Charles Dickens Meets Downton Abbey

Here’s the interview I did for Many Books about my experience writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Enjoy!

Meredith Allard fell in love with Charles Dickens’ work when she was in college and after watching every Downton Abbey episode multiple times, she decided to create a work inspired by her favorite author and TV show. When it Rained at Hembry Castle is the perfect marriage between the humor and mystery of Dickens’ work and the upstairs/downstairs world of the English aristocrats. As our author of the day, Allard tells us more about what made her want to write a book set in the Victorian era, how she makes her characters come to life and how Hembry Castle has been brewing in her mind for 20 years.

Please give us a short introduction to When it Rained at Hembry Castle

When It Rained at Hembry Castle is set in Victorian England in 1870. It’s the story of American Daphne Meriwether, the granddaughter of the Earl of Staton. When the Earl dies, Daphne and her father Frederick return to England. It’s a challenge for Daphne, learning to live in the upstairs/downstairs world of her father’s family. And she may fall in love with the aspiring writer Edward Ellis while she’s there. Of course, obstacles get in their way. Hembry Castle is a love story at heart, though it has an interesting cast of characters who make life interesting for Edward and Daphne.

Why Victorian England? What fascinates you about this time period?

I fell in love with the novels of Charles Dickens when I was in college and I always wanted to write a book set in this era. The Victorian Era is interesting because it is a time that is both historical and yet in some ways it feels modern. I love learning about history, and writing historical fiction is a great way for me to do that.

Did it require a lot of research to keep your novel historically correct? Which part of the research did you find the most interesting?

This was one historical novel that I didn’t have to do a ton of research for because I already had a lot of knowledge about it from reading Dickens and reading books about the era. I did double check everything I wrote, but since I knew where to look for the information that made it a shorter process than usual for me. I was able to travel to London twice as part of my research, and I absolutely loved that. London is a great city. In fact, I’ve walked many of Edward’s walks through the city. I think being able to visit and see the places for myself make the story much more realistic.

What, would you say, makes the English aristocrats so interesting to read about?

When It Rained at Hembry Castle was partially inspired by Downton Abbey, and the popularity of Downton Abbey is largely based on the curiosity people have about the upstairs/downstairs world of English aristocrats. In America, the upstairs/downstairs world is not part of our culture the way it is in Britain, and I think that accounts for the fascination about that lifestyle. It’s an introduction to a world we knew nothing about.

Privilege and class division are recurring themes in When it Rained at Hembry Castle. Why?

Since Downton Abbey was such a big influence on Hembry Castle, it seemed appropriate that privilege and class division should play a part in the story. My love for all things Dickens also inspired the novel, and privilege and class division are often themes in his stories. While I love watching Downton Abbey and am fascinated by the lifestyle of the upper classes, I can’t imagine ever having to live according to such arbitrary rules and regulations. Daphne represents the way I would look at that lifestyle if I were thrust into that world—with a sense of detachment and maybe some humor about it all. The fact that Daphne falls in love with the butler’s grandson when her grandmother means for her to marry a duke allowed me to probe a bit deeper into what seems to be the pointlessness of class division, but, again, I’m American and would see it that way.

How did you manage to describe England’s countryside and other locations in your book so vividly?

Partially it was through reading, partially it was through photographs on Pinterest, but mainly it was my imagination. I was able to picture the scenery in my mind’s eye and I did my best to describe what I saw. And watching every episode of Downton Abbey many times helped!

Which classic author do you admire the most?

Charles Dickens, if you haven’t already figured that out. I read Dickens for the first time in college and knew that that’s what I wanted to do—write stories that were entire worlds unto themselves. I love his sense of humor, his spot-on observations, his way of pointing out things that were wrong in his world, many of which are still wrong in our world today. He’s the smartest, funniest writer I’ve ever read. Dickens has been the biggest influence in my own writing.

When it Rained at Hembry Castle contains many hilarious scenes. Why do you find it important to use humor in your writing?

This goes back to my love for Dickens. Dickens was a hilarious writer, and from him I learned that if you’re going to write truthfully about people then you have to include the light as well as the dark. People are funny. We do and say funny things all the time (sometimes without meaning to do so—which makes it even funnier). And besides, a sense of humor goes a long way in making a story fun to read.

Your book has a very Downton Abbey feel to it. Was that intentional? Are you a Downton Abbey fan yourself?

I love Downton Abbey and it was absolutely intentional to include the upstairs/downstairs feel of the show. In fact, Downton Abbey gave me an angle from which to tell the story. I came up with the original idea for Hembry Castle about 20 years ago (no joke) when I decided I wanted to write a story set in Victorian England about a writer who would be loosely based on a young Charles Dickens. I went on to write other novels and kept the Victorian story on the back burner for years. After I fell in love with Downton Abbey I realized that I could take elements from that TV show and use it to bring my Victorian story to life.

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What are some tricks you use to create such believable characters?

Mainly, I use my imagination. It took me longer to write Hembry Castle than I thought it would because it took me some time to get to know all the characters. I can’t write about a character until I get a sense of his or her personality. Hembry Castle has a larger cast of characters than I usually write about, and it took me some time to get them all straight in my head. Really, it’s about not thinking too much during the first draft, allowing the characters to materialize in front of me, and then writing down what I see. Sometimes I’ll put a favorite actor in the “part” of that character and imagine that actor acting out the scenes. That helps me get a sense of cadence when the character speaks, the types of movements the character might do, and so on. But really, it all boils down to allowing my imagination freedom.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

Writing is my most obvious superpower, but when I’m not writing I love to read. I also love to cook, and I just started art journaling, which I really enjoy.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

The best place to find me online is my website, www.meredithallard.com. I’m also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/authormeredithallard/. My favorite social media is Pinterest, and you can find me at https://www.pinterest.com/meredithallard/. I could stay on that all day!

When It Rained at Hembry Castle

Missing Downton Abbey? Read When It Rained at Hembry Castle. A lush historical novel set in Victorian England, When It Rained at Hembry Castle is the story of an aristocratic family, secrets that dare not be told, and the wonder of falling in love.
$0.99

About the Author

Meredith Allard is the author of the bestselling novels The Loving Husband Trilogy, That You Are Here, Victory Garden, Woman of Stones, and My Brother’s Battle (Copperfield Press). Her newest release is the historical novel When It Rained at Hembry Castle, a great read for fans of Downton Abbey. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Visit Meredith online at www.meredithallard.com.

Productivity for Writers and Other People

It’s interesting to me to see how conversations change over time. Not so long ago everyone was praising multi-tasking as the best thing ever. Hey, I can write the world’s greatest novel while reading blogs while checking every new email the moment it pops into my inbox while keeping track of every ping on Facebook and Twitter while walking the dog while doing my taxes while binge watching Netflix while juggling watermelons while yodeling to the tune of “O Solo Mio.” At the end of the day I’d wonder why I hadn’t written more. Had I really lost an entire day watching cat videos on YouTube? Then I realized that I didn’t want to spend more time working. I wanted to get more done.

Around this time, I started seeing articles about how multi-tasking may not be all it was cracked up to be. We weren’t putting all our attention and talent into any one task; as a result, we weren’t working to the best of our abilities because our attention was too scattered. Enter the discussion about productivity.

I think the reason there are so many articles about productivity is because so many of us are struggling with the same issue—how do we work more efficiently so that we’re getting more and better work done in less time? Here are a few tricks I’ve learned lately that have helped me stay focused while I’m working. I wrote this post from the point of view of a writer hoping to steal back some of her precious time to get more writing done, but I hope anyone who is having some concerns about their productivity will find these tips useful.

  1. I changed my homepage for the Internet.

Since I’ve had the Internet in the mid 1990s I’ve used AOL as my homepage. My email address is through AOL, so by using AOL as my homepage I could check my email as soon as I logged online. But you know how it goes…there are the news links, the entertainment links, the books links, along with any other links that might catch my eye. Once AOL and The Huffington Post joined hands, I was done for. I’d spend an hour reading blog posts and getting no work done in the process. Was it fun? For sure, though there were definitely times when I was wondering why I was reading about celebrities I didn’t even care about. I had just wasted an hour I could have spent getting my work done.

About three months ago I changed my Internet homepage to my own website. That might sound a little self-serving, but it helps me in two ways. First, I can do a quick glance at my site to see if there are comments I need to respond to, which I can often do in under five minutes. Second, there are no news feeds to distract me so I’m able to get right to whatever it is I need on the Internet. Yes, I have to click on one or two more links to get to my email, but it’s worth it to me to skip over the distractions.

  1. I check my email twice a day.

I check my email in the morning to see if there’s anything imperative that needs seeing to, and then I check my email at the end of my work day to see if there’s something that came in since the morning. That’s it.

  1. I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and iPad and stopped all social media notifications.

Now the only way I can access Facebook and Twitter is to log in on my computer. This extra step helps to scratch the itch that used to lead me to check my social media pages every five minutes to see if someone posted a new cute cat photo. I check Facebook and Twitter twice a day, quick scans to see what others are up to and if there’s anything I need to respond to, which, again, I can usually do in less than five minutes.

I also removed all social media notifications. I no longer get instant pings whenever I get a new email or message on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. When I was getting the notifications everything else stopped until I discovered who sent the message and what it said. One day, in a burst of wisdom, I realized that most of the pings were about things of extreme unimportance. I decided that I wanted to focus my attention on things that are important so I turned off the notifications, and I don’t even miss them.

  1. I schedule my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn posts.

I use Hootsuite to schedule my posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It takes about an hour to schedule a week’s worth of posts, and then I’m done and don’t have to search every day for what to post on social media.

  1. I started using Google calendar to schedule my daily tasks.

For years I used paper and pencil notebooks and planners, but in my new wish to downsize my belongings (I love Marie Kondo’s books about decluttering) I’ve become totally electronic. Google calendar is heaven sent. It’s free, and all you need is a gmail account, which is also free. You can share your calendar with others, or you can keep it private. So now I know each day what I need to accomplish.

For example, today I had several tasks to tend to: complete my word count for the first draft of Down Salem Way, write this blog post, and find five sites to advertise Her Dear & Loving Husband, which is once again free. When those tasks are finished, I’m done with my work for the day, which is always a good feeling. Knowing what I have to do helps me stay focused. When I wasn’t keeping track of my daily tasks I just floated about looking at stupid stuff on the Internet because I was never sure what to do next so I’d go back to those cute cat videos on YouTube.

On a side note, I also find that it helps to know exactly what I’m looking for when I go onto the Internet. Right now, I’m back to researching the Salem Witch Trials for Down Salem Way, and I’m also looking for places to advertise When It Rained at Hembry Castle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I have those tasks on my Google calendar too so I know what I’m searching for. It stops me from going back to (you guessed it–the cute cat videos).

  1. I turned off the TV.

The TV is not completely gone because I do love my Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. For years, even if I wasn’t watching a show I had the TV on acting as background noise. Now the TV is off, as in off off, with a blank screen and everything. I started listening to music because music always helps to get my creative juice flowing. I’ve also started listening to podcasts because I realized I’d rather listen to some intelligent conversation than some TV show I don’t care about, and I can listen while I work. Rather than distracting me, the podcasts tap into my inquisitiveness about the world and they help me think, which is always a good thing.

My podcast tastes are pretty eclectic, like everything else about me. I love podcasts about writing and the publishing industry like Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn. As I’m learning more about productivity, I’m also learning more about how to be centered and healthy in this crazy world of ours so I listen to Shawn Stevenson’s The Model Health Show and Pedram Shojai’s The Urban Monk. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes is also pretty cool, and Shambhala features talks by famous meditation teachers in their podcast Meditation in the City. I recently discovered the History Chicks’ podcast, a great listen for a history buff like me.

  1. I had to learn to stop checking everything everywhere.

We’ve all heard of the social ill the Fear of Missing Out (affectionately—or not depending on your point of view—known as FOMO). I was right there with everyone else, checking my social media every five minutes, worrying that what was going on over there was more important than what was going on over here. Also, because I’m a writer I was constantly checking my stats on my website and my book sales. Why did I sell more books on Wednesday than Monday? How come this book’s sales have slipped? Why did this post get more views than that post? I’d check my Amazon sales page five or six times a day, as if things were going to be that different between 3 and 5 pm. And then when things were the same I felt disappointed that some magical sales boost hadn’t happened.

Not only is this kind of constant worry exhausting, it isn’t productive. When I was worried about book sales or website stats I should have been writing. There was some time there when I was a writer who wasn’t writing—or at least I wasn’t writing as much as I could have been. I was so concerned about all these other aspects, some of which were beyond my control, and you know what? They don’t matter. Sales don’t matter. Website hits don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how I feel about what I’m doing. I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me (or even worse, my own perception of other people’s perceptions of me) to affect how I felt about myself, and that, my friends, is never a good thing.

As a result, I put myself on my “no checking stats” rule that I live by to this day. I no longer check my Amazon, BN, or Kobo sales pages. I no longer check to see how many page views my latest blog post has. My one exception is that when I’m running a promotion I may check my book sales pages to see if the promotion is worth its weight in beans, but otherwise my Amazon page is a no-go. Because you know what? My books are going to sell as many copies that day as they’re going to sell whether I’m compulsively checking or not. Why make myself crazy and waste time in the process? Yes, it does takes some self-restraint to go from checking 10 times a day to zero times a day, but it is possible. If you’re not able to go cold turkey like I did, maybe try checking just once a day and see how that goes.

  1. I started paying more attention to my health.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wasn’t eating well. I was eating and drinking way too much sugar, and my exercise habits had all but disappeared. As I’m working toward becoming a more productive writer, I’m also learning more about health and wellness (mostly from the afore mentioned Model Health Show podcast from Shawn Stevenson). I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now I’ll say that whoever you are, no matter what your profession, you have to get up and move. You have to put healthy food into your body. You have to drink more water. The better you feel, the more productive you’re able to be because you’re healthier. It’s hard to be productive when you feel lousy. Do what you can to help yourself feel better.

I am definitely getting more work done in less time. I’m no longer wasting time—or, more accurately, I’m wasting far less time. I still spend more time on Pinterest than I need to, but hey, no one’s perfect. For the first time, I’m writing two books at a time, which is something I’ve never been able to do before. By whittling away at time wasters and finding ways to streamline my work time, I’ve been able to get more done. From now on, instead of multi-tasking, I’ll be focusing on productivity.

What I Learned About Writing from Coloring Books

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

Peacock

This is definitely one of my better pieces, maybe because I love peacocks.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).
Blue Birds

You can see that I outlined the leaves in dark green and filled them in with light green.

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.

The Book in Your Head Versus the Book Your Readers Read

Since February 9, When It Rained at Hembry Castle has sold over 1000 copies. Thank you! I’m sure there are other authors who can sell that many in a day, but I think those are pretty snazzy numbers.

After the release of my new book, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow author about what happens when you put a book out into the world. As writers, we spend hours, weeks, years living with a story, and then one day we have to set the story free. But what happens when other people (also known as readers) begin to read that story?

images-1I have a friend who is struggling with this issue while she’s getting ready to release her first novel, a venture into Steampunk complete with Victorianisms and fancy-pants machinery. The fear that nearly paralyzes her is the worry over bad reviews. I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s all part of the game. Every book gets bad reviews. I want you to check your favorite book’s Amazon page. I’ll wait. While you’re looking, you’re likely to see some bad reviews there.

I had a few things to say about negative reviews here. Focus on the people who like what you do, I say. They’re the ones who will look forward to your new releases. And if you really can’t handle book reviews, you can always do what I do—not read them. I kid you not. I don’t read negative reviews of my own books. My mother tried to catch me out once when I was talking about a movie review I had read. “I thought you said you don’t read reviews,” she said. What I said, I explained, is I don’t read my own reviews. I read other people’s reviews all the time.

The discussion with my friend about book reviews led into another conversation about the book writers think they’re writing versus the book the readers read. Think of it this way—when we’re writing a story, we know what we intend to do, why the pieces of the puzzle are set out the way they are, why this character says one thing when she means another. But when readers read, they’re not in our heads, they’re in their heads. Which is just as well. My head is crowded enough with only me in there. Readers have their own experiences, their own likes and dislikes, their own tastes. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I intended when I was crafting the story. To the readers, it only matters what happens when they engage with the story.

UnknownNext, my friend asked how to write a novel that will appeal to everyone. The answer is you can’t. I mean, really, you can’t. I see articles all over Pinterest and Twitter with headlines like “10 Steps to an International Bestseller” or “How to Make Everyone Love Your Book” or “I Don’t Suck at Writing Anymore, and Now You Won’t Either” (for a fee, of course). Here’s the secret that’s not really a secret: you have to write something that could only come from you. I love this quote from Barbara Kingsolver because it explains the point far better than I ever could (yes, I found it on Pinterest): “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the only thing you have to offer.” How true.

When we write, we figure out what we have to say and we say it the very best way we know how. And if what people read is different than what we thought we were writing? As Toni Morrison once said to Oprah Winfrey, “That is called reading.” Readers are going to bring their own perspectives to the page. They’re going to see the characters and the events through their lens, not yours. And you know what? It’s all good. Many times readers see our stories in a completely different light than we intended, and often they see possibilities the writers never considered.

Here’s a case in point, and one close to my heart because it involves Hembry Castle. When I began writing Hembry in 2014, I had just come off the success of the Loving Husband Trilogy and I thought Hembry would be a great way to go back to writing a love story that readers would cheer for. Edward Ellis and Daphne Meriwether were always the focus for me as I was writing the novel. Yes, Daphne has to figure out how to live in this Downton Abbey-like world, but all along I saw When It Rained at Hembry Castle as a great love story. And here’s what happened…

Before I continue I should say that, while I don’t read reviews of my own books, I do read every email that comes my way. Readers who emailed me about Hembry weren’t gushing over Edward and Daphne. They were asking about Richard, Daphne’s uncle, the 9th Earl of Staton. In the reader’s mind (at least those who contacted me), Richard was the center of attention. He is the Earl of Staton, after all. But I was intrigued by their questions about Richard when to me Edward and Daphne are the stars of the show. Is it wrong for readers to focus on Richard? Of course not. But realizing that readers were not necessarily reading the book I thought I had written was a huge revelation to me and a continuing source of fascination.

Over the years, I’ve learned to keep my focus on writing the best stories I know how before sending those stories off into the world with my blessings. Everything else is beyond my control—even how readers respond to the books I’ve written. If, as writers, we can learn to make peace with that, then there will be much more smooth sailing ahead.