerge. I usually start with a character or characters. I like to see through their eyes, like where are they standing and what are they seeing of their world and what do they know of their world. I find, for me, the world builds much more naturally that way, rather than sitting down and plotting it all out in advance. A lot of it is in my head. But I do keep really detailed notes about minor details to ensure that continuity is maintained from book to book. That includes, timelines, the ages of characters, simple things like eye color, hair color, or which groups live in which region. But in terms of the wider world, it is like a mental construct I have. Each time I write, I kind of just step into it.

How do you keep the series and the world fresh and exciting as you write more books?

You have to be careful not to throw more things at it. It's not OK for throwing the kitchen sink at the world and each time adding something new to keep it fresh. I guess this is something I learned from reading all that fantasy. Part of the joy of writing these long-running series and reading the long-running series is the familiarity of the world. And I don't mean that in a sense that nothing changes. I mean that in a sense that this is a world you know really well and then with each book you get to see that world develop as well, so it's kind of like a character, the world itself. So rather than, like I said, throwing new things at the world, for me, it's about exploring new corners of the world. Like peeling away layers of an onion.

I love walking into a world that I already know and I love being taken down a different path in that world. But it is really important to stay with the core world, and what makes it fresh is how your characters interact with the world or how the world develops as the result of events from one book or one scene to the next.

Do you know how the series ends?

Yes. I think that's really important. I took my cue in this from watching TV series. The best TV series are the ones where the season has a very short plotline and you have a start and an end. I thought, well, if I'm going to write a series that's what I want, that kind of arc so you do have that sense of satisfaction. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing all attention at the end, because you just go off on tangents or you're not pulling all the threads together.

When you start a series, you don't know how many books you are going to get to do. And I thought, well, I need to have an ending, and even if I only get to write three books, I want to be able to give a reader that satisfaction, that sense that they do know the ending. Having a longer series has really allowed me to play with my world. But I always knew what the ending would be, and that's critical in terms of keeping the series strong and all the books connected really well.