Thursday, June 21, 2018

Blog Tour Guest Post: The Underground River by Martha Conway

Please join me in welcoming Martha Conway to Let Them Read Books! Martha is touring the blogosphere with her new historical novel, The Underground River, and she's here today with a guest post about writing complicated characters and shaping their principles. Read on and enter to win a custom-made coffee mug! P.S. Martha is also offering a secret chapter to her newsletter subscribers!

Set aboard a nineteenth century riverboat theater, this is the moving, page-turning story of a charmingly frank and naive seamstress who is blackmailed into saving runaways on the Underground Railroad, jeopardizing her freedom, her livelihood, and a new love.

It’s 1838, and May Bedloe works as a seamstress for her cousin, the famous actress Comfort Vertue—until their steamboat sinks on the Ohio River. Though they both survive, both must find new employment. Comfort is hired to give lectures by noted abolitionist, Flora Howard, and May finds work on a small flatboat, Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre, as it cruises the border between the northern states and the southern slave-holding states.

May becomes indispensable to Hugo and his troupe, and all goes well until she sees her cousin again. Comfort and Mrs. Howard are also traveling down the Ohio River, speaking out against slavery at the many riverside towns. May owes Mrs. Howard a debt she cannot repay, and Mrs. Howard uses the opportunity to enlist May in her network of shadowy characters who ferry babies given up by their slave mothers across the river to freedom. Lying has never come easy to May, but now she is compelled to break the law, deceive all her new-found friends, and deflect the rising suspicions of Dr. Early who captures runaways and sells them back to their southern masters.

As May’s secrets become more tangled and harder to keep, the Floating Theatre readies for its biggest performance yet. May’s predicament could mean doom for all her friends on board, including her beloved Hugo, unless she can figure out a way to trap those who know her best.


Love and Principles
by Martha Conway

When I was thinking about a love interest for my heroine, May Bedloe, I had to consider this man’s position on slavery carefully — the novel takes place on the Ohio River in 1838, the natural division between the North and the South in the United States before the Civil War. I don’t think I’m giving much away when I say that during her stint as a costume designer for a little riverboat theatre, May Bedloe is drawn (at first unwillingly) into helping along the Underground Railroad. However, as part of her growth she must do this alone. In other words, her romantic interest couldn’t help her, at least not at first.

But what sort of person would not help runaway slaves? In truth, many people throughout history have turned a blind eye to injustice, but you don’t want to make them a romantic figure.

My solution: I made the love interest British, and a bit of a cultural outsider. Not a perfect solution, but one that fit with my purpose of letting my heroine succeed or fail on her own. This man is opposed to slavery, as it turns out, but he feels uncertain if he could or should do something about it.

One of my personal objectives when writing this story about a young woman’s awakening to injustice was to avoid simplifying the characters. People are complicated! For me, May’s awakening had to be from the heart, whereas the abolitionists she meets (and some of them are not very nice characters) do the right thing out of principle. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to do the right thing, and likewise principles are important. However, the question I asked myself when I was writing this story was: How do you change not just someone’s mind, but also their heart? That seems a much more difficult thing to do.

May Bedloe is a character dear to my own heart because, as a socially awkward young woman (these days we would say she is “on the spectrum”), she is very literal-minded, and yet also without a lot of cultural prejudices. I drew on my younger sister, who has autistic traits, when I was creating her. I wanted to see how someone who was very literal-minded could change. Love had to be part of that.

Hence, as May begins to understand the horror of slave life, she also, at the same time, begins to open her heart to others. And not only to her romantic interest, but to friends and companions as well.

Let me know if you think May succeeded in the end in opening her heart. I’m always curious about what readers think my characters will do next — after the novel ends. And if you would like to read my version, the unpublished epilogue, email me at I have a secret last chapter to share with anyone who subscribes to my newsletter!

About the Author:

Martha Conway grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the sixth of seven daughters. Her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and she has won several awards for her historical fiction, including an Independent Book Publishers Award and the North American Book Award for Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Folio, Epoch, The Quarterly, and other journals. She has received a California Arts Council Fellowship for Creative Writing, and has reviewed books for the Iowa Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She now lives in San Francisco, and is an instructor of creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension. She is the author of The Underground River.

For more information, please visit Martha Conway’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

The Underground River is on a blog tour!


During the Blog Tour we will be giving away 5 custom-made coffee mugs!
To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on July 26th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.

– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen. The Underground River


  1. Great post, Martha! Thanks so much for hosting The Underground River blog tour, Jenny!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

  2. Whew!! It took a bit but I entered every step! 59 entries so far,and it was worth every minute! Plus, I found so many neat sites to follow, like HF Virtual Book Tours! Love this post and your books!


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