Sunday, 23 February 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: Westering Women, Sandra Dallas (2020)

In the last three posts in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first, we’ve returned to Jane Austen’s English countryside, entered the cellar of a depraved London taxidermist, and revisited Charles Dickens’s ever-popular A Christmas Carol.

This week, we’re in 1850s America, as, in Westering Women (2020), Sandra Dallas imagines the journey of forty women “of high moral character”, who set out on a journey from Chicago to California in search of a better life. All are ostensibly risking the perilous Overland Trail to find husbands among the gold seekers, but many are running away from the past—abusive men, prostitution, even possible murder convictions.

Westering Women (2020)
The main character Maggie is a mother, who’s been battered by her husband and needs to get as far from Chicago as she can. She is also a dressmaker and I enjoyed how her sewing skills contributed to the story and how her eye for clothing and materials gave us a specific lens on the cities and settlements the women pass through.

Dallas’s research shines through in her depiction of the trail, the physical toll it takes on the women and the changing landscapes and climates they travel through. With a large cast and epic journey to cover, she does a great job in showing the transformative effect of this adventure on the women, in terms of their sense of self worth, the physical objects they value and their relationships with each other. This is a novel about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood and friendship, where men act at worst as the agents of evil and at best as slightly weak supporting characters.

Sandra Dallas (1939- )
Dallas kept me guessing about who would make it to the journey’s end (spoiler alert: it’s not all of them) and ratcheted up the tension, as the weather, Native American warriors, pursuing forces from back home and men in the wagon train’s midst threaten the group’s safety.

I’d recommend the novel to anyone interested in learning about this period of American history and the mass migration of many (including women and families) under such trying circumstances. The book is focused on the journey itself rather than on California and those panning for gold there, which makes the ending feel a little rushed, but it’s nice to be given space to imagine the surviving women’s lives there.

The novel also walks an interesting line, in being at times heart-warming with a strong sense of inclusive and forgiving Christian morality, while at others dealing with brutal sexual and physical violence. The treatment of, and attitudes towards, black and Native American characters is in line with historical realities, which can also make for emotionally difficult reading. This isn’t escapist historical fiction that will leave you longing for a romantic past. I for one will feel pretty grateful the next time I hop on a quick six-hour flight to California!

Do you have any recommendations for novels I should read next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? If so, let me know—here, on Facebook, via Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

And did you know it’s now less than six months until the release of my novel, Bronte’s Mistress? Check out the pre-order details here, or sign up for my monthly newsletter below!

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Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Going back in time in NYC: recent events for Brontë and Austen lovers

New York City is known for being obsessed with the now. Time, it is said, moves faster here, as do the city’s inhabitants who race through the streets—to the next train, the next reservation, the next meeting. Because of this, it’s always a particular delight for me to discover (sometimes eccentric) events created by and for other history lovers, offering a moment to pause and dwell on the past, in the city that never sleeps.

In the last few weeks I’ve attended two of these. These were focused, not just on history, but on the Brontës and Jane Austen, which seemed timely given my recent post on forthcoming novels inspired by Austen and the forthcoming publication of my own novel—Brontë’s Mistress.

First up was a play—Anne Brontë: A Woman of Courage. Presented by the American Chapter of the Brontë Society in a co-production with KALIDASCOPES Media & Vision, this ran for two nights at Jefferson Market Library.

The production was a celebration of Anne Brontë, the youngest and most frequently forgotten Brontë sister, on the occasion of her bicentenary. It wove together excerpts from her novels, letters and poetry, as well as other biographical material related to the nineteenth century’s most famous literary family.

With minimal props and costuming, the four actors (Katrina Michaels, Alida Rose Delaney, Miriam Canfield and Marshall Taylor Thurman) did a great job depicting multiple characters and capturing the emotional intensity of Anne’s writing. The overall plot might have been hard to follow for those less familiar with Brontë lore, but, even taken in isolation, the scenes were an engaging sampling of Anne’s life and work.

Particularly successful were the dramatizations of key scenes from Anne’s 1848 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the novel so shocking that her sister Charlotte apologised for its existence in her biographical notice about the deceased Emily and Anne in 1850:

The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid.”

For example, Anne’s key sense of injustice in the exchange between Helen and Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still resonant in 2020, two hundred years on from her birth, even if the way she couches her moral argument in religious language may be alien and off-putting to twenty-first century audiences.

On a selfish note, I would have loved a deeper exploration of Anne’s relationship with her brother Branwell and her time working along with him at Thorp Green Hall—the focus of my novel. But here, as in other interpretations of the Brontës’ lives, more stage time was given to exploring Anne’s first stint as a governess (as depicted at least semi-autobiographically in the first half of her 1847 Agnes Grey) and the play’s creators chose to foreground the relationship between the three sisters, leaving Branwell in the shadows.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the show and was delighted that celebrations of Anne’s life have made it across the Atlantic.

Second, last weekend I attended a marathon reading of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, at the King Manor Museum in Queens. This fascinating historic house was home to Rufus King, American Founding Father and outspoken abolitionist. Built in the 1750s, the museum was the perfect setting for the event, as attendees, many of them in period costume, took it in turns to read chapters from Volume I of Austen’s beloved 1818 work aloud.

The Secret Victorianist joins other Janeites at the Queens museum
I’m not much of a crafter, but those more talented than me stitched clothes, knitted or did embroidery while listening to the novel, making me feel (in spite of the electric light and heating) that I’d truly stepped back in time.

It was a real thrill to experience Jane Austen’s work as many of her first readers would have and something of a digital detox to spend five hours simply listening and occupying your hands (I amused myself with a colouring book for the first time in two decades). This Saturday, the museum is hosting a reading of Volume II. I won’t be able to attend, but, if you’re a Janeite in NYC, you might consider going along—even if just for a portion of the five hours.

In what’s shaping up to be a pretty crazy debut year (we’re now less than six months from the release of Brontë’s Mistress!), both these events were a great way for me to step back and connect with other lovers of the nineteenth century and I hope I’ll be able to continue to do this (and write about my adventures on this blog). Next up, I’ll be attending another play—Cheer from Chawton: A Jane Austen Family Theatrical at the 14th Street Y.

If you know of any other New York events that might be of interest to me, please get in touch—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Pre-order information for Brontë’s Mistress can be found here, and, if you want monthly updates on its release straight to your email inbox, sign up for my author newsletter below.

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Friday, 17 January 2020

Writers’ Questions: Should I write an outline (plotters vs. pantsers)?

In the last two posts in my Writers’ Questions series I dived into the business side of being an author with posts on finding literary agents and how to query them. Today, I’m returning to craft, with a discussion of how writers approach plotting out lengthy and complex novels.

G.R.R. Martin (1948- )
First, let’s start with some definitions:

The plotter: The writer who prefers to plan their novel meticulously before typing “Chapter One”. They may follow a specific novel planning method (you’ll find many for free online) or their feeling for plot may be instinctual, but either way they create their own map to take them from beginning to end of the writing process.

An outline: The plotter’s map and their secret weapon. This can vary in length and structure but it’s usually a document that sketches out the events of the novel, chapter by chapter, hitting all major plot points. Other plotters may eschew written outlines and plan using post-it notes or whiteboards (think: the murder detective’s office in a TV drama).

The pantser: The writer who prefers to fly by their seat of their proverbial pants. They make up their story as they write and may have little to no idea about where or how their novel will end at the outset.

Discovery writing: What the pantser engages in. Writing is an act of exploration where the writer is “surprised” by the events of their own novel.

Architects and Gardeners: Game of Thrones author G.R.R. Martin’s preferred terms for plotters and pantsers respectively. The only key difference here is that Martin sees gardeners as planting seeds, which bloom later on in their stories. This suggests a little more forethought than simply “pantsing” it.

The ARCs (advance reader copies) of Bronte's Mistress
The plotter vs. pantser debate is one that divides writers—and not along neat lines of success. Some swear by outlines, others feel they’d limit their creativity. But, if you’ve never outlined before and any of the following statements are true for you, I’d advise giving it a go:

You’re super organised in other areas of your life
Your calendar is colour-coded, your inbox is empty, you keep lists of birthdays and set reminders on your phone? If so, outlining isn’t just something that might be helpful for you—you might even enjoy it!

You’ve been writing the same novel for YEARS
Maybe an outline will help you see the finish line.

Your novels are never long enough
If you’re making the transition from shorter fiction to works of a novel length, outlining in advance could help you see if your plot is really complex enough to stretch across 70,000-110,000 words.

Your story loses its way
Your middle is slow or you’re getting feedback that your ending doesn’t quite map back to your opening. An outline could be an answer to your woes.

For my upcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I acted more as a plotter than a pantser, although I’ve played with both approaches to writing. Because my novel is historical, and about real people, I started with a spreadsheet of all known events, categorised by whether they were important to my protagonist, the men in her life, her children or the Bronte family. I used this list to determine the best opening, climax and ending of my novel and then played the fun game of “fill in the blanks”, inventing the imagined events that would fall between those history had recorded.

A sneak peek at my early planning spreadsheet for Bronte's Mistress
Using Scrivener, I then noted the (real or made up) events I was sure would be scenes in the text sections where I’d go on to write them. I also inserted any snatches of prose (usually dialogue) that had come into my head during this plotting process to ensure I didn’t lose them.

My outline then was less of a standalone document than the sketch an artist applies paint over or bones later clothed with flesh. There was still so much I “discovered” along the way (especially related to flashbacks about events before the novel started and the characterisation of more minor characters), but my map kept my ship on course, not dashed against the rocks.

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. Do you have a favourite outlining technique? Or do you love to invent as you go? As ever, if there are any other topics you’d love me to cover in my Writers’ Questions series, let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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