Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Circus of Wonders, Elizabeth Macneal (2021)

Welcome back to my blog and to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, in which I review books set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. Nearly three years ago I blogged about Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel, The Doll Factory (2019). Today, I’m reviewing her second novel, Circus of Wonders, which was published in 2021.

Circus of Wonders tells the story of Nell, a teenage girl covered in birthmarks, who works picking flowers in a small English village in the 1860s. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders comes to town, she, initially unwillingly, leaves her old life behind to become a “wonder” in the troop.

The novel moves between the point of views of Nell, circus owner Jasper Jupiter, and his brother, Toby. And there’s also a cast of secondary, but colorful, characters, many of them “wonders” like Nell. Jasper and Toby share secrets from their time in the Crimean War, which threaten to undo them today, while a key backer of Jupiter’s venture, known as the “jackal,” is in hot pursuit of a return on his investment.

As in The Doll Factory, the setting and subject matter are dark—perfect for fans of moody Victoriana. There’s even a cameo appearance by Queen Victoria herself, who was known to take an interest in human “wonders.” Complex sibling relationships and obsessive romantic attractions are also common themes between the two novels. 

Macneal does a great job building multi-faceted characters and ratcheting up tension. And the denouement of the novel (during a performance at the circus, of course!) is surprising, yet satisfying. My one small quibble was that the revelation of the big secret from the brothers’ time in Crimea was delayed a little too long, straining my belief in their viewpoints.

The Doll Factory and Circus of Wonders feel like they belong to a nineteenth century that’s recognizable and well-researched, yet uniquely Macneal’s own. I look forward to reading what she does next to build out this Gothic universe.

Which historical novel should I review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.


Sunday, 11 September 2022

The Historical Novel Society Conference 2022, Durham, UK: A Review

I should have been a speaker and attendee at the HNS Conference in Durham two years ago, to coincide with the UK release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress. However, a global pandemic led to HNS 2020’s postponement, and so it wasn’t until two years later that we were finally able to gather in one of Northern England’s most charming and historic cities. 

On my way to #HNS2022

In today’s post, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the event, to help those currently on the fence about attending the 2023 HNS US conference, in San Antonio, Texas, or the 2024 HNS UK conference, in Dartington, Devon. 

Maybe you’re asking yourself whether you should prioritize attending the US or the UK conference… Ideally, I’d say try to get to both! But, if that’s not on the cards, hopefully this blog post will help. 

I like to think I’m a neutral party here, as I’m UK-born and raised, but currently live in the US. The UK and US branches of the international organization alternate years for conferences and there are some familiar faces you should expect to see at both. Before heading to Durham this time around, I attended the 2019 US conference in Maryland (see my roundup here) and I also spoke on a panel at the 2021 US virtual conference (check out key quotes from that conference here). 

Books on sale at #HNS2022

The first thing you should know is that the US conference is substantially larger, both for good and bad. There was more content at the Maryland and virtual events, which was great, and there were more attendees too (writers and other publishing professionals), which is good news if you love to mingle, or, alternatively, want to maintain anonymity in a crowd. The UK conference had only ~100 delegates, so over the course of two-three days you start to recognize more people, giving the conference more of the feeling of a class cohort. 

When it comes to location? Sorry, Maryland, but it’s no competition. Even if you didn’t book any of the optional excursions, in Durham you were in the heart of history, walking to the conference under the shadow of the cathedral and castle. While the US organizers do a great job finding American locations with historic links, the Brits simply have more history to choose from, meaning they’ve had some stellar venues over the years. 

Great Hall dining at #HNS2022

If it’s historical immersion you’re looking for though, the Americans are the ones who truly dress the part. There were no costumes to be seen at HNS 2022 in the UK, even at the mediaeval feast at Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle. Meanwhile, in Maryland, we were partying in historic dress on the first night and the last, representing our chosen eras in clothing as well as on the page.

When it comes to comparing costs, the UK conference ticket and accommodation were cheaper, but, of course, a major factor is going to be which conference you need to book transatlantic flights to attend. I often visit the UK to see my family, so, for me, going to Durham wasn’t a big financial decision or a major detour from my regular travel schedule. Whichever side of the pond you’re based on, I’d recommend combining a conference trip with other plans if you’re crossing the Atlantic—take a vacation or research that next book, rather than just jetting in and out. 

In conclusion, HNS may have started in the UK, but the sheer scale of the US organization means that the American conference is hard to beat when it comes to content, networking, industry links, and digital resources (I’m excited to see what a hybrid conference might look like in 2023!). But the UK conference is a gem for UK-based writers, who are seeking UK publication and/or local writer contacts, or for US-based writers with a passion for British culture and history. 

Were you at HNS 2022 too? Then make sure you stay in touch—I’d love to hear from you! Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and sign up for my monthly newsletter for regular updates on what I’m up to, in the US and UK.

Planning to attend HNS 2023 and/or 2024? As of right now, I hope to be there. So please come and say hi. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Review: The Grey Woman, Elizabeth Gaskell (1861)

One of the coolest experiences I’ve had since the release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, was when I was asked to write an introduction to Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) for a beautiful edition from Canadian publisher Plumleaf Press. The book is part of a trio of lesser-read classics by nineteenth-century women writers in the Plumleaf Vintage series, all with introductions penned by women historical novelists publishing today. 

Along with Anne Bronte’s masterpiece, there’s also Lady Susan by Jane Austen (1794), with a foreword by Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society (2020). And—I was surprised and delighted to find—completing the set is an Elizabeth Gaskell short story/novella I hadn’t read previously, The Grey Woman (1861). 

Molly Greeley, whose The Clergyman’s Wife (2019) I’ve reviewed on this blog, is the introduction writer for this slight but impactful Gothic tale. Expect to find many of the tropes of the genre—a frame narrative insisting on the veracity of the story; a strange house, filled with secrets; and a vulnerable young bride, whose husband is not all he seems. 

But this isn’t just a ripping yarn, or a familiar Victorian fable about the dangers of rushing into a marriage that appears too good to be true. Of most interest to me in the text was the friendship between our protagonist, Anne, and her lady’s companion, Amante. There are clear lesbian overtones to their relationship—from Amante’s name to her cross-dressing to (spoiler alert) a section where the two are cohabiting and even coparenting. The biggest disappointment of the piece is the “off-stage” conclusion of Amante’s story, though many readers will conclude what Gaskell only suggests—that Anne turns grey less from fear of her murderous husband than from grief at the loss of her female lover.

If you’re studying Gaskell and gender or looking for nineteenth-century fiction with a LGBTQ+ subtext, The Grey Woman is well-worth adding to your reading list. And for general readers? If you’re laboring under any misconception that Victorians all blushed at the sight of table legs, this novella is an entertaining antidote.

Which lesser-known nineteenth-century novel would you like me to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 15 August 2022

Writers’ Questions: What is a Blog Tour / Virtual Book Tour and How Can It Help Authors?

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to my Writers’ Questions series, where I answer aspiring authors’ questions about the writing and publication process. In the last few months, I’ve tackled several marketing related topics, covering areas like publicity, podcasting, and social media. Today I’m back with a post on blog tours, which can also be referred to as virtual book tours.

When my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, was published in August 2020, my publisher worked with Laurel Ann Nattress to organize a tour (you can check out all the posts here). So, I could think of no one better to help me dive into this topic than Laurel Ann. I hope you enjoy our Q&A, which was conducted via email.

SV: Hello, Laurel Ann, and welcome to the Secret Victorianist! We’ve obviously worked together before, but could you introduce yourself to readers of my blog?

LA: Of course! I’m Laurel Ann Nattress, creator and editor of Austenprose.com, a blog devoted to the oeuvre and influence of my favorite author, Jane Austen. I also run Austenprose PR, a curated online marketing service for authors and publishers. One of the services we specialize in is organizing blog tours or virtual book tours.

SV: So, what is a blog tour? And why might writers want to do one?

LA: A virtual book tour, or a blog tour, is a publicity campaign involving online influencers. The goal is to introduce your book to readers by showcasing it on blogs and social media platforms. The tour has a set timeline, usually one to three weeks, and is scheduled closely before and after the book’s launch date. Each day on the tour includes either a spotlight, excerpt, interview, article, or a review of your book hosted by an influencer. Virtual book tours are a great way to increase exposure, generate reviews, grow your readership, and build your author brand.

SV: How did you get involved in the virtual book tour business?

LA: I am lifelong reader who, on a whim, started Austenprose.com 14 years ago. I reviewed many historical novels for the site and so built great relationships with authors, publishers, and fellow bloggers. I was offered the opportunity to edit Jane Austen Made Me Do It, a short story anthology published by Ballantine Books, in 2011. While promoting my own book, I learned all about the power of online book publicity. In 2014, I decided to turn my knowledge, experience, and connections into Austenprose PR, offering curated online marketing services to authors and publishers to help them connect with their readers.   

SV: What is the biggest misconception that authors or publishers have about virtual book tours/blog tours?

LA: Definitely that a blog tour is too much work. I recently had an author tell me she didn’t have “time to go on tour,” but the great thing about virtual vs. real life book tours is that they are much less time consuming and can be entirely tailored to the writer’s and publisher’s needs. If an author wants to write several articles or participate in interviews on blogs to expand their authority, that’s great. But if not, that works too. Many of the tours I curate do not involve author contributions. Instead, they let their book speak for them. Writers that I’ve worked with have found virtual tours to be stress-free during a period when there are many demands being made on their time.

SV: Are there any other big myths out there?

LA: Another one that I’ve heard is that blog tours are “too expensive,” especially for writers who are paying for their own marketing. This doesn’t just mean self-published writers—when I started curating virtual book tours eight years ago, most of my clients were publishers. Gradually that has shifted to include more authors taking the initiative to ensure that their book has an online presence during its launch. 

Yes, there are companies out there which boast lists of thousands of influencers, and these can charge you a lot. It always pays to be careful and to do your research by speaking with authors who’ve used their services. But virtual book tours can also be affordable for many. They are typically priced by number of stops and can set you back between $200 and $1,250.

SV: While they’re doing this research, what should writers or publishers be looking out for? What criteria should they use when choosing a company to work with?

LA: Finding the right tour company for your book is key to the success of the tour, and the quality of their influencers is paramount. Below are a few areas to ask questions about to help you find the perfect match.

Genre: Does the tour company handle authors with books in your genre? And do they also pitch to influencers on the perimeter of your genre to expand your readership? 

Posts: Do their influencers include a combination of the following with their posts: an introduction, a book description, advance praise quotes, a detailed and honest review, an author bio with online links, an image of the cover, and purchase links?

Sites: How frequently do their influencers publish new posts? Who is their readership, and how many visitors do they receive a year? Do their readers engagement on their site, e.g., with comments and likes? 

Social media: Do their influencers have a social media presence, or are they top reviewers on Goodreads or Amazon? Will they be sharing their reviews/posts via social?

SV: I’m going to ask the question that’s probably top of every writer’s mind—do virtual book tours work? As in, do they really help authors sell more books?

LA: Virtual book tours “work” when used in a smart way in conjunction with a marketing and publicity campaign. They are one cog in a wheel that generates engagement, goodwill, and book reviews—the life blood of the publishing business. If no one is talking about your book, recommending it to their friends and followers, or writing reviews, it cannot reach its potential readership.

Adding a virtual book tour to your marketing efforts ensures that your book is featured on prominent book blogs and on social media. With a curated book tour, the odds of reaching your target audience are 100%. Every influencer is hand-picked by the tour director to match your book to the reader/reviewer. This results in a more positive outcome for everyone.   

When prospective buyers search online for your title or name, they will find several hits to explore from the tour participants featuring your book. That information is searchable and archived for as long as the blog is online. 

Many of the influencers will also cross-post their reviews on retail sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads, and share with their followers on social media at no additional cost to you. Publishers love the buzz that blog tours generate, with your book being reviewed and promoted by top influencers every day for several weeks. The exposure builds reader confidence in your book and your author brand, which in turn drives sales.

SV: What’s a big no when it comes to blog tours? Are there any pitfalls writers should avoid?

LA: Blog tours shouldn’t be duplicating content, so book tour companies that send the same article, interview, or an excerpt from your book to all tour participants are doing you a big disservice. First, readers notice it and just move on, leaving a negative impression regarding the book and the author. Second, search engines reward unique content by ranking it higher in keyword search results and send those who repeat content to spam jail by lowering their page ranking. Duplicate content equals search engine disaster. 

SV: Thank you so much for all of this, Laurel Ann! Finally, what's an example of a recent virtual book tour you worked on that you think was great and why?

LA: This is a hard question, since I’ve had many great authors and books on tour this year. However, the tour for Bloomsbury Girls, by Natalie Jenner, published by St Martin’s Press in May 2022, was exceptional. This was the second novel that I have worked on with Natalie after her international bestseller, The Jane Austen Society. [Note from SV: check out my review of The Jane Austen Society here!] The tour was a big success. The 75+ influencers were so thrilled to read Bloomsbury Girls and the reviews by a wide variety of historical fiction, women’s fiction, to general fiction readers were amazing. I was so pleased to be able to expand her readership outside the historical fiction genre. It is the greatest challenge to a publicist and takes creativity and persistence. If any of your blog followers haven’t read Bloomsbury Girls yet, I highly recommend it.

Thanks again to Laurel Ann for a great Q&A. Which topics would you like me to cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 28 July 2022

Review: ALICE by MOMIX, Joyce Theater, New York City

How, just how, has it been nine years since I last reviewed an experimental production based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) for this blog? Well, the world’s second most translated novel is always inspiring new artistic treatments, and last week I was lucky enough to watch ALICE, the MOMIX dance company’s take on the classic tale, at the Joyce Theater in NYC.

Founded and directed by Moses Pendleton, MOMIX is known for innovative choreography and illusions using the human form, and the original Alice story is full of incidents and moments that lend themselves to this surrealist treatment. The show doesn’t really have a narrative. Instead, we move through a series of dances encapsulated different parts of Carroll’s book. Below I describe a few of my favorites…

A Summer Day: The set displays an idyllic English landscape. A girl in a white dress reads a book titled ALICE, after turning it upside down. She’s sitting on one end of a ladder on wires. The other is manipulated by a bowtied man. Sometimes she soars high; sometimes she comes gliding down. The book falls. Her feet graze the floor. Are the pair playing on a seesaw, dancing a duet, or bicycling together through midair? It’s a bright and playful start to the show, but by the time this first dance ends we already feel twisted around, like we’ve tumbled down a rabbit hole, headfirst.

The Tweedles: Four muscular bodies clothed only in nude underwear. The dancers’ faces? Hidden. The dancers wear giant cardboard cutouts of babies’ faces, which look bizarre and alien at this scale. The two pairs of “twins” gyrate, their movements synchronized. How can something so symmetrical feel so disturbing?

The Lobster Quadrille: Women in giant red and black hoop skirts prance around the stage, while a song plays. Carroll’s lyrics are repetitive and haunting (“will you, won’t you join the dance?”). The dancers’ boned skirts becomes their exoskeletons, which they manipulate into different shapes. The women aren’t women at all, but ballroom crustaceans. Soon their heads are swallowed by their costumes, leaving them looking like a series of huge, inhuman, and still dancing claws.

Cracked Mirrors: Another series of “duets” but now the performers are dancing with their own reflections, holding up large looking glasses as they move. At some angles the men in the mirrors appear to be totally different performers. At some moments, we lose sight of limbs. Bodies seem to be fractured here, just like any sense of self we had when we entered this strange world, where people don’t just grow or shrink, but multiply.

What show would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Monday, 18 July 2022

Writers’ Questions: Book Publicity vs. Marketing—What’s the Difference?

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to my Writers’ Questions series, in which I’ve been answering your burning questions about the writing and publishing process. In the last blog post in this series, I covered how to get your book featured on podcasts. This time I’m back with another marketing-related topic.

So, you’ve got a traditional book deal or you’re pursuing self-publishing, and now you’re hearing about both “Marketing” and “Publicity”. Maybe you’ve been introduced to both a publicist and a marketing person at your publisher, and you’ve been left scratching your head and wondering what’s the difference?

When it comes to promoting a book, or any product really, it’s all about attracting consumer attention—and attention can be either bought or earned. Therefore, simply put, your marketing person will be dealing with paid advertising and other paid opportunities, while your publicist focuses on earned media and promotion. 

Let’s break this down with some examples.

Getting you featured as a guest on a podcast? That’s the realm of Publicity. But promoting your book in an ad, which plays midway through a podcast? That’s Marketing.

Sending your book to reviewers at top publications? Publicity. Buying you space on a billboard in Times Square? Marketing. 

What about social media and influencers? There may be differences in how publishers divide responsibilities here, but it’s likely that organic posting and gifting copies of books to major Bookstragrammers falls to Publicity, while paid social media ads and sponsored influencer posts come out of Marketing budgets and are managed by that team.

So why does any of this matter?

If you’re working with a big publisher knowing this distinction can help you address your questions, thoughts, and ideas to the right person, though there’s no need to be embarrassed if they occasionally have to redirect you! 

And if you’re working with a small press or going it alone via the self-publishing route, you can better manage your own budget and plan more easily if you start to identify which opportunities are paid (marketing) and which are free (publicity). 

What question would you like to see me answer next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Thursday, 16 June 2022

A Nineteenth-Century Ballet Reimagined: Akram Khan’s Giselle, Brooklyn Academy of Music

I’ve written about ballet through a Victorianist’s lens quite a few times over the course of the last nine years on this blog, but, thanks partly to the pandemic, it’s been a while since I was able to review a live performance. I blogged about Coppelia and Anna Karenina in 2018, Le Corsair and The (ever-popular) Nutcracker in 2016, and Jane Eyre back in 2013. This time I’m back to talk about one of the greatest nineteenth-century ballets—Giselle—having just seen a very different production.

Giselle, with music by Adolphe Adam and a story by librettists Theophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, was first performed in 1841 in Paris, starring ballerina Carlotta Grisi in the title role. The ballet is in two acts—the first tells the story of the peasant girl Giselle’s betrayal by her lover, Albrecht (a nobleman in disguise), and her subsequent death; the second reanimates Giselle as she joins a host of wilis (spirits seeking revenge against the men who wronged them). 

I’ve seen traditional Giselles several times (most recently, the ABT’s production was my first live theater experience post-Covid lockdowns in October 2021). But last week I was lucky enough to watch Akram Khan’s innovative version by the English National Ballet. This production premiered in the UK in 2016, but the short run at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) marked its first performance in New York City. I saw the Saturday matinee, with Erina Takahashi as the lead. 

Gone is the pastoral setting of the traditional first act, with Giselle and her peasant girl friends skipping outside cottages and responding to the hunter’s bugle call. The production instead invites us into a stark and industrial setting. The nobles here are the “landlords” and the peasants “outcasts” who work in the condemned factory. Dressed in gray rags, Giselle and her community flit around stage, their movements often synchronized, to percussive music from Vincenzo Lamagna.

Ballet fans will recognize strains of the original score coming in and the basics of the storyline remain the same, but the contrast between two acts is dampened—this is a Giselle that’s dark throughout. I enjoyed this tonal shift from the original: Act II of the ballet is often considered stronger and was often performed alone even in the 1800s. But audiences may find themselves asking if Giselle’s death is so terrible given the miserable, dystopian existence she experienced before. 

I was pleased however that the bleakness is heightened by genuine spookiness in Act II, thanks in part to a wonderful performance by Isabelle Brouwers as Myrtha, the queen of the wilis. The production uses pointe work (largely absent from Act I) to convey the ghosts’ ethereal movements to great effect. So far, so traditional, but these spirits also brandish large sticks as weapons, bringing martial arts style choreography to the all-female corps de ballet on their tiptoes. This sticks are also used to act as physical barriers between the living and the dead, leading to an ending I found genuinely emotional, as Giselle forgives Albrecht and returns, divided from him, to her grave.

There are plenty of clips of the production online, but, if you can, do try to see this ballet live—it’s a theatrical experience I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Do you know of any upcoming NYC shows you’d love the Secret Victorianist to review? Let me know—here, on Facebook, via Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Writers’ Questions: How Do I Promote My Book On Podcasts?

Hi again, everyone! In my Writers’ Questions series, I’ve been spilling the beans about different aspects of the writing and publishing process. Today it’s time for another marketing focused post (in the past I’ve written about social media presence and the best writing hashtags), as I tackle the topic of guest appearing on podcasts.

Following the publication of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I appeared on 10-20 podcasts, including being a guest on The History of Literature, Bonnets at Dawn, New Books in Historical Fiction, The Manuscript Academy, The Avid Reader Show, DIYMFA, It’s Just Historical, Bookreporter, History Through Fiction, Story Behind the Story, and more. But how did I secure these fun marketing opportunities? In this post, I share my approach.


I said yes to everything. In the vast majority of cases I proactively sought out the podcasts I appeared on, but one podcast came to me via my publishing house, and occasionally doing another piece of promotion with someone, e.g. a virtual event, led to a follow up invitation to guest star on a podcast episode too. No matter how big or small the gig, in those vital months after my book’s release, I always said yes. 

I targeted small podcasts as well as large. Maybe there’s a dream podcast relevant to your genre you’d love to guest star on. And that’s great. But we’ve all got to start somewhere, and that’s true for podcasters, as well as authors. I messaged the hosts of podcasts that were nascent, as well as established, so we could build our brands together.

I listened before emailing. I never cold emailed/messaged a host without having listened to at least one episode of their podcast. That way I could a) say with confidence that my book and voice would fit their show, and b) give genuine compliments about their content.

I was a copycat. Maybe comp titles were part of your query letter or submission package? Well, there’s a role for here too. Google the authors of books similar to yours to see what podcasts they appeared on and follow in their footsteps. You can even be honest about this when contacting hosts: “I listened to your conversation with author X. My book Y is similar to X’s book Z in this way, that way, and this other way, so I wondered if you’d be interested in having me on your podcast.”

I targeted different audiences. I approached podcasts with a focus on the Brontes, the Victorian period, literary history, historical fiction, writing craft, and publishing. And, importantly, I tailored my pitch based on the focus of the podcast I was targeting. I had different key messages when talking to readers vs. writers too, which helped keep my conversation varied enough across podcasts.

I passed the baton. I always asked podcast hosts, after recording, if I could pass on their info to other writers. I also shared the opportunities I came across liberally. Karma can be instant in the publishing business, and it always pays to spread goodwill.

I took rejection well. While I had a pretty good hit rate when it came to cold pitching podcasters (way higher than with traditional media outlets!), we all receive rejections. Whenever I received a no (e.g. because a podcast was booked for the year or was choosing to focus on BIPOC authors in 2020), I was gracious and thanked podcasters for their time and response. It pays to be nice and this sets me up for more success in the future.

What aspect of the publishing/writing business would you like me to cover next in my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.


Saturday, 30 April 2022

Writers’ Questions: How Do I Read Like a Writer?

If you’re an aspiring author who’s read any writerly advice online, you’ve probably come across the adage that good writers should read…a lot. But what are the key differences when reading as a writer rather than as a regular reader? Today, in the latest blog post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m giving you some pointers for getting the maximum value out of your reading time.

Read in the Genre You’re Writing In

Inputs (i.e. your reading material) will impact outputs (i.e. your writing), so read deeply in the genre(s) you’re hoping to the publish in. While you don’t need to exclusively read the sort of material you want to write, picking books of the same genre and age category, published in the last few (~5) years, will allow you to a) hone your craft, and b) conduct market research simultaneously. 

Read the Acknowledgments

Books are usually written by one person, but they’re produced by many. The best way to understand this is to read the Acknowledgments section that ends most books published today. This is where you’ll find the name of your favorite writers’ agents and editors, helping you identify the people who might, on day, be your agent and editor too!

Read the Author Bio

There are many different paths to becoming an author. I have a day job in digital marketing and, while I have two degrees, neither is in Creative Writing. Other writers have pursued MFA programs or made a name for themselves writing short stories before publishing a novel. Reading author biographies is a great way to chart the career paths of the writers you admire and hope to emulate.

Note the Publisher and Imprint

Look at the spine or the copyright page of any published book and discover which publisher/imprint published it. Then turn to Google and do some research. This is an easy way to teach yourself about the industry (who publishes what you write?, which imprints are part of the Big Five?, is there a small independent publisher which could be your perfect fit?). 

Support Writer Friends

Are you in a writers’ group with someone who got published? Are you doing a public reading with a group of other authors? Who are you sharing a table with at the convention center? Spread the love and support fellow writers by reading their books (even if they are outside your usual genre). Being there for others will usually be paid back to your tenfold, as those you’ve supported will be much more likely to blurb your book, do an event with you, add reviews to Goodreads, or boost your presence on social media. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.

Read Reviews

Speaking of Goodreads… Maybe you’re a writer who chooses never to read your own reviews. And that’s more than okay, if you find that best for your mental health. But reading other authors’ reviews can be a great way to understand the public’s tastes and comprehend opinions that differ from your own. I love reading one-star reviews of my favorite reads, and, conversely, delving into five-star raves of books which for me were a “meh.”

Analyze What’s (Not) Working

And what about when reading the book itself? The biggest difference when reading as a writer is that, rather than being swept away by the story, you should pause and analyze why you’re responding the way you are. If a scene is exciting, try to figure out how the writer generated a feeling of excitement. If you’re rolling your eyes? Maybe you’re identifying a trope that’s bordering on cliché territory. Some writers might read a book twice—once for fun and again to unpack why it was fun in the first place.


What topics would you like me to cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877): An Analysis

 Glory be to God for dappled things –

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                                Praise him.

It’s been some time since I did a close reading of a nineteenth-century poem on my blog, so today I thought I’d write about “Pied Beauty,” a short and, I think, wonderful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which was written in 1877.

The Argument of the Poem: Hopkins calls on the reader to praise God, who he says created many things in nature that are awe-inspiring for their irregularity, variety, and changeability. These include natural wonders (the sky, which changes color, and chestnuts, which reveal their insides like coals in a fire when they fall and break), animals (cows, trout, finches), and instances of humankind’s impact on the world around us (agriculture, sectioning off the landscape into fields, and other trades, which interact with nature). He closes the poem by contrasting these “dappled things” with God, whose beauty is unchanging and permanent. 

Similarity and Difference: Hopkins uses various literary techniques to meditate on his themes of similarity vs. variety. He employs alliteration (the use of the same starting letter) and internal rhyme, to create a series of pairs throughout the poem (couple-colour; fresh-firecoal; plotted and pierced; fickle, freckled; fathers-forth), giving us a sense of the intelligent design he sees behind the randomness of nature. And he also uses the same technique to pair words with opposite meanings (swift, slow; sweet, sour), which helps downplay their difference and attributes them all to the same higher power. The rhyme scheme of the poem’s lines also plays into this, encouraging us to link the cow to the plough, things to wings, strange to change, and so on. 

Rhetoric: Hopkins was a lover of rhythm, who invented his own schematic for marking emphasis in poetry. And we can see that this is a poem that almost demands to be read aloud. In addition to the repetitions, alliterations, and rhymes mentioned above, the poem starts with a familiar invocation to prayer ("Glory be to God") and ends with one too ("Praise him"). There is also a rhetorical question ("who knows how?") in the middle, which suggests however much we meditate on nature and glorify God, his actions will still remain mysterious. 

Pairing the High with the Low: One thing I love about this poem is how it soars to lofty heights, but then pulls us back to earth, giving us the impression of a poet who is humble and a God for whom all things and creatures matter—great and small. Hopkins compares multicolored sunsets to the hide of a cow. He rhymes his final word, "him," which references God, with the usually not so flattering word “dim.” And he pairs a word that’s strongly associated with beauty, “rose,” with the decided less elegant “moles” to show how he finds beauty in all things. In short, again and again, he delivers on the promise made by the title of the poem—this is about “Pied Beauty,” which doesn’t have to be a contradiction.

What Victorian poem would you like to read me write about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. In the mood for more poetry? Check out my blog posts on Tennyson (“The Lady of Shallot,” “Ulysses,” “The Kraken,” “To Virgil,” and “The Epic”), Swinburne, Longfellow, Barrett Browning, and Mew.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Libertie, Kaitlyn Greenidge (2021)

Most of the twenty-first century written, nineteenth century set novels I’ve read, which are centered on the Black experience in the United States, have focused on the horrors of slavery (see for example, my reviews of Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench, and Valerie Martin’s Property). Freedom was presented as a goal, a dream, and a destination for the characters in many of these books, with little page space given over to what freedom looked like, or even could look like, for African Americans during and after the Civil War. 

As the title of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s 2021 novel, Libertie, suggests, this is a book all about freedom. Our title character is a freeborn, Black girl in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. As a child, she witnesses her mother’s role in the Underground Railroad, smuggling enslaved people to the North in coffins. And as she grows and matures, Libertie grapples more and more with what freedom means to her. Is true liberty possible in a country so divided along race lines? Could real freedom mean starting over in the Black-led nation of Haiti? And can she shake free of the life her mother, a white-passing, Black, woman doctor, planned for her? 

This all sounds very lofty, and the novel does deal with complex history and difficult themes, but at the core of Libertie is this quieter story about the fraught, but loving, relationship between mother and daughter. At times I was frustrated with Libertie’s perspective, especially in her teenage years, but Greenidge’s depictions of the misunderstandings between the protagonist and her mother have a sharply observed psychological realism. Libertie has other important relationships too—with the grieving escapee she sees her mother “raise from the dead” at the book’s opening, with a pair of singing, Black, women college students, who she eventually realizes are romantically linked to each other, and with the Haitian man whom she marries—but it is the mother/daughter bond that makes this a compelling character-driven read.

Those who enjoy the intersection of historical fact and fiction may also want to learn more about the inspiration for the character of Libertie’s mother in the novel—Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, who was the third Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. 

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

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Writers’ Questions: Do I need to be on social media to get published?

Welcome/Welcome back! Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in 2019, I’ve been writing blog posts answering fellow authors’ burning questions about the writing and publication process. 

I’ve touched on the topic of social media before, in my post on the best writing hashtags to follow on Twitter and Instagram, but today I’m back answering one of the questions I’m asked most frequently: is a social media presence necessary in order to get traditionally published? 

The short answer = no. 

If you write fiction, your social media presence will have little to no impact on whether you’re offered a publishing contract, with a couple of important exceptions. If you’re a celebrity or an influencer who’s amassed a huge (I’m talking six figure or higher) following, this bodes well for the marketability of your book and will open doors for you in the industry. And, if you’re writing under your real name and have a penchant for posting highly controversial statements on social media, your online activities may hurt your chances should an editor or agent Google your name. But trust me, these rare scenarios aside, there’s no need to sweat over whether you have 200 or 2000 followers.

Case in point: my acquiring editor only reviewed the biography passage of the Bronte’s Mistress submission package after she’d read and become interested in the manuscript. It didn’t matter that my day job is in social media, that I’d been writing this blog for six years, or that I’d been building my presence on all major platforms. So, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t enjoy digital self-promotion, please know that you’re probably not damaging your hopes of achieving your writerly dreams.

What then is the value of engaging in the writing community online prior to selling your first book? In my view, the biggest benefit social media offers early career writers is the opportunity to learn from published writers/publishing professionals and to connect with each other. This is a low-pressure way to dip your toe into the writing community online. If you don’t know how to get started, you can always check out the writing hashtags I suggested previously. The other benefit, of course, is that when your book does sell, you won’t be building up your online presence from zero, but we’ll save marketing via social for another blog post…

Let me know which questions you’d like to see me answer next in my Writers’ Questions series. You can comment below, contact me on Instagram or Facebook, or tweet me @SVictorianist. Haven’t read Bronte’s Mistress yet? My debut novel is available in hardcover, paperback, e-book and audiobook now!

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Review: Walking the Invisible, Michael Stewart (2021)

I was working at digital media company Refinery29 when I first encountered Michael Stewart. The ARC (advance reader copy) of his 2018 novel, Ill Will, was up for grabs on the freebies table. Mixed in with other books, as well as lipsticks and leggings, sent to our editorial team, Ill Will caught my eye. It was the subtitle which captured my attention: The Untold Story of Heathcliff. Not only was I a Brontëphile, with a Master’s in nineteenth-century literature, but I was also in the midst of writing my own Brontë-inspired novel—the book that would become Brontë’s Mistress (2020). 

By the time I read Stewart’s novel in January 2019 (and reviewed it for this blog of course!), I had an agent, but no book deal. By 2020, my novel was being released in the midst of a global pandemic. One silver lining was that the uptick in virtual book events meant writers could now straddle the Atlantic. Soon, Michael and I were appearing at multiple events together, along with other Brontë-related writers. We helped raise money for the Brontë Parsonage Museum by speaking at the Brontë 2020 conference. We spoke together at the Historical Novel Society North America’s conference too. And in 2021, Michael chatted to me on Instagram Live, while trespassing somewhere in the English countryside. It was very on brand. 

Of course, then (although Michael and I are yet to meet in real life!), I was excited to read his latest (non-fiction) book, Walking the Invisible, which was published last year. Part memoir, part history book, part hiking guide, Walking the Invisible is hard to categorize. It’s a book born out of Stewart’s love of nature and the Brontës, and as much about our century as it is about the nineteenth. He doesn’t shy away from talking about the social challenges and changes facing many of the towns, big and small, the Brontës lived in, and moves between education, political commentary, and personal anecdote seamlessly.

The book makes you want to walk in Stewart’s (and the Brontës’!) footsteps and I can’t wait to visit Yorkshire again with the volume in hand. I especially loved reading about the genesis of the Brontë Stones project—a group of stones with poems honoring the sisters, which walkers can visit in the Thornton/Haworth area—and about the wide range of personalities whom Stewart has encountered due to their voracious love of the Brontës. He doesn’t offer a definitive answer as to why so many of us continue to be fascinated by one of literature’s most famous families, but his book will be a valuable artifact speaking to the early twenty-first-century version of the Brontë Myth (one which owes more to Kate Bush than to academia).

My only (small!) gripe was with Stewart’s reference to Edmund Robinson (husband to Lydia Robinson—the mistress of my novel’s title). He includes an often repeated but false rumor that Lydia Robinson’s husband was old and decrepit, encouraging her to take solace in Branwell Brontë’s arms. In fact, Edmund was a year Lydia’s junior. 

Overall, I highly recommend Walking the Invisible. It would make a great gift for Brontë fans, and I can see this one flying off the shelves at the parsonage bookstore for years to come.

What book(s) would you like to see me review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you haven’t already, check out my novel Brontë’s Mistress, for more Brontë scandal.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

The Siren of Sussex: Belles of London (Book 1), Mimi Matthews (2022)—Part of The Siren of Sussex Virtual Book Tour

Last July, I was happy to be asked to be part of the virtual book tour for Mimi Matthews’s 2021 John Eyre (a gender swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—er, yes please!). And today, I’m back as part of another virtual book tour for a Mimi Matthews book—historical romance, The Siren of Sussex, which was released this month. Mimi, I’m in awe of your writerly productivity!

The Siren of Sussex is a Victorian set romance. Our heroine is Evelyn Maltravers, a young woman more at home on horseback than in a ballroom. But Evelyn knows the way to help her family is to secure a husband during her first season, even if that will be difficult following her older sister’s scandalous disgrace. 

In London, Evelyn’s plot to take society by storm using her skills as an equestrienne brings her to the door of Ahmad Malik, a half Indian, half English tailor, who fashions the most eye-catching riding habits. She doesn’t expect the powerful mutual attraction that blossoms between them or how their goals—finding Evelyn a husband and making Ahmad the most sought after tailor in the city—will make them strategic partners, not just tradesman and client.

As much as I’d enjoyed Matthews’s writing previously, I was a little wary about whether The Siren of Sussex would be a book for me. I read more historical fiction than historical romance and the beautiful cover, featuring a woman on horseback, made me think this novel might be better suited to people who enjoy riding (readers: horses make me sneeze!). However, I was soon swept up in the delightful and engaging story. Evelyn and Ahmad were unusual and likable leads, whose compatibility and chemistry was obvious, and the obstacles facing them, due to differences in race and social station, were difficult to overcome. 

The details about horseback riding weren’t technical or overwhelming and added unexpected elements to the novel, as did Ahmad’s passion for ladies’ fashion and Evelyn’s uncle’s interest in spiritualism. There were also tantalizing hints about the rest of the series to come, with a strong supporting cast of side characters and just enough references to Evelyn’s younger sisters, who all have their own quirks and aspirations!

I’d highly recommend the book to lovers of historical romance and those looking for a feel good read this January, with good historical details and highly readable prose. What’s more, Mimi Matthews is giving readers of my blog a chance to win a copy of The Siren of Sussex! Check out all the details below...

Click here to enter between January 4th and February 7th 2022.

Terms & Conditions

Giveaway hosted by Mimi Matthews. No Purchase Necessary. Entrants must be 18 years or older. Open to US residents only. Void where prohibited.

The Giveaway Package:

1 winner (selected at random by Rafflecopter) receives the following:

  • Signed print copy of The Siren of Sussex
  • Horse scarf
  • Pewter sidesaddle brooch (made in Sussex, England!)
  • The Siren of Sussex tote bag
  • Three candles in scents: Fresh Hay, New Saddle, and Winter Ride
  • Box of Ahmad Tea (60 count, assorted flavors)
  • The Siren of Sussex bookmark

The giveaway is open from 12:01am Pacific time 1/4/22 until 11:59pm Pacific time on 2/7/22.

The winner will be announced on Mimi's blog—mimimatthews.com—at 8:00pm Pacific time on 2/8/22.

Friday, 14 January 2022

2021: My Year in Reading—A Retrospect

Around this time a year ago, I published a retrospect on my 2020 reading. Now I’m back, a year on, with a similar post, looking back on the 60 books (10 more than the year before!) I read in 2021. 

In 2021, I read 45 novels and 15 works of non-fiction. I favored books by women writers, reading 49 books penned by women, 10 by men, and one mixed anthology. Ten of the books I read were by writers of color. And, unsurprisingly for a writer of historical fiction, “hist fic” remained my favorite genre, making up nearly half (26 books) of what I read this year.

Favorites

Just like last year, I’m chickening out and not crowning a favorite read of the year, but in no particular (okay alphabetical) order, here are my top five fiction recommendations:

Milkman, Anna Burns (2018)

An original, lyrical, Booker Prize-winning novel set in Northern Ireland (where I grew up)? Of course, I was going to love this book! Be warned: Milkman isn’t an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one.

The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue (2020)

We’re living through one pandemic, so do we really want to read about another? The answer is yes, but only if that book is Emma Donoghue’s story of the Spanish Flu, set in Dublin in 1918. A gritty insight into a nurse battling on a maternity ward as Europe is ravaged by war and disease, coupled with a queer love story, this novel is a winner for historical fiction fans. 

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

I also read Ishiguro’s newest release, Klara and the Sun (2021), this year. I enjoyed it too, but his 2005 novel of an English boarding school that isn’t quite what it seems wins my vote.

Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

Everyone was raving about this novel about Shakespeare’s wife in 2020. I didn’t get to it until 2021, but believe the hype—this is one beautiful book!

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters (2009)

I love a Gothic ghost story with a stylish historical background and a great twist. Above all, Sarah Waters is a great storyteller—expect to fly through this one. 

Feeling Arty?

One theme I noticed in my reading in 2021, was that I was very drawn to books that deal with other art forms beyond the literary. Here are some recommendations if you’re into…

Visual Arts:

Novels—Leonora in the Morning Light, Michaela Carter (2021); What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt (2002); The Improbability of Love, Hannah Rothschild (2015)

Non-Fiction—Old Mistresses, Rozsika Parker & Griselda Pollock (1982)

Dance:

Novel—The True Memoirs of Little K, Adrienne Sharp (2010)

Non-Fiction—Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans (2010)

Music:

Novels— Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles (2020) (review here); Along the Infinite Sea, Beatriz Williams (2015)

Memoir—Sounds Like Titanic, Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman (2020)

Or Want to Feel Scared?

Another theme was books that deal with the strange, the spooky, and the downright frightening. In addition to The Little Stranger, which I wrote about above, I also read Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Mimi Matthews's gender-swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre with a vampiric twist, John Eyre (2021) (review here), and Ghostly Tales: Spine-Chilling Stories of the Victorian Age (2017), an anthology of nineteenth-century ghost stories. 

For a survey of the horror genre, also check out Stephen King’s non-fiction book, Danse Macabre (1981). As someone who loves both The Sound of Music and horror movies, I couldn’t get behind everything King writes here, but his overview is well worth reading.

Discover Fascinating Lives

Finally, the biographies I read in 2021 are reflective of my interest in lesser spoken about historical figures, who I think led lives worth remembering. 

Join me by taking an interest in…

Denis Diderot, French philosopher, art critic and writer (1713-1784): I read Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, Andrew S. Curran (2019).

Danish father of fairytales, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875): I read Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, Jackie Wullschlager (2001).

French poet Theophile Gautier (1811-1872): I read Joanna Richardson’s 1959 biography, Theophile Gautier—Hist Life and Times.

His daughter, Judith Gautier (1845-1917), a poet, writer, and lover of Chinese culture: I read Joanna Richardson’s 1987 biography, Judith Gautier.

I’ll be back at the end of this year or the start of next with a summary of what I read in 2022. In the meantime, let me know if you have any reading recommendations for me. I’d love to know what books are on your nightstand. If you’re looking for a book to read, check out my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress (2020). And, remember, you can always contact me, here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Happy reading!