A Wicked Wench in Wales!

Mischief_350Nicola here, and today I’m talking about the background and
inspiration to my story in the Word Wench anthology Mischief and Mistletoe.

It’s been fascinating to see the posts by the other
Wenches on what makes their heroines wicked. My heroine, Lydia Cole, is the
landlady of the Silent Wench Inn in a dark and dangerous corner of Wales. It’s
the first time I’ve set a story in Wales and I wonder why I’ve waited so long
because the setting really appeals to me. It feels wild and lawless, the perfect place for a handsome and rakish hero to be marooned on a winter's night.

It was a co-incidence that I was on holiday on the west
coast of Wales around the
Cliffs  time that we were discussing ideas for the Wench anthology but I think it must have been serendipity. We were staying in a seaside cottage close to the town of Newport and as soon as I visited it I knew it was the town
where my heroine Lydia Cole would hide when she runs away from society to
reinvent herself. I won’t give away too many details of Lydia’s “wickedness”;
let’s just say that the Silent Wench Inn doesn’t simply offer refreshment to
travellers, it runs a fine sideline in other less respectable activities too, some
of which are downright illegal. Records show that Newport was a trading port from the 16th century onwards and it's geographical position made it an ideal centre for free trading. Smuggling in Wales continued a lot later into the nineteenth century than it did in many other parts of the British Isles.

Newport CastleI also wanted to bring Newport Castle into the story. The west coast of Wales was fought over for hundreds of years.
The Normans established a barony in Newport in the 13th century and
the site of their first wooden motte and bailey castle can still be seen.
Subsequent stone castles were destroyed when the Welsh fought back under Prince
Rhys Ap Gruffydd and later under Owain Glyndwr. The current castle is a
seriously spooky looking place, a nineteenth century renovation of a medieval building. I actually saw a bat fly out of the open

One little detail that I picked up from the history
Newport 2 of
Newport and wanted to incorporate into my story was the school. The first
school in Newport was established in 1809 funded by and named after Madam Bevan
of Laugharne. It was part of a nationwide movement of “Circulating Schools” set
up to give children in rural communities the opportunity to receive an
education. In my story Lydia may be complicit in some illegal trades but she also teaches at the school and is an important part of the local community.

The other inspiration for my story was Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. This evocative description could have been written to describe Newport:

“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobbled streets silent and the hunched courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.” 

 I substituted winter for spring and away I went with On A Wicked Winter Night!

Today Wench Pat is offering a copy of Mischief and Mistletoe to one commenter in North America and I am offering a copy to a commenter from "the rest of the world" so you get two Wench giveaways for the price of one!

The question:

Where do you stand on stories where the hero or heroine breaks the law? Does it depend on the circumstances or is it just plain wrong no matter the reason? Do you have a favorite book with a law-breaking hero or heroine?

Karen Harper Talks about Mistress of Mourning

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I'm delighted to once again welcome Karen Harper as a Word Wenches guest.  Karen is a New York Times bestselling author of romantic suspense novels from Mira Books. She won the Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2006 for her novel Dark Angel ANGEL, and her novels make the "Heatseekers" bestsellers lists in the UK.  She is looking forward to attending ThrillerFest in NYC in July and the Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September.

As you can see, Karen is as versatile as she is widely honored!  Today, she is going to tell us about her romantic historical mystery, Mistress of Mourning.  Welcome, Karen!  I turn the virtual floor over to you:

MistressofmourningKaren Harper: It’s great to be visiting Word Wenches again.  Although I am a Tudormaniac, I love to read the varied eras and settings of historical novels, and WW does a great job of spotlighting those books. 

Although I have written five other historical novels, Mistress of Mourning is my first historical mystery.  It was more challenging to write, but the main characters, the era and plot ran headlong into a murder mystery—three of them in fact, tragic royal murders, especially since two of the victims were young boys and the third murder was of a teenage Prince of Wales.  

Mistress of Mourning is set in England and Wales in 1501, a pivotal year in the early reign of the Tudors.  Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, daughter of a Plantagenet king, are trying to solidify their new monarchy.  The War of the Roses has ended in a might-not-right victory for Henry.  (Trivia for the day:  The term “War of the Roses” was not coined until 1762 in David Hume’s History of England, so I have steered clear of it in the novel.)  And, Henry VIIof course, this first Tudor ruler can bolster his family’s future by leaving male heirs to reign and daughters to marry off to royalty in other countries.

 But, ah, there’s the rub.  Henry and his queen have lost two children, and their heir, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is sickly at times, although he has just wed the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon.  (Yes, later Henry VIII’s first wife, overthrown in his passion for Anne Boleyn, but Catherine is a young woman in this novel and very appealing.)  The only remaining male child (the Tudors have two daughters) is Henry, Duke of York, later Henry VIII.

Catherine of AragonBesides the losses of two of her own children, the queen is also haunted by the fact that her two young brothers were evidently murdered in the Tower of London years before.  Enter the chandler and carver of candles, Varina Westcott, a merchant-class widow who is allowed to run her own chandlery shop only because her husband died and left it to her.  (The powerful, male-only guilds of the day play a part too, but that’s for another day.)

At first Varina thinks she has been summoned to the palace to carve Her Majesty’s children’s faces on memorial candles, but Elizabeth of York wants full waxen images of her lost brothers and children to keep in secret.  Catastrophe befalls when the Tudor heir, Prince Arthur, dies in Wales under mysterious circumstances.  Because Varina’s shop also produces wax shrouds with which the noble dead used to be wrapped before burial and since chandlers of the day also acted as undertakers, the queen sends Varina to Wales to oversee the burial preparations—and to discovery whether Arthur was poisoned and by whom.

Coat of Arms, Wax Chandlers Guild

This is greatly a woman’s book as the two first-person leads are the queen and Varina, who bond over the sad fact that they have both lost sons.  But the novel also probes the passions and evils of men.  Can even King Henry VII be trusted?  Young Henry Tudor is only ten when the novel begins, but his wily personality is already in evidence. 

Varina’s love interest in the novel is Nicholas Sutton, an ambitious courtier above her rank, who is originally assigned to her as a guard.  Together, they navigate their relationships with the Tudors and go to wild Wales to discover whether Prince Arthur met with foul play. 

It was great fun to write about Wales of that day.  It was still a land of legends, superstitions, tribal chiefs and danger.  Bogs and fens, even witches presented a marvelous milieu.  The novel is somewhat Gothic in tone, but that’s what emerges when the Medieval Period begins to tiptoe into the English Renaissance.

Arthur. Prince of WalesBut back to the historical crimes which are the backbone of the story.  Who murdered the Princes in the Tower is still argued today.  Many blame King Richard III, but there is another possible royal villain too.  (Yes, that’s a teaser.)  Later, in the Reign of King Charles II, in July of 1674, during some rebuilding in the White Tower, the bones of two children were found in an elm chest that was covered by rubble at a depth of about ten feet.  This was under a staircase that led to the king’s lodging.  At King Charles’s request, the bones were interred in a white marble urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren and placed in the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey, close to the tomb of their sister. 

Ludlow CastleAs for Arthur Tudor’s demise, that is yet being investigated.  Ground-probing radar has been used to pinpoint his final resting place beneath the limestone floor of Worcester Cathedral.  Professor John Hunter of Birmingham University has worked on the investigation, although so far the current queen has not given her permission for the exhumation of Arthur’s body to perform toxicology tests.  Of course, if Arthur had not died, Henry VIII would never have been king.  If the Princes in the Tower had not died, perhaps the Tudors would never have come to the throne at all.

In Mistress of Mourning,  I have suggested possible solutions for these three murders of royal princes.  But part of the joy of writing the novel was immersing myself in its era, that period which saw the stormy dawn of the Tudors. 

 The novel will also be released by my British publisher, Random House UK, at the same time as the Penguin USA release, but with a different title and cover.  Mistress of Mourning will be The Queen's Confidante in the United Kingdom.  Perhaps in this year of the current queen’s jubilee, the title "queen" carries real cachet. 

MistressofmourningI'll be giving away two copies of MISTRESS OF MOURNING, so I hope the winners—and all you subjects of the realm—will enjoy the story and be surprised by the big reveal at the end. 

MJP: Karen, thanks so much for visiting!  The book sounds wonderful, and just from reading your blog, I've discovered things about candlemakers that I didn't know.  A feast for history lovers. Here's an excerpt.  And don't miss all the interesting info, including a clip of an interview with Karen, at her website.

The winners of the two copies of Mistress of Mourning will be chosen from among those who comment between now and midnight Saturday. So what do you think about the princes in the tower?  And did you learn as much about wax working as I did reading this?

Mary Jo, sure that Mistress of Mourning will be a cool read for a hot summer!


The Diabolical Baron & Thunder and Roses: Remembrance of Stories Past

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I’ve been spending a lot of time rereading my backlist lately in order to produce e-editions, and it’s an interesting experience.  And in the case of my very earliest books, rather painful. 

I just finished proofing the scan of my very first book, the Signet Regency The Diabolical Baron.  Objectively, I can say it’s still a pretty good story, and it got my career off to a good start with a Rita nomination and Romantic Times Best New Regency Writer award. 

But the WRITING!  Or rather, over-writing.  Too many words, endless paragraphs, etc, etc.  (Someone once told me I wasn’t afraid of a long sentence.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment. <G>)

Diabolical Baron--OriginalI finally had to make the executive decision to read a set of faux galleys and mark only the typos.  Nothing else got fixed unless it was an actual error, or so egregiously awful that I really couldn’t let it stand.  On that basis, The Diabolical Baron has been proofed and it's off to www.RegencyReads.com, and it will become available as an e-book in the next few weeks.

ADDENDUM: As I was reading comments, I realized that I never really explained the origin of The Diabolical Baron.  It was pure contrarianism. I'd read all those Regencies were the sweet innocent melts the heart of the older, jaded hero.  So I turned it inside out.  Sweet innocent is coerced into betrothal to older, jaded hero–and manages to slide away and find a man she likes better. <g>

Writing that first book:

But it was interesting to revisit and remember what I thought as I wrote the book.  (“Oooh, how does one write dialogue?!  Oooh, let’s put an organ in the church for Caroline to play!  Ooops, brother-in-law who is a pianist points out it would be a pump organ.  Get hero to work on that.  Hmmm, researching music in 1815 England isn’t easy.  (The book was written pre-Internet.)  Oh, first kiss!”  Etc, etc, etc.

The Diabolical Baron was reissued a couple of times before rights reverted to me, but all of the shortcomings of writing a first book on sheer instinct are still there for the Diabolical Baron-Reissueworld to see.  <G>

It gets better:

Luckily, the reading pain diminishes as the books get more recent.  By the time I got to my Fallen Angels series, I’d written a dozen books and my craft had improved noticeably.  The tendency to overwriting is probably in my DNA, but reading through the first Fallen Angels book, Thunder and Roses, was actually quite enjoyable.

That book was started when I’d just come off writing my three Silk books, which required a staggering amount of research and very complex story lines, and I was TIRED!  I wanted to go home to the Regency to recuperate.  (For me, the Regency is always “home.”)

T&R originalBut what precipitated the actual story was when my editor called when I was still recovering and said, “We want your next book in the launch of our new Topaz historical romance imprint, we’ll have to crash publish it and I need a story outline by tomorrow."

SHRIEK!  But the Muse, who can be a desultory lass, came through.  It’s really hard to describe creative process, but from somewhere in the lizard brain, the idea popped up: a rakish earl who is neglecting his property and a reforming schoolteacher with a temper who wants to bully him into helping the community he’s neglected. 

MaryJoPutney_ThunderandRoses_200pxWanting to get rid of her, he says he’ll help at the cost of her reputation: she must live with him for three months.  She doesn’t have to sleep with him unless she wants to—but she has to allow him one kiss a day in a time and place of his choosing. 

Much to his horror, she loses her temper and accepts—and life changes forever for both of them.  (That's the new e-book cover by Kim Killion on the left.)

But a basic concept is only the beginning.  A book requires a never ending stream of ideas and facts–some of which won't work and fall by the wayside.

Writing the first Fallen Angel:

WalesWhy did I choose Wales as a location?  Maybe because I have friends in Wales and loved visiting the wild hills.  Coal mines?  Lots of them in Wales.  Why is Nicholas half Gypsy?  To make him something of a social outsider, and to give his grandfather a reason to hate him. 

Why is Claire a Methodist minister’s daughter?  Because the Methodists were very active in Wales, and they were reformers who educated and improved their communities. 

Why did Nicholas have close friends from Eton?  Friends are convenient to bounce things off during the story, plus I wanted to do a trilogy so he needed friends.  (How the trilogy ended up as seven books is a story for another day. <g>)  So in building a book, one idea suggests another and one ends up in totally unexpected places. 

As for the penguins—why not????

Rereading the scan, I made only minor tweaks and had to admit—I still love the characters and it seemed like a darned good romance.  Here's an excerpt of Thunder and Roses

    Nicholas awoke with a pounding headache, which he richly deserved. He lay still, eyes unopened, and took stock of his situation. Apparently his valet, Barnes, had put him to bed in a nightshirt. Nicholas much preferred sleeping in his skin, but he supposed that he was in no position to complain.
    He moved his head a fraction, then stopped, since it seemed in danger of falling off. He had been a damned fool and was paying the price for it. Unfortunately, he hadn't drunk enough brandy to obliterate his memory of what had happened the previous afternoon. As he thought of the pugnacious little wench who had stamped in and taken up his ridiculous challenge, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Knowing the consequences to his head, he did neither.
    He had trouble believing some of the things he had said, but his memories were too clear to permit denial. Lucky that Clare Morgan hadn't come armed; she might have decided that it was her Methodist duty to rid the world of a parasitical nobleman. He almost smiled at the thought. He had rather enjoyed their encounter, though he devoutly hoped that after mature consideration she would decide to stay home and let their bargain lapse. A female like her could seriously unbalance a man.
    The door swung open and soft footsteps approached. Probably Barnes, coming to see if he was awake. Preferring to be left alone, Nicholas kept his eyes shut and the footsteps retreated.
    But not for long. Five seconds later, icy water sluiced over Nicholas's head. "Bloody hell!" he roared, coming up swinging. He'd kill Barnes, he'd bloody kill him.
    It wasn't his valet. Nicholas opened his bleary eyes to find Clare Morgan, who stood a safe distance away with an empty china pitcher in her hand.
    At first he wondered if he was having an unusually vivid nightmare, but he could never have imagined the expression of sweet superciliousness on Clare's small face, nor the cold water that saturated his nightshirt. He snarled, "What the devil did you do that for?"
    "Tomorrow morning has turned into tomorrow afternoon, and I've been waiting for three hours for you to wake up," she said calmly. "Long enough to have a cup of tea, organize my list of requests for Penreith, and make a brief survey of the house to see what needs to be done to open the place properly. Rather a lot, as I'm sure you've noticed. Or perhaps you didn't—men can be amazingly unobservant. From sheer boredom, I decided to wake you. It seemed like the sort of thing that a mistress might do, and I'm trying my best to fill the role you have assigned me."
    She spoke with a hint of lilting Welsh accent and a rich, husky voice that made him think of aged whiskey. Coming from a prim spinster, the effect was startlingly erotic. Wanting to discomfit her, he said, "My mistresses always wake me up in more interesting ways. Care for me to explain how?"
    "Not particularly." She took a towel from the washstand and handed it to him.
    He roughly dried his hair and face, then blotted the worst of the water from his nightshirt. Feeling more human, he tossed the towel back to Clare.
    "Do you get drunk often?" she inquired.
    "Very seldom," Nicholas said dourly. "Obviously it was a mistake to do so this time. If I had been sober, I wouldn't have to endure you for the next three months."
    With a look of demure malice, she said, "If you decide not to go through with this, I won't think less of you."
    Nicholas blinked at hearing his own words thrown back at him. "You've a tongue like a wasp." He glowered at her until she began to look distinctly uneasy, then finished, "I like that in a woman."

Dangerous to KnowI warn you, I will be writing more posts like this.  Partly because until I finish writing my third YA, I’m not going to have a lot of time for deep research or deep thought for new blogs.  But also because I enjoy revisiting my older stories which are gaining new life in e-editions, and remembering how they came together.  (

The book cover is for Dangerous to Know, which was a trade paperback that included The Diabolical Baron packaged with my one Western novella, "Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know."   Isn't he a handsome devil?)

So—do you find it interesting to see how stories developed?  Are you interested in traditional Regencies and the older, longer, lusher historicals? 

Let’s talk about it!  One commenter between now and midnight Tuesday will get a print copy of either The Diabolical Baron or Thunder and Roses.

Mary Jo


Cara/Andrea here, inviting you to come on another peregrination . . .

Between the glittering elegance of London’s ballrooms, the bubbling charms of Bath’s Pump Room and the rugged splendor of Scotland’s Highlands, Wales—and the Welsh—tend to get overlooked in historical romance stories. I’m not sure why bucks of the ton and men in kilts get all the attention, for after a recent visit to the country, I came away utterly . . . enchanted!

Wales-flag Really, how can one not fall in love with a country that features Y Ddraig Goch—the Red Dragon—on its national flag. Dragons play a big role in Welsh mythology. The Historia Brittonum, which dates to around 820, contains the first written reference of the fanciful beast as the symbol of Wales. Ancient tradition then has it spreading its wings as the battle standard of King Arthur and other noble Celtic leaders.

Caerleon_Amphitheatre The Arthurian legends are part of the heart and soul of Welsh heritage. Camelot and the Round Table is said to have existed in the present-day town of Caerleon, which also was headquarters of the Second Legion Augusta, the Roman force which occupied this part of Britannia  from around 75 to 300 AD. Today, you can explore the impressive ruins of the bath complex built by the soldiers, and walk around a circular amphitheater built into the verdant meadows.

King_arthur It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in the 12th century wrote the first detailed accounts of the fabled ruler and his exploits. Arthur, Uther Pendragon, Merlin, Mordred—his Historia Regum Britanniæ, a chronicle of the lives of Britain’s rulers, served as inspiration for centuries of Welsh bards. (Geoffrey didn’t mention Camelot. That embellishment to the story originated in the French courtly romances of Chretien de Troyes.)

The_Mabinogion-8 These core tales of Arthur are also part of one of the most famous historic Welsh literary works—The Mabinogian. Inspired by folklore, myth and history, these collection of tales were part of the rich oral tradition of storytelling before being written down in the 13th century. They were first translated from Welsh into English in  the early 1800s by Lady Charlotte Guest, daughter of the 9th Earl of Lindsey , who worked from two late medieval manuscripts—the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. (Lady Charlotte traveled extensively in Europe after the death of her Welsh husband, and was an avis art collector. She bequeathed a wonderful ceramics collection to the V&A Museum, and an assortment of fans, playing cards and board games to the British Museum.)

An aura of mystery and magic pervade these imaginative tales—which I’ve been told shouldn’t be surprising, as  the Welsh are a people who love language, both written and spoken. Celts are renowned for their storytelling traditions, so poetry and song are deeply rooted in their culture. To this day, it’s given voice in a variety of artistic expression, both in English and in their wonderfully tongue-twisting native language. (Like the Scots and the Irish, the Welsh have an uneasy history with England. Conflict has colored the past centuries, both before and after the first Act of Union in 1536 joined Wales to its larger neighbor . . . but that is a subject for another time.)

Country2 Inspiration is easy to understand when you are in Wales. It is a small land of immense and scenic natural beauty—craggy coastline, sandy beaches, rolling meadows, majestic mountains. Though it’s only 8,00 square miles in size (roughly the size of Massachusetts) it features a great variety of terrain, from the bucolic pastures of the Wye Valley in the southeast to the rugged Snowdon Mountain range in the northwest. (Sir Edmund Hilary trained in Wales for his famous ascent of Mt. Everest.)

Carphillycastle For those of us who love history, Wales is equally alluring. Over 600 castles dot its hilltops and peaks, including Caerphilly, one of the largest in all of Europe, Castell Coch, built in the 19th century by the Marquess of Bute, and Caernarfon, a splendid Medieval fortress built by Edward I, where the present-day Charles was crowned Prince of Wales. There is also a wealth of fascinating museums and libraries to explore. Or you can meander through the winding country roads, visiting places like Caerfyrddin, said to be the birthplace of Merlin, and Llyn y Fan Fach, a remote lake in the Black Mountains which has its very own Lady of the Lake legend.

Hay And then there is Hay-on-Wye, a tiny town on the English border that is a must-see for anyone who loves the printed page. World famous for it antiquarian, specialty and secondhand bookshops—there are over 30 for a population of 1500—Hay-on-Wye holds an annual festival in late spring that draws people from all over the globe for author readings, panel discussions, and a general celebration of literature.  But even if you can’t make it for that week, the stores are open year-round, as is a large traditional market on Thursdays, which features antiques, crafts, flowers, homebaked goods and local foods.

Cheesestack Speaking of foods, all the wonderful things to see and do require a goodly amount energy. So it’s fortunate that Welsh food is so delicious. Make sure to stop often at one of the many charming tea shops. Welsh cakes, a sort-of flat scone dusted with sugar, and bara brith, a fruit cake laced with raisins and walnuts, are two of my favorite snacks. Salt marsh lamb and Usk Valley beef win culinary kudos. Oh, and don’t get me started on the amazing array of local artisanal cheeses. Teifi Celtic Promise, Cenarth Perl Las, Gorwydd Caerphilly . . . needless to say, I came home packing a few extra pounds—alas, on my person, not in my suitcase!

Ioan-gruffuddThis short tour does not nearly do justice to the magical kingdom that is Wales. (If you've never been to this part of Great Britain, I heartily recommend a visit!) Like Celtic bards of old, I could wax poetic for hours describing the hauntingly beautiful legends and landscapes. However, I shall leave you with just a last, short word. I dearly love my traditional British historical heroes—a London Corinthian, with gleaming Hessians and a perfectly tied Trone d’Amour still makes my heart go pitter-pat. And a Highlander with kilt and claymore is a sight to make any lady swoon. But after meeting a number of black-haired, blue-eyed Welshmen, with the lilt of laughter and poetry in their voices, I’m already imagining a hero for my new trilogy. His name is Gruffydd . . .or Rhys . . . or Ioan . . . (shown here is Welshman Ioan (Horatio Hornblower) Gruffudd as Lancelot. Need I say more?)

Now, how about you? Are you familiar with Wales and its legends? Did you love the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table as much as I did as a child? Or did you have a favorite tale or myth from another country. (My mother was Swiss, so I also grew up knowing all about William Tell and his famous apple!)