Newstead Abbey or how to spend a wet weekend…

I’m in the UK at the moment, and spent a very wet and grey afternoon exploring Newstead Abbey.  I’ve been round the gardens several times but

Newstead Abbey (photo by Lee J Haywood from Wikimedia)
Newstead Abbey (photo by Lee J Haywood from Wikimedia)

never made it into the house, and I have to say it was worth the effort.  It’s on a smaller scale than many stately homes, but in many ways that makes it nicer – it’s actually possible to imagine a family living there.

For those people who don’t know – and I didn’t – Newstead was the home of the Byron family until Lord Byron finally ran out of money and sold it.  Byron is one of those historical characters that I knew vague facts about, and I learned a lot from the exhibition to the extent that I’ve now added a biography and poems of Byron to the list of things I’m going to read when I run out of books about the Peninsular War and Lord Wellington.

Newstead is beautiful in any weather, but go there on a sunny day if you can.  The gardens are huge and truly beautiful, and there are a great selection of events held there through the year.  Take good shoes as it can be muddy even in good weather, and enjoy the gardens, the lake, the ducks, geese and swans, the superb views of the house, and of course the house itself, which has great exhibitions about Byron and his world.

I resisted buying a book in the gift shop.  There are certain books which can be read on kindle and my bookshelves at home have been out of control for years.  Some books, particularly if I’m using them for research, are hopeless in electronic format.  There’s a very useful little volume about the structure of Wellington’s army which I use all the time when working on my Peninsular series, but trying to find my way around it on kindle took forever so I’ve now bought the book.  I’ve found that, along with the amazing Peninsular War Atlas which I got for Christmas, need to be on my desk all the time.  In fact I’ve used both of these so much while writing that I feel faintly anxious if I’m away from them for more than a few hours.  Once I’ve finished the series I’ll have to wean myself off them gradually.

But I suspect I can learn about Lord Byron and read some of his work in a more portable format.  I’ve always rather seen him as a comic figure, and I suspect that comes from reading Georgette Heyer during my teenage years.  Certainly he was something of a poseur and I’m not sure that his personal life was up to much but he was a fascinating character and I’m looking forward to finding out more.  I don’t think I realised that for all his eccentricities, Byron’s dedication to the Greek cause was very real and that he made genuine sacrifices for the cause.

There are never enough hours in the day for the things I’d like to know more about.  Reading one book or article or visiting one place just leads to more and more.  However, what better way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon than curled up in front of the log burner with a couple of cats (I’m currently cat sitting) reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  And it avoids the essential task of revising my second book which is what I probably should be doing.

Byron here I come…

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What’s in a name – writing historical novels and when is it okay to call yourself a writer?

Stars of Blogging with Labradors
A Respectable Woman my serious  attempt at writing historical fiction and the first published
A Respectable Woman my serious attempt at writing historical fiction and the first published

Writing historical novels is very different to calling yourself a writer.  I’ve not been online for a few days.  In the other part of my life, I manage an Irish dance school called Manx Trinity Academy of Irish Dance which happened to me by accident rather as one trips over a step.  It sounds very impressive.  To tell you the truth the kids are very impressive although we’re still a small school.  I don’t teach dance, having two left feet, I just manage the business side of things and enjoy being involved.  I have two amazing young teachers and the kids have made great progress.  This past weekend we’ve had a workshop running with a visiting teacher from Dublin so I’ve been administering first aid and saying soothing words to a bunch of dancers who have been pushed to their limits.

It was supposed to be a four day workshop, but the arrival of storm Doris put paid to that and poor Michael ended up having to cram four days worth of work into two days.  The fact that he managed it is a credit to him and the fact that they could still smile at the end of it is a credit to my teachers and my students.  In the middle of all this my infant writing career was rather left to it’s own devices.

I reassure myself with the knowledge that at this point it really doesn’t matter since only a few friends actually know of the birth at all.  I have barely put a toe out of the closet although I intend to get braver as the weeks go by.  But today, while working on an author Facebook page, I ran up against an attack of the heebie jeebies over whether or not I am allowed, with only one e-book to my name officially, to call myself a writer of historical novels.

It’s always a challenge for me, laying claim to being able to call myself anything.  I do all right with ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ since they’re fairly standard and besides, other people call me those as well (although if he calls me Wifey one more time we might have a different problem on our hands).  I managed librarian during my early career and then counsellor, but I’d done training and held fairly impressive qualifications in both of those.  I’ve struggled a lot more with the word ‘manager’ in more recent jobs.  Telling people I managed an art gallery, despite the fact that manager was clearly what I was doing, was hard for me.  Often I would mumble something incomprehensible about ‘helping out’ at the gallery which probably gave the impression that I did a couple of hours gentle dusting a week instead of the long hours plus work at home and one memorable occasion writing a funding proposal while sitting by a swimming pool in Tenerife trying to pretend to my husband that I wasn’t working but was actually reading light fiction.

I checked out the dictionary definition, with my usual compulsiveness, and it appears that if I’ve written something longer than a postcard, I am entitled to call myself an author regardless of how many books I have sold so far.  Emboldened by this permission from the Oxford English,  I have decided to come clean and admit that I am an author.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step so I will practice in the mirror for a while, repeating the words in order to get used to them.  “What do you do?”  “I manage an Irish Dance school and I am a writer of historical novels.”  There you see, I can do this thing.  It can’t be as hard as saying, “I am a counsellor and I work for Relate”.  Believe me, that kicks off conversations at parties that you wish you’d never had.

The next thing I need to get brave about is telling people what I write.  It’s historical romance.  I think.  The trouble is, I’m not sure myself.  I mean it’s set in the past, which makes it history.  And there are often real people involved in it, although so far the main characters are all fictional.  It’s not too deep but it isn’t all fluffy bunnies either.  One or two of my characters have had a fairly tough time, which often happened in days when the rules weren’t really the same as they are now, although that needs to be a subject for a whole different post.

I wonder sometimes if I would be more comfortable about it if I were writing something challenging and difficult to read and possibly in line for a prize that somebody has heard of.  Writing books which are intended to entertain people while maintaining a degree of historical credibility and not winding up too many special interest groups along the way is the sum of my aims in life.  Mostly, I realise, I want to write books that people are going to want to read.

So what’s in a name?  I suppose calling myself an author is a step in the right direction and after a time I’ll be just as comfortable with it as I am with some of the other roles and titles I’ve had.  In the meantime I’ll just have to pretend.

 

 

 

A Respectable Woman: a novel of Victorian London (Book 1 in the Alverstone Saga)

A Respectable Woman - set in a 19thc school based on Raines in Arbour Square, Stepney

Today my first book was published, A Respectable Woman, a Victorian historical novel set mostly in London’s East End in the mid nineteenth century.  Available on Amazon kindle and in paperback from Amazon, it looks surprisingly grown up.

Of course nobody knows it exists.  This is the part of writing that I’ve always been worst at.  I am actually not a bad sales person when it comes to jobs that I’ve done, but selling myself as a writer has always felt slightly awkward as if I’m jumping up and down shouting look at me, look at me!  But there is no point in putting in the amount of work that I have and then doing nothing to promote it so I intend to grit my teeth and admit that yes, I have written a book and yes, I’d rather like people to read it and enjoy it and hopefully look forward to the next one.

During my attempts to find a publisher or agent over the years, one of the things that was always queried was whether what I was writing was marketable.  It accounts for a selection of rather bizarre part finished novels which exist in my archives as I painstakingly researched what was currently selling and tried to produce my own version of it.  Of course by the time I’d gone through the process, the trend had moved on and I was left with a book I didn’t enjoy writing and wouldn’t personally want to read that nobody wanted to publish.

I am currently in possession of eight complete novels which I’ve written over the years.  One of them was an attempt at a contemporary romance, and although I’d never publish it in it’s current form, there’s enough that I like about it for me to hang on to it.  There are three standalone historical novels, one of which was published today, and then there are the first four books in a series set during the Napoleonic wars. Most of these at some point have been sent to publishers, agents or to the Romantic Novelists Association new writer’s scheme, and have all been rewritten and revised so many times that it’s hard to remember how they began.

‘A Respectable Woman’ was the first novel I submitted to the RNA to get a second reading.  For those who don’t know the Romantic Novelists Association has run a scheme for many years to help aspiring romantic novelists.  When I first went through the scheme, I seem to remember there were an unlimited number of entries allowed per year but as the scheme grew it would have been impossible for the readers to manage so a restriction was placed on numbers.  The advantage of this scheme is that the reader puts together a very detailed report on your manuscript.  If it is good enough it is passed on to a second reader for comments and can result in a possible introduction to an agent or publisher.

It is an amazing scheme if you can get on to it and I learned an incredible amount from the four or five times I entered.  Two of my novels got a second reading and one was passed on to an agent for me, but was rejected on the grounds that it wasn’t marketable, and as I grew up in the East End would it not be possible for me to write something along the lines of Martina Cole.  I wanted to say that if I were able to write something along the lines of Martina Cole I would probably not have submitted a romance set in Victorian London but I restrained myself.  Still, the scheme taught me a lot and I’m incredibly grateful for it.

A Respectable Woman‘ is about a girl who grew up on a mission station in Africa among the Mashona people in Portuguese East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century and then has to learn how to adapt to life back in Victorian London with it’s rigid rules about how a respectable woman should behave.  Re-reading the novel and revising it after a few years was an interesting process, partly because I’d honestly forgotten bits of it and partly because I was interested in the characters and how they related to those in the books I’ve been writing since.  It’s clear that there are themes which I hadn’t planned or thought about along the way but I will probably take into account in the future.

All of my leading ladies are strong women in their own way and somewhat unconventional in their outlook.  Partly I think that comes from my own family story where there is a tradition of strong women and they were very much valued for it.  Partly I think that as a historian, I’ve always been interested in the position occupied by women in society over the centuries.  It is not always as cut and dried as one might think, and despite the restrictions imposed on them, history is full of examples of women who fearlessly stepped out of the boundaries imposed on them.  I am very aware of the similarities and differences between my women and I feel that I would like the challenge of writing a novel about a very different kind of woman in the future to see how that works.

Another theme which I was literally unaware of until I looked at all my books as a whole is that my leading men are all, or have been, soldiers. On the sixteenth century Anglo-Scottish border of ‘A Marcher Lord’ every landowner would have been expected to defend his home and his people, it was a violent age.  But in the other cases it seems a coincidence that in books written ten years apart, I have returned to a military theme.  Having thought about it, I have come to the conclusion that once again it has given the men a broader experience of the world which makes it more understandable that they should be attracted to the kind of woman who breaks the rules.

The third theme is very obvious and not hard to understand.  All my books, for all that they are romances, look at the position of women in society.  At various different stages in history women have been restricted and confined and ignored, and in writing about women who attempt to step outside these restrictions it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that at times this puts them at risk, both socially and physically.  For all their independent spirit they are still women and are expected to behave themselves.  The world was not always accepting to women who did not.

I hope if you haven’t already, you will read and enjoy ‘A Respectable Woman’ as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Please review it if you do, and feel free to contact me with comments.