Saturday 31 December 2022

2022: My Year in Reading – A Retrospect

Happy New Year! For the last two years, I’ve taken part in the Goodreads Challenge and posted a retrospect on all the books I’ve read to round out the year (check out the 2020 and 2021 editions here). It’s New Year’s Eve today which means it’s time for the 2022 round-up.

As in 2021, I read 60 books in total. To keep myself on track that meant I aimed to read 60 pages a day (sometimes more than matching that goal and sometimes falling behind). I read 47 novels and 13 works of nonfiction, marginally more nonfiction than in the previous two years. Thirty-eight books were by women and 22 by men (again more balanced than in previous years). Just under half of the books (28) were historical fiction, the genre I write in, and 10 books were published this year, meaning I read them when they were hot off the press. 

Favorite Fiction Read

As ever, it’s difficult for me to compare such different books, but some of the best novels I read this year were: Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens (2022), a ghost story about the spirit of a fourteen-year-old girl haunting George Sand and Frederic Chopin during their time in Mallorca; Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), a classic for a reason; Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001), a masterclass in point of view; and The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith (2018), which did a great job weaving together narratives from different centuries.

Favorite Neo-Victorian Voices Read

The book I most enjoyed reading for my Neo-Victorian Voices series of blog posts on books written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth, was Julie Cohen’s Spirited (2020)—check out my review here

Favorite Non-Fiction Read

The non-fiction books I read this year covered a range of topics—from French culture to the Yorkshire countryside; from race relations to witchcraft trials; from Native Americans to Scientology; from a nineteenth-century serial killer to both World Wars, and many more. I most enjoyed The Exit Visa by Sheila Rosenberg (2019) and Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwyne (2010). 

Feeling Fantastic?

One theme I noticed in my reading this year was that I read more books that fall into the Fantasy genre or were historical with a Fantasy twist. Three I’d recommend are Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2021), The Library of Legends by Janie Chang (2020), and A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin (2016). 

Looking Forward to 2023

I’m planning to go a little easier on myself in 2023, aiming for a minimum of 50 books again, as I did in 2020, rather than 60, as in the last two years. After the holidays, I have an impressive stack of new volumes on my TBR begging to be read. However, as always, I’d love your recommendations. Let me know what books you’d like to see me read and review next—I’m always on the lookout for reads with a nineteenth-century connection for this blog so let me know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese (2022)

Welcome back to the Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I review books written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth. Today it’s the turn of Laurie Lico Albanese’s 2022 novel, Hester, which was inspired by one of the great American nineteenth-century novels—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850).

The title of the novel may be Hester, but our protagonist is the fictional Isobel, a young Scottish wife to an opium addict husband who immigrates to Salem, Massachusetts. There she encounters aspiring writer Nat Hathorne (who hasn’t yet altered the spelling of his name) and becomes a model for the character of Hester Prynne in his most famous novel.

Nat and Isobel’s emotional and romantic connection is at the core of the story, but the book isn’t just about Isobel as a muse—she is also an artist. A talented seamstress and embroider, just like Hester, Isobel has synesthesia. She sees letters in color, including, you guessed it, a scarlet “A,” but the condition isn’t one that’s talked about or understood. Isobel fears her ability may be magic passed down to her from an ancestor once accused of being a witch, a concern that dogs her when she learns the history of the 1692-1693 Salem witch trials, and the Hathorne family’s role in them. 

Familiarity with The Scarlet Letter is a plus, but not a prerequisite, for enjoying this historical novel, which errs on the side of realism over high drama. I most enjoyed the point of view of a character with synesthesia, the detailed descriptions of needlework, and the picture built up of nineteenth-century Salem. Short episodes detailing the exploits of Isobel's and Nat’s ancestors provided atmospheric background but didn’t add much to the overall plot. And the secrets harbored by Isobel’s Black neighbors were a little predictable, even though they were a welcome reminder of a broader historical context to the novel.

Overall, I’d recommend the book to lovers of nineteenth-century America settings and those who like their #histfic with just a hint of supernatural spice.

What novels 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 30 November 2022

Writers’ Questions: What IS Historical Fiction?

Hello and welcome back to my Writers’ Questions series, where I answer burning questions you might have about the craft and business of writing. As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve posted previously about some of my favorite and least favorite tropes in the genre, but I’ve never posted about what historical fiction actually is. Think the answer is straightforward? You might be mistaken…

At its simplest being an author of historical fiction means writing stories set in the past. But how far back would you consider “history”? As anyone knows who’s ever been to a thrift store and noticed clothes from a decade you remember being labeled as “vintage” knows, it can be very disorienting to see period you lived through being treated as historical. Yet, at the same time, World War II, one of the most common settings for historical novels being published in the early twenty-first century, is within living memory for some people alive today. 

Because of this, rather than choose an arbitrary number of years’ distance for a book to be labeled as #histfic, I favor Margaret Atwood’s definition: historical fiction is “set in a time before the writer came to consciousness.” That means that if I ever write a novel set in the 1970s, 1980s, or even the super early 1990s, I’d consider my setting historical. If another writer were a teen or adult during those decades and wrote a book drawing on memories as well as research, I wouldn’t consider it to be historical in the same way.

So much for the “historical” part of the name, but what about the word “fiction”? Believe it or not, this can be controversial too, as it’s very common to see real (and really famous!) historical figures showing up in the pages of historical novels. My answer here is much simpler: it doesn’t matter who your characters are; if your novel is set in the past and you’re making things up, it’s historical fiction. 

If your novel is primarily about a real person who lived in the past, you might like to use the label “biographical historical fiction”, and this is valid whether or not your protagonist is a household name like Napoleon or someone lesser known, like Lydia Robinson, the titular character of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Super recognizable historical figures are sometimes referred to as “marquee names” by those in the publishing industry as they are powerful marketing tools, but this term isn’t one that readers are usually familiar with. On the other hand, if a big historical figure just makes a cameo appearance in your book (e.g., you’re writing about London in the 1590s and William Shakespeare wanders into one of your scenes) that’s not enough for the sub-genre to be “biographical”.

Historical fiction is a wide genre bucket, so we see many crossovers with other genres too. Love stories that are set prior to the writer’s consciousness, which follow the romance novel structure, are designated “historical romance”. If your book is about a detective character solving a murder, many decades or centuries ago, congratulations, you’ve written a “historical mystery”. And if your historical setting has a magical twist, it sounds like you’re an author of “historical fantasy”.

Let me know what topic(s) you would like me to cover next in my Writers’ Question series! You can always contact me via the comments below, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 20 November 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Opium and Absinthe, Lydia Kang (2020)

I’m all for authors writing about things outside their realm of direct experience (after all, I am a writer of historical fiction!), but it’s wonderful when someone employs expert knowledge from their non-writing career to inspire their novels. In the case of Opium and Absinthe (2020), the latest book I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Writers series, author Lydia Kang draws on her medical training as a physician to tell the story of an apparently vampiric murder. 

It’s 1899 in New York City and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has just appeared in the United States when our heroine Tillie Pembroke’s sister, Lucy, is murdered. Lucy’s neck has been punctured and her body is entirely drained of blood. An empty bottle of absinthe is discovered next to her corpse. But, despite these bizarre details, no one except Tillie seems to be investigating the crime. Even Lucy’s fiancé James is more than happy to redirect his romantic attentions towards Tillie and her mother and grandmother just want to avoid a scandal.

Tillie soon finds herself working with a newspaperman, Ian, to uncover the truth, even though she’s not sure she can trust him. But her investigation is hampered not only by the strict social rules she abides by as an upper-class heiress, but by the taste she’s developed for opium while convalescing with a broken collarbone and grieving her sister’s untimely death.

Kang’s plotting is brisk, and her windowpane prose is highly readable, but it’s the wealth of medical information that informs the story which makes Opium and Absinthe a standout among a sea of other 1890s, NYC-set mysteries. Tillie’s spiraling reliance on opioids is particularly well-wrought, although having a protagonist who’s struggling with addiction can be frustrating (just like dealing with someone under the grips of addiction in real life).

Dracula fans will enjoy the intertextual play at work here—in the character names, the chapter epigraphs, and even the inclusion of absinthe in the plot (a nod to the afterlife of Dracula in Hollywood)—but intimate knowledge of Stoker’s classic tale is definitely not a prerequisite. All in, I highly recommend Opium and Absinthe as a fast, fun read for fans of Victoriana.

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

Friday 28 October 2022

Writers’ Questions: How can I control the pacing of my novel?

After tackling a few questions related to the business side of writing in the last few posts in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m back today with a more craft-focused blog. If you’re a writer, have you ever received feedback that a scene, chapter, or section was too fast or too slow? Or maybe you’ve just been told that the pacing feels a little “off.” This can be frustrating to hear, but if you’re not sure how to fix your pacing problems, never fear! Here are some strategies to employ.

Timeline out your book: If you wrote an outline when starting work on your novel, this is the moment to revisit it. If you didn’t write an outline, spend time mapping out each milestone in your book now. Then take your timeline/outline and write dates or other time markers beside each chapter/scene. This will help you look at the pacing of the novel on a macro-level. 

Typically, we’d expect to see more major events happening close together near the end of your novel, as the story crescendos to a climax. There will usually be fewer big time jumps around the climax too, as skipping through months and years will dissipate all that lovely tension you’ve built up. And there may also be an effect where a short period of time will be spread across more scenes/chapters. Consider a stereotypical heist movie: the director may choose to include only a 5-10-minute montage of the months of the thieves’ training, but the hour spent on the daring escapade itself may be detailed minute-by-minute, making up half the film. 

With these trends in mind, look at your timeline and try to diagnose your book’s issues. Are you dedicating too few pages to important moments? Did you rush to the finish line, rather than giving your ending room to breathe? Did you spend too long setting up your novel’s promises, but then underdeliver?

Cut the boring bits: Here’s a fix that works on pacing issues at both a book and chapter level: if there are scenes or parts of scenes that even you, the writer, think are boring, they’ve simply got to go. A good novel isn’t a few magical moments with dull filler content in between, and every scene you write is a chance for your storytelling prowess to sparkle.

What’s more, it’s easy to summarize action no one wants to read. It can take a sentence or even less. Boring scenes to consider cutting include journeys (just tell us your characters traveled somewhere), periods where your character is bored (if the point of view character is bored, readers will soon be bored too), and long waits for information (ask yourself: would you be tempted to skim ahead if you were reading your own book?). Of course, it’s entirely possible to write interesting scenes set during journeys, or which start with a character being bored/waiting, but you’re going to have to have other content to work with.  

Pay attention to sentence length: If you’re happy with the big-picture view of your novel (with a timeline that makes sense and no boring bits), then it’s time to address pacing issues on a sentence level. And it’s a great idea to look to music for inspiration. Scenes you want to read as slower should be made up of longer, legato sentences. Short, staccato sentences are best to convey action.

If a beta reader tells you your romantic scene feels rushed, try using flowing sentences filled with sensual details. If a fight scene is complicated, dull, or difficult to follow, make your descriptions pithier and rely on strong verbs, without qualifying adverbs and adjectives.

Understand simultaneous vs. sequential action: While we’re on the subject of action…one mistake I see a lot of newbie writers making is packing too much information into single sentences in a misguided attempt to speed up their pacing. One result of this is that they write actions as simultaneous when they must be sequential. Let’s look at a worked example.

A writer may want to pick up the pace of a scene to retain reader interest. And so, she writes a sentence like this: “He walked into the hallway, opening the front door.” However, unless this character has incredibly long arms, it’s unlikely he walked into the hallway, while at the same time opening the front door. Instead, the sentence should be: “He walked into the hallway and opened the front door.” Alternatively, the writer could choose to use two sentences here to give more weight to each action: “He walked into the hallway. He opened the front door.”

So, there you have it! Here are a few fixes to consider when facing a pacing issue. I’d also love to hear yours—get in touch in the comments, via Instagram, via Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Monday 17 October 2022

Neo-Victorian Voices: Spirited, Julie Cohen (2020)

Welcome (or welcome back!) to my blog and to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, in which I review novels set in the nineteenth century but written in the twenty-first. This time, I’ll be discussing Julie Cohen’s Spirited (2020), which (spoiler alert) I loved!

Julie Cohen and I were previously on a panel together, celebrating the Brontes during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns (catch a video recording of the event here). And I recently had the pleasure of listening to her keynote at the Historical Novel Society 2022 conference. However, this was my first time reading one of her novels.

Set in the 1850s, Spirited tells the story of Viola (an amateur photographer grieving the loss of her beloved father), her new husband, Jonah, who’s keeping secrets about his time in India, and Henriette, a “medium” who’s adept at conning the bereaved. Even this short description gives you a good sense of some of the components that attracted me to the book. I love Victorian settings, a Gothic mood, and the very nineteenth-century fascination with pastimes which test the boundaries between the scientific and the supernatural. 

But I was surprised to find that Spirited also treats the reader to several queer love stories, to some first-class character and relationship development, even as the plot moves forward at a good pace, and to chapters set in a lesser-seen locale in historical fiction, Delhi. 

Cohen does a great job weaving the story threads of her different point of view characters and in withholding information from us without straining credulity (something I complained about in my recent blog on Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders (2021)). The opening scene, Viola and Jonah’s wedding, was wonderfully atmospheric, but don’t let the first pages fool you: while the subject matter might sound dark, Cohen gives us moments of levity too, and, against seemingly all odds, delivers a happy ending. 

I’d recommend the novel to readers of Gothic, to people interested in nineteenth-century spiritualism, and to anyone who enjoyed Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams (2019).

Which nineteenth-century 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.

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, 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 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