Mr. Wells and the gorilla

It begins, as these things often do, with a search for a source. Wellsians, as we style ourselves, are familiar with this picture of H.G. hanging with a gorilla skeleton,

What I didn’t realize was how far back Wells was dealing with gorillas. In his Experiment in Autobiography, he relates a childhood terror caused by reading a book:

There was Wood’s Natural History, also copiously illustrated and full of exciting and terrifying facts. I conceived a profound fear of the gorilla, of which there was a fearsome picture, which came out of the book at times after dark and followed me noiselessly about the house. The half landing was a favourite lurking place for this terror. I passed it whistling, but wary and then ran for my life up the next flight.

Seeking out this book, I came upon copies of an Illustrated Natural History by Rev. J. G. Woods in several different editions. The 1853 edition did not have a gorilla at all, nor did the 1854 or 1858 editions. Wells dated his experience around 1874, when he was about eight years old. I found the beast in the 1872 edition, then went backwards till I found him in the 1859 edition.

He doesn’t look that fearsome to me, but I am not an 8-year-old boy laid up with a broken leg. In later editions, they show a gorilla family that is far less daunting.

The reason for all this searching? I needed a footnote for a chapter I’m writing on Wells, so I needed the most likely edition. The 1859 edition makes sense, since Wells’s father had brought it home from the Bromley Literary Institute, and they probably had older books. But as soon as I saw the engraving (by the Dalziel Brothers, featured in my novel Murder at an Exhibition) I knew that was the monster.

In light of this, the photo of Wells with his insouciant arm around a gorilla skeleton is more than just that of a cocky fellow. He had overcome his fear and was now hob-nobbing with the quadrumana.

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.

Dating Victorian forensic science

In my Victorian mysteries, the question of poison occasionally arises. Most Victorian poisoning stories use arsenic, because it was everywhere. Yes, it was in rat poison, but also in face lotion (stronger than Clearasil), wallpaper, and fabric (a cool green was made from copper arsenic pigment*), and it was easy to obtain. Arsenic, I’ve learned, is a very slow poison. It’s perfect for killing your husband over six months and making it look like he died of natural causes. It’s not going to cause your victim to keel over as he’s drinking tea, which is what I wanted. But eventually my detective must figure out what happened, so the question is: what did they know about detecting poison in the 1860s?

A casual internet search suggests very little was known in the 1860s. Most sites say that the only poison that could be discovered post-mortem was arsenic. That’s because of the Marsh Test, famously created after Dr. Marsh’s frustration at having a clear sample that wasn’t long-lasting enough to show a jury.

Looking for information on forensic science, after Marsh, leads to the late 19th century (1880s and 90s) as the time when fingerprinting, chemical testing, blood analysis, etc. came onto the scene. The implication is that there wasn’t much going on until then.

And then I discover that Dr. William Guy, who appears as a character in my first mystery, was Professor of Forensic Science at King’s College, London. If the field was that new, it seems to me, there wouldn’t be that title. I was looking for books from the 1860s that might have forensics information in them, and I found two by Guy, both written in 1861: Principles of Forensic Medicine (2nd edition!) and On the Colour-Tests for Strychnia, from lectures he had given. Aha!

For me, the story of doing historical research has always been this: whatever you think was “invented” at a particular time, its actual invention and use was earlier. We tend to rely on patents, which may be years later. That’s why I prefer contemporary journals and medical texts instead. Primary sources may not be more accurate (they usually show one point of view, after all), but they are proof of ideas in circulation.

I only knew William Guy for his public health measures, so I am again pleased at how Victorian professionals could be involved in so many different aspects of their calling. Now, to see what’s motivating my poisoner…


*Wallpaper with arsenic could be used in children’s rooms, which sounds horrific until you realize that it was toxic to bedbugs and other critters that bite children. This doesn’t make it ok, just explicable.

The Ins and Outs of The Feathers

The Feathers Tavern features in the short story I’m working on. In fact, its picture inspired it:

It was located, as the caption indicates, near Waterloo Bridge Road. But it’s five storeys tall, and the top floors seem to rest on a different street. My detective is going there to ask some questions, and I assume, looking at the picture, that there must be lodging on the upper floors. So I need to know my way about.

I first saw the image at the a 2017 blog post by beer blogger Boak & Bailey (try saying that with a mouthful of bar nuts). That excellent page, with corrective comments, noted the history of the place and its presumed location.

Then I looked at pubwiki, which helped me with the name and the address (Waterloo Road in 1856, so I’m going with that for 1863). Pubwiki is wonderful, and I’ve used it many times, because it includes all the known proprietors. Thus I was able to use the name of Henry Hobbs, actual proprietor in 1863.

Ian Chapman at the Lost Pubs Project noted:

The Feathers was situated at 177 Upper Ground. This was an unusual five-storey pub that has now been demolished. The upper part faced the southern approach to Waterloo Bridge and closed c1941. The lower part had its entrance in Upper Ground and closed c1951.

When I went to look at maps, however, several noted a Feathers Inn across the road, next to the stairs, closer to the river, as “site of”, such as this one from the National Library of Scotland’s map site, dated 1940-71:

After a bit more searching, I decided there may have been an Inn at one time, but that The Feathers Tavern is clearly across the street on what was a bend of Commercial Road, but after the war was called Upper Ground (which is kind of funny since it’s the lower side of the buildings – the upper floors are on Waterloo Road).

But, as has happened before, the fire insurance maps were the most help. I was trying to find where the tavern keeper would have taken deliveries, with one side of the building up and the other down. These maps, noted also on the Boak & Bailey site by the commenter, are archived at the British Library website, and many are online. Because they show how many storeys are in a building, the width of some roads, and the locations of important items for firefighters (water pumps, wooden roofs and signs, uncommonly narrow entrances), they are full of information. Here’s the area just around The Feathers.

There is the single flight of stairs from the picture in the upper left, and the P.H. (Public House). My partner-in-crime helped me check the visuals here, because I’m not that good at turning things around in my mind’s eye. The street it faces would be the bend of Commercial Road (later Upper Ground), the left side would face Waterloo Road (with the top three storeys of the building), and the opposite side is on an alley noted as “Commercial Buildings”. In the story, I have the wife of the proprietor taking deliveries in the alley, and it looks like there was possibly a yard going in behind the tavern building, so I’m good.

And yes, that’s how serious authors of historical novels do things!

Brand the book, surely?

As I’ve become a new author of fiction, I have read a lot of advice about how to become a successful author. First write a great book, they say. All right, I think I did. I wrote more than one.

Get known. This can happen through conferences where you meet like-minded writers and readers, on book sites such as GoodReads and LibraryThing, through Facebook groups, classes, clubs, and more. Make connections and learn at the same time. Sounds good.

Marketing, though, is complex. One can buy Facebook or Amazon ads, but these have various returns on investment. As of yet, I have sold few books, but to good reviews. Most of these are on LibraryThing, so my Amazon page doesn’t have any. Amazon isn’t just the elephant in the room. They control much of the book market. I am thus virtually unknown.

This isn’t me in London.

One must leverage social media to get known, so I have Instagram and TikTok as well as a Facebook author page. I post Victorian Background Checks where I talk for a minute about a book I’m using for research, recommending some good reads. Having a consistent tone and style on ones blog, social media, interviews, etc. creates a solid brand. Such a brand is an absolute necessity with so much competition.

But I keep hearing one should brand the author, not the book. Readers apparently want to know about the writer, about their personal life. I read author blogs where writers talk about their home, their spouses, their kids, and their pets. They post photos of themselves in new places, on holiday. I feel somewhat embarrassed reading them, like I’m being a voyeur. I liked their book, not their cat. Their work transported me to wonderful times and places, but I don’t need to know that they were at Disney World last weekend, or that their bathroom renovation is complete, or that they have a great bread recipe passed down from their grandmother.

If I’ve just read a book and loved it, I want the author’s website to tell me

  • the names of their other books,
  • the order in which their books were published, and
  • where I can buy them.

That’s it, really. Maybe some cool information about the characters, or the authorial version of “deleted scenes” — things, in other words, related to the work.

I don’t think I’ve known much more than what’s written on the flap for most of the authors I’ve read, and that’s been fine. Knowing about them breaks the fourth wall, as they say in cinema, or engages with direct address, as they call it in the theatre. Such things can be fun or interesting if they’re part of a piece, but not continually. I realize doing “meta” things is very popular at the moment, but it’s tedious after a short while.

                   This is not my cat.

In this world where any idiot can publish a book, everyone agrees that an author brand is a necessity, and that readers want to know who you are.  I’d prefer they know that I do my research, so they trust my depiction of the time and place. My personality (a little spiky, a little sarcastic, a little too intellectual) or my lovely face is unlikely to sell any books. And I don’t do fake very well.

But I am trying. One of the interview questions I recently answered asked what I do other than write. Before I would have talked about teaching, but now I don’t for two reasons. First, I got a review where the reader said they could tell I was a teacher. And more recently, because I just retired from the full-time faculty at my college after 33 years. (Everyone says, don’t quit your day job. I quit my day job.)

I do love gardening in addition to writing, so I can post about that. It’s something I do that a lot of people do, or they enjoy the product others create, as with writing books. It will give me more to post between Victorian Background Checks, make me more accessible-sounding, and perhaps interest those who like gardening. But I’ll be leaving my cat out of it.

Dividend Day

I was looking for something else, of course, something about the Bank of England in 1860 that I could use in my fourth mystery, Murder at the Gasworks. My tome for this is The City of London, Volume I by David Kynaston. And in it I found a description of something at the Bank called Dividend Day, as noted by David Morier Evans in 1845. He anonymously wrote a book that Kynaston relies on quite a bit, The City; or, the Physiology of London Business; with sketches on ‘Change, and at the Coffee Houses. He described an old man with a wooden leg sitting all day waiting for his dividend.

[An aside: I’ve learned a bit about the coffee houses in the City, especially Garraway’s, which was near the Exchange (the ‘Change). Some actually served coffee during the day. Garraway’s at one point was a wine place, and it laid out sandwiches sliced up on a side counter for lunch. Many of the coffee houses used their ground floor as exchanges where products like coffee and tea were bought in bulk. Some kept collections of all the newspapers, which could become large archives. Deacon’s Coffee House kept files with every issue of the Times, so I’ve set a scene where my detective goes there to do research and overhears something interesting.]

So, the Bank. I search for “dividend day bank of england” and find this artwork:

George Elgar Hicks created this in 1859, the year before my novel, and it looks like fun. All those different kinds of people at the Bank! The dog! The child! I know they aren’t just customers, because the Bank of England wasn’t that kind of bank. They didn’t take ordinary deposits and they didn’t pay interest. So what is Dividend Day, anyway?

Evans describes the scene:

At least fifty clerks are sitting in a circle in a high vaulted saloon, well provided with a cupola and lanterns. They do nothing whatever but pay and weigh, and weigh and pay. On all sides, the rattling of gold, as they push it with little brass shovels across the tables. People elbowing and pushing in order to get a locus standi near the clerks; the doors are continually opening and shutting.

It turns out that it was the way for ordinary people to invest in the Bank of England and the government. According to the National Trust, “‘Consols’, as the Consolidated Government Annuities yielding an unvarying interest of 3% per annum were known, were the only investment permitted to the trustees of widows, orphans, and the like…” Even these days, I can see why people would be excited about 3%.

Kynaston says this was a half-yearly event, but in trying to find the exact date for 1860, I discovered it was more likely quarterly. Why is the date important? Because my book takes place between June 9, when Eliza Feltham stole doilies from Lady Emily Peel’s table at the Crystal Palace, and July 9, when she was tried at the Old Bailey*. I’d love to have a scene take place during Dividend Day and yes, as near as I could tell, this was always on July 5.

There is a subplot about a spy in the Bank, you see, so this will fit.

* Both Lady Emily Peel and Eliza Feltham were real people, and these were real events

A convenient pub

Sometimes your characters just need a drink or meal. Mine is about to go to the office of the London Times, trying to find out about recent legislation on gasworks in 1860. My character, Sergeant Slaughter, recently fired for insubordination, needs to know about reports on Parliament. I need to know what the place was like, the people, the buildings, etc.

Looking for the history of the London Times wasn’t an easy task. I did much better looking for the place, Printing House Square. I knew approximately where it was located, but it doesn’t show on the several maps I have of 1857 or 1860. But I found this map on Wikipedia, from 1886:

I was also able to find some etchings of the square at all those places that take public domain art and charge you for it, and a photograph at Lee Jackson’s brilliant online Dictionary of Victorian London.

And at that same site were several wonderful descriptions, this from a German observer in 1853:

The young reporters take the upper house, the old guard do duty in the House of Commons, whose sittings are longer, while its motions and speeches are of greater importance, and its debates more intricate. In either house it is a rule that reporters relieve one another by turns, from half-hour to half-hour. Mr. H., for instance, takes his seat at the commencement of the sitting with Mr. C. who comes next by his side. The first thirty minutes over, Mr. H. retires; Mr. C. takes his seat, and Mr. Ft. takes the place which has just been vacated by Mr. C. The summary-man takes a position in the rear. To-morrow evening the turn commences where it left off this night, so that each reporter has an equal share of the work.

Apparently the place was hard to find. From George Augustus Sala in 1859:

The best way to reach the office is to take any turning to the south side of London Bridge, or the east of Bridge Street, Blackfriars, and then trust to chance. The probabilities are varied. Very likely you will find yourself entangled in a seemingly hopeless net-work of narrow streets; you will be jostled into chandlers’ shops, vilified by boys unctuous, black, and reeking from the printing-machine; pursued by costermongers importuning you to purchase small parcels of vegetables; and, particularly after sundown, your life will be placed in jeopardy by a Hansom cab bouncing up or down the narrow thoroughfare, of course on its way to the “Times” office, and on an errand of life and death; the excited politician inside, frantically offering the cabman (he, even, doesn’t know the way to the “Times,” and has just asked it of a grimy cynic, smoking a pipe in front of a coal and potato shed) extra shillings for speed.

That’s so good that I may make Sala a character, hanging around the place and taking notes. Turns out he was quite a character, and even wrote a pornographic book at one point.

But I digress. Take a look at the Wikipedia map. There are two places on Printing House Lane that look to be marked as restaurants. Can I find out which restaurants, and whether one was there in 1860 for my character to have a beer?

I searched the words “Printing House Lane London pub”, and ended up at the wonderful pubwiki, where I’ve been before. Lists and lists of London pubs with who owned them when, if known. I know the parish is St. Ann’s from the larger version of the map, I know it’s near Blackfriars Bridge (where for some reason my characters always end up), and I know the street name. So that’s Printing House Lane, St. Ann’s Blackfriars.

I found one, called the Lamb & Lark. Run by either Alfred Munby (1857) or James Peal (1861)–I’ll have to do some more research. But it has an address: 5 Printing House Lane. Took me a minute to see the house numbers on the map above (they’re on the street–it looks like the 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 might be the number of floors). But there it is!

It’s always nice to find a place to have a drink after archival research. I think I’ll join Sgt. Slaughter in a pint.


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!