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.