Jessica Bull studied on our Writing Historical Fiction and Edit & Pitch Your Novel courses in 2021. Her debut novel, Miss Austen Investigates, is out tomorrow with Michael Joseph (an imprint of Penguin Random House). Jessica lives in South East London with her husband and two daughters. A former librarian and communications consultant, she studied English literature at Bristol University and information science at City, University of London.
We spoke to Jessica about paying tribute to her hero, Jane Austen, her desire to become an author and her tips for writing a series.
Enrolling with CBC was a vital step in gaining the confidence I needed to write historical fiction, especially to attempt something as ambitious as bringing Jane Austen to life. I’ve always written stories and I knew, if I wanted to be published, I needed to hone my craft. I never found a way of doing so that was both convenient and affordable for me – until CBC launched its online programme. I remember Stephanie Merritt explaining how we could use all five senses to immerse our readers in our historical settings – it was as if I’d been initiated into a world of magic!
One year later, I signed with my incredible agent, Juliet Mushens, and sold Miss Austen Investigates at auction in the UK, as well as to a further 17 publishers worldwide. As I prepared my debut for publication, I repeatedly turned to the no-nonsense advice Anna Davis gave on editing.
Many of our students find lifelong writing friends on our courses. Are you still in touch with anyone you met on the course?
Yes, you’ll find my classmates listed in the acknowledgements of my debut. After that initial course finished, we formed a critique group and have met regularly to encourage and support each other ever since. It has been wonderful to watch everyone’s ideas grow into full-length manuscripts. Aside from the technical skills, the most valuable lesson I learned from CBC was how to give and receive constructive feedback – something which really helped prepare me for working with both my agent and my editor at a professional level.
Your debut novel Miss Austen Investigates will be published by Michael Joseph (an imprint of Penguin Random House) in January 2024. It has been described as a dazzling Jane Austen-inspired murder mystery set in Hampshire in 1795. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and the inspiration behind it?
I’m a huge Jane Austen fan and Miss Austen Investigates is my way of paying to tribute to my hero. For most of Austen’s life, it looked as though she’d never be published. I really admire the way she persevered to bring us her masterpieces and I wanted to share the comfort and inspiration I drew from her story in a fresh and exciting way.
My novel begins with a young Jane enjoying an assignation with the handsome, charming Tom Lefroy during a grand ball. Unfortunately, their romance is interrupted by the discovery of a milliner found bludgeoned to death. The entire county is in uproar at the crime and Jane is as keen as anyone to see justice served. But when Jane’s gentle brother, Georgy, is accused the investigation becomes personal. Driven by her independent spirit and using her powers of observation and attention to detail, Jane sets out to save Georgy from the gallows in a world where manners are more important than murder.
You started off your career as a librarian. Did this role have any impact on your desire to become an author?
I began my first job with Camden Public Libraries while I was still at school. I loved spending my Saturdays talking about books and was astonished by the enormous popularity of crime fiction. We had an entire wall of the library devoted to it! Until that point, I’d been mainly focused on the classics - but thanks to all the recommendations I received from our patrons, I realised I had a passion for whodunnits too.
Miss Austen Investigates is the first novel in the Miss Austen Investigates series set in Regency Britain. Do you have any tips for our readers who are writing a series of books as opposed to writing a standalone novel?
As I’m using the murder mystery format to tell the story of Jane Austen’s life, I planned how her character would develop, and selected the major events and relationships I wanted to explore, before I began writing. This helped make the first book more manageable, as I didn’t have to cram everything I wanted to say into one novel. It also meant I knew exactly what to write next.
I even started drafting the second book while I was still querying the first. Some people advised me not to do this, in case it didn’t get picked up or my publisher had different ideas. But this series is the story of my heart and, even if I’d never sold it, I suspect I’d have carried on writing it anyway.
What book are you currently reading?
The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph. I really enjoy anything set in the eighteenth century, especially looking at history from a new or different perspective.
Are there any books we’d be surprised to find on your shelves?
I love stories which manage to be funny and serious at the same time: Richard Osman and Marian Keyes are two of my must-buy authors. I do have some very niche non-fiction which help me recreate the world of Jane Austen, including books on crime, costume, food, social history etc. Some visitors seem slightly perturbed that I have an entire bookcase dedicated to books by, about and inspired by Jane Austen. It’s nice to have an excuse for that now!
Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?
Thankfully, my publisher and my agent both loved my second book in the Miss Austen Investigates series, so I’m preparing that for publication in early 2025. The story is set in Kent in 1797 and follows Jane as she investigates the mystery of a young woman claiming to be a foreign princess and jeopardising the fortune of Jane’s wealthy brother, Neddy, whom all of the Austens rely on.
Miss Austen Investigates is out tomorrow!