The Historical Novels Review is a quarterly publication you receive when you subscribe to the Historical Novel Society. Since historical fiction is one of the genres I edit (and write), I decided it was time to sign up.
As a member, you have the ability to add your own directory entry. Even if you’re not published yet. You can also add an entry if you’re a blogger or reviewer, etc.
The society’s website features many book reviews and articles, as well as ‘What’s on’ news.
If you want to check out the reviews you can click here.
If you want to check out features and articles you can click here.
The August 2023 edition of the magazine has 62 pages, including the back cover. The cover is glossy, with smooth inner paper on the interior. The text of the articles and reviews inside might be a little small for some readers. However, articles are also available online.
Writing alternative history
One interesting article is All Possible Worlds: CJ Carey and the “What If” of Alternative History by Douglas Kemp. CJ Carey is the writing name of Jane Thynne. Her novels Queen High and Widowland are predicated on Germany winning WWII, with the UK under occupation. It’s now the 1950s and the main character, Rose Ransom, is working both for the occupiers and the resistance.
Through his article Douglas Kemp explores not just the world of Carey’s novels, but the differences between normal historical fiction and alternative history. While the former requires more attention to facts, the latter might create new timelines, yet there still needs to be internal consistency. The alternative world still needs to make sense and retain its own credibility.
Ageism against new older female authors
In another article, Kathleen Jones writes about the ageism women authors face from agents and editors, particularly in relation to debut novelists. The article was triggered by an event held during the recent Historical Novel Society Conference. A member of the audience asked a panel member if age was a barrier to an agent taking on an author over fifty. The literary agent on the panel admitted that editors will check out authors online, even if their age isn’t revealed by the agent, and that age can be a barrier.
This naturally outraged many older women present and the topic would come up among them over the course of the rest of the conference.
Of course women face particular barriers when it comes to an earlier debut. In addition to other careers, they are often carers to children, or elderly relatives.
The article goes on to point out the number of older women recently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
As Kathleen Jones says in her article, there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being an older debuting author – such as more life experience. Jones believes things are looking up in the publishing industry. Certainly, when most of the reading market consists of women over 45, those same readers should be able to find more new voices from their own generation.
If you want to read the article you can click here.
Are you a writer or editor spending too much time on social media and feeling bad about it? Is it eating into your writing time, your editing time, your work hours, your free time, etc?
Social media as slot machine
Did you know that social media companies employ ‘attention engineers’ who use Las Vegas casino gambling techniques to keep you hooked? And all so they can make a profit at your expense.
Dr. Cal Newport has compared social media to having a slot machine on your phone. The companies have invested tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to keep you on their sites.
If you look at their sites a lot, they track user minutes and it increases their stock value.
Even something as seemingly innocent as the ‘like’ button is a result of attention engineering. Let’s face it, people love getting ‘likes’ because it indicates social approval.
And humans love social approval.
Also, there’s a dopamine hit when you get liked, retweeted, and so on, and that can get addictive.
Social media is designed to take up your attention – and as much of it as possible.
Social media steals your life, motivations, and goals
But what are you giving up when you spend hours on Facebook or Twitter?
You are losing time you can’t get back. Time you could have spent on other things.
Like writing a book, or finishing the book you’re currently working on. Or writing more books. Or going for walks, swimming, or cycling, etc.
And at least as importantly, you could have spent more time with your family and other loved ones.
If you’ve spent a very long time on social media, that time wasted can clock up to years of your life.
What else could you have been doing with that time? Do you still read as much as you used to, or watch as many films? Do you socialise with others in the real world as much as you once did?
Social media destroys your focus
On top of all that, social media is not just a massive time sink, it’s also destroying your ability to focus.
If you want to write, or you’re editing, you need to concentrate and immerse yourself in that project.
However, social media has trained users to become more fragmented in their attention. Notifications break your concentration as you rush to check what’s happening online.
You might intend to only check in for a moment or two, but even if you resist the temptation to stay longer, it will take you longer to focus again on your project.
So, you’ve actually lost even more time.
Is social media harming the writing community?
I often worry about the potential harm caused to writers by online writing communities on social media. Because even if the communities have helpful information, the platforms they use are designed to be addictive.
Like a slot machine.
We’re told that the Twitter writing community is helpful and supportive. Yet, someone going in to ask the community a quick question might find they’re still on Twitter an hour or so later.
That’s time lost to writing, and even if you go back to focus on your work, it’s unlikely you can just immediately concentrate again.
So, how much are these online communities actually draining writers of time, energy, and focus?
How much are they actually preventing you from fulfilling your writing dream?
It doesn’t help that social media provides people with an immediate writing identity. You can put anything in your profile. Once you’re part of the writing community, you get validated, even when you’re posting too much to actually write.
You end up with an unearned identity. Which fits with the modern tendency to want things now.
Actual writing success takes a long time. Certainly, if you want to have a sustainable career, it will take years.
But on social media, you’ll find people claiming social media is necessary for writers.
It might partly come down to how much you’re able to resist the worst temptations and regulate yourself. I cover useful apps further down this post.
However, there’s another problem, and it’s a serious one…
Toxic politics and censorship
The online writing community can be dangerously political and censorious. This can lead to self-censoring for fear of being attacked, which can block your creativity. There’s far too much herding going on.
Some writers also use their followers to attack rivals and to bombard reviewing sites with negative reviews. This is reputation destruction, and it’s usually presented as righteous and virtuous.
But that’s how censors saw themselves in both left-wing and right-wing totalitarian regimes and theocracies. There were a lot of politically captured artists, writers, film makers, editors, and academics in these regimes.
They used the prevailing ideology to climb the greasy pole. They took out rivals.
Sometimes rivals were actually sent to the gulag or killed.
No one admires these regime artists now. When regimes fall, the arts pivot. Those who stood up to censorship and tyranny become lauded while old regime artists fall by the wayside.
Sadly, people don’t seem to learn the lessons of history.
That’s another reason why social media is dangerous. It encourages mass bullying, censorship and extremist ideologies.
Additionally, the algorithms thrive on conflict.
Nevertheless, if your ideology can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas without you silencing or bullying rivals, then there’s something wrong with your ideology.
Minority writers living in fear
And if you’re a minority writer who is now afraid to write fiction based on your own group, because your group is heavily policed by an arrogant and self-appointed activist class, maybe social media is the last place you should be.
I’m seeing minority writers genuinely afraid of these online tyrants. The so-called ‘allies’ (who belong to the traditional oppressor groups) drown out the voices of ordinary members of minorities – and this is by design.
We can’t have minorities thinking for themselves or just being individuals.
If you’re a writer or any kind of artist or thinker, you can’t let these people get inside your head and block your work.
If you’re a member of a minority or other historically oppressed group, you are not a member of a Borg-like collective, and you are not obliged to write according to the expectations of a grifting middle-class activist class.
The definition of freedom for minorities should include the definition to be yourself and not a footsoldier for the left, the right, or anyone else.
I see a lot of fear in the online writing community – fear of the bullies currently running riot. I see fear in publishing because activists have got into positions of power – deliberately too because this is how ideologues capture organisations.
Even editing organisations are captured.
Writers have been cancelled while rivals gloat and industry professionals celebrate on the likes of Twitter.
The more time you spend on social media, the more you’re likely to have these toxic activist voices in your head.
They will block your ability to produce your best work.
They will prevent you from writing your own truth.
And meanwhile, you are likely anxious about what you post – going back to see if you’ve offended some complete stranger from the other side of the planet.
This is another reason why people often break what they’re doing in the real world to check social media.
And this leads to anxiety and being trapped on a never-ending hamster wheel of social media posting and reading.
Is social media worth it?
I’ve blogged before on apps that are useful to help concentration and focus. But while social media’s attention engineering is hugely immoral, even impacting the human brain, the political aspect adds to the toxic mix.
Then there is engagement. Twitter can be poor when it comes to engagement. The advice is to engage with other people’s posts – but this then circles back to the problem of how much time you’re willing to spend there.
And even if you are getting engagement as a writer, is it delivering on sales or boosting your readership? Or is your readership primarily other writers who buy your book in exchange for you buying theirs?
Of course, this is more an issue of your target audience versus the audience that’s easiest to grow. It’s also about learning how best to use a platform.
Useful apps that give you back control
It’s not that you have to give up social media. There may be platforms you find less time-consuming and less stressful. You can also use apps to control your access.
I recently looked at more apps I hadn’t tried before. I find some of them extremely useful.
The most useful of all is a straight-out social media blocker like Cold Turkey which has both a free and a paid option. I’ve used the free one for years and it’s definitely worthwhile. There are others like Forest, which allows you to grow a virtual tree as an incentive to focus.
There’s also Delayed Gratification. This allows you to customise a list of sites where you can set up a 10-second or 20-second delay before you can access them.
So, with Twitter, you could give yourself a 20-second delay that prevents you from immediately getting into the site. When you make things harder for yourself, it helps to break the habit.
There’s also UnDistracted which allows you to control your use of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Netflix. There is the option to block each of these sites, but you can also control whether you see the feed, the trending topics, recommended videos or followers, etc. With YouTube, you can force-direct to your subscriptions. Add in removal of the sidebar and recommended videos and you have fewer juicy videos to keep you distracted.
There’s also Insight by Freedom which allows you to track your time on various sites. The bar graphs might truly shock you when you check where you’ve been spending time. Freedom also has a social media blocker, but it’s not free, apart from the trial. Insight by Freedom is free on the Google Play Store as a Chrome extension.
There are many more useful apps. If you need to break your work time down into more manageable segments, you can use a Pomodoro timer.
If you want to know more…
There are a lot of interesting videos on YouTube on the subject of ‘Why I quit social media‘.
Of course, being on YouTube means scrolling yet another site!
But you’ll see what people have to say about quitting for months or even a year or more. How their lives changed.
You’ll also see, particularly in the comments below, that many people who quit FB, Twitter, and Instagram choose to stay on YouTube, even though it too is designed to be addictive.
All I can say is, beware of YouTube. It’s another rabbit hole. I think it has a lot of amazing content, which is why so many people justify still using it. But it’s best to use it in a controlled fashion. I find it useful to access YouTube via my TV because then I treat it as an alternative to real television (which I have little to no interest in).
I also recommend checking out any talks Dr. Cal Newport gives on social media addiction. There are also whistleblowers from social media companies who have spoken out about the problems.
Otherwise, I have some openings in my developmental editing calendar. You can opt for an opening chapters edit, a manuscript critique, an advanced beta critique, or a full developmental edit.
The family who lived there are all dead. The maids who dusted and cleaned are long gone. The street looks very different today.
The only way to visit this world is to study photographs. Or to read accounts of the area and the vanished house itself.
Of course, with fiction, we can not only visit the past but use it as inspiration for new stories.
What if there was a similar mansion belonging to a fictional family? Who might this family be? How did they build their fortune?
And what dramatic events might take place in the house? What mysteries and secrets? Not just among the family, but also among those who worked there.
Lost houses and mysterious houses are a common theme in fiction.
Cornelius II Vanderbilt Mansion
The real house was built in 1883, along the west side of Fifth Avenue to West 58th Street. It was a product of the Gilded Age and possessed 130 rooms.
The owner, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune.
It wasn’t the only house Cornelius II owned, and 13 years after moving in, he suffered a stroke. His last three years were spent in a wheelchair.
The house was six stories tall, not including the basement. On the first floor, there was a two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room, plus a salon, a smoking room, a den, an office, a library, a breakfast room, and much more.
His wife’s bedroom, boudoir, bath, closet and dressing room were on the second floor. Cornelius’s bedroom was also there, along with his bathroom, dressing room, closet, and private study.
In addition to the 130 rooms, there was a stable and private garden next door.
After Cornelius’s death, his wife Alice lived on at the mansion with the 37 servants required to run the house. But she no longer entertained guests. Eventually she sold the house in 1926. Since the developers were only interested in the land, and not the house itself, it was demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.
The Gilded Era
In The Age of Innocence (1920), which is set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton describes a house of this type early on. I’ve bolded anything relating to the description of the Beaufort house:
The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses’); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.
To be able to shut up a ballroom for 364 days of the year is a sign of pure luxury… and pure waste. Further down the page, Wharton says:
… and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort’s marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort’s heavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained theservants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: “My wife’s gloxinias are a marvel, aren’t they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.”
And further down still:
The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffees when they left home.
Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.
Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position, strolled in somewhat late. He had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were one of Beaufort’s few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the crimson drawing-room.
Edith Wharton’s book was written long after the 1870s, but it still acts as a time machine. Wharton herself described it as “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”
In an article in 2020, Hillary Kelly wrote that Wharton’s “status made her story more than believable—it made the story real … Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it.”
Many years ago, I embarked on my first 365 photography project. At the time, I didn’t have my Nikon, just a digital camera with a less impressive megapixel count. I’d seen 365 projects on LiveJournal. So, I decided to do my own. I have since completed three – two 365s and a 366 (leap year). And one important lesson I learned is how writers benefit from these 365 photo projects.
Immediately, I began looking at the world in a different way, constantly attentive to small and previously overlooked details. Like beautiful old stonework with moss growing in the cracks. It reminded me of the knitting designer Kaffe Fassett who used walls as inspiration in his older work.
Anything was a potential subject. Including the pot drawer in the kitchen. Late one night, needing to take my photo fast, I opened the pot drawer and snapped the pots in there.
In a year where I took much better photos, which languish now on some old machine, this is one that stays in my mind. Shiny pots with annoying finger marks, the curving metal distorting my reflected face.
So if pots ever appeared in a story, I could have a character who longs to erase every last one of those finger marks. Maybe they’re a perfectionist, or maybe they start polishing when they’re stressed. A small detail, but a quirk that helps flesh out a character.
Writers need to be present in the world and notice the small details. And with mobile phone cameras, a regular photo project is easier than ever.
How to get started
If you’ve never engaged in a regular photo project, you don’t have to wait until the beginning of next year to start. Choose a starting date – the beginning of a month, or even your birthday – and work from there. If you want to give it a try, here are some suggestions:
Decide on a time period and stick to it – a year, 90 days, whatever.
Don’t fixate on taking the perfect photo – that’s not the point.
Don’t fixate on the best equipment – whatever fits in your pocket is best.
Be constantly attentive for a photo opportunity – study your surroundings.
Just about any object is a potential subject – including spilled refuse.
Don’t just look for attractive subjects.
Try taking your photo from an unusual angle.
Keep a file of your photos or post them somewhere.
Categorise them so you can find a subject easily – insects on flowers, etc.
Ultimately, the point of this project is to get you to observe the world around you in ways that can be used in your writing. It’s not about writing long descriptive passages, but describing things in a more evocative or unusual way, even if it’s just a phrase here or a sentence there.
If you haven’t tried this before, give it a go. You can even try it for a month – which is a shorter commitment.
One warning I’d give is that with projects like this, you might get off to an enthusiastic start and then find yourself flagging. It becomes an annoying task some days, but I strongly recommend you push through.
As writers we often live in our heads, not noticing the world around us. But if we want to better represent that world, we need to pay more attention.