Holly West: Five Things I Learned Writing Mistress of Fortune

Isabel, Lady Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II, has a secret: she makes her living disguised as Mistress Ruby, a fortune-teller who caters to London’s elite. It’s a dangerous life among the charlatans, rogues and swindlers who lurk in the city’s dark corners, but to Isabel, the risk is worth the reward.

Until magistrate Sir Edmund Godfrey seeks Mistress Ruby’s counsel and reveals his unwitting involvement in a plot to kill the king. When Isabel’s diary containing dangerous details of his confession is stolen, she knows she must find it before anyone connects her to Mistress Ruby. Especially after Sir Edmund’s corpse is discovered a few days later…

Isabel is sure that whoever stole her diary is Sir Edmund’s killer—and could be part of a conspiracy that leads all the way to the throne. But as she delves deeper into the mystery, not even the king himself may be able to save her.

RUNNING A MARATHON CONVINCED ME THAT I COULD WRITE A NOVEL

For thirty years, writing a novel was something I dreamed of doing, but could never imagine myself actually doing it. Somehow, I thought that if it were really something I could accomplish, it would be–I don’t know–easier. Not so much work. That the words would magically flow out of me, all brilliant and shiny, that the muse would take over and voila, I’d have a novel. Over the years, the idea took on a sort of mystical, unattainable quality, like winning an Oscar or becoming a racecar driver. Other people did it, but not me.

For a long time, running a marathon was also on my list of impossible goals. Only in this case I knew training for one would be work, it wouldn’t be easy, and that the only thing that would flow out of me was sweat and bile as I dry-heaved at the 2-mile mark. Then, the summer I turned 38, I decided I wanted to get in shape. I started running regularly, lost some weight, and found myself with a good base to actually give running a marathon serious consideration. I told myself I could do it or not, my only caveat being that if I did to commit to it, there would be no turning back. That marathon would get run no matter what it took.

And you know what? That marathon got run. It took sixteen weeks of training, followed by five hours, seven minutes, and thirty-four seconds of actual race time. I walked, off and on, about five miles of it and I burst into tears at the end. They were not tears of pride, they were tears of utter and complete exhaustion.

I figured that after all that, I could probably commit to writing a novel. I used the same approach: do it or not, but if you commit to it, finish it. The summer I turned 40, I did just that, and three years later I had the completed novel (including re-writes and revisions), that would eventually become Mistress of Fortune.

Now, when people tell me they want to write a novel someday, I say, if that’s really and truly the case, then why aren’t you writing it already? It’s a hell of a lot easier than running a damned marathon.

A LITTLE NAIVETE GOES A LONG WAY

I’ll be honest. If I’d have known when I began writing Mistress of Fortune that it was going to take nearly five years to write, re-write, revise, and publish, I might not have had the chutzpah to start writing it in the first place.

Oh, I knew how much time it took most other writers to get their work published. I was aware that many authors have one or more novels in their desk drawers that never see the light of day. I even knew the odds were that I’d never get published at all (unless I published myself, which is another topic entirely that I’ll not address here).

But here’s the deal: I’d somehow convinced myself that none of that applied to me. I was certain that once I finally finished it, my novel would get an agent straight out of the gate, that I’d get a great publishing contract with one of the big six publishers, and that my career as an author would flourish.

HAHAHAHAHAHA

Of course it didn’t happen that way at all. I saved every rejection, only one of which was on paper (which my dog, Stella, subsequently chewed a hole in. Good girl). All the rest are emails that reside safely on my backed up hard drive.

Sure, I’d set myself up for disappointment, but being unrealistic kept me going. I’m not sure when I realized that my publishing story was more or less the same as everybody else’s. But by that time I had too much skin in the game and there was no way I was going to quit.

DON’T TAKE THE ADAGE “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW” AT FACE VALUE

Mistress of Fortune is set in 17th century London and features a mistress to King Charles II who moonlights as a fortuneteller. Being female is pretty much the only thing I have in common with my protagonist.

The thing is, my existence has been pretty uneventful. While I personally enjoy the life I lead very much, there is nothing particularly interesting about it to use as fodder for fiction. In getting started, I found the advice “write the book you want to read” and “write the book only you can write” much more useful. Mistress of Fortune is, in all ways, the book I wanted to read and if there is such a thing, it’s the book I was born to write.

That said, it seemed ambitious to take on a setting and situation so far from my own reality as a first project. The novel is based on a real life, unsolved murder that spurred a complicated political crisis in England and as a novice who’d never plotted a book before, I often felt overwhelmed and frustrated during the writing of it. I asked myself many times whether I should put it aside and write something less demanding.

Ultimately, however, I learned that I actually did know everything I needed to in order to write this book. I could study the historical details. I could visit London and trace my protagonist’s footsteps from one end of the city to the other (which I did). And hell, I could even make shit up if I had to (which I definitely did). But the essential thing—what it means to be human—I already knew that. The painful burn of being rejected by a lover. The bitter anger of being betrayed by someone I trust. The useless torment of envy and the exquisite pull of lust. These are the elements that make a book worth reading and I knew how they felt. All I had to do was bring them to life in my characters.

Easy-peasy, right?

MARKET YOURSELF EARLY, AND OFTEN

I like to joke that I started selling Mistress of Fortune as soon as I started writing it. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time, but that’s the beauty of social media when it’s done well. It doesn’t matter if you have a book to sell or not. The idea is to slowly build relationships, giving and taking as appropriate, and when the time comes for you to overtly promote yourself, people will accept it (and even help you) because you’ve earned it. Just don’t over do it, ‘kay?

While high self-esteem is not generally my strong suit, I do pride myself on my strong social media presence. While I’m not as popular as say, Mr. Wendig here, I have amassed a solid following of friends and contacts that have helped me immensely throughout the process of writing and publishing of Mistress of Fortune.

If that sounds cold and calculated, let me assure you that the key to social media success is actually sincerity. Talk about what interests you. Promote projects you love, whether or not they directly benefit you. Support others. Have real conversations. And when the opportunity arises, take it off line. Many of my online friends have become very good friends in “real life.” To say that social media has made my life richer is an understatement. I wouldn’t be where I am now without these people, and more importantly, I’m not sure I’d want to be.

Which brings me to my next lesson:

I FINALLY FOUND WHERE I BELONG

I was about thirty when I realized I have no real marketable skills. Fortunately, I have a husband who does and for ten years this enabled me to drift from hobby to hobby, searching for my bliss. Most notably, I was a jewelry maker and a pet portrait artist, both of which gave me some joy but ultimately, not enough satisfaction to wholeheartedly pursue them as careers. The desire to write kept rearing its ugly head and kept me hungry for something more.

In writing and getting Mistress of Fortune published, I’ve never worked harder for less financial gain. I’m the first to say that I’m in this business to get paid, but the reality is, I’ve made exactly $10 from my fiction writing thus far. So what is it, Holly West? Are you in this to make money or are you in it for love of the craft?

The answer is that I’m in it because I can’t not be in it. I hate writing, but I hate not writing more. It’s like this damned itch I can only scratch by, well, scratching it. Writing a novel didn’t satisfy the urge and neither did writing a second novel. I’m now plotting my third and that prickly rash is more powerful than ever.

If I make it sound like misery, well, it kind of is for me, yet I love it more than anything I’ve ever loved before. And so I say, with resignation and relief, that I’ve finally found my place in life—if not my bliss, exactly.

Holly West: Website | Twitter

Mistress of Fortune: Amazon

12 comments

  • Yaaayyy! I feel almost like we’re soul-sisters (in a completely non-stalker-y way, of course… although I will admit it’s very hard to make that opening sentence sound NOT stalker-y… )

    Your story is inspiring because it’s so honest and totally relatable (Stephen King, bless your heart I know you’re a novelling superhero, but being idly perplexed about why Harper Lee *only* wrote one groundbreaking, bestselling book in her life makes the rest of us mere mortals feel… well, just a little bit crap about our own writing endeavours, to be honest.)

    I too dream of making a career out of my ‘self-indulgent little hobby’ someday – and also not in the Career With a Capital C way; more in the ‘this is what I do, get over it high-earning professional-types’ kind of way. I would rather have happy people reading my books ’cause they like the stories, than gasquillions of moolah in my bank account –

    (although if anyone insists on offering said gasquillions I will of course accept them with good grace…)

    If that means I’m doomed to never be regarded as a ‘successful author’… well, this is me shrugging with indifference. I am what I am.

    Thanks for being so refreshingly ‘real’ – and congratulations on reaching your dream with ‘Mistress of Fortune.’

  • I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want gasquillions of moolah, but if that was my only goal, I’m certainly in the wrong business. I’ve come to understand that the reason I do this is because I love reading and want to entertain people the way I’ve been entertained. Books are such a wonderful thing–the only thing better than reading one is knowing I’ve now written a couple of them and hope to write more.

  • Having read and liked Mistress of Fortune, I can say there are those of us glad you made the sustained effort on the journey. Although I gotta say, writing a novel, for me, is way easier, quicker, and better than running a marathon! I make more money, too. ;-)

  • February 13, 2014 at 9:26 PM // Reply

    Wonderful post! I share your blessing of having a husband who can support me in my complete lack of marketable skills (PHD in Medieval lit? Right up there with art history), but I have to say I never made it to the marathon, due to injuries. At least I was able to write a book without hurting myself!

    • The sad thing is I gained about 50 pounds over the course of writing MOF. All that sitting, I guess, plus a couple of injuries. Worth it to have the book written, but now I have to figure out how to write and not be chunky at the same time.

      • February 14, 2014 at 12:30 AM // Reply

        I recommend a touch of ADHD. I fidget too much to gain much, and get up every few minutes to run off and do something or other. It doesn’t improve the writing, but it helps with the other. Injuries suck. I hate anything that puts me off my workouts for even a few days–it gets harder to recover with each passing year.

  • Holly, I did my first half-marathon six years ago, the Cowtown in Forth Worth. That year they started giving out medals which, if you completed five in a row, created a larger pattern. I vowed that I’d finish all five, and when I did, I was convinced I could write a novel. It’s been a year and I’m about two weeks from submission.

    There’s something about running that far that makes you stupid, I guess. But in a good way.

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