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Setting a Trend? The Serial Writer – Julian Fellowes and Belgravia

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction
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Trends in publishing change constantly and it is always interesting to see what publishers will do in their eternal search for ‘the next big thing’, be it erotica, grit lit, ebooks or colouring books. How about the serialised novel? Now there’s an interesting idea, albeit not an entirely new one.

Belgravia is the new novel from Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes. An epic historical full of intrigue, family scandal and secrets. But this it isn’t your usual novel, released in hardback and followed several months later in paperback. Belgravia is being released as a serialised novel, delivered, not in chapters, but in episodes, via the Belgravia app. How terribly modern. What on earth would the Dowager Countess have to say about that, I wonder?

The Belgravia website describes this novel idea (is it a book? Is it a mini-series?) as, ‘marrying cutting-edge technology with the age-old art of storytelling.’ Another way of looking at it would be marrying the episodic drama of a TV series, complete with cliff hangers, with the narrative format of a book.

Serial publication isn’t a new idea at all. This was how Dickens released The Pickwick Papers, for example. Writers like Conan Doyle followed his example. The main difference with Fellowes’ Belgravia is that while Dickens wrote the next part of his serial novels in real-time, Belgravia is already a fully-formed thing. Fellowes has already written The End.

So, how does it all work? By downloading the Belgravia app, readers subscribe to receive the story (in text and audio) in weekly instalments, automatically delivered to their device every Thursday. The upfront subscription package costs £9.98 which gives you all the bells and whistles, or you can pay per episode for the price of £1.49 (the first episode, by the way, can be read free on the Belgravia website). But that’s not all. Additional content offered by this interactive reading experience allows readers to really immerse themselves in London in the 1840s (the story begins in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo and sets up the events that follow two families to the London district of Belgravia twenty five years later).

Readers can switch between text and audiobook, narrated by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson. We can follow hyperlinks in the text to ‘meet’ the main characters, to look at the clothing and houses in the novel, and more. In the first episode alone you can click links to see sketches and bios of the main characters, see paintings of the historic events described, look at the fashion of the era, listen to music from the era and look at the military uniforms. It’s a little like a trip to a museum where an audio guide explains you what you’re looking at.

It’s a fascinating concept. Delivered in bitesize chunks, some believe this will appeal to our time-starved lifestyles where we are disinclined to tackle the notion of reading an entire book (please know that this sentence makes me want to weep). However, a new ‘episode’ delivered on a Thursday – that we can manage. Others (aka me) might argue that reading interactively in this way is simply adding yet more distractions to the quiet contemplation of the reading experience. At a time when print books appear to be making something of a comeback with sales figures rising for the first time since 2008, it will be interesting to see how widely the Belgravia app is taken up, and how readers find this very modern version of the episodic reading experience.

In a statement about Belgravia, Fellowes said: “To marry the traditions of the Victorian novel to modern technology, allowing the reader, or listener, an involvement with the characters and the background of the story and the world in which it takes place, that would not have been possible until now, and yet to preserve within that the strongest traditions of storytelling, seems to me a marvellous goal and a real adventure.” The Telegraph quote him as describing Belgravia as “a cross between a novel and a computer game.” Interesting!

Reader, I read the first chapter of Belgravia. I enjoyed it. It is (unsurprisingly) very ‘Fellowes.’ I did, however, find myself tapping on all the hyperlinks and while it was pleasant to see a lovely pencil sketch of the characters in their empire-line frocks and read a mini-bio about them, it did take me out of the narrative and I found that a little irritating.

Thankfully, the publisher, Orion, have catered for luddites like me and will release a hardback copy of Belgravia in June. I suspect the TV series won’t be too far away. Undoubtedly, it will prove to be a huge success, in whatever format we choose to experience it.

To subscribe, or just to have a good old nose around, visit http://julianfellowesbelgravia.com/

(c) Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home, and A Memory of Violets. She was selected by US Library Journal as one of ‘Ten Big Breakout Authors’ for 2015 and received the 2015 RNA Historical Romantic Novel of the Year award for The Girl Who Came Home. As features writer for national Irish writing website writing.ie she has interviewed Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Mosse and Cheryl Strayed, among others. Her latest novel The Girl from the Savoy is due out in June this year.

girl from the savoyAbout The Girl from the Savoy

Dolly Lane is a dreamer; a downtrodden maid who longs to dance on the London stage, but the outbreak of war takes everything from her: Teddy, the man she loves – and her hopes of a better life.

When she secures employment as a chambermaid at London’s grandest hotel, The Savoy, Dolly’s proximity to the dazzling guests makes her yearn for a life beyond the grey drudgery she was born into. Her fortunes take an unexpected turn when she responds to an unusual newspaper advert and finds herself thrust into the heady atmosphere of London’s glittering theatre scene and into the sphere of the celebrated actress, Loretta May, and her brother, Perry.

All three are searching for something, yet the aftermath of war has cast a dark shadow over them all. A brighter future is tantalisingly close – but can a girl like Dolly ever truly leave her past behind?

Preorder your copy online here!

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