All’s Well in Clerkenwell

After two hours spent mudlarking on the Thames foreshore, I might be thought to be ready to return to the twenty-first century. Not so! Granted, I was ready to crash in my hotel room for a while, but as it happened, the hotel where I was staying was like stepping back in time.

The Rookery Hotel’s unassuming entrance on Peter’s Lane.

Anyone of John Pickett’s day would have balked at reserving a room at any place calling itself the Rookery; in the nineteenth century, the word was synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, and general squalor. Today, however, it’s the name of a boutique hotel comprising three houses built in 1764 and still retaining a Georgian atmosphere. It’s located in Clerkenwell, a section of London due north of the City (“the City,” capitalized, refers to the portion of central London that was once enclosed within the old Roman wall) and a part of town I’d never visited before.

The Rookery Hotel as seen from Cowcross and St. John Streets. It’s the three gabled brick buildings at center left. Peter’s Lane, where the entrance is, is so narrow you can barely even make it out. (It’s just to the left of the brick building with the red lettering above its ground floor.)

The hotel’s address—12 Peter’s Lane, Cowcross Street—gives a clue as to the area’s history. I discovered this on my first afternoon there, when I took an exploratory walk in search of the nearest Tube station. (It proved to be Farringdon, in quite the opposite direction.) I turned a corner and found myself facing the Smithfield Market, London’s stockyard and meat market since the Middle Ages, and possibly as early as Roman times. Regency readers may know it best from the disparaging term “Smithfield bargain,” meaning a marriage made as a financial transaction. Suddenly Cowcross Street’s curious name made sense; cattle would have been driven right up the street here on their way to the market. (Can you imagine living in one of these houses, and stepping out your front door just as a drover was coming past, herding cows to market?)

Smithfield still operates today as a wholesale market, the only market in continuous operation since medieval times. The elaborate arched building dates to the second half of the 19th century; prior to that, it would have been an open-air market.

Turning back to the north, I soon came across a bit of still earlier history. St. John’s Gate, dating from 1504, is just about all that remains of the former headquarters of the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. After Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries a few decades later, it was used for a number of different purposes, and in 1731 was the birthplace of the Gentleman’s Magazine, one of whose early writers—Dr. Johnson, no less—would later investigate the hoax known as the “Cock Lane Ghost,” which also took place nearby.

St. John’s Gate (And yes, I walked through it. Because of course I did.)

If any ghosts roam up and down the stairs or lurk about the corners of the Rookery hotel, I was blissfully unaware of them. I slept soundly until morning, when I checked out somewhat reluctantly, headed for the airport at Heathrow and twenty-first century life.

The library, one of the ground-floor common rooms.
Look closely: that’s not a door, just a very clever way to make sure guests don’t wander into places they don’t belong.
Another common area. This one has an “honesty bar” and opens out onto…
…the terrace.

Mudlarking!

As I mentioned in a recent post, my trip to the UK last summer was specifically to research John Pickett Mystery #9, Into Thin Eire. Still, I already knew what Book 10 would be about, and one of my experiences on this trip provided a spark for that book as well. For while I was in London, I went mudlarking!

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, mudlarking was an early form of recycling in which people, often children (called mudlarks), scavenged along the exposed riverbank of the Thames at low tide for anything they could sell. John Pickett was an occasional mudlark in his misspent youth, so I thought it would be fun to try something that he would have done. (The other option, pickpocketing, is, alas, frowned upon.)

I went online to learn what I could about modern-day mudlarking, and discovered that, for one thing, you have to have a permit from the London Port Authority. I also learned that they don’t recommend you go by yourself. If you do, you should at least be aware at all times of the location of the nearest stairs; when the tide turns, the river rises very swiftly, and it’s possible to be cut off.

So I searched for a guide to take me out. (Another advantage of going with a guide is that he has the permit issue taken care of.) I eventually made a date with Steve Brooker (aka the “mud god”), who’s been featured on the History Channel and written up in Time magazine and elsewhere. But while searching, I came across an article on mudlarking that quoted a curator at the Museum of London as saying (I’m quoting here as nearly as I can remember), “almost everything we know about childhood in the Middle Ages comes from finds the mudlarks have brought in.” It’s often said that times may change, but human nature doesn’t. Children lose things, whether in the twelfth century or the twenty-first.

Steve Brooker, aka the “mud god,” my mudlarking guide.
The skyscrapers in the background make up the
Canary Wharf business district on the Isle of Dogs.

Still, the idea of those toys, lost somehow in or along the river only to be washed up decades or even centuries later, started me thinking. In Book 10, Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?, John Pickett discovers he has a ten-year-old half-brother. That half-brother, I knew, would have had an upbringing very similar to John’s; what if he, too, had been an occasional mudlark, and had found a toy of some kind—one not necessarily of any monetary value, but something that he, a poor child having so little, prizes? And what if he (like all those medieval children) dropped it—not in the River Thames, but at the scene of a crime? I hadn’t even gone on my own mudlarking adventure yet, but thanks to the internet, I already had a head start on my next book!

You’ll be able to see how this element fits into the book when it releases on June 12, but in the meantime, here are a few photos of my own mudlarking finds. Contrary to what you might expect, we did not use a metal detector (in fact, the “mud god” has strong views about the use of metal detectors along the foreshore, and the role they play in erosion); instead, he taught me how to read the tides as the nineteenth-century mudlarks would have done.

I met up with Steve in Greenwich at the Cutty Sark, and we walked through the tunnel beneath the Thames to the Isle of Dogs, the peninsula formed by a deep bend in the river east of the City. (Incidentally, whenever you see London referred to as the “City”—capitalized—it refers to the portion of central London, roughly one square mile, that was once contained within the old Roman wall.) Why that particular spot? Because once upon a time, the Isle of Dogs was the site of a dumping ground for one of Henry VIII’s palaces. Dead people’s garbage dumps are a historian’s playground; so much can be learned by what people threw away, either by accident or deliberately. Which makes me wonder what historians will learn about us someday, but that’s a topic for another blog, written by another blogger.

THE PHOTOS:

My favorite out of all our haul: a Victorian penny, about the size of a US half-dollar.
The reverse side gives the date as 1900.
A clay pipe, the “cigarette butts” of their era and one of the most common of all mudlarking finds.
George V half-penny from 1934,
just a bit larger than a US quarter.
A “sea biscuit” fossil; some modern-day mudlarks search for them exclusively.
George VI half-penny from 1939. (If you’ve ever seen the film The King’s Speech, he was its subject.)
Fragments of garnet, although not gem quality. In fact, these are industrial waste; the “sand” on sandpaper is actually finely crushed garnet. All waste products should be so pretty!
This half-penny says “new penny” because the UK had just switched from the old pounds/shillings/pence monetary system to
100 pence = 1 pound. (The half-penny was not removed from circulation until 1984.)
Dress pin from the Tudor era. (Ink pen included to show scale.) We found three pins in all, and Steve seemed surprised/disappointed that there weren’t more. Apparently they’re usually very plentiful in the area, thanks to that Tudor-era garbage dump.
Not all of the coins we found were British. Here’s a 1 rupee coin from India, dated 1999.
WWII bullet & casing. We found a whole cache of these, and I told Steve, “Well, there was your problem: you were supposed to put the bullets into the guns and then fire them at the Germans!”
10-cent piece from West Germany, 1970.
A fragment of Blue Willow china. This stuff was all over the place! Most of it was blue, but there were a few shards of rose pink, too. And I wish so badly that I’d snagged a whole bagful of it! I’m sure I could have found something to do with it.
5-ruble coin from Russia, 2016.
We found several pieces of petrified wood. Here are two of them.

There was more, including modern coins from the UK as well as a US quarter, a small brass button, a number of 19th-century nails. . In fact, I haven’t yet got around to cleaning it all! We were on the foreshore for about two hours before the tide made it necessary for us to curtail our hunt. Here’s a photo of all our finds:

I can’t wait to go again! Hmm, I wonder what I’ll find next time…

Research Trip 2019: London to Holyhead to Dublin

The current ban on international travel makes me especially glad that I managed to visit the UK last year, although pleasure wasn’t the first thing on my mind when I made the trip. I’d been working on Into Thin Eire (aka John Pickett mystery #9), and I’d just finished the chase through England, Wales, and finally Ireland that makes up a good deal of the book. But when I read back through those chapters, I realized there was one big problem.

“This could be set anywhere in the world,” I complained to my husband, “and it wouldn’t matter! It needs detail to ground it in a particular place.” I looked online, but internet research has its limitations; I just wasn’t finding what I needed.

“Do you need to go?” my husband asked. “If you do, book a flight. I’ll see you when you get back.”

At Denver International Airport, waiting to board!

And so I did. Since my husband didn’t have enough vacation time to take a week off (we’d taken a South American cruise back in February, and he’d used most of it up on that trip), I went alone—my first solo trip out of the country. (Mom was convinced I was never coming back alive.) I’d bought a BritRail pass at the same time I’d booked my flight, and so after taking a day to recover from jet lag, I set out from my hotel to Euston Station. My objective: to follow the path of my characters, making notes on topographical changes along the way.

After boarding the train and finding a window seat with a good view, I pulled out a little notebook I’d bought for the trip. As the train traveled westward, I made notes on the landscape: the flat green fields of the Midlands, dotted with sheep and occasionally bisected by canals (the latter sometimes affording glimpses of brightly colored narrowboats) giving way to the steep slopes of Snowdonia, the peaks hidden beneath a blanket of clouds, until finally setting me down in Holyhead, Wales, where I’d booked a room for two nights at a quaint bed and breakfast called Witchingham.

Sheep seen from the window of the train.
Witchingham, the bed & breakfast where
I stayed in Holyhead, Wales.

Once in my room, I walked the short distance to the water and strolled along the Anglesey Coastal Path, stopping to eat dinner at the Yacht Club restaurant. From the water’s edge, I could see the ferries returning; this was the reason I’d come to Holyhead.

The view from the shore.
Boats near the Yacht Club.
Note the castle ruins in the background!

Early the next morning, I called for a taxi to take me to the port, and took the Swift ferry to Dublin. The name refers to Jonathan Swift, not to the boat’s speed, although that would fit, too: I made the Irish Sea crossing in just over three hours, whereas for John Pickett and his traveling companions, even a smooth crossing would have been seventeen hours or more. The boat itself was like a small cruise ship, with a buffet brunch included in the fare, along with comfortable seats and big picture windows along the bow and sides. But I wasn’t the only person making a work-related trip: one entire deck was reserved for commercial trucks (lorries), with lounges set aside specifically for their drivers.

The ferry returning to Holyhead.

When we arrived in Dublin, I realized that in one instance, at least, John Pickett would have had the advantage over me: his packet sailed right up the River Liffey into the heart of Dublin, whereas my ferry docked along a rather nondescript commercial waterfront, from which we walk-on passengers had to take a bus into the city proper. After a day in Dublin, it was back to the ferry for the return trip, arriving in Holyhead just after midnight. (And me, with my north-Alabama/Appalachian-foothills accent trying to communicate by telephone with a Welsh taxi driver was the only real problem I had on the whole trip!)

Courtyard of Dublin Castle

In the morning, I took the train back to London for my next adventure—mudlarking along the Thames foreshore! But that’s a subject for another blog . . .

Regency costume photo shoot

After the costume was finished, I treated myself to a professional photo shoot! Here are a few of my favorites.

All photos are by Sarah Lee Welch Photography, LLC. Locations include McCreery House and Foote Lagoon, both in downtown Loveland, Colorado.

The evening look, with long white gloves (these, along with the shoes & stockings, are the only part of the ensemble that I didn’t make) and an ostrich-plume headpiece.
The quizzing glass belonged to my grandmother. After she died, each of her granddaughters was allowed to choose something from her costume jewelry. Needless to say, I grabbed it! (Fortunately, I was probably the only one who realized what it was.) I bought a length of 1/4″ black velvet ribbon and threaded through it.
No Regency lady would go outside bareheaded! Besides my bonnet, I’m wearing the same dress as in the photos above, this time topped with a double-breasted pelisse cut short in the front in a style reminiscent of Regency gentlemen’s tailcoats. (Of course, Regency ladies would have different gowns for day versus evening, with long sleeves and high necklines for day wear while saving the decolletage and bare arms for evening, but I wanted a variety of looks with the fewest number of pieces.) I’ve also traded my long white formal gloves for short fingerless gloves made of lace. If you’ve ever read mentions of Regency ladies wearing “mittens,” this is what is meant by the term.
This closer shot shows the bodice detail of the pelisse as well as the gloves. The buttons on the gloves are mother-of-pearl, while the buttons on the pelisse are covered with fabric. Since the pelisse fabric was too thick for the purpose, I used a lighter weight broadcloth in a matching shade of gray. There are 18 covered buttons in all: 10 on the bodice and 4 on each sleeve!
This photo shows not only the bonnet in detail, but also the pleats in the skirt of the pelisse.
More bonnet detail.
The photo shoot was done in April, which turned out to be the perfect time: the weather was still cool enough that I wasn’t sweltering in a bonnet and pelisse! Best of all, the crab apple trees were in full bloom!
Speaking of crab apples trees, the photographer actually climbed up in one for this photo looking down through the branches!

Part 2: The Making of a Regency Costume – The Bonnet

Now that I had a high-waisted gown and pelisse (see my previous post, The Making of a Regency Costume, Part 1), it was time to focus on the accessories that would turn it into an authentic-looking Regency costume. The biggie, of course, was the bonnet. There are numerous websites and YouTube videos showing the various stages of bonnet construction; although I watched many of these (including this one from Stephanie Johanesen of the Oregon Regency Society) I found the websites that showed still photos more helpful, as I didn’t have to keep reaching for the “pause” button on my phone. I liked this site, with one caveat, which I’ll explain below.

I saw one potential problem right away. While my dress/pelisse pattern had been very specific, all the bonnet tutorials were extremely vague as to measurements: “ . . . or you can make it bigger or smaller . . .,” etc. Fortunately, I was making my bonnet only a few weeks before Easter, which meant that the “Everything’s $1” store had cheap straw bonnets for $1. This was a very good thing for me, since the only 18-inch bonnet I had found was at Michael’s, and had cost about $10—much more than the $3 price quoted in the blog above. The 40%-off coupon brought it down some, but all the same, I bought a second hat from the dollar store. It didn’t look historically accurate by a long chalk—the “straw” was actually some kind of plastic—but it would serve as a practice piece.

And a good thing, too. When making the practice hat, I cut away about a third of the hat as per the instructions on the Better Dresses Vintage blog, and finished the cut raw edge with wide bias tape. At this point, I tried on the hat, and suffered my first setback: the brim stuck out weirdly over my ears at the “corners” where the brim was cut away. I continued to work on my practice bonnet, but I was pretty sure that, unless something changed drastically by the time I was finished, it would be a wash.

So I plowed gamely on, first lining the inside of the brim with a fine voile and, finally, cutting a rectangle of fabric for the crown. As my instructions said it should be 9 inches when folded, I cut it to 18 inches, folded the piece, and continued. To my chagrin, the crown was so small that I couldn’t even get it to cover my head! It was at this point that I tossed my practice bonnet aside. It was obviously beyond hope, but I’d learned a lot about construction—the biggest lesson being that, whether it’s the straw brim or the fabric crown, while you can always cut off more, you can’t put it back on.

The straw hat, showing the chunk(s) I cut out of the brim.

That’s why, when I cut into my “real” hat (after covering my work surface with newspaper; after all, my “real” hat was made of “real” straw!), I only cut out a small section of the brim, leaving the crown intact. (And after trying it on, I cut out a bit more, as you can see in the photo.) I pinned a length of extra-wide double-fold bias tape in place and secured it with a hot-glue gun, although if I had it to do again, I might have sewn it; in some of the later steps, I did use a sturdy needle and thread, and it would have been a lot easier if I hadn’t had to work around those patches of glue.

Finishing the raw edge & around the brim with bias tape. Some of the websites I consulted suggested using ribbon, but I thought extra-wide double-fold bias tape would conform to the curved shape of the brim without so much puckering.

The brim is lined by gathering a lightweight voile at the brim edge, and again where the brim meets the crown, and sewing in place with a sturdy needle; thread should match the hat, not the voile, in order to be invisible from the outside. (It might be covered up by trim anyway, but why take chances?) I didn’t trim the excess (it would have been a ravelly mess if I had), but simply stuffed it inside the crown.

Still, it looked much better this time when I tried it on. I added a double ruffle of gray-green tulle*, and when I lined the brim with voile, I positioned it so that about an inch hung over the brim.

*A word here about colors: I mentioned in my last post that, although my pelisse was gray, I didn’t want to look like a lady wearing half-mourning. I was also going on the assumption that most Regency ladies wouldn’t have a different bonnet to go with every outfit, so I didn’t try to go all matchy-matchy with the bonnet colors. Instead, I decided to go with ribbons, crown fabric, etc. in a shade of green that would coordinate with, but not exactly match, the greens in the print fabric I’d used for the dress.

Now it’s starting to look like a real bonnet!

For the fabric crown, I wanted something with enough body that it would hold its shape, but not be too thick for all the gathering I would have to do. One of the websites I’d studied suggested taffeta; unfortunately, I couldn’t find any. I finally settled on a crepe-backed satin, and folded it inside out, with the shiny side to the inside. I’d also learned the hard way that a 9-inch-deep crown wouldn’t begin to cover my big head, so I didn’t cut it at all, figuring I could trim it down to size as I went along. But I never did; I used that entire yard of fabric (folded in half, of course). If you’re making a bonnet of your own, be aware that the crown fabric is greatly reduced in size by the gathering process! I wanted lavish gathering rather than a skimpy crown (don’t want to appear shabby-genteel, you know!), and it took every bit of that fabric to achieve the desired effect.

The photo (above) shows the crown gathered to the hat before it’s all covered up with trim. After this picture was taken, I hot-glued a length of 5/8-inch single-fold bias tape (in the same color as the wide bias tape finishing the brim edge) over the gathering stitches to conceal them. You can also see in this photo how the ribbon tie works. (By the way, the gold ribbon shown here is a leftover from my practice piece; it’s not the one I used in the final version.) Rather than attach two lengths of ribbon to the “corners” of the brim where it’s been cut away, I left the ribbon tie in one long piece, centered it over the front of the bonnet, and simply draped it over the brim where it meets the crown, then tied it in a bow beneath my chin, being sure to pull it tightly enough to bend the brim into the proper shape.

The finished product!

This front view shows the interior trim.

Before that, though, I had to trim the bonnet. I bought two branches of artificial peonies in an off-white shade to match the bias tape and voile I’d used for the brim lining. I cut off three of the larger flowers and tacked them securely to the crown, then cut off the half-open buds and tacked them to the inside of the brim, being sure to stitch all the way through both voile and the brim itself. I used a thread that matched the straw, so the stitches don’t show from the outside.

“Still Life with Bonnet and Quizzing Glass.” Here you can see the gathering at the crown.

In Part 3, I’ll talk about accessories: reticule, fingerless gloves, and a headpiece for evening wear that would stay in my very short hair!

 

The Making of a Regency Costume

Part 1 of 4:

The Dress & Pelisse

My plans for this year (2018) include going to both the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Reno and the Romance Writers of America conference in Denver (including the 1-day Beau Monde Mini-Conference featuring all things Regency)–not just one, but two occasions to wear historical costume. So I decided at the beginning of the year to create a Regency costume—not just a full-length, high-waisted gown, but the whole shebang. This post is the first of a 4-part series on the construction of that costume, its accessories, and, finally, the results as seen in the professional photo shoot to which I treated myself after the three-month-long project was complete.

Having decided to make the costume, I went shopping right after New Year’s for a pattern and fabric. Unfortunately, there aren’t many Regency patterns available at present, as these tend to be directly proportional to the number of Jane Austen adaptations on the big screen at any given time; as of this writing, 18th-century patterns tend to be more prominent, thanks to Outlander and Poldark.

McCalls #7493, the pattern I used to make my costume.

I did find a few, though, and settled on McCalls #7493. I liked the fact that it offered, in addition to the aforementioned full-length, high-waisted gown, either a short spencer with a pleated peplum in the back or a full-length pelisse with a cutaway front, pleats in the back, and a double-breasted bodice with a draped collar in a contrasting fabric. Both had two-piece sleeves, and both were fully lined. In other words, this was not a pattern for beginners. But I’ve been sewing since I was nine years old. Few patterns have the power to defeat me—and I’m rather a snob about that. So this fairly complex pattern was right up my alley.

Now that I had the pattern, it was time to shop for fabrics.  In my opinion, fabric stores have gone downhill in recent years, with more focus on crafters (especially quilters) than on people who sew, you know, actual clothes. Thanks to all those quilters, I knew it would be no problem to find a cotton print that looked reasonably accurate for the period; fabric for the pelisse (I’d decided to go for the pelisse rather than the spencer, because harder. Yeah, I’m a snob that way.) was likely to prove the greater challenge, so I concentrated on that first. I looked at both Walmart and Joann’s Fabrics (my only local options) for a coat-weight fabric that wasn’t an anachronistic polyester or an obvious poly blend, but without success. In desperation, I went to the back corner of Joann’s, where the upholstery fabrics were kept on enormous cardboard rolls against the wall. And there I found a dove-gray fabric with a slight nap. It was certainly coat weight—in fact, my first thought was that it weighed a ton—but upon reflection, I decided it was no heavier than denim, and lighter than some denims I’ve worked with. For the lining, I bought a length of gray broadcloth that would conceal the wrong side of the fabric while keeping the added weight to a minimum. The upholstery department also yielded another treasure: a relatively lightweight brocade whose color would match the body of the pelisse while the weave provided a contrast.

Clockwise from top left: the gray pelisse fabric; the cotton print I chose for the gown; the silver-gray brocade I used for the contrasting collar of the pelisse.

Now, for the gown. As I had expected, there was no shortage of cotton prints. I’m not generally a fan of sweet little floral patterns, and given that I’m *ahem* past the first blush of youth, I wouldn’t be presenting myself as a young lady in her first Season, but a fashionable society matron. Still, I wanted something that looked reasonably accurate to the period. I finally found a somewhat bolder print, a gray-on-gray pattern punctuated by yellow-and-brown birds and butterflies along with yellow roses and green leaves. This would not only match my pelisse, but also give me additional colors for accessorizing without looking like I was in half-mourning.

Detail of pelisse back view, showing princess seaming & pleated skirt

True to the fashions of the period, my pattern contained no zippers or snaps; the pelisse buttoned in the front, and the gown buttoned in the back. (This also meant that I would be unable to get in and out of the dress without assistance; I made a mental note to make sure to have plans in place before the event for someone to help me into and out of it.) I knew that fabric-covered buttons were popular during the Regency, so I decided to make covered buttons. Alas, both the gown and pelisse called for ½-inch buttons, and I couldn’t find covered-button forms in that size locally. Thank goodness for Amazon! I was able to buy a button-making kit in the correct size, plus a bag of additional button forms—a good thing, too, as I would need eighteen buttons for the pelisse alone (four for each sleeve and ten for the double-breasted bodice), plus another four for the gown. Then, too, there was that pelisse fabric. I suspected it would be too thick for buttons that small, and when my button kit arrived, one practice attempt was enough to prove that I was right. I decided to use remnants of the gray broadcloth I’d used for the pelisse lining. The color was so near a match that they looked identical, and the lighter weight was much better suited to the purpose.

Detail of pelisse sleeve showing covered buttons

As for the gown, I ended up making a couple of small additions after it was complete, one to the bodice and another to the skirt. It was important for the bodice to fit closely, and since I’ve always had a small bustline relative to the rest of me, this meant placing the buttons considerably farther inside than the markings indicated on the pattern. I was afraid this would make it look somewhat off-centered from the back, so I added a second row of buttons on the outside of the bodice, a couple of inches from the buttonholes. They don’t really do anything—that is, there are no corresponding buttonholes—but they do give it a sense of symmetry and, as my proofreader and fellow seamstress pointed out, they reflect the double-breasted construction of the pelisse. This brought my total button count to twenty-six, so I was especially glad to have all those extras.

Detail of gown showing hem with double rows of tasseled trim.

Finally, when I stumbled across a braided trim with tassels in exactly the same color combinations as my dress fabric, I couldn’t resist buying enough to put a double row around the bottom of the skirt, reflecting the ornamented hemlines characteristic of the late Regency period.

In Part 2, I’ll be sharing what was, for me, the most challenging part of the costume: the bonnet.

 

On the Trail of Patrick Colquhoun in Scotland

Last time I was in London, I posted a blog sharing some of the places that would have been familiar to John Pickett, the young Bow Street Runner who is the hero of my Regency-set mystery series. Since I had a chance to visit Scotland this past summer as part of a 2-week British Isles cruise, it only makes sense to give his magistrate, the real-life Patrick Colquhoun, equal time.

While our ship was docked at Greenock, my husband and I arranged for a car and driver—Mike made it very clear that he did not intend to spend his vacation learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road!—to take us to some of the places that would have been familiar to Patrick Colquhoun.

Dumbarton Castle, as seen from across the River Clyde

Our first stop was Dumbarton, where Patrick Colquhoun was born in 1745. You can see Dumbarton Castle long before you get there, as it is situated on the north bank of the River Clyde—directly across the river from the road that connects Greenock to Glasgow, which means you must go some way past it before you can cross the river and backtrack. It is visually quite imposing, built on a volcanic plug that has been fortified since the Iron Age, and would certainly have been a familiar sight to our man.

Me, standing on a bridge overlooking the River Kelvin.

His wife, Janet (whose maiden name was also Colquhoun), was also from here; in fact, her father was the provost (think “mayor”) of Dumbarton. Going his father-in-law one better, Patrick Colquhoun became Lord Provost of the much larger Glasgow—a position which meant he was also Lord-Lieutenant of the County of the City of Glasgow and a Commissioner of Northern Lighthouses. He built an estate in Glasgow’s West End, along the River Kelvin, and called it Kelvingrove. The house no longer stands (and, alas, he sold it in 1792, some years after moving to London, which means I can never send John Pickett there), having become Glasgow’s first municipal museum in 1872 and demolished in 1899, when the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was built in its place. Its grounds were absorbed into what is now Kelvingrove Park. I spent a very pleasant hour wandering through the park and along the river, imagining myself following in his footsteps.

Kelvingrove Park. The spires of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum are visible in the background.

One thing I noticed was that the locals seemed very gratified to discover that I knew how to pronounce “Colquhoun” correctly! (For the record, it’s “Ca-HOON.”) Upon learning what I was doing there, more than one boasted that, yes, “Glasgow is Colquhoun country,” and asked if I had visited Luss. I was pleased to tell them that I had.

Luss, besides being a picturesque little village on the shores of Loch Lomond, is the ancestral home of Clan Colquhoun. Although he was never chief of the clan, not being in the direct line of succession, Patrick Colquhoun would certainly have been aware of the connection, and might well have visited the village or the ancestral seat, a fine Georgian manor called Rossdhu House.

Rossdhu House. Since I didn’t get to see it in person, I looked it up online!

(Rossdhu, by the way, now serves as the clubhouse of the Loch Lomond Golf Club, and still contains many of the original furnishings and artwork, on loan from the family. My driver tried to get me close enough for a glimpse of the house, but the gates were locked, and the landscaping blocked any view; apparently they’ve seen me driving off the tee.)

Picturesque cottages of Luss.

Loch Lomond.

Foiled in my attempt to get a look at Rossdhu, I had to content myself with strolling through the village and down to the loch, finishing up my time in Luss by trying haggis (yes, really!) at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel, a former coaching inn owned by the present clan chief, Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, 9th baronet of Luss.

Lunch at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel: haggis (center) with neeps (turnips, at bottom) and tatties (potatoes, top).

Mediterranean Cruise

One of the questions writers hate the most is “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the reason we hate it is that the honest answer would be, “Duh, I don’t know.” Seriously. Out of more than twenty books, there are only three or four that I could definitely say what inspired the story.

A recent exception would be my first romantic suspense novel, Moon over the Mediterranean, which was just released. When my husband and I started planning this trip, I thought it would be nice if I could get a novel out of it. Since the setting wouldn’t really lend itself to the Regency period (because, you know, Napoleon was running amok all over Europe), I decided to try my hand at the type of book that I credit with giving me a lifelong craving for travel: a romantic suspense novel in the tradition of Mary Stewart, M. M. Kaye, etc. Since the book’s publication, several reviewers have recommended it as a summer “beach read,” largely because of its exotic setting(s). So now, I’m going to be like that annoying neighbor who invites you over and then proceeds to show you all the home movies from his vacation. Except in my case, it’s not movies, but some of the sights we saw on our trip, which also figure in the novel.

Hubby Mike and me on Formal Night. (No, I’m not that short; he, at 6’5″, is that tall.)

Since I’m a firm believer in not talking down to readers, I’m not going to tell you what this is. I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure it out.

Me, standing in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The two-toned cream-colored house in the right middle ground is the Keats-Shelley House, where the poet John Keats died in 1821. It’s now a museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets.

Stunning view along the hair-raising road from Naples to Sorrento.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. In the book, Robin has a fright here; while I wasn’t assaulted, like she was, I did find the too-aggressive salesmen too much of a deterrent to do any shopping.

The windmills of Mykonos, Greece.

The section of Mykonos known as “Little Venice,” because of the way the balconies hang out over the water. One of the “mushier” scenes in the book takes place here.

Street scene in Ephesus, Turkey. The large building on the left is (or was) the Celsus Library.

The Parthenon, Athens.

The Erechtheion, with the “Porch of the Maidens.” It’slocated on the Acropolis, like the Parthenon, which is only a stone’s throw away. (No pun intended.)

A close-up of the Porch of the Maidens.

The Doge’s Palace in Venice, as seen from the balcony of our stateroom.

 

 

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, with the Doge’s Palace on the left and the prison on the right. The “sighs” were from prisoners glimpsing the outside world for the last time as they crossed the bridge.

 

An interview with audiobook narrator Joel Froomkin

Joel interview pic

Those of you who have been listening to the audio versions of the John Pickett books may have been wondering about the man behind John Pickett’s voice. (He’s actually the man behind Julia’s voice too, as well as Mr. Colquhoun’s and all other other characters.) I’m pleased to give you this glimpse “behind the scenes” at award-winning audiobook narrator Joel Froomkin!

SCS: Tell me a little about your background. How much of your voice work is natural talent, and how much is theatrical training?

JF: Well, I grew up in Bermuda, which is a British colony, and that kind of forged the way for me to be a little bit of a dialect freak. I went to a British school where my teachers were from all over the UK. So I grew up absorbing all these different sounds without even being conscious of it. My best friend was Scottish, my “adopted” grandparents were English, and I lived in London for three years. So I was lucky, growing up around all these sounds AND having American parents. In terms of training, I did my undergrad in performance at USC, and then my MFA in directing—which is actually ideal for audiobooks, because you are usually your own director. Being able to listen with an objective ear and say to yourself, “Nope, that doesn’t sound truthful” is a real help. So to answer your question, I think I ended up with a really unique combination of “nature” and “nurture” that allows me to tackle unique projects as a narrator.

 SCS: What do you look for when choosing a project to audition for? What appeals to you?

JF: It really depends. But I get really excited about things that allow me to play with a lot of characters and dialects. I think that’s because my passion for audiobooks came from listening to Roy Dotrice and Jim Dale, who really create an entire cast of voices. Personally, I love cozy mysteries (M. C. Beaton and Alexander McCall Smith are my favs), so working in that genre is a real treat. John Pickett’s adventures let me enjoy both of those things. I’d love to do fantasy as well, because it allows so much latitude with vocal characterization. Because of my background, I’m often hired to do books that feature American AND British characters. People who have listened to only my British books get really confused when they hear one of my American titles!

 SCS: After we contracted to do the John Pickett mysteries, you had me send you a spreadsheet listing every speaking character, along with each character’s age, occupation/social class, three words describing them—and one unexpected item. Can you tell my readers what that was, and why you find it helpful in creating a voice?

JF: It’s important to me to try and get a real sense of what was in the author’s imagination. I’ve found authors tend to think of their characters more visually than vocally—so I have a series of questions that helps me focus in on the aspect that most concerns me.

I ask them the age of the character; very often, the minor characters—servants, etc.—are not really given much detail—and I can interpret them as 86 years old and find out three books later that the author refers to them as 22! The level of education is important—especially for British material, where dialects are very much tied to level of class. I need to know if they grew up in any specific region, and whether any other characters in the book were also raised there, because they will share sounds.

I ask if there is a particular celebrity the author imagines would play the character in a movie. About half the time, these suggestions aren’t useful, because the author is thinking visually, not vocally—so they will tell me that Chris Pratt would be a character in a British Victorian story. That doesn’t help. But when they are able to tap into the voice type, knowing that someone sounds like Eddie Redmayne vs. Sean Bean, that is helpful.

The last thing, which actually is the most helpful, is what kind of animal they think the character would be—kind of like what is their Patronus. LOL. Knowing an author imagines a character is a weasel vs. a toad or a Persian cat vs. a bear is a huge help to find their voice.

 SCS: Okay, so I’ve sent you the character spreadsheet and the book manuscript. What’s next for you? Walk me through your process.

Then I read the book, with the author’s character sheet right by my side. It’s important to know the arc of the story and the characters before I start—particularly with a mystery, because I have to be careful not to telegraph the ending by making the murderer too obvious. Mysteries are also very tricky because there are often “mysterious voices” that are overheard, or anonymous telephone calls (in more modern material). Those are always really tricky to figure out how to voice so the listener doesn’t identify the bad guy!

 SCS: Let’s talk for a minute about the John Pickett books. What part of the books presents the greatest challenge for you? What part do you find the most enjoyable?

JF: I think getting to voice the prequel, Pickpocket’s Apprentice, was a huge help to me.  [SCS: Joel also won an Earphones Award from AudioFile for his work on this book, which I suspect increased his affection for it exponentially!] It meant that we have been able to chart his growth in education and his ability to assimilate into a class above his station. He still speaks in what we would call “mockney”—certainly not BBC English. But when he is speaking with servants, his dialect shifts to seem more relatable to them. When he is with the upper classes, he tries not to drop consonants or use glottal stops. Very often, historical writers make the mistake of assuming that lower-class people can just “pretend” to have an upper-class sound. But if that were the case, there would be no reason for My Fair Lady to exist—Eliza Doolittle wouldn’t have needed Henry Higgins! So we’ve found a way to progress John Pickett that I really enjoy. I love the character—in my head, I’m playing Eddie Redmayne playing John Pickett. For some reason, when I’m voicing Lady Fieldhurst, I always think of a young Eva Green.

 Thanks so much! I look forward to working with you on the other books in the series. Fun things in store  include a whole family of Scottish characters (in Family Plot, Book 3), John singing “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” while pretending to be drunk (Waiting Game, another John Pickett novella, Book 4.5), and of course the romantic resolution (Too Hot to Handel, Book 5). I can’t wait to hear what you do with them!

(If you’d like to hear a sample of Joel’s work, here’s a short excerpt from A Dead Bore. Enjoy!)

USA Today HEA interview

In spring of 2016, I had the good fortune to be featured on USA Today’s HEA blog in an article on historical mystery series with strong romantic elements! Since there were eight authors referenced in the article, everyone’s interview had to be abbreviated due to space constraints. I’ve included my entire interview below; if you’d like to read the HEA blog entry (I’ve been told it was one of the most popular they’ve ever done, and was shared more than 1,400 times!), you can read it here

1) Did you plan from the start to include the romantic element in your book or series, or did it evolve in the writing of the stories? If the former, why? If the latter, at what point did you realize this element would be significant to the book/series?
Yes, the romance was a big part of the series from the very beginning. I’d had success with “across the tracks” romance in my self-published Regency romance The Weaver Takes a Wife, so when I got ready to develop a mystery series, I decided to go back to that particular well, in this case pairing a young and inexperienced (in more ways than one) Bow Street Runner with the widowed viscountess who is his chief suspect in the murder of her husband (Book 1, In Milady’s Chamber). I knew from the first that I was asking readers to suspend a great deal of disbelief in accepting that a Bow Street Runner, even a young and handsome one, might become romantically involved with an aristocratic lady. In fact, I felt this scenario was well-suited for a series, as it would allow for the gradual development of a relationship that might be difficult to pull off in a single title.

2) Does the romantic element develop over several books or is it strong from the start?
It seems a bit sacrilegious to mention my own books in the same sentence as Dorothy L. Sayers, but at the risk of sounding presumptuous, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane was my model, as far as developing the romance goes. In the first book, the attraction is all on John Pickett’s side. Julia, Lady Fieldhurst is far more concerned with saving her neck from the gallows, but even aside from that, a woman of her class would never think of a man of his station in those terms. It was interesting to see reviewers’ response to this one-sided attachment. One reviewer said, “If you’re looking for a romance, you won’t find it here,” while another said, “The romantic tension crackles, because absolutely nothing happens”!

3) What is the relationship between the protagonist and the significant other, and the role of the significant other in the story? (Are they partner sleuths, or is the “other”, while involved in the story, not one of the primary investigators? If you are writing a series, does your protagonist have only one significant other, or are there a series of them?)
In the first book, he was investigating her husband’s murder, and she was the primary suspect. In the later books, they keep running into each other—sometimes coincidentally, other times not. Because of her social position, she can go places that he can’t, and ferret out information from people who might refuse to talk to him. The most recent book, Dinner Most Deadly, found them at cross purposes for the first time, with Julia reluctantly agreeing to protect her best friend’s estranged husband, who is a suspect in the case Pickett is investigating. And it makes her miserable, which goes a long way toward making her realize just how important he has become in her life.

4) If you are writing/have written a series, how is the romantic element maintained after the couple marry or otherwise have a meeting of the minds on their relationship?
I don’t want to give away too much detail here, because the book that resolves the relationship has not yet been published. Suffice it to say that I’d expected the series to end once that resolution came, but after writing that book, I realized that the daily challenges of making such an unequal match work offered plenty of opportunity for conflict—and comedy—that deserved to be explored.

5) Do you think the romantic element is important to the marketing of your books? Is it featured, by either you or your publisher, in the marketing materials? If not, do you know why?
I think it’s very important—in fact, I doubt if there’s a single person who reads my books strictly for the mystery! While my publisher markets the John Pickett series as part of its mystery line, I write my own copy for the cover flap, and I make sure to mention the issues within the developing relationship as well as the mystery. I also promote it on romance review websites, and next month I’ll be attending the Romantic Times conference for the first time.

6) There are historical romances with strong suspense of mystery plots. How are those different from the books that you write?
The most obvious difference is the fact that my series follows the same couple over a number of books—and that, four books into the series, the romance is still unresolved and unconsummated. I also think my books contain more humor than the historical romances with mystery or suspense elements, which seem to deal with darker themes and/or tortured characters. I don’t do tortured characters; John Pickett is rather like a Regency “Chuck” (from the titular character of the TV series, portrayed by Zachary Levi) in that he’s brilliant but utterly lacking in self-confidence.