Saturday, March 31, 2018

How am I going to kill you?

This is the mystery writer’s perennial difficulty, I’ve discovered. A tad macabre, but that’s the genre.
With the pre-order launch and cover reveal of the first in the Lady Fan Mystery Series from my new publishers, Sapere Books, it’s a good moment to revisit this question: Hello there, victim, how would you like to die?

I can strangle, bludgeon, knife or poison you, just for starters. But if that isn’t good enough, let’s be inventive. The sky is the limit. Once someone actually got mirrored to death in Midsomer Murders!

The problem is, the moment you decide how to kill someone, you’ve immediately got to find out what that is going to do to their body. Enter medical research. That leads backwards to what your sleuth can and can’t notice and what it will tell her. She has to work out how it was done before she can figure out whodunnit.

Just to complicate matters, when you set your crime in a historical context, you’ve got to find out what your medical man would have known at that time. Which is not what he knows now by a long chalk. At which point, thank heavens for the internet!

I turned up the most marvellous contemporary treatise on poisons on Google books, which tells me exactly what was known about, thought about and how to recognise every possible poison you could think of, and some you couldn’t. This was for the third book in my Lady Fan Mystery series. You can also dig up lots of accounts of horrific 18th century murders, which is extremely helpful, thank you, generating plenty of ideas.

There’s a strange satisfaction about killing victims off, I find. Does this mean I’m a closet murderer? Let’s be charitable, and say that it’s pure imagination and the writer’s mind. After all, I may kill them, but I’m also revenging their deaths and seeing that justice is done.

The other thing I’ve found is that you can’t avoid the inevitable exposition to explain how, who and why. I’ve managed to steer clear of the clichĂ© of gathering suspects together for the purpose and tried to make it a natural part of the investigation process. But as a reader I wouldn’t be satisfied if the puzzle wasn’t somehow explained.

Mind you, it’s no use worrying too much over the how-am-I-going-to-kill-you question. Ideas for books seem to leap out at me with images of full-blown murders ready-made, though not necessarily presenting either weapon or wound. I just know the victim is very dead and have to figure out exactly how they got that way. That’s where research books and the vast resources of the world wide web come in handy.

And the other common denominator? When I start writing the book, I haven’t a clue who dunnit or why. The fun of the genre is surprising myself with the answer.

Elizabeth Bailey

The Gilded Shroud, the first book in my Regency mystery series is now on pre-order at Amazon.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Richard and Rose

This month began the re-release of the Richard and Rose series.
They’ve had a bumpy ride, both in the real world and in theirs, but they’re back (again!).
They started when my children were little. To counteract the relentless progress of Thomas the Tank Engine, I started writing. I’ve always written, and it’s proved a good friend. I love my children, but you can only read the story of James stuck in the ditch so often!
When I first conceived the story, Richard was an unprepossessing man, a minor nobleman who slid in and out of stately homes almost unnoticed, solving crimes. But when I started to write him, a high-born dandy strode from the pages, one that could never be unnoticed!
The whole series took a right turn, and they never stopped. I wrote eighth altogether, and they went through a series of publishers, so they’ve been edited more than any other series I’ve ever written.
First with NBI, then with Mundania, then Samhain, they gained fans and rankings, and I was thrilled to bits. Then last year, Samhain announced it was closing, and I knew it was time for Richard and Rose to go it alone.
They’re written in the first person, the only series I have ever done in that style. Richard needed a filter, so Rose, the woman who loves him, tells the stories. They developed from less of a crime-solving duo to a couple coping with the consequences of Richard’s past. Because I wondered what happens to a rake when he changes his mind. Surely there could be consequences?
And there are, and it takes eight books to work it out.
There should have been nine, but I found one book, which had the slave trade as its theme, impossible to write. It was just too painful and the research regularly had me in tears. Maybe one day I’ll finish it!
All the houses in the book are based on real ones, and it’s been wonderful to feature photos of them on the cover. I started with Calke Abbey, a phantasmagorical place, restored by the National Trust to be exactly as they found it, half-neglected, occupied by a family more concerned with nature than the interior of the house. Once scene, where I describe the nursery, is taken directly from my notes that I made the first time I visited the Abbey.
Here it is:
“I have rarely, if ever, seen such a shocking sight. Toys lay strewn about randomly, as though the children had only just left the room, but they were mildewed and black with damp. A baby house lay open in the corner, its delicate contents poured out on the floor in front of it, as if the house had vomited them.
A doll I would have loved to own when I was a child sat on a table, its beautiful silk gown torn and rotted. I picked it up. It had a vacant look because it hadn’t been loved for such a very long time. It wore a fontanges, one of those high headresses fashionable fifty or so years before, and as I placed the doll back down again the head-dress slid off. It took the wig with it, leaving the doll obscenely bald.
I shuddered. “I don’t want to stay here too long, Mrs. Peters. This nursery isn’t pleasant.” Mrs. Peters didn’t seem to feel it, but she nodded. We wrote down what we needed to, and hastily left.
The night nursery was next to it, and on the other side the little room once occupied by the night nurse, or the nursemaid. To our surprise, we found this much neater than the other rooms. Someone had neatly folded the bedding away, the drawers and cupboard were bare—all much more normal in appearance.
“Perhaps this room was discontinued for use before the rest of the house was abandoned.”
“Very likely, ma’am.” Mrs. Peters didn’t venture any theory of her own.”

Later in the book, a very important scene happens in the nursery. I made up a story for the governess in “Yorkshire,” but it’s one of the tales I never got to tell.
Maybe it’s for the best. It wasn’t a happy ending, and I do like those.

You can get or preorder the books here. 

And you can read more about the books here:

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ellen's War An ATA Girl.

Out now £1.99/$2.99
Click Here

This is the second in a three book series, Ellen's War, the first being Blue Skies & Tiger Moths. This series begins in 1939 and will end in 1945. 
I was looking for a subject to write a short story for an anthology ( I didn't write one) and came across a reference to the ATA - Air Transport Auxiliary. Before this was set up aircraft were delivered by serving pilots. This was a waste of trained men so the ATA came into existence. 
This was initially men, injured RAF pilots, men too old to enlist and so on, but after  Dunkirk it was obvious to the Air Ministry that there weren't enough male civilian pilots to do the job. 
Pauline Gower persuaded the powers that be to allow women to join. Eight experienced pilots signed up, all from the upper classes; after all only the idle rich could afford to learn to fly. These brave women collected and delivered  Tiger Moths, used for initial training, mostly to Scotland. These planes had an open cockpit and the women didn't have heated, padded flight suits like the men.
By the end of the war some of  the women were happily flying four engine bombers, and anything else they were asked to deliver. There were around 800 members altogether in the ATA and around 200 were women. The most famous of these was Amy Johnson who tragically died after ditching in the Thames estuary.

This book is the story of Ellen, known as Ellie, after she joins the ATA. 
Here is the opening which picks up exactly where the last book ended. I hope your are tmepted to download it after reading this.
Fenella J Miller

June 1940

 Glebe Farm didn't seem like home anymore now that her brother Neil was buried. Ellie wished she didn't have to stay the full week of her compassionate leave but it would be unfair on her dad and Mabel to leave early.
'Ellie, love, you've not eaten anything today. You'll fade away if you don't have something.' Mabel was more than cook housekeeper here now, she was the future Mrs Simpson and Ellie wasn't sure she was ready for more changes in her life.
'I'm sorry, every time I try and swallow my throat sort of closes up. I had some cocoa and a bit of the Victoria sandwich when I got up, so I'm fine.'
'Why don't you take the dogs for a walk, clear your head, Fred will be back from the bottom field for his lunch soon. He'll not want to see you moping about.'
Ellie bit her lip somehow keeping back a sharp reply. Neil's funeral had only been two days ago, for heaven's sake, why was she expected to be rushing about the place so soon? It was none of Mabel's business anyway, she wasn't a member of the family yet.
'I'll do that. I'll be back in time for lunch.' Jack and Jasper, the two dogs they'd rescued from Battersea, were delighted to be taken for an extra stroll – not that they needed any exercise as they were always racing about the place catching rats, chasing rabbits and generally enjoying themselves.
Every time she called Jack it made her think of the other Jack in the family. He was a fighter pilot as Neil had been, but he was flying a Hurricane not a Spitfire. Everyone believed the Germans were about to invade and he was going to be in the forefront of the fighting.
George, her one remaining brother, was also a fighter pilot. However, he had severed the link between Glebe Farm and himself and was now firmly in the same camp as her obnoxious fascist grandfather, Sir Reginald Humphrey, and her estranged mother. She no longer considered either of them as part of her life and would probably never know if George was killed in the line of duty.
Jack Reynolds was her brother now – the only one she'd got. If anything happened to him she wouldn't be able to cope. Pushing that miserable thought aside she whistled to the dogs and walked briskly down the lane towards the farmhouse. She'd seen the tractor with Dad and the two remaining ancient labourers returning to the farm. They were about to retire, were in fact already too old to be working, but Dad was keeping them on until they wanted to go.
She waved to the team of land girls busy clearing the ditches. They didn't work every day here, they were in teams and lived in a hostel in the village and were sent out in rotation to the farms in the area. Dad owned three of them so they tended to be working for him most of the time.
There was always a hot meal at lunchtime and it was served outside on a trestle table. She didn't go out and join them as she wasn't in the mood for small talk. She hadn't been hungry since that awful call to the CO's office a few days ago when she was told that her beloved brother was dead. The fact that he had bailed out over Dover when his Spitfire had been hit should have meant he survived. He was machine-gunned by a passing Messerschmitt and had been dead when he hit the ground.
Somehow being killed like this made it even worse. His death had been an unnecessary act of cruelty – he should have been safe over his own home soil and dangling from a parachute. She wished she could join Jack fighting the Germans and killing those that had murdered her brother in cold blood. She was certain no British pilot would do such a thing.
The kitchen was unpleasantly hot so she continued into the sitting room which was cooler. She wandered about picking up and reading an occasional sympathy card from those scattered along the windowsill and mantelpiece.
Did one reply to these? She didn't know the addresses of half of them. The parish magazine was no longer printed because of the paper shortage or they could have put a notice in that. Maybe the vicar would make an announcement? Anyway, she wasn't going to do it.
She couldn't even write to her friends Daisy and Mary, as by the time her letter had been sent to a central postbox and then delivered secretly to the radar station they were posted at, she would be back. Telephone calls were also banned. Even her parents and fiancé, Greg, didn't know what she was actually doing. They just thought she was involved with something to do with radio operations. It was all very hush-hush.
She would leave tomorrow. She couldn't stay here with nothing to do and too much time to think of what she'd lost. Keeping busy was the answer. Unable to settle, she made her way to her bedroom. Her eyes filled when she passed what used to be Neil's room, next to it George's room, neither of them would ever be used by her brothers again.
Perhaps there was something of Neil's left in his wardrobe she could have as a memento and take back with her. Of course, she had a photograph but something more personal would help with her grief. There was a war on, three families in the village had lost loved ones as well, she had to get a grip and stop wallowing in her misery. Dad and Mabel were quieter than usual but they were getting on with their lives.
She put her hand on the door of Neil's room but couldn't bring herself to open it. Too soon. Instead she went into her own bedroom and stretched out on the bed. She could hear the murmur of voices coming through the open window.
'Fred, love, I'm that worried about Ellie. She's taken this hard. I don't like to bring up the subject of her wedding, not when she's so down.'
'She was close to Neil, it'll take her a while to get used to the idea. Greg said he was going to contact the vicar and get the banns read so they could be married as soon as they can coordinate home leave. With that bastard Hitler about to invade us I don't see either of them getting time off in the next few months – so there's no rush, love. Let things settle a bit.'

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hinting at the dark side. Adding a little reality to the Regency World

One of the joys of writing historicals is learning about life in in the past.  The Ton's Most Notorious Rake features  two aspects of life during the Regency, although neither of them are glamorous. The poor and those who had "fallen from grace" had little prospect of improving their lot without some help.

My heroine, Molly, is housekeeper for her brother, who is vicar of Compton Parva, and since he is unmarried she had taken over many of the duties that would normally fall to a vicar's wife. She visits the poor, and has set up  a Sunday school for the poorer children.
The Sunday school movement began in the 1750s and flourished throughout the 19th century.  The first documented Sunday school was set up by Hannah Ball in High Wycombe but I first heard about this movement as a child in Sunday school. We learned about a local philanthropist, Robert Raikes, who believed that one of the best ways to prevent the poor turning to  crime was  education.

Raikes was born in Gloucester  in 1736 and inherited a publishing business from his father. He used his fortune to fund schools for poor boys, and his newspaper to publicise his views. Since many poor children worked in factories six days a week, the best time for them to attend lessons was on a Sunday.  Originally, his textbook was the Bible. His first school began in 1780 with boys only, but later girls began to attend. Other schools flourished across the country and despite some detractors, including criticism from some religious leaders, the movement proved a success. By 1831 over one million children were being taught weekly.

Raikes's schedule for the school is probably not much different from others set up around the country. This is his plan:- "The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise."

Reading and writing were skills that could take a poor person from the gutter into gainful employment, perhaps as a clerk, or working in a shop. It also meant they were able to read newspapers and notices for themselves,  which meant they were better informed.

 The second aspect of Regency life that I wanted to explore in this book, just a little, is the plight of "fallen women". Molly is the widow of an abusive husband, and she knows all too well how difficult it is for women to make a living without a man's support. Women during the Regency were rarely free to choose their own destiny. They were expected to obey their fathers until they were married off, when they became the property of a husband.  Women who lost their reputation were often cast out of their home, or their place of work, and left to survive as best they could. You may have heard of the Harlot's Progress, Hogarth's prints that show how an innocent country maid is lured into work as a prostitute, and eventually comes to a bad end.

Molly sets up Prospect House, a refuge for women in this parlous situation. Molly knows their stories, and she is determined to help them to help themselves. The  residents of Prospect House are lively, courageous young women and in return for her support they provide Molly with  friendship and advice.

Naturally, because The Ton's Most Notorious Rake historical romance, it has a happy ending. But I do not believe that as a novelist I should ignore the darker side of Regency life. We should never forget that the ladies and gentlemen who people our stories live on a knife edge. Reputations and fortunes could be lost in an hour, and rich and poor alike were liable to be struck down by death or disease. This constant threat adds colour and vibrancy to the period, and makes it, for me, one of the most exciting times in British history.

Happy reading.
Sarah Mallory / Melinda Hammond

The Ton's Mot Notorious Rake
Published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, March 2018

Monday, March 05, 2018

Jane Austen: The Power of Money

I have been struck by the number of wealthy older women in Jane Austen’s novels who exercise stringent financial control over various young male relations.

The importance of money: 19th century reticule

In this post, I shall look at three examples; firstly, Mrs Churchill, the rich aunt by marriage of Frank Churchill in Emma. She brought him up after his mother’s death and dotes on him but that hasn’t stopped her from exercising strict control over his life. She is generous to him; he obviously has plenty of spending money but it comes at her discretion, and she is a capricious woman. He is supposed to be her heir – he changed his name from Weston to Churchill on his coming of age – but it is not official. Interestingly, Mrs Churchill is entirely off stage; we never meet her but her influence is profound.

Frank comes to Highbury (with Emma and Harriet)

Mrs Churchill’s main role is surely to show facets of Frank’s character. He is only twenty-three, and, as Mr Knightley tells Emma, ‘A young man, brought up by those who are proud, luxurious and selfish (is bound to be) proud, luxurious and selfish, too.’ He doesn’t cut Frank any slack. He points out that ‘we hear of him forever at some watering-place or other; a little while ago he was in Weymouth. This proves he can leave the Churchills (implication: if he really wanted to).’

Frank Churchill chatting to Emma

Mr Knightley ends by saying, ‘It is Frank Churchill’s duty to pay this attention to his father (visiting him on his marriage). He knows it to be so by all his promises and messages; it he wished to do it, it might be done.’ Frank’s omission is discourteous towards the new Mrs Weston, in particular. He wrote her ‘a very handsome letter’ but the actual visit keeps getting put off.

The reader gathers that Mrs Churchill is jealous of Frank’s relationship with his father. Even so, there may be something else behind Frank’s procrastination.

Mr Woodhouse is concerned for Jane Fairfax’s health

Frank has a secret, one which could have serious repercussions if his aunt gets to hear of it; he is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, whom he met in Weymouth. Jane is acknowledged by all to be beautiful, talented and cultured. Unfortunately, she has no money and Mrs Churchill’s jealous nature could lead her to disinherit Frank. The reader realizes, much later, that Frank only appears in Highbury when Jane Fairfax returns to her aunt and grandmother who live there.

Mrs Smith dismisses Willoughby

My second wealthy female relation is Mrs Smith, the elderly cousin of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Willoughby is her presumed heir but this, as with Frank Churchill, is unofficial and could be revoked. Willoughby at least has some money of his own, what Sir John Barton calls ‘A very pretty estate’ in Somerset, worth about £600 p.a. It’s not a lot for a gentleman but, if he chose to live modestly, he and Marianne could manage. To complicate matters, Willoughby has been living beyond his means and is in debt. He visits Mrs Smith at Allenham every year, just to keep her sweet, and he does his best to keep secret his unsavoury seduction of the sixteen-year-old Eliza, the ward of Mrs Smith’s neighbour, Colonel Brandon. Mrs Smith, like Mrs Churchill, is off stage and we never meet her.

Willoughby’s seduction of Eliza and her having had his child, has made Willoughby’s personal situation far more perilous than Frank’s. When Mrs Smith discovers it, she demands that he marries Eliza. Willoughby refuses and what follows is a total breach.

That night, before he leaves Allenham, Willoughby wrestles with his conscience and decides that, much though he loves Marianne, it is ‘insufficient to outweigh the dread of poverty, or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches.’ He abandons Marianne without any real explanation, causing her a great deal of distress, and goes to London to find a rich wife.

Ironically, once he is married, Mrs Smith relents. She approves of his marriage to a ‘woman of character’, and reinstates him as her heir. He gets what he thought he wanted – money, but loses what he has come to realize is far more valuable, marriage to a woman he loves.

Mrs Ferrars

My third rich older woman is the widow, Mrs Ferrars, the mother of the hero, Edward Ferrars, in Sense and Sensibility. Edward, as her elder son, is the heir but he is not financially independent. He has £2,000 of his own which brings in a mere £100 p.a., not a sum a gentleman can live on. Edward, too, must dance to his mother’s tune. Mrs Ferrars appears two thirds of the way through the book when Elinor and Marianne visit their half-brother in London. Elinor and Marianne pay a call on him, together with Lucy and Nancy Steele.

This is the only time we see Mrs Ferrars for ourselves. She is a little, thin woman with ‘a strong character of pride and ill nature’ She suspects that Edward loves Elinor and ‘eyes her with the spirited determination of disliking her at all events’, addressing not a single word to her. Instead, she pays a lot of flattering attention to Lucy Steele who has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years.

Lucy confides in Elinor about her secret engagement to Edward

The reader knows that sooner or later Lucy’s engagement to Edward will come out. What will Mrs Ferrars do? For the rest of the book, she’s off stage, but Jane Austen allows Lucy several scenes triumphing over Elinor (Lucy suspects an attachment between Edward and Elinor). We also hear from Lucy’s cousin, Mrs Jennings, that Mrs Ferrars has cut Edward off without a penny; and from an appalled John Dashwood, Elinor’s half-brother, who can’t understand why Edward won’t marry the rich Miss Morton; and from Lucy’s vulgar sister, Nancy. The eaction of each illuminates the respective characters.

Edward does as a gentleman ought; he stands by his engagement to Lucy, though he has long since ceased to love her. Now almost penniless, he moves into cheap lodgings. His only option is to take Holy Orders (which he wants) but, without the help of a rich patron, he’ll be lucky to find a curacy, which, notoriously, paid a pittance; £50 p.a. was not unusual.

Edward arrives at Barton Cottage to propose to Elinor

Colonel Brandon steps in and generously offers him a living. It is only worth £200 a year but it means that Edward is no longer homeless and has a future. Robert, his asinine brother, now officially Mrs Ferrars’ heir and with the income that should have been Edward’s, elopes with the artful Lucy. Mrs Ferrars becomes reconciled with Edward, accepts his marriage to Elinor, and gives him £10,000, the sum she gave her daughter Fanny on her marriage to John Dashwood.

National Portrait Gallery. Jane Austen after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

I find it interesting that Jane Austen has three rich, older women who pull strings to control younger male relations. Mrs Churchill and Mrs Ferrars are both seriously manipulative and unpleasant. Ultimately, Mrs Churchill’s death removes the obstacle to Frank’s marriage with Jane. Mrs Ferrars has to give way and allow Edward a decent sum of money, even if it is only half of what he should have had. Both women’s behaviour ratchets up the dramatic tension, and tests the young men’s mettle, which is something every author should be looking to do.

Mrs Smith isn’t overly intrusive; she doesn’t have a prospective bride waiting in the wings, for example. She thinks as a right-thinking woman should. Willoughby complains about ‘the purity of her life, the formality of her notions, her ignorance of the world,’ and tries to dismiss her outlook as old-fashioned, but his speech only serves to show up his selfish disregard for Eliza, Marianne and Mrs Smith herself. Out of the three young men, Willoughby is the one who really loses out.

Reading Lady

I discussed this post with my Mediaeval historian brother who said that anyone from a similar background in the 14th century would have understood the problem instantly. It was the norm until comparatively recently that the older generation controlled the family money.

He reminded me that marriage settlements ensured that a widow had her dowry, but she was also legally entitled to ‘the widow’s third.’ That could tie up an awful lot of money.

Illustrations from Emma and Sense and Sensibility by Hugh Thomson

Elizabeth Hawksley