Never on Sunday

or at least not until the 1890s at the National Gallery.

I had just completed the first draft of Murder at an Exhibition, the second book of what should eventually become the Tommy Jones Mystery trilogy. I’m working now on the editing.

Deeply embedded in the plot is the idea that the National Gallery in London was closed on Sundays. The murder victim has special permission to be there on Sundays, and is murdered there on the quiet. The action takes place in 1863.

As a fiction writer, I admit to keeping much rougher notes than I do as a historian. I had looked through a couple of guidebooks of the era, and had confirmed, to my satisfaction, that the gallery was open six days a week, with four for the public and two for students only (which two days differed by guidebook, strangely). No source mentioned Sundays, so I kept writing.

Then a wrench appeared in the works.

I love how many free lectures there have been during the pandemic, and I recently attended one about the Victorian art world. The speaker noted that in 1845, the National Gallery opened on Sundays to encourage working people, who worked six days a week. The speaker also said that the grubbiness of the working people caused problems, leading to a Select Committee meeting in 1850.

The speaker used this image:

This shows working men viewing pictures at the gallery in 1870. I know that the National Gallery offered many free days, so there’s no reason this had to be on a Sunday. But it made me uncomfortable. Her talk led me to believe that perhaps the National Gallery had been open on Sundays in 1863, ruining my story.

Members of the Facebook group for the Historical Novel Society helped me out, not just with their own information but their encouragement to contact the National Gallery, where a wonderful assistant actually sent me their record of opening hours for their whole history as they knew it. No Sundays in 1863.

But the speaker had been so sure. Could there have been a trial run? I researched through Hansard, which has the debates of the House of Commons, and found much arguing about opening both the National Gallery and the British Museum on Sundays, but no conclusion. So I posted at the Victoria listserv, a place where every Victorianist who’s anybody meets up. Several members helpfully responded with books and records. I’m now 99.9% sure the Gallery was closed.

Yes, I know, if it’s this much trouble for me to confirm, I should be comfortable just showing it was closed on Sundays. It’s a fictional work, not a research project. Except that all my fictional works are research projects. Whether it’s important to the reader or not, it is ridiculously important to me that the facts be accurate, and if they’re not accurate then I’d better have a damned good reason why, and an Author’s Note. That’s just how I roll.

A character pesters the author

Jo is back, looking over my shoulder.

“So when do I come in?” she asks, with a frown.

“I’m not even sure you’ll be in this one,” I say.

“How can I not be? I was in the other two. It’s a trilogy, you said.”

“I only said that because I didn’t want to write more than three. I’m not even sure I want to write the third one, but now that I’ve started with Clerkenwell, I might as well.”

“I’m in Shoe Lane,” Jo points out. “That’s not far from Clerkenwell, and there are a number of printers in both places.”

“I didn’t discover there were printers in Shoe Lane till yesterday. How did you know?”

“I live there. So when do I make an appearance in this book?”

“I only just started,” I protest. “I’m barely halfway through the first scene. Right now I don’t know anything except Samson Light is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.”

“Oh, Samson,” Jo says, looking at the ceiling. “That’s Tommy’s tutor, right? I don’t remember whether I’ve met him.”

“I don’t either. That’s part of the problem. I keep having to return to the other books to know where I am. But if I set this one in 1870 –”

“Then I’m thirty-six. A perfect age for an independent woman. I could be running the Illustrated London News by now.”  She starts sorting the pencils in my cup.

“No, you can’t. I’m trying to keep as true to history as possible.” Jo makes a face.

“Jo, I adore you. I do. I made you the detective in the second book. The entire novel went all feminist because of you.”

She smiles. “Of course it did.” She smooths her skirt and perches on the corner of my desk. Easy to do, since she never wears a crinoline. It’s one of the things I like most about her. “Will I be solving the crime they think Samson committed?”

I shake my head. “No. I think I need to have Tommy solve it.”

“But he’s only nineteen!”

“I know, but you see, this was supposed to be the ‘Tommy Jones Mysteries’. In the first one he helps Inspector Slaughter, but he’s hardly even in the second book. He needs more visibility.”

Jo thinks for a moment. “I’d call them the ‘Jo Harris Mysteries’, and make me the detective. Or even the villain.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“What will you do with Rossetti?”

“I don’t need him here. I only needed him for the art mystery.” She looks sad. “Will you miss him?”

“I have no idea,” Jo says haughtily, “since I don’t even know if I’ll be here to miss anyone.”

I say nothing.

Jo sighs. “You take away all my friends, you know. Nan in the first book. Now Rossetti. If you give me a friend, may I keep him, or her, this time?”

“Yes.”

“You promise? If I’m in the last book I can keep my friend?”

“Would you like to be with someone? A lover or life partner?” I reach for a pencil.

“Yes. Maybe with a child? A little girl that we can raise together. We could raise a little suffragist, and she could grow up to gain women the right to vote.”

I do some calculations. “If she’s three years old in 1870, she’ll be almost 50 before women get the national franchise.”

Jo’s chin drops. “What? That long? That’s outrageous.”

I shake my head. “I know, I know.”

“Well,” says Jo, her jaw set in that way I’ve come to know so well, “Even if I don’t live to see it, it’s still worth doing.”

24 hours in Clerkenwell Gaol

Yesterday, lazily wondering what the premise might be for the last mystery in my trilogy, I decided I wanted a character held in prison awaiting trial while my protagonist runs around London trying to clear him of the charge of . . . well, I don’t know yet. Having already set the first mystery in Southwark, and the second around Holborn, I was cruising around Clerkenwell because I wanted to get a little more East End-ish but not go all out Dickensonian. I’m thinking 1870. Maybe my guy should be accused of stealing this clock (Clerkenwell was known for clock-making):

I knew the infamous Coldbath Fields prison was in the area, because I have a previous character in prison there for debt, but I was seeking not a prison but a gaol, a place where they hold people until they go to trial.( I’ve seen too many Father Brown episodes to want my character rescued after he’s been convicted — it’s way too complicated.) And there seemed to be one in the area, but it took a lot of searching to get it all separated from Coldbath Fields and the other prison buildings that had been on the same property before. As one website tried to explain it:

Clerkenwell (old) Prison, also known as the Clerkenwell House of Detention or Middlesex House of Detention was a prison in Clerkenwell, London, opened in 1847. It held prisoners awaiting trial. It stood on Bowling Green Lane conveniently close to the Middlesex Sessions House, where prisoners would be tried, on Clerkenwell Green to the south.

Well that helped with location, anyway. Then it goes on:

The House of Detention was built on the site of two earlier prisons, the Clerkenwell Bridewell for convicted prisoners and the New Prison for those awaiting trial. The Bridewell closed in 1794 and its functions were taken over by the Coldbath Fields Prison at Mount Pleasant. The New Prison was rebuilt in 1818 and in 1847, at which time its name changed to the House of Detention.

Confused? Me too. Was it the Middlesex House of Corrections? No, I think that’s Coldbath Fields. House of Detention? Why isn’t anyone calling it a gaol? So Dickens Junior, ever the tour guide, decided to help out, via this page:

House of Detention —affectionately termed by the “profession” the House of Distinction, or more familiarly “the Tench “—is designed primarily for untried prisoners, the discipline being less severe than elsewhere. Prisoners under short sentence of imprisonment without hard labour—technically first-class misdemeanants — are also confined here; being not required to wear any distinctive dress or to have their hair cropped. It stands between Woodbridge-street and Rosoman-street, Clerkenwell. NEAREST Railway Station, Farringdon-street; Omnibus Routes, Exmouth-street and Goswell-road; Cab Rank,Clerkenwell-green.

– Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879

I also started coming across the floor plan, which made it easier to identify.

http://www.victorianlondon.org/prisons/detention.gif

One ghost tour also calls it the House of Detention. By this point, I’m pretty sure I have the right place. And look! It’s still kind of there, though it’s called Clerkenwell Prison.

The Old Sessions House was the Middlesex Sessions House, where the cases were taken for trial, so that helps too.

I even found some engineering information. (And this, children, is why I abandoned studying medieval technology for Victorian England, where there are a fabulous number of sources, all in English and none of them copyrighted.)

This picture kept coming up as I worked, claiming to be visiting hours at Clerkenwell prison, but I was unable to verify if this was the place I wanted.

It looks so nice, all the visitors talking to their friends and loved ones in the door holes. But is this the place? I start looking, as one does, at the Illustrated London News, but no. After doing image search and finding the image on Wikipedia, which does occasionally cite sources, it appears it’s not from the Illustrated London News (or the “Chronicle” as noted on another page), but from Henry Mayhew’s The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life (1862). Stupidly, I go looking at Biblio.com and other vendors to buy it ($65!) only to find the whole book, downloadable for free, at Google Books. (Every time I start to yell at Google for being a monstrosity, they do something nice.)

And in that book was everything: not just the image but what kind of prisoner went in what sort of cell, what furniture was in each cell, where the windows were, what sorts of crimes people were in for, and even a menu:

I don’t think it’s right that if he’s there for three months he doesn’t get a pint of cocoa, but no one asked me. Or Mr Mayhew.

After 24 hours, I have a place! And then something serendipitous happened. I was having trouble finding something to watch on the Roku during my exercises when BritBox conked out, so I started watching the film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (I have been waiting till it was long enough after reading it to see the movie). There’s a scene in a jazz club, and I’m thinking, that looks like Clerkenwell Prison. But of course I’ve got Clerkenwell Prison on the brain, and so I look it up and what do you know: that’s where it was filmed, in the cellar. You can go there and visit the cellar, which didn’t get destroyed in the Blitz, or even hire it for events.

Writing update

I have now completed four books, each with a completely different writing process, and all because I couldn’t concentrate on the one I was supposed to be writing. The neglected work is the non-fiction book on H. G. Wells’ life in education, Preposterous and Necessary: The Education of H. G. Wells, for which I’ve been gathering evidence for four years.

The first book that’s ready is the collection of Wells’ science education writings, cleverly entitled H. G. Wells on Science Education, 1886-1896, which took three summers in English libraries. I am submitting it to academic presses, since the publisher who originally indicated interest has since turned it down. It might work better as a Digital Humanities project, but I’ve been refused for so many grants I haven’t the heart to apply for any. (It has finally occurred to me that grants are intended for “early career” young people attached to universities, not for older women teaching community college and researching on their own.)
The second is an auto-fictional novella, Before the Time Machine. This was the book I had to write, and it wrote itself, night after night. I then tried to organize it on sticky notes, pasted all over an interior double-door, but I’m not sure what that did other than create an intriguing decor. It’s been alpha-read by wonderful friends and edited by me and, although I had Rachel Cusk-ian dreams for it, it will likely be self-published for a small and deeply disturbed readership who wants to dig deep for their books.
The third is the first historical mystery, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, set in 1862 London with a medical focus. Here I tried Scrapple to keep my timeline organized, because it was writing itself out of control and my characters were wandering off doing their own thing. I had to make sure that the sequence was right. At first I tried doing some planning using the timeline, but instead defaulted to writing first and then entering the scenes on the timeline, moving things around if they didn’t fit. Sort of what I intended for the sticky notes for the novella. It’s finished, edited by me, and ready for (self?) publication after one more proof-reading pass.
The fourth is the sequel, Murder at an Exhibition, set in 1863 London with an artistic focus. Actual historical figures took a larger role in this one. I tried desperately to outline and plan ahead, which was a disaster and caused much angst, as readers of this blog already know.  Ultimately it has come together, with some scene editing still to do before line editing, but it’s basically complete.

And now? I’m stuck. I have an idea for a third mystery, to make a trilogy, but perhaps jumping ahead to 1884. It seems to want to just float in my head, and isn’t really begging to be written. Perhaps that will come. Preposterous and Necessary waits in the wings. It doesn’t want to be written yet, perhaps because its annual infusion of Britishness has been stymied by what will likely be two summers of being unable to go to England. Such a trip is technically unnecessary at this point, since I have almost all of the material, but it seems somehow essential. I try an occasional short story, but they tend to be very short, under 1000 words, not really flash fiction (no flash) but not long enough to interest anyone. I can also blame being stuck on lack of space in which to work, brain mush, faulty organization, teaching a lot, and the siren call of Other Things to Do, but none of these prevented me hacking out novels.

So instead I’m writing this post. With four books done and nothing published, it’s all I can do.

 

Breaking Publishing Rules

In the same vein as my Breaking Writing Rules post, I’ve now surveyed the options for publishing, and here are some early returns. It’s long-winded and is really the story of what I’ve learned and how I discovered that my new avocation could become too expensive if I’m not very careful.

Here are the rules (I’ve underlined my new vocabulary words):

First, get an agent

Conventional wisdom is if you want to get published by the Big Five publishing houses, you need an agent. And this is true. Not just the Big Five but many smaller publishing houses simply won’t accept “unagented” submissions.

What an agent does is help you get a publisher. Sometimes they work hard, other times not; sometimes they are highly successful, other times not.

Agents are treated as elite gatekeepers, who can make or break a writing career. Some take months to reply to a query. Some won’t even answer emails — they are too busy and important. My classic movie image of the agent wearing out shoe leather to get their author noticed is wrong.

Conventional wisdom says it’s hard to get a good agent, and that you may be rejected by 40 or more of them before you find one, and that’s supposed to be ok. I have been querying agents. This has become a whole industry; there are classes and workshops you can buy just on writing a good query letter.

Over a dozen agents have rejected my literary novel so far. For the first mystery novel, two agents (one of whom requested my work after seeing my pitch on Twitter) asked to read the whole thing before rejecting it.

Get an agent for your whole career

This one is a little more controversial. If you write repeatedly in the same genre, it makes sense. I have finished four books: one reference book, one literary novel, and two mysteries. The reference book doesn’t need an agent, since it would go to an academic press anyway. The others are in two different categories.

If you read agents’ wish lists you plow through many, many agent profiles at various websites, some of which you have to pay to access. You are paying to access lists of gatekeepers, put together by gatekeeping organizations who let you in for some cash, in return for doing the legwork of collecting lists.

Already I’m getting a little edgy about this. Frankly, I expected to work on not being hurt when my work was rejected by publishers. I did not expect to have my work rejected by those who hadn’t read it and were only intermediaries. Agents don’t get paid by the author — they take a cut of book sales.

Try small presses who take unagented  submissions

I’ve been trying a few of these. They tend to be very kind, and one even told me why they were rejecting my literary novel, which was helpful. (It helped me understand that they didn’t understand what I was doing with the book.)

Authors sometimes complain about the strict rules that small presses use regarding the formatting of submissions. I have no complaint when they want perfect copy, a certain font, a certain subject line. Most, however, publish very few books a year, because they can’t make much money, especially with printed books. They need known authors and popular works to make ends meet.

Some ask for your marketing plan. What will the author do to market their work? Are they known on social media? How many “followers” do they have? Gone are the days, says the conventional wisdom, when publishers did your publicity. You have to do it yourself, market your books everywhere with professional social media, book tours, and…

Writing conventions

Thanks to pandemia, I’ve been to several of these online. I’ve blogged about them, and absorbed much advice. But the more I attend, the more the advice is the same, and it’s often from the same people. And every speaker is trying to sell their own books. They also recommend more books on writing. I’ve bought half a dozen of the books recommended at conferences. Most of them have gone right back out to the thrift store.

One can also take a class, to learn the tricks for writing a best-selling book. I did this for mysteries. For classes, the instructors seem to be mostly writers teaching classes to supplement the sale of their books. And every website on how to write and publish has a link to the author’s books at the bottom. It’s hard to make a living writing books.

Conventional wisdom is that to be known as an author, one must get known at the conventions, and join groups of writers. The larger organizations charge dues, of course. I will need to join both mystery writers and historical novelists for a start. In the meantime, I’ve joined Facebook groups. Some of the people are quite wonderful. But even in groups which claim to eschew self-promotion, many of the posts reference the poster’s book, and how to buy it.

Everywhere I go to meet writers, I find writers trying to sell their books to other writers. That seems odd.

Don’t like it? Self publish!

Long ago I edited my high school newspaper. I remember going to the printers to check the galleys, moving things around and re-pasting with rubber cement. When I got my first typewriter, I created a family newsletter. My first computer was also used for a primitive form of desktop publishing. In a sense, I’ve been self-publishing forever, so this sounds possible.

Conventional wisdom says avoid hybrid presses. They are the old vanity presses. They offer various options, from submitting camera-ready copy to having a Word file and no idea what to do. Either way, you pay thousands up front, and these “self-publishing companies” help with everything, including formatting, printing, and distributing.

I’ve been learning a lot about the self-publishing process. Even if you just want to publish just an e-book, you have a choice of several services and programs. Conventional wisdom says. . .

Hire professionals

First you need beta readers for the manuscript. Alpha readers are family and friends. Beta readers are those who read manuscripts and give an honest opinion. They can be paid or you can read their work in exchange.  (I wish I were willing to read other people’s poor writing, but frankly I do that for a living already.)

Then hire an editor, they say. Otherwise your book will be crap. Go to Fiverr or Reedsy, and find a good editor. I go there, and find there are many types of editing, including developmental, copy, and line editing. Editors charge for each kind, often hundreds for a full novel. More power to them.

Hire someone to design your book cover (and the back cover and spine — that’s separate), they say. Super important to have a great cover, because people buy books based on their cover, even e-books. Oh, and hire someone to do the internal formatting of the text, which is different for e-books and print, and someone to write the blurb. I mean, yeah, they say, you can just go on Amazon and upload a pdf, but it won’t sell because it won’t look professional.

Then you need reviews, or the book won’t sell. Kirkus is respected: $425 minimum. Join reviewer groups, many with a fee, and create mailing lists of your readers. Give out free copies (Advance Review Copies) to get people to review before your launch. Without reviews, you’re sunk. And you need some quotations for the cover. And you might need to hire a publicist.

Rake in royalties through self-publishing

There seem to be two six-hundred pound gorillas in the self-publishing room. One is Amazon and the other is Ingram. Both have a huge distribution network. Seeking the widest possible market is to go wide. Going deep is doing everything with Amazon; going wide is looking toward global distribution of the print book as well as the e-book, but not having access to Amazon’s perks.

Love Amazon? Then great, because you might get 70% royalties for your e-book with their KDP publishing program. But that’s if you sell the e-book at between $2.99 and $4.99. Better yet, use their KDP Select exclusive deal, where you can’t sell anywhere else, or you won’t get that much and, more importantly, your book won’t rise up in the searches so no one will find it. They’ll also print the book for you, but the price will be high.

Don’t like Amazon? Pay a company like Draft2Digital to create and distribute your e-book. Some of these companies take up to 60%, and of course if the book costs too much it won’t sell. For print, they set minimum prices to recoup their costs. My mystery comes out at about $13 for a paperback, which seems high. For print, keep in mind that Ingram Spark itself is really two companies, a publisher (Spark) and a book seller (Ingram Books), and each takes a cut.

Just want to use Amazon as a seller? You can get your e-book published somewhere like Draft2Digital, and printed somewhere like Lulu (which may have better quality but is more expensive than Ingram), then sell both on Amazon. Amazon will take an additional cut after your self-publishing company does.

Any of these, if you get about $1 for each book you sell, consider yourself lucky.

None of this is what I’d call “self-publishing”. Self-publishing is grabbing the manuscript from your shy sister in the village, running down to the print shop in town, and having books made, paid for by your rich uncle in the country. The closest thing we have now is selling the e-book on your own website. Then you’d become a distributor and marketer. If you have lots of people who are following you on social media, this might work. (For me, I’d be reaching about 45 people at most, and reaching readers is more important to me than profits.) For print books, you could pay for printing, then send books out of your house. There’s postal service in every village.

Face it: it’s gonna cost you $4,000 at least

All along this yellow brick road on the way to publishing Oz are people and companies who need to get paid. And that’s after one pays $125 for single ISBN (and you need two if you’re doing both paper and ebook) from the only company authorized to sell them in your country. (They offer additional services for pay, naturally.) Plus $125 more if you need a bar code for the paper version. And $85 to register copyright if you want to be able to sue anyone who violates yours. So add these to the cost of beta readers, editors, e-book formatting, print-ready formatting, cover design, interior design, blurb writing, printing, publishing, distributing, and selling.

Really, one conference speaker said, self-publishing will cost you as much as hybrid publishing, from $4,000-10,000 per book to do it right. If you can’t get an agent your only choice is hybrid or self, and either way it’s the same cost. My mission, of course, is to do more for less. A lot less.

So now what?

Somewhere through all this, I realized that I should self-publish, not because it makes money or I have more creative control, but because I won’t be cooperative with the marketing. This is true even if by some miracle I had a New York agent and a Big Five Publisher. I have no intention of sitting at Barnes and Noble hawking my book from a table, pretending I’m an extrovert and talking to strangers. I don’t think I’ll want to sit on a panel or stand behind a microphone and talk about my book.

It’s a book. It’s supposed to be read, by a reader, privately, wherever they prefer to read. I speak to the reader through the work, their head against mine. A book tour sounds like the fourth circle of hell. It should make absolutely no difference who I am, what I look like, or whether I like cats or holiday in the Seychelles. I’m already struggling with the author website.

And there’s the money. I can’t spend too much, for a variety of reasons. So here’s my conclusion:

  • Writing — I have thus far spent $50 on Scrivener, plus money for printer paper and ink, and numerous books for research (but that’s education).
  • Beta readers — I have good, highly educated, and creative alpha reader friends.
  • Editing — I believe I can navigate through the editing myself, despite the pitfalls.
  • Book cover — There are free book covers, and I can tell a crappy cover from an uncrappy one. Or I’ll be nice to artist friends.
  • Interior formatting — I’m trying Calibre for the e-book, but could also use Reedsy’s book editor or Ingram’s if I go with them for print.
  • Blurb — If I can write a book, I can write a blurb.
  • Reviews — Reviews will have to come afterwards, from people who’ve read the book and care to say what they thought, without me paying them.
  • ISBN — There’s no way out of the ISBN cost if I want a paper book, and I do. I won’t read on a backlit device, and there are others like me, especially among those who would enjoy my book in the first place. $295 for 10 should do all three books.
  • Printing — Since I don’t want horrid-looking amateurish books, I can’t do anything about the printing service taking a cut for their profit, because they’ll be producing a tangible item and need to stay in business.
  • Distributing — If I want anyone other than friends to read the book, I will have to access a distributor and pay them. This cost is combined with printing for Ingram and Amazon.
  • Selling — The “bookstore”, virtual or physical, will take a cut, even if I do Print on Demand.

  • Ethics — If I go down to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil or twist myself into ethical pretzels, the result would be Amazon KDP Select for e-book distributing, and Ingram for print book publication and distributing. Then get out the Sir Kensington’s mustard.

I see now that, rather than having an income stream from writing, it is far more likely that I won’t so much as break even on the costs. It’s likely I’ll get pennies for each copy sold (if I don’t actually have to pay out for each copy), and will never recoup the money I spend getting it published even with the absolutely cheapest option. I’d still rather they be out there in the world. I didn’t write them to sit in a drawer.

I’ll start a new piggy bank. If it doesn’t work, as they say, watch this space. I might serialize the novels and put them up on line for free. In fact, I may do that anyway.

 

 

 

 

Breaking Writing Rules

As I’ve spent the last year or so discovering the various rules for writing fiction, I can now say which ones I’ll break.

1. Start with a hook

I did try this. Well, not for my first novel, but for the Victorian mystery and its sequel. The hooks sit there, dangling themselves to interest the reader. They’re not brilliant, I don’t think they’re necessary, and if I were the reader I’d want to skip them.

2. Just write — don’t edit as you go

I recently read this advice in a writers’ group, and I’ve seen it before in a number of books. Just let it flow, they say. Turn on your writer brain and turn off your editor brain.

Trouble is, after a few pages of writing, my sensible brain says I’d better go back and take a look and make sure it’s not crap. Or I need to go back and say where the door is located in the room. Or I need to go back and mention her hair is red. I gotta do it now or I’ll forget. Once I do, I can move forward writing again.

It’s said that you can’t write with a (self) critic looking over your shoulder. But I need mine. She’s good at it and I like to keep her close. Plus, when I’m really too tired to write, we can go back a few scenes and do editing instead.

3. Keep your reader in mind

Who is my reader? The Amazon customer who needs $1 more in his cart to get free shipping? The reader of 425 Victorian murder mysteries who wants a fix? I have no delusions that Simon and Schuster will call to say they want to publish my work, and are bringing over those wealthy educated readers who’ll pay $34.95 for the hardback.

Really, there are two problems with keeping the reader in mind. One is that every reader is different. This is why writing groups are so fascinating and so frustrating. Everyone has a different idea of what should be changed, improved, kept. The other is that I am the reader.  If I have to engage in Brown-like and Grisham-like formulaic writing, I’ll stop writing all together. (The one bit of advice I will follow is that you should write the book you want to read.)

4. Use the pattern of rising action, climax, denouement

In my first mystery, the dead body refused to make its appearance until the end of chapter three. I do sort of have a rising action, as people work around trying to figure out whodunnit. And I did manage to contrive a threatening scene to expose the murderer.

But in the sequel, the body falls in somewhere around chapter five, and I keep adding stuff before it. Then after that body, a couple of other things happen, including an attack in a park. And the police are on a different track than our detective, who doesn’t even know she’s the detective yet although I’m over half-way through the book. The murder, rather than being central to the story, seems to be only one of several factors contributing to the overall story. Which causes the problem of. . .

5. Write in one genre

I can say my first novel is literary fiction, but it doesn’t really fit that genre because the prose is not celestial by any means. While it is not impossible to describe the story, there is neither a typical plot nor a traditional character arc for the protagonist. The Victorian mystery should be easier — it’s a mystery. Well, a historical mystery. Except the sequel, as noted above, seems to be more like an historical novel with a mysterious element.

The other problem I have with genre is that I don’t like crime novels. I only read historical mysteries, and my historical era has contracted until it’s just the Victorian. And just England. Should I join the Mystery Writers of America? Facebook groups of crime writers? I tried that and I now receive countless posts promoting crime books I’d never, ever read (I’m really rather squeamish about violence, and I cannot tolerate cruelty). I am not even interested in modern-day cozies anymore (I have read all the Rita Mae Browns, but that was a long time ago). You shouldn’t join groups whose work you don’t want to read. That’s . . . anti-social networking.

6. Plot out mysteries carefully

As I’ve indicated, I tried very hard to do become a plotter. I mapped out the sequel to my Victorian mystery in the assignments for the mystery writing class I took. Yes, it was a fine plot. But as I started writing, I resisted it. Now I have quite the mess to write my way out of, trusting the process instead.

Is it wrong to plot? Not at all. But if I do it, it becomes like an outline for an academic paper. I feel like I have to fill it in. I’m writing fiction to get away from that.

7. Make sure the main character experiences a threatening challenge to which s/he responds by overcoming an embedded weakness

My literary novel features a decidedly more passive MC (main character) than some might like. That is part of her personality, and it is important that the other central character moves more and faster than she does. My MC’s threatening challenge is only mildly apparent until the end, when it overcomes her. The other character’s weakness is only apparent in retrospect, if at all.

But surely in mysteries this should be easier? Nope. My Victorian mysteries feature an inspector who loves books and a female illustrator as the “detectives”. Neither has much of a weakness, and certainly not a fatal flaw like alcoholism or the pain of a spouse’s unsolved death (a seemingly popular motif these days). Readers tell me they like them anyway. And even more importantly, I like them.

8. Don’t use too much dialogue

Last year I realized I had trouble writing dialogue, so I worked on it. Now I write too much. Most of the scenes I write are dialogue-based. I have read that this is wrong, so I tried to change it. But then I happened to start reading Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, which contains many pages of continuous dialogue. If it’s good enough for Hardy, it’s good enough for me. While I will add more descriptions to such scenes, the conversations will remain central.

9. Have good “comps”

This is the idea that your query to agents and publishers must compare your book to others which are known. I have tried this with my literary novel (“kind of like Rachel Cusk”) and my Victorian mystery (“such as Anne Perry”). But lately I have been thinking it is more important to note what I am not doing. I am not, like other authors I could name, simply using the era as a setting in which characters do their thing. That seems to be a trend now. Pick an era (the American West, medieval Germany), do a bit of research so you have the clothes and vehicles right, then write a tale that could take place absolutely anywhere and be exactly the same. I’m a historian. Universal stories are all very well, but historical fiction should not only be embedded in its time, but should give us some insight into the period.

Another issue about “comps” is that although I consider myself “well-read”, I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I do read Cusk, Sarah Perry, Alexander McCall Smith, and Kate Morton. But I don’t read a lot of the super-popular formulaic stuff. So when I see an author’s posting saying “my book is the next x“, most of the time I have no idea what x is. And I can’t go around saying my comps are Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and H. G. Wells because they aren’t.

10. Engage professional services

Assuming you don’t need actual paid help learning to write, or get picked up by one of the “big five” publishing houses, then we’re talking $875 to publish with a bit of help from a hybrid publisher. Plus $600 for a developmental editor. $300 for a book cover designer. And this is after that $50 class in how to write a query and get an agent. Then you need a line editor, a publicity person, a proofreader, beta readers. Not happening, say I.

Combine these with the rest:

  • always write mysteries as a series
  • spend three times as much time editing as you did writing
  • slash and burn pages when your editor tells you to
  • “kill your darlings” (Stephen King) because if they mean that much to you they’re personal and won’t sell
  • be aware of the market
  • write what you know
  • novels are 70,000 words

and we may have good advice, but not necessarily for my work. I could renege on my rebellion tomorrow and do what I’ve learned I should do, but I doubt I will.

 

 

Two Characters in Search of their Teaching Author

“Excuse me,” said Jo, from inside the computer. “Lisa? I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we need some attention here.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. “But I have a lot of grading to do.”

“You always do,” said Jo. “And we understand. But you’ve left us hanging around here in Chapter 3 for almost six weeks.”

“Yes, yes,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. “But we are in a pandemic, you know, and I’ve had a death in the family, and I’m behind on my teaching work.”

“But we’re losing the thread here,” said Jo, “and I’m afraid Rossetti is getting impatient.”

“Hmmm,” I said, trying to grade just one more set of student lecture notes.

“Lisa?” This was Rossetti now. “Trouble is, I’m an actual historical character.”

“Unlike me,” added Jo.

“Unlike Jo,” agreed Rossetti, “And I’m known for my impetuous nature.”

“And your charm,” said Jo.

“And my charm,” conceded Rossetti, “And my brilliance and talent and vivacity. You can’t leave us sitting here in the chapter like this. We must shine.”

“We need to know where things are going,” said Jo.

“Well,” I said, “You know where things are going. There’s the outline.”

Jo laughed. “You said you weren’t going to use the outline. Right after you took that Mystery Writing class. I can’t do all this planning, you said, and bought a book about writing in the dark, or something about the seat of your pants.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “But you can use the outline to know what’s going to happen.”

“But I don’t know,” said Jo. “We’ve only just discovered the body of Mr Pratchett. I’m supposed to be the lady detective this time, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are. The Inspector did all the work in the first mystery, but this time it’s you.”

“I cannot detect without having something to detect with. A plot or a clue or something. If I don’t have it, I can’t share it with Rossetti.”

“And we’re becoming such good friends,” added Rossetti.

“Yes, we’re becoming such good friends,” said Jo.

“Which you hadn’t planned,” added Rossetti.

“Which I hadn’t planned,” I said, “because Rossetti was a rather famous lover of women, and you, Jo, are a lesbian.”

“She’s a lesbian?” asked Rossetti.

“Yes,” said Jo, “Didn’t you know about my lover Nan, the one who died?”

“No,” said Rossetti quietly.

“She was in the first book.”

“I didn’t read the first book,” said Rossetti, “I wasn’t in the first book. Why would I read a book I’m not in?”

“Oh,” said Jo.

“Look, you two,” I said, “Maybe you’ll become close friends because there’s no sexual tension. Or maybe you’ll both just get excited about the case and enjoy joining forces. You’ve already joined forces really. You’ve already taken Jo to see the wombats.”

“I did,” said Rossetti proudly, “and she’s to be my very dear friend. If you write it that way.” There was a pause. “Are you going to write it that way?”

“I think so,” I said, “But it’s been awhile. I was having trouble with the plot.”

“Well,” said Jo, “you need to write us more, give us more things to do. We can’t just sit here waiting for you to finish your grading. It’ll be all term. We won’t move till winter break at this rate. And all the time, the killer is getting away.”

“How can he be getting away, if I haven’t written about him either?” I asked, reasonably.

“Maybe he’s planning another murder. Maybe the head of the National Gallery is involved. Maybe he’ll start killing artists!” She sounded afraid.

“Or Bridget,” said Rossetti, “He might kill Bridget. Bridget is Mr Pratchett’s assistant, isn’t she?”

“And a very dear friend of mine,” said Jo.

“And a very dear friend of yours. What if she’s in danger? How would we know?”

“She’s already been locked in the darkroom once. And somewhere back here,” Jo paused. She must be searching the previous chapters, I thought. “Somewhere back here there’s a Millicent somebody, who comes to the photographer’s studio.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Rossetti.

“I haven’t been written to tell you yet,” said Jo, “but maybe she’s involved? She’s in the same philanthropy group as I am.”

I shook my head, “I’m not sure what to do with her yet. I thought someone could blackmail her about her hair color. Or a forgery of a painting she owns.”

“Yes! Forgery!” said Jo, “You were going to do something with forgery. And that character, the Italian who knows all about art. He could identify the forger.”

“Besides,” said Rossetti, grumbling, “You’re leaving us here in 1863, while you sit comfortably in 2020.”

“I’m not comfortable,” I said, “Did you hear what I said about a pandemic?”

“More time to write,” said Rossetti. “The fact is, a story about me should be an inspiration, should override all need for mundane work. I want to inspire you! I want to be your muse!”

“It’s not a story about you,” I said, “I am fascinated by you, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But the story is about Jo solving the murder. You’re a side character. You’re her foil.”

“Oh,” said Rossetti, quiet again. “I thought you cared. At one point you had a scene with all of us, with Christina and mother. And Mr Dodgson.”

“I did have,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

“And now it’s in a file marked ‘not used’,” said Rossetti, sadly. “My family. Not used.”

“Really, Rossetti,” said Jo, “You’re being too sensitive.”

“Am I?” cried Rossetti, “Am I? What if she starts slaughtering the Pre-Raphaelites? What if I’m the next victim? What if poor Lizzie didn’t kill herself, if this murderer gave her an overdose of laudanum? We need this thing written. I deserve to know where I stand!” He was getting very upset.

“Please don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t kill off the Pre-Raphaelites, and you and Jo won’t be harmed.”

“Bridget?” said Jo nervously, “You won’t kill off Bridget?”

“I hadn’t planned to,” I said. “But I really don’t have time to get back to this right now.”

“Hah! You always say that time is made, not found,” said Jo. “So make some time for us and get us to where we can find the forgery and do some detecting.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, and sighed. “I honestly had no idea you characters were so demanding.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jo.

“I am too,” said Rossetti, “but please don’t abandon us.”

“I won’t,” I said. “But do let me grade another set of lecture notes.”

 

 

What about Ann Little Ingram?

While I will again emphasize that I am not a women’s historian, or a feminist historian, I must say that tracking down a historic woman has again proven extraordinarily difficult.

This time the story revolves around the Illustrated London News, a highly popular periodical in Victorian England. While not the only newspaper to use illustrations, the ILN was known for the quality and quantity of its images. This is why the character in my novel, Jo Harris, wants to be an artist for the ILN.

Knowing this was unlikely for a young-ish woman with no connections, I had her doing odd illustrating jobs in the first novel, for lesser periodicals like the Penny Illustrated Paper. But in the sequel, she has become more skilled, and is ready for the big time.

Wanting to create another character based on an actual person (I did this throughout the first mystery), I looked up who the proprietor was of the ILN in 1863.

Ann Ingram. Prounouns would be she/her, as they say. I confess I didn’t expect that. But apparently her husband, Herbert Ingram, founded the Illustrated London News, with a loan from Anne’s brother, who would also be publisher. But in 1860, Herbert took a holiday with his teenage eldest son, and they died in a massive boating accident on Lake Michigan aboard the cursed steamer Lady Elgin. So Ann took over the paper.

She is mentioned briefly in several sources, who essentially say she took over as editor only until her sons became old enough to do it. I think this is unlikely, since she was proprietor for eleven years from 1860-1871. The Waterloo Directory (the bible of Victorian periodical research) fails to list her name as editor. A Google Search, with either spelling of Ann or Anne, is unprofitable.  So I posted on the Facebook group for the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, and the venerable Patrick Leary responded that she has indeed been neglected. He mentioned her in this history of the ILN written for Gale, and called her “a woman of considerable business acumen”.

What a possibly fascinating person. Leary has suggested that Isabel Bailey, who wrote a book on Herbert, might know something, having accessed their unpublished papers. If only I could find her.

But the point is, I shouldn’t have to. How can a woman who managed a paper which sold 250,000 copies for its special issues, not be more well-known? He certainly was — he became an MP, and there is a statue of him in the marketplace in old Boston. His life is chronicled. His picture is right here. –>

She bore him ten children, then ran his business, and her name isn’t even on his Wikipedia page. Was she photographed or engraved? Did she keep a diary? Was she written about in other people’s letters?

I sense yet another rabbit hole, dark with the story of another ignored woman.

The Formula, or What I Learned in Mystery-Writing Class

I just completed a class in writing mysteries. I took it because I wanted a bit of training, having completed my first Victorian mystery and started a second. The first one I wrote as a “pantser”, working an hour at midnight every night, just writing. I had no idea where the story was going until I wrote it. My characters developed as I went along. This, I had learned, was wrong. Particularly with mysteries, one must plot and outline. I purchased two books on how to plot fiction, and signed up for the class.

My second mystery would not be so slipshod. I would plan it out in this class, and it would be even better than the first. Ready, steady, go!

Problem 1: the protagonist’s flaw

We were taught that all mysteries must have a protagonist who has a flaw. This flaw must block the protagonist from solving the crime right away. There should also be an antagonist whose flaw is fatal, and will be exploited by the protagonist once s/he has an epiphany and realizes their own flaw is preventing their progress.

I am a fan of Agatha Christie and Anne Perry. If you know Agatha Christie, you know Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple. I could not find a flaw in either one that was so big it carried across their stories. Certainly Poirot has peculiarities, like fastidiousness. Miss Marple is somewhat cloistered in her village. In Anne Perry’s Pitt mysteries, the Inspector is rumpled and has pockets full of stuff. These are simply traits, not deep flaws. But the instructor didn’t like Agatha Christie, saying her protagonists are too perfect.

My protagonist in the first book was an Inspector whose only flaw is a penchant for buying and reading books. In the second, my protagonist is an artist for the magazines. So I created her flaw, a difficulty with her not seeing below the surface to understand people’s duplicity. Naïvete, if you like. I didn’t really want her to have a flaw. She’s forthright and talented and smart. I kind of wanted her to solve the mystery by being forthright and talented and smart. But I’m a good student. I then made up an antagonist. I didn’t want her to be the murderer, though. But she also had to have a flaw. OK, cynicism. Or maybe pride. How do I know? I haven’t met her yet.

Problem 2: The Hook

The mystery must start with a hook, something to pull the reader in and make them want to read on. I hadn’t devised one of these. There wasn’t one in my first mystery either, which I was trying to get an agent to read. So I added one to each story: a body! in a mysterious place! what could it mean?

Yeah, ok. But why do readers need a hook? I don’t need a hook. Just give me an interesting character and/or setting in Chapter 1. I’m in. I’ll trust the author until they prove unworthy of trust. We had been encouraged to look at examples from mysteries we love. I looked. The hooks, such as they were, were too long to qualify or not exciting. The ones I liked best start slowly, with character and setting. Ugh, I thought. If you don’t want to read my book, then don’t read it. I want to start with the Inspector coming home after a lecture. Sigh.

Problem 3: The Map

This all-important Hook is followed by Backstory and Trigger for Act I. Crisis, Struggle, and Epiphany are Act II. Plan, Climax, and Ending are Act III. We had to map those out. Before writing.

I did it.

Hook: A body is found at the Exhibition.
Backstory: Jo is an artist whose flaw is that she assumes that people are as they appear to be. Several scenes take place which establish the main characters, especially the protagonist: their goals, activities, location in the city, connections to each other.
Trigger: Jo’s best friend Bridget, a photographer’s assistant, is kidnapped.

Crisis: Jo is unsure how to find the kidnapped Bridget, police aren’t helpful, and she can’t think of what to do.
Struggle: Using deduction, Jo finds Bridget safe, but then Mr Pratchett is found dead, and Jo has to untangle the mystery with witnesses who all seem nice and personable.
Epiphany: Jo realizes she’s been naive to assume that people are, like her, what they appear to be. As with art, she needs to think in terms of creativity, imagination, and duplicity to devise a plan to find the perpetrator of both crimes.

Plan: Jo devises a plan that involves a disguise, to pretend to be in the market for a forged painting.
Climax: She discovers that Cecil is the forger, and that his father is the killer.
Ending: James Robson is arrested for the murder and kidnapping.

In the first book, my backstory was the entire first third of the book. Very bad, that. As I wrote out these elements, my phrases got shorter and shorter. I had no place to put Rossetti, and I wanted Rossetti. Why hadn’t he showed up? I started to realize I’d stopped actually writing in my midnight sessions. Instead I was plotting. I thought it would be like non-fiction, that I’d have a great outline I just had to fill in. Yet I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything.

Problem 4: The Scenes

Then we worked on scene structure. Another formula: Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I like my scenes. They wrap. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They either move the plot (events) or the story (character) along. I didn’t want to do Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I had just written a scene. If all scenes are like this, as I was taught, I should be able to take any scene from my book, and if I was doing it right, it would work. I broke down the scene to show these elements. It didn’t work because it had two points of view.

Problem 5: Points of View

Apparently, most mysteries should be in the first person. I didn’t want mine in the first person. Pros and cons were presented for each point of view.

Third person has both limited and omniscient. This was helpful. Omniscient you don’t use much because that would tell the reader everything as it happens, which you never do in a mystery. So I chose limited. But my scene had two characters walking together, and I showed what each of them was thinking. Not ok. Too confusing; it should be one point of view per scene. So I showed the scene to a couple of friends. Not confusing at all, they said. It’s kind of cute to know that both characters secretly like each other.

But at least I know I’m writing in first person limited. Next step would be to plan out which characters would have their thoughts revealed, and which didn’t. Sounds like a lot of work.

Conclusion

As the course went on, I lost interest in writing my story. I felt like I already knew the ending, like I peeked at the last page, so why bother? The characters weren’t developed as I went, so I didn’t even know them, and here I was at the end, knowing whodunnit. The topic of forgery got stuck on like a plaster rather then evolving organically within the plot. I didn’t even want to read this, much less write it.

This is not to say that the class was bad. It was great. Beautifully organized, very clear, the instructor always on hand to answer questions. He was very helpful and funny and wise. And I’d read some of his work before I signed up, and he’s a good writer.

But before this class, I wrote in the dark, with no outline, looking up research as I went. It was always exciting. I never knew exactly what was going to happen. My characters did all the work, and even though I was writing I was also just watching as they did their thing. And you know, I’m not writing to feed my family. I don’t need to pump out six formulaic best-sellers a year. I’m writing for the joy of writing, the thrill of historical discovery, the transportation away from our current “challenging times”.

That’s it then. I’ve put the books on plotting in the garage and bought one on being a brilliant pantser. I am going to embrace this rather than trying to change it.

That decided, it’s hard to put aside the plot I already developed. Maybe it’s just one possible way the story could go?

So late last night, Bridget was locked in the dark-room by an unseen intruder, rather than kidnapped. She was only trapped for one day, because she was missed at dinner and Jo went to find her and rescued her. She’d had to pee in the developing pan. I had no idea that would happen. . .

 

 

 

 

A story published

I’ve had my first short story published, in The Secret Attic. Entries were competitive, so it’s real, but I’ve had to pay £7.99 plus shipping to America to see it in print. They didn’t tell me my story got in — I had to return to the website to see if I won the contest or got published or neither. An interesting process, publishing, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

I read the submission rules, and copyright is mine with right to publish elsewhere. No one else will publish it, of course, but it does mean I can publish it here. Enjoy.

The Online Death of Gerald Thorne
by Lisa M. Lane