Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post By Tonya Mitchell, Author of A Feigned Madness

20 October 2020

Special Guest Post By Tonya Mitchell, Author of A Feigned Madness

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. —Nellie Bly

The story of Nellie Bly kind of fell into my lap. I happened to stumble across a post online about a woman reporter who feigned insanity in order to go undercover in a mental institution in 1887. I was not only fascinated that it happened, but equally fascinated I’d never heard of her. Who was this woman? What kind of person would put herself at risk like that? 

Nellie Bly

So, I started digging. What I found was Bly’s own account she’d written for the newspaper that gave her the assignment: Ten Days in a Mad-house. It was a re-print of the installments she wrote for the New York World upon her release from the Blackwell’s Island insane asylum.

It was captivating, but it was also only part of the story. Who was Nellie Bly really? Ten Days only focused on her asylum ordeal and what happened directly following her release. There was no hint in her write-up of why she took the job. I sensed a lot of desperation going into her decision to disappear inside a madhouse, but nothing in her newspaper account revealed any answers. 

So, I did what any avid reader would do: I looked for the novel. I found some biographies and plenty books about her around-the-world trip she did a few years later. To my surprise, however, no one had written a fictionalized version of her 10-day stay behind asylum bars.

This was the end of 2014. I’d decided to put aside a manuscript I was struggling with and was looking for the subject matter to start writing another. I had always gravitated to historical fiction, and this seemed like an excellent project to jump into. 

I found a lot of interesting things about Nellie Bly’s life before she showed up in New York City looking for a job. There was also some personal stuff from her childhood that had played a role, in part, in molding her into the brave, sometimes rash woman she would later come to be known for. All this really helped me piece together the answers to my early questions. They also helped me frame the story not just of a woman in an asylum, but the woman she was before she went in, and the woman she was after she was released.

The story also worked for me in that I wanted to write something with gothic overtones. I’ve been a fan of gothic fiction for a long time, and the tale of a woman in an asylum in the Victorian era (when mental illness was so little understood) seemed like it held promise. There were definitely themes of horror, death, and yes, even romance in Bly’s experience.

That was one of the biggest surprises in researching Bly. I pieced together—based on her personal letters and some ambiguous statements in her asylum ordeal—that there was someone behind the scenes Bly never mentioned publicly, someone I felt strongly she was romantically involved with. The more I dug, the more I was convinced this was the case. So A Feigned Madness has this element too.

All of this boiled down to a story I really wanted to tell. As an author, it’s a delight to have the seeds of a story come to life as you research the characters, the era, the setting. And I operated from the standpoint that if I found this interesting, others would too.

Tonya Mitchell

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About the Author

Ever since reading Jane Eyre in high school, Tonya Mitchell has been drawn to dark stories of the gothic variety. Her influences include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker. More contemporarily, she loves the work of Agatha Christie, Margaret Atwood, and Laura Purcell. When she landed on a story about a woman who feigned insanity in order to go undercover in an insane asylum, she knew she’d landed on something she was meant to write. Her short fiction has appeared in, among other publications, Glimmer and Other Stories and Poems, for which she won the Cinnamon Press award in fiction. She is a self-professed Anglophile and is obsessed with all things relating to the Victorian period. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society North America and resides in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and three wildly energetic sons. A Feigned Madness is her first novel. Find out more at Tonya's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @tremmitchell


  1. Such an interesting post.
    Thank you so much for hosting today's stop.

  2. This reads like an interesting story!


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