Out of my comfort zone

You may remember that I am writing a historical trilogy, based on the lives of three generations of women and their attempts at getting published, as well as facing all the other trials and tribulations that women experienced at that time. A Teller of Tales tells Lizzie’s story and is set in the 1820s. A Keeper of Tales tells Harriet’s story and is set in the 1880s. These two books are with a literary agent but despite her efforts she has not been able to find a publisher, although their rejections have been very positive. I was in the process of writing the third book, A Seeker of Tales, which will tell Imogen’s story and is set in the early 1900s. I have it all planned out and had written the first four chapters when my literary agent rang me and suggested I hold fire and, based on feedback from the publishers, write a standalone set in the mid 20th century. She is still confident she will find a publisher for the trilogy but thinks we might be able to hook a publisher with something that is more what they are currently looking for.

I loved writing the trilogy because I have a story I want to tell about the lives of women I care about. I know they didn’t exist, but they are real to me. Having got over the shock I decided that I would take on this challenge and move out of my comfort zone and see if I am as good a writer as I think I am!

My initial thought was that I would tell the story of my mother, who was born in Egypt of Maltese parents (so she was British), married an RAF officer in Alexandria and came over to England after the war. I soon gave up that idea as I don’t want to be constrained by facts but I want to retain the setting of Egypt, a place for which I have always had a soft spot and which plays a big part in my first novel, The Jewel Garden. I also decided to make use of a character I was going to use in the last book of the trilogy, who was brought up in a children’s home in Birmingham. I had to discard this idea as the timings were wrong but I think she will make an interesting and feisty protagonist. I soon had the three characters I wanted to include: Rosie, a young runaway from the children’s home who ends up in Egypt; Evelyn, a diplomat’s daughter living an easy life in Cairo until she starts to help out in a girls’ reformatory (another favourite theme of mine which again appears in The Jewel Garden); Darius, an Egyptian policeman. These three characters made themselves known to me just before I moved to a small estate in the middle of Herefordshire and they have stayed quiet whilst my head has been filled with cardboard boxes, finding new suppliers and workmen to do the myriad of work that is needed. But as I walk Annie, my lovely Border Collie, around the beautiful countryside, they are starting to speak to me again and their personalities and traits are becoming clearer. I know where the story will be set but I still don’t know when and I’m not sure what the conflict will be that unites them all. The stealing of ancient artefacts? A murder? A robbery? Mistaken identity? I’m hoping one of my characters will tell me what it is in due course.

Another element that I am interested in and which plays a major role in most of my novels, is the fairy tale. I’m trying to think how I can include one or two in this book that perhaps act as a trigger.

I also don’t have a title, which worries me – I do like to have one that acts as a sort of guide for me to remind me what I’m writing about!

My literary agent also said I need a one-liner to attract and pull in publishers. This is my initial attempt:

“Seek and ye shall find” – but not always what you are looking for.

Of course, everything I have just described will doubtless change.

I am excited about this new project and look forward to closeting myself away in my new home with Annie curled up at my feet.

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Untold Tales

I can’t believe that it is 11 months since I wrote my last blog. They were only ever meant to be intermittent, but that delay is ridiculous! I can’t really blame the lockdowns but rather that I didn’t have anything much to say until now.

In May,2020, two interesting things did happen:

  1. I got a dog and much of my time now seems to be taken up with walking her, which I love doing as I live in the countryside and I do a lot of my “writing” whilst I am walking.
  2. I managed to get a literary agent (Camilla Shestopal) for “The Teller of Tales,” the first book of a historical trilogy I am writing. As of now (February 2021) she hasn’t managed to find a publisher but she is still trying. She has received some very positive rejections and I am still very hopeful that she will find someone. One of the problems seems to be that the early 1820s is not a popular period unless the book is a Regency Romp, which mine most definitely isn’t.

Having handed my baby over to Camilla last May, I started on the second book in the trilogy, called “Untold Tales,” which I have just sent to Camilla. It is set in the 1880s and covers similar themes to the first book, being the silencing of women who have herstories to tell but no-one wants to hear them. In “A Teller of Tales,” a book of fairy tales is written by Lizzy (one of them I shared with you in the previous post), and this book is passed onto her granddaughter, Harriet, who is the protagonist of “Untold Tales.” The themes covered are those that predominated Victorian Society: female education, the rights of women, the fate of unmarried mothers, the silencing of women, sex, marriage and love. Harriet also adds her own fairy tales to the book, which she tries to get published, one of which I have included below.

Once I have finished helping to home-school my 6 year-old granddaughter (hopefully it will end March 8th) , I will start on the third book, potential title being “The Tale Collector.” It will be set in the early 1900s but that’s all I’m saying at the moment.

The following fairy tale is Harriet’s response when she learns about vivisection, which was much debated at the time:

There was once a very clever scientist who wanted more than anything to heal all man’s ills – a very noble cause I think you will all agree. He didn’t, however, fully understand enough about how the body worked or what the body could endure. Being an honourable man, he refused to experiment on humans but saw no reason not to use animals, for they don’t have a soul, do they? And surely, God put them on this Earth for our benefit, didn’t He? To begin with the scientist just used dead animals and opened them up to see what was inside. Then he used live animals, rabbits, cats, dogs; there are far too many of them, aren’t there? He wondered how long they would survive if he boiled them, set them alight, hung them upside down; the list of ways was limitless. And it was all in the name of science, wasn’t it? He carefully recorded the results of all his experiments and he won great acclaim for the articles he wrote. Over time he felt he needed to do more extreme experiments with more extreme animals and he started to wonder, what if….. What if I put the head of a tiger on the body of a kangaroo? Would it act like a tiger or a kangaroo? What if I replaced the front legs with flippers and the tail with that of a shark? What an amazing animal it would be! How famous I’d be!

     So he went to the London Zoo and persuaded them to give him a tiger, a kangaroo, a seal and a shark. He decapitated both land animals and put the tiger’s head on the body of the kangaroo. He then cut off the kangaroo’s arms and replaced them with the seal’s flippers, which he ripped off, leaving the poor seal screaming in agony for days. Last, but by no means least, our intrepid scientist replaced the kangaroo’s long tail with that of a shark. What a strange creature he had made! It roared like a tiger, but didn’t eat meat; it could jump with its powerful hind legs but it kept falling over because it didn’t have its tail to balance and support it; it could swim for short distances but then sank. The scientist kindly donated the animal back to the London Zoo, where it was a great attraction. Thousands of people thronged to see this man-made creature, which the scientist very cleverly called an Ethikass, being an anagram of the first two letters of each animal it was made from. The poor Ethikass was in a lot of pain because the scientist had not been careful when he had sewed on the different pieces and it hated being laughed at all day, every day.

     The scientist became even more famous, although when he sat in the dark, drinking his whiskey, he acknowledged to himself that he hadn’t actually healed any of man’s ills with his experiments and he hadn’t learned anything new about the human or animal body. But he had become rich and famous and that’s all that mattered, isn’t it?

     One day, the scientist went to see the Ethikass. The poor thing was tired and in pain. It recognised the scientist, who was standing on the other side of a high fence, holding the hand of his little son. The Ethikass, driven by pain, humiliation and despair, was suddenly filled with hatred and anger and using its seal’s flippers and shark’s tail it swam across the wide moat that surrounded his little island; it used its kangaroo legs to leap over the high fence that surrounded the moat and it used its tiger’s teeth to bite the head off the little boy. It didn’t eat it though; after all it was a herbivore.

     A zoo warden shot the Ethikass, for which it was very grateful.

     The scientist never did any more experiments and drank himself to death.   

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It would bore me to death to be rich!

I have written quite a few posts complaining about how hard it is these days for a writer to get a book published in the first place, and then to get people to read it. However, I was thinking this weekend what it must have been like for Mary De Morgan, (1850 – 1907) the Victorian writer whose biography I have written (“Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan”) and who features in my debut novel “The Jewel Garden.”

So I thought I would see how my writing activities compare with Mary’s.

Research

I did most of my research for the biography and novel on-line. If I couldn’t read the article/book on-line, I could at least order it on-line, or worst case be told at which library I could find it.

Mary wrote many articles that were published in journals, such as “The Education of Englishmen”, “Co-operation in England in 1889”, “The Jewish Immigrant in East London” and “The New Trades-Unionism and Socialism in England”. I don’t have any real evidence for this, but based on a short story she wrote, I suspect that she spent many hours in the British Museum Library. Otherwise, how did she get the details about the public schools such as Winchester and Eton, when none of her brothers went there? And the facts and figures included in the other articles can only have been gleaned from reading many reference books. She wrote one article entitled “At the Foot of the Pyrenees” – I have found no reference to Mary making such a visit, so can only assume that she read books on the subject and then wrote an account as if she had actually gone there.

Writing

I, of course, wrote everything straight onto my PC, where my spelling and grammar was corrected; I could cut-and-paste sections back and forth until I was happy with its final resting place; I could change the font, size and line spacing at the press of a button; I could send chapters via e-mail for someone to sanity check.

Mary either hand-wrote or used a type-writer. There are some of her short-stories in the De Morgan archives in Senate House, London University (her father was a renowned mathematician, hence the archives) and they are very badly typed, with much crossing-out and changes made by hand. I am sure the type-writer was a great advance, but even so it was still a slow process and once typed, not easy to change.

Submissions

Having completed the book I then searched for literary agents and/or publishers on-line, filtering by genre or any other relevant criteria. I then sent out the relevant number of chapters to multiple recipients via e-mail, without the need to use 1 sheet of paper or buy 1 postage stamp.

Mary, on the other hand, would have had to make a fair copy and probably hand deliver to a publisher – she lived in London, where I assume most of the UK publishers were.  There were no such things as literary agents at the time. I don’t know if she submitted to more than one publisher – if she did, she would have had to write/type the additional copy. I don’t know how hard it was to get published – maybe the fact she had a famous father helped, maybe not.  Some of her articles were published in US journals and magazines, so she would have had to post her manuscript and wait for a response by mail.

Publication

Having had a book published, I can promote it myself on FaceBook, Twitter etc. I can join multiple on-line sites to request reviewers and reviewers can leave their feedback on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. I can promote myself and my book via Blogs and my own websites. All, without actually having to move out of the chair.

Mary, on the other hand, would not be able to do anything but leave everything in the  hands of the publisher. He would do all the advertising, he would get the books printed and distributed, he would arrange for the book to be translated and he would obtain reviews from papers and magazines.

I would just like to share one review for Mary’s second collection of fairy tales, “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde.” I read these stories today as incisive critiques of Victorian society, but the contemporary reviewers considered then to be mere children’s stories. Maybe because this is how they were promoted?

It is chiefly for children, however, that Christmas books are now produced, and if in them the matter is not often above the old level, there is, as a rule, a most praiseworthy improvement in the style of illustration. The most remarkable portions of Miss De Morgan’s The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde, for instance, are the five-and-twenty dainty illustrations by Mr Walter Crane, though in these days, when the fairytale-telling faculty is but feebly shown, Miss De Morgan’s not too didactic stories are not to be thought meanly of.

Faint praise indeed!

Apparently the review of Mary’s novel “A Choice of Chance” was so bad she never wrote another. I didn’t think it was that bad.

Renumeration

My current novel is priced at £1.99 for the kindle version and £9.99 for the hard-copy. I don’t know yet how many have been sold.

I found the following statement of account for Mary’s first collection of fairy tales, “On a Pincushion”, published in 1870, when Mary was just 20 years old. It was obviously still selling six years later.

Date Item Expenditure

(£ s d)

Income

(£ s d)

Sept 1876 To paper & printing 1500 70 6 6      
  To engraving illustrations 18 5 0      
  To binding 1250 @ 82/6 per 100 57 11 3      
  To binding 250 @ 64/- (for America) 8 0 0      
  To engraving Binders Block 7 7 0      
  To advertising 13 1 8      
  To trade expenses 7½% on £206 18 9 15 9 4      
  To profit to Miss De Morgan 14 8 6      
  To profit to W. De Morgan Esq. 14 8 6      
  To profit to Seeley & Co 14 8 6      
  By 47 copies presented            
  By 1203 copies sold as 1155 @ 3/7       206 18 9
  By 250 copies sold to America for       21 17 6
  TOTAL 228 16 3 228 16 3

You will notice that the author (Mary), the illustrator (Mary’s brother, William) and the publisher (Seeley & Co.) all got the same amount of £14 8s 6d – I think this is the equivalent today of around £1,060

The cost of a book was 3s 7d – interestingly I paid £200 for a copy of this book. Well worth every penny!

Mary certainly never became rich by her writing – she apparently said to her sister-in-law, ““I am so thankful I have only a small income―it is so delightful planning things and deciding what one can afford. It would bore me to death to be rich!”

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