Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Ask fans of historical fiction to list some of their favourite authors and Anya Seton’s name will always pop up. Ask historical fiction authors who inspired their writing and Seton will be near the top of that list too. So, when a publicist from Independent Publishers Group contacted me with an offer to read this biography, I couldn’t get my hand up fast enough!

While writing Anya Seton: A Writing Life, Lucinda MacKethan had access to reams of letters, financial data, publicity materials, and over three thousand handwritten pages of Anya Seton’s journals. After exploring the author’s early years with a domineering, self-centred father and a mother who constantly travelled for months on end, MacKethan relates how Anya’s tumultuous life unfolded in parallel with the novels she wrote. This structure works brilliantly and provides intriguing insights into Seton’s motivations behind her characters and plot.

Anya’s father, Ernest Thompson Seton (his original surname was Thompson), was a naturalist, fieldworker, scientist and prolific writer. In 1896, he married Grace Gallatin, Anya’s mother, who was an author, suffragist and world traveller. Anya, originally named Ann, was born in 1904. As MacKethan tells us, Anya’s parents were “both confident, wilful, and absolutely determined to achieve individual goals at whatever cost. In addition, they both had a sense, in part due to a shared mystical bent, that they were destined for greatness, which meant that they would be not only competitive but also combative about getting what they were sure they deserved.”

Ernest’s and Grace’s personalities had a long-lasting and detrimental effect on their daughter. In childhood, Anya had several homes and often travelled with her mother, which meant that she could not “count on being in her ‘real’ school any more than she would be able to count on a home that she could feel was her own, something that eluded her for decades.” Her father’s absences, his passions for nature and the native way of life, his travels, and his prolific writing meant that he was rarely there to nurture his daughter. In addition, he was prone to criticism rather than praise.

In 1966, she had this to say about her father:

Although initially Anya felt destined to be something other than a writer, “to live vivid exciting things, not write them for imaginary creatures”, “that occupation was in the air she breathed.” She declared that she was “thoroughly aware of the seamy side of the profession–the drudgery, the essential loneliness, and the tough hide needed to persevere through discouragement and misunderstandings.”

Through two marriages, three children, two divorces, and ten novels, Anya Seton struggled to achieve literary success equivalent to the male writers of her time, to secure financial stability, to balance her writing and home lives, and most of all, to find love. It saddened me to learn that Seton also struggled for years with drugs, alcohol, and at times a debilitating lack of confidence.

After writing a few of what Anya Seton called “love pulps”, from her first work of historical fiction, My Theodosia, to her last, Smouldering Fires, her novels won awards, were on best-sellers lists, and earned significant income. They also achieved commercial success through serialization, book club and film rights.

Anya’s novels had recurring themes: the domineering and arrogant male, women held in an emotional prison, three-sided male entrapments, and loving, forceful mothers. Most stories also included a “beautiful, sexually inexperienced girl determine to find a great love.” Writing about Green Darkness, Lucinda MacKethan says: “Anya’s sporadic creative effort during these stormy years resulted in a novel that was indeed full of tumult, some of it horrifically related to dim history and some of it a parable of the inner darkness in which Anya has so often felt trapped.”

While for Anya, there was a “cleavage between writing and living”, she acknowledged that “the purest pleasure in life is intellectual–historical delving.”

I’ll leave you with two quotes in Anya Seton’s own words. The first is written shortly after finishing her final draft of Katherine:

I suppose I write myself over and over again in the heroines.

And later as she reflects on writing historical fiction:

The details of living change fast, but people change slowly and emotions not at all. It seems to me that a story set in any period may have validity and meaning for the present.

Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. Anya Seton: A Writing Life will fascinate readers and authors alike.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

An Amazon Discovery – part 2

Last week, I wrote about Amazon’s best sellers list for women’s historical fiction. Let’s take a look at other fiction categories.

MYSTERY, THRILLER & SUSPENSE FICTION – 8 out of 15

ROMANCE – 8 out of 15 are Amazon Imprints

CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION – 6 out of 15 are Amazon Imprints

 

WOMEN’S LITERARY – 5 out of 15 (interesting to note that this is lower)

ALL BEST SELLERS IN LIT & FICTION – an incredible 10 out of 11 are Amazon Imprints!

Of course, these are point-in-time lists. If you checked the top sellers today they would be different from the ones I tabulated. According to Amazon, these lists are updated hourly.

When the Big Tech companies including Amazon met with the US House Judiciary Committee, Jeff Bezos was questioned on the companies’ use of data collected from third party vendors to sell its own products in competition with them. Does this extend to books?

We might also ask what other sales techniques Amazon is using to entice readers to their imprints. One technique is pricing – new releases for Lake Union novels is usually $4.99 (for the Kindle version), with gradually adjustments to $2.99 and lower. In contrast, traditional publishers offer Kindle versions in the $12.99 to $14.99 range when first released. Other techniques include: ‘Customers who bought this item also bought’,  and ‘Sponsored products related to this item’, which often list novels published by Amazon. And another technique is low author advances. I benefitted from these techniques when Lake Union published Time and Regret.

By the way, if you’re curious to know the names of Amazon’s imprints, here they are.

A reader from last week pointed out that programs like Amazon’s Prime First Reads is only available to books from Amazon imprints. This program gives Kindle copies away for free to Prime Members for an early read before publication date, while others can buy them at a much reduced rate. Perhaps another way to manipulate the top sellers lists? Hmmmmm.

In last week’s post on this topic, a reader provided a link to a letter that the Authors Guild, the AAP and the ABA sent to the House of Representative’s Antitrust committee. You may wish to check it out

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Cover Design – 7 Tips from Readers

Recently, I asked readers for their thoughts on cover designs, specifically those featuring women. People responded with great enthusiasm, adding much more perspective to the matter of cover design than I had imagined when posing the question. And while many readers are attracted to women on the cover, they often add caveats.

I’ve summed up more than 90 comments with 7 tips. If you would like to weigh in, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

  1. Go for the overall effect: “it’s really the overall effect of the cover: treatment of the illustration or photo, font selection, text placement, use of white space etc.” Or as other readers said: “I’m attracted to any book with a really beautifully designed cover, even without people on it.” “I think the use of color drives the eye catch factor of any cover.”
  2. Create covers that tell a story: “the design needs SOMETHING to tell us what to expect.” Or a variation: “as long as it’s pertinent to the story, that is all I care about.” “The cover should have something to do with the main character and the setting/period.” “For me it’s more about a snapshot of what’s inside.” “I love covers that I refer back to sometimes as I read to help give me a visual impression.”
  3. Avoid tropes like a woman’s back or a headless woman. “I’m tired of seeing women’s backs.” “I’m really tired of the WWII books that take place in France and have the Eiffel Tower in the background, with a woman in the foreground.” And another one: “not big into the bodice ripper look.”
  4. Women on the cover need to grab attention: “if to me there is something striking about her then I will be interested.” “If it’s a Queen or a Princess that I have not heard of. Then, yes.” “I would say ‘yes’ but it’s all about the picture.” “If she’s alone in a beautiful or interesting setting, that would work.” And here are a few cautionary notes: “If a woman is objectified, I pass the book over.” “Too often the look of the women on the cover are too modern for the book.” “I love a cover with a beautiful artistic portrait of a woman.”
  5. It’s more than the cover: “Any striking image will draw me in, and the greatest cover in the world won’t induce me to buy a book if I don’t like what I see when I flip through it.” “I choose solely on the author, genre, or strong recommendation from friends I trust.” “the title and the imagery catch my attention, not necessarily the gender.” “The cover doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s all about the synopsis of the story that draws me in.”
  6. Bring the setting into play: “For me, it’s the setting. A forest, the beach, kitchen table etc. If a person is included, unrecognizable is preferred.”
  7. A cautionary note: “sometimes I’m annoyed when my version of the character would look very different from the cover, or she seems inconsistent with the character.”

On Great Thought’ Great Readers, Stephanie Nelson added this broad perspective on cover design:

Cover design is important and underrated! The photographic content is only a fraction of the attraction. I would say that type and color may be even more important to convey the mood of the book. All the elements should be a workhorse in selling. (I’m an advertising person and believe this in my bones. I’ve seen the benefits of a good creative.) If you are trying to say “female,” there are so many ways to do that other than a photo of a woman. Photo of a handbag, makeup, mirror, clothing article, fabric, room decor etc, etc. Feminine typeface. Then break all that down: Sophisticated or not? Young or old? Endless considerations! Zero in on your target.

In closing, writing in The Millions, author Anna Solomon has this to say about women on the covers of novels:

Maybe the point isn’t banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it’s not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized—though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women’s backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men’s books in egregious disproportion to those by women—check out the Vida Count if you’re unfamiliar with this issue—but by women ourselves. We’ve internalized the establishment’s dismissal to the point where we can write a book about women, and maybe about children, too, and sex, and then feel pissed off when women and children and sex show up on our covers.

Many thanks to all the readers who offered their input. Feel free to add yours!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.