The Mourning Coffee

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.


An expressionless guard inside Windsor Castle’s grounds



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.


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.


The flotilla of sovereigns proceeds down the Suez Canal


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.

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!


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


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

I sure did appreciate this thoughtful sign announcing my arrival.

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.

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?

And you thought artificial limbs were a 20th century development!


A surgeon’s kit.  Amputation, anyone?


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


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!


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.

Interesting Places in Great Britain: The Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace

Mews:  a group of stables, typically with rooms above, built around a yard or along an alley.

Originally referring to the royal stables on the site of the hawk mews at Charing Cross, London, the Royal Mews has been located at Buckingham Palace since 1820.

I must confess that having visited England many times, it was not until my eighth trip in 2013 that it actually occurred to me to visit the Royal Mews…and I was only spurred on to do so because I wanted to have a large piece of A VIRTUOUS DEATH occur there.  It was one of the few times that I have actually visited a location before writing about it.


This gentleman became very suspicious of me when I started asking detailed questions about the living quarters above the stables.  I had to convince him that I really was a novelist doing book research.  However, I still didn’t get much from him.  He’s a good employee of the queen’s!


The main entrance/exit of the Mews.  It sits directly across from a Red Carnation hotel.


The Mews has a collection of children’s carriages.


Wow, the Gold State Coach, used for coronations.  Queen Victoria hated this thing, considering it to be vastly uncomfortable.


The horses are walked/trained every day.


Younger horses are exercised here in the Riding School, where they are exposed to sudden noises in preparation for hitting the London streets.


Who was Mrs. Beeton?

Isabella Beeton, ca. 1854

Isabella Beeton, ca. 1854

If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I like to periodically offer tidbits of advice, recipes, and household cleaning solutions from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Who was this Mrs. Beeton? And how did she come to write a 1,000+ page tome on the art of domestic management?

Born in London on March 14, 1836, Isabella Mary Mayson was born to a linen merchant and his wife. Isabella’s father died when she was but four years old, and her mother soon married again. Isabella’s mother proceeded to have a further 13 children, and Isabella became instrumental in their care. This experience gave her great insight on the management of a family and household.

Isabella was eventually sent to a school in Heidelberg, Germany, where she learned French and German, and also became proficient in making pastry. Upon her return to England in 1854, she took further lessons in pastry-making from a local baker.

Around this time, she met Samuel Orchart Beeton, the first British publisher of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The two married in 1856, and Isabella was pregnant by the time she returned from their honeymoon. Samuel convinced her to begin writing for one of his publications, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. It was a compendium of fiction, recipes, and other topics of interest to the average Victorian housewife. Most of the recipes were translated from French or sent in by readers of the publication (as we often see done today).

In 1859, Mr. Beeton started something new, a series of monthly supplements to the magazine written by Isabella, and by October 1861 had published 24 installments together in one volume as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Remarkably, this book sold 60,000 copies in its first year of publication.

Samuel Beeton, 1860

Samuel Beeton, 1860

While writing and translating most of her material, Isabella bore her husband four children, two of whom died in infancy, and also had several miscarriages. She was struck down by puerperal fever at the tender age of 28 on February 6, 1865. She was buried in West Norwood Cemetery, one of the “Magnificent Seven” garden cemeteries of London where undertaker Violet Harper inters bodies

Samuel has made some poor business decisions before, but seemed to have completely lost his acumen after his beloved wife’s death, and his decisions henceforth were financially disastrous. By 1866, he was forced to sell the rights to the Book of Household Management. The new publisher, Ward, Lock, and Tyler, suppressed the news of Isabella’s death to make it seem as though she was still alive and creating recipes. Subsequent volumes of the book no longer resembled the original. However, Ward, Lock, and Tyler made a fortune on the publication, which has never gone out of print to this day.

Samuel Beeton died in 1877, his last years clouded by tuberculosis.

British Cemetery Monuments

Doing research for the LADY OF ASHES series can often involve visiting some rather, er, unusual places. Several years ago, my husband and I went to London, with one of my primary goals being to visit Kensal Green Cemetery. Fortunately, the hubby is very good-natured about such things.

As London churchyards began filling—and overflowing—in the early 19th century, the concept of “garden cemeteries” came about, with enterprising developers taking land that at the time would have been on the outskirts of the city and intentionally planning cemeteries in it.  Famous Victorian-era garden cemeteries in London include the “Magnificent Seven:” Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton, and Tower Hamlets.

Violet Harper is known to have buried a body or two at Kensal Green during her life as an undertaker!

Kensal Green fascinated me, not only because it is remarkably large (72 acres), but because of how elaborate many of the tombs/mausoleums were.  Here are some examples of what I saw there.

Bcem1A Greek monument


It’s like a giant bed!  This one enthralled me so much that I wrote in one similar in THE MOURNING BELLS.



This might look like a church, but it’s actually a family’s mausoleum.





OK, this isn’t a tomb or mausoleum, but it does commemorate Mr. Beatty, ship’s surgeon aboard HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar.  I wrote extensively about Mr. Beatty in A ROYAL LIKENESS, one of my early novels, and was quite excited to stumble upon his final resting place.

Interesting Places in Great Britain: Weald & Downland Open Air Museum

The Weald & Downland Open Air Museum is a fun way to spend the day in the town of Chichester, West Sussex.

I would describe it as essentially a large collection of buildings that have been transplanted from their original sites and put here to show visitors what life was like in England over the course of a 950-year period.

Want to see how food was cooked in a Tudor kitchen? Check. Wondering how the Victorian village smithy worked? Check.

You can easily spend all day here, and for those researching British history, it’s an invaluable tool. Want more info?


From left to right, these buildings include the 16th century Market Hall from Titchfiel, the Upper Hall from Crawley (an old public meeting room), and a Medieval house from North Cray.



This fine little wax fellow nearly scared me to death when I stopped in at a 19th century turnpike tollhouse from Beeding.  Notice his “wife” lying in the bed.  You’d have run screaming in fright, too!



Feeding ducks at the Weald & Downland grist mill.  These were not dumb ducks.  They knew exactly where the gullible tourists were.



Taking a break in an old cottage.  Two rooms, one fireplace, and one really uncomfortable chair.