Posts Tagged ‘writer friends’

Fashion Victims, with Sarah Albee

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

“You know,” said Sarah Albee, “this is a very strange thing to do.”

It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Toronto and we were at the Bata Shoe Museum, about to tour their special exhibition, Fashion Victims: The Perils and Pleasures of Dress in the Nineteenth Century. Sarah and I share a lively interest in the gritty real-life details of history: disease, poison, food contamination and, of course, filth. (Especially in Sarah’s case: she loves insects and poop. She’ll make you love them, too.) There was absolutely nothing unusual about our being at an exhibition about Victorian craziness… unless you count the fact that we’d never before met in real life. Call it a Writer’s Blind Date. It worked beautifully.

Sarah knows a lot more about fashion than I do, so I felt privileged to see the exhibition through her eyes. One of the first items was this pair of impossibly small satin shoes.


You can’t get a sense of scale from my photo but trust me when I say they’re maybe 8 inches long, and proportionately narrow. Sarah explained that they’re called “straights” – there is neither a left nor right shoe, and the wearer must alternate feet in order to preserve their delicate shape.


Here’s another pair of “straights”, which were the standard even for bespoke (custom-made) shoes until the second half of the nineteenth century. The museum plaque explains: “This pair of almost impossibly narrow boots and gloves belonged to Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria. The boots were gifted to Colonel Louis de Schweiger, one of the countless men who had fallen under her spell, by the Empress’s maid Marie Doré as a ‘tendre souvenir’.” I love this story! I picture a moustachioed colonel sitting all alone in a first-class rail carriage, cuddling a pair of boots. But I want to know more about the maid, Marie Doré. Why is she named? Did she take pity on the colonel and slip him the boots and gloves on her own initiative? Did giving them away save her the labour of having to clean the boots? They’re slightly scuffed…

Here’s a terrific example of a corset and crinoline combination, from the back 3/4 angle. We don’t often get to see the underpinnings so clearly.


Again, this example is tiny – so narrow that I felt a little breathless just looking at it – and the plaque speculated that it was made to fit a young girl.

Here’s the other end of the spectrum: black shoes with a beaded butterfly detail, made in 1888 to fit the century’s most famous widow: Queen Victoria herself.


I love these French boots, which were the height of 1860s fashion. I would absolutely, unhesitatingly wear them myself on a regular basis.


…Except, of course, that the dyes used to create these screaming-bright colours often gave the wearers chemical burns. Ahem.

Speaking of chemical innovation, I was astounded to read that the tortoiseshell-looking comb in the next photo was actually made of celluloid. Celluloid, a kind of plastic, being mass-produced in the 1880s!


(As I stood in front of this display, muttering “Celluloid!” to myself, Sarah kept saying, “Where? I don’t see it. Where are you reading this?” Dear reader, she thought hoped I was saying “cyanide”.)

Near the very end of the exhibit, we finally saw these plain shoes and we both sighed, “Finally! Working-class shoes!”


We agreed that the men’s shoes (with the buckles) were the first sturdy, practical shoes we’d seen thus far. The women’s pair, although made of leather, was still straight and rather delicate-looking. I suspect that it’s harder to preserve everyday working shoes because they’re so much more likely to be (literally) worn to pieces. Or do you think working women simply wore men’s shoes when they really needed to get around out-of-doors?

With Victorian fashions dancing in our heads, Sarah and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking, lunching, and talking pretty much nonstop. It was an immense treat, talking to another writer about work-in-progress, agents and editors, proofreading angst (Sarah’s tip: hire a super-literate college student to be your extra pair of proofreading eyes) and balancing work with family craziness.

Here are the happy faces of a pair of writers who’ve been talking cholera and intestinal worms for much of the day:


(She ducked down to my level for this shot. In real life, we look like a racehorse beside a Shetland pony.)

Sarah’s right: it was probably a very strange thing to do. But I think it’s the kind of strange thing that should happen more often. Don’t you?

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Crime Scene 2012

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Hello, friends! I had an absolutely splendid time this past weekend at Scene of the Crime, and thought I’d share what I could with you. I had a great “handler” at the festival (basically, a person assigned to make sure the visiting author is supplied with coffee and doesn’t get lost), a Wolfe Islander named Kristina, but I forgot to ask her to take some photos while I was reading & panelling, so mea culpa for the absence of pics.

Scene of the Crime has a perfect setting: Wolfe Island. Wolfe is the largest of the Thousand Islands, it’s a gorgeous ferry-ride from Kingston (excitingly remote!), and it’s the kind of island where everybody knows everybody and everything is connected. All ten authors stayed at the same B&B. YOU GUYS. Could someone please write a cozy, locked-room mystery featuring ten mystery writers in a rural B&B? Thank you.

When I asked organizer Violette Malan how many people she was expecting, she waved her hand and said, “Craploads. Actually, we’re at capacity. We never turn anyone away, but we can only guarantee meals for 100.” This is the genius thing about SotC: it’s small, it’s friendly, and there’s zero room for pretension. I got to chat – really chat – with readers. I learned that some bookclubs do road trips together (hello, Jane and the Stratfordians!). Another reader & writer (hi, Susan!) taught me the finer points of church hall dinners (tip: snag your pie at the beginning of the meal. You get the best selection, plus you can go back for seconds while looking all innocent). And, speaking of church-lady dinners, we were so very well fed. I’m in awe of the SotC Board and volunteers, who worked incredibly hard and made everything look so very easy. Thank you for inviting me!

My fellow authors at SotC were Thomas Rendell Curran, who writes detective fiction set in pre-Confederation Newfoundland – a setting that, as he says, completely justifies description of the weather in a novel’s opening; D. J. McIntosh, author of The Witch of Babylon, who offered the most succinct writing advice I’ve heard in some time: on the first page of your crime novel, “avoid boredom”; and John Moss, who writes the Quin & Morgan series set in Toronto, and who is fascinating on the subjects of old limestone houses, swans, and beekeeping.

Then there were the ladies. Not just any ladies, but the Ladies Killing Circle. They crack jokes. They wonder – very seriously – whether there is enough wine. And they represent, among other things, two decades of crime fiction written by Canadian women. When accepting their Grant Allen Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing, member Vicki Cameron explained that in the early 1990s, it was incredibly difficult for women writers of crime fiction to be taken seriously, let alone get published. So the LKC (which began as a critique group) called for submissions and edited their own anthology, also called The Ladies Killing Circle. This wasn’t vanity publishing: stories from each of their seven anthologies have won mystery-writing awards. And they’ve launched the careers of a number of Canadian writers, as a result.

The Ladies are vicious in name only; you couldn’t find a more welcoming, generous, congenial group of authors. And they’ve inspired me to work at building my own writing community. In fact, that’s one of my goals for this fall.

So that was my Scene of the Crime 2012. What are you up to, in the dwindling weeks of August?

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My brain is tingling

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Hello, hello! My friend, Colette Colligan, is a terrifyingly smart person who pops into my life every now and again with something that completely changes my view of the nineteenth century. Those of you who’ve read A Spy in the House will probably remember a scene that pays homage to Colette’s doctoral thesis on Obscenity and Empire (her thesis was later published as The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley).

Her most recent email casually mentioned that there’s a book called The Female Detective. Published in 1864. I know, I know! has come up with nothing, which is both shocking and a fantastic challenge. In the meantime, I’m going to borrow Joseph A. Kestner’s Sherlock’s Sisters: The British Female Detective, 1864-1913 for an overview.

This is the thing with research: it never ends. It’s infuriating and alarming (what did I miss, that I really should have known about?) but also a wonderful and constant reminder of how much there still is to learn. And I adore that.

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Young Kingston

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

One of the questions I often hear is, “What’s it like working from home, alone, all day?” The answer, of course, depends on the day. Generally, it’s bliss: just me and the Muse – and an exceedingly vocal, neurotic, high-needs cat. The writing life is all the better for online communities like Twitter, where you can jump into a conversation for 10 minutes and leave feeling amused, refreshed, and sharpened.

But sometimes, it’s good to meet fellow writers in real life. The whole tenor and pace of conversation is different, face to face. When you share a physical community, you have more things in common. And it’s pleasant, when writing alone, to know that someone a few blocks away is doing much the same thing. That’s why I’m so pleased to announce the creation of Young Kingston, an online and real-life community for children’s and YA writers in southeastern Ontario. (If you follow me on Twitter, this is the mysterious, bookish-but-non-book project I talked about a while ago.)

Check us out! Say hello! If you’re a teacher or librarian, you can apply for grants to subsidize the cost of school visits from one of us. And if you’re a traditionally published writer of kidlit in and around Kingston, Ontario, drop us a line. We’d love to meet you.

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Contest winners and the writing life

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

I had an utterly excellent day at RND High School last week, talking to students about Victorian hygiene, inventions, fashion, and radical women (among other things). The students were a terrific audience – courteous, curious, energetic. Thanks for being such exemplars of audience awesomeness! If you heard me speak at Regi and would like to be entered into the draw for one of three Agency t-shirts, remember to email me and either a) ask a question or b) remind me of one you asked last Thursday. I’ll announce the winners next week.

A typically ridiculous lecturing posture. If I could help it, I would.

A typically ridiculous lecturing posture. If I could help it, I would.

Living in Canada, where Spy hasn’t yet been released, I’ve never seen a copy of my book in a real live bookstore. Really, this whole “I’m a writer” business could just be an elaborate hallucination on my part. But recently, Marie-Louise Jensen, a friend and fellow YA novelist, sent me this: ocular proof that Spy is for sale in the shops. And she faced it out, too – now that’s what friends are for! (The book on top is Marie-Louise’s The Lady in the Tower, which I really enjoyed. Do check it out.)

The Lady & the Spy

The Lady & the Spy

And finally, here are the winners of my recent contest, Countdown to the Agency. The winner of the UK edition of The Agency: A Spy in the House is Haley Mathiot. Second- and third-place winners of The Agency sticker are Mariana Sanchez and Andrea Lacerte. Congratulations! Please email me with your postal addresses and I’ll get the goods out to you right away. If you didn’t win this time, fear not – there’ll be More Swag coming in the next few months, right up to the March 9 launch of the US edition of Spy.

I’ve realized that it’s ridiculous to post everything people wrote about books that haunted them. (I guess I was expecting 5 or 6 entries…) So I’ve decided to post a small selection of entries, all on books I haven’t read. One of my ulterior motives in asking the “haunted” question (Hallowe’en aside) is that I always love to hear about what others read. Hopefully, you’re the same way.

Becky chose Dream Spinner by Bonnie Dobkin, “about a man with a pet spider that can talk. Together they take people’s dreams and weave them like a thread into a huge tapestry. 3 friends come across his house, and are eager to enter their dreams… but when nightmares start to take over, will they be able to wake up again?”

Mariana chose Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, “because it really made me think about the things you do that affect people around you, even if you don’t notice.”

Haley chose Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith and reviewed it at her blog.

Andrea chose Les Enfants Indigos by Sylvie Simon, “a non-fiction book about a new type of child who is here to lead us to the next level of consciousness! The idea is that these new children need truth, and will not longer settle for the old answers of “just because” or even try to fit into institutions that are not adapting to their needs. The book gives examples of how they see the world… very old souls indeed!”

Mary chose Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. “The writing is beautiful, the plot intricate and the story manages to be tragic, poignant, inspiring and deeply satisfying all at once. The relationships between the characters are so heartfelt they will linger in my mind forever.  The tragic part of the story [which I won’t give away in case you haven’t read it] is hauntingly sad.”

Emily chose The Ragwitch by Garth Nix. It’s supposed to be a young adult book, I’m ‘slightly’ older than young adult but it scared me silly! At one point, the girl is trapped inside the mind of the Rag Witch, and the thoughts of the witch are made of rags – makes me shiver just thinking about it!”

Jason chose Circus Parade by Jim Tully, “a memoir of life in the violent, criminal, yet sometimes magical circus world in early 20th century America. What haunted me was how cruel the life on the road could be, but how a rogues’ honour emerged from this cruelty for some, and manifested as evil in others.”

Robin chose We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. “The narrator writes about her son and how she never felt bonded to him, and as a teenager he commits mass murder at his school. It was a very harrowing read!”

Jennifer chose Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes, in which “Anna keeps catching glimpses of her husband everywhere and doesn’t understand why he won’t return her calls and emails… The novel is so heartbreaking.”

Finally, when I was at Regi, students asked me a number of excellent questions about writing and publishing. I’ll try to answer these in an orderly fashion over the next month or so. Next week, the first instalment: on writing.

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Author talks & author wars

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I’m a guest speaker at Regiopolis Notre-Dame Catholic High School in Kingston tomorrow, Thursday, October 29. I’m also their featured author for their annual book challenge, Regi Reads! The big question is, does Regi in fact read? I’ll report back next week.

Also, I woke this morning to find myself in a word war with Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent! We’re all at around 25,000 words in our current works in progress. Only 45,000 to go – but who will get there first? The smart money is not on me, I’m afraid.

And about those German covers: apologies. I can’t get them to load properly in WordPress, so will consult with my guru. Hopefully I’ll have these up on the weekend.

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Witchcraft in the time of Jane Austen

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Stephanie Burgis has a zippy new book trailer for her novel, A MOST IMPROPER MAGICK. The book is a dreamy-sounding combination of magic, adventure and romance; I’m really looking forward to it. You can also read the first chapter at her website,

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