I’m quoted in an article about e-book publishing in Mslexia magazine this month! Buy a copy and check it out!
The longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction came out yesterday, and the feminist literary blogosphere is very excited. But, as is their wont, the feminist literary blogosphere is also reflective and occasionally cynical.
As columnist Kira Cochrane tweeted this morning:
To which writer Kate Long replied,
And this made me a bit concerned, because most of my protagonists have been male. Three novels I wrote at university had female protagonists – one was Mary Magdalene, and one was a projected version of my future self. The third, who was one of the heroines of a novel I wrote with my best friend Catherine Martin, was blatantly an idealized version of myself. She was a compelling character, who developed her own flaws along the way, but there was a certain element of wish fulfilment in there.
Of these three, only one still really resonates with me – Maddy Harrigan, the MI6 agent in the novels I wrote with Catherine – and I’ve written a few stand-alone stories using her, one of which can be read here.
But both A Merry Requiem and the new series I’m working on have male protagonists – the female characters are many and varied, from writers to wives, actresses, mistresses, villains, political activists, nurses, and so on. But the stories don’t revolve around them. The three times I’ve tried since the Maddy Harrigan stories, I’ve abandoned the book partway through because I’ve found it’s become too hard to separate the female main character from myself – where in the past I could base someone on myself as a starting point and then find her going off in her own direction, in the last ten years I’ve found I just get muddled up and lose my objectivity.
I do think it’s important to have books out there that tell women’s stories, but I seem less able to write them than I used to. Is this a betrayal of feminism? Do I have a duty to write novels with women at their centre?
I haven’t posted to this blog for a few days, primarily because my day job has taken over. As many of you will know, the Church of England just voted not to allow women to become Bishops.
The system of voting is set up to deliberately weigh votes in favour of the minority being heard – i.e., for something to pass, there has to be an overwhelming consensus. A vote must pass all three houses – Bishops, Clergy, and laity (ordinary people in the pews) by a two-thirds majority.
This vote passed the house of Bishops and the house of Clergy by about 80%, and got 64% in favour in the house of laity. Unfortunately, for those who know basic maths, 64% is not quite two thirds.
What makes it even more maddening is that this vote does not reflect the actual opinions of the ordinary people in the pews, 80% of whom are actually in favour of women as bishops.
So why am I talking about this on a book blog?
Well, for several reasons. One is because I am sad and angry, and that sadness and anger are leaking over into other parts of my life.
Reading novels, it was said, would “excite our passions” and distract us from domestic responsibilities (okay, the second part is true, but still not sufficient to ban us from reading). Women’s minds, it was said, were so frail that books might drive us mad.
And women as writers? Forget it. Quick, name one female writer you know of BEFORE THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
After a minute, I came up with Anne Bradstreet.
After another minute, I came up with Phillis Wheatley.
Women only really began being taken seriously as writers in the mid 19th-century, and many of them hid their true, scandalous identity either behind anonymity (“Sense and Sensibility, by A Lady”) or a male pseudonym (George Eliot &c.). Even now,
many women are told to make their main characters male, so men will be interested, or to use initials (J.K. Rowling, anyone?) to make their gender ambiguous enough that men won’t be put off buying their books. And you do it, because you want to get your books in the hands of as many people as possible, not sacrifice yourself to make some kind of pointless stand. And I don’t presume to judge any individual author for doing that – but I do judge the society that requires it of her.
Writing and the bishopric are both intellectual pursuits that require an ability to read and interpret text in the context of its genre and the time of its writing, and a broad understanding of and sympathy to humanity’s flaws and foibles. They both require intellectual confidence and inquiry, and the ability to put forward your views in a way that will be clearly understood by, and meaningful to, your audience. They are both vocations that require study, discipline, and thoughtfulness.
It’s easy for feminists to think that we’ve won the battle of being “good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”, and to focus on what seem like much more pressing and urgent issues like rape culture and the gender pay gap. But I can’t help but feel as though, in both literature and the church, the idea that we’re just as smart and rational and thoughtful and studious as men still hasn’t quite caught on.
And that’s frustrating.
Today we have a guest post by the fabulous Catherine Martin! Read her adventures as a VSO volunteer in Thailand at her blog, All Maps Welcome. Or follow her on Twitter at @catilinarian .
You may have heard of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo: every November, thousands of brave (and maybe a little masochistic) souls sign up and pledge to write 50,000 words during the course of the month. It’s said to be a great, if intense, way to jump-start a novel, or finish off that one you can’t seem to wrap up.
Well, when I started feeling stuck with the novel I’m writing, I decided to see if the same strategy would help. I knew right off the bat that there was no way I could commit to 50,000 words that month, but 10,000, I figured I could do. And so, this past September, I embarked on my own mini-NaNoWriMo. My nano NaNo. (I actually didn’t just end up writing 10,000 words’ worth of hideous puns, although you’d be forgiven for thinking so.)
I did manage to produce 10,000 words (even if the last few were written at six in the morning on 1 October), but I think the valuable part of the project was that it taught me more about how my writing process worked than I might have learned in a year of writing without that pressure.
The very first thing I learned is this: deadlines are your friends.
Writing is often like having a fancy cooking gadget – say, a crème brulee carmeliser
or something – lying around your kitchen. No matter how much you wanted it, or how excited you got buying it, it’s all too easy to put it away somewhere and never use it once the initial gloss has worn off. That is, until a moustache-twirling megalomaniac bent on destroying the world locks you in the kitchen, and you MacGuyver that sucker into an awesome incendiary device to save the day.
Of course, “Hey, deadlines motivate you to work!” is pretty obvious, but think about this: in my (somewhat tortured) analogy, even if you had been faithfully carmelising crème brulee every day for years, you might never have found out what else your handy kitchen gadget could do if there hadn’t been a crisis. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the real power of deadlines, whether they’re external or self-imposed. When you’re writing under pressure, you have to try and accomplish what you need to – that is, tell the story you want to tell – using the elements and the resources you’ve got. And in using and reshaping those elements to work for you, you often discover that they have potential you never imagined.
Having a deadline can, strangely enough, be very freeing. When the only limit you set for yourself is that you have to produce X words by Y date, you are allowing yourself to be less critical of what you produce. This can be a powerful step for a writer, especially one who tends to pre-edit their work before setting it down on paper. Now, it’s crucial to be able to critique your own writing and remove what doesn’t work, but trying to do that in advance, so that you don’t write anything until it’s already perfect in your head, can be paralysing. (Ed. note: THIS PARAGRAPH MADE ME WANT TO STAND UP AND APPLAUD.) Personally, I prefer to have a lot of material to play with. When I’m ready to put together a second draft, I can go back and cut parts, or mess around with the way things fit together. In the meantime, though, actually writing scenes out, even if I don’t ultimately use them, helps me develop elements of the plot and characters in greater depth, and has often allowed me to figure out where I want the story to go.
And that brings me to one of the most important things I learned from this exercise: your story will surprise you, if you let it.
Having a word count to meet not only forces you to get creative – it also encourages you to say “yes” more often, because you can’t really afford to say “no”. This pushes you to follow up on side scenes and plot avenues you might have ruled out if you weren’t writing to a deadline. Not all of these side plots will make it into the final cut, but sometimes, that silly little scene you wouldn’t have bothered with, except that it gave you an extra 600 words, will be the one that sparks something in your brain and inspires you to take the entire plot in a different, and more interesting, direction.
Your characters will surprise you, too, just because this method of writing will mean spending a lot more time in their company. Think back to that megalomaniac locking you in your kitchen. Now, say he locked an acquaintance in there with you. Chances are that by the time you two busted out hours later – armed with your freshly pimped-out crème brulee carmeliser, of course – you would know more about that person than about some of your closest friends. Just being “stuck” with a character for a set number of pages – letting them talk, letting them go about their business – allows you to notice and draw out details about them that you might not have ever thought to invent.
For example: There’s a character in my book called the Lord of War. That’s anofficial government post on his world – like a Secretary of Defence – and what’s more, it’s the government post my main character, Shalker, has wanted for her entire life. So the Lord of War was originally conceived as a kind of antagonist by circumstance. He embodied everything that was standing in Shalker’s way professionally. He was officious, and pompous, and not terribly bright. He was also, as you can imagine, boring as paint chips, and so I barely used him.
What happened when I started doing the 10,000-word challenge was that I ended up writing the Lord of War a lot more often. And something interesting started to happen. It turned out that the Lord of War was funny. And maybe his sense of his own importance wasn’t annoying after all – it was kind of theatrical and endearing. And, well, if he’d held his post for this long, he had to at least have some brains, right? And maybe Shalker even kind of liked him, as well as resenting him; and that, in turn, made her more complex. Sure enough, somewhere along the way, the Lord of War turned from a plot device into a person.
So, would I recommend doing a nano NaNo? Sure, with a couple of caveats: Pick a goal that’s realistic for you. Pick the right point in your creative process – this approach is great when you need a push to sit down and write, but not so good if what you need is a solid month’s worth of research on the social history of Tudor England before you really know what you’re talking about. And if you have a blog, or just a group of people interested in your writing, consider keeping a running word count, or posting first, last, or favourite lines from what you wrote that day. The encouragement you get can make all the difference.
And what about those times when you just can’t churn out another word, let alone a hundred or a thousand? These are a few tricks I developed when I got stuck.
- Stop, Look, Listen: Stop the action for a second. What are your characters physically experiencing right now? This is also a crucial step for world-building, especially when the world is in some way alien to us – a different place, time, planet, or plane of existence. Not all of this description has to end up in the final cut, but even if it doesn’t, it will help ground both you and your character in your fictional world. (Remember to focus on what aspects of their surroundings your characters would find familiar, strange, comforting, or frightening. Check out Margaret’s recent blog post on writing historical detail for some excellent tips.
- Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch: Stop and check in with other characters. If nothing else, this will get you thinking strategically about how your plot fits together, and what’s going on behind the scenes at any given moment.
- Roll Initiative: Instead of banging your head against the wall trying to figure out how to get from where you are to the next plot development you need to happen, trying putting yourself in your character’s shoes. Forget everything that you, as the writer, know about what’s coming next, and treat your story like a roleplaying game instead. What would you do? Who would you go talk to? Not only does this open up some plot options for you, but you might end up changing where the plot goes if you let it develop organically.
- Suddenly Ninjas: This is the nuclear option for dealing with writer’s block, and
is part of the official advice offered by the good folks who run NaNoWriMo. If you have no idea where your plot should go next, suddenly, ninjas burst in and attack! Okay, so it’s a little off the wall, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if you’re writing a kitchen sink drama set in 1950s Liverpool – no, I’m lying, I think ninjas would be awesome in a kitchen sink drama set in 1950s Liverpool – but the idea is that you can sometimes jumpstart your plot by taking it completely off the rails. (In my case, the royal reception I was writing was grinding on interminably – so I had a dude crash it to steal an experimental spaceship.) If nothing else, it will strengthen your characters by letting you see how they react when removed from their original context and faced with something completely unexpected. Unless, of course, you’re writing a novel about ninjas. In which case, might I recommend zombies?
So I’ve written before about the necessity of research in writing historical fiction. You have to get rid of pretty much all your assumptions about what’s normal, and question every aspect of life.
But you also have to give in to your inspiration and write a good story.
I have a tendency to get stuck doing research. I have an idea for a novel, I buy a bajillion books about the time period and tell myself I can’t write a word until I’ve become an expert in every facet of the time period, and then I get stuck in a book, or bored with it, or read it and get so overwhelmed with information that I’ve added in about seventeen subplots based on cool stuff I read in the book, and before I know it, I’ve killed my initial inspiration dead. So I’ve thought about the ways in which I’ve done research before, and what has and hasn’t worked, and come up with a handy guide. Of course, your process might vary, but if you have no idea how to balance historical research with writing, this can be a good place to start.
- Reading books written in your time period. The wealth of details about daily life are what’s good here. You’ll find out more social history from reading The Count of Monte Cristo than you will in reading a weighty academic tome on the political and social history of 19th-century France. You’ll find out what a servant’s monthly wage was, what forms of inter-city transport were available for the artisan class, and so on.
- Ruthlessly using the index of a book to read only the chapters that really interest you. I started a book about a year and a half ago set among a partisan band of Jewish fighters in the woods of Belarus during the Second World War. I bought a book that was about the partisan bands of Jewish fighters in the woods of Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Convincing myself it was “cheating” to skip straight to the chapters on daily life in the woods, I read 150 pages of social history on the integration (or lack thereof) of Jews into Poland and Russia, and on daily life in the ghettoes. I also convinced myself it was “cheating” to write any of the bits set in the forest until I’d finished reading the whole stinking book. Guess what? I never finished reading the book. I never even got to the chapters on daily life in the woods, which was the relevant section. And the novel I was writing got stuck at 15,000 words and will probably never get finished.
- Watching films set in that time period. Okay, it’s a secondary source, but it will help give you an idea of material culture and slang. Obviously, if the film has made errors, you run the risk of passing them on – however, IMDB message boards are usually full of historical accuracy wonks, so you can read their comments or post questions of your own.
- Doing incredibly specific Google searches. The internet has hit critical mass. It used to be that if you typed the question “how much would a chamber maid in 1910’s Britain be paid?” you would get a bunch of ads for French maid costumes, some estate agents’ websites selling Edwardian houses in Brighton, and a few pages with the phrase “how much” in their title. Now, thanks to Yahoo Answers and the proliferation of message boards, it’s pretty likely somebody has asked that exact question before. If you’re in the flow and need one specific piece of information, the internet has reached the point of actual helpfulness now. If you’re willing to be patient, you can actually post your own question in Yahoo Answers and see who pops up.
- Checking the basics. Before you have your characters read a specific book, make sure it had been written by that point. Same with singing a piece of music. Or eating a particular food – don’t have your gripping novel about the Battle of Hastings sidetracked by people eating potatoes, which are a New World food. I once wanted a character to buy a croissant from a bakery, and did a brief check on the Wikipedia page to make sure croissants existed by then. I learned two things: 1) no, croissants were not known in France in the 1820’s, and 2) the Wikipedia entry on the history of the croissant is alarmingly comprehensive.
- Museums. Actually seeing the objects of your time period, with information on their use, can help you bring the era to life. It’s also an active and inspiring activity on its own – I find it much more conducive to getting the literary juices flowing than reading a book on the same subject. Bring a notebook and a camera – take pictures of what interests you and have the notebook on hand in case inspiration strikes.
- Pinterest. I keep a Pinterest board with images relevant to any writing project I’m working on. This gives you a handy reference point for material culture and all it requires is spending a few hours on Google. I have:
- Maps of Paris between 1830 and 1851.
- Maps of Paris with the locations of the barricades.
- Photographs of Parisian barricades from 1848.
- Fashion plates of women’s fashion from the late 1840’s (remember, of course, this was not what ordinary people wore. For people writing in Britain or the US in the 20th century, I highly recommend Getty Images’ book “Decades of Fashion” for its comprehensive look at high fashion, street fashion, and occasion wear).
- Paintings and photographs of daily life – domestic interiors were becoming popular in the mid-19th
century, as art was revolutionised to portray ordinary life and not just heroic epics or royal portraits. This gives me information on ordinary people’s clothing, hairstyles and living arrangements.
- Street photography from the time period I’m writing in – shopfronts, modes of transport, the types of people you would see in a particular area, the architecture of bridges and churches, etc.
- Portraits of any real historical figures who appear as characters.
- Portraits of the uniforms of any officials who appear, e.g. National Guard.
- Paintings and photographs of daily life – domestic interiors were becoming popular in the mid-19th
- Buying more than one or two books about my time period all at once. It gets overwhelming.
- Telling myself I have to do all the research before I’m allowed to begin.
If you get something wrong – even something fairly major –it’s probably fixable. For example, I once read a YA novel in which the writer made the egregious mistake of having a convent operating in Elizabethan England. It was a fairly major plot point. However, it wouldn’t have sunk the book; if she or her editor had realisedthat Henry VIII had abolished all the convents and monasteries fifty years previous, then they could have phoned up a Tudor/Stuart historian and said, “hey, I have an orphaned child who needs to go somewhere in Elizabethan England. With convents abolished, where would they go?” It was an error, and a big one, but it wasn’t fatal to the book.
- Trying to include Every. Single. Aspect. of a particular time period into one novel. So you’re researching a book about suffragettes in Edwardian England and you stumble across a mention of spiritualism and the occult, which you find fascinating. You add a subplot about spiritualism. Then you’re reading a book set in your time period which has a character who’s a union activist and you find it really moving, so you add a union element to your book. Then, because you’ve had to add a factory into your book to accommodate the union element, you do some basic research on the mechanics of cloth manufacturing in Edwardian England and you find some fascinating information about the connection between cloth, the opium trade, and relations with India in the late British Empire, and before you know it, your book about suffragettes is now crawling with subplots on spiritualism, union activities, and opium-smuggling. It’s too much. What you have there are three books, not one. Finish the one you’re on, then write the one about the opium-smuggling spiritualist and her forbidden love affair with a local union leader.
Actually, you know, you SHOULD write that book. It sounds AWESOME. I’d totally read it. Just as long as you check your facts before you throw your heroine into a convent.
Okay, people, it’s coming up to the feast of All Hallows, and we need some good spine-tingling, bone-chilling books. These are not creepy, gory books – they are either a) books that just plain creep you out, or b) books that play with the themes and imagery of All Hallows/All Souls in really interesting ways.
These are fairly modern novels, but Kate Mosse’s list of Top Ten Ghost Stories for Grown-Ups, in The Guardian, includes many of the classics, from The Turn of the Screw to The Tell-Tale Heart. Peter Washington has his own list as well.
Add your own in the comments!
Inspired by the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, this Young Adult novel plays with the intersection between Christian and Pagan ideas of sacrifice and death in really interesting ways. Set in the last days of the reign of Mary Tudor. The Perilous Gard is the story of Katherine Sutton, a lady in waiting to the imprisoned Elizabeth. Her sister Alicia writes to Queen Mary asking for clemency for Elizabeth, but the Queen blames Kate, and she is packed off to a remote castle in Scotland where she can’t cause any more trouble.
And that’s when the fun starts. The castle is bound up in grief over a terrible death from ten years ago, and there are rumours in the village that the Queen of the Faeries still lurks in the hills around the castle, kidnapping children. Kate initially dismisses these as the tales of superstitious villagers (NOTE TO HEROINES OF GOTHIC NOVELS: never dismiss something as “the tales of superstitious villagers.”), but soon has reason to believe there might be some truth to them after all …
With evil stewards, court politics, tormented heroes, dark secrets, and strange rituals in the woods, this novel has it all.
Holy. Crap. This book scared the daylights out of me. Ruth Gemmill has escaped her abusive boyfriend, and desperately needs the comfort of her brother, Alex. But Alex has suddenly and mysteriously gone missing and Ruth is determined to find him.
Halfway through the book, you start to wonder what on earth is going on.
Three-quarters of the way, you realise that the solution to the confusion and chaos of the narrative is either going to be brilliant or it’s going to be shit, and that if it’s shit you will personally hunt down the author and kill them, because you’re so invested in the outcome that it HAS to be brilliant.
At the end, you realise you are going to let the author live.
The spookiness of the landscape – decayed, post-industrial English towns – really brings this novel to life. But it’s the narrator’s voice, and the ending, that have stayed with me in the five years since I read this book and make me a little bit freaked out just to have it in the house.
I may need to pull a Joey and put it in the freezer.
This is a very odd book. People tend to either love it or hate it. I loved it, but I hated everything else Scarlett Thomas ever wrote, so I seem to fall in the middle of that spectrum.
Ariel is a Ph.D. student, writing about the 19th-century author Thomas Lumas, whose manuscript The End of Mr. Y is an exceedingly rare find. It is rumoured that everyone who’s ever read it has died soon after. So when she comes across a copy in a secondhand bookshop, she can hardly believe it. But soon*** she is in the midst of a bizarre supernatural adventure, and who knows if she’ll ever return …
***SEE, LADIES? This is what happens when you DISMISS SOMETHING AS THE TALES OF SUPERSTITIOUS VILLAGERS.
I’m including this even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it. As I was reading it, I was thinking, “this is an excellent example of its kind, even though I don’t particularly enjoy that kind.” It is, in places, abstract, non-linear, and an experiment in a style of writing as much as it is a story. If you like experimental novels with vivid settings and unique imagery, this is a terrific read.
The publisher’s summary: “Kate Williams’ first novel, “The Pleasures of Men”, is a gothic thriller with a splash of brutal murder. Spitalfields, 1840. A murderer nicknamed The Man of Crows. A heroine with a mysterious past and a vivid imagination. Catherine Sorgeiul lives with her Uncle in a rambling house in London’s East End. When a murderer strikes, ripping open the chests of young girls and stuffing hair into their mouths to resemble a crow’s beak, Catherine is fascinated, and devours news of his exploits. As the murders cause panic throughout the city, she comes to believe she can channel the voices of his victims and that they will lead her to The Man himself. But she’s already far closer than she realises – and lurking behind the lies she’s been told about her past are secrets more deadly and devastating than anything her imagination can conjure.”
I’m working on a new book, a historical mystery set in the days surrounding the 1848 revolution (which features at the end of A Merry Requiem). Here’s a special sneak preview!
An imperious voice, magnified by a megaphone, springs to life on the other side of the barricade. The men stand still for a moment, then scramble up the back of the barricade like ants galvanized by some communal signal, muskets at the ready. Galois helps hoist Baptiste into a place halfway up, where he can fire out of a gap between a wagon wheel and a shop door, leaning against the barricade so he can rest his leg.
“Fuck off!” Felix shouts from the top of the barricade and hurls an empty bottle towards the speaker. It hits his shoulder and bounces off with no effect, shattering on the ground beside him.
The officer standing next to the man with the megaphone fires a warning shot into the air, and the rebels all raise their muskets, ready to fire, a row of wooden barrels resting atop the barricade, pointing straight at the officers.
“Hold fire!” Felix shouts suddenly, raising his left hand. “Stand down your guns! I said, stand down your guns!”
The men obey, confused.
“It is Jacquot,” Felix says, more quietly. “He is coming up behind the officers.”
“One of the urchins,” Sebastian explains to Gilbert. “I pay him to run errands on occasion.”
Almost before Sebastian has finished speaking, two of the officers have grabbed Jacquot’s arms and are tying his wrists together.
“Felix!” he is shouting. “Felix!”
“Raise guns!” Felix shouts and with a clatter, the bristling row of muskets is up again. Felix’s expression is half that of a grim soldier, half that of a frightened child. There is a smudge of soot on his cheek and his hair is rumpled.
“Safe passage for the child!” he shouts, “and we will not shoot.”
There is a moment when nobody moves. In the silence, Felix cocks the trigger of his musket and the sound is loud.
Then the leader of the guard nods, miserably, and gestures to his men to release Jacquot.