When a historian writes fiction

Of what use is it to know that if you were in Durham in 1869, you could go Thomas Bainbridge in Framwellgate in the early morning and find him baking bread? It is extremely useful, if your character needs a job that starts at 4 am.

Authors of fiction sometimes talk about “world building”, especially with fantasy. A believable world has to be created, with its own history, culture, and consistency. For historical fiction, it’s a little different, because the places were really there, and in many cases still exist.

There is disagreement among authors of historical fiction of how accurate one needs to be. I’ve read quite a few historical novels that do what I’m trying to avoid, treating the locations as mere settings for stories that could take place anywhere, anytime. In fact, I began writing historical fiction out of total frustration at several novels which, although supposedly set in Victorian England, did not in any way rely on that time or place for the story. I set out to do better.

I’ve done well with London, because I’ve found old maps for the years where my stories are set, from map-sellers, on the web, and in guidebooks. Street names may change, but often the street is still there. The 1860s and 70s were times of great change, so I have to be careful.

For example, there was no Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus in 1869 — it was Regent Circus (south) and Regent Circus (north) — apparently the whole Regent development project didn’t work out quite right. Shaftesbury Avenue hadn’t been cut through yet, the Holborn Viaduct hadn’t been built — this stuff is pretty easy, and fun to research.

In my current WIP (Work in Progress), the third novel in my trilogy of cozy Victorian mysteries, quite a bit of the book takes place in Durham in 1870. Durham is one of my favorite places on the planet, so it’s important to me that it be accurate. I want my character, who is fictional, to encounter places and people who actually existed. Because I was trained in the discipline of social and economic history, when he visits a business, I want it to have been a business that was really there.

I began by searching the web to find directories of Durham, because I’d discovered that directories of London listed both businesses and street listings, with who lived on a particular street. Durham, it turns out, had the same, plus a Slater’s Commercial directory, but I couldn’t find any for 1869/70 (the story takes place in April 1870). I tried using the two I could find, for 1852 and 1879, but of course these wouldn’t be fully accurate. While I was happy to find names and areas of towns where certain types of people lived, I didn’t have the actual facts for that year.

The Durham County Records Office came to my rescue*. I cannot go there right now, or I’d just look them up for myself. They charge £50/hour for research, but the Archivist suggested I go for a quarter hour and see how much they could do. And they did a lot!

I have listings of types of businesses, and their addresses. I wanted a character to live in Neville Street, because I stayed there and know the street. He’s an engineer for the coal mines. So I was able to see whether his sort of people (class and vocation) would have lived on Neville Street, and yes!

And then there’s just the fun stuff, like the fact that I’ve walked past this place a lot:

I can make sure there’s a bath house somewhere, since one character arrives in town having spent much time traveling. I can see how there are many Hendersons, because I want a scene at their carpet mill and I suspect the family must have been a huge employer and influence (turns out John was busy representing Durham in the House of Commons at the time).

I already know how far a walk it is from place to place, because I’ve walked it, but I looked up the phases of the moon for those days (and asked a friend of mine who’s an astronomer to be sure of its location for my moonlit scene), researched which hymns might have been used for the Easter Service (and hopefully at Durham Cathedral), and who might have lived at the old mill house by the river. I’ve checked the shape of vent doors on the range in the kitchen, whether or not they would have had bottled beer (yes), and what St Cuthbert’s shrine would have looked like then rather than now.

But I can’t finish the book because I don’t have a proper railway timetable for that year, which has made some people laugh at me and shake their heads. Too bad — if it isn’t real to me, I can’t write it, and whether the readers know it’s fact or not, I get a thrill out of knowing that it really was Mrs Duncan who ran the Durham County Advertiser and that the fever ward of the workhouse was added on in summer and so must have been being built in April.

And that’s what happens when a historian writes fiction.


*George Walker, The Durham Directory and Alamanack for 1869, Durham County Record Office (subsequently ‘DRO‘), Londonderry Estate Archives, D/Lo/J 59


Do I want to know the author?

As a budding author (can you be a “bud” at my age?), I read a lot about what I’m supposed to do. Chief among the advice is to have a “social media presence” and an “email list”. I’m supposed to populate these forms of communication with tidbits and upcoming writings and fluff, designed to keep me connected to my “readers”.

Since I’m not published yet, that’s seriously on the back burner, but now I think of it when I look at my favorite authors. Anne Perry, Kate Morton, Rachel Cusk — I love their work. Am I on their mail lists? Do I keep up with their social media? It never occurred to me.

So tonight I’m hovering a finger over a button to join one of my favorite author’s email lists, and I’m thinking about it.

Many years ago, I had to deal with Rousseau. I loved his work. Then I found out that this author of one of our great books on natural education, “Emile”, and a supporter of mothers breastfeeding their own babies in a time of wet-nurses, had abandoned his own children to foundling hospitals.

It’s possible to discover horrible things about the authors (and artists and presidents and saints and celebrities) we admire. Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slave. Emily Dickinson drowned kittens. Charles Dickens was monstrous to his wife. Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein were womanizers. Andy Warhol was not only weird, he was cruel. Bernardo Bertolucci . . . well, you know.

About half the celebrities I’ve met and worked with have been rude. People are just people. I don’t think I’d enjoy an evening with George Bernard Shaw, Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, or Woody Allen. That doesn’t mean I don’t admire their work.

The big question, of course, is the extent to which we can, and should, separate someone’s life from their deeds. On the one hand, I know you can be a slaveholder and still be a good person. On the other, I might refuse to buy products from someone whose actions I find morally reprehensible. But by and large, I fall on the side of separation. People’s ideas may be universal and immortal — people themselves are fallible, and finite.

So, back to living authors. It feels callous that I’m not really interested in them, in who they are, their foibles and personal life. But I’m not — I’m interested in their creations, the products of their minds, the characters and stories they devise. I’ll follow what they publish because I want to read their work, and I’m happy to read or tune in for gems about writing if they’ve a mind to share.

But some of the things I’ve been told (don’t have a publicity photo with your chin on your hand, be sure to post pictures of your pets, talk about your hobbies) have nothing to do with my writing. Perhaps such trends are just indicative of today’s societal expectations in a time where emotion triumphs over reason and everything is personal, although I suspect it’s long been a problem — this promo by Hemingway is awkward enough that Scribner’s must have had a lot of trouble getting him to say the right things.

I think I’ll give the email list a miss.

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part III

Recently the New York Times published an article, “For Literary Novelists, the Past is Pressing“, about the revival of historical fiction. In examining its recent popularity, Jonathan Lee mentions novels that apply today’s culture wars and public moral codes to the past, such as novels showing the horrors of slavery, and puts forth the idea that our own time is so unsettling that putting a story in the past avoids difficult issues from the present. We might wish to encounter historical wrongs, but it’s easier to do it from a distance. He closes with: “A new generation of writers may find in the past better ways to capture the present.”

Using history to explain the present isn’t doing history, of course, not like academic historians do. Historians use history to explain the past. We want to know how the people of the 19th century, for example, explained themselves.

But the topics that may interest us do originate in the present. They must — historians live in the present, and it is impossible not to be interested in the issues of our own time. But the curiosity of historians is about how people lived then, what they believed, how they behaved, what they wanted from life. Right?

Not exactly. The discipline of history has trends and schools, and has changed over time. Historians often have axes to grind, and become historians precisely because they have a beef. When a historian creates one interpretation (such as the idea that the American Constitution represented intellectual enlightenment), another comes along with a different interpretation (that it represents the interests of wealthy landholders). There are conservative, Marxist, and classically liberal historians, and they work within these philosophical paradigms.

Does this mean, as Henry Ford was quoted as saying, that history is bunk? That it’s all fiction anyway, because historians are biased?

Not exactly. Bias is natural, and it is the conflict of various biases that moves knowledge forward. Historians are trained to consider the evidence, all the evidence, even if they don’t like it. They are trained to analyze each other’s arguments in order to counter them. Some do this better, or more thoroughly, than others. And most do it within the context of the bias they’ve been taught.

Unfortunately, right now historians are being trained in post-modernist approaches which counter the Enlightenment-based focus on reason and evidence. This undermines the entire idea of doing history, and leads to an emphasis on emotion, intuition, and zealotry. Wrongs must be corrected, evil must be exposed and uprooted. How people might have felt is more important than what they said or did. It’s a reflection of the current post-modern societal ideas, which question whether facts are real and wants to punish people who think the “wrong” way.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

This is an unfortunate trend for history, but it’s a great trend for fiction. Historical fiction allows writers to emote all they want about the past (or about the present set in the past), and for readers to enjoy feeling empathetically horrified and morally superior. Combine this with the escapism of binge-reading series of books featuring fatally flawed emotional characters, and the ease of loading a zillion novels onto ones device, it’s no wonder historical fiction is becoming more popular.

Johnathan Lee is right: the carthartic effect of setting our polarized views in the past is selling books. It’s a shame it isn’t doing anything truly historical.

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part II

As I continue my new avocation of writing (thus far unpublished) novels, there is no avoiding history. Even my first book, a novella, was split between the present and the 1880s, and the mysteries are set in 1860s. This makes them historical fiction, or historical mysteries.

One of the reasons I began writing mysteries is because I read some novels that I believe misused the historical past, stories that could have taken place in any time, including the present. For these authors, the past just seemed to be a setting, where you could use hansom cabs and hoop skirts for effect. In some of these novels, people spoke anachronistically, but even when they didn’t the possible sounds and smells of the place simply weren’t there.

To me that’s the difference between using the past as a setting and setting a story in the past. My books are set deeply within the past. The reader should have a sense of what things were like in 19th century London. It’s not enough to have the clop-clopping of horses and the misting of fog. I want the click of door latches, the smell of tanneries, the gray light on London Bridge. The street names and omnibus routes must be correct for 1863, not 1880 or 2020. I want to show the city being torn up for sewers, the distinctions in how people of different classes might behave, the way women in skirts dealt with toileting. And it all must be based on fact, on historical research.

I recently joined the Historical Novel Society, and in the first week on the Facebook group there was an argument about how accurate a writer of historical fiction needed to be, and another about whether the show Bridgerton was worth watching. It was distressingly easy for me to take sides.

I would say “no” on Bridgerton, but that has nothing to do with the color-blind casting. In my research I keep stumbling on evidence of both women and people with various differences having more agency and being more visible than is portrayed in the movies and television shows of the last century. So it’s possible that some of the things that don’t seem “real” (a black man hob-nobbing with other upper middle-class snobs) might actually be more accurate for the time.

A great deal of what we “know” about the past comes from prescriptive documents, works designed to convince people to correct their behavior. I try to teach my students that when they read a law code punishing adultery, theft, and trespassing, there must be a great deal of adultery, theft, and trespassing going on in the society. Otherwise there’d be no need for a law.
So if you find a lot of literature telling women that their role is to be very good at managing a household, you can be damn sure that a lot of women aren’t doing that but are doing other things. We are discovering that more and more artworks and literature were created by women using the names of men, for example.

No, my problem with Bridgerton, and many contemporary historical novels, is that the historical setting is ignored as an influence on the characters, and sometimes even on the plot.

I think I first noticed this trend in the movie Elizabeth, the 1998 film with Cate Blanchett. As I was watching her being attacked by her poisoned gown, I was thinking wait, what about the motives of the assassin? How can we tell this story without the religious or political context? It seemed to be all about the emotions and reactions of the characters. We could have been in 12th century France or early 20th century China. It could have been Macbeth. The Emotions of Elizabeth was not what I came to see.

Movies and books that use the past just as a setting for telling a story are not, to me, historical fiction. They’re just fiction. In the next post, I’ll talk about the recent revival in the popularity of historical fiction, and where it might come from.

Part III

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part I

This post will be the first in a series examining the differences between history and historical fiction.

Surely that’s ridiculous, you say. History is what really happened. Historical fiction is just made-up stories. Alas, as I tell my students about historical events, “it’s more complicated than you think”.

First, history as an academic discipline is not what really happened. We have a limited historical record for a particular era, a mix of archaeology, material culture, and written work (diaries, newspapers, letters, etc.). We have lists of events that most people agree actually occurred, because we can trace the lead-up to them and the impact afterward. What historians do is interpret the historical record, trying to create meaning that informs us about the past.

If we say something about that past (such as most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took an omnibus or cab) then we must possess the factual support for that. If we say that most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took a cab because they were too poor to pay for a cab, that’s a conclusion based on facts about wages and cab fares, but it’s an interpretation. Another historian could say that no, most workers walked because the streets were so jammed with traffic that if they hadn’t walked they would have been late for work. That historian could back up his/her thesis with facts.

London Bridge, 1890

History is a living discipline because for each historian who creates a thesis with meaning, another will come along and try to defeat or amend it by either using different sources or the same sources from a different perspective. The growth of historical knowledge through these arguments is called historiography.

So if history as a discipline isn’t what really happened, then is historical fiction just made up stories? Yes, it can be, but some writers of historical fiction prefer to create a more authentic atmosphere by engaging in research. In some cases this is the same kind of research historians do: finding 1860 guidebooks showing cab fares, articles in the Times about London traffic, Dickens novels where characters talk about their wages. But instead of participating in the academy of ideas, fiction writers are doing this research to make their plot or characters more real.

Some do deep research, on par with academic historians. Others do just enough to give their story some realistic elements, and they are happy to change things or people if the historical information doesn’t suit their purposes. The historical facts, in other words, are at the service of the story the author is trying to tell, not the quest for some sort of historical truth.

A really good non-fiction book

In non-fiction (books filed in the History section at the bookstore), the recent trend is to try to make it more exciting for readers, to read “like fiction”. Now anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction will tell you there are many talented non-fiction authors who do intensive research in their subjects even when they aren’t historians. They also try to have a lively writing style, and recently many non-fiction books contain more speculation than a historian would accept. Some even put dialogue in the mouths of historic figures, or say things like “Benjamin Franklin never had a dog, but it he had it would have been a retriever”. This approach comes so close to fiction that it blurs the borders between history and historical fiction.

So the division isn’t clear-cut. In the next post, I’ll talk about the use of the historical past as a setting for fiction.

Part II


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?”


“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.


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.