A Debut in the Middle of a Feud

I’m preparing for back surgery this week and time constraints have me reblogging a post from 2019. Oddly enough, a year after I posted this, I began plotting book 5, A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder, including two families that are very much like the Bonynges and the MacKays. Hope you enjoy the post. I’ll be back and in much better shape next month!

As if a young American heiress didn’t have enough to worry about when making her debut in London society, Virginia Bonynge had to make her splash while her parents were in the midst of a feud with another prominent American family; the Mackays.

Bonynge and Mackay had astonishingly similar backgrounds. Both were Irish immigrants. Both spent their early working lives in the mines around Virginia City, Nevada. Bonynge left the mines to become a stockbroker and Mackay gained his wealth from his mine-contracting business. Both met their wives in Virginia City in the late 1860s. Rodie Daniel, the future Mrs. Bonynge, was struggling to raise her daughter, Virginia, while her husband served a sentence in San Quentin for killing a man in a fight. She and Bonynge fell in love. She divorced her first husband and married Bonynge who raised Virginia as his own daughter. The family moved to San Francisco where Bonynge continued to amass his fortune.

Back in Virginia City, Louise Bryant, a young widow with a small daughter of her own, was taking in sewing and laundry to earn their keep. The local Catholic priest brought her plight to Mackay’s attention, and before long, the two married and also moved to San Francisco, where Mackay became a client of Bonynge’s.


John William Mackay

The bad blood came years later, when Bonynge made some unfavorable public statements about Mackay’s business schemes. This began the cold war between the men that would heat up to a Hatfield-McCoy style feud. By 1886, both families had settled in London. Louise Mackay, a social climber, had already tried to gain social prominence in San Francisco, New York, and Paris but found all her millions still couldn’t open those doors. She decided to try her luck in London society. The Bonynges came to London in the hope of achieving a brilliant match for Virginia.

The first strike came from the Mackays. Presentation at court was vital for acceptance in society, but shortly before her presentation, a London paper revealed that Rodie Bonynge was divorced, which meant she had to stay home while her daughter was presented, a huge embarrassment they attributed to the Mackays. In turn, the Bonynges provided some details of Louise Mackay’s past as a laundress in Virginia City.

The attacks went back and forth for years. Both families hired agents to feed information to the newspapers, who gleefully printed each nasty word. The final strike came when Virginia Bonynge accepted the proposal of Ronald Greville, the eldest son of Lord Greville. Almost immediately, word got out that Virginia was not the daughter of Mr. Bonynge, but of a murderer who served a term of imprisonment in San Quentin. Since Mackay (and Bonynge) were in San Francisco at the time, the story must have come from Louise Mackay.

Though the scandal ended her engagement, many stood by Virginia and the Bonynges including Princess Christian, which allowed them to maintain their social standing. The story spread however, and back in the US, Bonynge sat down with a reporter from the San Francisco Call, where (without naming him) he discussed Mackay’s attempts to libel him. Mackay was outraged and upon spotting Bonynge at a bank where he also had business, strode into the office and punched the man in the face. The men, both in their sixties, fought until bank employees managed to separate them.Lady deerhurst

Viscountess Deerhurst from The Lady’s Relm, 1904 

Eventually the feud was called off. Both families had attained their standing in society and Virginia received another offer of marriage from Viscount Deerhurst, heir to the Earl of Coventry. After all she had to deal with, one hopes it was a happy marriage.

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Researching The Hard Way

I just finished the first draft of book 6 in the Countess of Harleigh series. (Hooray!) For me, first drafts are short and mostly made up of plot points and dialog, and perhaps most importantly, sidebar comments noting everything I need to research. There are usually dozens of those comments. I arrived at this point for book 4, A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder around October of 2019. I had expected to take a research trip to London in September of 2019, but an illness in the family put an end to that plan. No problem, I thought, I’d go in the spring of 2020.

I’m sure you all know how that worked out.

When you can’t go to a place, you have to get creative with your research. Much of what I needed; a history of the Romanov family, theater in the late Victorian era, information about the Prince and Princess of Wales, all could be found in biographies and historical websites. But there were two locations I use in this book that I have never visited. That could pose a problem.

Two scenes in the book take place inside Marlborough House, which in 1899 was the residence of the Prince of Wales. One of the reasons I wanted to visit London in September of 2019 was that Marlborough House, now home to the Commonwealth Foundation, is only open to the public during London’s Open House Festival in September. I had really hoped to see it in person, but I consoled myself with the reminder that it is now used for a completely different function and wouldn’t be furnished or decorated as it was in 1899.

I was fortunate to find photographs and the notes of others who have been there. At this website Marlborough House, Royal Castles, Homes, AVICTORIAN.COM the writer actually describes moving from room to room which is very helpful in getting a spatial sense of the place. And I would never have known how large the murals were without this fabulous photo of the staircase.      4b62f18709da5cac0081b7fa459b8d86.png (1291×665) (pinimg.com)

The Royal Opera house is another location I had hoped to visit. Even though it was closed due to Covid, there was video after video on their YouTube channel (25) Royal Opera House – YouTube as well as some historical films which show the grand staircase and images from the royal box.

Of course, I wish I could have traveled to London to see these locations with my own eyes, but when that just isn’t possible, I’m so glad others have documented their travels so well.

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It Never Gets Old!

I belong to a group of authors with whom I share an agent. Some of them have been published for years and some are just starting out. One of them asked the question, Is the release of book two less exciting than book one? Does it become routine as you publish more books?
The answer, of course, is yes and no. For a writer, it’s hard to believe anything else in your career will match the thrill of launching your debut novel. Every step you take is a first—getting a book contract, going through edits, seeing your book cover for the first time, signing a book for someone for the first time.
By book two and three, you know what to expect. It’s not so much that the thrill is gone, as that it’s not surprising, so, in part, it does become more routine. However, holding your book in your hands for the first time never gets old. And there’s always something new—an award nomination, a review from someone who really gets what you were trying to do, a good review from someone you admire, and seeing your book for the first time. It’s still a thrill!

This year, my big thrill was being nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery. Authors are also readers and fans. I’m a fan of all these authors and it’s surreal to be up for an award with them—and to be on a panel with them! The only way it could have been better was if it had been in person! Maybe that will be the big thrill for next year, but for now I’ll just enjoy this one!

If you’d like to check out the Agatha Nominee Panels you will find them here: AGATHA PANELS (malicedomestic.org)

I have several fun events going on for the release of A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder.

On Release Day (July 27th) I have a virtual event with Schuler books—Coffee and Crime! It’s at 3:00 pm EDT. You can join us using this link: Coffee + Crime with Dianne Freeman | Schuler Books  If you’re thinking of purchasing the book, Schuler Books will have signed copies.

For those of you on FaceBook, I’ll be doing a lunchtime author takeover at Cozy Mystery Launch Party from 1:00 – 2:00 pm EDT on July 28th. There will be giveaways! You can join us here: (8) Cozy Mystery Launch Party | Facebook

August 4th I’ll be (virtually) at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore with Erica Ruth Neubauer. This one will be at 9:00 pm EDT and you can join us here: Virtual Event – Dianne Freeman in conversation with Erica Ruth Neubauer | Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore (mystgalaxy.com)

August 7th I’ll be part of The (virtual) Kensington Historicon at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore at 7:00 pm EDT. You can join us at: https://calendar.time.ly/9plshfqx/event/67174881/20210807160000

If you have a chance, I hope you’ll join me for any or all of them!

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A Dedication

My grandmother, Frances, came to the US with her husband around 1918. They settled in the Chicago area and had a family. Genevieve, Ted, Eddie, and Vicki. Fast forward a dozen years and Frances’ husband was killed in an accident. Grieving, and with four kids to support, Frances decided to go home to Poland where she at least had family. Not long after she arrived, she remembered why they left. There was little opportunity for her to support her children.

She and her family came up with a plan. Each of her sisters would house and care for one of her children while Frances returned to the US and tried to establish herself. This time she ended up in Detroit, where she worked cleaning houses and met and married the man who would be my mom’s dad.

They sent money back to her family for passage for the four children, but only three arrived. The oldest, Genevieve was missing. Frances was frantic. The other kids had been housed elsewhere and didn’t know where their sister was. After some exhaustive letter writing they learned the sister who had Genevieve had emigrated to Russia and took her with them.

Frances contacted the Red Cross, the American Embassy, and any organization she thought might help, with no success. They were never able to track down the sister and her family or Genevieve. She was lost to her family.

I tell you all this because this story is why I learned Russian and studied Russian history. At that time, I was still writing for my own entertainment and one day I planned to write this story. Years passed and I never did. A family saga isn’t the type of story I enjoy reading and I don’t see myself writing one. (Photo is of my grandmother and my mom.)

I guess I’ll never write about Genevieve.

Except, I kind of did. At least as close as I could do it. Irena Teskey, the victim in the upcoming book has been raised by people who aren’t her family even though her father is alive and well and taking care of his other child. Irena wasn’t kidnapped and taken from her family. She was pushed away. But I can’t help seeing the similarity to Genevieve, who also had to go through life denied her family.

When I sent the book in to my editor, I didn’t have a dedication. It’s way too late to get one in the book now, so this is my unofficial dedication for A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder.

For Frances and Genevieve.

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In the Eye of the Beholder

I never provide detailed descriptions of my characters in my novels. When I read, I rarely pay attention to character descriptions and decide for myself what they look like based on their personalities. Ridiculous, I know. People hardly ever resemble their personalities in real life, but this is fiction, and I think readers have enough imagination to fill in the blanks I leave. If you’re like me, you prefer it that way.

With that in mind, I was delighted when I saw the cover for Etiquette and Murder and the characters were essentially cartoons. The artist took a lot of liberty with the descriptions. Frances was perfect, but who was that guy? It couldn’t be George Hazelton, Frances’ partner in crime-solving and potential love interest. Aside from the fact that he was poisoning Frances’ drink, one of the few details I mentioned about him was that he had no facial hair. The man on the cover had a Snidely Whiplash mustache and a goatee. I decided he was just a generic villain and let it go.

George appears again on the cover of my third book, Mischief and Murder—this time with a handlebar mustache! Why?! I give the artist much more specific details about what the characters look like than I give readers, so why does she insist on facial hair? I had already made several changes to that cover and felt a little insecure about asking for one more. I mentioned it to my editor and decided to let him decide if the mustache stays or goes. He let it stay.

To be clear, I have nothing against facial hair. My husband alternates between clean-shaven and a goatee and I like both looks. But in my mind, George doesn’t have any. So, when I saw the cover of book four, First Wives and Murder, I was thrilled to see a clean-shaven George! Halleluiah! I wouldn’t have to go to battle this time.

Then, in one of my historical groups, I saw this photo and thought, well look at that, it’s George with a beard! And I liked it! The cover artist had it right all along. Maybe I should have trusted her imagination.  I might have him grow a beard in book five but I’m afraid she’ll end up throwing that book at me!

Readers, what do you prefer? Do you want to know exactly what the writer thinks the characters look like or would you rather use your imagination?

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A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder

I spend a lot of time browsing newspapers from 1899, the year my books are set. I do it for a few reasons; to immerse myself in the era, to check for any events of great import that my characters should take note of, and for inspiration. While looking for ideas for book four, A Fiancee’s Guide to First Wives and Murder, I dug into the November, 1899 papers and found both an important event and inspiration. It was a short article about the upcoming visit of Russian grand duke, Michael Mikhailovich and his wife Sophie, the Countess de Torby.

I knew those names! Long ago I studied Russian, and our professor often brought up tid-bits of Imperial Russian history. In 1894, when Alexander was Czar, his nephew, Michael Mikhailovich had the temerity to marry without asking his uncle’s permission. Big mistake! While he wasn’t disowned, he was stripped of his military rank and banned from Russia forever. But Michael wasn’t cut off from the income from his factories, he was still an Imperial Highness, and it looked as if he’d made a love match.

He and Sophie lived in Germany and spent summers in Cannes, which had to be better than dealing with Russian court politics, not to mention the assassinations that came later. Of all the Romanovs, I found this couple to be the most relatable. So, when I read that they were in London to visit the British royal family, I couldn’t wait to write a story around them.

But what story? I ran through my mental rolodex of story ideas, scene fragments, and characters I’ve wanted to write but, for one reason or another, they never quite fit the story I was working on. One was Alicia Stoke-Whitney, a character from the first book. I’ve wanted to bring her back and this might be just the story. Another was a neighbor I once had who constantly made outlandish claims about her past—famous people who were friends or relatives, businesses she ran, and things she’d done. Her claims were extreme and sometimes contradictory, so I thought she was making them up—until I learned that she wasn’t. Regardless of how ridiculous her stories sounded, everything she’d said was true.

I’ve been waiting for the right story for such a character, and this was it. She could claim to be a Romanov, perhaps a distant relative of Michael Mikhailovich. She’d need some other shady claims too, like she’s an actress, she’s very wealthy, and she’s married to my protagonist’s fiancé, George Hazelton. Of course, George and Frances are very much in love and soon to be married, so the woman must be lying. Or is she? To quote Alicia Stoke-Whitney to Frances; “Heavens! And I thought I had problems.”

You can pre-order A Fiancee’s Guide to First Wives and Murder here: Books | Dianne Freeman (difreeman.com)

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Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month and I’ve been reading about the accomplishments of some amazing women from the past. The characters in the Countess of Harleigh series are more likely to make headlines in the society pages than the front page of the papers. They tend to be wealthy, part of the highest layers of the upper crust, and of course, they’re from the Victorian era, a time where a woman’s activities and interests were highly restricted. But it would be a mistake to underestimate them or write them off as rich, spoiled, social butterflies.

Many of these women volunteered their time and talent in various areas. They ran charities, raised huge amounts for hospitals, and organized groups to demand change from their politicians. One in particular made her mark in politics by serving as the first female member in the House of Commons.

Nancy Langhorne Shaw was an heiress from Virginia and a divorcee when she, her son, and her sister, Phyllis moved to London in 1905. Nancy was beautiful, witty, and glamorous and was soon accepted in the elevated social circles of the aristocracy where she met Waldorf Astor, son of Viscount Astor and also an American ex-patriate. They married six months later. Both were interested in social reform and with his wife’s encouragement, Waldorf ran for a seat in the House of Commons. He lost his first election but won a second in 1910.

While Waldorf enjoyed a promising political career, Nancy maintained her political interests too. In 1919 Waldorf’s father died, making him Viscount Astor and granting him a seat in the House of Lords.

That left a vacancy in the House of Commons and Nancy, now Viscountess Astor, decided to run for it. Her charm and wit made her a wonderful campaigner. Nancy won the election and took up her seat in December of 1919. Surrounded by mostly hostile, male MPs, Nancy had to keep her wits about her to survive. She served for 26 years, the first two of which she was the only female MP. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights, and other female MPs, regardless of party. She advocated for the development of nursery schools, children’s education, and worked to recruit women into the civil service and police force. Nancy Astor may have been a pampered American heiress, but she also understood the concept of public service.

“Nancy was quoted frequently. Here are a few of her notable quips.”

“I married beneath me. All women do.”

“The only thing I like about rich people is their money.”

“In passing, also, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance, he laid the blame on a woman.”

“We are not asking for superiority for we have always had that; all we ask is equality.”

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Mystery Love

When I think about murder mysteries, love is not the first thing that comes to my mind. But on this most romantic of days, I’m wondering why not. Love can be a compelling motive for murder—at least in fiction. Protecting a loved one or being spurned by a lover has been reason enough for many a villain to kill. But over my mystery-reading life, at least 30 years, the protagonist’s love life has been getting more and more attention.

I think that attention is warranted. Love is an essential part of life and therefore, part of the character’s story. My main character, Frances is an amateur sleuth. Solving crime is not the job of an amateur sleuth. They have regular lives that are disrupted by a crime. Like all the rest of us, in those regular lives they are either looking for love, running away from love, falling in love, comfortably in a relationship with their loved ones, or breaking up from a bad one.  

As a writer, I can really dig into my characters through their relationships, be they romantic or otherwise, but in those romantic relationships I learn so much about their vulnerabilities. What are they drawn to? What are they afraid of? What’s that one false step a character can take that would simply destroy a relationship? And would anything ever compel them to take that step?

I’ve loved writing the romance between my sleuth, Frances and her neighbor, the ever-gallant George Hazelton. I had expected their romance to be a much slower burn, but I don’t always have control of these characters. I find that when I’m struggling with a scene, it’s usually because a character is resisting something I’m trying to make them do (or stop doing). I thought George should be more aloof. He disagreed. I finally let him have his way and it turns out he was right.

So, readers, what’s your opinion? Do you like your sleuths to have a love interest or some romance in their lives?

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Where Can a Girl Get a Good Cup of Coffee?

Part of an author’s job is promotion and every now and then a unique opportunity for promotion comes along. My publisher arranged for my next book, A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder, to be featured in a magazine about tea. It’s a beautiful magazine and I have no doubt the photograph of the book will be wonderful, so this is very exciting! The rub is I have to provide a short article or essay about tea—a beverage I don’t drink and know nothing about.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be worried. I’m capable of learning and there’s plenty of information about tea out in the world. But this is for a magazine about TEA. This is for tea experts written by tea experts. Yikes! Whatever I learn, I’d better learn it well. Also, it should be on a topic they haven’t covered already. After reviewing back issues, I realized that will be challenging.

If not a new topic, maybe just a different slant. The characters in my books drink a lot of tea, but Frances, my main character, is American and prefers coffee, which would not be available just any old place in 1899 in London. When she pays calls, she can’t expect her friends to serve coffee. The local drink of choice is tea. Why? London used to be a city packed with coffee houses. What happened?

So, I gathered the following facts about England and the switch from coffee to tea.

As late as the mid-1600s, there were as many as 2,000 coffee houses in the city of London.

In 1660 King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, who was Portuguese.

Portugal had a good trading relationship with China, at that time the only place to find tea, so it wasn’t surprising that crates of tea were part of Catherine’s dowry.

England did not have a great trading relationship with China at that time and tea was very expensive to import. A pound of tea could cost as much as an average worker earned in a year. Meanwhile, coffee still came pretty cheaply from Ceylon.

Over time, upper-class Britons began mimicking the Queen’s daily tea drinking, but they were the only ones who could afford to do so.

Around 1780, fate intervened. Ceylon’s coffee crops were destroyed by fungus. Grains that were used for beer, suffered two bad harvests, putting the price of beer out of reach for the average person. To counter this problem, the government reduced import fees from over 100% to a mere 12% so grain could be imported cheaply. This also dropped the price of tea.

Since coffee couldn’t be had and tea was down to a reasonable price, the switch was made. By the time coffee was back on the market, tea was an established crop in India and even cheaper than before. Once people had developed a taste for tea, they didn’t want to return to coffee. (Kind of a Coke vs Pepsi thing)

And this is why, by 1899, my American girl can’t find a decent cup of coffee in London. But there’s plenty of tea!

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Why Historical Mystery?

I had an opportunity not long ago to do a virtual event with two historical mystery writers, Rosemary Simpson and Tessa Arlen. One of the questions that came up was, why do we write historical mystery? What drew us to this genre? Somewhere in each of our answers was the phrase, it’s our favorite genre to read.

What does draw us to historical mystery? For me, there’s a sense of escape. I read to leave the place I currently inhabit and immerse myself in another. It’s a safe escape. If I want to return to the present, all I have to do is put the book down. That can be difficult to do if the story is particularly engrossing, but I have the comfort of knowing I can always go back. I’m completely in control.

While this sense of escape is true with any work of fiction, the special draw of the past is that it provides something familiar yet foreign. Historicals take you to a place that exists. You may know the place well or you may only know about it. But that familiar place is now inhabited by people from a different era. Fascinating people who have different beliefs and social structures, use different technology or none at all, and in the case of my chosen era, so close, (100 years is nothing) yet so different.

Rosemary Simpson, Tessa Arlen, and me!

I don’t believe the past was a gentler time and since we write crime fiction, our books aren’t either. War, murder, and other horrible events happen on our pages. But our protagonists are always seeking justice, and in our books, they find it. Wrongs are righted. Disasters are averted. The day is saved. Whether mild or gritty, I find historical mystery a comfort read.

2020 has been a rough year and I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Victorian London just to escape. Nothing could make me happier than to think my books have provided some of you with a needed escape from the craziness of this year too.

Happy holidays and best wishes for a better year in 2021!

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