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Why Mysteries? Why Winchester? And why, for that matter, a blog at all?

I love mystery stories.  I also love history and historical novels, so it’s no surprise I now write Victorian mysteries.  Why Winchester? It’s a lovely place, the ancient capital of King Alfred’s Wessex – it’s a perfect setting for my books.

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Who Murdered Jane Austen?

Time to get back to the original premise of this blog, ie History, Mystery, and Winchester, and – wouldn’t you know it? – Jane Austen can provide all of those things, bless her.jane-austen1

A few weeks ago I spotted a mention that the Woman’s Hour Book of the Week was going to be ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ by crime writer Lindsay Ashford. I liked the sound of it and was too impatient to listen to daily episodes so I bought it for my Kindle. And what a revelation it was! Told by Jane Austen’s closest friend outside the family, Anne Sharp, who was at one time governess to Edward Austen Knight’s daughter Fanny, the story begins in 1843 when Miss Sharp has heard of scientific tests that can be performed on hair. She sends a lock of Jane’s hair for analysis and when the report arrives this is what it says:

The lady, at the time of her demise, had quantities of arsenic in her person more than fifteen times that observed in the body’s state. You have told me that the persons with whom she dwelt…all survived her by a decade or more. I must conclude, therefore, that the source of the poison was not anything common to the household such as corruption of the water supply. Nor could any remedy the lady received – if indeed arsenic was administered – account for the great quantity present in her hair. It may be conjectured, then, that Miss J.A. was intentionally poisoned.” (My Bold)

This, of course, is fiction but it’s not giving away any spoilers to quote the note at the end of the book which mentions an authenticated lock of Jane Austen’s hair which, via several possessors, was ultimately presented for display at the cottage at Chawton in Hampshire, now known as Jane Austen’s house. The last owner, a Mr Henry G Burke of Baltimore, had the hair tested in a bid to discover the cause of her death and the result was shocking – the hair contained levels of arsenic far exceeding that observed in the body’s natural state.

Back to the mystery: From the beginning in 1843, we travel back to 1805, to Godmersham in Kent and to Anne Sharp’s first meeting with her charges’ aunt Jane, come on a visit. Using Jane Austen’s real letters, interweaving snippets of history, and a little bit of judicious conjecture, the story becomes an intriguing puzzle as Anne begins to notice things out of kilter, people behaving oddly – and indeed, people behaving badly. Anne keeps all her concerns close to her chest as her friendship with the fascinating, flirtatious, unsettled Jane grows and her grief as Jane’s illness takes hold of her is moving and poignant.

I’m not letting any more cats out of the bag about whodunit (according to the author) or why, just to say that it’s an inventive and extremely plausible explanation of a really shocking mystery – that whether deliberately dosed with arsenic or not, Jane Austen certainly appears to have died of it.

Once I’d finished Lindsay Ashford’s fascinating mystery I didn’t want to let Jane Austen go so I took another look at one of my favourite of the recent crop of films about her, ‘Miss Austen Regrets’.  missaustenregretsStarring Olivia Williams as the older Jane, it gives us a revealing and probably true picture of an oddly difficult woman – difficult in the sense that she didn’t fit the expected mould and her family had no idea how to handle her – and nor did she. Very different from the Victorian image of the saintly Miss Austen, in cap and mittens, wielding her quill pen as she wrote her novels in the quiet peace of a Hampshire village. As the title suggests, the film is full of regrets, Jane’s and Cassandra’s, the whole family, people who knew her and in a slight embroidery of what might have happened, a romance that vanished before it had a chance to bloom. Her sister-in-law’s brother, Brook Edward Bridges, who is mentioned in a letter to Cassandra.

In 1805 during a visit to Godmersham, her brother Edward’s estate in Kent, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra: “[W]e could not begin dinner till six. We were agreeably surprised by Edward Bridges’s company to it. . . . It is impossible to do justice to the hospitality of his attentions towards me; he made a point of ordering toasted cheese for supper entirely on my account” (27 August 1805).

The film suggests that Edward Bridges really loved her and their meeting not long before Jane’s death is very touching, but for me the only mystery is how on earth anyone could have turned down Hugh Bonneville who plays Edward with a wistful nostalgia and charm.missaregretspic

If you haven’t seen the film, do – it’s well worth it. And if you like the sound of the mystery novel, that’s well worth a look too!

And now a commercial (of course). A fabulous review of The Dead Queen’s Garden Dead Queen's Garden - FINALfrom Myshelf.com. Reviewer Rachel A Hyde says: Young widow Charlotte Richmond is now living a quiet and respectable life in a small Hampshire town, but once she led a more adventurous life in her native Australia. It is 1858 and nearly Christmas. She will be spending it with her late (fortunately) husband’s relations. There is a christening to attend, a dying friend to spend time with, a job offer to consider and of course a murder or two to solve (or prevent).

An enjoyable series featuring a resourceful and lively heroine and amusing escapades. It can be classified as a cozy, of the sort that combines a house party with goings-on in a picturesque village. Charlotte gets to meet Florence Nightingale, meet up with a former acquaintance that knows about her past and enjoy a Victorian Christmas. There is a good period ambience in this novel, which wears its research lightly but nonetheless appears grounded in the 1850s. The author is knowledgeable about how people behaved, what they wore and did and this adds a dimension to the book that is sadly missing in many other historical novels. Plenty happens too, happy and tragic, amusing and exciting and it was exactly the right length, leaving me hoping that the next one won’t be too long in the offing. Highly recommended to anybody in search of a good murder mystery with a 19th century setting.

 And that made me cry – knowing you can make people laugh and cry and enter a world that you’ve created is the real reason most authors keep going. (Money is nice too, of course, so it will be great when the ebook of The Dead Queen’s Garden is available from 30th April – tell your friends!)

Castles & Cakes

Or to be accurate, ONE castle and lots of cakes.


DDameslogo1The Deadly Dames rode again on Wednesday, 26th February, at the inaugural Purbeck Litfest. (See our tasteful logo, above!) As two of our core members, Eileen Robertson and Joan Moules, couldn’t make it we invited an honorary Dame, Wendy Metcalf, and an honorary Chevalier, Peter Tickler, to come and play with us in Swanage – and a good time was had by all.

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The castle in question was Durlston Castle which turns out not to be a castle at all but a Victorian crenellated mock-castle built as a place for rest and refreshment for walkers along the cliff tops.  Our performance took place in the Belvedere, which you can see in the photo, a large rectangular room right at the top of the building, with windows all round so that we had a 360view of Swanage Bay, the town, and much of the Jurassic Coast.  It was a fabulous place to sit and chat about our books, what made us turn to crime, how do we incorporate humour, etc, and the audience joined in with some very interesting questions.

At our previous outing, question master, Carol Westron, asked which fictitious detective we would like to introduce to our own sleuths and, with a shocking exhibition of genteel lust, Detective Superintendent Christopher Foyle (or rather his alter ego Michael Kitchen) was chosen by three of the five members of the panel. At Durlston Castle, Carol refused to allow us to repeat ourselves, so I chose Marcus Didius Falco, the Roman sleuth created by Lindsey Davis.

We really enjoyed our visit to Swanage and hope to be invited back for next year’s festival. Besides this, the Deadly Dames are spreading our wings even further afield as we’ve been booked to appear at the Penzance Literary Festival. We’ll be ‘on’ at 5.00, on Friday, 18th July and are looking forward to it immensely.

Now for the cakes – which, sadly, I can’t post on here because we ate them all, but here’s one I made earlier!AmandasWeddingCake2For the launch of my sixth novel, ‘The Dead Queen’s Garden’, I decided on a Victorian ladies’ repast of a glass of Madeira and a slice of cake. Accordingly, I made a madeira cake which turned out to have a crust on it so tough that it bent the beaks of the unsuspecting birds I threw it at. The Resident Engineer munched his way through the rest but I decided to stick to fruit cake, the only thing I know I can bake successfully, though I did rise to a caraway seed cake that wasn’t too chewy. The daughters are better by far at baking and contributed various goodies, including lemon drizzle, double-chocolate cake, and other delights including a vanilla sponge ring iced by the senior granddaughter who, with the junior granddaughter, acted as waitresses. (The youngest grandson nobly tasted every cake!) It was a lovely day, with friends and family milling around the house and the senior daughter manning an assembly line of tea pots and cups.

Sadly, I forgot about getting some photos but it was lovely to see my friends, talented fellow writers, Linda Gruchy http://lindagruchy.wordpress.com/  and Paula Readman  http://paulareadman1.wordpress.com/author/paulareadman1/ who both came all the way from Essex.

Finally, news of The Dead Queen’s Garden. Dead Queen's Garden - FINALFirst, a lovely review on Amazon: ‘Charlotte Richmond once again finds herself embroiled in mystery and murder. Her third adventure is breathtaking and the suspense lasts until the sad, albeit expected, ending. It also sees her wielding a very unusual weapon! Her fear that her past may be discovered continues to haunt her but she remains a real support to her family and there are appearances and references to friends met in her previous adventure. I look forward to her next adventure and wonder whether she may be persuaded into marriage again or whether she will choose another direction.’

Secondly, I’ve just heard that the hardback edition is to be reprinted, with the e-book coming out at the end of April.

Scalps, Death Masks & Ancient Hot-Cross Buns

tudorhouseAlthough we are very different in many ways, the Engineer and I do like to go out and about on expeditions – when he can spare the time from playing with real steam engines and his many other interests, and I’m not reading, writing, painting, pottering, or being Grandma (note I make no mention of housewifely duties which are against my religion). Something that always gets us both going (we’re seriously nerdy) is anything historical. I am always drawn to ancient houses; a castle or stately home will always be high on my list, and costume museums will see me rushing to buy a ticket. The Engineer is happy to come along with me but his real interest is in industrial archaeology, particularly steam engines, which I also like, so a trip out that covers our two passions is the way we usually manage things.

Anyway, the other day we combined our various interests in a very satisfying manner. He needed a trip to Maplin’s to buy some gadgety thingy and I needed to think about the logistics of an ancient garden so we did both by dropping in on Southampton’s Tudor House museum (see picture above) after the Maplin’s stop. We sat in the coffee shop thinking our profound thoughts, the one about the gadgety thingy and the other gazing out at the reconstructed Tudor garden that proved an ideal example for the book in hand.
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Incidentally, the garden was designed by Dr Sylvia Landsberg, who also designed Queen Eleanor’s mediaeval garden at Winchester Great Hall  QEleanor'sgarden– the very garden I ‘borrowed’ for my latest book, The Dead Queen’s Garden. (see the inevitable plug for the book at the end of this post)

I hadn’t been to Tudor House for years. I think I dragged our reluctant children round it about 30 years ago but for me the memories go back a very long way. My aunt lived in Southampton so every summer holiday I was put on a coach from Bournemouth for two weeks. There were three things I insisted on doing every time:

1) I had to go to Romsey Abbey to see the scalped-looking head of auburn hair, complete with plait, that is all that’s left of a young Saxon girlplaitromseycropped2) I had to check up on Oliver Cromwell’s death mask that was displayed in the museum above Southampton’s ancient Bargate cromwell and 3) I had to visit Tudor House to see the fossilised hot-cross-bun that had been found there.hotxbun

I suppose I was a very strange little girl – but you can see where my interests lay even at the age of about seven: a preoccupation with death and history!

I’m happy to report that the auburn hair and the hot-cross-bun are still on display (photos above from local tourist sites) but when I asked it seems nobody knows what happened to Cromwell. Serves him right, anyway, so the photo here is from the British Museum.

Well worth a visit and even if history doesn’t float your boat (and you don’t, as I did, get beside yourself with excitement at the discovery of King John’s Palace at the far end of the  knot garden) you can take a peaceful coffee or lunch break in an oasis of peace - Tudor House

Finally, a brilliant first review for The Dead Queen’s Garden Dead Queen's Garden - FINALfrom author Sally Zigmond  here and a reminder that the book is still available at a discount and post free from www.halebooks.com  (ebook out at the end of April)

Here’s to a Happy Christmas – and some sheep…

A Happy Christmas to everyone who is kind enough to follow my blog!

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Sometimes I buy charity Christmas cards, usually in aid of the National Autistic Society but other years I like to paint my own and this year it’s sheep. You have to imagine that these sheep (actually spotted in Somerset) are in fact grazing on the hills outside Bethlehem. Night is drawing near and the shepherds are having their tea-break. The sheep are in reflective mood as they gaze with interest at a bright light in the sky.

‘Wassat then?’ ask the lambs.

‘No idea,’ say say the ewes.

One small commercial: The Dead Queen’s Garden is published by Robert Hale on 31st December 2013. 

Dead Queen's Garden - FINALRead here about how it came to be written:http://halebooks.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/author-nicola-slade-discusses-the-dead-queens-garden/

Happy Christmas & a Safe and Prosperous New Year from Nicky, the Resident Engineer & the Fat Cat! holly2

A Blog Roll

scrollLots of bloggers put up a Blog Roll somewhere on their pages and it’s always intriguing – if you’re nosy (and how can you be a writer if you’re not?) – to see what they like and where they hang out. There isn’t enough space on here to do that so I thought I’d post about some of my favourite blogs.I only belong to a couple of actual forums and they’re private ones; however I do follow a few interesting blogs. Not surprisingly most of my internet friends are bookish so I tend to drop in on book bloggers to see what they’re reading. I’ve found some kindred spirits this way, which has been great.

Bookish Blogs
• Geranium Cat http://geraniumcatsbookshelf.blogspot.co.uk/I stumbled across this blog years ago when she reviewed my first novel, Scuba Dancing. She liked it so it’s no wonder that Jodie’s blog is now one of my favourites. Always something interesting and frequently an author new to me to check out.

• Random ottings http://randomjottings.typepad.com/random_jottings_of_an_ope/  Elaine has an opera blog and a baking blog besides the book one and I do drop in there now and then, but it’s the blog about the books she’s reading and the comments she makes that I visit most. Occasionally acerbic, always informed and always interesting.

• Letters from a Hill Farm http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.co.uk/ Nan lives in northern Vermont, a lovely part of America that we’ve visited a couple of times. When she writes about their smallholding I’m reminded of Anne of Green Gables. Canada isn’t too far away from the Hill Farm and the whole set-up makes me think that Miss Cornelia might live down the hill, or you could bump into Rachel Lynde at the village store.

• The Elephant in the Room elephanthttp://theelephantinthewritingroom.blogspot.co.uk/ Sally Zigmond is a successful novelist and award-winning short-story writer, living in a beautiful restored chapel that nestles in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors. Her historical novels are full of rich detail, always something new to discover on a re-read, and her advice for writers is always inspiring and full of common sense.

• Linda Gruchy http://lindagruchy.wordpress.com/ Writer, photographer, gardener and scientist, Linda is one of the busiest people I know and her broad range of interests makes her occasional blog posts something to look forward to.

• Rosemary Sutcliff http://rosemarysutcliff.com/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2 As a long-time Rosemary Sutcliff reader I was delighted to stumble on this nostalgic blog

Paula Readman http://darkfantasy13writer.blogspot.co.uk/ ravenPaula is a prizewinning short story writer and a spinner of dark and scary tales. Read her blog posts on the Goth Weekend in Whitby and admire the costumes she concocts!

• Jane Risdon blog/http://janerisdon.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/welcome-to-my-blog/ Jane is a writer who spent years working with and managing groups, and what she doesn’t know about the music business ain’t worth knowin’!

• Mystery People http://www.mysterypeople.co.uk/ the place to go for readers and writers of mystery novels.

And now for something completely different – some non-bookish blogs I like to snoop in
• Cestina’s dolls houses http://czechdollshouses.blogspot.co.uk/  I love little things but as a squirrel by nature I don’t even dare think about collecting miniatures. Luckily I have a friend who does so I don’t have to, and I ‘borrowed’ something from her collection as a clue in ‘A Crowded Coffin’. This blog is a fascinating find – little things and a dolls house museum in the Czech republic!

• Encore Books http://www.encorebooks.co.uk/ A blog about books absolutely must mention a bookshop and this is a very nice one.bookpile• Bufo Books http://www.bufobooks.demon.co.uk/ and so is this one.

• Jan Jack http://www.janjack.co.uk/ I can only quote Miranda and say, ‘Rude!’ (very) but funny with it.

Not books at all
• Watercress Line http://www.watercressline.co.uk/ Properly known as The Mid-Hants Railway this is the Resident Engineer’s spiritual home where he now volunteers one day a week in the Loco Sheds.
• Pumping station http://www.twyfordwaterworks.co.uk/ When he’s not playing with big trains, the Engineer can be found playing with boilers and pumps and such like.
• Geoff Holt http://geoffholt.com/ Inspirational sailor who fights to make life better for disabled people. He is also, or has been, an antiques dealer and back when my friend Shirley and I were intermittent antiques dealers ourselves we sold him a pot or two!
• PDA http://www.autism.org.uk/about-autism/related-conditions/pda-pathological-demand-avoidance-syndrome.aspx Something you might not have come across – a fairly recently identified syndrome that was formerly lumped together under the general umbrella of autism. Often dismissed as Children Behaving Badly, sufferers and their families are trying to change the public perception of this extremely challenging condition.

bread roll(Another Blog Roll)(Sorry…)

I’m sure I’ve missed lots of lovely blogs but I’ve run out of space and time. Do take a look at some of these interesting places. I’ll add some more next year.

A Convenient Absence of Fingerprints…

…or, thank goodness you don’t need to bother about forensics when writing an historical mystery.find_the_3d_villain_picture_165508

My Victorian mysteries, featuring young Australian widow, Charlotte Richmond, are conveniently set in the middle of the nineteenth century – 1858 to be precise – which means that I don’t need to worry about DNA and tissue sampling or any of the other arcane rites that modern day policing involves. This is a terrific bonus. I like to read a good juicy murder mystery with lots of detail as much as anyone but I don’t want to write one, partly because I’m pretty idle and also because I feel much more at home in Charlotte’s mid-Victorian Hampshire.

 My forthcoming book, The Dead Queen’s Garden, (to be published 31st December by Robert Hale Ltd) Dead Queen's Garden - FINAL

opens a few days after a particularly brutal and apparently random murder that has set the countryside talking. Shortly afterwards Charlotte becomes aware of several disturbing and puzzling events which are quickly followed by another death.

Forensic pathology has a long history in this country. In 1836 an Act was passed giving coroners the power to order a doctor to attend and inquest and perform an autopsy but as the first death in my book was witnessed by someone of impeccable respectability, the verdict is cut and dried and there is no need to order an autopsy.  It doesn’t occur to anyone that a witness of impeccable respectability might be mistaken…

Fingerprinting has also been around for a surprisingly long time as this interesting article explains: http://onin.com/fp/fphistory.html but it wasn’t until 1901 that The Fingerprint Branch at New Scotland Yard was created, a convenient forty plus years after my mystery. So, no fingerprints then, and definitely no tissue sampling or any of the other tricky stuff and unless you’re seriously into herbs, etc, none of the brilliant detective work done by Brother Cadfael.

 When it comes to my contemporary mysteries featuring Harriet Quigley and her sidekick, the Reverend Sam Hathaway, I’ve managed so far to keep the forensics in the background. Clearly the police have to be involved but I haven’t yet needed to get involved in the nitty gritty of modern detective work, thank goodness.

 As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this rambling chronicle, a cosy mystery story is in many ways a fairy tale or a mediaeval morality play, in which Good will triumph over Evil and the wicked will receive the punishment they deserve. This gives the writer a lot of scope regarding forensics or the lack of. In Midsomer Murders they pay lip service to the pathology lab but let the bodies pile up in a way that would never happen in real life. The thing is though, we all know it’s not real life anyway, and that’s the joy of the whole charming, picturesque nonsense.inspbarnaby

 I devoutly hope I can continue getting away without delving into serious pathology and my two heroines are specifically designed to help me in this aim. Charlotte and Harriet are both excellent judges of character having served their detection apprenticeships by (1) Charlotte spending much of her life running away from the law in the train of her charming but erratic stepfather, and( 2) Harriet having spent a lifetime as a school mistress when she had ample opportunity of observing humanity in all its many shades. By making them both clever like this I solved quite a few of the problems inherent in the detection process – the only trouble is that I find it quite hard to keep up with them much of the time!

Presentation4a(Look, I made a banner thingy!)

Words & Pictures

First the words – the Large Print edition of A Crowded Coffin is published by Ulverscroft on Friday, 1st November 2013. It’s in a softback version and it would be very nice if you could ask your local library to order it in! 

And now a picture:

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Now some more pictures – I belong to a local art group, Brushstrokes, and we’re getting quite well-known in Hampshire, which is great as we’ve only been together for seven years. We had a recent exhibition at Haskins Garden Centre in West End, Southampton, and it was a great success; so much so that we’ve been invited back next year.

I have a strange ‘thing’ about painting hares; it’s not a life-long obsession, I only started to paint them about 12 years ago – before that I tended to paint ducks! Anyway, I sold four pictures at the show, a fox and three hare pictures. Here are two of them:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and his chum:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They’ve been bought as a Christmas present which is rather nice.

Can’t find a picture of the fox but this is the tiny hare (6″x6″)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So there we are – been an arty-farty time round here lately! And just to prove I can paint animals other than hares, here’s Arthur’s horse (so called because our friend Arthur took the photo when we were in France and now has the painting in his sitting-room!)Arthur's horse2

Another hero – and not out of the pages of a novel this time!

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Hands up, anyone know who this is? Well done, you at the back, it’s a young portrait of Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682), who, in spite of his title, was a star of the English Civil war.  Nephew to King Charles I, cousin to King Charles II, son of the former Princess Elizabeth of England and Scotland, otherwise known as the Winter Queen. Son also of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine and brother of the Electress Sophia, who was the mother of King George I of England.

 So, an all-round suitable chap? Wee-ell, yes and no. Back in the dark ages when I was a secretive and bookish child and teenager I was scared stiff of real, live boys and preferred to find romance in the pages of books. This is why my first completely unsuitable crush was fairly harmless really, as I fell in love with Bonnie Prince Charlie. (I blush to think of it now – to be honest, he was a pretty useless bloke in the end, but bearing in mind the way he was brought up and the impossible expectations laid on him, I’m more sympathetic nowadays.)

 Now, the Stuarts have tended to have a good press among the readers of romantic, historical novels  so that the words ‘dashing’, ‘doomed’, ‘romantic’ and ‘tragic’ are bandied about when anyone thinks of the dynasty. And so they were, in many ways – but I’m a practical woman and in spite of the dreamy dopeyness of my teenage years, I somehow knew that a Stuart man (or Princeling) was never going to be the kind of man a sensible woman would want to get tangled up with.

 Until, that is, I read ‘The Stranger Prince’ by Margaret Irwin. Oh dear, that was love at first encounter and it set me back a few years but mercifully I met the Resident Engineer when I was only twenty-two and that pretty much cured me of yearning after long-lost princes. Could Prince Rupert have installed new wiring and electrical sockets into my mother’s house which the Engineer did in very short order after encountering my mother and me living in a techno-freak-horror’s jumble of tangled wires and a woman (Mum) who plugged the iron into the light fitting and ignored the ensuing sparks as ‘nonsense and nothing to worry about’.

 Actually, now I come to think of it, Prince Rupert probably could have done. He was an amazing man and among his more unexpected talents was a serious interest in science and experimentation. (I reckon he was an Engineer which might explain the attraction!)

According to the invaluable Wikipaedia (note how snobbily I include the ae in the spelling!) ‘Rupert converted some of the apartments at Windsor Castle to a luxury laboratory, complete with forges, instruments and raw materials, from where he conducted a range of experiments.[119] Rupert converted some of the apartments at Windsor Castle to a luxury laboratory, complete with forges, instruments and raw materials, from where he conducted a range of experiments.[119] He had already become the third founding member of the scientific Royal Society, being referred to by contemporaries as a “philosophic warrior”,[163] and guided the Society as a Councillor during its early years.[164] Very early on in the Society’s history, Rupert demonstrated Prince Rupert’s Drop to King Charles II and the Society, glass teardrops which explode when the tail is cracked; although credited with their invention at the time, later interpretations suggest that he was instead responsible for the introduction of an existing European discovery into England.[165] He demonstrated a new device for lifting water at the Royal Society, and received attention for his process for “painting colours on marble, which, when polished, became permanent”.[166] During this time, Rupert also formulated a mathematical question concerning the paradox that a cube can pass through a slightly smaller cube; Rupert questioned how large a cube had to be in order to fit.[167] The question of Prince Rupert’s cube was first solved by the Dutch mathematician Pieter Nieuwland.[167] Rupert was also known for his success in breaking cypher codes.[168] Rupert converted some of the apartments at Windsor Castle to a luxury laboratory, complete with forges, instruments and raw materials, from where he conducted a range of experiments.[119]

Rupert had already become the third founding member of the scientific Royal Society, being referred to by contemporaries as a “philosophic warrior”,[163] and guided the Society as a Councillor during its early years.[164] Very early on in the Society’s history, Rupert demonstrated Prince Rupert’s Drop to King Charles II and the Society, glass teardrops which explode when the tail is cracked; although credited with their invention at the time, later interpretations suggest that he was instead responsible for the introduction of an existing European discovery into England.[165] He demonstrated a new device for lifting water at the Royal Society, and received attention for his process for “painting colours on marble, which, when polished, became permanent”.[166] During this time, Rupert also formulated a mathematical question concerning the paradox that a cube can pass through a slightly smaller cube; Rupert questioned how large a cube had to be in order to fit.[167] The question of Prince Rupert’s cube was first solved by the Dutch mathematician Pieter Nieuwland.[167] Rupert was also known for his success in breaking cypher codes.

So, the Stuarts, eh? The more I look into history the more I worry that as having (as a young woman) assumed I’d be entirely Royalist in sympathy during the English Civil War (Part Deux, ie not the first one), I would in fact have been rather puritanical. Oh dear, bang goes another self-delusion, though on balance I think I’d probably still have had romantic royalist leanings. Seriously though, the Stuarts were really not good for England. If only Prince Henry, the elder son of James I had lived and not died of typhoid at the age of 18. Here he is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Frederick,_Prince_of_Wales and a jolly sensible kind of chap he sounds too. None of this falling in love with a dangerously Catholic French Princess, oh no, and – how tempting to fantasise – none of this divine right of kings stuff. I wonder if Henry would have seen how the wind was blowing about that and come up with some sensible compromises. Tempting to think so, anyway, and another of those fascinating what-ifs that history is made of.

Still, this is a divagation away from our hero, Prince Rupert.  Brave soldier, inspirational cavalry leader, owner of a very large dog who went into battle with him and was portrayed in the popular press as his familiar (Come on, Prince Harry, where’s yer witchy dog, then?), he was definitely hero material. Sadly, his personal life was a different matter and it wasn’t until late in life that he found happiness. According to Wiki: ‘Towards the end of his life Rupert fell in love with an attractive Drury Lane actress named Peg Hughes. Rupert became involved with her during the late 1660s, leaving his previous mistress, Frances Bard, although Hughes appears to have held out from reciprocating his attentions with the aim of negotiating a suitable settlement.[179] Hughes rapidly received advancement through his patronage; she became a member of the King’s Company by 1669, giving her status and immunity from arrest for debt, and was painted four times by Sir Peter Lely, the foremost court artist of the day.

Despite being encouraged to do so, Rupert did not marry Hughes, but acknowledged their daughter, Ruperta (later Howe), born in 1673] Hughes lived an expensive lifestyle during the 1670s, enjoying gambling and jewels; Rupert gave her at least £20,000 worth of jewellery during their relationship, including several items from the Palatinate royal collection.[182] Margaret continued to act even after Ruperta’s birth, returning to the stage in 1676 with the prestigious Duke’s Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre, near the Strand in London. The next year Rupert established Hughes with a “grand building” worth £25,000 that he bought in Hammersmith from Sir Nicholas Crispe.Rupert seems rather to have enjoyed the family lifestyle, commenting that his young daughter “already rules the whole house and sometimes argues with her mother, which makes us all laugh.”

So there we have him: Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Handsome, dashing, brave, fabulously-well-connected, definitely not husband material and – from contemporary evidence – as sexy as hell!   

‘Where do the stories come from…’

…is the question writers are asked time and time again.  Along with, ‘How long does it take to write a novel?’cartoon writer

 I’m rather partial to Terry Pratchett’s theory that inspiration comes sleeting down like rain and it’s just luck if an idea hits a suitable receptacle rather than a camel or an oak tree but as it happens I do know roughly how my most recent novel, A Crowded Coffin, came about, so, inspired by a post on Sue Moorcroft’s always informative and helpful blog http://suemoorcroft.wordpress.com/  here it is: the genesis of a murder mystery.

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Back in about 1974 I was a young mum with two small children and we lived in Hillingdon, near Uxbridge. I’d just signed a contract for a children’s book – which sadly never got published but that’s another story. What to write next? I had an idea for a teenage-type book about a seventeen-year old girl who lived in a rambling and almost ruined castle with her elderly grandparents. A young man would enter this crumbling idyll and… well, that was about it, really. I knew he would be somehow damaged by Seeing Something Nasty in the Woodshed (or something equally horrid) and that there would be a Roman mosaic pavement. 

Scroll forward to 1979 and we now had three children, lived near Weybridge in Surrey, and had just spent a year living in Egypt. My book had progressed in the shape of a few more scrappy notes. The girl was a bit older, the castle less ruined, the young man still suffering ‘orrible pangs of h’agony (as yet from an unknown cause) and there was still a Roman mosaic pavement. 

By the mid-80s we were living, as we are now, in Hampshire and I was writing stories fairly regularly for The Brownie Magazine, the reason being that I was by now a Brown Owl. My Sleeping Beauty – for that’s who she was really – was still stuck in her castle with no progress on finding out what was wrong with her prince. However, she still had a Roman mosaic pavement.

 Now we’ve reached 1991 and this is when I finally wrote the book – the first draft anyway. This time the girl was in her early twenties, the young man recently returned home from some still unmentionable trauma undergone heaven knows where. The family had taken a step upwards socially and the grandmother was a Russian aristocrat who escaped from the Revolution as a child. The girl, whose name I can’t remember, was assisted by her former headmistress, Miss Harriet Hathaway (she had a name change later) who at that time bore an uncanny resemblance to Margaret Rutherford.  Harriet’s cousin Sam, the clergyman, also made his debut. The Roman mosaic pavement had sadly vanished, to be replaced by rumours of a ruined Roman villa.

 In 1992 I sent it off to the Romantic Novelists’ Association for their New Writers’ Scheme, only back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, New Writers were called Probationers. (Ooh, Matron!)  To my surprise the book, at that time called Death and The Dragon Stone, got a second read but wasn’t considered ready for publication.  One of the readers suggested the title and the story were more suited to a mystery than a romantic novel. That was a light bulb moment – from then on I mostly wrote mysteries. I tweaked it according to the various comments from the NWS and sent it off to an agent. She took the unusual step of sending me her reader’s report which basically said the writing was good, the story had merit but it needed a fair amount of work to get it ready.  By this time I’d found out what the hero’s problem was: he’d been held captive in a country unnamed but curiously similar to the Lebanon – in short, I’d been seriously influenced by the British hostages there and the reader’s report justly said: get rid of the John McCarthy rip-off!  The Roman ruins were there still but sadly the mosaic pavement was gone forever.

 In 1993 I had a bright idea, ie that I would write a prequel called Death and the Oompah Band, and do it from Harriet’s point of view. I wrote the bare bones of the novel in three weeks – never before or since has anything like that happened! And I sent it off to another agent. She loved it. I sent the second in the series (formerly the first, if you remember – keep up at the back). She loved that too and took me on. I made Harriet younger and the two books got a fair few ‘close but no cigar’ rejections until the agent gave up on me and I stuck the books into a deep, dark drawer. 

Scroll forward to somewhere like 2009. My first two Victorian mysteries had been published and I was wondering what to write next, so I fished out the prequel. Underneath all the inevitable rubbish I felt the story had legs as they say so I updated it – mobile phones, iPads, etc and sent it to my (new) agent. She liked it and we changed the title to Murder Fortissimo. Bingo! 

The obvious next step was to take a long, hard look at the original story, Death and the Dragon Stone. Again, the underlying story seemed viable so I did the updating thing. This time the castle became an ancient but far more modest farmhouse, the grandparents also more modest – yeoman farmers and definitely no Russian royalty, while Sleeping Beauty was a feisty young teacher who had been working for Hollywood royalty instead. The Prince had now returned from an unnamed Far Eastern country where he’d undergone his traumas (no spoilers) and by now Harriet and Sam, fresh from their triumph in sorting out Murder Fortissimo, reappeared as the stars of the story. The Roman ruins were now integral to the story but no bits of mosaic ever turned up. 

The Dragon Stone of the original drafts became the Angel Stone (a curiously shaped menhir or standing stone) in the published version and the title became A Crowded Coffin – which, I have to admit, is a title I’m rather proud of!  This picture shows part of the avenue of stones at Carnac in Brittany. My fictitious stone is solitary and shaped very roughly like an angel. (Spooky place, Carnac, but fabulous to visit).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA So that’s how it was done:

Murder Fortissimo’ – written in three weeks and from conception to publication a mere 18 years.

A Crowded Coffin’ however, took a tad longer – from conception to publication a mere 39 years.

Easy peasy!

Interview: I’ve been visiting Susan Finlay’s interesting blog, so do go and read her interview with me: http://susansbooks37.wordpress.com

Heroes: Part deux (or possibly Trois)

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(We’ll get to Alan Rickman later on…he is relevant, I promise…)

 Somewhere in the annals of this mixture of history, mystery and blatant self-promotion is a post about a hero – Captain Lawrence Oates, to be precise. I’d link to it but I still haven’t worked out how to do that. Elsewhere there’s a post about an early crush of mine, Marcus Aquila, hero of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s iconic novel, The Eagle of the Ninth.

I meant to write about more of my fictional and historical heroes and was all set to do a post about the most important one of all, when blow me down! They went and dug him up! Yup, along with hundreds of thousands of other people who read Josephine Tey’s (also iconic) detective story, The Daughter of Time, I fell in love with Richard III and have never been persuaded that he killed the princes. Don’t get me wrong, he was a general at the age of eighteen and I’m sure he killed lots of people, it was a bloodthirsty time, but Tey’s argument is that Richard was a sensible and practical man and that killing the boys would be contrary to his character – and not at all sensible.

 Anyhoo, I’m not here today to witter on about Richard, I have his picture on my landing and it’s been there for more than thirty years, so he knows whose side I’m on. No, today I’m going to write about a man who has been on the periphery of my hero worship, so to speak, for a long while and it’s time I took a look at him properly.

 I’m talking about Henry of Blois. There, you knew that, didn’t you? No, I hadn’t heard of him either until I began to read Ellis Peter’s famous series about Brother Cadfael, which is set in the English Civil War (that’s the first one; we’ve had two officially and lots more equally bloody ones that didn’t qualify for the official title).

 The thing about the Cadfael books is that they’re set in the 1130s-40s which is The Anarchy, so-called, ‘when God and His Saints slept’ and the Civil War raged across the land. Here’s the potted history: The problem was that when William the Conqueror’s son King Henry I died, his only heir was his daughter Matilda (sometimes known as Maud). Shock! Horror! A woman couldn’t possibly rule England, especially as it was less than seventy years since the Battle of Hastings and although the Normans had a firm grip on the country, it could still all go pear-shaped. And everyone knew women’s brains would boil if they had to think about anything serious. Step forward Stephen of Blois, nephew to King Henry, handsome hunk, all round good egg, and – most importantly – a chap. And right behind him was his younger brother Henry, the subject of this post. Henry of Blois, the Prince Bishop of Winchester, grandson of the Conqueror as was his brother the new king, and I suspect the one who inherited his grandpapa’s brains.

 Now, I wouldn’t want you to think I know anything at all about this, by the way, it’s all gleaned from the Cadfael books and Wikipedia, but all the evidence shows that Henry was intelligent, cunning and political – for a start he survived until he was in his early seventies, which was no mean feat in those days. This is what Wikipedia says about him: As Papal Legate (and Bishop of Winchester), Henry of Blois was the most powerful, and possibly the wealthiest, man in England when his brother was unavailable.Before and after his elevation to Bishop, Henry of Blois was an advisor to his brother Stephen and survived him. He engineered hundreds of projects, including villages and canals, abbeys and smaller churches. He was most proud of his contributions to the greatest developments at Glastonbury Abbey long before the destructive fire of 1185. Unlike most bishops of his age, Henry had a passion for architecture. He built the final additions to Winchester Cathedral and Wolvesey Castle in Winchester, including a tourist tunnel under the cathedral to make it easier for pilgrims to view relics. He also designed and built additions to many palaces and large houses including the castle of Farnham, Surrey[5] and began the construction of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester. In London he built Winchester Palace as a residence for the bishops of Winchester.

Are you keeping up? Not only was he a millionaire and a power in the land, he was a sensitive soul: Henry was also enamoured of books and their distribution. He wrote or sponsored several books including the Antiquities of Glastonbury, by William of Malmesbury, his close personal friend. He sponsored the Winchester Bible, the largest illustrated Bible ever produced. It is a huge folio edition standing nearly three feet in height. This Bible is still on display at Winchester, although it was never fully finished. His production of the Winchester Psalter, also known as the Blois Psalter, is preserved in the British Library and is considered a British National Treasure.

See? Definite hero material and modest with it, William of Malmesbury described him, saying, “Yet, in spite of his noble birth he blushes when praised.”

The reason I’m taking an interest in him is that I’ve recently had a poke around his Winchester home, Wolvesey Castle, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wolvesey-castle-old-bishops-palace/  It’s free to wander about in and is close to the Cathedral and the heart of old Winchester, definitely worth a visit.

Henry blotted his copybook by going over to the other side but took against his cousin Matilda, considering her arrogant and greedy so he switched sides again – and seems to have got away with it, which argues considerable charm and cunning! (Incidentally, Matilda was ‘allowed’ to be queen for a short time, crowned in Henry’s own cathedral of Winchester but sadly she got above herself and started behaving like a ‘She-King’! The nerve of the woman! So they did a deal so that Stephen was back on the throne but at his death the crown would pass to Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, who became Henry II of England – read all about him in the Ariana Franklin novels featuring her female doctor, Adelia Aguilar. And find out about Matilda in the excellent tv series, http://www.amazon.co.uk/She-Wolves-Englands-Early-Queens-DVD/dp/B008OH0OFW)

Anyway, back to Prince Henry. Being incurably frivolous and flighty I can’t help seeing him as Alan Rickman’s  wily, charming and incredibly sexy Sheriff of Nottingham to King Stephen’s blond, beefcake and slightly thick Robin Hood aka Kevin Costner. And because you can never have enough pics of Rickman in his prime, here he is again: alan rickman

And one small bit of promo – A Crowded Coffin is still on offer at the Amazon Kindle shop at the bargain price of 99p until 5th September. Tell your friends!