Thursday, 29 July 2021

Review: A Hazard of New Fortunes, William Dean Howells (1889)

William Dean Howells’s 1889 A Hazard of New Fortunes is the sort of nineteenth-century novel that remembers it has a plot halfway through. 

The early chapters read like a time capsule of 1880s New York City, as Bostonian Basil March and his wife Isabel search for an apartment and explore what the metropolis has to offer, following his appointment as editor of a new periodical. Howells’s satire feels humorous, rather than biting, and there’s much that a twenty-first-century inhabitant of the city will find familiar. 

By later chapters, however, the novel seems transformed into something entirely different. The cast of characters, who felt like caricatures at the book’s opening, seem drawn towards a terribly realistic tragedy, which pulls off the writerly feat of being “surprising but inevitable.” Satire evolves into social commentary that doesn’t let readers off the hook. Where would our loyalties lie in the clash of outlooks personified by the uncultured capitalist Dryfoos and the idealistic socialist Lindau? And can the “reasonable” March (and by extension the reader) find a tenable position in the middle?

Class is not the only social question to come under scrutiny. Howells gives us beautiful, young female characters who defy their conventional roles in nineteenth-century society, and the novels that depict it. Alma Leighton begins the book as a young woman playing games with a man to wound him for neglecting her, but by the end of the novel her dedication to her art over matrimony is no ruse. Margaret Vance’s love is centered on her charitable works—something her family struggles to understand. 

Howells’s commentary on race also has a modern tinge. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the casual racism of the Northern characters, who, for instance, fetishize having Black doormen, even as they try to distance themselves from the Southern characters, including one who, more than twenty years on from abolition, is still advocating for reform, not destruction, of the “institution.”

The novel A Hazard of New Fortunes most reminded me of was E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), though the former’s structural flaws mean it’s remembered more for its multiple chapters on New York real estate woes than for its insight into the human condition. If you’re a fan of nineteenth-century realism with a love for New York, you’ll enjoy Hazard as much as I did. But, if only one of these things holds true, don’t forget—this is a novel of two halves.

What nineteenth-century novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to read and review next? Let me know. You can always contact me on Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My own (nineteenth-century set) novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, paperback, e-book or audiobook, right now. And for monthly updates on my writing and my blog, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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Monday, 19 July 2021

Review: John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews (2021) – Part of the John Eyre Virtual Book Tour

I’m something of a Bronte fanatic. After all, my own debut novel (Bronte’s Mistress) was inspired by a real-life scandal that rocked literature’s most famous family. So I was delighted to be asked to participate in the virtual book tour for John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews’s new Bronte-inspired Gothic romance. As part of the tour, 35 online influencers specializing in historical fiction, Gothic romance, and paranormal fiction are celebrating the release with interviews, spotlights, exclusive excerpts, and reviews. 

John Eyre is (as you might have guessed from its title!) a gender-swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). John is a tutor working under the employ of a fascinating Mrs. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. The housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax has morphed into a butler, Mr. Fairfax. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the maniac in the attic is a hidden husband, not a secret wife. 

What might be less obvious at first glance though is that this isn’t just a take on one nineteenth-century novel, but two. Bronte’s Jane Eyre meets Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula in this fast-paced read. This is not as outlandish an idea as it might seem at first glance. Author Mimi Matthews details in her Author’s Note several passages in Bronte’s novel that borrow from vampiric imagery (e.g. [Rochester:] “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart.”). And the Gothic Yorkshire setting lends itself to violent, as well as psychological, horror. 

The structure of Matthews’s novel is more indebted to Dracula than Jane Eyre, as Mrs. Rochester’s letters and journal make up a significant portion of the narrative. While John is definitely our main character, this decision means that Mrs. Rochester is available to us in a way Bronte’s Mr. Rochester never is. Matthews’s Mrs. Rochester is still attractive and magnetic—to John and to readers—but our access to her makes her more human and less dangerous than her masculine namesake. It’s also tricky to entirely reverse the original power dynamic in a nineteenth-century setting. John is Mrs. Rochester’s subordinate by position, wealth, and class. But he is still a man, with all the privileges this entails, and he takes the lead romantically and physically at moments when I would have liked Mrs. Rochester to seize the reins. 

Matthews excels at building atmosphere and in delivering clarity at a line level even while her characters move in a fog of confusion. I delighted in the Gothic creepiness of the Milcote mists, the mute children John tutors (a distorted mirror of Jane Eyre’s talkative Adele), the casement bed (hello, Wuthering Heights!), and the role of laudanum in the plot. Obviously, this isn’t the book for those who prefer their historicals firmly rooted in reality, but if you enjoy paranormal details there are plenty to soak in here. 

One way in which John differs from Jane is in the loss of his religious faith, something which preoccupies Jane for much of the original book. This plays to the interests of modern readers, while also removing the driving force behind Jane’s flight from Thornfield, following her disastrous would-be wedding day—her desire to save her soul and her beloved’s. As a result of this change, the dénouement of the novel is action-packed, and the chapter inspired by Bronte’s most famous scene is soon followed by the climax.

John Eyre doesn’t pretend to be a serious examination of gender dynamics, as Jane Eyre often is, and questions of race are also less prominent than in other Bronte-inspired fiction (this Mr. Rochester still benefitted economically from slave labor, but there is no suggestion that Bertha’s heritage may be non-white).

I’d highly recommend John Eyre to other Bronte fans who are happy to read works that play with the sisters’ worlds. This is a book that is beyond anything else fun—fun to uninitiated readers, but even more fun if you’re familiar with its source material. 

Have you read John Eyre? What did you think of it? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. For updates on my blog, my book, and me, make sure you sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

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Thursday, 8 July 2021

Finola & Friends: All the Episodes in my Instagram Live “Tour” for the Bronte’s Mistress Paperback Release

Last month marked the release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in paperback. In celebration of the occasion, I chatted live to 27 author friends over on Instagram, about all things writing-related! The full episodes are now available at any time over on my IGTV, so check them out at your leisure.

Episode 1: Lindsey Rogers Cook My conversation with Lindsey covered the differences and similarities between journalistic and creative writing.

Episode 2: Molly Greeley Molly and I chatted about Jane Austen, the Brontes, and reading lesbian historicals during Pride Month.

Episode 3: Julie Carrick Dalton Julie taught me about climate crisis fiction.

Episode 4: Molly Gartland My second Molly G spoke to me about writing a novel inspired by a painting and later meeting her muse!

Episode 5: Barbara Conrey Barbara let me know that there’s a town named Intercourse in Pennsylvania…


Episode 6: Greer Macallister Biographical or totally fictional? Greer and I spoke about the latest #histfic trends.

Episode 7: A.H. Kim A.H. Kim and I talked about our (shared) literary agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, and Asian American fiction.

Episode 8: Carrie Callaghan Carrie and I debated just why writers love cats so much. (We’re both fully on board.)

Episode 9: Cate Simon/Catherine Siemann Cate/Catherine and I spoke about the most popular historical sub-genres—historical romance and historical mystery.

Episode 10: Lyn Liao Butler Lyn and I chatted about everything from astrology to #PitchWars.


Episode 11: Sarah Archer Sarah’s background is in screenwriting, so we spoke about writing novels vs. writing for TV.

Episode 12: Rowan Coleman/Bella Ellis Rowan/Bella and I just won’t shut up about the Bronte sisters, of course!

Episode 13: Martha Waters Martha and I talked about romance, librarians, and romances featuring librarians…

Episode 14: Alison Hammer Alison and I both have day jobs in advertising—we drew parallels between our writing and non-writing careers.

Episode 15: Natalie Jenner Jane Austen was up for discussion again, as Natalie and I talked about being inspired by the greats.

Episode 16: Michael Stewart Michael and I share a love of the Brontes AND flagrant trespassing in the name of writing research, something he decided to show, not tell, in the midst of our interview…

Episode 17: Susanne Dunlap My episode with Susanne focused on audio, from music to podcasting.

Episode 18: Ellen Birkett Morris Ellen and I geeked out on writing craft. It was great.

Episode 19: Sarah McCraw Crow Sarah and I spoke about sexism and rejection, but still managed to have a lot of fun!

Episode 20: Lainey Cameron What is women’s fiction anyway? Lainey and I debated this industry term.

Episode 21: Linda Rosen Linda and I talked about querying and large vs. small press publishing.

Episode 22: Elizabeth Blackwell Like A.H. Kim, Elizabeth is another “agency sister.” We spoke about how we signed with our agent, as well as MBTI, and the time she interviewed George R.R. Martin (??).

Episode 23: Janie Chang Janie’s family history is MUCH more interesting than mine, so we talked about finding inspiration in genealogy, as well as cats (again)…

Episode 24: Steph Mullin and Nicole Mabry How do you write with another person?! I have no idea but writing duo Steph and Nicole do. They taught me about the joys and perils of co-writing.

Episode 25: Kris Waldherr What is Gothic fiction?! Kris and I have thoughts.

Episode 26: Amanda Brainerd Amanda and I talked about fax machines, but it was fascinating stuff, I swear.

Episode 27: Eddy Boudel Tan My final guest Eddy talked with me about Book 2, queer protagonists, and travel inspiration.

I’m so grateful to all these writers for taking the time to support my release and share their wisdom. They are an interesting bunch, so watch and listen if you can! If you haven’t read Bronte’s Mistress, consider ordering the paperback, or any other format, from the retailer of your choice. And remember to stay in touch—via Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or by signing up for my monthly email newsletter below.


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Wednesday, 30 June 2021

The Historical Novel Society North America Conference 2021…in Quotes

I attended my first Historical Novel Society North America Conference in Maryland back in 2019 and wrote a detailed review about my experience. In 2021, one published book and one global pandemic later, I attended my second—this time virtually. 

My Zoom set up for the conference

On this occasion, I wasn’t a newbie, who’d just signed her first book deal, but a speaker, appearing on the “Shaking up the Brontes” panel with Michael Stewart, Syrie James, and Rowan Coleman. This time around, attendees jumped between Zoom calls and live streams, rather than racing between conference rooms. And we all posted and pinged, rather than chatting over glasses of wine. But still, one thing remained the same—we were brought together by a love of writing and reading historical fiction, and had access to a wealth of collective knowledge.

For this blog post then, I’m not going to review the conference (there’s little to say except “bravo!” to the beleaguered board and their band of trusty volunteers), or to write exhaustively about every session I attended (attendees have access to all recordings for 90 days so I still plan to listen to panels that I missed). Instead, I’m going to share a series of quotes that stood out and my thoughts on them.


“Disturb me if someone’s bleeding.”

A question that authors are often asked is how we have time to write, which is why I appreciated this quote from Sarah Woodbury. It’s what she tells her (don’t worry, older!) kids when she sits down at her keyboard. Woodbury shared her successful self-publishing journey, which requires her to be consistently productive.


“The thing that scares you most is what you’re meant to be writing next.”

Sadeqa Johnson received this advice from a friend and it’s stayed with her. At a conference of historical fiction obsessives, it was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who turned to a historical subject (in The Yellow Wife) after first writing contemporary fiction. I liked her advice to make the braver choice when starting to work on your next idea.


“The great advantage of historical fiction is that there is already an established audience of people who are fans of your period.”

Publishing expert Jane Friedman gave this glimmer of marketing hope to the many historical fiction writers desperate to find readers for their books. She encouraged us to seek out the places where fans of our historical setting are already congregating online.


“Do characters have to be like your best friend? I think no.”

Nancy Bilyeau weighed in on character likability—something women characters are more often criticised for. One reason I love historical fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to enter the mind set of people from a different place and time with different values, so I’m in strong agreement with Bilyeau on this one. 


“They may have murdered people, but we like them.” 

Margaret George spoke about the merits of the morally ambiguous heroes we still love to root for (think Butch Cassidy, Robin Hood, or famous pirates). The majority of her examples in this vein were male historical figures, which interested me. Can our male main characters be killers, while female protagonists are expected to be best friend material?

My unimpressed conference buddy


“I don’t see it as my place to condemn.”

Lisa See has written about cultural traditions such as foot binding that might be difficult for modern audiences to understand, and she’s often asked by readers whether she wants us to come to specific conclusions on them. She sees her role as empathetic, rather than didactic, an approach that really resonated with me.


“I am happy to use real people for my own nefarious fictional ends.”

I’m surprised by how often I’m asked whether living descendants of Lydia Robinson have objected to my imagining of her life, so it was entertaining to hear Alex George talk unapologetically about borrowing from reality to make great fiction.


“It’s not a trend. It’s not a fad. It’s the way business should be run.”

This is what Denny S. Bryce had to say about the drive towards telling more diverse stories in historical fiction, and, in particular, the elevation of Black voices. Throughout the conference, she and many other writers and publishing professionals reiterated that inclusion isn’t just a conversation for 2021.


“Am I writing to explain this world to white people? I am not. I am not trying to translate.”

Leslye Penelope spoke about the intended audiences for her historical novels, and how for so long the assumed reader in this genre has been white. I loved the push to think beyond Black stories and characters to consider who we’re writing for and what cultural background we might be assuming.


“If a reader skips the sex scene they should miss part of the plot.”

Jennifer Hallock led a cozy chat on “good sex” in historical fiction. One takeaway? If your sex scenes are skippable, they aren’t doing their job. Good sex scenes aren’t just enjoyable in good fiction—they are vital to your story.


“What lies are people telling about themselves and what do those lies signify?”

I loved this question that Jeanne Mackin asks herself during the research phase. When she sees contradictions between what historical figures wrote about their own lives and other records, she asks herself what these lies and omissions could reveal about their characters.


“I hope that there’s an appetite from publishers and readers for novels about women who are totally unknown.”

One contradiction in the marketplace that was much discussed at the conference was publishing’s purported ambition to tell lesser-known stories from history, while it’s often marquee (i.e. recognisable) names that sell books. Marie Benedict expressed a desire I think many writers in the genre share—for the industry to elevate the stories of the truly unknown.


“You never hear a plumber say, ‘I just didn’t feel like plumbing today’.”

I’m not sure this statement’s entirely true (plumbers are allowed to complain too!), but I like the sentiment behind Erika Mailman’s words. Like her, I agree that writing is a job that takes perseverance, even when the going gets tough and the muse is silent.


Were you at the conference? If so, let me know what your favourite takeaways were—in the comments below, via Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is now available in paperback, as well as hardcover, audiobook, and e-book. To stay in the loop about my books and blog posts, subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 


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Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Writers’ Questions: What’s in a format? Hardcover, paperback, e-book and more.

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, came out in paperback yesterday (!), having been released in hardcover, e-book and audiobook in August 2020. So, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, it felt apt to talk about the different formats books can be published in, and what you need to know about them as an author. Check out the rest of the series for other publishing questions I’ve covered, on everything from finding an agent to formatting dialogue

E-book

A digital book might not be the first format you think of if I ask you to imagine “a book”, but I’m starting with this format for a reason. E-books are the cheapest type of book to produce and, for this reason, they’re a natural first choice for self-published authors as well as, nowadays, always part of the equation for traditionally published authors like me. E-books are accessible for those with eyesight issues and because of their lower price point. They also allow people to start reading right away when they order your book online. For these reasons they are particularly popular in high volume genres (think of readers who race through several romances or mysteries a day), but e-book sales are now crucial no matter what you write and for whom.

Hardcover

Not every book comes out in hardcover, but those that do seem to fall into four main and overlapping categories. 1: Books deemed high brow/elevated/literary by a traditional publisher. 2: Books predicated to sell a lot of copies. 3: Self-published books, where the author wanted to see their book in this format. 4: Books that were paperback for the consumer market but which had a hardcover edition for libraries. In this last instance, this is because hardcover books are more durable than paperbacks, so can withstand the wear and tear of multiple readers. Hardcovers are more expensive to produce than paperbacks and retail at a higher price point. Typically, traditionally published writers receive a slightly higher royalty on hardcovers than paperbacks.

Paperback

The modern publishing industry distinguishes between two types of paperbacks—trade paperbacks, of the kind you find at bookstores, and “mass market” paperbacks. Mass market paperbacks are shorter, fatter books, printed on lower quality paper, which you might pick up at a mass grocery store. Again, not every book will have a mass market paperback edition. These are most common for bestsellers, genres with widespread appeal like romance and thrillers and authors with a huge readership.

Audiobook

We’re in the midst of an audio revolution, and this has affected the fiction business too. Yet, while increasingly popular, audiobooks are expensive to produce (prohibitively so for many self-published writers), and not every traditional publisher will exercise audio rights even if they purchase them. Some established writers have sought to have the audio rights to their backlist returned to them, to self-publish and ride the audio wave. Meanwhile, pay-per-minute vs. credit business models for audio are gaining popularity abroad, demonstrating that the audiobook landscape it still evolving.


So, there you have it. I hope that this quick overview has been helpful for you as you navigate the complex world of publishing. Check out the other posts in my Writers’ Questions series here and get info on my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, (now in all of these formats!), here. You can always contact me on Facebook or Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And you can stay in touch by signing up to my newsletter below.



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Friday, 11 June 2021

Introducing Finola & Friends: An Instagram Live “Tour” for the Bronte’s Mistress Paperback Release

It’s June 2021, which means it’s release month for the paperback edition of my novel, Bronte’s Mistress. If you love historical fiction and/or the Brontes, and are in search of a great beach read for this summer, pre-order your copy now!

In honour of the occasion, I’m doing something a little bit different—an Instagram Live “tour” talking to author friends I’ve made over the last year and a half. It’s my way of thanking them for their kindness and support, and it means I get to tell you about lots of other great books you should read, while celebrating my own release.

The tour kicks off on June 16th. Make sure you follow me on Instagram to be notified when I go live!


Here are the authors I’ll be speaking to, in order of the events:

Lindsey Rogers Cook, author of two books about Southern families, How to Bury Your Brother and Learning to Speak Southern.

Molly Greeley, the writer behind two novels inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I reviewed her first novel, The Clergyman’s Wife, on this blog, and blurbed her latest book, The Heiress.

Julie Carrick Dalton, author of Waiting for the Night Song, a novel about friendship and secrets.

Molly Gartland, whose novel, The Girl from the Hermitage, takes us from the siege of Leningrad in 1941 to 21st-century Saint Petersburg.

Barbara Conrey, USA Today bestselling author of Nowhere Near Goodbye, a novel about a mother’s love vs. a doctor’s oath.

Greer Macallister, bestselling historical novelist. Her latest book, The Artic Fury, is about 13 women who join a secret 1850s Arctic expedition, and the sensational murder trial that unfolds when some of them don’t come back.

A.H. Kim, author of A Good Family, a novel that fans of Orange is the New Black should check out.

Carrie Callaghan, author of two historical novels—A Light of Her Own, inspired by Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster, and Salt the Snow, the story of an American journalist in 1930s Moscow.

Cate Simon, author of historical romance novel Courting Anna, about a woman lawyer in 1880s Montana Territory and an outlaw who crosses her path.


Lyn Liao Butler, author of The Tiger Mom’s Tale, a novel about a woman returning to Taiwan to confront the scars of her past.

Sarah Archer, romance novelist. Her novel, The Plus One, tells the story of a robotics engineer who builds a boyfriend to have a date to her sister’s wedding.

Rowan Coleman, aka Bella Ellis, author of the Bronte Sisters Mysteries series. Check out my review of The Vanished Bride, her first novel starring the Bronte sisters as sleuths, here.

Martha Waters, writer behind Regency romantic comedy novels To Have and To Hoax and To Love and To Loathe

Alison Hammer, writer of upmarket women’s fiction. Her novels You and Me and Us and Little Pieces of Me both focus on family relationships.

Natalie Jenner, author of international bestseller The Jane Austen Society. Read my write up of the novel here.

Michael Stewart, another Bronte-inspired novelist. I reviewed his novel, Ill Will, about Heathcliff’s “lost years” in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights here.

Susanne Dunlap, author of 10 historical novels. Her latest, The Paris Affair, is a tale of music, mystery, love, and murder in pre-revolutionary France.

Ellen Birkett Morris, author of Lost Girls, a short story collection exploring the experiences of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future and say goodbye to the past.


Sarah McCraw Crow, author of The Wrong Kind of Woman, which transports us back to the 1970s and explores what a woman can be when what she should be is no longer an option.

Lainey Cameron, award-winning author of Amazon bestseller The Exit Strategy, a novel about sexism and the power of female friendship in Silicon Valley.

Linda Rosen, writer behind The Disharmony of Silence and Sisters of the Vine, both great book club picks about women reinventing themselves despite the obstacles in their way.

Elizabeth Blackwell, bestselling writer of four novels. Her latest, Red Mistress, tells the story of a woman who breaks with her past to become a Soviet spy in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

Janie Chang, bestselling writer of historical fiction with a personal connection. Her latest novel, The Library of Legends, explores China’s recent past and is an evocative tale of love, sacrifice, and the extraordinary power of storytelling.

Nicole Mabry and Steph Mullin, a writing duo whose thriller The Family Tree, will be published later in 2021.

Kris Waldherr, author of 19th-century set Gothic historical The Lost History of Dreams, which I reviewed here.

Amanda Brainerd, author of The Age of Consent, literary fiction set in 1980s New York City, where David Bowie reigns supreme. 

Eddy Boudel Tan, award-winning author of the novels After Elias and The Rebellious Tide.


Thank you so much to all the writers who’ve agreed to be part of this, and to everyone who orders a copy of the Bronte's Mistress paperback. It means so much. Stay in touch—via Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter below.


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Friday, 28 May 2021

March/April 2021 Articles about Bronte’s Mistress

It’s now under a month until the release of the Bronte’s Mistress paperback! And I’m continuing my roundup of press, with a post covering articles about the novel that were published in March and April this year.

Fellow historical novelist, Asha Lemmie, who I did an event with in September last year, recommended Bronte’s Mistress to Good Morning America fans, in a piece about Women’s History Month. Check out her other picks, along with Fiona Davis’s here.

Nicholas E. Barron republished our 2020 interview on Medium. He asked me questions about Oxford, research surprises, Lydia’s relationship with her daughters, and more. And Bronte’s Mistress got a shout out in another Medium article on how adults can embrace “Back to School” rituals to make first days more bearable. 

I spoke to A Sweat Life about how people can reach their reading goals. The Bear View gave Bronte’s Mistress a great review

Meanwhile Sharon Van Meter included my novel in a list of the best books that illuminate lesser-known historical events for Off The Shelf. Bringing us full circle, Asha Lemmie’s Fifty Words for Rain was also featured in the same article!

I’m getting busy again with events, giveaways and more planned for the Bronte’s Mistress paperback release. But if you’d like me to talk to your book club or interview me for your blog, get in touch—via Facebook or Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. For monthly updates from me on my books, blog and other writing, sign up to my email newsletter below.

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Thursday, 20 May 2021

Writers’ Questions: Adult, YA, Middle Grade and More—Who Am I Writing For?

There was nothing I hated more as a child than feeling embarrassed, but I’ll share one of those youthful humiliations with you today. 

When I was eight or nine, a grown-up family friend asked me what I was reading, listing off books written for children. I answered, with all the pretension I could muster, that I “preferred to read adult books.” I was met by guffaws, though I didn’t understand why. Later that day my mother explained that “adult books” might be taken to mean erotica.  

Now I look back at this incident and wish I could tell my younger self that technically she was right—while adult bookstores may be purveyors of X-rated reading material, in the publishing industry, Adult is the categorisation given to all books aimed at an 18+ readership.

Today, I’m an author of historical fiction for adults, but this memory isn’t the only confusion I’ve encountered when it comes to publishing’s age categories. Beginner writers are often unsure about the industry’s distinctions and what it is they themselves are writing. So, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m diving into the topic, with the large caveat that I myself do not write for children.

So let’s get into it. The age categorisations you’re most likely to encounter in fiction are Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Chapter Books, and Picture Books. 

Picture Books are those read to children or read by them in the early stages of their literacy journey. Chapter Books are for the more advanced child reader and are long enough to be broken into chapters. Middle Grade books usually star a pre-teen protagonist and are similar in length to a novella for adults. Young Adult novels can be similar in length to Adult novels, but deal with teen characters, dilemmas, and themes. Adult fiction we’ve already covered.

This all sounds straightforward, but writers can still run into difficulties. Below are a few questions you should consider if trying to identify where your novel or novel idea might fit in the marketplace.

What age is your main character?

This seems easy, right? Writing middle grade? Make your protagonist 10. Writing YA? Your heroine is 16. But, while books for children almost always have child protagonists, Adult books could have a child protagonist too. 

Consider The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne, or Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. The first is a novel dealing with the Holocaust that has a small boy as its tragic lead. The second is a bildungsroman, which follows David from childhood into his adult years. Neither is meant for children.

What length is your manuscript?

Yes, there are exceptions. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is much longer than the typical middle grade novel. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is sometimes referred to as a novel for adults, but really it’s novella length. 

But exceptions are not the rule, and, if you’re aiming to have a debut novel published, it’s best to stick to the guidelines. There are plenty of other reference posts about this online, but basically: Picture Book – 50-1,000 words; Chapter Books – 4,000-15,000 words; Middle Grade – 20,000-40,000 words; Young Adult – 40,000-80,000 words (maybe longer for genres with heavy world building); Adult – 70,000+ words.

Is your book suitable for children?

I don’t just mean, “Does your manuscript include hot-button topics like sex?” (generally, not a topic prior to YA and not graphic even in YA). But is your book about topics that children will care about? Also consider the lesson your novel might be imparting. The younger the reader, the more didactic fiction tends to be, as we use books as tools to teach our kids how to navigate the world. 

What books would you compare yours to?

Identifying comparative titles could help you distinguish your age category, but make sure you’re looking at books published within the last few years! Children’s literature has shifted massively from the nineteenth century until today, and, while you may still feel inspired by classic children’s books, they won’t be your best reference point for saleability.


I hope these questions have been helpful in working out what you’re writing or writing next! Which topics would you like to see me cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which is very much for adults, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now, and the paperback will be released next month! For updates on this, my writing advice and more, sign up to my email newsletter below. 

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Saturday, 8 May 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd (2014)

In my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I review novels set in the nineteenth-century, but written in the twenty-first. This week, it’s the turn of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 novel, The Invention of Wings.

The book tells the story of Sarah Grimké, based on a real abolitionist from Charleston, and Handful, a fictional character born into slavery in the Grimkés’ household. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah’s parents “gift” her the ten-year-old Handful. Already disgusted by slavery, Sarah tries to reject her “present”, marking the start of a long and complex relationship between the enslaved Handful and her reluctant “mistress”.

Handful is a compelling character and her relationship with her mother, Charlotte, was my favourite part of the novel. Charlotte, a skilled seamstress, creates story quilts telling the history of her life and those of her African ancestors and repeats fables to Handful passed down by her own mother—among them the idea that they once had wings. Handful, despite her captivity and the horrific experiences she goes through, is active in her own story. She’s more decisive than Sarah and I found myself looking forward to returning to her point of view.

Sarah, as a child, is a driven character too, longing to become a lawyer and certain in her opinions. But she spends much of the novel knocked back and unsure how to act. For me, her eventual triumph, as she and her sister tour the North lecturing in support of abolition, was a little rushed. I would have liked to see more of her coming into her own. I also wondered about her struggles with her cultural inheritance. While I know there were those born into white, slave owning families, who abhorred the “institution”, it was harder to believe that Sarah wouldn’t have internalised any of the racism around her.

Kidd’s prose is beautiful and her research shines in all the best ways as she tackles a terrible period of American history. As a writer of historical fiction, I particularly enjoyed her author’s note detailing the decisions she made and the true stories that inspired her creation of Handful. 

Overall, as with other novels about American slavery I’ve read, like Valerie Martin’s wonderful Property (2003) and Dolen Perkins-Valdez's heartbreaking Wench (2010), The Invention of Wings at times makes for painful reading, but I think fiction like this still plays a powerful role in bringing a human voice to the facts we read about in history books.

Which novel would you like to see me review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Instagram, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook now, and the paperback will be published next month! For monthly updates on my writing and blog, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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Sunday, 25 April 2021

Writers’ Questions: How should I edit my novel?

Ever since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’ve been answering questions about the writing and publication process on my blog. Today, I’m tackling the all-important topic of revision. 

This was a tricky one to write, as, unlike some authors who have a structured editing process (e.g. doing different edits for character, plot, sentence-level etc.), I a) revise a lot as I go, and b) make all of these changes at once. Rather than a step-by-step guide then, think of this blog post as a list of things to watch out for, no matter when and how you choose to do your edits. 

A final disclaimer is that I am a traditionally published writer. This article is assuming that you’re writing a book to submit to literary agents, rather than preparing to self-publish a manuscript. These tips are not designed to replace the need for a professional edit and copy-edit. 

So, let’s get into it. In no particular order, here are just some of the things to watch out for when you’re reading your novel with fresh eyes.

Inconsistent details

Does your character have blue eyes in Chapter Four, but brown eyes by Chapter Seven? Is the sunset visible from the same window where your cast watched the sunrise just hours before? Sure, maybe only a few readers will pick up on these errors, but for those who do, this kind of sloppiness will negatively impact their immersion in your world. You know your book better than anyone (after all, you wrote it!), so get the details right. 

Confused time/date/weather markers

I understand: things change as you write a novel, and sometimes the markers in your prose of how time is passing suffer as a result. Read your manuscript through this lens to see if you’re giving your readers enough info to understand where they are in time…and not inadvertently turning back the clocks or creating a crazy climate.

Point of view violations

I’ve written a whole blog post in this series on what point of view is and how important getting it right is to the success of a novel. In short, readers need to understand whose viewpoint we’re experiencing your story from, or, to borrow an analogy from filmmaking, where the camera is placed. Look for moments big and small where you’ve included information your point of view character couldn’t possibly know and cull them mercilessly. While you’re at it, also check you’re not employing filter words and distancing us from your chosen perspective.

Repeated words

Every writer has favourite words, but each time you inadvertently repeat one, it loses its power. Be aware of your writing habits and switch up your vocabulary where you can. Listening to your novel via text-to-speech applications can be particularly helpful here. That said, there is also a time and place for repetition. Check our this post I wrote eight years ago on how Charles Dickens employs repetition to great effect in one of his short stories.

Adverbs

This is another topic I’ve written about before, so you can read a full explanation here. TL/DR: adverbs are often a symptom of too much telling and not enough showing.

Telling

This leads us to telling in its many other forms. The most egregious to my mind is naming emotions to explain to readers how your character is feeling. Can you show us instead, through actions, body language, and dialogue? I’ve previously shared more thoughts on showing vs. telling here.

Lack of rhythmic variety

Having too many sentences in a row with the same number of words, words of the same number of syllables, repeated words beginning or ending the sentence, or identical sentence structures is the quickest way to put your readers to sleep, regardless of your book’s content. This is another area where listening to your work when editing is a godsend. Mix it up! 

Excessive use of passive voice

Like rhythmic monotony, constant use of the passive vs. active voice acts as a soporific, while also robbing your characters of agency. I’ve written a detailed blog post if you want to get better at spotting and eradicating unnecessary passive (hot tip: if you can add “by zombies” to a clause, you’re using passive!).

Anachronism

As a historical novelist, I have to be eagle-eyed to ensure I’m not ruining the illusion of transporting my readers to the past. Part of this for me is spending a lot of time while editing looking at etymology and date of first usage for words to maintain historical accuracy even at a sentence level.

Incorrect formatting

There’s a standard way to format a novel manuscript and its constituent parts (e.g. dialogue). Learn the best practices and employ them in your edit, even if your first draft was written by hand or in a non-standard format that works for you.

Spelling and grammar errors

Oh yes, and you have to have perfect spelling and grammar too! Don’t just think “the copyeditor will fix this later.” It’s on you to make your novel as great as you can—alone.


So, there you have it—an incomplete list of ways to get started if you’re tackling an edit! It’s a lot of hard work, but just know that with every change you execute, you’re making your book more powerful.

What topic would you like to see me write about next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel Bronte’s Mistress is available for order now, and for monthly updates from me delivered direct to your inbox, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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Sunday, 18 April 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Deception by Gaslight, Kate Belli (2020)

Kate Belli takes us back to 1880s New York in the first instalment of her Gilded Gotham mystery series. Reporter Genevieve Stewart, a jilted bride born into an eccentric family in Mrs Astor’s 400, is on the hunt for “Robin Hood”, a jewel thief targeting the rich, but burglary isn’t the only crime afoot. Genevieve joins forces with Daniel McCaffrey, a wealthy and handsome man with a shrouded past (and questionable taste in waistcoats), but can she trust him? And how many people will die before she uncovers the truth?

I very much enjoyed the New York setting of this well-paced mystery, from the lavish parties of the upper crust to the dirty allies of the Five Points neighbourhood. I also appreciated that the investigation moves forward without tedious interrogations and our “detectives” asking the same questions again and again (my issue with many procedurals).

Genevieve is a capable and likeable character. She’s in her mid-twenties, independent, and proactive. She also has two living parents, brothers, and supportive friendships—a rarity among protagonists! There are moments of damsel-in-distress drama, but Genevieve is largely able to save herself. The romance is well drawn and doesn’t overwhelm the story, which remains focused on unmasking the bad actors at work in the city’s ballrooms, backstreets and institutions. 

All in, this is a fun read. Don’t expect a gritty, realistic look at life in gilded age New York—this isn’t what this novel offers. But if you love whodunnits, lively plots, and great costume parties, consider adding Deception by Gaslight to your summer reading list.

Which twenty-first-century-published, nineteenth-century-set novel would you like me to read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know, here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Don’t forget that my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is out now! And for monthly updates on my blog posts and writing, sign up for my email newsletter below. 

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Monday, 12 April 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Melnitz, Charles Lewinsky (2006), trans. Shaun Whiteside (2015)

I’m cheating a little with this one. My Neo-Victorian Voices series typically covers books written in the twenty-first century, and set in the nineteenth. Charles Lewisnky’s Melnitz, first published in German in 2006, starts in the 1870s, but covers the fortunes of the Swiss Jewish Meijer family until the Second World War. Still, I couldn’t not tell you about this wonderful novel!

I love a good multigenerational family saga (Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing (2020) and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017) were recent favourites). But it can be hard to connect with so many characters across multiple generations. Lewinsky does a great job of characterising his cast with a few deft brushstrokes, painting them as individuals forced to make painfully human choices amidst shifting political tides and the ever-lurking threat of anti-Semitism. 

To read this novel is to live with the burden of history. We know what will happen next as the Meijers cannot. Where to live? Under which nationality? And with whom? These are life or death decisions. The drama of Melnitz isn’t comprised of twists we don’t see coming. As readers, we’re watching a train thundering towards the family, and unable to tell them to get off the tracks. 

I loved the broad definition of family the novel embraces. Not all of the characters are linked by blood or marriage, or even religion—the Christian baptism of one character is a momentous event in the course of the novel. But a shared cultural inheritance, stories, and memories, as well as the experience of being othered within Switzerland and beyond, bind those we follow together. 

Some of the standout moments for me included the depiction of Arthur’s sexuality, the evolution of the relationship between stepsisters Chanele and Mimi, and the sort-of friendship between Hillel and his Frontist classmate at the agricultural college. 

Coming to this novel, I knew little about the lives of Jewish people in Switzerland in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, depictions of the country in the WWII period often focus on Switzerland as a dream destination, the symbol of freedom and safety, appearing through the Alps. I’m so happy I read this book and will be recommending it to anyone who’ll listen. If you enjoy novels filled with humour and pathos, which bring to life histories you haven’t heard before, you’ll love this book.

What novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now, and the paperback will be released on June 22nd! Want to stay in touch? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

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