An idea hit writer Casey McQuiston while driving on the I-10 off-ramp at exit 162 in Baton Rouge, and she couldn’t ignore it. That idea was the seed of Red, White & Royal Blue, out now from St. Martin’s Griffin. She did what any good millennial writer with a day job could be expected to do. “I got to work, sat down at my work computer, and G-chatted my best friend. I said, ‘I need you to sit down and listen to this for a second.’” Characters and names tumbled rapidly to the top of McQuiston’s mind, and it flowed so naturally. “This is the one,” she thought. After considering starting so many books and waiting for an idea to grab her, she knew she had found the concept and cast of characters for her first novel.
Red, White & Royal Blue is a romantic comedy in which Alex Claremont-Diaz, son of America’s first female president, Ellen Claremont, realizes his long-term enmity with the Prince of England is actually attraction. After an international incident of sorts, Henry and Alex have to feign friendship, which rapidly turns into a real friendship, including texting each other constantly, late night phone calls, and international visits to see one another. The deeply loving relationship that unfolds (and the scandals along the way) make this novel a page turner.
Once McQuiston had her initial idea, her creative process was quite “impulse-driven.” She explained, “I have ADHD, and my brain is extremely chaotic.” She struggles with doing things in a linear order, so flexibility and following her own mood was key to getting the words out. “I start with an outline of what the plot will be, chapter by chapter, but that’s the most organized I get, and I almost never write it in that order,” McQuiston told Spine. Instead, when she sits down to write, she asks herself, “What do I feel like doing today?” She runs with whatever scene grabs her in that moment.
Her approach occasionally causes problems down the line. “The first kiss was one of the first scenes I wrote, then I went back and wrote what came before it. Afterwards, I had to rewrite the kiss scene because by that point, it was so out of character for them. I’m constantly reworking for continuity and flow because I’m such a nonlinear writer.”
McQuiston is full of seemingly unconventional techniques that are very effective for her. When she’s stuck, McQuiston will open up a Word Document (she typically drafts in a giant Google Doc), and start writing in 14-point Comic Sans. “It tricks my brain into taking the pressure off to do it perfectly.” Without the daunting 120,000-word, 11-point Georgia font draft sitting in front of her, “the stakes are lower,” she said.
Tricking her brain wasn’t the only challenge of writing Red, White & Royal Blue. McQuiston also had to do a lot of research. The website “whitehousemuseum.org is a totally unofficial website that has a wealth of information on the rooms, pictures, history, what they looked like in the 60s,” she said, which was helpful for her descriptions of the setting where protagonist Alex Claremont-Diaz and the first family live. Books like A Woman in Charge, about Hillary Clinton, included tiny details about the first family that inspired McQuiston’s writing, as did All the Truth is Out, which covers Gary Hart’s sex scandal that derailed his presidential campaign in the 80s. McQuiston also dug into Kensington Palace interiors through extensive online research. She found a painting of a woman on a toilet by perusing the royal collection online and included it as a throwaway joke.
McQuiston also embarked on writing this novel at an incredibly trying time in her life. “I had lost my dad in 2014, had a really rough personal year in 2015, and felt I was at the lowest point in my life,” she explained. Through this period of immense pain, McQuiston found herself reaching for her laptop and plodding away at what would become Red, White & Royal Blue. “It’s hard to do anything while depressed because nothing sounds appealing. I was terrified of the way I felt at the time.” Writing was one of the few actions she could movitave herself to do. “I was trying to create hope for myself because my circumstances weren’t giving me any.” She emerged with a book that’s “a very happy, joyful, hopeful book, but there are these threads of grief and wanting to protect your heart. They show up because that’s where I was at when writing it.” Writing while depressed is no easy feat; McQuiston was thankful for the help of a great therapist and great antidepressants as well.
Other aspects of the novel came to 28-year-old McQuiston more easily. Readers may notice how realistic the texts, emails, and tweets of Alex Claremont-Diaz, Prince Henry, and their friends seem. “I was raised by the internet and have a certain fluency,” McQuiston explained. When she had to make cuts to the novel, Twitter came in handy. “I could cover 500 words of exposition with a single fake tweet,” she told Spine. “Accomplishing things in a much shorter span” was a priority as she made enormous cuts from her first draft, which originally totaled 153,000 words. The finished book clocks in at approximately 113,000 words.
McQuiston describes herself as “a very indulgent writer. It’s like candy, it’s dessert, really getting into those moments.” Sometimes, she gets too indulgent with herself and ends up “riffing” on an emotion. She said one of the best pieces of advice she received was to think of that last minute of a long song where it just keeps riffing and you’re like, “okay, I’m done here.” She never wanted her readers to feel that way about her writing, so that determined where cuts were made. If she could envision her audience thinking, “Okay, I get it, he’s feeling some feelings,” she knew it was getting repetitive. “The final version is tighter and is such a better book,” she told Spine.
Next up for Casey McQuiston: finishing her second novel and heading on tour for Red, White & Royal Blue while rocking a pink suit and Claremont 2020 swag.
Emily Hessney Lynch is a freelance writer and social media strategist. She’s an avid reader, a dog mom, and a coffee enthusiast.