Grousable Books

Published January 2022 Published March 2022 coming soon coming soon

So I’ll be spending more time here at my author blog

NaNo and Lydia Greenwood

Why has it been so long since my last post? Well, I’ll tell you. I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo.

For the blessedly uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s always November. Since 1999, writers and would-be writers from all over the country, and now the world, try to write a novel of 50,000 words from scratch in one month. It’s a challenge, to be sure, and I wanted to see if I could do it just for the hell of it.

My typical Victorian mysteries simply cannot be done in a month because of all the research involved. And my workflow is such that just writing without stopping continually to research is impossible. But how about a different genre?

It occurred to me that romance is very popular, that no (or very little) research need be involved, and that if it came out well I could publish it somewhere I would never put my mysteries, such as Kindle Unlimited or Wattpad. I happen to have discovered that a colleague from our local chapter of the Historical Novel Society was thinking of doing the same thing, so we’re both doing it.

Yes, I said romance. No, I have never written romance before. I am concerned enough that I’m using a pen name: Lydia Greenwood.

For NaNo, the word count is everything. You write as fast and best as you can, but shouldn’t go back or edit much as you go, or you won’t make the word count. I made it harder (but more useful) for myself by making my goal 65,000 words instead, which is closer to novel-length. What makes it even more difficult is that I am what they call a “pantser” — even when I try to create an outline of the plot to guide me, I end up just writing off the cuff instead, having little idea where I’m going.

I did try to create an outline in the last week of October, following a romance template, but it was quickly abandoned.

NaNo writers can register at the central website, and there are many local groups that meet both online and at local places. You can have as much or as little support as you wish. I have several “buddies” at the site, but we only have time to contact each other occasionally, and I don’t need the pep talks provided. I did attend a great presentation by Hank Phillippi Ryan, sponsored by Sisters in Crime, on the “Muddle in the Middle” (that middle of the book where things can slow down and get draggy). Got a few ideas of how to add excitement.

I did some reading about how to write a romance, and have concluded that there are some other challenges with a mystery writer doing romance:

1. The tendency to start with a dead body

OK, yes, I do, but only because he’s died without a designated heir and that’s part of the romance. Nobody has been murdered — at least, so far.

2. The desire to have an underlying puzzle

I could not for the life of me figure out what two people could do while falling in love that would be remotely interesting to an outsider. But if they solve a mystery together — aha!

3. The feeling there must be an antagonist

I learned that the couple must experience not only the opportunity to be together, but obstacles throughout that make the relationship unlikely or tricky, which adds an element of suspense. In mysteries, this would be an antagonist trying to stop them. Yeah, he’s in there, not trying to stop them from falling in love, but from getting what they want.

4. The confusion of goals

Each main character is supposed to have a goal, so in a romance it should be a goal other than to fall in love and have a romance. See why I ended up with a mystery back story? They must both want something for which love would get in the way. Love is inconvenient when you’re trying to do something else.

5. The burden of not being a romantic

I’m not a romantic, although I’m certainly not averse to candlelight and chocolates (the latter being more important, of course). Love can make people unsure of themselves and too daring at the same time. They do things they’d never do, experiencing a transformation of self that may be overly attached to the other person’s actions. I prefer motives like jealousy, money, revenge, hatred. So it’s more difficult for me to understand my characters, even as they write their own stories.

So wish me luck. I’m at 41,316 words and have taken time out to write this post. What will happen next? Where has our hero disappeared to? Will my heroine get the help she needs to undo the entail on her grandfather’s house? Will she find the miniature? And how can my hero and heroine have a relationship if he lies like a carpet and she swears like a hostler?

Ask Lydia Greenwood.

3 comments to NaNo and Lydia Greenwood

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Destroying history by post

This set of four 78 records was released in 1946. It survived McCarthyism, Elvis, the Vietnam War, the Reagan years, grunge, 9/11, and the election of a complete moron to the presidency, but it could not survive an eBay shop not knowing how to pack records properly for shipping.

Historical service announcement: Don’t ship antique objects without proper padding and boxing. Assume the postal service will toss it on the porch–they’re underpaid and shouldn’t have to care about your stuff. If you don’t know whether something is an antique, that means it was made a long time ago. Look it up.

1 comment to Destroying history by post

Presentation for H. G. Wells Society

This morning I had the pleasure of presenting to the H. G. Wells Society for their conference “Experiments in (Auto)biography: H.G. Wells and Life-Writing”. I was asked to talk about the background to my novel and my recent collection of his science teaching writings. It was fun!

For more on the books themselves, see my author website.

5 comments to Presentation for H. G. Wells Society

Dating Victorian forensic science

In my Victorian mysteries, the question of poison occasionally arises. Most Victorian poisoning stories use arsenic, because it was everywhere. Yes, it was in rat poison, but also in face lotion (stronger than Clearasil), wallpaper, and fabric (a cool green was made from copper arsenic pigment*), and it was easy to obtain. Arsenic, I’ve learned, is a very slow poison. It’s perfect for killing your husband over six months and making it look like he died of natural causes. It’s not going to cause your victim to keel over as he’s drinking tea, which is what I wanted. But eventually my detective must figure out what happened, so the question is: what did they know about detecting poison in the 1860s?

A casual internet search suggests very little was known in the 1860s. Most sites say that the only poison that could be discovered post-mortem was arsenic. That’s because of the Marsh Test, famously created after Dr. Marsh’s frustration at having a clear sample that wasn’t long-lasting enough to show a jury.

Looking for information on forensic science, after Marsh, leads to the late 19th century (1880s and 90s) as the time when fingerprinting, chemical testing, blood analysis, etc. came onto the scene. The implication is that there wasn’t much going on until then.

And then I discover that Dr. William Guy, who appears as a character in my first mystery, was Professor of Forensic Science at King’s College, London. If the field was that new, it seems to me, there wouldn’t be that title. I was looking for books from the 1860s that might have forensics information in them, and I found two by Guy, both written in 1861: Principles of Forensic Medicine (2nd edition!) and On the Colour-Tests for Strychnia, from lectures he had given. Aha!

For me, the story of doing historical research has always been this: whatever you think was “invented” at a particular time, its actual invention and use was earlier. We tend to rely on patents, which may be years later. That’s why I prefer contemporary journals and medical texts instead. Primary sources may not be more accurate (they usually show one point of view, after all), but they are proof of ideas in circulation.

I only knew William Guy for his public health measures, so I am again pleased at how Victorian professionals could be involved in so many different aspects of their calling. Now, to see what’s motivating my poisoner…


*Wallpaper with arsenic could be used in children’s rooms, which sounds horrific until you realize that it was toxic to bedbugs and other critters that bite children. This doesn’t make it ok, just explicable.

The Ins and Outs of The Feathers

The Feathers Tavern features in the short story I’m working on. In fact, its picture inspired it:

It was located, as the caption indicates, near Waterloo Bridge Road. But it’s five storeys tall, and the top floors seem to rest on a different street. My detective is going there to ask some questions, and I assume, looking at the picture, that there must be lodging on the upper floors. So I need to know my way about.

I first saw the image at the a 2017 blog post by beer blogger Boak & Bailey (try saying that with a mouthful of bar nuts). That excellent page, with corrective comments, noted the history of the place and its presumed location.

Then I looked at pubwiki, which helped me with the name and the address (Waterloo Road in 1856, so I’m going with that for 1863). Pubwiki is wonderful, and I’ve used it many times, because it includes all the known proprietors. Thus I was able to use the name of Henry Hobbs, actual proprietor in 1863.

Ian Chapman at the Lost Pubs Project noted:

The Feathers was situated at 177 Upper Ground. This was an unusual five-storey pub that has now been demolished. The upper part faced the southern approach to Waterloo Bridge and closed c1941. The lower part had its entrance in Upper Ground and closed c1951.

When I went to look at maps, however, several noted a Feathers Inn across the road, next to the stairs, closer to the river, as “site of”, such as this one from the National Library of Scotland’s map site, dated 1940-71:

After a bit more searching, I decided there may have been an Inn at one time, but that The Feathers Tavern is clearly across the street on what was a bend of Commercial Road, but after the war was called Upper Ground (which is kind of funny since it’s the lower side of the buildings – the upper floors are on Waterloo Road).

But, as has happened before, the fire insurance maps were the most help. I was trying to find where the tavern keeper would have taken deliveries, with one side of the building up and the other down. These maps, noted also on the Boak & Bailey site by the commenter, are archived at the British Library website, and many are online. Because they show how many storeys are in a building, the width of some roads, and the locations of important items for firefighters (water pumps, wooden roofs and signs, uncommonly narrow entrances), they are full of information. Here’s the area just around The Feathers.

There is the single flight of stairs from the picture in the upper left, and the P.H. (Public House). My partner-in-crime helped me check the visuals here, because I’m not that good at turning things around in my mind’s eye. The street it faces would be the bend of Commercial Road (later Upper Ground), the left side would face Waterloo Road (with the top three storeys of the building), and the opposite side is on an alley noted as “Commercial Buildings”. In the story, I have the wife of the proprietor taking deliveries in the alley, and it looks like there was possibly a yard going in behind the tavern building, so I’m good.

And yes, that’s how serious authors of historical novels do things!

AI image making

So I come upon an article on Medium about creating images from text descriptions, and it occurs to me this might be a cool way to make book covers. The technologies the article suggested required complex signups, so I searched and found NightCafe instead and tried it.

I chose “oil painting” and the “coherent” filter, typed in Victorian street Grimshaw and got this:

Apart from the weird sky, I cannot tell what the hell that figure is supposed to be. I can only tell it’s a person because it has feet.

Next effort:empty victorian street streetlamp cobbles cabriolet cloudy day.

Huh. Skies full of cobbles. OK, how about Victorian London, the artistic filter, and the “steampunk” setting:

The architecture is better, but what is that thing? I write historical mysteries. OK, so no steampunk setting, just Victorian London street and “oil painting”, back to the coherent filter:

Another creepy non-person. And that vehicle? Yeah, right.

OK, so historical isn’t happening. I’ll try what it’s supposed to do, fantasy. Moonlit Thames river boat, with the “heavenly” style and the artistic filter.

So, love the idea. Not thrilled with the execution. But I’m interested in looking more into this for sure!

2 comments to AI image making

After 33 years

I just finished grading the last batch of Final Essays for the last class I will be teaching as a full-time tenured history instructor at a community college.

There are so many reasons I’m leaving early, but one is that it had become untenable (and untenure-able) to continue as an academic who believes in civil discourse and rational analysis as more important than group identity and ease of academic achievement.

But I do love my students, and this last group turned in a batch of essays about how horrible American history has been to certain groups of people. Within these essays, I can see neither myself nor the history of my family, who love this country but have always striven to make it better.

So in my last teaching to this group, Modern American history, in an Announcement likely many will not read, I wrote:

I will say this is one of the most depressing batches of Final Essays I’ve ever read. Many were proven well, written well, with a good thesis, and got high marks, but I can sense some despair. So just a few points after going through the ups and downs of history myself, both academically and personally:

First, people can make change, even when there are deeply embedded inequities. Most progress in history is achieved by people doing exactly that. One way to do it is to live what you believe.

Second, celebrating the achievements of the past is not an exercise in futility. If we do not recognize and celebrate the steps forward, the people who did make good change, then they are forgotten. It’s not all about being angry and forceful; some of the most interesting change has been through the use of satire and comedy, and emphasizing our common humanity.

Last, we need nuance. Categorizing events as good or bad, people as whites or minorities, politics as left or right, causes more trouble than just divisiveness. It makes true understanding impossible, demonizing those who want to engage in rational thought and civil conversation. If you wrote an essay like that, try taking out the nouns that pigeon-hole Americans and qualify them by talking about what groups of people stand for, what’s important to them, rather than just their race, class, age, etc. It’s a good exercise.

It will make no difference, but after 33 of teaching the basic principles of historical research, rational analysis, and emphasis on the commonalities of humankind, I just wanted to say something.

4 comments to After 33 years

  • jmm

    I especially appreciate the last point regarding nuance (or ambiguity, or gray areas). It often strikes me that many of our social problems are caused by our unwillingness or inability (or both) to see complex issues as, in fact, complex. To roughly quote HL Mencken: Every complex problem has a solution that is simple, straightforward, and wrong.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Jim Sullivan once said my thesis for everything historical is “it’s more complicated than you think”!

  • I also have “retired” from teaching … but I hope that you continue to share your wisdom through this blog. I have learned so much from you over the years!

    And best of luck in your new endeavors!


    • Lisa M Lane

      Thanks, Britt! As you know, I’m doing some fiction writing now (currently editing the second Victorian mystery), so what I’ll be sharing may be more historical than teaching-oriented, but of course, I’m always teaching and learning. I’ve learned so much from you too!

Brand the book, surely?

As I’ve become a new author of fiction, I have read a lot of advice about how to become a successful author. First write a great book, they say. All right, I think I did. I wrote more than one.

Get known. This can happen through conferences where you meet like-minded writers and readers, on book sites such as GoodReads and LibraryThing, through Facebook groups, classes, clubs, and more. Make connections and learn at the same time. Sounds good.

Marketing, though, is complex. One can buy Facebook or Amazon ads, but these have various returns on investment. As of yet, I have sold few books, but to good reviews. Most of these are on LibraryThing, so my Amazon page doesn’t have any. Amazon isn’t just the elephant in the room. They control much of the book market. I am thus virtually unknown.

This isn’t me in London.

One must leverage social media to get known, so I have Instagram and TikTok as well as a Facebook author page. I post Victorian Background Checks where I talk for a minute about a book I’m using for research, recommending some good reads. Having a consistent tone and style on ones blog, social media, interviews, etc. creates a solid brand. Such a brand is an absolute necessity with so much competition.

But I keep hearing one should brand the author, not the book. Readers apparently want to know about the writer, about their personal life. I read author blogs where writers talk about their home, their spouses, their kids, and their pets. They post photos of themselves in new places, on holiday. I feel somewhat embarrassed reading them, like I’m being a voyeur. I liked their book, not their cat. Their work transported me to wonderful times and places, but I don’t need to know that they were at Disney World last weekend, or that their bathroom renovation is complete, or that they have a great bread recipe passed down from their grandmother.

If I’ve just read a book and loved it, I want the author’s website to tell me

  • the names of their other books,
  • the order in which their books were published, and
  • where I can buy them.

That’s it, really. Maybe some cool information about the characters, or the authorial version of “deleted scenes” — things, in other words, related to the work.

I don’t think I’ve known much more than what’s written on the flap for most of the authors I’ve read, and that’s been fine. Knowing about them breaks the fourth wall, as they say in cinema, or engages with direct address, as they call it in the theatre. Such things can be fun or interesting if they’re part of a piece, but not continually. I realize doing “meta” things is very popular at the moment, but it’s tedious after a short while.

                   This is not my cat.

In this world where any idiot can publish a book, everyone agrees that an author brand is a necessity, and that readers want to know who you are.  I’d prefer they know that I do my research, so they trust my depiction of the time and place. My personality (a little spiky, a little sarcastic, a little too intellectual) or my lovely face is unlikely to sell any books. And I don’t do fake very well.

But I am trying. One of the interview questions I recently answered asked what I do other than write. Before I would have talked about teaching, but now I don’t for two reasons. First, I got a review where the reader said they could tell I was a teacher. And more recently, because I just retired from the full-time faculty at my college after 33 years. (Everyone says, don’t quit your day job. I quit my day job.)

I do love gardening in addition to writing, so I can post about that. It’s something I do that a lot of people do, or they enjoy the product others create, as with writing books. It will give me more to post between Victorian Background Checks, make me more accessible-sounding, and perhaps interest those who like gardening. But I’ll be leaving my cat out of it.

2 comments to Brand the book, surely?

  • drs

    Dang, I wanna know more about the cat, any cat, your cat, not your cat! However, amid a world of dog lovers, you might best leave the cat writing aside. I do suspect your gardening is just the connection point needed by social media though. Especially since it provides opportunity for photos–of produce, of meals, of bugs eating your produce.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I’ll tell you, I’m trying the gardening thing, of books and plants etc. Not sure I get it yet, whether it’s really useful. But as long as a cat doesn’t wander into the photos, I should be good.

1927 review in 1926 book

One of the delightful things about buying used or second-hand books is that sometimes there are things inside. People tuck notes into books. They press flowers. They leave bookmarks. And in this book, The World of William Clissold by H.G. Wells (1926), the gentleman who owned the book (I know it was a man because he signed the flyleaf and put the date) left a clipping from a newspaper:

You can see the way the acids from the newspaper have stained the page of the book a darker color. Our reader dated the clipping: Mar 11, ’27. It’s a review of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Now at the time, there would have been no way to know that this would be a book that someone in 2022 would have heard of, that it would stand the test of time. It has, so I know the story, and was interested to read the review. The reviewer didn’t care for it at all, which I find rather funny.

So we have a bit of history inside a bit of history. Lovely.

Dividend Day

I was looking for something else, of course, something about the Bank of England in 1860 that I could use in my fourth mystery, Murder at the Gasworks. My tome for this is The City of London, Volume I by David Kynaston. And in it I found a description of something at the Bank called Dividend Day, as noted by David Morier Evans in 1845. He anonymously wrote a book that Kynaston relies on quite a bit, The City; or, the Physiology of London Business; with sketches on ‘Change, and at the Coffee Houses. He described an old man with a wooden leg sitting all day waiting for his dividend.

[An aside: I’ve learned a bit about the coffee houses in the City, especially Garraway’s, which was near the Exchange (the ‘Change). Some actually served coffee during the day. Garraway’s at one point was a wine place, and it laid out sandwiches sliced up on a side counter for lunch. Many of the coffee houses used their ground floor as exchanges where products like coffee and tea were bought in bulk. Some kept collections of all the newspapers, which could become large archives. Deacon’s Coffee House kept files with every issue of the Times, so I’ve set a scene where my detective goes there to do research and overhears something interesting.]

So, the Bank. I search for “dividend day bank of england” and find this artwork:

George Elgar Hicks created this in 1859, the year before my novel, and it looks like fun. All those different kinds of people at the Bank! The dog! The child! I know they aren’t just customers, because the Bank of England wasn’t that kind of bank. They didn’t take ordinary deposits and they didn’t pay interest. So what is Dividend Day, anyway?

Evans describes the scene:

At least fifty clerks are sitting in a circle in a high vaulted saloon, well provided with a cupola and lanterns. They do nothing whatever but pay and weigh, and weigh and pay. On all sides, the rattling of gold, as they push it with little brass shovels across the tables. People elbowing and pushing in order to get a locus standi near the clerks; the doors are continually opening and shutting.

It turns out that it was the way for ordinary people to invest in the Bank of England and the government. According to the National Trust, “‘Consols’, as the Consolidated Government Annuities yielding an unvarying interest of 3% per annum were known, were the only investment permitted to the trustees of widows, orphans, and the like…” Even these days, I can see why people would be excited about 3%.

Kynaston says this was a half-yearly event, but in trying to find the exact date for 1860, I discovered it was more likely quarterly. Why is the date important? Because my book takes place between June 9, when Eliza Feltham stole doilies from Lady Emily Peel’s table at the Crystal Palace, and July 9, when she was tried at the Old Bailey*. I’d love to have a scene take place during Dividend Day and yes, as near as I could tell, this was always on July 5.

There is a subplot about a spy in the Bank, you see, so this will fit.

* Both Lady Emily Peel and Eliza Feltham were real people, and these were real events