Friday, January 8, 2016

In Which I Meet the Ghost of George Eliot…and a Mystery Series is Born

I'm planning to write a weekly Friday post detailing the background stories of my novels and the real-life people and incidents that inspired them. Today I talk about the origins of the Camilla Randall series. 

When I moved to the Central Coast of California to follow my dream of becoming a mystery writer, I had no idea of the realities of the business. If I'd known, I might have chosen a less stressful profession—like cat-herding, or maybe staging an all-Ayatollah drag revue in downtown Tehran.

As an actress with years of experience of cattle-drive auditions, green-room catfights and vitriolic reviewers, I thought I'd built up enough soul-calluses to go the distance. But after nearly a decade of rejection, I was ready to give up.

I had three novels represented by a New York agency—the fourth agent who had not managed to sell my books. And by then, my savings had evaporated, my boyfriend had ridden his Harley into the sunset, and I was contemplating a move to one of the less fashionable neighborhoods of the rust belt.

Even acceptances turned into rejections: journals that accepted my stories always seemed to fold. When one editor sent the bad news, he mentioned he had a new job with a UK book publisher—and BTW, did I have any novels?

With very little hope of anything coming of it, I sent him the novel my agent deemed had deemed "too over the top," Food of Love: A Comedy about Friendship, Chocolate, and a Small Nuclear Bomb. But within weeks, I got a phone call from England! I was offered an advance and a contract by my new editor—a former BBC comedy writer. It even included an invitation to go "over the pond" to do some promotion.

I found a tenant for my Los Osos beach house and flew to Lincolnshire, where my new publishers lived and worked in an early 19th century building on the banks of the Trent—the river George Eliot fictionalized as "the Floss."

George Eliot. I would live a few hundred yards from the house where she wrote The Mill on the Floss. An English major’s fantasy come true.

At the age of… well, I’m not telling…I was about to have the adventure of my life.

I knew the company published erotica but was branching into mainstream. They’d published a distinguished poet, and a famous Chicago newspaper columnist was in residence, about to launch his new novel.

But when I arrived, I found the Chicagoan had mysteriously disappeared in a fit of pique, the erotica was hardcore, and the old factory was more of William Blake’s Dark Satanic variety than Eliot’s bucolic flour mill.

I tried to be enthusiastic when I was greeted by a group of friendly, but unwashed young men who presented me with warm beer, cold meat pies and galleys to proof.

I held it together until I saw my new digs: a grimy futon and an old metal desk, hidden behind stacks of book pallets in an unheated warehouse, about a half a block from the nearest loo. My only modern convenience was a radio abandoned by a long-ago factory girl.

I admit to feelings of despair.

Then from the radio, Big Ben chimed six o’clock.

Six PM, GMT.

Greenwich Mean Time. The words hit me with all the sonorous power of Big Ben itself. I had arrived at the mean, the middle, the center that still holds—no matter what rough beasts might slouch through the cultural deserts of the former empire. This was where my language, my instrument, was born.

I clutched my galleys to my heart. I might still be nobody in the land of my birth—but I’d landed on the home planet: England. And there, I was a published novelist.

Just like George Eliot.

And somewhere in that chilly room, I felt a presence. Somehow the spirit of Mary Ann Evans—Miss George Eliot, was there, telling me to hang on. I knew then that I was a writer, and no matter what stood in my way, I should always follow my dream.

Three years later, I returned to California, older, fatter (the English may not have the best food, but their beer is another story) and a lot wiser. That Chicagoan's fit of pique turned out to have been more than justified. The company was swamped in debt. Shortly before my second book was to launch, the managing partner withdrew his capital, sailed away and mysteriously disappeared off his yacht—his body never found. The company sputtered and died.

I freelanced for a few years, started a blog that took off beyond my wildest dreams and finally found new publishers. I relaunched the two UK books, Food of Love and The Best Revenge, and began working on a humorous mystery series based on the main characters in The Best Revenge: Camilla Randall, downwardly mobile socialite with impeccable manners, and her best friend, gay playwright Plantagenet Smith. I figured they could be a sort of Nick and Nora Charles for the 21st Century.

The first book in the series was Ghostwriters in the Sky, set on the Central Coast. I actually started writing that one in England. I guess I was feeling homesick living in that Lincolnshire warehouse. 

The second, Sherwood, Ltd. was inspired by my English adventures and put Camilla in that seedy warehouse where I had lived and that missing company director became the notorious Peter Sherwood.   

As my career finally took off, I couldn't help thinking the spirit of George Eliot had been watching over me.

Sherwood Ltd, in which Camilla builds a "Wendy House" from pallets of porn, just as I did, and deals with a band of rough, but well-meaning publishing outlaws (and a diabolical murderer), is available in ebook and paper from Kotu Beach Press. 

The other two books in the series are No Place Like Home and So Much for Buckingham.  Buckingham revisits Lincolnshire and takes Plantagenet to Camilla's old haunts on the banks of the River Trent...where he's accused of murdering a notorious Internet troll.  

I'm now working on #6, which has the working title, The Queen of Staves. 

Sherwood, Ltd. is available in ebook from all the AmazonsiTunesGooglePlay ScribdInkteraKoboNook, and Smashwords. And in paper from Amazon and Barnes and Noble
Sample Reviews:

"A wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills" David Keith on Smashwords

"Smartly written and nearly impossible to put down, I found myself counting the hours until I could leave work and get back to reading! Well done!" T.L. Ingham on Smashwords

"It's an hilarious lampoon of crime fiction, publishing and the British in general. Anne Allen gets our Brit idioms and absurdities dead to rights. The story reminds me of the louche satirist Tom Sharpe, who did for middle England what Hogarth did for 18thc London. Its digs at the heroic vanities of micro-publishing and author narcissism are spot on...Its droll phrases often had me giggling (not a pretty sight): "Those breasts need their own postcode." And the plot twists, as its cauliflower-brained heroine Camilla lurches from one crisis to another, are delicious. Whether you enjoy crime suspense, comedy or satire - or all of them together - you'll have enormous fun with this cleverly structured romp. Highly recommended! John Yeoman, director of the Writer's Village

If you're interested in seeing more pictures of Gainsborough and the places that influenced the writing of Sherwood, Ltd, check out my Sherwood, Ltd. Pinterest page.

If anybody has any questions about my adventures in Lincolnshire or a similar adventure to share, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. 


  1. Let's see, world-building your character-lands with the Alleged Real World, and a big side-dish of humor? Yeah, I like it. So heartening to hear how you've come through so far! And I hope you can look back and laugh by now (for me, it was easy). Congratulations Anne.

    1. Will--Oh, yes. There's a reason I write comedies. All this stuff was hilariously funny...once I got a little perspective. Real life is so much more absurd than what is "believable" in fiction!

      None of this would have happened without my writing blog, but moving the big blog to WordPress has given me an opportunity to start this "little blog" where I can ramble on about the stories and all the random things that become the foundation of a novel.

  2. I'd like to know about your Philadelphia days. Did you write back then? That, and what central force insisted that you not give up as I did? Glad you're writing this blog, but baffled by your energy.

    1. Anthony--I did write when I was at Bryn Mawr. Perfectly awful stuff. I wrote several plays that were pretentious faux Ionesco. Absurd without saying very much. And poetry. Lots of bad poems. Most of that stuff has long since disappeared.

      But I did use my Bryn Mawr days as inspiration for two of my published novels, Food of Love and The Gatsby Game.

      Gatsby especially. It is mostly set at Bryn Mawr and in New England. It's based on a man I knew when I was at Bryn Mawr, David Whiting. He was later found dead on the set of a Burt Reynolds movie. The book is my speculation about what might have happened to him.

      Maybe I should do a post on Bryn Mawr's influence on my stories. That might work well. I need a working scanner so I can get some of those old photos uploaded.

      Thanks for the great question!

  3. Going to be so fun to read a blog about your fiction! I've not had the pleasure of reading a fiction author who blogs about something else besides writing yet :)

  4. Elizabeth--Thanks so much for stopping by! I think this is the kind of blog that is most useful for novelists. My big, well-known blog gets attention, but it's for the readers of my nonfic, not my fiction. And fiction is where my heart and soul live. I hope people will come by and get to know Camilla and her friends.