Perhaps you're wondering if I mistyped that. Undertaker? That's right; the book's feisty and resolute heroine is a dismal housekeeper, but a very successful undertaker. When the book opens, Violet Morgan operates a funerary business with her then-husband Graham. As the story evolves, the reader quickly learns that it is Violet--her business savvy, hard work and empathy--that makes Morgan Undertaking a success. Let's chat with Christine and learn a little bit about her heroine, her creative process and historical research.
R8: Christine, most historical fiction focuses on women of leisure but Lady of Ashes (LOA) is the fourth in what I call your "career woman" series. What draws you to create stories about working women during this time period?
CT: Well, I’ve actually written about working women from the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th century. The Queen’s Dollmaker, about a dollmaker to Marie Antoinette, was set in France and England of the Revolutionary period. I’ve also written about an apprentice to the great waxworker, Madame Tussaud (A Royal Likeness), as well as having written a Regency-set piece about a cloth merchant (By the King’s Design).
I think a lot of traditional professions (seamstresses, fan-makers, lacemakers, and so forth) have been done really well by several authors, and I thought it would be interesting to explore more off-beat professions a woman might have. The ideas for the professions mostly stem from my own interests.
For example, I have an extensive doll collection, and when I learned that Marie Antoinette collected dolls, it really made me wonder about who would have supplied them to the queen. I’ve also visited Madame Tussauds in several cities, and have always been fascinated by the art of waxworks. In By the King’s Design, the hero is a cabinetmaker, which is homage to my husband, who is my very own talented cabinetmaker hero.
R8: What prompted your interest in undertaking and funerary occupations for your characters? In your research, did you find examples of women undertakers? Was this an unusual occupation for a woman?
CT: The idea for Lady of Ashes actually came from a writer friend of mine, Mary Oldham, who suggested to me that an undertaker would be a “fun” profession to explore for a heroine. Indeed it was. I was amazed at how much there was to the funeral business beyond black dresses, black bunting on the windows, and those silly bell-ringer coffins. For example, did you know that when someone died, all of the household clocks would be stopped? It was a signal that time had stopped for the deceased, and he needed to know this so that he could move on to the other side.
Also, embalming was not widely practiced until the U.S. started using it during the Civil War, to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers who might need to make long train rides home. British Victorians found embalming to be a very un-Christian practice, because it amounted to filling a body full of nasty chemicals and then committing it to the ground. Who says the Victorians weren’t environmentally conscious?
As for existing female undertakers…they would be unusual indeed. I have no doubt that there were women who worked in undertaker shops with their husbands, and who may have inherited the shops when their husbands died, but it wouldn’t have generally been a “seemly” practice for a woman. After all, women did not frequently even attend funerals, much less coordinate them!
It was difficult to find detailed information about specific undertakers of the Victorian era. I think this was primarily because funerary practices were—and still are today—closely held secrets. Now, if you want to hear about a Victorian era undertaking scandal, let me know, and I’ll tell you about the undertaking team of Hutton and Williams…
R8: Not only is Violet a career-minded woman, but she is also interested in medicine and science—almost unheard of I assume at that time period. Further, Violet is a self-proclaimed failure as housekeeper. Why were these traits important in developing Violet's character?
CT: I wanted Violet to be a really great, scrupulous undertaker. But I didn’t want her to be perfect, because that would be boring. So I decided that as a lousy housekeeper, she would be a Victorian rarity—a woman who isn’t domestic AND dallies in a man’s profession.
R8: LOA is set in a very realistic London between 1861 and 1865. How do you research the time period for one of your books?
The Buckingham Palace Mews (horse stables) will figure prominently in
the book I am currently writing. Here I am with an audio tour.
CT: Lots of books and lots of Internet time, but I also do original research too. I always try to find several significant historical events during my time period that I can weave my characters through, as well as having them interact with real historical personages (some famous, and some obscure).
R8: As a reader, I love learning little tidbits of historical information. While several things caught my eye, I'll mention one here: Mr. Crapper and his amazing flush toilet. Unlike our good friends with the X and Y chromosomes, I'm usually not interested in scatological detail, but when I read that Violet's home had one of "Mr. Thomas Crapper's brand-new water closet mechanisms," I admit I ran to Wikipedia right away to learn more. So, how did this piece of information come to your attention? And what did you learn about Crapper & Co and their slogan,"a certain flush with every pull?"
CT: Well, this goes back to the “lots of books” part of my research. I have a book called The Compleat Loo. Enough said. After all, who isn’t interested in how people once did their business?
R8: In LOA and your earlier novels, the heroine's story is intertwined with royalty and famous people of the time. Tell us about weaving Albert and Victoria into Violet's story.
CT: Actually, my editor liked the weaving of my heroine with Marie Antoinette in The Queen’s Dollmaker, and wanted me to continue the practice of commoners interacting with royalty in subsequent books. Prior to writing Lady of Ashes, I knew quite a bit about Victoria, but almost nothing about Albert. Theirs was quite an interesting romance, and she was completely devastated when he died.
Rockville 8 members may be interested to
learn that I ran into fellow WRW chapter-mate, Mindy Klasky,
while standing inside Walter Raleigh’s prison cell at the
Tower of London. How weird is that??
You learn some really weird stuff when you research undertaking.
R8: With LOA you introduced an element of intrigue and mystery. How did that come about and where do you think that will take you?
CT: As I researched historical events in my time period, I learned about an unusual killer who was on the loose at the time. I’ll say no more lest I spoil the plot. But I really wanted to incorporate the killer, which led me to a bit of a side mystery plot. As a result, Lady of Ashes is becoming a series, with the heroine now an amateur detective.
R8: Can you give us a sneak peek of what you're working on next?
CT: I’ve turned in the first sequel to Lady of Ashes, and am working on the next book of Violet’s adventures. You can expect more details about Victorian-era undertaking in each book. Fingers crossed that my publisher will want to buy more.
R8: In the photo on the right, Christine is standing on the very windy Westminster Bridge where Violet will have a harrowing experience in the sequel to Lady of Ashes, so stay tuned for the next book in the Lady of Ashes series (click here).
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