The Mourning Coffee

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.


Interesting Places in Great Britain: Appuldurcombe

I think this post needs to begin with a pronunciation of the word.

(The apples that grow in the valley)

Located on the Isle of Wight, it was the home of Sir Richard Worsley, the 7th Baronet Worsley. Sir Richard had a most unfortunate marriage, which resulted in a scandalous divorce case in 1782, after only 7 years of marriage. The house fell into disrepair after his death, passed to a niece’s husband, was later sold, then sold again. In the mid 19th century it became a school “for young gentlemen.” At the turn of the 20th century, French monks occupied it while Quarr Abbey was being completed. During the two world wars it was a barracks. In 1943, it was nearly destroyed by a German bomber, and has been in a sad state ever since.

Even though Appuldurcombe is a romantic old ruin, there is much more to see and do on the property. Not only do they offer a tractor ride around the property to show off the history and outbuildings of the estate, but there is an owl and falconry center where you can watch a hawking demonstration. Appuldurcombe is a must-see place.

Want more on the history of Appuldurcombe? Click here.


The exterior of Appuldurcombe House



A view of the interior of Appuldurcombe. Three levels of total devastation.



The bird trainer with an American bald eagle. Such a majestic bird. See the pouch attached to the trainer’s belt? It’s full of icky animal carcasses that the birds just love. It was fun to watch the birds of prey swooping.



Would you be willing to get your face this close to that of a bird of prey while he’s got a piece of flesh in his little avian mouth?