A little how-to chat

It’s release month for A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING, so that means lots of travel! Please use the social media links at the bottom of the page for the latest on where I am and what I’m up to. Don’t forget the Writerspace chat on January 18 at 9pm eastern! Since I’m out and about promoting PERILOUS, I’m reposting a great reader question about how to write clothes. This post was originally up in August, 2014 and the question came from Megan B.

Where do you get your ideas for what the characters wear?

Oh, the clothes are so much fun to play with! Since I tend to stick with a time period for several books, I get a thorough grounding in the popular silhouettes and fabrics. Luckily for me, there are photographs of 1880s and 1920s fashions, so there isn’t much guesswork. There are websites devoted to period fashion, and I also have a small selection of costume and photography books. I will hit museums for special exhibits that feature period clothes, and I study the artwork of the era as well.

Once I know the shapes and fabrics, the colors come into play. Colors themselves can be tremendously important. For instance, in mourning clothes, bombazine was favored because it lacks sheen. (This is why a widow wearing black satin might find her choice exciting comment where a duller black silk might go unremarked.) Colors are a good way to show trends–during the reign of Marie Antoinette there was a rage for the color puce, a reddish brown hue the color of a flea’s back. (There was also a thoroughly unsavory fad for a color called caca dauphin when she delivered the long-awaited heir to the French throne. I’ll let you imagine the rest for yourself.) White has often been the color that sets the rich and idle apart from the working classes, while red telegraphs boldness in most circles. I choose colors based upon the messages they send, but also based upon whether or not they’re supposed to flatter the coloring of the character wearing them. And current fashion magazines are also a great source of inspiration–read them long enough and it soon becomes clear that there’s nothing entirely new under the sun!

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I’m on tour!

So today I’m at the Poisoned Pen in Phoenix–after what I’m assuming was a fabulous event yesterday at Murder by the Book (I’m writing this in advance like the keen multitasker I am…) Since I’m on tour, I thought I’d repeat a post when I was answering reader questions. This was a great query on structuring mysteries from reader Jessica and originally appeared in August, 2013.

What’s the process you follow when writing a mystery? Do you know the answer (who done it) and work backwards, or do you let the characters lead to you the answer?

For me, writing a mystery is a simple thing from a structural standpoint. I always know who did it and why when I begin. Now, I also make sure that a number of characters could have done it and could have WANTED to do it–this helps with red herrings and plot twists. And more than once I’ve been tempted to change horses midstream and let someone else do the killing. I haven’t done it yet, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I succumb to temptation one of these days…The reason I haven’t done it yet is because it could require a phenomenal amount of rewriting and I do like to work clean.

I was intrigued to read that Agatha Christie often wrote without knowing who the murderer was. When it came time to write the last chapter, she would select the least likely candidate, then make THAT character the murderer. She would go back and rewrite the few things that were necessary to make it all fit–which I think accounts for both her occasional misses and her far more frequent brilliant innovations.

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Sorry for the all caps, but I’m excited, y’all! Since we tweaked release dates, it’s been awhile since I’ve had a new release, and I am beyond delighted to share Veronica’s second adventure! It tickles me to no end to know that some of y’all are heading to bookstores today and cracking open the fresh hardcovers, some of you are opening up your e-readers to find her already sitting there, butterfly net in hand, waiting…

I am leaving on tour tomorrow, and I cannot wait to see you and talk to you about Veronica. If you can’t make a signing date, don’t forget to head to the Appearances page to hit up one of the kindly booksellers to get a personalized copy ready for you. I’ll also be hopping around Instagram, Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook this month, so be sure to check out those feeds for pics from the events or reader questions answered. And on January 18 at 9pm eastern, I’ll be over at Writerspace for a live chat, so we can visit then if you’re not close to one of our tour bookstores. Hope to see you there!

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Comfort reads!

Oh, it’s been cold and blustery and damp here, my dears–a typical start to January in my neck of the woods. It’s perfect reading weather, although I’ve been busy revising the third Veronica book and preparing for the launch of A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING. I have still managed to sneak in some pleasure reading, and here is my perfect list for a cold, drizzly, grisly afternoon!

First, you need something warm to drink. Tea, cocoa, coffee, mulled wine, bouillon–it doesn’t much matter as long as it’s soothing. Next, a flame of some sort. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, I’m envious! I make do with candles and the Yule Log channel for as long as it lasts. (It doesn’t seem possible, but having it on DOES make the room seem cozier.) If you’re the kind of person who likes music when you read, then a little Brahms would do nicely here. Finally, something to keep off the chill, snuggly socks or a lap robe will do. A draft is not at all what you want when you’re reading, particularly if it’s a mystery. You’ll just think the cool breeze against your neck is a villain approaching with a sharpened letter opener in hand…yes, this kind of weather is perfect for a little genteel crime, don’t you think?

Here are some books to while away a winter’s day with pleasant thoughts of murder:

*Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen series. I am a huge Jane Austen fan, and I adore mystery, so what could be better than Jane Austen as discreet detective? For this weather, I’d suggest JANE AND THE WATERLOO MAP as an excellent place to start.

*A STUDY IN SCARLET WOMEN. If you haven’t already made friends with Sherry Thomas’s delectable new take on Sherlock Holmes, this is a perfect opportunity. Lowering afternoon fogs are just the thing when you’re reading gaslit London…

*Rachel McMillan’s Sherrinford and Watts stories. I do seem to be stuck on Sherlock at the moment, don’t I? Well, if you’re looking for a sprightly pair of female sleuths, this is the series for you.

*THE SECRETS OF WISHTIDE by Kate Saunders. A mid-Victorian series debut with a delightful older female sleuth who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty…

*MY COUSIN RACHEL. A classic by Daphne du Maurier. As much psychological thriller as mystery, it’s a delicious exploration of the effect of a femme fatale upon a younger man.

*COUSIN KATE by Georgette Heyer. Confession, I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my TBR pile, and I am SO looking forward to it. A cross between her bright Regency romps and her Golden Age mysteries, this one is billed as a period Gothic, just the thing for a dark and stormy night…


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Happy New Year!

So 2017 is here, brisk and shiny and new, and it’s time for me to think about the release of A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING–out in just ONE WEEK! I am touring and I so hope you’ll be able to come see me. We’ll be talking about Veronica, Victoriana, mysteries, and more, and I’ll be signing stacks of books! Can’t make it personally? No problem. Just contact any of the stores where I’m appearing ahead of time and they will make sure I sign a book just for you.

Here’s the quick list of signings from the Appearances page.

And if you’d like contact info for the stores, here’s a link to each site:

Murder by the Book

The Poisoned Pen

Litchfield Books

Fox Tale Books

Hope to see you there!

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Stealing from Sally

So for the last post of 2016–thank GOD this year is almost finished–I decided to swipe part of the guest post written for us by Sally Kilpatrick last year. She had some great New Year’s tips, and I want to send us off on a positive note. I believe–I have to believe–that 2017 will have some good things in store for us all. I wish you peace, happiness, good health, prosperity, and all the books you can read. See you in the new year!

As you sing “Auld Lang Syne” this evening, I clink my cup of kindness with yours and wish you the very best. Here are the top 10 things I learned in 2015:

10. Planners only work if you write down essential dates in them immediately. (No, using the calendar in my phone does not work for me. I’ve already tried that.)
9. There comes a time when one needs to stop joining. That time was about five years ago for me.
8. Breathe. If you’ve forgotten how, go back to yoga.
7. Always bring copies of your own books. Always have business cards. Always be kind.
6. You’ll feel better if you quit eating so much crap. Promise.
5. Ask for help.
4. Tamp down those twinges of jealousy. Each of us has his/her own path. If you’re patient, things often work out better than you could’ve imagined.
3. Ask yourself if you have all of the people. Having the people is far more important than having the things.
2. Writing is like teaching—and probably most other endeavors in this world—the one person you reach/help/entertain is worth several others that you didn’t. Focus on the positive.
1. Do as I say, not as I have done.

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Are you caught up with Julia’s holiday adventures?

If you’ve read the five Julia novels but not started on the novellas, now is a great time to start! They begin with SILENT NIGHT, picking up just after the action of THE DARK ENQUIRY finishes. They are digital only, but you don’t need an e-reader. Kindle, Nook, and Kobo all offer free reading platforms for your computer or phone. Just download them, purchase the novella–currently $1.99–and get reading!

Here’s a peek at what’s in store:

Tis the season for an investigation! Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane return for a Christmas caper at Bellmont Abbey….

After a year of marriage…and numerous adventures…Lady Julia and Brisbane hope for a quiet, intimate Christmas together…until they find themselves at her father’s ancestral estate, Bellmont Abbey, with her eccentric family and a menagerie of animals.

Nevertheless, Julia looks forward to a lively family gathering…but amongst the celebrations, a mystery stirs. There are missing jewels, new faces at the Abbey, and a prowling ghost that brings back unwelcome memories from a previous holiday—one that turned deadly. Is a new culprit recreating crimes of the past? And will Brisbane let Julia investigate…?

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A holiday round-up

Taking a wee break to spend the holidays with my family, my dears, so here is a seasonal post from 2013. You might have missed it the first time around, and I hope you enjoy.

If you just can’t get enough seasonal cheer, here are a few books you might enjoy:


*CHRISTMAS POEMS Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets


To drink, I would suggest the Marches’ very own recipe for wassail punch as published in SILENT NIGHT, the Christmas novella:

Recipe for March Wassail Punch


Drinking wassail is an ancient tradition. Dating back to Saxon times, the word itself comes from the greeting “wæs hæl”, roughly translated as “be you healthy”. In the counties of southern England renowned for cider production, drinking wassail originated as a bit of sympathetic magic to protect and encourage the apple trees to bear fruit. While wassail and other punches were very popular during Regency times, by the later part of the 19th-century, they had been largely supplanted by wines and other spirits. The Marches, however, care much more for their own pleasure than for what is fashionable. They serve their wassail the old-fashioned way, out of an enormous wooden bowl mounted in silver with a roasted apple garnish. Their wassail is, as tradition dictates, served quite hot and is deceptively alcoholic. Proceed with caution.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Core a dozen small apples. (You will only need ten for the wassail, but leftover roasted apples are delicious with cream, yogurt, or ice cream.) Loosely spoon brown sugar into each apple place in a casserole dish with a small amount of water. Bake until tender, approximately 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently warm 2 pints hard cider. (This is not available in the juice aisle of the grocery store. It is wonderfully alcoholic and tastes deeply of apples. You can find bottled varieties at wine and liquor stores, but the very best is fermented by apple farmers for their own use. Find one and befriend him. The Marches get their cider at the source from the Home Farm at Bellmont Abbey.) To the warming cider, add four cinnamon sticks, crushed with a mortar and pestle, and four pinches ground cloves. (In a bind, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon may be substituted for the sticks.) Grate in fresh ginger and fresh nutmeg to taste. Lord March’s secret ingredient is a cup of his very best port, added just in time to heat through.

When the apples are plump and bursting from their skins, remove them from the oven. Put one into a heatproof punch glass and ladle the wassail over. The March family recipe calls for a garnish of a fresh cinnamon stick for each glass.

This recipe will serve six Marches or ten ordinary folk.

And for some mood music:

*To Drive the Cold Winter Away Loreena McKennitt

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Something YUM

So I’m whipping this post up in the second week of December, attending to all my various commitments because I am about to get VERY busy. I have an upcoming chat scheduled with my editor to discuss the first round of revisions to Veronica’s third adventure–yay!–and I have lots of fun things I have to write for the release of her second book, A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING on Jan 10. I am doing guest blogs and interviews, all to be linked next month, but they have to be written now and I have two words for you: FUNERAL BISCUITS. Intrigued? You’ll just have to wait.

Anyway, release time is always interesting enough with lots of fun bits and bobs to take care of; revision time is demanding with a dedicated overhaul of the book, and the holidays are, YOU KNOW, the holidays with all the attendant hoop-la. But this is the first time I’ve combined all three! So far, things are getting done. I’ve made a list and I’m checking it twice, and as long as I don’t publish my gift list here and send a blogger my expense report for the year, I should be fine. *fingers crossed*

In the interests of making my life easier, I’m digging up recipes that are fool-proof, like these yummy oatmeal bars. The spices make them feel seasonal, and the fact that they’re oatmeal means I can fool myself into thinking they’re completely healthy even as I’m eating my third one with a cup of tea.

Baked Oatmeal Breakfast Bars

1 1/2 c quick cooking oats

1 c flour

1 t baking powder

1/4 c sugar

1/2 t salt

3/4 t cinnamon

Mix dry ingredients. Add:

1 beaten egg

1/2 c milk

1/4 c oil

Stir together. Add:

1/4 c raisins.

Turn into a greased square baking dish. Bake 350 for 25 minutes.

Now to the particulars: I used gluten-free flour, grapeseed oil, and coconut milk–the refrigerated kind rather than the canned stuff. The refrigerated variety of coconut milk tastes MUCH less like coconut. In fact, I can’t taste it at all. You could sub almond milk or soy or regular cow’s milk if that’s your thing. Any oil would probably work; grapeseed is what I had on hand. A grating of fresh nutmeg would probably be delicious, and some nuts might not go amiss. You could throw in some dried cranberries or cherries if you prefer them to raisins. The result is a cross between a breakfast bar and a scone and not terribly sweet. Perfect with tea and VERY yummy hot out of the oven! Plus, nothing smells better than cinnamon…

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Tipping the cap to Jane Austen

Tomorrow, December 16, is Jane Austen’s birthday–her 241st to be exact. I always mark the day, usually with a special nibble at teatime and a hoist of the teacup to her memory. It’s a point of amusement (and horror, if I’m honest) that I managed to get an English degree without ever once being required to study Austen. My university was pretty solidly into dead English dudes as a field. So I encountered Austen on my own, and what a revelation she was!

I’m still not certain what prompted me to pick up PRIDE AND PREJUDICE when I was 26 and pregnant with my daughter. I had quit my teaching job and had months to fill, and there are only so many Peter Rabbit prints you can hang in a nursery before you run out of wall space and need a new hobby. I ran across a cheap omnibus edition of the six major novels in B. Dalton and picked it up for a few dollars.

I started at the beginning with P&P and read my way through the end of PERSUASION. Then I hunted down SANDITON and LADY SUSAN and the JUVENILIA, and from there I dove into the letters and any biography I could find. By the time my daughter was born– and given the middle name Elizabeth after my favorite Austen character–I had read everything Austen I could possibly get my hands on. I had been a Bronte* fan for years, but the Brontes were always just a titch overly emotional for me. I invariably emerged from a Bronte novel wanting to shake someone by the shoulders and tell them to get hold of themselves. As much as I loved wind-swept moors and lowering brows, I craved lightness and brightness and a bit more self-control. More sense and less sensibility, as it were. It turns out, Austen was everything I had been looking for.

There is a special and sharp joy to discovering a novelist for yourself as opposed to being introduced via syllabus. Every deft turn of phrase, every keen choice of word seems crafted just for YOU and only you are clever enough to have appreciated it. You meet characters as friends rather than specimens of study, and the coldly critical eye of the scholar is shuttered. There is only pleasure. Instead of being instructed on Austen’s place in the canon of English literature, I devised a spot of my own choosing for her. (At the top, of course.) Rather than toiling over her role in post-Enlightment feminism or debating whether she was a gentle satirist or wholly sincere sentimentalist, I formed my own opinions, no doubt cherry-picking facts and phrases to fit my portrait of MY Austen. (For the record, I find her sharp and astringent, like a preserved lemon. While imbued with a strong sense of morality and decency, she had a biting wit and a sometimes racy sense of humor. I refer you to her jokes about Rears and Vices in the Royal Navy and her observation that an acquaintance had been brought to bed early of a child owing to a fright–no doubt catching a glimpse of her husband unawares. And these are the things that we KNOW she said. The really revealing stuff was destroyed, alas.)

Austen has, since that pregnancy 22 years ago, been a comfort read for me. When the 21st-century gets too ugly or demanding, the Regency is my retreat. For all the necessity of paying attention to what’s going on around us and taking steps to make our voices heard and our dollars added to the efforts we support, we also need to take care of ourselves where we can. (It is a privilege, certainly, to be able to check out for just a little while, but stamina levels vary and being engaged for the long haul in any effort means understanding where and how you need to recharge yourself to be of any help to others.) With restoration in mind, I’ve been rereading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at bedtime, interspersed with a few new nonfiction books I’ve found on Austen’s life.

Austen has been criticized for not writing specifically about the historical conflicts which touched her life, but as I read through a piece on her various Christmases, I was struck by how much of her existence was shadowed by conflict. Born during the American Revolution, Austen had one brief period in childhood when war did not threaten. By the time she turned 14, the French Revolution had begun and the horror of it came very close; her cousin and eventual sister-in-law, Eliza, was widowed when her husband died on the guillotine. The upheaval of those years was unnerving for the English. From across the Channel, they watched and waited, horrified at the bloody excesses and never certain if they were to be spared. The successful rebellion of their own colonies was unsettling enough; the overthrow of the French monarchy and the aristocracy undermined the very fabric of accepted civilization as they knew it. There were no easy answers; what happened in France was unprecedented and terrifying.

By the time the Terror had calmed, a new threat appeared–Napoleon–and he was a more direct and frightening reality than any they had faced before. While English royal power had been slowly eroded over time and the will of the people gaining more traction as the driving force behind policy, the French were content to be led by an autocrat whose ambition was boundless. The real possibility of invasion by a foreign power hung over England for the first time in centuries, and Austen spent much of her life not knowing if the worst would come to pass. She had brothers in active service in the Royal Navy; there were no guarantees that the Austen family or England itself would emerge unscathed from the years of Napoleon’s warmongering.

But still she wrote. She worried about the state of the jam and she trimmed her hats and she wrote. She must have been worried for her beloved brothers; she must have feared for herself and her country. But she did not let those fears and worries and the specter of uncertainty turn her from living her life. She was not cowed or diminished by the possibility of calamity. She put on a brave face and she kept herself busy and she helped those she could. It was a small courage; she was never called upon to pick up a musket or sail into the mouth of a cannon or nurse battlefield casualties. But living her life was a worthwhile thing. It was even, when considered in a certain light, a defiant act. She provided comfort and support to the dispirited; she buoyed the morale of those in harm’s way with letters and good cheer, and she consoled the despairing. And through it all, she carried on as if everything would be well in the end.

*Yeah, there’s supposed to be a diacritical mark there, but I have never mastered that on WordPress, so we’re going to pretend it’s present.

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