I love hearing from readers and usually reply to emails (firstname.lastname@example.org) within 24 hours. If you have specific questions, please check below to see if I’ve already answered them.
On the Agency/the Mary Quinn mysteries
What’s the difference between the Agency series and the Mary Quinn Mysteries?
“The Agency” is the US/Canadian series title while “the Mary Quinn Mysteries” is the UK/Australian series title. The four novels are identical but for copy-editing, which varies from country to country.
Is Rivals in the City the last book in the Agency series? Are you sure? Very sure?
It is definitely the last novel featuring Mary Quinn (and James Easton). I haven’t entirely ruled out a return to the Agency with a different sleuth, but that’s a very distant possibility.
Are your books funny?
I write in the tradition of two serious genres (historical fiction, mystery novels) while also playing with the expectations and conventions of those categories. So… maybe. I suspect it depends upon how many Victorian and/or detective novels you’ve read.
The premise for the series seems unrealistic (a women’s detective agency in a time when women couldn’t vote or own property in their own names after marriage?). What’s going on here?
Will you answer the following questions for my school project?
No, but the answers you want are probably already somewhere on this website. Have you tried the search function?
What are you working on now?
A thriller set in Southeast Asia during the Second World War. My working title is Monsoon Season and it features Communists, spies and stranded Allied soldiers. I am TREMENDOUSLY excited about it!
How do I get published?
Everyone wants 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.
First, I finished my novel. 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 efficient 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 A Spy in the House came to be published.
Do you have any writing advice for me?
The most important thing is to read both widely and deeply – that is, read things that you wouldn’t gravitate towards, that make you uncomfortable. And read many examples of each type of book. You must be a reader before you are a writer.
What are your favourite resources for researching the Victorian period?
Online Resources (in 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.
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!
Where do you get your ideas?
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 museum/film/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.”
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”
I’m really struggling with my writing. Has it always been easy for you?
I had a miserable time writing Rivals in the City and blogged about it here. Hopefully, someone can learn from my particular set of mistakes.