Formerly known as Diary of Bedlam, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE will be released by Harlequin’s Carina Press in February 2014.
I’ll confess that I had a few bittersweet tears in my eyes when I replaced Diary of Bedlam with MISTRESS OF FORTUNE. I’d lived with that title for so long–five years–it had almost become a part of my own identity. But they weren’t tears of sadness, they were more like tears of victory. I was in the process of approving the final copy edits on the manuscript and replacing the title felt like the symbolic cherry on top. The incredibly long journey of writing my debut novel was finally over when I hit the send button yesterday, new title and all.
It felt good.
My editor sent me the final edited copy of MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, the version that will go into production, this morning. It’s an understatement to say that I’m proud of this novel. I love it so much that I can hardly believe I’m the one who wrote it.
Whew. Now I’m sniffling again.
As I work toward completing the second book in the series, Mistress of Lies, I wonder if I’ll be able to do the first novel justice. It seems a daunting task at the moment. But one thing’s certain, after reading through the final version of MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, I know I have it in me.
Today, April 23rd, marks the release of a novel I’ve been looking forward to very much: A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE by Susanna Calkins. It tells the story of Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century English chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate. Her life, an endless repetition of polishing pewter, emptying chamber pots, and dealing with other household chores, is interrupted when a fellow servant is ruthlessly killed, and someone she loves is wrongly arrested for the crime.
Susanna kindly accepted my invitation to chat about our novels, both of which are set in Restoration England and feature strong female protagonists who must struggle against the gender and class constraints of their time in order to achieve their goals.
HW: When I tell people I’ve written a historical mystery they often comment on how much research it must’ve taken and how daunting that is. But I actually found that writing a story set 350 years ago was freeing in some ways. I like the world building involved in reconstructing a historical time period for the purposes of my fiction. Plus, I’m a complete geek about the Restoration so I found my research a pleasure. Did you find the research you did for A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE at all daunting?
SC: I started doing research in early modern English history when I was a graduate student, years before I began to put A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE to paper. I had come across some really interesting murder ballads from the 1650s when I was writing a paper on “gender patterns in domestic homicide in 17th c. England.” Later those ballads became the impetus for my novel. So, for me, doing historical research was always part of what I loved about being a historian. So, in A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE, I wanted to place my heroine in some deeper themes, reflecting what I knew about gender (specifically the role of working class women), religion, politics, and culture.
What themes did you explore in DIARY of BEDLAM?
HW: At first, I only knew I wanted to write a story set during the Restoration. But as I got to writing, my protagonist evolved into a fairly complex person–she’s been a mistress to the King for fifteen years and at his behest, she operated as a spy against the Dutch. She lost her brother in the plague and she’s served time in prison. I was surprised, however, when the subject of motherhood entered her story, and realized it’s because of my own relationship with motherhood (I don’t have children and don’t plan to) that I wanted to explore the subject with her.
The story takes place during the Popish Plot so religion, politics and the corruption of the court all play big roles in the story as well.
In an interview I read, you indicate that you’re not overly fond of using real-life people as characters (I paraphrased that, obviously). Which, if any, real-life people did you use in the novel, and why?
SC: I don’t think I have any “real” historical figures in my novel, although of course I mention important figures from time to time (Charles II, the diarist Pepys, as well as the murderess Anne Scarisbruck). I don’t have anything against other writers who fictionalize historic figures–Sam Thomas, for example, quite admirably fictionalizes the midwife Bridget Hodgson in A MIDWIFE’S TALE. I don’t like when historical figures are either romanticized (made to seem more important and perfect than they were) or trivialized (diminished as a punch line). There’s too much ‘Great man’s history’ as it is; I don’t like to add to that in the public imagination.
Is your heroine, Isabel Wilde, a real historical figure? She sounds like Aphra Behn, the famous writer, who was also a spy. Did Behn’s life influence you at all?
HW: Two parts of Isabel’s backstory come from Aphra Behn: the spying, of course, and the prison time for debt. But I’ve got other real-life people who appear: King Charles II is a character and the murder itself is based upon a true crime that was never solved. For me, there was never any question that Charles II would be an actual character in the book and not just mentioned. He’s not a main character, but the scenes in which he appears were definitely the most fun to write.
Tell me a little bit about your protagonist, Lucy Campion. I’m assuming that she is, in some ways, a woman of her time, but I want to know how she rises the above the constraints of her place in society (that of a chambermaid) in order to achieve her goals in the novel.
SC: Even though Lucy was not particularly well-educated, I wanted her to have a lively, inquisitive mind. I deliberately placed her in a small household run by a thoughtful magistrate–someone who would not shut the door on a good idea just because it came from a woman and a servant. There was, after all, a progressive spirit of Enlightenment thought that was infusing the thinking of more educated people at the time. If Lucy had been in a different type of household, she might well have been beaten for some of things she did, and than that would have been the end of her curiosity and her pursuit of justice. What’s the fun of that? Moreover, at the time of the plague, and certainly after the Great Fire, there was an unprecedented social mobility in England, as servants rose up and took over their master’s trades and households. (If everyone else flees or dies, who’s around to say something isn’t yours?)
Why did you come to focus on the murder of Edmund Godfrey? How did you come across it? I think it’s told in Magnolia…did you ever see that movie?
HW: The story, as told in Magnolia, is more about the coincidence of Green, Berry, and Hill, three men who were falsely accused and executed of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. Godfrey’s body was found at what is today known as Primrose Hill, but for a time, the location was known as Greenberry Hill. It has a small mention in Magnolia.
I came upon Sir Edmund’s murder quite randomly–it was a featured entry on Wikipedia’s home page one day when I happened to be looking for inspiration and I thought it might work for my plot. I soaked up every account of his killing I could find and constructed my story from there. Though his murder is a true historical event, my telling of it is fiction, through and through.
I find myself now in the exciting but daunting position of writing a sequel to DIARY OF BEDLAM. I know you’ve written an sequel to A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE. I’m curious to know what your experience has been writing a second Lucy Campion novel. Was it easier? Will there be others in the series?
SC: Yes, I’ve finished the sequel, tentatively titled FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS, which like ROSAMUND’S GATE, gets its title from a fictional pamphlet which relates to the murder. I really enjoyed writing the sequel, if only to continue with my characters. This book picks up about 2 weeks after the last one left off, in the aftermath of the Great Fire. Lucy, like many Londoners, is pressed into service to help with the massive cleanup. A body is discovered in a barrel outside of an old tavern; the man was clearly murdered before the Fire. Unbeknownst to others, a pickpocket takes a little bag off the body and passes it to Lucy. Inside are a number of odd objects, including a poem, which Lucy convinces the local printer to publish as a pamphlet. She begins to be targeted by some people who believe she knows the secret of the man’s murder.
What was the funniest or more surprising question you got from people when they found out you had written a novel?
HW: Honestly, I haven’t gotten what I thought was a funny response to me writing a novel. I’d been talking about it since I was a teenager, and after a failed attempt to write one ten years ago, they were probably thinking “finally,” or “yeah, right.” But for the most part, people have been really supportive. What about you?
SC: Supportive yes, but a lot (A LOT!) of people asked me how much sex was in my novel. First question! Yikes!
Yikes indeed! Well, my response to Susanna’s writing a novel is obviously “YAY!” There’s nothing I like more than a good historical novel set in my favorite time period, Restoration England. Thank you, Susanna, for stopping by my blog and congratulations on your Book Birthday.
Susanna Calkins is an educator and faculty developer by day and a writer by night. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons.
Yesterday, something happened that I’ve been waiting for, for like, ever. The announcement of my book deal showed up in Publishers Marketplace. Here it is in all of its luscious glory:
Holly West’s DIARY OF BEDLAM and DIARY OF DECEPTION, in which the secret identity of a lady as soothsayer – also a favorite mistress of King Charles II – is threatened when a plot to murder the King is revealed as her diary goes missing and one of her clients ends up dead, to Angela James at Carina Press, for publication in 2013, by Elizabeth Kracht at Kimberley Cameron & Associates (World).
The only gripe I have (there had to be at least one, right?) is that it’s classified as “Women’s Fiction/Romance.” Say what? I’m a crime fiction writer, people! I thought I’d made that clear!
But the thing is, who really cares what I am? These classifications are somewhat arbitrary anyway. And frankly, if being a writer of “women’s fiction” or romance helps to sell books, I’m down with that. Girlfriend wants to get paid.
The thing that bothers me more than the classification, I think, is my own reaction to it. I do think there is a stigma attached to women’s fiction and romance and I’m as guilty of perpetrating it as anybody. The fact is that there are great and not so great books in every category and I hate that something that’s labeled “woman” is somehow considered lesser, especially in my own mind.
So whatever DIARY OF BEDLAM and its sequel are considered for the market, my only real concern is that they are KICK ASS books. Oh, and that girlfriend gets paid.
Forget for one moment that it’s April Fool’s Day, folks, because this is for realsies. I’ve been letting the news out in drips and drabs, but consider this the official announcement:
For those of you who can’t watch the video, here is the gist:
I GOT MYSELF A BOOK DEAL!
Color me delighted.
My historical mystery, Mistress of Fortune, will be published in early 2014 by Carina Press, the digital first imprint of Harlequin. They’ll also be publishing its sequel, Mistress of Lies, with a release date to be determined.
What does digital first mean? Well, initially, Mistress of Fortune will be an eBook, available in all formats. It will also likely be an audiobook through Carina Press’s partnership with Audible.com. My hope is that it will also be available, eventually, by print-on-demand.
In the meantime, I am all kinds of happy. Carina Press is a great home for Mistress of Fortune, and I’m looking forward to working with my editor, Deborah Nemeth and the rest of the team at Carina.
Lenny Kravitz’s Mama Said album is one of my favorites of all time. I played the hell out of that sucker when it came out and for years afterward. It’s been awhile since I broke it out so maybe today it’s time. Let’s start with this:
When I first thought of this post it wasn’t supposed to be about Lenny Kravitz, but before I get to the meat and potatoes of it, I’d like to tell you a story from my archives.
Circa 1995 I lived in West Hollywood and worked in Mar Vista. My commute consisted of three streets: Right on Santa Monica Boulevard, left on La Brea Avenue, right on Venice Boulevard, reversed on the trip home. Easy, but traffic laden, so I generally spent about 30-45 minutes in the car each way.
Back then I had a fantasy that one day I would meet Lenny Kravitz, we’d hit it off, and fall in love. Okay, so I didn’t believe it would ever really happen (though at 25 I was nothing if not idealistic) but since I lived in LA and often had random celebrity sightings, it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea that I might actually see him one day. It was, as the title of the post indicates, “thinking positivity.”
So one day on the way home I was sitting in traffic on La Brea Avenue when I noticed a guy with long dreadlocks entering a furniture store on the right. It’s called Little Paris Antiques now but I’m fairly certain it was called something different back in the day.
There was no doubt in my mind it was Lenny Kravitz and it was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up. Fortunately I was in the far right lane so I quickly pulled over and parked in front of the store.
It’s worth noting at this point that I’d skipped lunch that day and had stopped by the 7-11 on Venice and Sepulveda to buy a snack for the ride home. I don’t remember exactly what it was but it was crunchy and oniony, and left a powdery residue everywhere. I’d placed the open bag on the passenger seat and had been digging into it the whole ride home, so I’ll let you do the math on how I must’ve smelled. Still, I wasn’t about to let a little onion breath stand between me and my destiny. I ran into the store and it wasn’t long before I spied the man I’d seen enter.
Now, if this was a work of fiction, this is where I’d add the twist: the man turned around and it wasn’t Lenny Kravitz at all–it was just some poser. Cue the womp womp music.
But this was real life y’all! I found myself face to face with the man who was numero uno in my book. My Lenny radar had not failed me. It was the man himself.
I remember two things vividly about that meeting. 1) He was about as tall as I am, 5 ft. 4. 2) He had the most beautiful flaring nostrils I’d ever seen. Seriously, I could not stop looking at his nose.
He looked a bit panicked when I approached him. I quickly allayed his fears by telling him what a big fan I was and how much I respected him for being vocal about his commitment to Christianity. I loved me some Jesus big time back then. He just nodded politely while I spoke and then thanked me graciously, told me how sweet I was.
Did you hear that? He told me I was sweet. Unsurprisingly, that was the extent of our romance.
Okay, so this post wasn’t supposed to be about Lenny Kravitz. It was supposed to be about positivity.
Recently I started writing at a coffee shop on Sunday mornings with a couple of fellow writers. I noticed that we seem to spend a good deal of our time (when not writing of course) berating ourselves for not writing more. For not being more dedicated. For being slackers.
And yes, by some writers’ example, perhaps we are. But spending so much time talking about how we fail keeps us from being proud of how much we’ve achieved. With that in mind, I started reflecting on what I’ve accomplished since 2012 began:
1) Finished a major revision of DIARY OF BEDLAM, thereby greatly improving the manuscript
2) Started querying agents again
3) Had a flash fiction story published online
4) Contributed one short story to an upcoming anthology (a story, by the way, that I’m very proud of)
5) Been asked to contribute a second short story to a charity anthology
6) Hired a professional editor to edit DIARY OF BEDLAM
7) Begun implementing the suggestions of said editor
8) Started a new WIP
9) Started working with a critique group
Not too shabby!
This isn’t to say I can’t improve my work ethic, but sometimes it’s good for me to step back and look at what I have accomplished instead of dwelling on all the ways I don’t live up to my own expectations.
Diary of Bedlam update: Still querying agents and waiting for agents to get back to me.
The waiting game can be hard and frustrating. Although I must say the more time that goes by, the more I forget I’m waiting because I’m working on new projects. I’ve got actual deadlines, people! That feels good, makes me feel more legitimate for some reason.
In the midst of all this waiting I also sent the DOB manuscript to a professional editor. It was something I’d been contemplating for awhile, especially because I’ve been thinking seriously about self-publishing. On Sunday, I got my edit letter back and it was very encouraging.
There’s some work to be done, sure. But the editor (whose previous experience includes a few big 6 publishers) says DOB might be the book that could get me a NY contract. I hadn’t realized how much I needed to hear that until I actually heard that. She agreed I wouldn’t be compromising by self-publishing since it might be more lucrative to do it, but if I still had my sights set on a traditional deal, DOB was a contender (okay, my words, not hers).
So I’ve got a little revising to do and then I’ll be querying agents throughout the fall. If I don’t get any bites, maybe I’ll go the self-publishing route.
As a reminder, I’m contributing a story to the FEEDING KATE anthology which will be released in October. It promises to be a fantastic book, so please consider making a contribution so you can get your copy.
And in other news I’ve started (or rather expanded) a home/lifestyle blog called Crafty Devilish. I figure I spend so much time looking at home decor blogs, food blogs, etc. that I should put all that interest to good use. But I did it for another reason as well: after putting most of my creative energy into writing for the last four years I realized I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be. I needed another creative outlet and Crafty Devilish is it. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, pay the blog a visit and get regular updates on Facebook by “liking” it.
“And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave: for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!” – Samuel Pepys
As you can see, I’ve got a new home on the web. I wasn’t going to post anything here until tomorrow as I’m still “populating” the new website, but something happened today that I thought was worthy of a short post.
You see, the famous restoration diarist, Samuel Pepys, recorded the last entry in his journal on this day 1669. Modern readers have a variety of resources for reading Mr. Pepys historic diary, but since I started writing Diary of Bedlam, my favorite has been the daily postings by Phil Gyford on The Diary of Samuel Pepys website. You can read the last entry here.
Writers like me owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Pepys, for his diary is an invaluable documentation of what life was like in late 17th century London. Diary of Bedlam takes place several years after Mr. Peyps’s diary ends, but his record of Charles II’s London was a cornerstone of my research.
And so I will take this opportunity both to introduce you to my new website and to thank Mr. Gyford for creating the Pepys Diary website. What a wonderful project.
I'm officially querying again and so far, so good. My only real complaint is that it takes awhile to get responses, and since I'm not generally known for my patience, I've resorted to even more obsessive-compulsive gmail refreshing than usual. Stay tuned though, I'm sure I'll have plenty of complaints later.
Yesterday I spent some time on QueryTracker.net looking for agents to query. This is a good task for me, as it feels sort of like time-wasting and yet is a necessary part of the book-writing process. It's certainly easier than actually writing a novel, and anything that feels like progress in my quest to get published that doesn't actually require the gut-wrenching task of writing is okay by me.
Should I not refer to writing as gut-wrenching? Perhaps not. Except for me it often is.
Anyway, back to QueryTracker. My search yesterday was broader than I'd done in the past and thus included many agents I hadn't heard of before. As part of my research, I went to their websites, read the QueryTracker comments, and generally did my homework to decide whether I wanted to add them to my list.
Since I started writing Diary of Bedlam nearly four years ago, I've learned quite a lot about what agents are looking for when they sort through queries. So much of it is subjective, but there are a few things, like following of submission guidelines and professionalism, that are expected across the board. But yesterday, I realized that as a writer, there are a few basic (and possibly superficial) things that I'm looking for as well.
First impressions definitely count.
1) If an agent uses a hotmail address, he/she is probably not the agent for me. Heck, at this point, I'd have second thoughts about doing business with anyone who still uses hotmail for business purposes.
2) If an agent still has the equivalent of an AOL circa 1997 website, I'll probably skip sending them a query. I certainly have nothing against AOL–heck, I met my husband via that service in 1996, but a professional web presence counts a lot. I'm not saying an agency has to spend loads of money on a fancy website, but I draw the line at websites using Comic Sans as a primary font.
3) I hesitate to mention this last one and I'm certain there will be people who disagree with me, but at this point, I'm skipping agents who do not accept queries by email. I understand they have their reasons for it and there are a few top-notch agencies who only accept queries by post that I'll probably end up querying, but for now email makes more sense to me.
I have other criteria, of course, but these are the things that stop me in my tracks almost immediately. As writers, we are all looking for the best agent to represent our work, and to me, the first two items mentioned speak to an agency's ability to represent me in the way I expect to be represented.
What does it mean to write the best novel you can? I think I might finally have the answer.
Over the weekend I attended Left Coast Crime in Sacramento. It was a great conference this year, filled to the brim with entertaining and informative panels, including a sort of "writing track" that featured panels about getting an agent, self-publishing, and the business of writing.
One session included a panel of two agents, a freelance editor, and Keith Kahla, Executive Editor at St. Martin's Press. I mention Mr. Kahla by name because he answered what I believe is an important question–one that I've been wondering about since I started writing DIARY OF BEDLAM.
As writers, we're always told to write the best novel we can. Make sure it's polished. Then, and only then, do we take the next step in the publishing process. For me, the next step is finding an agent.
But what does it mean to write the "best novel you can?" How good is good enough? Admittedly, the answer changes depending upon who you ask; no question the manuscript has to be polished, but it also has to be saleable. The structure and plot and characterizations need to be well-crafted, but it also has to be saleable.
Let's for the moment forget about the questions of grammar and spelling. We'll assume that your novel is perfect in this respect. Let's also assume that your novel's concept is saleable, that is, there's a market for it. It's a big assumption, sure, but there's no point in continuing this conversation if your novel isn't saleable (this goes for self-publishing too).
So assuming the above, let's ask the question again: "What does it mean to write the best novel you can?"
It means, according to Mr. Kahla (and forgive me, I'm paraphrasing his actual statement), that when it first comes to him, the novel must be to a standard that if no changes whatsoever are made, he'd still be comfortable publishing it.
If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. There are some aspects of the publishing process that the writer still has some control over, and revisions are one of them. Revisions to the story are essentially suggestions, and if the author feels strongly against a particular change, he/she can argue against it. If an agent or editor doesn't feel comfortable publishing it from the very beginning, there's no guarantee it will eventually become something they will feel comfortable publishing.
Now that I have the answer to the question, at least according to one editor, I have to admit it's a tall and daunting order. I'm finishing the last hundred pages of copy editing DOB today and in my non-expert opinion, the novel is ready for the printing press. But I thought that a year ago when I first started querying, only to begin a huge revision on it three months later when a few agents suggested it. There's no doubt they were right–the novel is 100 percent better now.
There's only one thing I'm absolutely sure about when it comes to writing and publishing a novel–there will always be something else to learn, something else that can be done to improve the manuscript. Beyond that, there's no certainty. But for now, I'm glad to have an answer to one more question.
AKA: FInish Your Manuscript Before Querying Agents
I'm at the tail end of this latest revision on Diary of Bedlam. So close I can taste it, in fact. And frankly, it's tasting pretty darned delicious.
This was a huge revision. I cut about 30,000 words, re-arranged many scenes, wrote new scenes, etc. The result is a much stronger book, there's no question about it. It's taken about six months to complete, but after reading this version I can confidently say it was worth the extra time.
That's not the reason for this post, however. I'm close enough to finishing that I have a case of "premature query-itis." What does that mean? It means I'm itching to start querying agents again. After all, it takes awhile to get a response, right?
Actually, that wasn't my experience in my first round of querying. Agents who were interested in seeing fulls or partials pretty much replied within days (sometimes hours). I was thankful I had the manuscript ready to send as soon as I got their requests.
Even agents who rejected me replied fairly quickly.
I'm not saying that every single agent had their finger on the send button as soon as they received my query, but enough did that I know how important it is to have a finished manuscript when you begin querying. You don't want to get a request for more material and not be able to send it right away. Well, at least I don't.
I've never seen an agent's submission guidelines that didn't say something to the effect of "Only query a finished manuscript." So yeah, all of this is rather obvious. But I can't be the only novice who thinks "I'm so close to being done, let me just send a query to see what response I get."
It happened before my first round of queries (but I somehow found the strength to resist it) and it's happening again now.
So really, this post is just about me telling myself "Whoa there, take your finger off the send button. FINISH YOUR MANUSCRIPT!"*
*And by finished, I mean properly formatted, copyedited, ready-to-go, no exceptions.