DrakenHowdy from the snow-dusted mountain of Joanna.
The Ask A Wench question for November is:

"If you were writing a Historical Romance set in an unusual place and time — and you didn't have to worry about sales — where would you choose and when and why?"


Mary Jo has not only thought of writing about some of these exotic places. She's done it.

 As a kid in the classroom, I used to gaze at the map racks hanging from the blackboard, and I was particularly interested in the vast, empty tracts of Central Asia.  What was there?  How interesting it would be to visit!  So when I started to write, I thought it would be really cool to write a book set in Central Asia.

Oh, wait!  I did.  The book is called Silk and Secrets, and it was loosely based on a real rescue mission to Bokhara in the 1840s by Dr. Joseph Wolff, an eccentric Anglican missionary.  Wonderful material in his memoirs.  The last in that trilogy, Veils of Silk, was set in India, with adventure and mystery and romance.  But India isn't quite so far off the beaten path, historical romance wise.

Well, China could be interesting.  So very different from Western Europe, with an ancient civilization and an aura of mystery. Err…, I wrote that in The China Bride,  with a Chinese/Scottish heroine and an English hero with an explorer's heart. 

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Notorious - US Nicola here! With just over a week to go until the publication of my new book, Notorious, I am extremely excited! Notorious is book 4 in my Scandalous Women of the Ton series and it features many of the characters who have appeared earlier in the series including Alex and Joanna Grant from Whisper of Scandal.


As you know, ideas for books come from many different places and one of the inspirations for Notorious was Pride and Prejudice. When Lydia Bennet runs off with Wickham her sister Jane laments: “So imprudent a match on both sides!” Elizabeth, in speaking to Mr Darcy about the elopement is even more outspoken, believing that Wickham will ruin Lydia and certainly not marry her: “She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to… She is lost forever.”

Mr Darcy, of course, saves the day, by compelling Wickham to marry Lydia. Money changes hands to Wickham seal the deal. The match is made. And the idea came into my head: “What would happen if money changed hands to ensure that a match was broken rather than made?”

In the literature of the Georgian age, in the archives and in fiction we frequently read of imprudent matches and disapproving parents. Money, marriage and scandal could be closely linked. Servant girls were paid off if they became pregnant (I’ve come across a couple of examples of this in my researches into the Craven family!) Parents and trustees bought off fortune hunters in order to save their heiress daughters from throwing themselves away on unsuitable men. When I was researching a Yorkshire gentry family in the Regency period I came across a very curious payment in the ledgers to a young local man who was paid "to go away to London." At the time the family had a teenage daughter who was an heiress. Naturally my writer's imagination started to spark; perhaps he had been involved with the girl and the family wanted her to make a more upwardly moblile match so they paid him to go away… Thus the idea for Notorious was born; my heroine would be a match-breaker rather than a matchmaker, paid to distract impressionable young men of good family if they looked inclined to make an unsuitable match or to tempt rakes away from heiresses.

The Hero 

Whisper of Scandal - US I didn’t have far to look for a hero for Notorious. After Whisper of Scandal came out a number of readers contacted me to ask if James Devlin, cousin to Alex Grant in Whisper, was going to have his own story. The idea appealed to me very much. Dev is the sort of man my late grandmother would have described as “cocky.” She would have said it with a smile because Dev is handsome, self-made and a little bit brash but so charming that he gets away with it. He is a little too confident of himself and of his ability to attract women. In short he needs to be taken down a peg or two and my heroine, Susanna, is just the woman to do it.

Of course life for Dev is nowhere near as smooth as it appears on the surface. He is engaged to an heiress and appears to have the world at his feet but it is a fragile world. Both Dev and his sister Chessie are fortune hunters and in Notorious I try to show what a precarious and at times desperate situation that could be. Dev's other problem is that he is bored with a capital B. He's been a sailor, adventurer and explorer. Now he is at the beck and call of his heiress fiancée. He is losing his self- respect, which I felt was an interesting conflict to give my hero. 

Kerry One other unusual thing about Dev. He has inherited an unusual title, that of Hereditary Knight in the Irish peerage. There are three hereditary knighthoods of feudal origin in Ireland and they sound as though they come straight out of the legends of King Arthur: The Knight of Glin (The Black Knight), the Knight of Kerry (the Green Knight) and the White Knight, which is currently a dormant title. I couldn't resist giving my Irish hero such a romantic background! The picture is of County Kerry, a stunningly beautiful place.

The Heroine and the Cover Art

I won’t give away how Susanna, the heroine, falls into her profession of match-breaker.  Susanna 1 Suffice it to say she is a very beautiful woman who realises that her looks will enable her to escape poverty and keep her adopted family together. When my editor asked me to send her some pictures of what I imagined Susanna to look like, I was immediately able to visualise her and here she is! The picture is from a very long-running and well-known advertisement in the UK for financial services. This was Susanna, beautiful, slightly mysterious and definitely intriguing. I sent in the picture to my editor and was very amused when the cover art for Notorious arrived, featuring a “headless” heroine whose most prominent feature was her enhanced cleavage. Hmm. But they did keep the red and black colour scheme!

The Title

I very seldom choose the titles of my books, mostly because I am not very good at coming up with something that my editor and the marketing team consider sounds "right." The choice of the title Notorious was interesting to me. Susanna cannot be notorious because she operates secretly. No one can know she is a matchbreaker because that would give the whole game away. So it is actually Devlin who is the infamous one. By the end of the book, however, both Dev and Susanna are as scandalous as each other!

Tattersalls There is a fun trailer for Notorious here and here is a link to an excerpt if you would like to sample the story. I’ll be giving away a signed copy of the book to one person who comments between now and midnight Wednesday. Notorious is set in London and features a number of prominent London landmarks from Tattersalls bloodstock auctioneers (pictured) to St Pauls Cathedral. Do you have a favourite place in London that you have either visited or read about which you would enjoy seeing featured in a book?

Transports of Delight!

Nicola wenchmark Nicola here! I have a manuscript to get to my editor today (eek!) and so I hope you will forgive me for dusting down and updating a blog piece I wrote a few years ago for a different blog.

The book I’m sending in today is called Desired and it is the fifth book in my Scandalous Women of the Ton series. There has been a strong theme of travel throughout the series – in Whisper of Scandal the heroine travels to the Arctic on a ship, and in One Wicked Sin the hero and heroine escape in a balloon. (I had wanted them to escape on a canal barge but I thought it might be a bit slow!) Desired contains a great deal of travel in and around London, a sort of early sightseeing tour. What with all this jaunting around, plus the marvelous array of state carriages that featured at the recent Royal Wedding, I thought it might be nice to talk a little about coaches and horses. (Actually I thought the horses totally stole the show at the Royal Wedding. They were magnificent!) 

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to go to an illustrated talk about the Wedding horses history of carriages, given by Colin Henderson, who had been the Queen’s Head Coachman. Not only did he have some wonderful anecdotes about the Golden Jubilee but he had also worked as a riding specialist and stuntman on a number of films and included the role of highwayman on his CV! He gave us a brisk trot through the early history and background of carriages – the word coach, for instance, comes from the Hungarian Kote – but it was when we got onto the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that my note-taking went into overdrive because he had so many fascinating little details that I had never read in the books.

After explaining to us the difference between “the leaders” – the leading pair of horses – and the Postilion's uniform “wheelers,” the two closest to the carriage, he told us that to ride postilion meant riding one of the front horses and leading the other. This was a hazardous enterprise as it meant that one of your legs was between the two horses and was in danger of being crushed. Postilions wore a steel leg guard to protect them in this position. Here is a Russian postilion's uniform from 1825.

The provision of lighting on both the inside and outside of carriages has always Mail coach interested me so I asked if there was any illumination inside and was surprised to learn that there were candle-lamps inside a carriage as well as out. The smoke apparently made a mess of the upholstery! I had not quite appreciated what a hazardous business traveling at night could be, especially on the Mail Coach. The external lights carried no further than the first horse so you could not see the road ahead at all. Coachmen had to have extremely keen hearing to listen for the sound of approaching hooves. Since the mail carriages traveled at up to 10mph and some coachmen accelerated down the hills in order to gain momentum and make up time, the possibility of running into the back – or front – of another coach or hay wagon was very strong! I was also fascinated to hear that the coaches changed horses on average every 10 to 12 miles, or 15 on the flat, and that a change of horses took only 2 minutes, rather like changing the tires on a racing car! Mail Coaches were numbered like buses are now and 16 hands was the largest horse that could be used to pull a three and a half ton Mail Coach because anything taller didn’t fit under the coachman’s footboard. The picture is the Glasgow to London mail coach. Love the red livery!

There were also some fascinating facts about the Grand Tour. The Duke of Beaufort’s traveling carriage was decorated in Regency stripe and had secret lockers under the floor for his valuables. It was rather like a caravan; the cushions folded down to create a full-length bed! Other luxurious touches included silk-lined steps, which were folded up inside the carriage to protect them.

I enjoyed learning the derivation of a few other coaching-inspired words as well – the “fore-gone” was the carriage that you sent on a day ahead with your servants, linen and silver, so that when you arrived, everything was prepared (or concluded!) The phrase “cheerio” originally comes from calling for a sedan chair – chair ho!

Craven State carriage This picture is the Craven State Carriage, a Victorian coach said to rival in magnificence Queen Victoria’s royal carriage. It is painted with seven coats of yellow paint, the most expensive color used for livery. Queen Victoria would not have been amused to be outshone! My favorite anecdote from the Victorian period was that the footboards on ladies’ carriages were enormous because it was thought indelicate that a lady should have to sit looking at the horse’s posterior!

I hope you have enjoyed this quick gallop through a few coaching Notorious_350 anecdotes. What historical mode of transport would you choose for traveling? Would you like to drive a curricle or arrive in style in the Queen’s State Landau? I’m offering an advance copy of my next Scandalous Women of the Ton book, Notorious, to one commenter!


To the Regency Races!

Newbury Races Nicola here. I live near a racing village and today I’m reflecting on the pleasures of race going in the Georgian and Regency periods in my local area. I’ve been researching this not for a book I’m writing but for a talk I gave yesterday for the National Trust on gambling in the early 19th century.  In 1836 one member of the Craven family of Ashdown House bet 8000 pounds (about the equivalent of 400 000 pounds or 625 000 dollars in modern terms) against the favourite, Bay Middleton, in the Derby race. He lost. All that money lost on one horse in one race…


Arriving in Style


First you had to get to your racecourse, and a spectator’s means of transport, mode of arrival and Post chaise accommodation was defined by his class. The nobility and gentry, naturally, had their own carriages whilst families slightly lower down the social scale would arrive at the racecourse in a hired post-chaise which could travel at up to eight miles per hour and cost between sixpence and one shilling per mile.


The vast majority of spectators, however, arrived at a racecourse on foot and thought nothing of walking up to 15 miles to get there. The cheapest carriage that offered a public service was the covered wagon. The horse was led by a wagonner on foot and the vehicle travelled at walking pace. There are plenty of records of racing crowds travelling to the races at Newbury and Reading by stagecoach as well. These were drawn by four horses, carried six people inside and up to eleven clinging to the outside and in the late 18th century they charged fourpence per mile for the inside passengers and twopence for the outside ones. At seven to ten miles an hour travel by stage could be both dangerous and nausea-inducing, particularly at night on the downhill sections of the road.


The diligence was smaller and more comfortable than the stagecoach, carrying only four passengers inside and drawn by two horses. This also operated to a public timetable. Prices depended on whether it was a two wheeled variety or the more superior four wheeled one. 


Kennet and Avon canal The other alternative for some racecourses, depending on situation, was to arrive by water. Many rivers were navigable in the period. The Oxford races were served by the river Thames and with the opening of the canal system from the late 18th century onwards race-goers might have the option of a public boat service.  From 1810 the Kennet and Avon Canal ran a twice-weekly passenger barge which had priority over the slower goods barges.


There was no charge for entry to the racecourse for those who arrived either on foot or on horseback but carriages paid for the privilege of parking where there was a good view of the track. By 1800 most courses had grandstands where for the sum of five shillings the middle classes, and ladies in particular, could buy a comfortable view of the course away from the common crowds. The other benefit of the grandstand was that it was covered, which gave some protection against the weather, either stifling heat or a downpour of rain.  In her letters Jane Austen mentions the Basingstoke Races of 1813 as being a complete washout and at Abingdon in 1828 the fashionable ladies were drenched (presumably they had not bought grandstand seats) and the horses were apparently running knee deep in water.


Coaching inns in towns such as Marlborough, Newbury and Reading did extremely well for custom Coaching Inn Newbury during race weeks when they were usually full to overflowing. The other alternative for accommodation was to rent a house in the town for the period of the race meeting and some enterprising homeowners would either let their entire house or would rent out individual rooms. The inns offered special fixed price meals for race-goers during the period, rather like booking in for dinner, bed and breakfast these days. Usually the gentlemen and the ladies ate separately, though in 1829 the Star Inn at Oxford introduced mixed tables which must have caused quite a stir!


The Bet


Manchester racecourse The Georgian age was characterised by excessive gambling by the upper classes on just about anything that moved and some things that didn’t: horse races, beetle races, raindrop races, cards, cockfights, prize-fights, billiards and pedestrianism were a few of the events or sports that could be bet upon. Gentlemanly wagers at the races were initially conducted on a credit basis, one to one, off the course but in response to the demand for some fixed premises for these deals, Richard Tattersall, a horse auctioneer, set up the first betting shop at Hyde Park Corner in 1815. The entry conditions for Tattersalls were both financially and socially stringent, demanding as good a breeding in the customer as in the horse, as well as financial liquidity. Nor was gambling on the horses confined to men. A poem by Lord Abingdon called Adieu to the Turf makes reference to creditors circling Lady Bampfylde who was a racehorse owner and prominent patron and gambler.


Further down society, wealthy farmers were showing an interest in field sports and gambling. They would think nothing of losing £40 a day (several thousand pounds in today’s terms) at one race meeting. And amongst the working classes a day at the races was also popular. In 1784 La Rochefoucauld commented that: “a great number of people economise all through the year for the pleasure of risking the product of a year’s privation on one five-minute fling.”


In the beginning, racing wagers were unwritten and were settled the following day at the local coffee house. However by 1805 betting stands had become a feature of most racecourses with bookmakers called blacklegs. These were generally men from humble origins whose name derived from the top boots they wore because they could not afford stockings. Many were men of their word when it came to settling betting winnings but it was not unknown for a blackleg to decamp from the course without paying out to his customers.


It took some time for race results to become known as there was no mass communication.  Mail coach Beagle drivers were crucial in spreading the word of the results of important meetings. For really vital results carrier pigeons and even trail-trained hounds might be used to carry the news to interested parties in the surrounding coutryside. I love the idea of a beagle arriving at your door with the racing results attached to it's collar!


Other Entertainments


This was of course the age of both national and private lotteries so the opportunities for betting were not confined to the horses. One racecourse ran raffles during race week with valuable prizes such as a “high bred bay mare” one year and a four wheeled post chaise another. There were plenty of other ways to lose your money at the racecourse as well, including gambling sideshows such as the game of pitch and toss for money. Between 1805 and 1815 the town of Newbury in Berkshire banned EO betting (the precursor to roulette) in the town in race week so that gamblers were tempted to spend more on the racecourse. Billiards matches tended to follow the racing calendar as well and heavy bets were placed on the outcome of these.


Bartholomew Fair 1808 On the course itself, vendors of beer and food could rent a pitch for their booth. There were shooting galleries, musical entertainments, acrobats, high wire dancers, fire-eaters, performing dogs and gypsy fortune tellers. Crime was rife on the racecourse with some booths taken by confidence tricksters intent on taking money off naïve victims. Pickpockets mingled with the crowds, as did prostitutes soliciting for business.


Cockfights and prize-fights also took place during race weeks and were popular across the social spectrum. Cockfighting was considered a gentleman’s sport but fell into disrepute by the 1820s. Prize-fighting was technically illegal after 1750 but the ban was widely ignored and after the 1809 Abingdon Races finished a crowd of thousands gathered to watch a 50 round fight which lasted almost two hours.

More salubrious were race week balls. These were held in the local assembly rooms and were priced at five shillings for the ladies and seven and sixpence for the gentlemen, very much an event for the gentry and aristocracy. The Newbury Mansion House Ball of 1805 was described as attracting guests of “the first fashion and distinction.” 


Theatres also ran special race week programmes with different plays each night and actors and Bath Theatre actresses from London.  At Newbury’s Pelican Theatre the boxes cost three shillings, the seats in the pit two shillings and the gallery one shilling. Henry Thornton’s acting company toured the race towns frequently with a cast that included Dorothy Jordan, the Duke of Clarence's former mistress. Attendance at race balls and theatre performances meant that the ladies required the specialised of services of hairdressers and perfumiers brought in from London. Provincial hairdressers were not considered skilled enough to meet the requirements of their aristocratic clientele!


The Newbury Coat


One extraordinary wager that I came across when I was reading about gambling and racing was the story of the Newbury Coat.  Newbury was a very famous racing town and the populace of the period well accustomed to gambling. Mr John Coxeter, a cloth manufacturer in Newbury, commented to Sir John Throckmorton that he could take the coat from Sir John’s back, reduce it to wool and turn it back into a coat again all in the space of a day. Sir John was so taken with this idea that he laid a bet of 1000 guineas that at eight o'clock in the evening of June the 25th 1811 he would sit down to dinner in a well-woven, properly-made coat, the wool of which had still been on the sheep’s backs at five o'clock that same morning. (Presumably he didn't want to sacrifice the existing coat and fancied a new one!)


Newbury Coat Thousands of people turned out to watch the bet take place; there was even a refreshment tent provided. The sheep were shorn, the wool was washed, stubbed, rove, carded, spun and woven. The tailor had already taken Sir John’s measurements and was ready to leap into action. Ten men worked at

cutting out, stitching, pressing, and sewing on buttons and at twenty minutes past six that evening Mr. Coxeter presented the coat to Sir John Throckmorton, who put the garment on before a crowd of over five thousand people. Sir John took dinner with forty gentlemen at eight o'clock in the evening wearing the coat, which was a large hunting coat in the admired dark Wellington colour, a sort of a damson tint. It had been completed in the space of thirteen hours and ten minutes. The wager had been won with an Whisper of Scandal - US hour and three quarters to spare.


If you attended the Georgian races would you be in the grandstand or prefer to mingle with the crowd? Would you enjoy the races or the fortune-teller’s tent or would gambling simply not be for you? I’m giving away an ARC of my new book Whisper of Scandal, which does not feature racing at all, to one person who leaves a comment between now and Sunday morning!