Virginia Heath’s debut novel That Despicable Rogue is out in May 2016 and her second Her Enemy at the Altar follows in August. Both are available to pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Being a writer is a strange thing. You live the majority of your day inside your own head, talking to yourself. Any person, not a writer, who behaves in such a bizarre way would be sent for clinical evaluation and provided with therapy immediately. Such things are not healthy- unless you are a writer, in which case, they are perfectly normal. Necessary in fact. I say this not because I want anyone’s sympathy, or because I feel that I am misunderstood, but because I never quite know how to respond to people when they ask the sort of sociable questions that we ask each other on a daily basis.
What have you been up to? How was your day? What are you doing tomorrow? My answer is always the same. Oh, nothing much. Just writing. I instantly see the disappointment on their faces and feel very boring saying it, yet I know if I told them the truth they simply wouldn’t understand. If somebody had described it to me, two years ago, I wouldn’t have understood either. But just this once I shall try to explain.
My day is broken into two distinct phases: the thinking and the doing. Thinking takes up a great deal of my time, although you would never know it to look at me. Usually. I have learned to multi-task and combine it with my mum/wife duties. I get up every weekday morning at around 6.30am when my wonderful husband brings me tea. He does this for two reasons. Firstly, I cannot drive him to the station without a good dose of caffeine in my system and secondly, it makes him feel better about waking me up at 6.30am. I should state here and now that he is not a selfish man and I am not some downtrodden woman who lives to serve her husband. He would happily leave me in bed and walk. But I love those quiet mornings after he has gone because I get so much done. Especially thinking. Once he has gone, I wake my son repeatedly and chivvy him to get himself to college. What can I say? He is a teenager, and anyone in possession of a teenager will know exactly what I am talking about. Although my daughter is at university, I still have to wake her from time to time. There will be a 4am text on my phone, evidence of a hard night of study no doubt, begging me to ring her because she has to be up for a lecture. Then I clean my house, shower and have breakfast. During all of this, I am off in my own world, plotting. It may look as if I am staring off in to space wistfully, but I can assure you that there is a lot going on inside my head and I am actually working.
Morning think over, I head up to my office. Well, it is the spare room really because there is a lovely corner sofa bed in there that I got from Ikea, but it also has a proper desk and a chair and shelves filled with books. It overlooks my beloved garden, which is great for procrastination, and is a calm oasis in which I lose myself. I am creature of habit and have a routine before I start to write. First, I light a Yankee candle. It doesn’t create a mood or make me feel calmer. I’m not that new-age. I just like the smell. Then I will check my e-mails (mostly spam), scroll through Facebook (mostly pointless) and check Twitter (mostly advertising). Occasionally, because I feel that I am supposed to, I tweet something and then usually delete it thirty seconds later because I have regretted it. I allow myself twenty minutes of this procrastination and no more. Procrastination is addictive and I am already battling serious addictions to cake, tea and Candy Crush Saga.
Only then can the serious ‘doing’ begin. I will open up my word document and read the last sentence that I have written. I find that I work much better if I do not neatly tie up all of the loose ends the day before. I never stop at the end of a chapter. I will always write the next paragraph so that I know where I am going. Usually, I stop right in the middle of something important, but I have to finish my sentence first. I once read an article about a famous crime writer, who said that she always stops in the middle of a sentence because she found it easier to pick up her thread the next day. I tried that. But the former teacher in me could not cope with the poor grammar. The lack of a full stop created insomnia and I found myself wandering back to my computer at two in the morning, bleary-eyed, so that I could finish the sentence. So I always stop with a full stop. Or a question mark. Or an exclamation mark, although I am trying to wean myself off of those unless absolutely necessary.
The first paragraph is usually painfully slow while I get into the zone, but once I am in it there is no stopping me. The story runs like a film in my head. Peculiarly, I channel the characters, which means that I am alternating between a male and a female with two distinctly different personalities.
Oddly, this feels perfectly normal. When I am the character, I find myself experiencing their moods. If they find something funny, I grin like a loon at my computer. If they are angry, I feel my face tighten. Sometimes, if they are having a particularly fraught day, I give myself a frowning headache. You know the ones? They happened because your eyebrows have been drawn together for so long that it makes your brain hurt with the all the effort of keeping them in that position. Or perhaps it’s just me that has those? If the dialogue is fast and snappy, my fingers bash the keys nosily. If they are sad or thoughtful, I sigh a lot.
Hours go by like this. Literally. And then something will break my concentration and I realise that it is lunchtime- or as frequently happens, I have missed lunchtime altogether. So I take a break. Eat something. Drink tea. Play candy Crush. Think.
Because the house is normally empty at this time, the only thing that I have to talk to is the cat, Steve, but as he is going senile and has decided that he hates me, I find it much better to talk to myself. I have found the BBC news channel to be a very good listener. It is both intelligent and informative and never looks at me as if I should be locked up in an institution and they speak in such calming tones, even when the whole world has gone mad.
I write all afternoon until five when, like Cinderella, I turn into a pumpkin and become Mum again. My evenings are always pleasant and chilled. As a family we like each other, so we chat and laugh. I am usually everyone’s comedy stooge but I like to think I give as good as I get. I do not do soap operas or trash TV, so we watch films or documentaries or well-written comedies for a few hours. I love the Big Bang Theory, The Great British Bake Off (even though it fuels my cake addiction) and Deadliest catch (how’s that for eclectic?) and I hate films with unhappy endings. Absolutely love all Marvel films though, especially Iron Man. I am hopelessly in love with Tony Stark. And Mr Darcy, Han Solo and Flynn Rider from Tangled.
At bedtime, any normal person would sleep. But I am a writer so I treat it as thinking time. At least once a week I have a crisis of confidence. All I have written today is rubbish. In fact, my whole book so far is rubbish and the moment I submit it to my editor she is going to realise that I am actually a huge fraud who cannot write at all. When this happens, I have to get up, trudge to my computer and read the 3000 words I have written today. More often than not, I am pleasantly surprised to discover that it is not the drivel that I thought it was. Occasionally, I delete huge chunks and then worry all night about where to go next. Fortunately, that only happens one a month, and I manage to drift off to sleep most nights pondering the next part of my story. I never know where it is going, you see. I think up the characters, consider one or two things that they could do, but I leave the rest of it to chance. That works best for my brain and probably says a great deal about me.
So what have you been up to? Well, I’m living in 1816 at the moment. Darting between Regency Mayfair and the notorious London slum of Seven Dials. I’ve been going to radical political meetings, campaigning for ordinary working men to be given the vote and fair pay. I’ve been looking at the stars with this handsome, uptight duke and falling hopelessly in love with him, and when I am inside his head I am learning that the world is not quite how I had always pictured it. I am finding unfairness and inhumanity that I never knew existed and I desperately want to change that, and I am lonely. And there’s this outspoken, wholly unsuitable woman who consumes me to the point that I hardly know myself any more.
How was your day? Grim for the most part today, if you want to know the honest truth. I visited a workhouse and helped out at a soup kitchen. It churned up the past which I have been trying to forget. But it ended on a positive note. I think my hero and heroine are falling in love, I just hope that he can see beyond her lowly station in life and she can learn to trust again.
What are you doing tomorrow? Not entirely sure yet. I know that I am going to his castle (yes! I know- he has a castle!), and I need to throw them together somehow. But I still need to ponder it a bit. I shall probably do that the moment I lay my head down on my pillow and close my eyes. I shall let my characters rehearse a bit, run a few scenarios through my mind, listen to the dialogue and then I will sleep on it. Sometime, during the night, my brain will have let this all marinade so that when I sit back down at my keyboard tomorrow it will all play like a movie, allowing the story to flow through my fingers and to show on my expression. And then if anybody asks what I did with my day, I shall answer like I usually do.
You know, just writing…
Virginia Heath’s debut novel That Despicable Rogue is published in May 2016 and is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Her second book, Her Enemy at the Alter follows in August.
Political unrest in the early 19th Century
As a lover and writer of Regency romances, it is easy to get swept away with Jane Austen’s view of that world, where ladies and gentlemen lived in grand houses, attended balls and the most challenging thing that they encountered in their day to day lives was how to behave politely to one another. Unfortunately, for the majority of British people in the early 19th century, daily life was a constant struggle and they were becoming increasingly upset about their lot in life. Governing these people became extremely difficult, which meant that successive British governments genuinely did fear revolution. And they were right to.
The beginnings of the Radical movement happened at the end of the 18th century. Encouraged by the American and French revolutions, as well as influential writers like Thomas Paine, the working classes began to challenge the old order. After all, Britain was becoming ‘Great’ on the backs of their work. The Industrial Revolution meant that the ruling class were quite dependent on these underlings to provide the labour in the factories and mines that sprang up all over the country. However, they were paid a pittance to do it, worked ridiculously long hours and lived in the most horrendous conditions imaginable. While they were suffering, the rich got richer and wielded all of the power.
Only men with a significant amount of land could vote. As a result, until 1832, less than 5% of the total population could vote and most of the new industrial towns and cities, such as Manchester, did not even have an MP to represent the tens of thousands who lived there. Worse still, the landed classes used foul means to ensure that their voice was heard above all others by manipulating the electoral system. So called ‘Rotten Boroughs’, like Dunwich in Suffolk, sent two MPs to Parliament when their total population, including horses and livestock, would probably not fill all the pews in their local church. In fact, more often than not, even having an MP was not particularly beneficial. They were nearly always the puppet of the wealthy landowners who had voted for them and even if they did step out of line, the unelected House of Lords could overrule any law passed in the House of Commons.
In The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine put forward a revolutionary idea that many found shocking- that the aristocracy did not have any ‘hereditary wisdom’, as had always been believed, and therefore did not have the automatic right to govern everyone else. Paine went further by suggesting that democracy was the way forward, that all men should have the vote, taxation should be lower for the poor than it was for the rich, and even more terrifying, the poor should be educated. It might have not caused a revolution in Britain, but it was certainly responsible for more than a few riots.
Paine’s ideas spread like smallpox. The London Corresponding Society, a group made up of craftsmen and workers, began politely demanding for universal male suffrage. Such radical insubordination was unacceptable to the government, so from 1794 all political leaders of any political group could be arrested without trial and then they tinkered with the treason laws to effectively prevent public demonstrations. Despite this, support for reform grew.
By 1811, a group calling themselves the Luddites began smashing the machines that kept them in poverty in the hope that they would be paid properly for their skills. True to form, the government responded with more repression. In February 1812 they passed the Frame Breaking Act, which resulted in the death penalty for anyone sabotaging the machinery. This harsh punishment might have stopped the destruction but it bred resentment. More and more political reform groups began to form in secret and spread seditious ideas and their effort became more organised, and as far as the government was concerned, worryingly so.
The wars with France had made the economic situation in Britain difficult. By 1815, there was a great disparity between wages and the price of food. Starvation has a way of motivating people, so civil unrest became commonplace. The Spenceans, a radical group that grew out of the London Corresponding Society, organised a mass meeting at Spa Fields in London in 1816 to protest about that hardship that many were suffering from and to campaign for male suffrage. Their great orator Henry Hunt, might have suggested, in a roundabout fashion, that if the government refused to listen to reason then other methods of persuasion might need to be adopted. The large gathering soon descended into violence. When the mob began to march towards the Tower of London they were met by government troops who used unnecessary violence to stop them. A similar meeting led by Hunt, in St Peters field in Manchester, in 1819 became infamous. When approximately 70,000 people came to protest about their lack of representation in the government, those in power panicked and sent in the cavalry to charge at the unarmed crowd. In the resulting carnage, the over-zealous troops killed at least 11 people and injured another 600 men and women. The event was later nicknamed the Peterloo Massacre by the poor, because like Napoleon’s men at Waterloo they had been shown no mercy from the British army.
The following year, the government claimed to have irrefutable proof that the Spenceans were now trying to over-throw the government and kill Lord Liverpool and his cabinet. Police spies infiltrated the poorly-organised group and what became known as the Cato Street Conspiracy was stopped before it had even started. That did not stop the government rounding up the radicals and metering severe punishment. 5 were publically hanged and the remainder were transported to Australia in a blaze of publicity.
While the government continued to treat any attempts at protest as a sign that revolution was imminent, the working classes became more organised. The roots of trade unionism was born and the masses became more politicised. Cheaply printed political pamphlets and clandestine, taproom meetings, made radical ideas more accessible. In parliament, the Whigs argued that some reform was now necessary to protect all that England held dear. MPs and Lords were not convinced and refused to heed the warnings. Things became so grave by 1830, that even the Duke of Wellington himself lost the support of the government. He was ousted as Prime Minster when he refused to entertain the idea of reform, claiming that the majority of the people were happy to leave things exactly as they were. A general election had to be called when the Whigs proposed a drastic set of reforms and politicians traded insults across the floor of the house to such an extent that many parliamentary proceedings descended into chaos. Now, not only were the lower classes revolting, it seemed even parliament was too. For many, it appeared that the country now hovered on the very brink of inevitable revolution- and perhaps, at that moment it was.
Finally, in 1832, the Whigs were able to push The Grand Reform Bill through both houses. The Rotten Boroughs were removed and the country was divided up into constituencies that were created in line with the size of the populations and each constituency could only send one MP to parliament.
Better still, the vote was granted to any man over the age of twenty-one who was in possession of land worth ten pounds or more. This increased the number of people who could vote from 435,000 to 652,000. Although this figure was still a drop in the ocean compared to the overall British population of twelve million and rising. But it was just enough to stop the revolution in the short term. Nowadays, the changes they made might seem insignificant, but they opened the door to change. Once that door was open it proved impossible for parliament to close it again. The working class voice was getting louder, and as the 19th century progressed, they showed no signs of shutting up. They wanted all that Thomas Paine had promised. And by the end of the century, they would have it.
I am lucky enough to live just 30 minutes from the city of London by train and the station I go into is Tower Hill. To all non-Londoners that probably means very little but to those in the know, that is the best London station that there is because once you climb up those steps out of the ground the first thing that you see is the Tower of London. And the Tower of London just so happens to be my absolute favourite building in the whole world. Period.
I have lost count of how many times I have been there, both with my family and on school trips (yes- I used to be a history teacher before I wrote for Harlequin Mills and Boon) and every single time I visit I learn something new about the place. However, this post is not going to be a long diatribe about all of the things I know about the Tower (which is a lot- trust me). It is plea to all of my fellow writers of historical fiction set in the Regency or Victorian period, a call to arms if you like, to get the place mentioned in your books more often.
Frankly, I am a little tired of seeing the same old places in Regency stories- Rotten Row, Gunter’s Tea shop, the British Museum (usually to look at Mr Elgin’s magnificent marbles) and Vauxhall Gardens, yet nobody takes their characters to the Tower. Not only was it still a prison and the main military garrison for London during this period, it also housed the Royal Mint. Every gold sovereign and silver guinea you read about in those torrid pages was made at the Tower. It was the only place secure enough for the government of the day to send their gold to. However, despite all of that, that wonderful Norman castle was almost as big of a tourist attraction then as it is now.
For a start, it was the home of the world famous Royal Menagerie, the only place for the well-heeled to see ferocious beasts from around the globe. Over its 600 year stay in William the Conqueror’s home, the Menagerie housed everything from monkeys and polar bears to elephants and lions. The cartoon above, by Thomas Rowlandson is entitled ‘The Monkey Room’ from the year 1810 and it clearly shows ‘good ton’ of the Regency visiting the exhibit. Once a year, the truly daring could watch the ‘Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions’. Tickets like this one were exceptionally hard to come by and highly sought after. What better outing could a courting hero take his heroine? Although it was definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Wild animals aside, after Napoleon and the prolonged Peninsular Wars, the British were very keen on displaying their might. To that end, a massive exhibition of military weapons, cannons and anything else that showed the unbeatable power of the country, was put on proud display in the Tower. Several incarnations of the Tower of London Guidebook were published as swarms and swarms of visitors came to see exactly what made Britain Great.
To have great power also meant having visible wealth and the wealth of the nation, in the form of the crown jewels, were a regular crowd pleaser. Beefeaters guarded all of the precious crowns from King Charles II onward and visitors were charged a few pennies to gawp at them through iron bars. Lovers of this period of British history will know that the Regent, later King George IV, was not the most popular of monarchs. One of the main reasons for this was his penchant for spending the money that came from everyone else’s hard-earned taxes on himself. One of the most interesting things I have seen at the Tower was his coronation crown. George being George, he wanted a new crown, more opulent and encrusted with more jewels than any other- so he went ahead and had it made without the permission of Parliament. He assumed, quite wrongly as it turned out, that once they saw it in all of its magnificence they would relent and cough up the dosh. They didn’t. After the coronation, it was unceremoniously stripped of all of its borrowed diamonds and now looks very sad indeed up against all of the other crowns on display.
And if I have still not convinced you that the wonderful Tower of London does not belong in your next Regency romance, then perhaps this fact will. One of the Constables of the Tower was none other than the Duke of Wellington himself! Yes indeed, after Waterloo and a stint running the country, everybody’s favourite Regency Duke looked after the day to day running of the world’s best castle. Not only that, but he was sort of responsible for that fabulous and moving installation of poppies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. How? I hear you ask.
Well seeing as you’ve asked nicely I shall tell you. For hundreds of years the Tower was surrounded by a moat that drew all of its water from the River Thames. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Thames stank to high heaven because it had been used as a sewer for over a thousand years. Fearing it might cause yet another deadly outbreak of cholera or typhoid, the Duke of Wellington had the fetid moat filled in and grassed over. Had he not done that, then the poppies would not have happened and I would not have this- My prized poppy from the 2014 ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ exhibition. I was one of the 888,246 people lucky enough to get one of the actual poppies that graced the moat and if you look closely you can still see the hallowed mud from the Tower encrusted in the centre. It is just too special to wash off. Not only does it symbolise the tragic carnage and futility of all wars but it is a little piece of sacred ground- a part of the Tower’s epic heritage.
So don’t forget the magnificent Tower of London when you write your next book. Lock someone in it, station them there or simply write a scene in which they visit it- much like thousands of Regency dwellers actually did at the time. Send them to the Tower! I know I will…
Since I was lucky enough to receive The Call from Harlequin Mills and Boon a few weeks ago, I have gone from an amateur writer to a professional one. The only difference between the two states, as far as I can tell, is that now I will get paid for what I do and I can change my occupation on my passport.
However, since my good fortune has been splashed over Twitter I have had a few people contact me directly wanting to know how to go about getting published in the first place. I never really know what to say to them and usually end up giving them pointless platitudes like stick with it because you can never really write anything more than that in 140 characters of less.
But the truth is you have to work at it. I don’t meant you have to send your manuscript out to every agent and publisher in the land and hope that someone will say yes. You still might have to do that, but you have to lay some important foundations first.
The first thing that you have to do is treat your writing like a proper job if you are serious about being published. In my case, that meant taking the giant leap of leaving behind a very safe and secure job as a teacher because when I was working full-time I certainly had nothing left in me to be creative. I know that has a financial implication and it is easier said than done but if you can do it, it makes a difference. I began by working part-time as a supply teacher three days a week and writing for four. It was an extreme and radical change that did two very positive things:
On my days off, I wrote. I learned to treat my writing as a job. I created a calm space to write in and I started to work office hours. Every morning, I would sit at my desk at around 9.30am, take an hour off for lunch and then write until 5pm when my kids got home. In the last eighteen months that has become a routine. I don’t write in my pyjamas or with greasy hair and I cannot write in a mess. So all of my daily chores are done and I am presentable before I start up my computer. Being a writer is a profession so be professional about it!
When I finished my first book, I was convinced that it was the greatest thing ever written and sent it off to Harlequin proudly. Unsurprisingly it was rejected. I won’t lie, that rejection really dented my confidence until I realised that nothing good ever comes without hard work and failure. After that, I just kept wring stories, figuring my first forays into romance writing were like a training course. I never sent any of these manuscripts off or let anybody read them. I guess I knew deep down there were not really good enough, but I was developing my voice and learning how to construct a good novel.
I know lots of people think that social media is a good way to be discovered, and perhaps it is, but until last month I did not have a Facebook or Twitter account, and this article is my first ever post on a blog. I did not approach any agents or attempt to publicise myself, so if you are not comfortable doing those things either, take heart. You don’t have to.
This summer, I finished a story and it just felt right. Suddenly, I was no longer frightened to show anyone my work. I let my daughter and a few close friends read my first draft. They liked it so I decided to take the leap. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I write Regency Romances and I intended to enter my story into the Harlequin So You Think You Can Write Contest. I read the rules, and it said that you could enter a manuscript that was already submitted to Harlequin via the usual channels. So I did both, in a desperate belt and braces attempt to have an editor look at my book. To my surprise, an editor got back to me from Harlequin before they had even started looking at the contest entries and asked to see the full manuscript, so I immediately withdrew the story from SYTYCW. There seemed to be no point wasting another editor’s time duplicating the work.
I won’t bore you with the stressful details here about what happened once the editor started to work with me, if you want to read about that part of the process then click on this link:
The revision process was an interesting yet daunting experience but thankfully there was some really good advice on the internet that helped me to rip apart my first draft of the manuscript and make it better. The most invaluable of these was an article by Chuck Wendig.
In total, there were four drafts of my manuscript, including the original, before Harlequin accepted it. I have learned so much from the revisions process that I feel much more confident about writing my next book for Harlequin. My only advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation is to listen to the editors advice. They know what they are talking about. Criticism is part of being a writer, so you have to suck it up and deal with it.
So now, I am not a teacher anymore. I work Monday through to Friday sat at my computer recording the stories in my mind onto paper and I love it. And if people ask me what I do I say I guess I’m an author now…