Sandra Gulland

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Notes on (surviving) the writing life

Welcome to my blog on writing and the writing life. I also blog on research subjects at Baroque Explorations.

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Quill copy

On reading, writing & taking an on-line course: getting things done to the sound of the surf


My husband and I have been staying in one of our favourite spots, a Solecito casita on beautiful Playa Blanca on the Mexican Pacific coast. (Our casita: the one shown above.)

It’s a totally relaxing time for us, and—surprisingly—one of the pleasures, for me, is that I get quite a bit done:

• I edited the 4th draft of The Game of Hope and began draft 5.

Sat Night

• I read a lot, likely because I’m reading on my little Kindle, and not on the Kindle app on my Net-connected iPad.

• I finished THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber (my first Sci-Fi), and am close to finishing THE GIRL WHO WAS SATURDAY NIGHT by Heather O’Neill. (Delightful! I have previously read and very much enjoyed LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS.) I’m still reading and highly recommend Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman as well as various research books.

• I read a pdf of wonderful novel that I gave a rave quote for … I’ll have more to say on this book when it is published in March.


• I listened to a wonderful audible recording of ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE, a novel by Anthony Doerr that was on virtually every “best of 2014″ book list. How to Learn

I caught up on the video lectures of a Coursera course I’m taking on how to learn. (You can watch them here.)

Why am I following this course? Because I am determined to become more conversant in both French and Spanish. (In fact, as I go for my daily walk on the beach, I listen to French tapes.)

My research method

This course has got me reconsidering my writing research method. I used to write notes out by hand. Now I prefer highlighting passages on Kindle and sending these to Evernote—knowing that I can always find the information should I need it.

Effortless! Right?

Not exactly. Evernote is great, but the trouble is: when I look for something on Evernote, I find the mass of notes overwhelming. It’s not that functional system for me, in truth, and I’ve long had a hunch that writing down notes by hand was more effective. This Coursera course has confirmed the importance of approaching information through different media.

Another problem I have is resistance to organizing my research. I’m content to cruse the Net, buy new books, read and highlight them, but I’m somewhat scattered and slapdash about it, in truth.


This course has reminded me of the value of the Pomodoro approach: setting a timer for 25 minutes of focussed distraction-free (i.e. Net-free) period of time.

It has also reminded me of the key importance of review: and this is where note-taking comes in.

The course also emphasises how important relaxation is to learning. And so … to the hammock.

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January 23, 2015 @ 5:20 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Pleasantly Lost in Austen

“Selkie,” a reader of this blog, left a comment on my “best of 2014” blog post about my love of the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice (staring Kiera Knightly). She said she watches an Austen movie once a week. (I can understand!) Very kindly, she gave me a list to share here. As comprehensive as it is, she notes that is only of the films she owns.

emma 1972

Emma (1972), starring Doran Godwin and John Carson.

Emma (1996), starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam.

Emma (1996), starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong.

Mansfield Park (1983), starring Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell.

Northanger Abby (1986), starring Katherine Svhlesinger and Peter Firth.

Persuasion (1971), starring Firbank and Bryan Marshall.

Pride and Prejudice (1940), starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

Pride and Prejudice (1980), starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.

Pride and Prejudice (2003—an extremely modern version), starring Kim Heskin and Orlando Seale.

Pride and Prejudice (2005), starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen.

Sense and Sensibility (1981), starring Irene Richard and Tracey Childs.

Sense and Sensibility (2004), starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant.

Related movies: 

Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane (2007), starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.

Lost in Austen (2008), starring Jemima Rooper and Elliot Cowan.

About this last one,  Selkie notes, “I absolutely love this movie!” That’s high praise indeed; I’m going to try to find it!

Thank you so much, Selkie!

I discovered that I had a 6-book credit on that had to be used before the end of this month. Needless-to-say, I went on a book-buying spree. Here’s what I bought:


Landline by Rainbow Rowell, because I enjoy YA and I especially enjoy Rowell’s work.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. On many “best of 2014″ lists.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Ditto.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. This unusual novel was on the very interesting New York Times 10 Best Books of 2014 list and I really liked what the NY Times team had to say about it on their Podcast. (It’s a poetic novel, and I’m not sure how well it will work on audible, however.)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This one is on virtually every “best of” list.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Because laughing is wonderful, but most of all, because it is narrated by the amazing Meryl Streep.

I listen to “books on tape” (not that they are on tape anymore) when I’m exercising, so this collection should get me in excellent form.

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January 16, 2015 @ 12:24 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

A crazy publication day


Yesterday was a crazy day: I sent out a newsletter, the U.S. paperback edition of The Shadow Queen came out, andquite by coincidence — my INK e-book edition of The Shadow Queen launched in the UK and beyond.

TSQfinalcover2Shadow Queen Anchor (US) ppbk cover

Any one of these requires quite a bit of on-line attention, but to have all three in one morning?

Too much!

By 11:00, I decided I needed a walk, so I went out to buy watercolour supplies for the class I’m taking this afternoon. Very therapeutic!

And soon … to the beach, where I will be reading the 4th draft of The Game of Hope with an editorial eye. I put the novel aside December 1. It will be interesting to read it afresh.

I’m reading:

Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman. Excellent. Highly recommended.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. I’m only a few chapters in and I love it already. Will it last? I very rarely read speculative fiction. I suspect this one will hold me.

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January 7, 2015 @ 9:30 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The essential first step on the path to publication

New Yorkers

Memory snap-shot: my father at the kitchen table, leafing through an issue of the New Yorker. He turns the last page and pushes the magazine away. “I didn’t get a single one.”

Anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon,” a Ted talk by Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor, is (of course!) quite funny. It is also insightful into how humour works, the creative process, and what it takes to succeed in getting something published.

The New Yorker receives around 1,000 cartoons each week, and only publishes about 17 of them. Mankoff himself had the first 1000 cartoons he submitted rejected. One thousand!

Step one for all creatives: collect 1000 rejections. 

After years of making the New Year resolution to “get something published” — and failing every year — I decided that my resolution was the problem. The following New Year, I instead made the resolution to begin a collection of rejection letters, a collection that I intended to ultimately include a rejection from every literary magazine in North America.

I didn’t get very far, for — ironically — that was the year my Josephine B. Trilogy was accepted for publication. My many rejections had finally paid off.

An essential truth of the writing life is that the path to publication is paved with rejections. Perseverance is the key.

On that sobering note, enjoy a little New Yorker humour:

Happy New Year! May your 2015 be creative and fruitful.


In Mexico, Italy and elsewhere, one wears red underwear on New Year’s Eve, promising passion in the year ahead. Yellow signifies prosperity, so some wear both yellow and red.

What colour should a writer wear?

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December 31, 2014 @ 6:30 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

My year in Dot Com

Site summary

The annual report on my website from WordPress is kind of fun:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 36,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

“selkie” was my most active blog commentator: thank you so much, selkie! (The posts inspired by your astonishing lists of period films will be coming in the New Year.)

I do love WordPress.

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December 30, 2014 @ 9:18 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Getting ready for 2015: resolutions on book-keeping & book-making, the post-it To Do and the Seinfeld “Don’t break the chain” methods … or how to write that damned book!


Last year, I posted a blog with almost this same name—Getting ready for 2014: resolutions on book-keeping and book-making.

I wrote:

We’ve made our resolutions, and one of mine is get to the bottom of the mail in-box three times in the year ahead. Wish me luck.

I’ve gotten fairly good about in-box zero; what I’m not that good at is actually dealing with the emails that I hide away in files with names like “URGENT” “FOLLOW-UP!”

Another resolution is to deliver The Game of Hope ahead of schedule (it’s due December 1). That will take more than luck: that will take constant perseverance!

Bravo! I did manage to do this, sending The Game of Hope to my publisher two days ahead of the due date.

I had other resolutions, of course: keeping my weight down, exercising, etc., which I kept fairly in-line. (I could have done better.)

What I did evolve this year—eventually—were two motivational systems for actually getting things done.

1: The Post-It method

  • My To Do List for the day must fit on a post-it note (and not a big one).
  • Each item should be measurable: i.e. “30 minutes, bookkeeping.”
  • Tasks that are irksome should be introduced in 15-min. chunks. (I.e., said bookkeeping.)

2: The Jerry Seinfeld “Don’t Break the Chain” method

In conjunction with the daily post-it (as well as a more extensive compost-heap of long-term things to do), I’ve started using the Seinfeld method for the one daily task I resist most strongly: exercising. That I’ve finally found a way to actually overcome my resistance is a strong testimonial to the effectiveness of this method.

Here is a snap from my “Don’t Break the Chain” calendar earlier this year:


Every day I do what I’ve promised (30 minutes on the treadmill, in this instance), I colour in the date. The idea is not to have any gaps—and the visual reminder, for me, is strong.

Seinfeld originally suggested this system for writing. (I wrote about using the Seinfeld “Don’t Break the Chain” method in another blog post: A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, word?) I highly recommend this system if you want to write very day: just make sure that the daily goal you set isn’t overly ambitious. It’s better to write for 30 minutes a day every day, than to attempt 2 hours a day and fail.

“Don’t Break the Chain” calendars

If you’re going to use the Seinfeld method, you need to print out a continuous calendar. Click to download a printable version of this one I created using


Another continuous calendar created by David Seah allows you to make notes:


The Writer’s Store also offers a calendar to print out: here.

I have a system when it comes to writing a draft: I set a goal of about about 1000 words a day and record my progress in a small Moleskine diary. If you are casting about for a way to keep track, consider this Word Tracking Calendar, also by David Seah.

I was amused to find these very old To Do Lists of mine:


The colours were random—they did not signify anything. Note the To Do: “figure out the fax machine.” I never did manage that!

My resolutions this year? To finish The Game of Hope and write a solid first draft of The Princess Problem (the working title of the second Young Adult about Hortense). Also: keep up with daily exercise.

And, of course: in-box zero—but without simply filing away the emails to be answered.

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December 29, 2014 @ 11:15 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Watercolour therapy


Yesterday, I went to a watercolour class. Before heading out, I searched my computer for for the address, but up popped a biographical essay I wrote many years ago: “Watercolors.”

It’s about my teen years, and about my mother, but most of all it’s about creativity and renewal. I wrote it for an anthology edited by my friend Victoria Zackheim: The Face in the Mirror; Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age. It’s a biographical essay, as close as I’ve ever come to a memoir, and rereading it again brought tears. I’m thinking I might publish it as a chapbook, sub-titling it “An exceedingly short memoir of a rather long life.”

How à-propos that this essay should have reappeared just now, for I’ve been in the betwixt and between fog that it addresses—a fog I go into after a manuscript is sent out and before a new draft or novel is begun. In the essay, watercolours are seen as key to reviving creative doldrums.

Ah ha. 

(I’m reminded of a chapbook by Henry Miller I treasure: To Paint is to Love Again.


It’s a collector’s item now, a bit expensive, but you can hear him reading from it on YouTube.)

The class, taught by Canadian artist Donna Dickson, was excellent: tools and techniques and, for me, total absorption for a good three hours. Writing is such a mental, even abstract art, it’s refreshing to engage with the physical world in this way.

Above is a snapshot of a watercolour I painted this summer. It wouldn’t be honest  to claim that it’s only the process that matters, but in truth it really is about process … and right now my process is learning techniques and how to use the tools.

That said, what I love most about the visual arts is that they open me up to seeing the world in a new way.

Here is the painting I did for Donna Dickson‘s class. She’s an excellent teacher. Watercolours are such a pleasure!


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December 18, 2014 @ 9:18 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Inside out: not unlike the writing process

I adore this trailer for the new Disney movie Inside Out:

It reminds me of all the voices in my head when writing a scene:

  • Why would she do that?
  • What are the others thinking?
  • Someone, do something!!!

I’m excited this morning about an idea for the covers of the INK non-fiction titles I’m planning. Designer Kris Waldherr and I have had several back-‘n-forths. The new idea is to have them look a little like old chap-books with marbled papers.

Looking at marbled papers just about put me into an aesthetic swoon. Google “marbled pages” for yourself and you will see:

marbled pages

If you want to see more of these, go to my Pinterest board, where I’m collecting ideas.

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December 13, 2014 @ 12:51 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Online amusements: Josephine—the sorrowful wife?—and Napoleon’s Tweets


I’ve recently started using the “Never miss a thing online” Mention app. Just what I don’t need—right?—but being a Social Media Nerd, and terminally curious, I thought I’d give it a try. For starters I searched my name (of course), as well as mentions of Hortense and Napoleon.

It has turned up some surprising links.

This Turkish site, for one, on the theme of “the sorrowful wife.” In the book section, they display four titles:

The Sorrowful Wife

Yep, there’s sorrowful Jo right beside a novel by Goethe. My smile for the day.

Do you belong to Book Movement? (If not, it’s free.) It’s great site for book clubs and readers generally. Last spring, M.J. Rose and I did a special for their newsletter on our books — her’s, The Collector of Dying Breaths, and mine, The Shadow Queen — which are remarkably similar in a number of ways. It’s online again: you can read it here.

Grumpy Nap

As for Hortense, her step-father Napoleon completely overshadows her. As he does. She has not a single mention, yet he has 5571! Clearly, he is the master of the Tweetable quote.

  • “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.”
  • “The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.” (Yet his mind was far from quiet.)
  •  “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

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December 9, 2014 @ 10:19 am3 comments already! | Leave a Comment

That naughty Saint Nick: trouble—and romance?—in toyland


Author and screenwriter Robin Maxwell recently wrote to me about, among other things, that mischievous Saint Nick.  While she and her long-time collaborator Billie Morton were researching the history of Santa for their recently-published Middle Grade novel Trouble in Toyland, they learned that in Renaissance England the idea of a jolly, gift-bringing immortal of the Yuletide season called “Father Christmas” came into existence during the reign of Henry VIII. This inspired them to write “Lady Karola and the Christmas Stranger,” a Renaissance romance short story (with a touch of fantasy) that takes place on Christmas Eve at the court of Elizabeth I, when one of the queen’s waiting ladies first lays eyes on a mysterious stranger.

Ho ho ho!

(See my own blog post on that wild and crazy guy: Would you want this man sneaking down your chimney?)

Family life

Of all the books I’ve recently acquired, the one that has most charmingly hooked me is Family Life by Akhil Sharma. If you’ve read about this memoir, you may be scared off—the author’s brother is tragically paralyzed in a swimming accident—but believe me: it’s gentle and warm and humorous. Beautifully written. I highly recommend it.


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December 8, 2014 @ 6:35 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Dear Santa: the drool-worthy books I lust for (and you will too)


(Yes, this is me, once-upon-a-time.)

I thought I’d mention the books I swoon over—books you might want to consider buying for yourself, or giving to a very special someone.

Lost in Translation

The first book on this list is Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World. The amazing Marie Popova mentioned it on her blog——and I was immediately captured. Why?

Well, judge for yourself. This is just one example:


 TSUNDOKU: a Japanese noun for leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.

 Ha! Say no more! I need this book—to pile on all the others.

The Book of Miracles

Another book that sets the imagination afire is Taschen‘s The Book of Miracles.

The illustrations are breathtaking. Click here for a slideshow. Some examples:

Untitled 2 Untitled Untitled3

At one point this fall, I decided that I really must have a complete set of Penguin’s Dropped Cap series—until I remembered that my publicly-announced goal was to begin culling books. ;-(

Even so, I might just give in. These books are luscious and beautifully crafted; a complete set would be something to behold. They are, also, classics well worthy of such care. The cover fabric is velvety: just holding one of these books is a sensual treat. Here are only a few …


I look forward to seeing a photo of them on your shelves.

My last recommendation is a series I know well, for I own (and devoured) two of them. These are the lavishly illustrated and annotated editions of Jane Austens‘ work from Harvard University Press:


I have had the very great pleasure of reading the Pride & Prejudice  and Persuasion editions. Simply superb.

And, as if this isn’t enough to tempt you, there are many, many “best of” lists coming out now. Here are a few lists I found interesting:

The Best Books of 2014, from the Huffington Post

The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2014, by BuzzFeed Books

The best fiction of 2014, from The Guardian

The Globe 100: The best books of 2014

The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2014 This is an unusual list: extremely interesting.

Station Eleven

Two books I’m going to dip into are Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, as well as My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead.

My Life in Middlemarch

And don’t forget to check out own “best of” summaries for this year:

The best of 2014 in six books, one movie, one plus four podcasts, and three apps

Mags & blogs: my 2014 shortlist


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December 5, 2014 @ 5:59 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The best of 2014 in six books, one movie, one plus four podcasts, and three apps

I read many, many books this year, but here are the ones I enjoyed the most, in no particular order:

The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Kept me up way past midnight. Waters is a master.


Caught by Lisa Moore. Delightful detail, smart dialogue and an intriguing plot. Wonderful! #CanLit

Life After Life

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Wow. I will read this novel again. If I had to chose one book for the year, this would be it.

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. I listened to this on, as read by Meryl Streep. Simply amazing.


Longbourn, by Jo Baker. I loved this novel about the servant world of Austen’s Pride & PrejudiceExtremely well done.

They Left Us Everything

They Left Us Everything, a memoir by Plum Johnson. An often-funny yet moving account of dealing with parents’ “stuff” after their death. I wept! I laughed! #CanLit


Of course, I must also mention movies—well, just one, which I watched three times and will watch three times over again, no doubt. It’s the 2005 release of Pride & Prejudice, staring Kiera Knightly. I love this movie so much I can hardly stand it.


Ok, now for podcasts—but again, I’ll just mention one: Serial. It’s a reality-crime-mystery sort of series, and therefore highly unlikely to capture my interest, so trust me on this. It’s very well done—and extremely compelling.

Yet! How can I not also mention the podcasts that have been my daily bread for years? They include: This American Life, Learn French by Podcast, Book Review by the New York Times, and Writers & Company from CBC Radio.


In addition to my standby apps, I became fond this year of: Duolingo and Anki (for learning languages), and Lyne (a game).

And, as if this weren’t enough, here is another 2014 shortlist:

Mags & blogs: my 2014 shortlist

You might also want to check out my last year’s round-up:

My top 5 fiction titles for 2013: virginal and not

My top 5 non-fiction and memoir reads of 2013: a canvas in red, black & blue—irreverent, wise, tragic, and ultimately unforgettable




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December 3, 2014 @ 8:46 am22 comments already! | Leave a Comment

Mags & blogs: my 2014 shortlist

I read the following magazines the moment they arrive:


Bookmarks:  This is a great magazine for readers. It compiles all the reviews of the most notable books by genre and makes a summary report.

MacWorld:  I’ve been a Mac Nerd since the birth of the 128K ugly little Mac. (Only 128K! It was amazing what I could do with that little machine.) I read this magazine cover to cover. You would think I would know more!


Renaissance Magazine:  This magazine gives the impression of being a bit cheesy. The cover is often of someone in historical dress—and often showing serious cleavage. It’s main readership, I gather, are people  involved in history reenactments, and this group takes historical accuracy very seriously. The articles in this magazine are wonderful, and I especially love the news of new historical discoveries.


The New Yorker:  Fine dining! Journalism at its best, IMO. I don’t read it immediately, but linger over each issue for some time.

As for blogs, I subscribe to many.  It was hard to come up with a shortlist, but here is:


Brainpickings:  This is by far my favourite blog, the New Yorker of blogs. If you’re not keen on computer-reading, it’s a great newsletter to subscribe to or follow on Flipboard. Intellectual, eclectic, and inspiring.


Cup of Jo:  This is my go-to blog for hip home magazine type fare: fashion, cooking, entertaining, travel, family. It’s all filtered through the eyes of Joanna Goddard, who is charming, smart, intimate and funny.


David Seah: It’s hard to explain why this blog fascinates me so, but I begin each day reading it. The highly personal daily posts deal with time-management, creativity and technology.

What are your favourite magazines and blogs?

Next up: books, movies and apps.


December 2, 2014 @ 11:31 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Bringing “Sunny Now & Then” to light—the mystery of the writing process


I just made a risky move!

To the subscribers of my newsletter, I’ve offered the first chapter of Sunny Now & Then—an unpublished novel I wrote in 1989.

Sunny is an eccentric 80-year-old who is somewhat inconveniently possessed by a spirit. It’s a light contemporary comedy/mystery. If you’re curious, and not a subscriber, sign up here. (If you are protective of your in-box—and who isn’t?—you can always unsubscribe.)

If you are already a newsletter subscriber, I’ll be offering this excerpt of Sunny Now & Then in my next newsletter.

What’s amusing about this early work, I think, is that although Sunny Now & Then is a contemporary comedy, it led directly to the writing and publication of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. five years later. (I think you can guess who the possessing spirit might be.)

Writing is such a circuitous and mysterious process!

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November 30, 2014 @ 6:16 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Hello world! On the drowsy, wandering, somewhat lost feeling one gets after sending off a draft

Stack of drafts

Day before yesterday, I sent the 4th draft of The Game of Hope (working title) to my editor at Penguin—3 days before the due date. Yay!

I woke the next morning with 1) a slight hangover  (Ha! The result of opting for the wine paring at a fantastic 4-course Thanksgiving dinner), 2) the novel feeling that I could poke around at most any number of things: my blogs, my newsletter, on-line shopping for the holidays coming up. My bookkeeping. (Scratch that idea.) Tidy my desk. Add the last scribbled-up pages to the draft stack (see above).

Curiously, I’m still rewriting in my mind … and thinking about the next novel, the second Young Adult about Hortense.


I plan to send out a newsletter soon. If you’re not on the mailing list, sign up here.

Shadow Queen

For this next newsletter, one of the subscribers (randomly selected) will win a personally inscribed, autographed hardcover edition of The Shadow Queen.

The Paying Guests

Reading: I’ve been reading many, many research books, but curiously—no doubt because I’ve been so immersed getting The Game of Hope ready to send outI’ve had a hard time reading fiction just now. The last novel I got completely absorbed in was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters—and yes, completely absorbed!

Watching: After watching Pride & Prejudice (2005, with Keira Knightly) three times, I branched out to The Young Victoria, and now I’m re-watching the 3rd season of Downton Abbey.


Listening: to Serial (the podcast). I’m almost finished listening to Washington, a Life, by Rob Chernow. This is an epic work.

Recent blog posts over on my research blog:

An old hat, a necklace, and a letter likely rescued from the trash sell for close to 6 million

Lost and found in France’s on-line library archives

Quarantine: How the spread of deadly diseases were dealt with in late 18th century France

I will have more and more there on the ever-absorbing Bonapartes.

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November 29, 2014 @ 3:39 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment