NaNo and Lydia Greenwood

Why has it been so long since my last post? Well, I’ll tell you. I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo.

For the blessedly uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s always November. Since 1999, writers and would-be writers from all over the country, and now the world, try to write a novel of 50,000 words from scratch in one month. It’s a challenge, to be sure, and I wanted to see if I could do it just for the hell of it.

My typical Victorian mysteries simply cannot be done in a month because of all the research involved. And my workflow is such that just writing without stopping continually to research is impossible. But how about a different genre?

It occurred to me that romance is very popular, that no (or very little) research need be involved, and that if it came out well I could publish it somewhere I would never put my mysteries, such as Kindle Unlimited or Wattpad. I happen to have discovered that a colleague from our local chapter of the Historical Novel Society was thinking of doing the same thing, so we’re both doing it.

Yes, I said romance. No, I have never written romance before. I am concerned enough that I’m using a pen name: Lydia Greenwood.

For NaNo, the word count is everything. You write as fast and best as you can, but shouldn’t go back or edit much as you go, or you won’t make the word count. I made it harder (but more useful) for myself by making my goal 65,000 words instead, which is closer to novel-length. What makes it even more difficult is that I am what they call a “pantser” — even when I try to create an outline of the plot to guide me, I end up just writing off the cuff instead, having little idea where I’m going.

I did try to create an outline in the last week of October, following a romance template, but it was quickly abandoned.

NaNo writers can register at the central website, and there are many local groups that meet both online and at local places. You can have as much or as little support as you wish. I have several “buddies” at the site, but we only have time to contact each other occasionally, and I don’t need the pep talks provided. I did attend a great presentation by Hank Phillippi Ryan, sponsored by Sisters in Crime, on the “Muddle in the Middle” (that middle of the book where things can slow down and get draggy). Got a few ideas of how to add excitement.

I did some reading about how to write a romance, and have concluded that there are some other challenges with a mystery writer doing romance:

1. The tendency to start with a dead body

OK, yes, I do, but only because he’s died without a designated heir and that’s part of the romance. Nobody has been murdered — at least, so far.

2. The desire to have an underlying puzzle

I could not for the life of me figure out what two people could do while falling in love that would be remotely interesting to an outsider. But if they solve a mystery together — aha!

3. The feeling there must be an antagonist

I learned that the couple must experience not only the opportunity to be together, but obstacles throughout that make the relationship unlikely or tricky, which adds an element of suspense. In mysteries, this would be an antagonist trying to stop them. Yeah, he’s in there, not trying to stop them from falling in love, but from getting what they want.

4. The confusion of goals

Each main character is supposed to have a goal, so in a romance it should be a goal other than to fall in love and have a romance. See why I ended up with a mystery back story? They must both want something for which love would get in the way. Love is inconvenient when you’re trying to do something else.

5. The burden of not being a romantic

I’m not a romantic, although I’m certainly not averse to candlelight and chocolates (the latter being more important, of course). Love can make people unsure of themselves and too daring at the same time. They do things they’d never do, experiencing a transformation of self that may be overly attached to the other person’s actions. I prefer motives like jealousy, money, revenge, hatred. So it’s more difficult for me to understand my characters, even as they write their own stories.

So wish me luck. I’m at 41,316 words and have taken time out to write this post. What will happen next? Where has our hero disappeared to? Will my heroine get the help she needs to undo the entail on her grandfather’s house? Will she find the miniature? And how can my hero and heroine have a relationship if he lies like a carpet and she swears like a hostler?

Ask Lydia Greenwood.

AI image making

So I come upon an article on Medium about creating images from text descriptions, and it occurs to me this might be a cool way to make book covers. The technologies the article suggested required complex signups, so I searched and found NightCafe instead and tried it.

I chose “oil painting” and the “coherent” filter, typed in Victorian street Grimshaw and got this:

Apart from the weird sky, I cannot tell what the hell that figure is supposed to be. I can only tell it’s a person because it has feet.

Next effort:empty victorian street streetlamp cobbles cabriolet cloudy day.

Huh. Skies full of cobbles. OK, how about Victorian London, the artistic filter, and the “steampunk” setting:

The architecture is better, but what is that thing? I write historical mysteries. OK, so no steampunk setting, just Victorian London street and “oil painting”, back to the coherent filter:

Another creepy non-person. And that vehicle? Yeah, right.

OK, so historical isn’t happening. I’ll try what it’s supposed to do, fantasy. Moonlit Thames river boat, with the “heavenly” style and the artistic filter.

So, love the idea. Not thrilled with the execution. But I’m interested in looking more into this for sure!

1927 review in 1926 book

One of the delightful things about buying used or second-hand books is that sometimes there are things inside. People tuck notes into books. They press flowers. They leave bookmarks. And in this book, The World of William Clissold by H.G. Wells (1926), the gentleman who owned the book (I know it was a man because he signed the flyleaf and put the date) left a clipping from a newspaper:

You can see the way the acids from the newspaper have stained the page of the book a darker color. Our reader dated the clipping: Mar 11, ’27. It’s a review of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Now at the time, there would have been no way to know that this would be a book that someone in 2022 would have heard of, that it would stand the test of time. It has, so I know the story, and was interested to read the review. The reviewer didn’t care for it at all, which I find rather funny.

So we have a bit of history inside a bit of history. Lovely.

A glorious map of London

I’ve been enchanted by a map of London in 1851. Click on it to take a look, but be sure to use the little square in the upper right to zoom in!

London as seen from a balloon

Isn’t it amazing? It’s like having Google Street view for 1851.

What does this make possible? Well, for a writer, I can see the streeets, see the buildings all together and how they mesh with each other (most London buildings are attached). I can see where the gasworks were and how they related to the neighborhood around them, very important to my “work in progress”, as they call it.

The scale is what is truly extraordinary. It is fairly easy to find etchings or paintings of certain buildings, or neighborhoods, but they’re decontextualized. In London especially, one walks from slum conditions to lovely parks and squares in minutes. That was true in the 19th century (see Booth’s map from later in the century) and is true now. When I walk the city, I am always astonished at how short the distance is between one place I want to be and another, and that there are surprises around every corner. Here you can see some of those, from the air.

And, of course, it’s very steampunk-ish to get this wonderful illustration from a balloon flight!


Those wine merchants

One of the best things about writing historical novels is deciding the location of things. Which police station for the inspector? where should he and his wife live? where did the murder take place?

The joy of this is in the tangle of old maps and sources to be sought out and studied. Sure, a street in London may look like this now, but what about then? You can’t set something on Shaftesbury Avenue when the street didn’t exist in 1860.

[My first mystery, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, was actually based on a question involving location. Old St. Thomas’s hospital had existed quite nicely in Southwark, not far from London Bridge, for many years. Then it was forced to move because of the railway, and spent 9 years at Surrey Gardens before a new hospital was built on the Embankment, where it now stands. What dislocations and confusions would that cause? Traditional histories skipped right over the Surrey Garden period, and I was curious.]

So now I’m working on the fourth book, a prequel. I needed Sergeant Slaughter and his wife Ellie to reside in the City, because doing so was required for everyone working on the City of London police force. I read about the City then, and I “walked around” in Google street view, because I like to use buildings that still exist when possible (one of the joys of abandoning the medieval era for the Victorian). Much of the area is banks and businesses, but I needed a home, and one you could have for a sergeant’s pay. I liked the look of Philpot Lane, then I found this entryway:

It leads to Brabant Court, so I looked it up to make sure it was still named that. Then I found several current ads for flats on Brabant Court and Philpot Lane. I read that one building had recently been converted into flats as “its original use” after the private 18th century home had been divided up. A good place, then. I had read somewhere else that there there had been a wine merchant there. So I started writing a scene where the sergeant’s wife is sick of the smell of sour wine drifting into their lodgings. Then later I wrote a scene where she is out of kindling, and goes downstairs to borrow some straw, figuring straw would have been used in crates for wine bottles. So I needed the name of a wine merchant.

And the London Directory (thanks, Google Books!) helped me out. Now of course I couldn’t find one for 1860 (whatever year you really need, you won’t find it) but I could find the 1852 and the 1862 versions. I began with 1862. Google wouldn’t let me download it (oh I do miss Google Books Downloader) but I could search, so I put in “Brabant”:

Hard to read, I know, but in 1862 we have a Frederick John Duckworth and Co., wine merchants in Brabant Court. Were they there back in 1852 also? I searched for Brabant Court and read each listing, and found not one, but quite a few wine merchants (and a solicitor, and a tea merchant).  And yes, he’s one:

He’s moved from #2 to #3 but it’s the same one. So I can be pretty sure that if Ellie goes downstairs, it can be to Mr. Duckworth’s business. Plus I can have the solicitor and tea merchant there as well. And at best guess there were at least three wine merchants in the court, so yes, it would smell like musty wine.

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is published!

My first Victorian mystery, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, is now available at a number of shops, with more purchase options to come!


In 1862 London, the body of a famous surgeon is found, sitting upright, in an old operating theatre. His dead eyes stare at the table at the center of the room, where patients had screamed and cried as medical students looked on.

The bookish Inspector Slaughter must discover the killer with the help of his American sergeant Mark Honeycutt and clues from Nightingale nurses, surgeon’s dressers, devious apothecaries, and even stage actors.
Victorian Southwark becomes the theatre for revealing secrets of the past in a world where anesthesia is new, working-class audiences enjoy Shakespeare, and women reformers solve society’s problems.

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is a traditional historical mystery, meant to be read in front of a fire, real or electric, with a cup of cocoa. The story unfolds evenly, without jump scenes or shockers, and there is no graphic violence.

Real historical figures guest star throughout the book, bringing Victorian London to life. A book for lovers of Agatha Christie and Anne Perry.

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s
Novel, 240 pages
Historical Mystery / Historical Fiction
ISBN: 979-8-9853027-2-1 (print)
ISBN: 979-8-9853027-3-8 (e-book)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2022901917

Paperback ($11.99/£ 8.99/€10.99):

E-book: $7.99/£ 5.99/€ 6.99


A thumb-print among wagtails

I confess I am struggling to write my current mystery, and when this happens I sometimes allow myself to disappear down rabbit holes of historical research, following a trail.

Deciding that my victim was to be poisoned instead of garroted (which would have been unlikely for the accused to have achieved), I began researching poisons. Arsenic would be the obvious choice, but I was tired of arsenic: in 1860 it was in everything from wallpaper to rat poison, and there had been an accidental case of poisoning in commercial candy in Bradford two years before. The more I read about it, the more I realized it was appropriate for a slow poisoning, given in small doses over time to look like a natural illness. I needed a quick death. So, cyanide. It turns out many people cannot detect the trademark “burnt almond” smell, and it was quick and easy to obtain as “prussic acid”.

A bottle lying around the victim’s flat? Perhaps. If so, finger-prints would be nice. But everyone knows 1860 is too early for that; it wasn’t until 1887 that finger-prints were part of police methods. As a historian, however, I’m aware that things are often known earlier than we suspect. So what was the state of forensic science in 1860? Wikipedia mentioned that Sir William Herschel was doing it in 1858:

I followed that footnote and sure enough, I found The Origin of Finger-printing by Sir William Herschel, explaining how he knew that finger-printing ideas were much older, and that there had been isolated cases of a handprint or even a tooth being used to verify identity.

Sir Francis Galton, however, has pointed out that in our own times the engraver Bewick had a fancy for engraving his thumb-mark, with his name attached, as vignettes, or as colophones, in books which he published. As a boy I had loved Bewick on Birds: I regret that it is not now to be found in our library. Galton’s remark has reminded me that I used to see a thumb-mark there, as well as I recollect, in an ornamental title-page.

So naturally I had to find Bewick on Birds, in my library of the web. They had a copy of A History of British Birds (1832) at Google Books and I looked through the first few pages, but no luck. Certainly it wasn’t on any title page. So I image searched for “Bewick Bird thumb-print” and found two images. The Cleveland Art Museum said it was on page 180, so I went to look at a prettier version, at the Wellcome Collection, an 1847 edition. Not in the title pages nor on page 180, so I began scrolling through every single page.

Bird after bird scrolled by. Each bird had his/her portrait at the top of a section, then at the bottom of each section was some other illustration: a house in the snow, a team of oxen ploughing. Some of these images were rather strange, like one man carrying another, or a funnel in a bottle. But on a page about the Wagtail, which had no bird image at all, it was at the bottom:

A lovely thumb-print which, I must assume, was Thomas Bewick’s.  (I have a bit of a soft spot for Bewick anyway, not because I know his bird books but because I’m very fond of the Bewick’s wren. One nested on a counter outside my kitchen, and I accidentally flooded her out watering a plant, and since then I watch for them and am more careful, understanding that they nest a few feet from the ground and sing the most lovely song.)

Obviously Sir William’s memory was a bit off as to the thumb-print’s location, but there it is.

So now I have every intention of working Herschel and Bewick and finger-prints somehow into my mystery. When writing fiction, research rabbit holes are rarely traversed in vain.

Now, about that prussic acid . . .

Six degrees of Wells

It’s odd how even when one avoids H. G. Wells, it’s hard to get too far. Here’s an obscure connection, just for fun.

I was listening to a half-hour BBC documentary program on the Hollywood Cricket Club, mostly because it mentioned David Niven and Errol Flynn, but also because Jim Carter narrated. It had nothing at all to do with H.G. Wells. I have been taking a break, the pandemic having curtailed much of my research.

Apparently the club was founded by Charles Aubrey Smith, and actor I’ve seen in many movies but whose name I didn’t know.

Look familiar? He was in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda, The Four Feathers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and And Then There Were None. Plus dozens more.

Now take a look at him in 1895:

Aha, a cricketer! And this was the year he started acting.

So it turns out it’s less than six degrees of separation to Wells.

He was a bowler for Sussex County between 1882 and 1892, 20 years after Joseph Wells (H.G.’s father) had done his double hat trick for Kent (4 wickets in 4 balls). It’s a small world, cricket — he would have know who Joseph Wells was.

And according to Wikipedia, in 1920 Smith was in a British film called The Bump. It was written by A. A. Milne. If you read this blog, you know that H.G. Wells was Milne’s teacher at Henley House School, which was run by A.A.’s father.

So it could be serendipity. Or perhaps more things are connected to Wells than one would expect.