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.”
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?
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!
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.
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!
A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder won’t go on sale until July 27, 2021, but I’m ready to share the cover art now!
Here’s a little bit about the book:
For Frances Wynn, widow to the late Earl of Harleigh, life has a cosmopolitan flavor of late. No sooner has she sent her mother and daughter off on a shopping trip to Paris than she and her fiancé, George Hazleton, are socializing with visiting members of the Russian royal family. Yet amid this whirlwind, scandal also comes calling when Inspector Delaney turns up outside Frances’s house with a young French woman with a shocking claim: she is Mrs. George Hazelton.
As the future Mrs. George Hazelton, Frances assumes the woman is either lying or demented. “Mrs. Hazelton,” aka Irena, makes other outrageous statements. Among them, she insists that she is the illegitimate daughter of Russian royalty, that she has been abducted and held for ransom many times, and that someone is sending her threatening letters. When George arrives, he clarifies that he is certainly not married to Irena—though he can confirm her royal parentage. But even as he agrees to investigate whether Irena’s life is in danger, her claim proves tragically true. Irena is found strangled in Frances’ garden.
To uncover a killer—and clear their own names—Frances and George must determine which of Irena’s outlandish stories were based in fact, and who stood to benefit from her death. And as the search reaches a shocking conclusion, they may find that villainy lurks all too close to home . . .
I love contributing my ideas for a new cover to my publisher. It usually involves browsing fashion magazines of the era and providing description of what I think the characters should be doing. This time I did it a little differently. The character’s expressions play a big part and I thought it would be great if I could send my editor a photo of real people with those expressions. We had friends coming over for dinner, so I thought, why not ask them?
Here’s how the evening started:
Here’s how it ended:
Just so you know, this was all pre-Covid. We actually had several possible photos for the cover, but this one never fails to crack me up! (That’s supposed to be a marriage certificate in my hand.) Considering what I submitted, I was really worried about this cover, but I’m pleased the artist chose the photo with “George and Frances” gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. I think she did a beautiful job!
I’ll add buy links to the website soon, but if you’d like to pre-order, you can do so here.
This has been a rough year with the Covid 19 pandemic ravaging the world. But as we approach Thanksgiving here in the US, I’ve been thinking about gratitude. I’m still giving thanks for things like the continued good health of my loved ones, but I’ve found the pandemic makes me grateful for some things I’d never thought of before.
I’m grateful my husband is an awesome quarantine partner.
I’m grateful for friends who are willing to have Zoom cocktail parties with me.
I’m grateful I have a job I can do from home.
And with that in mind, I’m so grateful the internet is ready and waiting when I can’t travel.
It’s been a while since I last visited England, and since that’s where the Countess of Harleigh mysteries are set, writing these settings while in the US can prove difficult. There were a few locations I wanted to get an in-person feel for, so in 2019 we scheduled a trip to London and Paris for the fall. Due to an illness in the family, we had to cancel. I wasn’t concerned. We’d go in the spring of 2020. Maybe April.
I’m sure you all know how that worked out.
By Summer, there were travel bans throughout Europe that kept me home. Since I couldn’t travel, I did the next best thing—YouTube. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden has a You Tube channel where in addition to performances, they stream rehearsals and some behind-the-scenes videos. Through internet searches I was able to find historical images and even a floor plan. I’m hoping the scenes I’ve set there feel as real to you and they did to me.
Marlborough House required a little more digging. I found so many images of the exterior—not so much of the interior. However, visiting in person might not have been much help in this case. The building now houses The Commonwealth of Nations and the interiors no longer look as they did when the Prince and Princess of Wales lived there. I had to rely on first-hand descriptions from long-ago visitors. I’ve found that to work reasonably well for much of my “building” research. I can view images, or use Google maps to study the exterior and find descriptions of the interior at the time since most of the interiors have changed greatly over the years. I’m currently reading a month of wedding announcements from the winter of 1900 because they often describe the interior of the church I plan to use.
Definitely check it out. I can’t tell you how much time I spent getting lost at Hever Castle (Anne Boleyn’s childhood home). I’m so grateful for sites like these that take me away at a time when I can’t travel. Finally, I’m grateful to you readers, who read my books for the same reason. Happy Thanksgiving!
Since my blog post was due around Halloween, I pondered what I could write about that was Halloween related. Then I remembered—I wrote a book of ghost stories! How could I have forgotten? Haunted Highway, The Spirits of Route 66 was conceived twenty-some years ago when my co-author and friend, Ellen Robson and I decided we should collaborate on something. She lived in Arizona. I lived in Michigan. We both worked full time and spent vacation time attending writing conferences together.
It was 1997 at a conference in Albuquerque, at a diner on Route 66 when we decided to use that famous highway in whatever we decided to write. That way, we could travel the whole route from Chicago to Santa Monica. But what to write? Hmm. Did I mention we were at a diner? Actually, it was a historic diner. Maybe they’d be willing to contribute a recipe? We could write the Route 66 Cookbook!
We returned to our homes and spent the next three months learning all we could about Route 66 and hunting down diners, restaurants, hotels, and any other place that served food. Remember, this was all pre-Google! Imagine how disappointed we were when on the eve of our first leg of the trip—Arizona through California—Ellen found The Route 66 Cookbook in a bookstore.
My flight from Michigan was already booked. We took the trip anyway. Our first stop was in Flagstaff at The Museum Club, a popular road house. We still didn’t know what to do, but we chatted with the owner about his establishment. That’s when we learned it was haunted. The idea hit us at the same time—Haunted Highway, a travel guide to haunted sites along Route 66.
Over the next year and a half, we traveled Route 66, digging up ghosts who haunted places people could visit; restaurants, hotels, museums, theaters, and so on. We’d learn the history of the spirits, how they died, why they wouldn’t leave a particular place, and what it was like living with them. It was one of the best road trips I’ve ever had, though it was actually four separate trips.
In the spirit of Halloween, I give you one of my favorite stories from the book, and I’m giving away two print copies. Remember, though the book was updated in 2012, some of the locations may not be open to the public any longer. They’re still great stories. If you’d like to win a copy, just leave a comment here or on this post on my Facebook page. I’ll pick a winner Sunday night.
The Hotel Monte Vista in Flagstaff, Arizona
The Hotel Monte Vista, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, first opened its doors on New Year’s Day, 1927. In the forties and fifties, when Western movies were popular, more than 100 were filmed in the area of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, both close to Flagstaff. Because there weren’t any accommodations in that locality, the stars made the Monte Vista their home away from home. Rooms are named after some of the famous guests that have stayed there. A few celebrities that hold that honor are: Bing Crosby, Jane Russell, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy. If you’re a fan of old romantic movies, you can request to spend the night in the room where a scene from Casablanca was filmed.
The hotel with a celebrated past not only has historical charm and character to offer, but a few ghosts as well. The “phantom bellboy” knocks at the Zane Grey room announcing in a muffled voice, “Room service.” When the guests open the door, they find no one standing there, nor do they catch a glimpse of anyone dashing away down the long corridor.
“In 1970,” Ellen Roberts, the desk clerk, explained, three men robbed a nearby bank and to celebrate, they decided to stop by our lounge and have a drink—even though one of the men had been shot during their escape. While having his drink, the wounded man died, and some feel he’s the spirit that’s haunting this area of the building.”
Some repairs were needed after a fight had occurred in room 220. When his work was completed, a maintenance man turned off the lights and locked the door. He returned in only five minutes to find the light back on, the television going full blast, and the bed linens stripped. In the early 1980s, a strange, long-term boarder rented this room. When he passed away, his body wasn’t discovered for two or three days. Was his ghost responsible for the upheaval that took place in the empty locked room?
“When a father and son checked out of the Gary Cooper room, the father made the comment that during the night, he suddenly sat straight up in bed feeling like someone was staring at him,” Ellen recalled. “His son started to kid him but his dad was very sincere and kept stressing that he knew someone had been watching him. The red-light district was south of the railroad tracks, not too far from the Hotel Monte Vista, and two prostitutes were murdered in that room. One version of the story is that they died after they were thrown out the window.”
This hotel certainly has a variety of ghosts, all stubbornly refusing to check out. Other strange occurrences are the peculiar rings of the lobby telephone late at night, an image of a woman outside the Zane Grey Room, and sounds of a man coughing continuously through the night. If you’re not lucky enough to be entertained by the permanent guests, you’ll still have a good time listening to live music in the haunted cocktail lounge.
There is nothing quite as exciting to a mystery writer as a mystery writers’ convention. Writing is a solitary endeavor—just like reading, and many of us readers and writers tend to enjoy that solitude. But every now and then there’s nothing I enjoy more than joining hundreds, or even thousands, of fellow readers and writers to talk about books! This year so many writer’s conventions and book festivals were cancelled, so I was thrilled to learn that Bouchercon was taking a stab (hehe) at a virtual convention!
Bouchercon is the world mystery convention; the granddaddy of them all and it’s huge. In person, it can be a little daunting. It’s usually at a sprawling location with nearly two thousand people rushing from one event to the next. There are so many panel options to choose from along with programs like author speed dating, 1-minute readings, and one on one interviews, and author signings—there is always something to do.
My first Bouchercon was in St Petersburg and I was lucky enough to be on a panel for historical mystery. I made the mistake of checking out the room where the panel would take place the night before. It was huge! But since Deanna Raybourn was on my panel, it’s what I should have expected. I didn’t sleep all night. By morning I was a nervous wreck. But once it began, it was just a group of people talking about books—our favorite subject.
Virtual Bouchercon will be different in the sense that we won’t have to rush from event to event, there won’t be crowds, and we certainly don’t have to dress up for it. But it will be the same in the most important sense—booklovers will be sharing our love of books!
If you plan to attend, I hope you’ll drop in on my panel, Long Ago and Far Away, October 16th from 3:00 to 4:00 PDT. I’ll be there with along with wonderful authors Kim Taylor Blakemore, R.J. Koreto, Edith Maxwell, and Karen Odden. Moderated by Sarah E. Burr.
I haven’t published an interview to my blog in a long time. Since Spitfire was one of my favorite books of 2020, and I’m just starting Nightshade, I thought I’d post this interview I did earlier this year with M.L. Huie. But first, here’s an introduction to both books:
It’s V-E Day 1946 in London. World War II is long over, and former spy Livy Nash is celebrating with her third drink before noon. She went to war to kill Nazis. Dropped behind enemy lines as a courier, she quickly became one of the toughest agents in France. But her war ended with betrayal and the execution of the man she loved. Now, Livy spends her days proofreading a demeaning advice column for little ladies at home, and her nights alone with black market vodka.
But everything changes when she meets the infamous Ian Fleming. The man who will create the world’s most sophisticated secret agent has an agenda of his own and sends Livy back to France with one task: track down the traitor who killed the only man she ever loved. Livy jumps at the chance, heading back to Paris undercover as a journalist. But the City of Lights is teeming with spies, and Livy quickly learns just how much the game has changed. With enemies on every corner and ever-shifting alliances, she’ll have to learn to fight a new war if she wants to conquer the past once and for all.
British spy Livy Nash has never had many friends. But fellow agent Margot Dupont was the exception to the rule. At least, until she disappeared during one of their missions in World War Two, never to be heard from again. Since then, Livy’s made do. Some people, you just can’t replace.
But when the British pick up Margot’s call sign–NIGHTSHADE–years after the war, Livy can’t help the glimmer of hope that she might see her old friend again. But Livy has her doubts: what their enemies are using it to lure out Livy and her team? What if it’s all a trick?
Despite her unease, Livy dives headlong into finding Margot, aided by her boss, the charming Ian Fleming. When evidence arises that a handsome Russian spy might have information about Margot, Livy agrees to her most dangerous mission yet: going undercover as a double agent to spy on the infamous “Red Devil”.
As Livy is pulled deeper into the shadows of treachery, the possibility of finding Margot alive diminishes as the danger grows. How much will she have to sacrifice to find a friend she thought she’d lost forever?
DF:What inspired the story of Spitfire?
MH: Two things. I read Elizabeth Wein’s brilliant YA novel CODE NAME: VERITY and then started looking into the women of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). I found the stories so vivid and alive. These women were really amateurs who were given training during World War Two and dropped behind enemy lines to do extremely dangerous jobs. At the same time in my own life I went through a period of unemployment and it made me wonder how a woman who loved this secret work might feel once the war was over and was told she just wasn’t needed anymore.
DF: Livy has a difficult time adapting to civilian life, she’s angry, she’s hurt, and she seems to need that thrill of living on the edge. What did you pull from to create this complex character?
MH: I don’t get the rush from danger that Livy does, that’s for sure. However I certainly have felt discarded in the past, and thought, “I could do some great things if given the chance.” I think we’ve all felt that at one time or another. Plus I believe that damaged characters are so interesting to write. I have been a fan of the James Bond novels my whole life. In many ways this book addresses the good and bad sides of those books. Bond is damaged too, but Fleming didn’t spend a lot of time delving into his psyche.
DF:You do a great job of bringing post-war London and Paris to life. What research did you have to do to create such vivid images?
MH: I’ve been to both London and Paris, but obviously never in 1946. Time travel needs to be invented for authors now! So, I relied on images from that time, newspapers, snippets from books here and there. I also have a good friend, André Roche, who lived in France during the occupation and fought for the Free French Forces. So, when I wondered where does one go to use a public telephone in 1946 Paris I just asked André.
DF: One thing I love about writing historical fiction is the research. Did you learn anything in your research that surprised you?
MH: The bravery of the men and women of the SOE is really hard to overestimate. They took enormous risks, and yet they were quite normal people like you or me. They just lived in an extraordinary time. I read several biographies of these women and really tried to put myself in their shoes.
DF:Pervasive in the story is a transition from “The Last War” to “The Next War,” which sets Spitfire apart from WWII thrillers. Can you tell us how you carried that theme throughout the book?
MH: I thought of this story as one of the first skirmishes of the Cold War. 1946 is a time when you’re still not sure who’s on your side. That’s one of the big challenges for Livy to transition from a hot war where the enemy typically wore a uniform to the “shadow war” where you have to figure out who the enemy is first. The first piece of research I did was to re-watch the great post-war thriller THE THIRD MAN. The gray noir-ish world in that film was a major influence on the tone of the book.
I hope you enjoyed the interview! If you’d like to know more about M.L. Huie, you can find his website here: www.mlhuie.com