The Mourning Coffee

Podcast Episode 3: Madame Tussaud and her Chamber of Horrors

Welcome to the 3rd episode of The Queen is Not Amused. In this episode, we briefly explore the life of Marie Grosholtz, who would one day become the famous Madame Tussaud.

Born fatherless, Marie’s story might have ended up a brief tale of poverty and death. Instead, she was able to sail the tumultuous tide of revolution in France and eventually end up one of the most famous—and successful—businesswomen in the world.

The Plot Thickens

post-itsI am frequently asked, “How do you come up with the ideas for your books?”

The short answer is, “I work with a great team.”

But here’s the longer answer:

I always start with some germ of an idea. For the LADY OF ASHES books, I might decide the book will dwell on some aspect of Victorian mourning or undertaking. For the FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE MYSTERIES, I am looking for significant events in Florence’s life. Then I search history for some other event (and sometimes I like really obscure events!) that I can marry to the idea germ.

Next, I make what I call the “read ahead packet.” This includes the germinating idea, plus information on what was going on historically at the time of the proposed book. I frequently throw in the bios of some real people I might like to weave in if I can.

I send the read ahead packet to my husband, my brother, and one of my brothers-in-law to review. Then we schedule a plotting session. This involves those giant post-it notes you can put on the wall, and a bunch of markers.

We start the session with me asking a provocative question. For example, for the session prior to the novel STOLEN REMAINS, I asked, “Why would someone steal a dead body from a coffin?” For THE MOURNING BELLS, I asked, “Why would a dead body spring alive out of a coffin?”

Then we spend an evening around my dining room table, with me making notes on the wall sheets while we all discuss and argue over points. My brother is affectionately known as “The Red Baron” for his ability to shoot holes in another person’s seemingly brilliant plot idea. The only ground rule is that I have final say over the plot.

With that done, I take what is hopefully a loosely-constructed plot (and sometimes the plot is complicated enough that it requires a second plotting session), and I create what I call my Scene Distillation. This is where I sit down and move Violet or Florence through the story, scene by scene. I do this in a program called Scrivener, and it enables me to put each scene on the digital equivalent of an index card. So, I jot down one scene per “card,” and can rearrange them in a click-n-drop fashion. When I have around 70 scenes, I know I have between 90,000-100,000 words, and I begin writing.

There you have it. Four or five months later a book is produced, and then it goes through my internal review process. More on that in my next blog post!

Interested in Scrivener?

Podcast Episode 2: The Necropolis Train

the-queen-is-not-amused-podcastWelcome to the 2nd episode of The Queen is not Amused. Those weird and wonderful Victorians hit upon an exceptionally genius method of taking care of their dead, after suffering from decades of overcrowded graveyards, decaying bodies contaminating the water, and the hazards of digging inside cemeteries with unmarked graves in them.

Take a trip down the London Necropolis Railway, the first purpose-built train to carry corpses from London to a remote cemetery in Surrey.


Podcast Episode 1: A Day in the Life of an Undertaker

Welcome to the inaugural episode of The Queen is not Amused.  the-queen-is-not-amused-podcastFor our first journey with those weird and wonderful Victorians, spend a few minutes inside an undertaker’s shop.  Experience what he does on a daily basis, learn about his greatest fear, and step through the planning of a funeral.  Those Victorians knew how to grieve in style! 


Important Dates in Violet’s Victorian World

queen-victoriaThe Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign, from June 20, 1837 until her death on January 22, 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, “refined sensibilities,” and national self-confidence for the United Kingdom. In Violet Harper’s world (and soon Florence Nightingale’s), readers of my books have experienced glimpses into some of these prominent dates.

  • August 14, 1834 –This Day in History: The Poor Law Amendment Act is passed, introducing workhouses for the healthy poor. And thus, Violet Harper finds her adoptive daughter, Susanna, in 1861.
  • September 10, 1846 — This Day in History: Elias Howe of Massachusetts receives a patent for his sewing machine. Funeral fashions can now be made in record time!
  • December 1849 – This Day in History: Florence Nightingale accompanied family friends Charles and Selina Bracebridge on a trip to Egypt and Greece. She sailed down the Nile and documented her trip. Of course, this was 20 years before the Suez Canal even opened, but it’s fun for me to think of both her and Violet Harper spending time in this exotic land. It’s out of print, but you can still find copies of Florence’s book, Letters From Egypt.
  • March 28, 1854 — This Day in History: Britain and France declare war on Russia, and the Crimean War begins. You may recall that in Stolen Remains, Lord Raybourn’s son fights in the Crimean War. Of course, the most famous figure of the time was Florence Nightingale, who did remarkable things to revolutionize the nursing profession, once considered so lowly that it was barely a step up from prostitution and acting.
  • January 29, 1856 — This Day in History: The Victoria Cross. Queen Victoria introduced this award to honor acts of great bravery during the Crimean War, the conflict where Florence Nightingale gained fame for her tireless work. The queen personally awarded the first Victoria Crosses to 62 men at a ceremony at Hyde Park.
  • August 16, 1858 — This Day in History: The first transatlantic telegraph is inaugurated by Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan, with the words “Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men,” sent from England, at the lightning-fast speed of one word every ten minutes. Less than a month later, the cable had failed, leading some people to claim that the whole thing had been a hoax and there had never actually been a working cable.
  • October 1, 1861 — This Day in History: The complete version of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, consisting of 24 collected monthly installments, is published; and becomes one of the major publishing events of the 19th century. Violet Harper is not happy.
  • January 1, 1877 — This Day in History: Queen Victoria is Declared Empress of India. India came under direct British government control in 1858, when the remaining authority of the East India Company was dissolved. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli suggested to the queen that she should be proclaimed empress. The queen was quite keen on the idea, which Disraeli’s predecessor, Gladstone, had been reticent to pursue. Legislation, known as the Royal Titles Act, was pushed through parliament on May 1, 1876, although Victoria would not officially use the title until January 1, 1877.
  • June 26, 1879 — This Day in History: Isma’il Pasha, Governor of Egypt, is Deposed. Isma’il Pasha was the khedive—or governor—of Egypt. He was deposed on orders of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who ruled Egypt at the time. The sultan also commanded that Isma’il’s son, Tewfik, be proclaimed khedive. This photo shows Isma’il and his son when Tewfik was still a young child. He took his father’s position when he was 28 years old. You will meet Isma’il Pasha in A Grave Celebration.
  • June 15, 1888 — This Day in History: Frederick III of Prussia Dies. Frederick was married to Vicky, Queen Victoria’s daughter. It was an arranged marriage, but by all accounts, a happy one; producing 8 children. You will meet Frederick in Lady of Ashes mystery book 6 – A Grave Celebration.
  • September 4, 1888 — This Day in History: George Eastman patents his roll-film camera and registers the Kodak trademark. Violet Harper’s post-mortem daguerreotypes will soon be a thing of the past!
  • January 22, 1901 — This Day in History: Queen Victoria’s reign ends. After being diagnosed with “cerebral exhaustion,” the queen died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, aged 81. After a magnificent funeral procession through the streets of London on February 2, Victoria was laid to rest next to Albert in the royal mausoleum at Frogmore House in Windsor. The Victorian age was at an end.

A Collection of Victorian Era Advertisements

The distinctive Victorian style of layout for advertisements showcased extreme variations of type size and weight, all crammed within the page format, was an invention of expedience, allowing the printer to utilize every inch of precious space. Another distinction easily recognized is the use of extravagant embellishments commonly applied to architecture, furniture, clothing, and carried over to appear in elaborate borders and lettering in graphic design. A taste for ornamentation and ostentation was becoming a dominant style. Enjoy these examples. Which ad do you think is the strangest? Which one makes you want to purchase the product featured?






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


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.


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



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



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.


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.


Cheetah snack time



Tiger snack time


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.