Mistress of Lies is the second book in the Mistress of Fortune series, set in 17th century London and featuring Isabel Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II who secretly makes her living as a fortuneteller. Coming from Carina Press in Fall 2014.

About the book:

For the past six years, Isabel Wilde, a mistress to England’s King Charles II, has made a good living disguised as a fortuneteller counseling London’s nobility. But lately, she’s suffered a downturn in visits to the room in Coal Yard Alley where she conducts her business and she’s worried about her future. So when the king invites her to move into Whitehall Palace, she’s tempted to do it, despite their tumultuous past.

Whitehall Palace circa 1675
The Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675.

Isabel’s plans are interrupted when a beggar girl named Susanna shows up at her home claiming to be the daughter of Isabel’s older brother, Adam Barber. Isabel’s always believed that Adam died alone, without wife or child, in plague-ravaged England whilst she was in Amsterdam at the behest of the king. But when Susanna reveals that Adam was actually murdered, Isabel feels she has no choice but to take up a seemingly impossible task: discover the truth about her brother’s death, twelve years after it happened.

Isabel’s investigation leads her through the gamut of London society, from bear baiting matches and brothels to the secretive world of wealthy goldsmith bankers. As she uncovers the truth about her brother’s dark past—in the process revealing the misdeeds of one of London’s most powerful citizens—she’s left to wonder whether the past is better left buried, especially when crossing the wrong person just might lead to her own burial.

There are a few real-life historical figures in the Mistress of Fortune series. King Charles II, for one. Nell Gywn, one of his mistresses, is another. Much has been written about both of them, so why would I include them as characters in my own novels when it’s already been done?

I’ll tell you why: for me, they’re too compelling not to include. The key, however, is not to regurgitate the same old material, the tired characterizations we’ve seen over and over again. Rather, my recreations of these characters are entirely of my own imagination, based upon what historical accounts have revealed them to be. It’s not easy, but it’s a whole lot of fun.

I personally dislike when historical fiction authors use real quotes as dialogue. Any authenticity it adds is negated by the contrivance it creates–it feels like info dump to me.

For example, today I’m writing a scene for my second novel, Mistress of Lies, in which Barbara Palmer appears. Barbara was perhaps the most well-known (certainly the most notorious) of King Charles II’s mistresses, and undoubtedly possessed more power, for more years, than any other. This is saying a lot, because Charles II had a lot of mistresses.

Portrait of Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland
Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Barbara is, in some ways, the nemesis of my protagonist, Isabel Wilde. Though she moved to France before the Mistress of Fortune series starts, she played a key role in Isabel Wilde’s history. Isabel, who in 1665 served as a spy in Amsterdam for the crown, was essentially sent there by Barbara Palmer, who was at that time the king’s most powerful mistress. Though nearly thirteen years have passed since then, Isabel will never forgive Barbara Palmer for her interference in her life.

She doesn’t appear at all in the series’ first book, Mistress of Fortune, though she is mentioned. She wasn’t supposed to appear in the sequel, Mistress of Lies, either. She was just a piece of backstory. But in plotting Mistress of Lies I found that I needed someone to reflect what Isabel Wilde’s life would be if she’d made different choices. Barbara Palmer is just that person.

Isabel Wilde, of course, is a fictional character. But not only was Barbara Palmer a real-life historical figure, she is one that has appeared many times in fictional accounts of the Restoration time period. Now I find myself with the challenge of portraying a different side of her than perhaps we’ve seen in the past. Barbara is usually shown at the pinnacle of her power, when she’s arrogant, selfish, and certain that she’ll never lose the king’s love. But my novels take place several years beyond that, when she’s been banished to France because she fell out of favor. In Mistress of Lies, she returns to London, hoping to regain her spot at Court. She’s still arrogant, but she’s also desperate and aging (at 38, she’s considered old).

There are many quotes attributed to various historical figures who lived during the Restoration. But I personally dislike when historical fiction authors use real quotes as dialogue. Any authenticity it adds is negated by the contrivance it creates–it feels like info dump to me. Rather, such quotes give me an idea of how the historical figure spoke, and what their sensibilities were–I use that in creating my own dialogue. But the words and actions I attribute to them are wholly my own. To me, that’s the only way to truly bring a real historical figure to life.

What do you think? Do you like it when authors use real-life historical figures in their fiction?

A Murder at Rosamund's Gate by Susanna Calkins

Today, April 23rd, marks the release of a novel I’ve been looking forward to very much: A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE by Susanna Calkins. It tells the story of Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century English chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate. Her life, an endless repetition of polishing pewter, emptying chamber pots, and dealing with other household chores, is interrupted when a fellow servant is ruthlessly killed, and someone she loves is wrongly arrested for the crime.

Susanna kindly accepted my invitation to chat about our novels, both of which are set in Restoration England and feature strong female protagonists who must struggle against the gender and class constraints of their time in order to achieve their goals.

HW: When I tell people I’ve written a historical mystery they often comment on how much research it must’ve taken and how daunting that is. But I actually found that writing a story set 350 years ago was freeing in some ways.  I like the world building involved in reconstructing a historical time period for the purposes of my fiction. Plus, I’m a complete geek about the Restoration so I found my research a pleasure. Did you find the research you did for A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE at all daunting?

SC: I started doing research in early modern English history when I was a graduate student, years before I began to put A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE to paper. I had come across some really interesting murder ballads from the 1650s when I was writing a paper on “gender patterns in domestic homicide in 17th c. England.” Later those ballads became the impetus for my novel. So, for me, doing historical research was always part of what I loved about being a historian. So, in A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE, I wanted to place my heroine in some deeper themes, reflecting what I knew about gender (specifically the role of working class women), religion, politics, and culture.

What themes did you explore in DIARY of BEDLAM?

HW: At first, I only knew I wanted to write a story set during the Restoration. But as I got to writing, my protagonist evolved into a fairly complex person–she’s been a mistress to the King for fifteen years and at his behest, she operated as a spy against the Dutch. She lost her brother in the plague and she’s served time in prison. I was surprised, however, when the subject of motherhood entered her story, and realized it’s because of my own relationship with motherhood (I don’t have children and don’t plan to) that I wanted to explore the subject with her.

The story takes place during the Popish Plot so religion, politics and the corruption of the court all play big roles in the story as well.

In an interview I read, you indicate that you’re not overly fond of using real-life people as characters (I paraphrased that, obviously). Which, if any, real-life people did you use in the novel, and why?

SC: I don’t think I have any “real” historical figures in my novel, although of course I mention important figures from time to time (Charles II, the diarist Pepys, as well as the murderess Anne Scarisbruck). I don’t have anything against other writers who fictionalize historic figures–Sam Thomas, for example, quite admirably fictionalizes the midwife Bridget Hodgson in A MIDWIFE’S TALE. I don’t like when historical figures are either romanticized (made to seem more important and perfect than they were) or trivialized (diminished as a punch line). There’s too much ‘Great man’s history’ as it is; I don’t like to add to that in the public imagination.

Is your heroine, Isabel Wilde, a real historical figure? She sounds like Aphra Behn, the famous writer, who was also a spy. Did Behn’s life influence you at all?

HW: Two parts of Isabel’s backstory come from Aphra Behn: the spying, of course, and the prison time for debt. But I’ve got other real-life people who appear: King Charles II is a character and the murder itself is based upon a true crime that was never solved. For me, there was never any question that Charles II would be an actual character in the book and not just mentioned. He’s not a main character, but the scenes in which he appears were definitely the most fun to write.

Tell me a little bit about your protagonist, Lucy Campion. I’m assuming that she is, in some ways, a woman of her time, but I want to know how she rises the above the constraints of her place in society (that of a chambermaid) in order to achieve her goals in the novel.

Author Susanna Calkins
Photo by Lisa Bagadia

SC: Even though Lucy was not particularly well-educated, I wanted her to have a lively, inquisitive mind. I deliberately placed her in a small household run by a thoughtful magistrate–someone who would not shut the door on a good idea just because it came from a woman and a servant. There was, after all, a progressive spirit of Enlightenment thought that was infusing the thinking of more educated people at the time. If Lucy had been in a different type of household, she might well have been beaten for some of things she did, and than that would have been the end of her curiosity and her pursuit of justice. What’s the fun of that? Moreover, at the time of the plague, and certainly after the Great Fire, there was an unprecedented social mobility in England, as servants rose up and took over their master’s trades and households. (If everyone else flees or dies, who’s around to say something isn’t yours?)

Why did you come to focus on the murder of Edmund Godfrey? How did you come across it? I think it’s told in Magnolia…did you ever see that movie?

HW: The story, as told in Magnolia, is more about the coincidence of Green, Berry, and Hill, three men who were falsely accused and executed of the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. Godfrey’s body was found at what is today known as Primrose Hill, but for a time, the location was known as Greenberry Hill. It has a small mention in Magnolia.

I came upon Sir Edmund’s murder quite randomly–it was a featured entry on Wikipedia’s home page one day when I happened to be looking for inspiration and I thought it might work for my plot. I soaked up every account of his killing I could find and constructed my story from there. Though his murder is a true historical event, my telling of it is fiction, through and through.

I find myself now in the exciting but daunting position of writing a sequel to DIARY OF BEDLAM. I know you’ve written an sequel to A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE. I’m curious to know what your experience has been writing a second Lucy Campion novel. Was it easier? Will there be others in the series?

SC: Yes, I’ve finished the sequel, tentatively titled FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS, which like ROSAMUND’S GATE, gets its title from a fictional pamphlet which relates to the murder. I really enjoyed writing the sequel, if only to continue with my characters. This book picks up about 2 weeks after the last one left off, in the aftermath of the Great Fire. Lucy, like many Londoners, is pressed into service to help with the massive cleanup. A body is discovered in a barrel outside of an old tavern; the man was clearly murdered before the Fire. Unbeknownst to others, a pickpocket takes a little bag off the body and passes it to Lucy. Inside are a number of odd objects, including a poem, which Lucy convinces the local printer to publish as a pamphlet. She begins to be targeted by some people who believe she knows the secret of the man’s murder.

What was the funniest or more surprising question you got from people when they found out you had written a novel?

HW: Honestly, I haven’t gotten what I thought was a funny response to me writing a novel. I’d been talking about it since I was a teenager, and after a failed attempt to write one ten years ago, they were probably thinking “finally,” or “yeah, right.” But for the most part, people have been really supportive. What about you?

SC: Supportive yes, but a lot (A LOT!) of people asked me how much sex was in my novel. First question! Yikes!


Yikes indeed! Well, my response to Susanna’s writing a novel is obviously “YAY!” There’s nothing I like more than a good historical novel set in my favorite time period, Restoration England. Thank you, Susanna, for stopping by my blog and congratulations on your Book Birthday.

Susanna Calkins is an educator and faculty developer by day and a writer by night. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons.

King Charles II ruled England from 1661 until his death in 1685

You may have noticed the recent “NEXT BIG THING” meme popping up on your favorite writer’s websites. Last week, Naomi Hirahara, author of the Edgar Award-winning Mas Arai series, tagged me and a handful of other writers, including Gar Anthony Haywood, SJ Rozan, Sujata Massey, and Ed Lin to write about our NEXT BIG THING. So here’s mine:

1) What is the working title of your next book?

DIARY OF DECEPTION. It’s the second novel featuring Lady Isabel Wilde, a favorite in the court of King Charles II of England who secretly makes her living disguised as fortuneteller Mistress Ruby.

2) Where did the idea come from?

Originally the idea came from a contemporary news story about a girl with amnesia who showed up in NYC and didn’t know who she was or how she got there. As the idea evolved, I realized I wanted to explore Isabel Wilde’s family history, particularly that of her deceased brother, Adam, and how she’d react if she discovered he’d harbored secrets from her.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Historical mystery

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The only part I’m sure of is Federico Castelluccio as King Charles II. He’d be perfect.

Federico Castelluccio

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When a young girl claiming to be Isabel Wilde’s deceased brother’s daughter comes into Isabel’s life, she tells Isabel that her father was murdered, not killed in the plague as Isabel has always believed, driving Isabel to investigate a twelve-year-old death to learn the truth.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I can’t talk about the details publicly yet but a couple of exciting things are in the works!

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Thus far it’s only a book proposal! But DIARY OF BEDLAM, the first novel in the series, took about six months to write. I expect DIARY OF DECEPTION will take less time.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The story bears similarities to Sue Grafton’s “O” IS FOR OUTLAW in that both Kinsey Milhone (Grafton’s protagonist) and Isabel must revisit events of the past in order to learn the truth about someone they care about. In Isabel’s case, she’s forced to confront some discomfiting secrets about her beloved brother.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve wanted to write a novel set in Restoration London for almost as long as I can remember. DIARY OF BEDLAM was that novel, and for a long time I thought it would be a standalone. Now it’s looking very much like it will be a series of at least 2 books. So my inspiration for DIARY OF DECEPTION has really been recent developments pertaining to DIARY OF BEDLAM.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The Isabel Wilde books are not romances, but she does have an ongoing relationship with King Charles II that is kind of steamy. My favorite scenes to write are the ones in which he appears because I think I’ve succeeded in creating a monarch who is well aware of the power he wields but very human at the same time. I kind of have a crush on him.

On December 12, be sure to visit these authors to see what their NEXT BIG THING is:

Lisa Brackmann – Author of ROCK PAPER TIGER and GETAWAY
Travis Richardson – Author of LOST IN CLOVER
Eric Beetner – Most recently, the author of THE DEVIL DOESN’T WANT ME
Susanna Calkins – Author of the upcoming A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE

I’m looking forward to reading what these great writers have in store!

“And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave: for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!” – Samuel Pepys

As you can see, I’ve got a new home on the web. I wasn’t going to post anything here until tomorrow as I’m still “populating” the new website, but something happened today that I thought was worthy of a short post.

You see, the famous restoration diarist, Samuel Pepys, recorded the last entry in his journal on this day 1669. Modern readers have a variety of resources for reading Mr. Pepys historic diary, but since I started writing Diary of Bedlam, my favorite has been the daily postings by Phil Gyford on The Diary of Samuel Pepys website. You can read the last entry here.

Writers like me owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Pepys, for his diary is an invaluable documentation of what life was like in late 17th century London. Diary of Bedlam takes place several years after Mr. Peyps’s diary ends, but his record of Charles II’s London was a cornerstone of my research.

And so I will take this opportunity both to introduce you to my new website and to thank Mr. Gyford for creating the Pepys Diary website. What a wonderful project.



In 1912, workmen discovered a box of jewelry hidden under the floorboards of a house in Cheapside. The jewelry has been dated to between 1600-1650, and it was the work of a jeweler who supplied jewelry to wealthy merchants and their wives. This discovery, which included about 230 pieces of jewelry, is known as the Cheapside Hoard. If you're interested in the history of the discovery, I recommend you visit the link.

Many of the pieces are displayed at the Museum of London, which Mick and I visited when we were there in July. Having read about the Cheapside Hoard, I was excited to see these pieces. What struck me more than anything else is that they are so similar to pieces we wear today. Goes to show there's no such thing as an "original" design.

My apologies for the quality of the photos. They were taken of the jewelry in cabinets, and in a dark room, so they hardly show the color and quality of the gems.


The earring above is comprised of iolites, and the dangling gem is an amethyst. Like most of the pieces in the collection, gold is the primary metal used in the designs.


This is an especially striking piece. I'm not 100% sure what the gemstones are, but they look like aquamarines and pearls. They make me want to run out to my jewelry studio and create my own version of these beautiful earrings.


Many of the pieces in the Cheapside Hoard feature enamel over gold. These cross earrings are one of the more exquisite examples.


These rings are made with emerald cabochons. Like the earrings above, they make me want to try to recreate them. I have talked about the fact that my main character wears a ring her brother made for her and have even created sketches for it. However, after seeing these rings, I wonder if Isabel Wilde didn't wear one.


This is a simple pin that looks to be turquoise, or perhaps enamel, set in gold.


This ring was one of my favorite pieces because of its simplicity. It's a beautiful sapphire set in gold. Definitely something I could make for myself and similar to pieces I've already made.

More than anything, this collection of jewelry captures my imagination. It is an example of all the types of things my characters may have worn. My dream is to own a piece of jewelry made during this time period, but that will require the selling of an awful lot of books. In the meantime, maybe I'll get in the studio and make my own.

389px-Charles_II_of_England Someone in my online class asked my why Charles II was my favorite English monarch and this is what I replied:

I suppose part of my liking for Charles II is based on childish romanticism. My first knowledge of him came from Forever Amber, which was a fictionalized and quite idealistic view of him. But even knowing what I know now about his backstairs dealings with France and his tendency toward absolutism, I think of him more as a pragmatist than a tyrant (not that the word tyrant applies in the least) and the English parliament had a much stronger role in his reign than in those of previous monarchs so he resorted to secret deals to get what he wanted on more than one occasion.

Charles was also deeply interested in science and learning and promoted it throughout his reign.

His religious tolerance is of interest but to be honest I think it goes back to his pragmatism, not his morality. His own religion, if he had it, ran mostly toward Catholicism but even in that, not too strongly. He converted to Catholicism on his deathbed but I think he would have done it a lot earlier if he truly believed religion to be an integral part of life. It may have ultimately been a means of salvation, but certainly not something to adhere to day-to-day so he waited until the last minute to convert. He kind of had a live and let live attitude, though critics would probably call him wishy-washy.

Finally, the restoration was a unique period in English history and I find the contrast between puritanism and the "merry" time that followed appealing. He was looked upon as a savior (from puritanism at least) of sorts by the English populace, and though he believed in the "Divine Right of Kings" and his rightful place on the throne, in the end, he was just a man who wanted to enjoy life and didn't mind so much if his subjects did too.

Hannah Wolley was kind of the Martha Stewart of late the 17th century in England. She authored books like The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1673) and The Queen-Like Closet (1672). The 17th century housewife went to her for advice on all manner of subjects, including recipes for the popular “medicinal” cures of the time.

What follows is a few of these “cures.” I’ve transcribed them so they make sense to the modern reader, but I tried to keep the charm and rhythm of the original language.

The Plague Water:
Take three pints of muskadine, boil therein one handful of sage and one handful of rue until reduced to two pints. Strain it, and put it back on the fire.

Beat together a penny’s worth of long pepper, a half ounce of ginger, and a quarter ounce of nutmeg and boil with the liquid covered with a cloth.

Add a penny’s worth of mithridate, two penny’s worth of Venice treacle, and one quarter pint of hot Angelica water.

Take one spoonful at a time, morning and evening, always warm if you are already diseased; if not, once a day is sufficient all the Plague time.

It is a most excellent medicine and never fails, if taken before the heart be utterly mortified with the disease, it is also good for the small pox and measles.

A Most Excellent Water for the Stone (kidney stones) or for the Wind Colic (gas)
Take two handfuls of saxifrage, one handful of thyme, two handfuls of perstons, two handfuls of philipendula, and an equal amount pellitory of the wall, two ounces of sweet fennel seeds, the roots of ten radishes, sliced, and steep all these in a gallon of milk warm from the cow. Then distill it in an ordinary still for four hours. Slice half an ounce of saxifrage stem and put it into the water bottle and keep it stopped with a cloth.

Take three spoonfuls at a time and fast from both eating and drinking for one hour after; you must make this water about midsummer; it is a very precious water and ought to be prized.

Walnut Water, or the Water of Life
Take green walnuts in the beginning of June, beat them in a mortar, and distill them in an ordinary still. Keep that water by itself.

About midsummer, gather some more, and distill hem as you did before. Keep that also by itself.

Take a quart of each and mix them together and distill them in a glass still and keep it for your use. The virtues are as follows:

It will help all manner of dropsies and palsies, drank with wine fasting; it is good for the eyes if you put one drop therein; it helps conception in women if they drink one spoonful at a time in a glass of wine once a day; it will make your skin fair if you wash with it; it is good for all the infirmities of the body and drives out all corruption, and inward bruises; if it be drunk with wine moderately, it kills worms in the body; whosoever drinks much of it shall live so long as nature shall continue in him.

Finally, if you have any wine that is turned, put it in a little vial or glass full of it, and keep it stopped with a cloth. Within four days it will come to itself again.

I've collected a lot of great reference books in my research of Diary of Bedlam, but by far my favorite is A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Captain Francis Grose. First published in 1785, it is a collection of slang words from all corners of society.

Here are a few of the entertaining words and expressions found in this volume:

Bum fodder – toilet paper

To cast up one's accounts – to vomit

Beard splitter – A man given to "wenching"

Dog's soup – rain water

Fart catcher – a valet or footman, from his walking behind his master or mistress

Lazybones – an instrument like a pair of tongs, for old or very fat people, to take something from the ground without stooping

Mantrap – a woman's private parts

Queen Street – a man governed by his wife is said to live in Queen Street

Soul doctor – a parson

Thingumbobs – testicles

Wool gathering - Saying to an absent man, or one in reverie, as in "Your wits are gone a wool gathering."

One thing that's also interesting about the dictionary is to see how many of the words we still use whose meanings are more or less the same as they were over 200 years ago. Expressions like elbow greasegift of gab, hodge podge, quack, ragamuffin, white lie, and ship shape all hail from this time.