Hello, readers! I’m so excited to share with you my interview with Finola Austin, an historical fiction author who just published her debut novel in early August 2020. Finola and I connected at the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2018 and I’ve eagerly cheered her querying and publishing successes. Finola has some fantastic tips for writers, based on her experiences researching a real-life character, finding pockets of time to work, and balancing a demanding day job. (Don’t miss my favorite self-care tip, about writing self-affirmations in emails– Finola, I’m stealing that one!)
Finola Austin, also known as the Secret Victorianist on her award-winning blog, is an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist and lover of the nineteenth century. Brontë’s Mistress is her first novel and is available for order now. By day, Finola works in digital advertising. Find her online at www.finolaaustin.com, or connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.
Leanne Sowul: You’ve just debuted your first novel, Brontë’s Mistress, which is based on a real-life person. How did you come to discover Lydia Robinson, and how did she first fascinate you?
Finola Austin: I have loved reading Victorian novels since I was a child, and have a Master’s degree in nineteenth-century literature from the University of Oxford.
However, it wasn’t until 2016, when I finally read Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (the first Bronte biography), that I first came across Lydia Robinson. Mrs. Gaskell describes Lydia as a “profligate” woman, who “tempted” the Bronte brother, Branwell (a man eighteen years her junior), into a sexual affair.
I had felt for years that Charlotte Bronte’s heroines are of a type—often poor, plain, young, and virginal. Lydia Robinson was wealthy, beautiful, in her forties, and a sexually experienced mother of five. But she was still a woman, trapped within the confines of a misogynistic society, and her choices were also limited. I just knew that hers was a story I had to tell.
Leanne: Tell us about your research process. Did you do most of your research in the beginning, or in between writing? Which sources did you turn to most?
Finola: The Brontes’ lives are well documented and so my research process was extensive. I researched for a full year before beginning to write my novel, building out a huge spreadsheet of all known events in the Brontes’ and Lydia’s lives. The Author’s Note at the end of my novel details many of my sources, as well as what’s fact and what’s fiction in my story.
I started with secondary sources—multiple Bronte biographies and every academic article I could find on the rumored Branwell Bronte/Lydia Robinson affair. There are also relevant surviving Bronte letters and poems of Branwell’s. Digitized census records helped me build up a picture of the area around Thorp Green Hall, where the Robinson family lived. And the diaries of local man, George Whitehead (published in 1990 as Victorian Ouseburn) provided valuable insights into the family’s servants and their families.
Once I had drafted the novel, I went on a research trip to Yorkshire. I stayed for a few days in Great Ouseburn, one of the villages near Lydia’s home. There I saw the graves of many of my characters, the churches they worshipped at, and the landmarks they would have known. Thorp Green Hall does not survive, but the Monk’s House, an outbuilding on the estate where Branwell once slept, does.
I also visited Haworth, home of the Brontes, and did archival research in the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Highlights included reading eighteen letters written by Lydia herself and going through a full inventory of the Thorp Green Hall furniture! In the next draft of my novel, I incorporated many of the findings from my trip.
Sometimes, of course, I did have to pause my writing to research minor points (often related to period details), but having the bulk of my research done before starting helped me build out my outline, while the depth of my expertise in the nineteenth century meant many aspects of this historical era were already very familiar to me.
Leanne: What does your daily writing routine look like when you’re in different stages of the novel? How does it differ when you’re researching, drafting, editing, and promoting your work?
Finola: I have no daily writing routine. I work a demanding day job and, pre-pandemic, frequently traveled for business reasons. Because of this, I have to assess at the start of each week when I’m going to write (or research/edit/market my writing, etc.). I wrote Brontë’s Mistress during early mornings and late nights, as well as on weekends. Much of the novel was written in airports or on planes. Airplanes are the most productive workspace for me (no internet, it’s hard to stand up, people bring you wine!).
I revise obsessively as I write, so don’t have a separate and distinct editing process, though I do often listen to the robotic computer voice reading my work back to me, and make use of the amazing Hemingway app.
I’ve read a lot of writing advice saying that writers do or should write every day, but that’s just not practical for me (or for many of us!). My advice to any writer is to find a system that works for you.
Leanne: What’s the one wellness-related habit that’s integral to your writing process?
Finola: I back up my work-in-progress manuscripts by emailing them to myself (I know, I know, it’s not the most efficient system!). Every time I do, I write an affirmation in the body of the message. It’s just a note from me, to me, to make me smile.
I searched back through my inbox to share some examples from when I was drafting Brontë’s Mistress: Good work tonight, Do it for her, It’s not meant to be easy, You’re 25% there, This one is THE one, You’re so close, Great last line, You did it. The habit and the words may seem silly, but, as a perfectionist who struggles with being overly self-critical, these moments of kindness towards myself were very important to me.
Leanne: What’s one aspect of your current writing process that you learned the hard way?
Finola: Just one?! The biggest is that every scene has to be interesting. If you think the middle of your book is just something you have to “get through” to reach the good bits, I hate to break it to you, but your novel probably has major problems!
Leanne: How do you maintain your mental health during difficult times?
Finola: By consuming other people’s art. Reading books, of course, but also going to galleries on a whim, booking impromptu theater/opera/ballet tickets, listening to music. That’s been a little harder mid-pandemic, but there are so many people creating beautiful work out there and it always makes me feel more alive.
Leanne: Which book, blog or podcast would you recommend to writers who want to develop strong writing and wellness habits?
Finola: I’m going to suggest a few!
For podcasts, Dear Sugars and Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel are both amazing resources for understanding human psychology. To listen to writers talking about writing, the Writing Excuses and Manuscript Academy podcasts are great.
I read a LOT of Reddit, which is probably good and bad when it comes to wellness. I wrote my terrible mother-in-law character in Brontë’s Mistress, for instance, based on what I learned from reading the /r/JustNoMIL subreddit.. Awful in-laws are outside my realm of personal experience, so what better way to immerse myself and understand this dynamic?
My biggest piece of advice is to read more than you post (especially about writing). For example, when I was querying literary agents, I would read #MSWL, #amagenting and #tenqueries on Twitter, and the Query Shark website and /r/PubTips subreddit, as well as stalking agents on QueryTracker. But I never posted anything myself!
Leanne Sowul is an award-winning writer and music teacher whose work has appeared in such places as Rappahannock Review, Hippocampus, Mothers Always Write and Confrontation; her live readings include Read 650’s “Gratitude” show at Lincoln Center. As an elementary band director, Leanne can play every woodwind, brass and percussion instrument (just don’t give her a cello!) and has directed over two hundred student performances. She also coaches adults in the art of creative practice through her newsletter, The Joyful Creative. In 2017, Leanne won both the Scott Meyer Award for personal essay and the All-American Dream Champion Award for music teaching. Leanne lives with her husband and two children in the Hudson Valley. Connect with her at www.leannesowul.com.