Posts Tagged ‘FAQs’

Researching the Victorians

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

I promised last week to share some favourite research resources for the Victorian era. But first, some news that despite being 6 days old is still enough to make me jump up and down! A Spy in the House is shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s 2011 Red Maple Award! Yes! Let me throw in a couple of extra exclamation points, like so!!

This is a reader’s choice award for ages 11-15, it’s linked to a great reading-promotion program in Ontario schools, and the whole thing culminates in a 2-day gala at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The craziest part, though? Being in the company of writers I think of as superstars, like Kelley Armstrong. And Gordon Korman, for crying out loud, whose work I loved as a kid. Plus, there are writers on the shortlist whose work I don’t know, but am really looking forward to discovering (click here for full shortlist). It’s all a bit dizzying.

But enough diva-ish fluttering. There are thousands of resources, both print and online, that I used when writing the Agency books. This is because my research began long before I thought of writing a novel, back when I was working on a PhD thesis in Victorian literature and culture. And that’s the beautiful, maddening, addictive thing about research: you start in one place and end up light years away, with pages upon pages of facts and anecdotes that probably won’t make it into the finished work. And it doesn’t matter, because you’re the richer for having read them. It’s brilliant.

But it’s also a pretty unhelpful thing to say here. But there are some books and sites that I go back to very regularly, and those are the ones I’ll share here today. Without further ado:

Online Resources (no particular order)

I adore Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London, a compilation of primary sources (that is, sources from the Victorian era). It’s addictive reading; I dare you not to spend four times as long there as you’d intended. Don’t miss the “Flash Dictionary” of slang!

The Old Bailey Online archives the proceedings of London’s central criminal court, from 1674-1913. Again, utterly addictive and a fantastic window into Victorian crime. My friend John Nicholls first told me about to the site. Thanks, John!

The Times Archive is just that – a searchable archive of every article published in that newspaper, from its launch in 1785. You have to pay for access, unless you belong to an institution (eg, university) that subscribes.

The Victorian Peeper (I know – sounds vaguely rude) is an truly wonderful blog written by Kristan Tetens, “a historian of nineteenth-century Britain based in twenty-first century America”. It’s an endless delight and offers links to previously unknown sources, such as the one below.

Hidden Lives Revealed is a sometimes heartbreaking archive of case files and photographs of orphans at the Children’s Society, 1881-1918. The photographs are particularly illuminating.

The Victorian Web is an academic site with about 40,000 short articles on the Victorian period. Many of these were written by Brown University undergraduates and some aren’t 100% reliable, but it’s a terrific starting point and most of the essays have a partial bibliography for further research.

Print Resources (alphabetical by surname)

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. 2001. An authoritative history of the city.

Flanders, Judith. Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain. 2007. Wonderful social history and a window into real people’s lives.

—. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. 2004. You wouldn’t think a book about domestic life could be gripping, but this is. One of my favourite non-fiction books, period.

Picard, Liza. Victorian London. 2005. A lively general overview, but if you’re already deep into the era, you can skip this one.

Ross, Ellen, ed. Slum Travellers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920. 2007. Letters and reports from reform-minded ladies of the period. Great for contemporary flavour.

Smith, Stephen. Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets. 2004. Useful chapter on Victorian burial practices.

Sweet, Matthew. Inventing the Victorians. 2002. Debunks a lot of tenacious myths about Victorian culture and morals.

Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 1990. Definitive biography of Dickens’s long-time mistress. It’s also a sparkling social history and portrait of theatrical life.

Wilson, A.N. The Victorians. 2002. Authoritative, sometimes infuriating, interesting.

Wilson, Bee. Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats. 2008. Gripping stuff – the chapters on “food adulteration” are wonderfully, horribly vivid.

This is a longish blog post but a very short bibliography. Don’t forget the goldmine at the back of nearly each of these books: the notes and bibliography, which will lead you in all kinds of wild new directions. I hope you have a blast!

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FAQ: Are your books funny?

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Heigh ho! You have 5 days to enter the Tardy Contest to win ARCs of The Body at the Tower. Don’t be late! (har har)

Also, I’m featured at Books on the House this week. Enter there to win copies of A Spy in the House plus an Agency t-shirt.

When Misa Ramirez of Books on the House interviewed me, she asked, “Are your books serious, or does your wit come through?” I’m not really happy with the answer I gave then, so I thought I’d try again here. Ahem.

Long answer:

The Mary Quinn novels are dramatic novels that include comic moments. I write them in the tradition of two serious genres (historical fiction, mystery novels) but also joke about the expectations and conventions of those categories.

Having said that, one of the delightful things about novels is that nobody reads one the same way. What’s funny, dramatic, bland, or ridiculous to me will be quite different to you, dear reader. So while I wrote some scenes with the intention of providing comedy, some readers won’t find them funny. Some scenes, which I consider serious, will seem absurd to others. But it doesn’t really matter whether I think my books are funny. The question is, do you?

Short answer:


Also, thoughts on author branding

Did you read Maureen Johnson’s Manifesto? It was much disseminated on Twitter this week but if you don’t want to click over, here it is in brief: Maureen Johnson spoke at a conference where her co-panellist endlessly declared, “I am a brand. I am a brand. I am a brand.” MJ begs to differ: she is just herself and uses social networks to have conversations and create connections with people. She also likes loves snacks.

MJ’s position is entirely reasonable and sane. But what really stayed with me was the unnamed co-panellist’s proud and frequent declaration: “I am a brand.” It’s one of the saddest things I’ve read lately. Not: I am a writer. I am a thinker. I am creative person. Not even, I am a lover, a believer, a human being with valuable and passionate relationships. No, the co-panellist (as depicted by Maureen Johnson) has reduced herself to a few key search terms and the smoothest veneer possible.

I take it back: it’s not one of the saddest things I’ve read lately. It’s one of the most grotesque things I’ve ever read.

I’m off to fetch MJ a snack.

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“Where do you work?” & bookplates

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

I used to be one of those coffee shop people, hunched over a black coffee and rattling away at the keyboard. But no longer! For I now have a study, and it’s a delicious shade of blue (Benjamin Moore’s Yarmouth Blue, if you care), and all I have to do now is try to keep it as zen as it appears here.

the new study


In other news, I have BOOKPLATES! These are basically large & fancy stickers with a blank space for personalization. If you’d like me to sign or inscribe your copy of The Agency but don’t think you’ll see me in person for a while, feel free to request one. You need to tell me exactly what you want the bookplate to say: just my signature? “For Pinkie, a goddess amongst mortals”? “To the winning eBay bidder”? As you can see from the foregoing examples, I’m rubbish at clever dedications, so it’s up to you. The design looks like this:


I’m a sucker for old botanical drawings. And weeds. So this was pretty much a foregone conclusion. I hope you like it, too!

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“How do you get published?”

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

This was the #1 question that came tumbling out of the students at my first school visit. At four different sessions, in different-sized groups, students ranging from grades 9 to 12 all wanted to know the secret. And, sadly, there’s no magic for that. I don’t even think the question “how do you get published” is answerable, because routes to publication are so varied; no single path will do. I can, however, tell you how my first novel was published.

I finished my novel (and that’s a whole different series of questions which I’ve answered in parts, week by week, and will continue to do so and collect as FAQs). Once I had a complete, polished manuscript, I wrote a query letter for literary agents. I won’t get into query letters here because lit agent Nathan Bransford has already done a splendid job explaining them. Kristin Nelson, another impossibly chipper agent, posts further examples at Pub Rants. So I shined up my query and my husband, Nick, emailed it to six literary agents. Why not send it myself? Partly because I am thin-skinned and an obsessive email-checker at the most relaxed of times, and partly because Nick is lovely, amazingly supportive of my writing, and utterly fearless with stuff like this.

I got lucky: in two days I had six replies, all of which were requests for more. In five cases, “more” was a one-page synopsis and the first three chapters; the sixth agent, from William Morris, simply said, “I’d love to read it”, so I sent the full ms. A week later, this agent’s assistant emailed to say that she was halfway through, “really enjoying it”, and would I let her know if I had interest from other agencies in the meantime. (I cannot tell you how many times I stared at the words “really enjoying it” and wondered what secret code they masked.) A couple of days later, I heard from the hard-working assistant again: the agent thought the book had merit but didn’t like it enough to represent it, so she’d passed it on to a colleague, Rowan Lawton. I did a tentative happy dance.

When Rowan emailed me a couple of weeks later, she had some questions and detailed notes for me. The ms I’d submitted was for an adult historical mystery. Rowan, however, pointed out that it was really a coming-of-age story and asked if I’d consider revising it as a YA novel. I was completely surprised. But when I thought about it, I realized that she was right. Those changes would make it a better novel.

I cut 30,000 words (paring the ms from 95,000 to 65,000 words) and compressed the plot. I changed the main characters’ ages – Mary Quinn went from 21 to 17, and James Easton from 29 to 19. One thing I was careful NOT to do was simplify or lighten the novel’s themes and ideas. I hate being talked down to – always have – and would despise myself for doing so to others. Rowan and I did two edits together before we were ready to go out on submission. At this point, I officially signed with William Morris.

My job now was to buckle down, write the sequel, and try not to obsess too much; I wasn’t the one selling the book. This was, shall we say, challenging. But a few weeks later, I opened an email (I’d been on holiday with my extended family) from Rowan that said, “I have some great news for you! Do give me a call…” ARGH. It was a Friday afternoon in Vancouver and thus darkest night in London. That was one of the longest weekends of my life. Eventually, Monday came around and I heard the News: Walker Books wanted World English rights for three novels. (I have carefully resisted the use of exclamation points here, in case I never stop. But they’re there, in my head.)

And that’s how Spy came to be published.

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“Where do you get your ideas?”

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The short, annoying answer is, “from my head”. While that’s true, I realize it’s neither helpful nor illuminating, so I’ll try to be a bit more specific.

If you and I were to go to the same film/lecture/bare-knuckle boxing match, we’d notice different details. Then we’d interpret and prioritize our experiences in different ways. So everything I’ve ever written comes from some experience of mine – something I read or saw or overheard. But it all gets processed in the back of my brain and spewed out later as something quite transformed. As the novelist Frances Trollope said, “Of course I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintances before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage.”

mmm... sausages

mmm... sausages*

To get even more specific:

  • I set A SPY IN THE HOUSE during the Great Stink of 1858 after reading about Benjamin Disraeli fleeing the House of Commons with a handkerchief over his nose, so ghastly was the stench
  • I made The Agency a women’s detective agency because I wanted to write about an elite, exciting, all-female institution. It was a reverse-inspiration, since the prestigious organizations and clubs of the period were generally all-male.
  • I made Mary’s father a sailor after reading an academic article (Laura Tabili’s “‘Women of a Very Low Type’”) that talked about the children of common-law marriages between sailors and poor women in Liverpool

When I answered this question in a high-school presentation, the follow-up question was, well, how is that different from plagiarism? Great question! Plagiarism is stealing specific ideas and/or language from others, and presenting them as your own. In these examples, I’ve been inspired by specific things but used them as jumping-off points for my own ideas. I would never claim to be the originator of those first, inspirational anecdotes, facts or articles. And, obviously, I describe my own ideas in my own words.

All this brings us to a cliche that’s completely true: there are no new ideas. Other people have written about the Great Stink, women’s detective agencies (though I didn’t read Dorothy L. Sayers until after I’d written the first draft of SPY) and orphaned sailor’s daughters. So if there’s a bottom line, it’s this:

  • all ideas come from somewhere
  • keep track as best you can
  • give credit to your inspirations and your sources
  • yes, the ideas from “from my head”

*The butcher’s diagram comes from Zazzle, where you can buy it as a postcard.

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On writer’s block (plus contest winners)

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

One question I’ve heard a lot recently is, “What do you think about writer’s block?” Oh, writer’s block. It seems to be a bit like Santa Claus, or Love at First Sight, or the Perfectibility of Humankind: either you believe in it, or you don’t.

Many writers I admire suffer, on occasion, from writer’s block. One of my favourite living novelists, Beryl Bainbridge, found herself unable to write after 2001’s According to Queeney (apparently, she quit smoking and it destroyed her routine). I held my breath for several years, but Bainbridge is supposed to be back this year with The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. I live in hope. Other prolific, highly successful writers simply don’t believe in it (writer’s block, not chain-smoking!). In her recent profile in the New Yorker, Nora Roberts shared her golden rule of writing: “Ass in the chair”. I’m tempted to add, “No internet connection”.

In my experience, writer’s block is actually a fear of imperfection. If you can’t write that first sentence (that first paragraph, that first draft) because you’re trying to come up with the perfect first sentence, you’re “blocked” – not because you can’t write, but because you don’t want to write anything short of a polished, elegant, shapely final manuscript. Sadly, THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE.

So go ahead and give yourself permission to write imperfectly, clumsily, downright badly. Words on the page can always be altered – but only once you’ve got something to edit. So write. Your first sentence will probably be excised, and your first paragraph chopped up and rearranged. Your first attempts will bear only scant resemblance to your final draft. You’ll go back to it weeks or months or years later, and be embarrassed by your first draft. But so what? You wrote it down, cleaned it up, polished it to a high shine, and here you are.

Emphatically not blocked.


On an entirely different (though also triumphal) note: congratulations to Lauren Beazley and Eleitta Brazeau of Regiopolis Notre Dame HS, winners of the limited-edition, not-for-sale-anywhere A is for Agency t-shirts. Please let me know what size you’d like (S, M, L or boy’s M or L) and I’ll send them right out.

Next week: more on writing

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