Posts Tagged ‘Rivals in the City’

Rivals in the City: Chapter One

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Hello, friends. Can you believe that it’s only six weeks until the UK publication of Rivals in the City? I know, I know! I finished my final proofread last week and the typeset pages went to the printers on Thursday. (I have since found some corrections that I’d like to make – AUGH!) Ahem.

Anyway, to celebrate and to thank you for hanging on with such dauntless patience, I am thrilled to excerpt for you, right here, the first chapter of Rivals in the City. I hope you enjoy it!

Rivals in the City final cover

Chapter One

Saturday, 13 October, 1860
The streets of London

It was a miserable day for a walk: sleety, frigid, dark. Nevertheless, Mary Quinn and James Easton, Private Detectives, were out for a ramble about Bloomsbury, bundled against the penetrating drizzle, straining to distinguish people from lampposts in the dense fog that swamped the streets. Mary’s skirts were soaked to the knee and much heavier than when she’d first set out. Their boots were thick with mud.

Mary smiled up at James, squeezing his elbow a shade tighter. “Isn’t this delightful?”

He laughed. “Unalloyed bliss, apart from the rain, the wind, and the bitter cold. Can you still feel your fingertips?”

She wiggled them experimentally. “A little. Could you tilt the umbrella towards me, please? It’s dripping on my shoulder.” James complied and they paced on, past a sodden, shivering boy wielding a broomstick taller than he was. “Wait a moment, James.” But she needn’t have spoken. James was already turning back, pressing a coin into the crossing-sweeper’s unresisting palm. He murmured something and gave the child a gentle pat on the shoulder, urging him to movement.

Mary watched the boy stumble away, a slight figure swallowed by the dark smog. She shuddered. It was like a heavy-handed morality play, to which there could be only one conclusion.

James returned, offering his arm once more. “Where were we?”

“You were complaining about the weather. Not for the first time.” She smiled up at him again, teasing this time. “Are you quite certain you don’t want to come up to my flat for tea and toast and scandal?” As her future husband, James wanted their marriage to be respectable. It wasn’t for his sake, particularly, although she suspected he cared about reputation more than he would acknowledge. No, it was for Mary: in order to bury her past properly, and allow her a fresh start, they had agreed to behave with Utter Propriety. No matter how hypocritical and inconvenient the conventions of etiquette, it was worth observing them for a short while, for the social invisibility it would afford their marriage. These cold and uncomfortable walks about town were a perfect example of their new courtship, conducted by the rules: how else could an unmarried lady and gentleman hold a truly private conversation, unchaperoned and uninterrupted? James’s logic was inarguable. And yet, after twenty years of freedom, Mary desperately resented these superficial social restrictions. Was this the moment to propose her little escapade?

His reply wiped all thought of it from her mind. “I’d love to. Let’s just pop into the next church and get married, first.”

She puffed with amusement and saw her breath in the air. “Of course, you’ve a marriage license in your pocket.”

“Do you doubt it?”

“I’d no idea you were on such intimate terms with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

“There are common licenses, you know. One can be obtained from any vicar.”

She halted and stared up into his dark eyes. They glinted with mockery, and something else, too: a challenge. Her mouth dried up. “A-are you – mocking me?”

“I’m asking you to declare yourself. We could be married within the hour, if you so chose.” His expression was neutral, his tone maddeningly even. He might have been offering her his seat on the omnibus.

She was suddenly at the edge of a precipice, fascinated and terrified in equal measure. Of course she wanted to marry James… someday. But now? Here? “I – I don’t know what to say,” she confessed, unable to meet his gaze.

“That is an answer in itself.” He sounded remarkably calm, but there was no missing the undercurrent of hurt in his voice.

She spun to face him fully, taking both his hands in hers. “I’m sorry, James. I love you, truly. And I want to marry you.”

“But not yet.”

“I’m just learning a whole new way of being. Can you picture yourself in my place?” Mary closed her eyes briefly, knowing that James certainly tried. He, of all people, was deeply sympathetic to the horrors of her childhood on the streets, her life as a juvenile housebreaker, her unexpected escape from the death sentence. She’d never been free to explain exactly how she’d been rescued by the Agency, but he knew enough. “After a childhood such as mine, I’m suddenly a woman of means. I can choose what to do with my days. I answer to nobody. Can you see why I might want a little more time for such selfish liberty? This is my first taste of true independence; the closest I’ll ever come to perfect freedom.” She paused. “It is selfish, I’ve no illusions that it’s anything else. But it’s a giddy, dizzying sort of freedom, and I want more time to explore it.”

After a few moments, he squeezed her fingers. “I think I do understand.” She felt limp with relief. “It’s too easy for me to forget. I answer only to George, and that’s as a business partner. There’s the usual fraternal bickering, I suppose, but I am very much my own man.”

She smiled. “That you are. And you’ve chosen a willful, stubborn, scandal-ridden disgrace of a fiancée.”

“Only the best, for me.”

“James.” Mary pulled him close. Too close, for perfect propriety. “Thank you.”

His finger glided against the curve of her cheek. “I can’t say, ‘my pleasure’.”

She smiled crookedly. “I do want to belong to you, one day. And to claim you as my own, as well.”

“I very much look forward to being claimed.” He glanced about furtively, then dipped his head to hers, kissing her briefly – all too briefly – on the lips. “Perhaps I’ll have your name tattooed on my arm, so there’s no doubt as to whom I belong,” he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow, and resuming their steady walking pace. “What would you say to your initials, in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?”

“No need,” she said with a laugh. “Once you’re mine, I won’t permit you to forget it.”

They walked on in a daze, utterly distracted by each other, and by visions of their future. It wasn’t until they heard church bells ringing the hour – it was already eleven – that Mary returned to the present. “Ought we to talk business?” she suggested, with a slight sigh.

“Sadly, yes. What news of ailing Mr. Colfax?” It was the last – and, admittedly, only second – item on their list of current cases.

“I’m afraid it’s bad: I’ve traced the purchase of three substantial amounts of arsenic over the past year directly to his wife.”

James whistled. “I thought it was supposed to be difficult to buy arsenic, now. There was all that administrative reform after the Bradford tragedy.” Less than two years earlier, there had been an accidental mass poisoning in the north, when arsenic was mistakenly included in a batch of peppermint sweets.

“In theory, yes. But all one need do is tell the chemist what it’s wanted for – everybody in the world wants it to kill rats – and sign the ledger.”

“Did she sign in her own name each time?”

“For the first lot, yes, which makes me wonder if the idea only came to her after the fact. But for the second and third purchases, which are more recent, she took care to use a false name and address. I’m certain it’s her, though. Not only does the handwriting match, but the chemists – she used a different shop each time – remembered her and described her with accuracy.”

“What’s next?”

“We still don’t know exactly how she’s doing it,” said Mary. “She’s not suffering from any sort of digestive upset, and neither are the domestics. It must be in something he alone consumes. Dissolved in the whisky, maybe, or perhaps he’s the only one who likes sugar in his coffee?”

“I’ll ask him to consider what it might be,” said James. As the male partner, he was also the public face of their fledgling detective firm – a concession to convention that seldom failed to irk Mary, if she dwelt upon it. “And perhaps he ought to take a short holiday. It would be useful to confirm that he doesn’t suffer these digestive horrors when he’s on his own; only when dear Mrs. Colfax presides over the menu.”

Mary nodded. “In the meantime, I doubt Mrs. Colfax is a threat to anybody else. Only to that very heavily insured husband of hers.”

They plodded on, contemplating the faithlessness of modern love and marriage. Their client was a frail and rather elderly bridegroom of three years – a doting husband until, after too many sudden and agonizing gastric attacks, he had slowly begun to suspect the worst. Before their marriage, Mrs. Colfax had been a lively young widow, handsome and sociable and absolutely penniless. Their marriage was just the sort of thing Mary had been taught to eschew at the unconventional Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The thing was, she thought, with just a little more patience, that fortune would pass legally to Mrs. Colfax. Yet she seemed reluctant to wait for it. Money had a way of spoiling people’s judgement.

Had it done the same to her? Mary thought half-guiltily of her own fortune, the gift of a grateful and generous Queen Victoria after Mary averted an attempt on her life. That lump of capital, while a tiny sum to the Queen, had changed her life entirely. It made her a woman of some means, a person with the power to shape her own life. It would also mark her as a potential target for small-time fortune-hunters, if word got out of her independence. Of course, when she married James, her money would become his property…

“What are you brooding about?” asked James. “You’re not planning to poison me with arsenic, are you?”

That raised a smile. “If anyone’s buying arsenic, it’s your precious housekeeper.”

James grinned. “I thought Mrs. V. had thawed towards you a bit.”

“A very little bit. You know, she might be the main impediment to our marriage.”

He shivered dramatically. “Absurd. The real impediment is that I’ll be a solid block of ice before you give me a definitive yes.”

“So much whinging!” said Mary, laughing again. “Are you really about to collapse from the cold? We could take a turn about the museum, now that our confidential business is concluded.”

“I wish we could,” said James, “but I’ve got to get back to the site. It’s payday for the men and I don’t like to be late. Next time, certainly. Or better yet, we’ll end in a coffee-house.”

They turned and walked briskly towards Mary’s small flat in Burton Crescent, picking their way carefully through the muck churned up by passing horses and carts. As he always did, James waited for her to extract her door key, then unlocked the front door and returned her key to her upturned palm.

This was the moment. She had to speak now. She tilted her face up to his and said, “I’ve a proposal to put to you.”

James batted his eyelashes and spoke in a quavering falsetto. “Darling, I thought you’d never ask.”

“You may regret saying that when you hear just what it is.”

“Is it so very dull?”

“Quite the reverse. Not to mention thoroughly unladylike and far from respectable.”

“We’ve waded through sewers, dangled from a bell-tower, and stumbled out of a burning building together. Can you top that?”

“Possibly.” Mary fumbled in her reticule and produced a torn half-sheet of paper. “I found this yesterday.”

“This” was a handbill for “Mr. Ching, a Chinese pugilist of noble extraction, closely related by blood to the Chinese Emperor”, who challenged “the sportsmen of England, Britannia’s athletes, all of Her Majesty’s skilled and subtlest fighters, to best him in an unarmed fight”, with the winner to receive a prize-purse of one pound. For the semi-literate, there was even an illustration of a determined-looking Chinese man, wearing loose robes and facing the reader in a fighting stance.

Curiosity lit James’s eyes. “‘Mr. Ching claims the superiority of Chinese hand-and-foot fighting’,” he read, “‘and promises ocular proof of such. Not only will Mr. Ching fight: he will take on all who present themselves.’ Are you planning to challenge the distinguished Mr. Ching, Mary?”

“Not as a combatant,” she admitted. “But I would dearly love to see him fight.”

James’s brows drew together in a frown. “The address is in Leicester Square. ‘Hazardous’ doesn’t begin to describe the place…”

“Hear me out,” she said, quickly. “The notice made me think of my father; after I saw it, I suddenly remembered being a child, watching him practice these very complicated chains of hand and foot movements. He claimed that when used at speed, they were more effective than most weapons. He promised to teach me, when I grew older.” She paused. “Then, of course, he disappeared.”

“I’ve heard of such a style of fighting,” allowed James. “But setting aside questions of safety and propriety for the time being, how will seeing this Mr. Ching affect you, do you think? Is it wise to revisit this sort of memory?”

“I’ve never claimed to be wise,” said Mary. “And I’ve no idea what the effect might be. Quite likely, it will be a crashing disappointment…”

“But you want to go. No. You intend to go.”

“Yes.” She drew a breath and looked up at James. “It’s tonight.”

His expression was scrupulously neutral. “The only women in the vicinity will be prostitutes. You’ll be in danger from the moment they see you.”

“I’ll go as a boy, of course.”

“The return of Mark Quinn?” He considered. “Still risky. You make rather a handsome lad.”

She hesitated. “Aren’t you going to scold me for doing something so inappropriate? We’ve been so thoroughly dull and forbearing for months now, and I’m jeopardizing all our hard work.”

“And what good would scolding you do?” His smile was crooked. “Besides, is that how you think of me, Mary? A stuffy killjoy, obsessed with what respectable people might think? A fusty old man who can’t quite understand how your mind works?” His mouth twisted. “Perhaps that’s why you don’t want to marry me.”

Mary was genuinely alarmed. “James, that’s not it at all. I know you want what’s best for me. For us. As for being a fusty old man… well. I’ve never once thought of you as either fusty or old.” She smiled up at him. “Believe me, I thoroughly appreciate your manliness.”

He permitted himself a small smile at that. Then, he lowered his voice. “Has it occurred to you that if we married now, you would be infinitely freer to do as you please?”

She blinked. “It hadn’t.” She paused, then spoke more slowly. “But now that I think of it, it’s only partially true. You can go to a boxing den at any time you please, on your own or with men friends. But if it was ever hinted that I’d gone, too, such a rumour could still threaten our social reputation as a married couple, or that of your family firm.”

He considered her words. “So it’s a larger problem we face. You will always want to exceed the limits of respectable feminine behaviour.”

She thought about it seriously. “Yes, I think I will. Sometimes, at least.” A pause. “And you? Will you always value propriety and a spotless reputation? Are those so dear to you?”

He was already shaking his head. “I respect those things for their utility. They make daily life smoother and easier, and I wanted your life – our life together – to be as free and pleasant as possible. But they are not paramount to me—” He was interrupted by the chiming of the nearby bells of the Church of St. Pancras. It was half-past eleven.

“You had better go pay your labourers.”

“Yes. But we need to finish this conversation, Mary.”

She nodded. “As for tonight. Will you come with me?”

“I suppose there’s no dissuading you.”

“No. I’ll go alone, if you prefer not to come.”

“Then how can I possibly refuse?”

She looked at him. “You ought to, really. You shouldn’t let me coerce you with threats of danger and scandal.”

“What if I just want to see you in breeches again?”

She smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll call for you at eight.”

“Better if I meet you at the corner of Russell Square, I think.”

“Right.” Normally, James took his leave by kissing her hand, murmuring some tender endearment. Today, however, he chucked her under the chin. “Cheerio, Mark.”

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A bleary-eyed offering

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a ferocious week (long story, won’t bore you). Among other things, I’ve been making corrections to the typeset, copy-edited version of Rivals in the City, which will be published in the UK by Walker Books this June. (June! Hurray!)

There are 299 pages, of which this is the first:

Rivals in the City (UK edition), page 7

That’s a bit of a tease, isn’t it? In fairness, I should really give you a legible taste of the first few paragraphs. Here it is, and I’ll be back next week to talk about the editorial and revision process. I hope you enjoy it!

RIVALS IN THE CITY

Chapter One

Saturday, 13 October, 1860
The streets of London

It was a miserable day for a walk: sleety, frigid, dark. Nevertheless, Mary Quinn and James Easton, Private Detectives, were out for a ramble about Bloomsbury, bundled against the penetrating drizzle, straining to distinguish people from lampposts in the dense fog that swamped the streets. Mary’s skirts were soaked to the knee and much heavier than when she’d first set out. Their boots were thick with mud.

Mary smiled up at James, squeezing his elbow a shade tighter. “Isn’t this delightful?”

He laughed. “Unalloyed bliss, apart from the rain, the wind, and the bitter cold. Can you still feel your fingertips?”

She wiggled them experimentally. “A little. Could you tilt the umbrella towards me, please? It’s dripping on my shoulder.” James complied and they paced on, past a sodden, shivering boy wielding a broomstick taller than he was. “Wait a moment, James.” But she needn’t have spoken. James was already turning back, pressing a coin into the crossing-sweeper’s unresisting palm. He murmured something and gave the child a gentle pat on the shoulder, urging him to movement.

Mary watched the boy stumble away, a slight figure swallowed by the dark smog. She shuddered. It was like a heavy-handed morality play, to which there could be only one conclusion.

James returned, offering his arm once more. “Where were we?”

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Rivals in the City: the transatlantic edition

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

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Done!

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Hello, friends. Here’s what my Christmas and New Year’s looked like:

I finished the substantive revisions for Rivals in the City! It’s 70,000 words. 21 chapters. I cut one significant character. Re-introduced another. Re-worked the plot. I think I rewrote about half the book, over the past couple of months.

And now, I am very tired. I’ll catch you all next week, okay?

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Rivals in the City!

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Hello, friends! My wish came true: this week, just in time for the holidays, I got permission to share with you the UK/World cover for Rivals in the City. The artwork is by David McDougall at Walker Books and I love it, I love it, I love it. I hope you do, too!

And here’s the back-cover description:

Convicted fraudster Henry Thorold is dying in prison, and the Agency asks Mary to take on one last case: to watch for the return of his estranged wife. Mrs Thorold is an accomplished criminal and will surely want to settle scores with Mary’s fiancé, James. With the additional complications of family and conflicting loyalties, the stakes for all involved are higher than ever.

This is the British edition and it’s scheduled to be published in June 2014. I am tremendously excited about this, and will update about the US/Canadian cover and pub date as soon as I can.

Happy December holidays, everyone! I hope you have splendid celebrations.

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Self-imposed exile

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Hello, friends. I’m deep into the editorial revisions (my editors’ comments on and suggested changes to the manuscript) for Rivals in the City, and I thought I’d show you my most recent work space. As some of you know, I tend to work in various spots around the house (following the sunshine from room to room), or else at a local coffee shop. Since the first of the month, however, I’ve had a new lair:

It’s a long story but basically, the children have now pushed me right out of the house into what we call the shed. (It’s not a shed, really. We have a normal shed that contains a lawnmower and too many bikes.) Still, perversely, we call this bigger one “the shed”.

A couple of years ago, it was a damp, decaying, mouse-and-squirrel-infested site of horror – a nightmare shed. Then we had it rebuilt, insulated, properly wired, and equipped with a little electric heater. Now, it’s less a shed and more of a quiet, cozy extra room in the garden. And it’s at this table that I’ve been working on my revisions.

It’s strange publishing a photo of a space that you know extremely well. The photograph makes me see the place anew, and I’m startled by how much stuff there is: I knew about Nick’s road bike and the stroller, of course, but now I’m suddenly self-conscious about the dusty mason jars, my dad’s old amplifier, the unused laundry drying rack, the bags of wood pellets, &etc. But here it is, my small island of calm in a noisy, hectic, blustering month. And I love it.

How about you? Where do you write, revise, edit, dream?

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What is a novel?

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Hello, friends. I recently had a long and utterly engaging conversation with three fellow writers: two of them critically acclaimed poets, all of us writers of novels. We were talking about the act of writing. One of us, who is working on her first novel, said that for her, writing it was like posing the question, “What is a novel?” That is, what are the novelistic conventions I value? Is it true that a novel must feature x? Or that it must not do y? For this friend, the novel she writes will be the answer – or perhaps one set of answers – to that question.

I was completely taken with this philosophical approach to writing because I have gone about things so very differently (thus far). When I sat down to write my first novel, the one thing of which I was certain was how very little I knew about writing a novel. I thought that I wanted a Victorian setting, and that I wanted to write about an outsider: a girl who, in strictly realist terms, would have led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.* I had my two starting points, and then I panicked. I had no idea how to structure a novel. Fortunately, I am a lifelong devotee of mystery novels, so it felt right to use the genre as a kind of coat-hanger, to give the book a conventional and useful shape. I knew what was expected, and I could tinker with the genre in small but meaningful ways.

That first book became A Spy in the House and its siblings: The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City (which I’m revising right now!). And then, a couple of months ago (before the editorial revisions for Rivals boomeranged back to me), I sat down to write something completely different. Once again I leaned back and craned my neck, trying to picture the shape of this new book. Over the course of four novels I had learned a bit about plot and structure, but little that I found immediately useful.

What I did, instead, was start playing with voice. I was inspired by two things: a person I know fairly well, and a photograph from a book. And quite soon, the voice became two voices, and I began thinking of the new book as a point of departure. I was trying to provoke. I was refuting some of my previous experience of storytelling. Essentially, I was trying to write against.

With these as my two existing models of writing a novel (writing for; writing against), it’s no wonder that I was struck by my friend’s quiet, personal, solitary question: What is a novel? It’s a brave question, and a difficult one. It’s one that doesn’t allow you to lean on tradition for comfort, and which reminds you to stop being such a reactive brat. It’s one that draws your focus, again and again, into the work itself. What is a novel? I won’t know until I’ve written the next book. And I hope I’ll be able to answer that question in very different forms, over the course of my career. What do you think? What is a novel, to you?

To answer the question in a different form: a reader from Toronto, Shann, recently sent me a link to Litograph, which offers a playfully literal definition of a novel: posters, t-shirts, and tote bags printed with the entire text of a classic book. The best ones, in my opinion, aren’t necessarily of my personal favourite books; instead, they’re titles for which the artist really captured the spirit of the book: Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Persuasion, Gulliver’s Travels. Thank you, Shann, for making my holiday shopping that much easier!

*Aside: I read a novel this past summer that offers a fiery but ultimately realist history for a girl like Mary Quinn: Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. It’s terrific and vivid and utterly oppressive because you know from the first page that its protagonist, Mary Saunders, cannot possibly have a happy ending.

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Fermentation

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

I’ve been a very sloppy blogger recently, and for that I sincerely apologize. I didn’t mean to fall into an every-other-week pattern, and I realize it’s Thursday today. I have a specific plan to improve (I’ve blocked out a blogging session each Monday evening) and I hope my weekly post will become a joyful habit, rather than something I cringe to realize that I’ve missed once again.

But I’m here now to talk to you about fermentation! The jars below contain tomato seeds from some of the varieties we grew this summer. This is the first year we’ve tried saving tomato seeds, but our friends Crista and Mike assure us that it’s straightforward. Basically, we choose the ripest, most beautiful specimen possible, scoop out the goo (technical term) and seeds, and put them in a jar. We top it up with a little water – about half as much water as there was goo, by volume – cover it and let it sit. When a thin layer of greyish-white mould grows on top of the water, we drain off the liquid and rinse, rinse, rinse. Then we dry the tomato seeds on a plate on that same sunny window-sill.

Looks like a mad science experiment, don’t you think?

But it’s not just tomato seeds we’ve been fermenting around here. Firstly, I’ve begun work on the New Book and it’s scaring the pants off me, in a good way. (No, I haven’t begun writing horror. I can’t even read horror. I tried reading Andrew Pyper’s The Killing Circle this summer and had to stop, I was so terrified. And then I had nightmares.) But the New Book is completely different from what I’ve written before: new setting, new time period, first-person instead of third-person, two narrators instead of one… I’m not sure I can do it, and it’s freaking me out, but I adore the challenge.

Another thing that’s fermenting is a visit to Calgary in November, about which I’m so excited. On November 28th, I’ll be reading at two branches of the Calgary Public Library! I’ll post times and locations as soon as I know the details.

And finally, my lovely UK editor just sent me a draft cover for Walker Books’ edition of Rivals in the City. I’m not allowed to share it yet, because it’s still being discussed and refined. But I can tell you that it’s gorgeous…

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Writing Rivals in the City

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Hello, friends. This is the week in which I come clean and try to explain why it took me so very long to write The Agency: Rivals in the City. This is going to be a difficult post to write. I hate thinking about how many times I missed my deadline, and the (literally) hundreds of hours I spent tearing my hair out in front of the computer. But I think it’s useful to analyze failures, and figure out what worked in the end. And with any luck, someone else might find my experience instructive. Perhaps we can think of it as a how-not-to guide to writing a novel!

January 2011

My original plan for writing Rivals coalesced in January 2011. I expected to give birth to my second child in May 2011 and knew that I wanted a six-month maternity leave after her birth. (This sounds like an exquisite luxury to you American readers, right? In Canada, most women are entitled to 12 months of paid maternity leave.) So I negotiated a deadline of May 2012. My plan was to write a significant portion of the book while pregnant, take 6 months completely off, and still have six months to finish the book in early 2012.

Optimistic outlook: I knew Mary Quinn’s world so well. I would be starting at an advantage because I didn’t have as much research to do at the outset. This was the fourth and last book in the series, and hopefully that momentum would carry me through.

Problems: I am a slow writer under the best of conditions, and I did not have the best of conditions: I was exhausted throughout the pregnancy and unable to work effectively. The new baby and I had an ongoing (not immediately life-threatening but distressing) medical problem during her first few months of life. By spring 2012, I was only just beginning to get my head together.

Solution: I requested a deadline extension, to October 2012.

August 2012

My new deadline was rapidly approaching. I had committed to a particular setting and given my editor a detailed description (so the designer could start work on the cover). I thought I had made a grave error in my choice. I also felt entirely remote from the early research and plotting I had done on the book, over a year ago. It was stale.

Every time I sat down to work on the book, I felt completely paralyzed. I had lost my grip on Mary Quinn (how would she react, in a given situation? What was her emotional state, when confronted by another character?). I didn’t know what to do with the newly humbled James Easton. This was classic writer’s block: I wasn’t frittering away my life on Pinterest and Facebook, but each time I sat down to write, I came away more panicked and lost than the last time. Every time I thought about the book, I felt sick and cold and fraudulent.

Optimistic outlook: I couldn’t think of one. But I’m a very private person, so I talked about this only with my husband and a dear friend. I didn’t say anything to my editor or my agent, and simply hoped desperately that I could work through this.

Solution: I admitted that I was never going to write even a hideously rough draft of Rivals in the City in just two months. I begged for a further deadline extension, to March 2013. I hoped that by then, I would know whether I could write the blasted book or whether I would have to return my publisher’s advance.

February 2013

For the past six months, I had been working, steadily and grimly, with various degrees of despair and faint optimism, on the book. I tried writing Mary in different scenes, from different angles. I re-wrote scenes at several different emotional pitches, trying to figure out which one rang true. I wrote one scene in which Mary doubted her vocation as a detective, and soon after realized that I was writing about my own fears as a stalled novelist. I despised my own weakness and equivocation. I found no pleasure or satisfaction in the act of writing. Worst of all, I still had only the beginning of a book – nothing that remotely resembled an ending – and the book was due the following month.

Optimistic outlook: One day, as I contemplated the mess I’d made of this book, and possibly my writing career, I had two painful and extremely useful realizations.

1. I failed to put writing first. As a person, I was busier than ever, and I wasn’t enjoying writing. So I spent too much time on other stuff: volunteer work, domestic labour, things I call “life admin”. I was spending the best hours of my day doing things other than writing, and in doing so, I was cheating myself.

2. My Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) had returned. For the past four years, I’d simply been too frantically busy to notice the winter darkness; I was sprinting just to stay in place. But now that things were calmer – I had enough childcare, and time in which to write – I was, quite simply, low.

Solutions: I negotiated the very last deadline extension – June 2013. I started using a SAD lamp, religiously. And I began putting the book first. I ignored the dozens of other things pulling at me, and wrote using the best hours of my day and the best part of my brain.

June 2013

I wrote over 100,000 words in four months. I re-established my grip on Mary’s voice and character. I figured out what to do about that pesky James Easton. I remembered why I love writing. And on June 30, after eighteen months of fear, frustration, gritted teeth, and plain, unglamorous slogging, I sent the full manuscript of Rivals in the City to my editor, Mara Bergman at Walker Books.

I am so relieved. And I know myself to be extremely well loved and supported. My husband, Nick, was an uncomplaining single parent for each weekend of the spring, and he stayed up long and late critiquing my drafts. (He also said, pointedly, “Have you used the SAD lamp? I really think you should try the SAD lamp again.”) My parents came to stay for the last two weeks of June, taking over the housework and playing with the children so I could focus fully on the book. And my editor, the extraordinarily patient and generous Mara Bergman, said yes and yes and yes again to my wild requests for more time.

I am far luckier than I deserve. And I can only hope the book I wrote is worthwhile.

 

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Viva the Victorians

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Hello, friends! When I last posted, I had just arrived in England and was feeling both stunned (about finishing Rivals in the City) and exhausted (by finishing Rivals in the City). But this week, I’m mostly full of glee. If you’ll permit me, I’m going to defer my post on the long-drawn-out writing of Rivals and talk a bit about what I’ve been doing, instead.

I’m on holiday! In northern England! During a heat wave! It’s been gloriously sunny and warm for 3 days in a row, which is outrageous by local standards. I had fish and chips for dinner last night. The news is almost entirely about Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory. And today, we went to a museum that made me shiver with excitement: the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

One of the reasons I love Manchester is because it’s such a Victorian city. Yes, it was founded some 2000 years ago by the Romans, and there are the ancient ruins to prove it. But its period of massive, intensive growth came during the Industrial Revolution. When you walk around the city today, most of the evidence of your eyes is solid, red-brick, Gothic-nostalgic, science-and-engineering driven proof of Manchester’s own belle époque.

Let me hastily acknowledge: much of the social and human history of that belle époque was entirely the reverse of beautiful. But feast your eyes on this!

This is just a small number of the many engines collected in one of the Museum’s several vast buildings. Entirely appropriately, the Museum is located in a former industrial district. It features an historic train station. An 1830 red-brick warehouse. An entire building devoted to airplanes and bicycles. Another dedicated to trains. Underground exhibits about gas and waterworks. And a gruesome recreation of an impoverished man dying, painfully, during the 1830 cholera epidemic. Among other things.

It also has a number of exhibits still being developed. Behind one of the fenced-off areas, I found this first-class carriage from the old Liverpool and Manchester Railway. It’s tiny and lovingly polished, and if you peer inside, you can see six very comfortable-looking plush upholstered seats per compartment:

Now, turn your attention to the next carriage: a second-class car on the same railway, from the same period.

It must have been bitterly cold for most of the year. And look at those bent metal rods, presumably for safety!

I love these hard and shallow wooden benches. They weren’t the least bit subtle about the class difference, were they? And this is an updated version. The second-class carriages didn’t have any overhead shelter, initially, and the third-class carriages remained what were called “open trucks”.

Midway through our visit, I was amused to realize that I was dragging my family around the Museum, exclaiming with delight, agonizing over which exhibits we’d have to miss (entire buildings’ worth!), and what else might be lurking around the corner. We’d originally gone for nostalgic reasons (my husband went as a child) and because we thought the children would enjoy all the vehicles.

But I’m going to have to return for me alone: I may have just finished writing my last Mary Quinn novel, but my obsession with Victorian England shows no sign of abatement.

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