The Mourning Coffee

Writing Woes and Klondike Bars

ice-creamOne of the most common questions I am ever asked is: What motivates your writing?
My answer: Deadlines.

The second most common question is: How many words do you write each day?
My answer: ????

I’m never quite sure how to answer this one, because my writing process can be very wonky. In fact, it’s downright terrifying. How many words I can write in a day depends on how far into the book I am. Let me break it down for the interested reader…

  • Word count 0: Yee hah! A brand new book! I have so many ideas I can’t wait to get them all down on paper! I’ll have the draft done in a month! Life is awesome!
  • Word count 10K:  Uh oh.  I’m already tired and I have a lot of book left to write.
  • Word count 20K:  I’ve been at this for two months and this is all I’ve written?  Every other author on the planet is a faster writer than I am.
  • Word count 30K:  Seriously, I’m never going to make my deadline at this rate.  I think I’ll wander into the kitchen and see what’s interesting in the refrigerator.
  • Word count 40K:  How did I ever think I could write 80-100K words on any topic?  Maybe I should take a day off and go shopping.  I’ll feel so much better after a day off, and it will re-energize me to take a break.
  • Word count 50K:  Not. Going. To. Make. It.
  • Word count 60K:  Hey, would you look at that? I’m more than halfway.  How did that happen? Time to start praying for a miracle.
  • Word count 70K:  I do believe it’s possible that I will make my deadline. Maybe more coffee will help.  Who needs sleep?
  • Word count 80K:  Whee!  It’s coming fast and furious now, kids!  I’m getting close to writing the big finale!
  • Word count 90K:  Almost done.  I can’t wait to sit down with the entire manuscript for a read-through.
  • Word count 100K:  Done!  Snoopy dance!  Eat a Klondike bar!  Pump fist in the air for being a literary marathon runner!  Fifteen minutes later, go to bed for a long nap.

It happens like this Every. Single. Time.  If you have the solution for what goes on between words 0 and 50,000, I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Maybe I need to get this writer’s clock

 

 

Queen Victoria Quotes

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With the recent release of the Queen Victoria miniseries on PBS there has been an increased interest in Her Majesty. The Lady of Ashes fans are familiar from reading about Violet Harper’s acquaintance with Her Majesty that the Queen has many thoughts, spanning many topics. Violet asked that some favorites be shared here:

“The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”
–Queen Victoria on whose opinion is paramount

On Children

“I don’t dislike babies, though I think very young ones rather disgusting.”  –Queen Victoria on children

“You will find as the children grow up that as a rule children are a bitter disappointment – their greatest object being to do precisely what their parents do not wish and have anxiously tried to prevent.”  –Queen Victoria on children

“An ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful.”   –Queen Victoria on children

“After a good many hours suffering, a perfect little child was born…but alas! A girl & not a boy, as we both had so hoped & wished for.” — Queen Victoria’s journal entry, December 1, 1840, upon the birth of her first child, Victoria “Vicky” Adelaide Mary Louise, who would die in 1901, the same year as her mother.

“Being pregnant is an occupational hazard of being a wife.”  –Queen Victoria on pregnancy. She wasn’t enthused about bearing children, although she did produce nine of them. She felt a little better about childbearing in 1848, when ether was introduced into the process at the birth of her 6th child, Louise.

On her husband Albert

“It was with some emotion…that I looked at Albert—who is beautiful.”  –Queen Victoria on her future husband.

“The poor fatherless baby of eight months is now the utterly broken-hearted and crushed widow of forty-two! My life as a happy one is ended! The world is gone for me! If I must live on—and I will do nothing to make me worse than I am—it is henceforth for our poor fatherless children, for my unhappy country, which has lost all in losing him, and in only doing what I know and feel he would wish.”  –Queen Victoria on the loss of her husband, Prince Albert, in December 1861

Thoughts from her writings

“I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Women’s Rights,’ with all its attendant horrors… Were women to “unsex” themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen, and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.”  –Queen Victoria in an 1870 letter to Sir Theodore Martin, in reaction to the news “that Viscountess Amberley had become president of the Bristol and West of England Women’s Suffrage Society and had addressed a…public meeting on the subject.” (Source: “All for Love: Seven Centuries of Illicit Liaison” by Val Horsler, 2006)

“Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.”  –Extract from Queen Victoria’s journal, Tuesday, June 20, 1837

“The danger to the country, to Europe, to her vast Empire, which is involved in having all these great interests entrusted to the shaking hand of an old, wild, and incomprehensible man of 82, is very great!”  –Queen Victoria to Lord Lansdowne upon the start of William Gladstone’s fourth term as prime minister in 1892. The queen was not fond of Gladstone.

A collection of thoughts across many topics

“The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Women’s Rights.’ It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself.”  –Queen Victoria on the suffragist movement

“Move Queen Anne? Most certainly not! Why it might some day be suggested that my statue should be moved, which I should much dislike.”   –Queen Victoria on the moving of a statue of Queen Anne for her own diamond jubilee

“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”  –Queen Victoria on her temperament

“I would venture to warn against too great intimacy with artists as it is very seductive and a little dangerous.”  –Queen Victoria on artists

“Dirty, dark, and undevotional.”  –Queen Victoria on St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1872

“We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.”  –Queen Victoria speaking on the Boer War, December 1899

Interesting Places in Great Britain: Osborne House

In 2013, my husband and I visited Osborne House, in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, a short Red Funnel ferry ride from Portsmouth.  I specifically wanted to visit Osborne House to see if I had gotten details correct for it in LADY OF ASHES.  I seem to always be visiting places after I’ve written about them…a bit backward, I know.

The home was built between 1845 and 1851 to Prince Albert’s specifications as an Italian palazzo seaside retreat for the royal family.  Victoria loved this home, far from London and so completely different from the cold formality of Windsor.  Their nine children learned how to swim here, and collected shells from the shoreline, as the royal couple was determined to bring up their children in as “natural” an environment as royalty could allow.  Osborne House was a place where Victoria and Albert could simply enjoy being a family.

After Albert died at Windsor in December 1861, Victoria retreated here to recover from his death, although it can be postulated that she never really recovered.

Victoria herself died here in January 1901, and her son, Edward VII, then gifted the house to English Heritage.  For nearly 20 years it was used by the Royal Navy as a junior officer training college, but today it is open to visitors.  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne/

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We passed many other ferries taking passengers and cars back and forth from the Isle of Wight

 

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What Victoria and Albert called a seaside retreat we might call a mansion estate, but it’s all semantics, isn’t it?

 

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I’m barely tall enough to see over the railing!

Interesting Places in Great Britain: Longleat

Longleat is one of the most fascinating places in Wiltshire, England.  Actually, you can’t call it a “place,” as it is really three different things:

The House

First and foremost, it is the home of Alexander Thynn, the 7th  Marquess of Bath.  A very eccentric figure who resembles Richard Branson, the Virgin company tycoon, Thynn is married but has been scandalously associated with multiple women, whom he calls “wifelets.”

Longleat House itself is a stunning piece of Elizabethan architecture, set in 900 acres of Capability Brown-designed parkland, plus 4,000 acres of farmland and 4,000 acres of woodland.  Originally an Augustinian priory, Longleat was purchased by Sir John Thynn in 1541 for a mere 53 pounds.  The original house burned down in 1567, but was rebuilt by 1580, and has been added to and improved on by various family members ever since.

The house is actually rather warm and inviting, given what an enormous structure it is.  There is a room full of the marquess’ paintings, and the library is fabulous.

longleat1 The front of Longleat House, May 2013

The Adventure Park

We didn’t specifically visit the adventure park, but could see in the distance that it was a theme park sort of experience, with rides, slides, mazes, and animal-related exhibits.

The Safari Park

My husband and I stumbled upon Longleat while driving through Wiltshire, and saw a sign advertising a safari park.  Not comprehending how there could possibly be a safari park in the rural wilds of the south of England, we followed the signs, where we came upon Longleat Safari Park, located on the grounds of the house.  Opened 50 years ago in 1966, it was the first drive-through safari park outside of Africa.

We were positively entranced by the park, which is home to over 500 animals.  They even have a wild cat enclosure, and it was a little Jurassic Park-like to have to drive through electronically-controlled gates that seal you into the enclosure while you cautiously drive through (windows closed!) where the lions, tigers, and cheetahs graze about.

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As you drive through the monkey enclosure, the little critters crawl all over your car, looking for items to tear off and gnaw on.  It’s difficult to see in this picture, but this little fellow had torn off the antenna of the vehicle in front of ours and was dismantling it.

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Cheetah snack time

 

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Tiger snack time

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You wait very respectfully while animals cross the road in front of you!

If you will be in England and plan to visit such classic sites as Stonehenge, you should know that Longleat is only a 30 minute drive from Stonehenge, and is well worth spending a day there.  www.longleat.co.uk

Interesting Places in Great Britain: St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle

For those who have read both LADY OF ASHES and STOLEN REMAINS, you know that Windsor Castle is a large royal residence where Prince Albert died on December 14, 1861.  Today it is the preferred weekend home of Elizabeth II, but Queen Victoria thought it gloomy, much preferring her seaside retreat of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Windsor Castle is a large, sprawling complex , divided into three “wards”: Middle, Upper, and Lower.  The original castle was built in the 11th century after William the Conqueror’s invasion.  Henry III built a royal palace on the grounds in the mid 13th century, and more building projects went on in Edward III’s reign, including St. George’s Chapel.  The Tudors made use of Windsor as a royal court, and later the Roundheads used it as one of Charles I’s prisons as well as a military headquarters.

Charles II made further improvements on Windsor, fixing Cromwell’s destruction and creating Baroque interiors, but the castle soon went into a period of neglect.  George III and George IV rebuilt much of Windsor Castle at colossal expense, turning it largely into what tourists see today.

St. George’s Chapel, where Prince Albert lay in state

St. George’s Chapel, where Prince Albert lay in state

So, ironically, although the castle and its grounds look as though they have been untouched since William landed in 1066, it is truly a place that has evolved over the centuries.

St. George’s Chapel is located in the Lower Ward of the castle (and literally, it is down the hill from the state apartments, lower than everything else).  The Chapel was a popular destination for pilgrims during the late medieval period.

Parliamentary forces ravaged the chapel in 1642, plundering treasure, stripping lead from the roof, and stealing funeral monuments.  Charles II saw that the chapel was repaired along with the rest of the castle’s buildings, and Queen Victoria made further changes, reworking the east end of the choir in devotion to Prince Albert.  It is, of course, known as the Albert Memorial Chapel

Prince Albert lay waiting  at St. George’s Chapel for nine days.  Even though it was December and certainly not hot out, nature quickly took over and Albert’s body began to rot while the funeral waited for relatives and heads of state to arrive from other countries.  Despite a profusion of lilies placed around the coffin, the guards standing at the four corners of his coffin had to be changed out every hour.  Poor men.  They were all Grenadier Guards, the most senior regiment of infantry in the British Army, a group which had seen action in the Crimean War, but the putrefaction was too much for them and they had to be change out every hour or so lest they collapse.

Albert was buried in the chapel, but Queen Victoria got right to work on building a mausoleum at nearby Frogmore for her and her beloved Albert, and the prince was reinterred there in a year later, with Victoria joining him in 1901.

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An expressionless guard inside Windsor Castle’s grounds

 

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Just a couple of blocks away from Windsor Castle was this adorable tea room, the Crooked House of Windsor.  Jon and I managed to snag the table right next to the upstairs bay window.  It was an aptly named place, with this photo not doing justice to the unevenness of the building, which was built in 1687 using unseasoned green oak.  Alas, it is no longer a restaurant, but is instead an event catering firm.

 

William Gladstone Becomes Prime Minister (for the First Time), December 9, 1868

Catherine and William Gladstone in later life

Catherine and William Gladstone in later life

William Ewart Gladstone was born December 29, 1809, and became prime minister for the first time on December 9, 1868, just before his 59th birthday.  He would enter parliament for the fourth and last time in 1892, at the age of 82!

Prior to his election as prime minister, he held positions as Chancellor of the Exchequer (on three separate occasions), and also held seats in parliament.

He had originally intended to take orders in the Church of England, but against his own wishes permitted his father to convince him not to do so.  From there, Gladstone became interested in government matters, but the man who would become known as the “Grand Old Man” of Liberal politics began his parliamentary career as a Tory.  However, his conversion from conservatism to liberalism took place over the course of a generation.

The British working class referred to him as GOM, the Grand Old Man, for his efforts at increasing the franchise (making it easier to be eligible to vote) and for his work with prostitutes, literally taking to the streets himself to persuade them to enter a rescue home that he and his wife main

An iconic portrait of Gladstone

An iconic portrait of Gladstone

tained in order to convince them to change their lives.

Gladstone’s opponent in the government, Benjamin Disraeli, called him God’s Only Mistake, largely for his serious, humorless nature.  Queen Victoria also found Gladstone distasteful, and was unhappy when he was elected prime minister on four separate occasions.

Gladstone was married to the former Catherine Glynne, who was utterly devoted to her husband.  Together they produced eight children, including one, the Reverend Stephen Edward Gladstone, who took up his father’s mantle in the Church of England.

Some of Gladstone’s accomplishments and/or mistakes over his vast career include:

  • Expanding the vote
  • Supporting Irish Home Rule
  • Enacting the Irish Land Act

He was most known for his fiery oratory, his religiosity, his liberal politics, his clashes with Benjamin Disraeli, and Queen Victoria’s dislike of him.

Gladstone died of cancer on May 19, 1898, and is buried in Westminster Abbey with his wife, who died two years after her husband.

Mr. Gladstone plays a fairly significant role in STOLEN REMAINS, where Violet Harper must meet with the man several times, and we see the interplay between him and the queen who despises him no matter what he tries to do to please her.

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A friendlier-looking Gladstone in the 1830’s

Opening of the Suez Canal, November 17, 1869

The entire plot basis for A GRAVE CELEBRATION was the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt.  The canal  was the brainchild of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805—1894), a Frenchman with a varied and distinguished diplomatic career before successfully completing a waterway linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas, effectively linking East and West with dramatically reduced sailing distances.

The concept of a canal was taken up by Egypt as early as the second millennium B.C. Remnants of an ancient west—east canal were discovered by Napoleon in 1799.  The French general contemplated the construction of another canal, running north—south to join the Mediterranean and Red Seas, but his project was abandoned after his engineers mistakenly concluded that the Red Sea was more than thirty feet higher than the Mediterranean.

The initial opening ceremonies at Port Said

The initial opening ceremonies at Port Said

It was de Lesseps, with his friendly relationship with the Egyptian viceroy, who finally pushed through construction of a canal open to ships of all nations.  The Suez Canal Company came into existence in December 1858, with work beginning in April 1859.

The excavation took ten years, with Egypt providing corvée labor during part of the project.  Unlike slavery, the worker under a corvée labor system is not owned outright, and is generally free in many respects except for how he labors.  Corvée labor extends back to many societies ancient times, and was used as recently as pre-revolutionary France.  In ancient Egypt, specifically, peasants were seized to help in government projects, such as in the building of pyramids and assisting during Nile River floods.  Peasants were also sentenced to corvée labor for non-payment of taxes (an interesting twist on debtors’ prison).

Great Britain loudly protested the use of corvée labor for the Suez Canal project, as they had officially outlawed slavery in 1834, and thus pressured Egypt to stop using it, nearly ruining the project financially, although I’m sure the workers were happy to be paid!

De Lesseps was a powerful and wealthy man, and was nearly like a king in Egypt, cheered everywhere he went.  Unfortunately, he overestimated how much traffic would be using the canal by ten-fold, so that within two years of the canal’s completion, he was booed everywhere he went.  Today, more than fifty ships per day travel the 120-mile route, amounting to eight percent of the world’s shipping traffic.

Celebrations for the canal’s opening went on for days, and included fireworks, picnics, fancy balls, boat trips down the Nile, and a “Dinner of the Sovereigns,” a glittering affair for the heads of state who had sailed in on their yachts from all points of Europe.

The opening of the canal was not without problems.  A fireworks stand blew up on the first night, igniting a nearby lumberyard in Port Said.  A short distance down the canal, a small boat ran aground and blocked the canal, almost forcing de Lesseps to dynamite it before it was eventually dislodged.  Such historical events provided perfect cover for the murder and mayhem that occur in A GRAVE CELEBRATION.

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The flotilla of sovereigns proceeds down the Suez Canal

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The Dinner of the Sovereigns at Port Ismalia, south of Port Said down the Suez Canal

 

Destination Gettysburg!

Over Halloween weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Gettysburg Battlefield Books & Collectibles for a signing. You might think, “What does Violet Harper, Undertaker Extraordinaire, have to do with a hallowed Civil War battlefield site?”

Well, many of the mourning customs practiced in Great Britain were also practiced in America, and in no greater way than during the devastating period of 1861-1865.

I found Gettysburg to be both charming and hauntingly beautiful. It occupies so large an area that it is nearly impossible to see it all. It is also the only place I have ever been where people routinely walk around in 19th century dress and no one even bats an eye at it. I really loved this town and can’t wait to return.
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Reader Raven Ackerman (left, pictured her with her co-worker, Ashley), coordinated my visit to Gettysburg. She works at nearby Regimental Quartermaster, a fascinating place that outfits Civil War reenactors. During the signing, Raven sold mourning ribbons that she had made.

Yes, this is me in my new undertaker’s hat, purchased at the Gettysburg Emporium. Notice my jaunty ostrich feather on the side!

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Raven provided an array of treats and decorated the bookstore with, well, ravens.

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The exterior of Gettysburg Battlefield Books.
Gettysburg Battlefield Books & Collectibles

I sure did appreciate this thoughtful sign announcing my arrival.
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Interesting Places in Great Britain: Old Operating Theatre

My husband and I have visited this location twice.  It is officially called the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, and you must travel a set of tiny, winding stairs inside St. Thomas Church in London to get to it.  It was once part of old St. Thomas Hospital, and is the oldest operating theatre in Europe.  http://www.thegarret.org.uk/

It takes some effort to get inside, but is worth it for the fascinating look at how medicine was practiced in times past.  But I know you really just want to see the weird stuff, right?
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And you thought artificial limbs were a 20th century development!

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A surgeon’s kit.  Amputation, anyone?

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“The easier to cut, poke, and prod you with, my dear”

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Which of these items doesn’t look like it would cause extreme pain?

How I Write

I am often asked how I go about writing my books. The most common three questions are:

  1. How do you come up with your ideas?
  2. How did you get the idea to write about a Victorian undertaker in the first place?
  3. What is your daily writing routine?

I use the same general idea process for each of my LADY OF ASHES books. First, I choose some aspect of undertaking or Victorian life I would like to highlight in the book. For example, in A VIRTUOUS DEATH, I explored the process for making hair jewelry. In THE MOURNING BELLS, I described the funeral train that ran between London and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.
Next, I examine various timelines to pick out one or two interesting historical events and the people associated with them that might provide an interesting scenario to involve Violet in. Then comes the work of blending a funeral custom with a real historical occurrence! I have several trusted “advisors” that I use to help me think this through.

The idea for a Victorian undertaker came from a writer friend, Mary Oldham, who suggested it to me at a writer conference we attended together. I was in the midst of trying to decide what to do for my 4th novel, which I knew would be about a woman in an unusual profession, and she said to me, “You know what I’d like to read about? A Victorian undertaker. You should write that.”
I was initially taken aback by the suggestion, but on reflection, decided it was really a fascinating concept. And so Violet Harper, the heroine of LADY OF ASHES, was born.

I’m not sure I have a daily writing routine. For many years until her death, I was my mother’s caretaker and fit my writing around her rounds of doctor visits, hospital stays, and errands. Since then, I find that I haven’t been able to settle into any regular daily writing routine. Some days are intense writing days, other days I can barely write two words.

What I can say about my routine is that I completely plot out my books before I ever sit down to write the first chapter. I know that when I have come up with approximately 60 individual scenes that I have enough to write a 90,000-95,000 word novel.

And now I should probably return to work on my current manuscript!

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My tiny writing space, affectionately nicknamed “The Writing Hut.”  Yes, that’s an Oxford English Dictionary on the stand behind my chair.  I make every effort not to use words that are too modern for my stories, but sometimes I let one slip by.