Saturday 26 October 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Lost History of Dreams, Kris Waldherr (2019)

The latest novel I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on works of fiction set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first, is Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams, which came out earlier this year.

Waldherr’s debut work of fiction will delight fans of Victorian Gothic. There’s a brooding poet, who spends most of the novel in a coffin, as his fans and relatives argue over where he should be laid to rest. Our protagonist is a post-mortem photographer who’s haunted by the ghost of his wife. And the wider cast includes women who are all afflicted by something—be that grief, madness, consumption, or preternaturally white hair.

The settings are also well wrought, adding to the oppressive mood. Yes, there’s a creepy mansion, with an abandoned wing. There are rooms so gloomy our main character can’t see whom he’s speaking to. And you can’t get much darker than a hovel in the Black Forest, where some of our characters end up. Even a chapel constructed entirely of glass and the English seaside get a Gothic makeover. This is a novel with a consistent aesthetic and this is the focus on every page.

Kris Waldherr
It’s a little harder to connect with the characters. Robert Highstead, the main character, has a tragic backstory in the loss of his wife and an academic interest in Ovid, but it’s hard to describe his personality otherwise. He’s reduced to more of a frame narrator type (think Wuthering Heights or Lady Audley’s Secret) with Isabelle, the teller of the story-within-the-story about the poet and his wife, stealing the show. This is a novel that gives more nuance to its women than the men. The poet, Hugh de Bonne, for instance, comes off as your standard-issue Gothic villain, despite the devotion he inspires in his loyal followers.

Still, if you’re looking for a great Halloween read, look no further. All love stories are ghost stories in disguise,” Waldherr tells us, and you’ll find few historical novels this year that are better costumed.

What novel should the Secret Victorianist read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Writers’ Questions: What are filter words and should I avoid them?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in the summer of 2020, my own debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books (more on this here). In this series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some advice about the writing process to help fellow writers. Last time, I told you all about showing vs. telling, with some examples to show you the way. This week, we’re talking about filter words, also known as ‘thought verbs’.

What are filter words?

Back in July, I wrote a post in this series about point of view. Simply put, filter words = any unnecessary language that distances the reader from the point of view you have chosen to write your novel in.

Common filter words are verbs that refer to thinking or feeling. I’ve highlighted them in red in the sentences below (all of which are written in a close third person for ease):

Harry glanced out of the window. It was raining, he thought.

Megha looked at her again. She realised it was the girl from the painting.

Declan shivered. He felt cold.

Each of these examples can be reworded to delete the filtering and bring us closer to the character:

Harry glanced out of the window. It was raining.

Megha looked at her again. It was the girl from the painting!

Declan shivered.

In the first instance, there is no reason to insert ‘he thought’ if we are securely in Harry’s point of view. We already know as readers that our entire worldview is filtered through his eyes.

In the second example, the same is true with Megha and her realisation. You can hint at her surprise in other ways, for instance inserting an exclamation.

In my third example, the entire second sentence is unnecessary. People shiver when they’re cold! But if you do want to hammer home the point there are other ways to name the temperature that still avoid the filtering language:

Declan shivered. He moved his toes to stop them going numb.

Declan shivered. Cold crept through his bones.

In the first two examples I gave, we could also bring the point of view even closer by deleting references to where Harry and Megha are glancing/looking (another type of filtering):

The window was misting up. It was raining.

The girl’s coat was red, her eyes were grey. There was something familiar in the shape of her chin. Megha’s heart dropped. It was the girl from the painting!

Are filter words always verbs?

Nouns can also act as filter words, especially when they name the senses.


Uri walked into the kitchen. He was greeted by the smell of coffee.

This example has other issues (did you notice the passive voice?) but the word smell is also acting as a filtering word here. Depending on your writing style, you might consider rewording to something like:

Uri walked into the kitchen. Hot toast on the table, fresh coffee wafting from the pot.

Why are filter words ‘bad’?

As with any writing ‘rule’, there are always exceptions and counter arguments, but there are several reasons why you might want to avoid filtering.

The most important is one I’ve already mentioned. Filtering words make readers feel more distant from your point of view character(s)—a problem if you want us to have an emotional connection with your protagonist(s). In our own heads we just think and feel things without the insertion of clauses like ‘I thought’. So delete the filtering to put readers firmly in another human’s shoes.

Other issues include repeated words and unnecessary wordiness. If you’re revising/editing your manuscript currently and are looking to trim your word count, consider searching for parts of the verbs to think, to see, to feel etc. to shave off words that may be harming your novel vs. helping it.

What writing or publishing topic would you like to see the Secret Victorianist cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know, here on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Friday 4 October 2019

Novels of the French Revolution

Back in June, the Secret Victorianist attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Maryland (read my full review of the event here). While there, I was lucky enough to receive a signed advanced reader copy of Ribbons of Scarlet (2019), a novel jointly written by six historical novelists depicting the lives of many of the women who played an important role in the French Revolution, which began in 1789.

Ribbons of Scarlet is now top of my TBR (to be read) list, but in honour of the novel’s release on October 1, in this week’s blog post, I’m straying out of the nineteenth century and back into the eighteenth to share with you some of my favourite reads set during, or inspired by, the revolution that rocked Europe and changed France forever.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

Dickens’s depiction of the revolution, written seventy years later, influences how its events live on in popular imagination to this day. Expect narrow escapes from the guillotine, long imprisonments and rampant blood lust.

Aside from being a classic, A Tale of Two Cities offers a great glimpse into British responses to the revolution on England’s doorstep. It also has one of the best openings of any novel in English (check out my close reading here). Bonus fun fact: I once appeared as Monsieur (yes, Monsieur, not Madame) Defarge in a school play.

The Glass Blowers, Daphne du Maurier (1963)

Daphne du Maurier dug into her own family history to inspire her 1963 The Glass Blowers, a wonderful novel that examines the revolution through the eyes of a middle class family in the provinces. The novel deals with the divisions within families occasioned by any civil war and the misinformation that fuelled much of the paranoia that dominated the French Revolution.

Her main character, an unobtrusive first person, is representative of many men and especially women of the period, who tried to maintain domestic normality, while war and political strife ravaged the country.

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (1992)

Reading Hilary Mantel’s dense and captivating novel is as close as we can come today to experiencing the French Revolution blow by blow. Focused on Paris, Mantel illuminates the lives of three of the conflict’s main actors—Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre—with a huge cast of supporting characters.

The novel is replete with interpersonal as well as political drama but this isn’t a story of ordinary people. If you want to dig into the nitty-gritty of factions, espionage and corruption, this is the book for you.

Pure, Andrew Miller (2011)

The most recent novel on my list, Pure isn’t really a novel of the Revolution at all, but of the years preceding it. Our protagonist is an engineer tasked with clearing the graveyard at Les Innocents in Paris, which is literally overflowing with corpses and therefore endangering the health of the city's residents.

The book captures the rising tensions in Paris in the 1780s, the bureaucracy of Versailles, the autonomy of different parts of the city and the fading influence of the Catholic Church. There’s even a cameo for Dr Guillotine himself as social discord rumbles, creating a dramatic stage for our central story. It’s dark, compelling, and beautifully told.

Other French Revolution related novels that are on my radar include Catherine Delors’s Mistress of the Revolution (2008), Edward Carey’s Little (2018), and, of course, Ribbons of Scarlet. But I’d love to hear what other books on the topic you’d recommend I check out! Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.