Monday 22 April 2013

Author Interview & Book Spotlight: Susanna Calkins

About the Author:

Susanna Calkins is a historian and academic, currently working at Northwestern University. She’s had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England ever since she was in grad school, when she was first working on her Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives—tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange—inspired her historical mysteries, including A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she lives outside Chicago now with her husband and two sons.

Do you plan everything or just let the story flow?

I tend to do a little of both. I’ve learned that it’s helpful to think through the general shape of the story, with a few guideposts built in along the way, but I tend to just let the first draft be a process of discovery.

Do your characters ever want to take over the story?

No, because they know they might be murdered if they do.

What is your favourite food?

Indian and Thai—vegetarian.

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

Let’s put it this way…the only time I see dawn is when I’ve been up all night. It’s nice. I see why people like it.

Where do you dream of travelling to and why?

I’d like to see all the wonders of the world—the ancient wonders, the modern wonders, the natural wonders, the man-made wonders. There are a lot of wonders in this world, and I want to see them all. Oh, and Anarctica, which never seems to make any of the ‘wonders’ lists.

Do distant places feature in your books?

Well, my book is set in 17th century London, which may not seem too distant for readers of this blog! For my characters, there is a sense of awe of the New World (the Massachusetts Bay Colony).

Do you listen to music while writing?

Not really, but my husband will often have the TV on. I just tune it out.

Could you tell us a bit about your latest release?

My first novel—A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate—is the first in a series featuring Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate. When someone she loves faces hanging for the murder of a fellow servant, Lucy must interpret the clues hidden in miniature portraits, popular ballads, and a corpse’s pointing finger to save his life…all before the true murderer turns on her…

What have you learned about writing and publishing since you first started?

I’ve learned that writing the book is only the first step in a really long path towards publication. More specifically, I’ve learned about the importance of social media in forging connections and promoting my book. I’ve also learned that rejection can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and it’s crucial to celebrate the little successes along the way.

Is there anything you would do differently?

I would have figured out who my murderer was before I wrote the first 200 pages of the book. I was enjoying writing about the murder so much, and its impact on Lucy and the other characters, that I forgot to figure out this crucial piece of information! Had I figured it out sooner, I might have saved myself much hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth.

Who, or what, if anything has influenced your writing?

My story was very much influenced by my background as a historian. More specifically, I love the historical mysteries of Anne Perry, Charles Todd and Rhys Bowen, so I suspect they influenced me as well.

Anything you would say to those just starting out in the craft?

Set achievable (realistic) goals, but be flexible in case you don’t meet them. Don’t worry about making your story perfect when you start, just get it down. Save the editing for later. Don’t compare yourself to others.

What's your favourite book or who is your favourite writer?

I don’t know why this feels like a cliché, but Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is truly a favorite.

Any websites/places readers can find you on the web.

Book Spotlight:

A Murder at Rosamund's Gate
by Susanna Calkins


For Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century English chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate, life is an endless repetition of polishing pewter, emptying chamber pots, and dealing with other household chores until a fellow servant is ruthlessly killed, and someone close to Lucy falls under suspicion. Lucy can’t believe it, but in a time where the accused are presumed guilty until proven innocent, lawyers aren’t permitted to defend their clients, and—if the plague doesn't kill the suspect first—public executions draw a large crowd of spectators, Lucy knows she may never find out what really happened. Unless, that is, she can uncover the truth herself.

Determined to do just that, Lucy finds herself venturing out of her expected station and into raucous printers’ shops, secretive gypsy camps, the foul streets of London, and even the bowels of Newgate prison on a trail that might lead her straight into the arms of the killer.

In her debut novel Murder at Rosamund's Gate, Susanna Calkins seamlessly blends historical detail, romance, and mystery in a moving and highly entertaining tale.


A great pounding at the door startled the chambermaid bending to light the morning hearth. Jerking upright, Lucy Campion swore softly as a bit of hot beeswax stung her wrist. Slapping the taper on the mantel, she sneaked a glance over her shoulder. She could hear Bessie and Cook rattling pots in the kitchen, but the rest of the magistrate’s household was still. Her muttered oath had not carried. Though theirs was not a stringent Puritan family, the magistrate frowned on ill language, and Lucy always took care not to annoy him.

Lucy was feeling out of sorts, though, having been awakened an hour too early—not to the usual sound of roosters crowing but instead to their frantic squealing. Local boys had been casting stones at the witless birds, all mercilessly shackled to wooden stakes on the street outside her window. Although the Church officially did not condone such activities, the community accepted that boys would have their fun. Fortunately only the servants, light sleepers that they all were, had been awakened by the disturbance. The rest of the household, the magistrate’s family, had slept blissfully on.

Now, tugging her skirts into place, Lucy moved across the long wooden floor into the great hall. Who could be calling? Deliveries from the haberdasher or the vintner usually were made at the kitchen entrance, and no decent visitor would call before the family had broken their morning fast.

As Lucy swung open the heavy oak door, her scolding words withered on her lips. Instead of a journeyman plying his trade, a straight-backed man in uniform regarded her sternly. Lucy recognized his red coat and insignia immediately. He was one of King Charles’s own men. Although Redcoats were a common enough sight throughout London, a soldier at the stoop, even at the magistrate’s household, disquieted her. Ever since she was a child, soldiers had filled her with unease.

He spoke without preamble. “I’m Duncan, the new constable. I must speak with the magistrate at once.”

Youthful mischief, no doubt. The boys had probably caused some damage with their early-morning antics. Lucy took a deep breath. “Of course, sir. I’ll fetch my master. Pray, warm yourself by the fire.”

Inside, Lucy saw the constable’s otherwise set face twitch in appreciation. The magistrate’s home was fine enough, it was true. The place was not quite so decorated as some, for the master had a mean practical streak and would not let his wife furnish as lavishly as she would like. Still, it had a pleasing elegance that well suited the master and his family. The house had three floors, with the living quarters on the first floor, the sleeping chambers on the second, and the maids’ cramped quarters on the very top floor. John, the master’s servant, slept with Cook, his wife, in the tiny niche behind the kitchen hearth, among the potatoes and onions. How they fit, Lucy had often wondered, as John was a great burly man and Cook an ample woman herself.

Even as she turned to locate John, the master himself appeared. He could have been in full magisterial garb instead of a simple sleeping gown, so dignified was his bearing. This morning, the habitual twinkling of his eye and rueful grin were missing, replaced by the slightest of frowns. He summoned the constable to his private chamber, and they disappeared down the hallway.

Bessie came from the kitchen then, her blue eyes wide, having passed the constable in the corridor. Like Lucy, she had been awake for some time, tending to the early-morning duties of the household.

Two years older than Lucy, Bessie was a farm girl from Lambeth hired by the master at a Michaelmas hiring fair some five years back. Before coming to the Hargraves, Bessie had been a nursery maid in a “family of quality,” tending to three small children. As she had confided to Lucy once, however, the master grabbed at her more than the tots did, and she was nearly thrown out when the mistress discovered her husband’s sneaking ways. She was in that household two years before ending her contract with the family. Bessie had quickly found the Hargraves’ household to her liking, just as Lucy did later. Master Hargrave paid well, son and father treated her courteously, and the mistress was not jealous of her pleasing ways.

Now Bessie giggled, revealing a large gap in her mouth where her tooth had cracked some years before. “So handsome, isn’t he?” she whispered. “I just love the gold on the constable’s red coat. I’ve never seen him before, though. Have you? I wonder where he came from.”

“I don’t know. Maybe Yorkshire?” Lucy guessed, for the soldier’s voice reminded her a bit of a distant cousin she had met once. But who could know? After King Charles was restored to the throne, he had dispersed many of his men throughout England, Ireland, and Wales, to help restore order. Likely as not, the soldier was far from his childhood home.

Cook soon swatted Bessie. “You’d best be getting to your chores and forget that constable. It’s not likely he brings good tidings at this hour,” she said, her pockmarked face growing impish. She winked at Lucy. “’Twould be best if you kept your mind on good honest boys like my Samuel.”

Bessie flounced off to tend to the mistress, her curls bouncing beneath her cap. Lucy hid a smile. Bessie despised Samuel, a stocky lad of fourteen years who as a child used to pull her curls with sticky fingers, and who now would pinch her rear when out of his mother’s sight. Thankfully, they saw him only rarely these days, for he had lately begun work as a fishmonger in Leadenhall.

Regarding the closed study door, Lucy wondered what business had brought the constable to the magistrate at such an hour. This was not altogether unusual, to be sure, since the magistrate often had constables and the like stopping by the household, but the grim set to this soldier’s jaw made her especially curious.

After a half hour, the constable left, and Lucy brought out the master’s breakfast to the dining room. There, the master downed his kippers and bread with a bit of wine, not lingering long, preferring to remain in his study until the noon meal. A member of the King’s Bench before the war, and a magistrate since Charles II’s return, he was beginning to write his memoirs when the assize courts were not in session. Lucy watched him closely. If he was bothered by the news Constable Duncan had brought, he hid it well.

* * *

Lucy’s curiosity about the stranger faded as she spent the next hour emptying chamber pots into the cesspit and shaking out rush mats on the stones outside the stoop. These heavy tasks numbed her fingers and made the sweat run down the back of her woolen dress. She had received the dress when she first entered service with the Hargraves two years before, when her dear mother had come down with consumption. When she bent over now, she realized anew how the dress was pulling across her front, although not as tightly as it had on Bessie, who had worn the dress before her.

Lucy was just starting to rub the pewter with marestail, a plant that smelled and turned her fingers green, when Cook called her into the kitchen. “Where’s your pocket?” she asked Lucy, taking down an old stone jar from an alcove above the cutting bench. “We’ve got guests for supper, and I need some ox tongue, coffee, and eggs from the market.” She counted out a few coins and handed them to Lucy. “Don’t pay more than six shillings, you hear me?”

“Oh, yes!” Lucy said, dropping the coins carefully in the pocket she kept hidden beneath her skirts. The promise of the unexpected jaunt made her fairly dance down the front path, despite the chill in the air.

As she opened the gate, someone called to her from the doorway. “Hold on a moment, Lucy.” It was Adam, the magistrate’s son. “I’ll accompany you to market.”

“Sir?” she asked. She did not know the magistrate’s son very well. He’d been at Cambridge for the last few years and had only just returned to the household three weeks ago to finish up his studies in law at the Inns of Court. Unlike Sarah, the magistrate’s daughter, and Lucas, the magistrate’s ward, Adam always heeded the difference in their relative stations. He treated Lucy and the other servants courteously but never teased them in the playful way he did his sister and Lucas. Certainly he’d never volunteered to walk her into town.

“’Tis no day for a lass to be traveling alone.” He started down the narrow cobblestone path. Seeing that she was still standing there, he tilted his head at her. “Coming?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, scrambling to keep up with his lanky pace.

A moment later they passed the cocks Lucy had heard that morning. Now they were battered, plucked, and no longer squawking. Mercifully, the birds were all dead, and their youthful tormentors had long fled. Some of their neighbors were cutting them off the stakes to pop into their kettles. Adam frowned but didn’t say anything.

“Yoo-hoo, Lucy!” one of the neighbors called, elbowing another servant in the ribs. It was Janey, the most miserable gossip on the street. “Where are you off to?”

“Market,” Lucy responded through gritted teeth, trying not to flush at Janey’s knowing smirk. She’d already been treated to Janey’s vile opinions about what the gentry believed was their due. Seeing Lucy with the magistrate’s son would certainly fuel the morning’s gossip. Lucy shook her basket at her. “See?” With that, Lucy picked up her step, Adam matching her easily. Soon they were beyond sight of their neighbors’ spying eyes.

As they walked along the dusty road to Covent Garden, Lucy found herself chattering far more than she usually did, trying to mask her discomfort at his presence. Why had Adam chosen to accompany her? she wondered. Did he think she wasn’t safe?

Adam barely spoke at all during their half hour trek, and indeed, she was not even sure he was listening to her nervous chatter. He seemed distracted, ignoring all her comments about the weather, Lent, what Cook would be making for supper, and the new foal arriving in their neighbor Master Whitcomb’s stable. Only when Lucy speculated aloud about whether the Whitcombs’ groom would have to turn the foal in the womb did Adam give her a sidelong glance. She laughed a little to herself, feeling far less tense.

Even with that minor victory, Lucy was getting tired of the one-way conversation. She finally asked the question that had been on her mind all morning. “Why do you suppose, sir, that Constable Duncan came to see your father this morning?” She hopped over a muddy puddle, landing with a squish on the still-sodden ground.

Adam brushed off some drops of mud that had landed on his coat. “My father’s business is his own, Lucy. It is not our concern.”

“So early he came, don’t you think?” she persisted. “It must have been a matter of great importance. The pounding he made, why, I thought he’d knock the door down!” She opened her eyes wide in pretended dismay.

Adam shrugged, refusing to take the bait. “’Tis best if you put the constable’s visit out of your head, I think, Lucy,” he said.

“Do you think it had something to do with those boys mischief? That was some carousing!”

Seeing Lucy’s hopeful look, Adam sighed. “The constable’s visit did involve a crime, and a serious one at that. As you know it, is my father’s right and duty as magistrate to be informed of ill happenings in his area of jurisprudence. Regardless, Father’s business is—”

“I know,” Lucy interrupted, “his own. You said so already.” She almost winked at him, as she would have, had she been talking to Sarah or Bessie, but stopped herself just in time. “Don’t worry. I’ll pretend I never saw the constable.” Besides, she thought to herself, someone will know what happened. This crime won’t stay secret for long.

* * *

Nearing the market, the cobbled streets grew crowded and noisy. The ever-present din of London grew louder, and the foggy haze made everything a little darker. The second stories of the buildings jutted into the narrow lanes, teetering on timbers some two or three centuries old.

As always, Lucy found herself ducking so that she would not be struck by the low-hanging wooden signs that swung into the streets. Since she could read better than most townspeople, she did not need to rely on the images painted on the signs to tell her the kinds of shops below. A picture of Adam and Eve hung above the apple sellers, a cradle hung above the basket makers, a cupid and torch above a glazier, an elephant above an ivory-comb maker, and so forth. She shuddered when she passed the bloodied bandages hanging from the windows of the barber surgeons. Brave souls, those who ventured inside.

A thin haze of smoke, arising from many ill-kept chimneys, lay dimly in the air. Steaming dung heaps littered the stones, and wild cats sniffed around doorways.

“Mind your step,” said Adam.

Lucy grimaced. The corpse of a dog lay in one corner, where it would remain until the chief ditcher carted it off to Houndsditch.

No one gave Lucy and Adam any mind as they made their way through the streets, but Lucy looked about, always eager to connect with the life that teemed about her. Servants from large houses and the wives of merchants scurried about with baskets, bargaining for fresh vegetables, meats, breads, and other goods. All about, traders sang their wares.

“Candles and ribbons!”

“Spices from the East!”

“Woolens to keep you dry and warm!”

“Fresh fish!”

Covent Garden was full of children, some darting in and out of narrow shops, some playing, others clutching bundles and baskets or clinging to their mother’s skirts. Almost all were dirty and pale, nothing like the red-cheeked children Lucy had known growing up outside London.

As she chose a bit of tongue from the fleshmarket, Lucy noticed two boys about her age, or maybe a little younger, sidling up to a woman bargaining with a butcher over a succulent cut of meat. Balancing three packages under one arm, the woman reached for her pocket to pay him.

Just then, one of the boys grabbed her purse, snapping the flimsy cord. The other boy scooped up two of her packages, and they took off, out of the market, in separate directions.

The woman, first stunned and mute, shook herself and began to wail, a shrieking, piteous sound. Nearby faces turned and conversations stopped, but after a moment, everyone returned to business. Pickpockets were a fair menace to the streets, but as the woman was a stranger, no one raised a hand to help her.

Shocked, Lucy turned to Adam. Had he witnessed it? It seemed he had.

“Come on. There’s no constable about.” His tone, like his face, was flat. “No bellman at hand, no soldiers. There is nothing to be done.”

Her uncertain protest quelled, Lucy picked up her basket again. She could not stop looking back at the woman, who had begun to weep openly. With her purse and day’s purchases gone, she might have little left. Her husband or master, unless he was a particularly forgiving man, might well beat her for her loss. Or worse. Lucy shuddered.

When they turned the corner, though, Lucy noticed that one of the young pickpockets had circled back, slinking among the crowded stalls. Without saying anything to Adam, she kept her head down, watching the lad as he helped himself to an apple here, a scrap of cloth there. He stood for a moment before an enormous leg of mutton. For a crazy moment, Lucy thought he was actually trying to figure out how to get the gamy leg inside his knapsack. The woman’s purse, she imagined, was still inside his doublet.

“I’m to get some eggs and a bit of coffee,” she told Adam, her eyes not leaving the boy.

Adam nodded, looking toward Fleet Street. Lucy had rarely been on the long, winding street where the printers and booksellers lived and hawked their wares.

“See that shop there?” Adam asked, pointing halfway down the narrow road. “The fifth one in from the corner? ’Tis Master Aubrey’s. Join me there in a quarter hour’s time, and I shall see you home.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, distantly wondering at his grim tone. Right now, she was thinking about something else. Seeing that Adam was waiting for her to respond, she added, “Yes, sir. A quarter hour. I’ll be there.”

When Adam had walked away, Lucy looked again at the boy. She did not see his partner, but that was better for what she was about to do. Saying a soft prayer to her patron saint, she opened her pocket as if searching for a coin, walking straight toward the boy. An instant later, she collided with him, her hands right on his chest, then slipping easily into his shirt, where she seized the woman’s purse and whisked it from view.

“Oh, my,” Lucy said, so he could feel the full effect of her gaze. His frown was replaced by a look of confusion, under the onslaught of her smile. Lucy spent little time before a looking glass, but his somewhat dazed response gave her an unexpected sense of satisfaction. “I’m so sorry. I should have been paying more attention,” Lucy said, tucking a loose strand of hair back under her muslin cap. For a moment, she wished she had Bessie’s great blond curls, but no matter, she seemed to be doing fine.

The boy rubbed his hand against his shirt. “Oh, yes, miss, I mean, no, miss,” he stammered. “A comely lass like yourself, you must watch for cutthroats. There’s them that would take advantage of you, burying your nose down like that.”

Lucy widened her eyes. “Oh, my. I hadn’t thought of that. Cutthroats! In the market! To be sure, my dear aunt always says I must take more care, lest something dreadful happen.”

“Indeed, you must, miss.” He looked her up and down, taking in her servant’s garb. He seemed to like what he saw, and he took a step closer. Lucy had to keep herself from stepping back, for his teeth suddenly looked a little sharper, a little more predatory, than they had a moment before. He went on, puffing up his chest. “Shall I walk with you a bit? Perhaps you’d like an ale? The Cheddar Cheese is just ahead.”

Protect me from the likes of you, Lucy thought spitefully. Out loud, she said, “Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t even know your name, and my auntie—”

“My name’s Sid, miss. Sid Petry, miss.” He squeezed her upper arm.

His sudden liberty made her feel afraid and anxious to get away. What if Sid discovered what she had done? She looked about. “I have a friend meeting me, and he’ll be wondering where I am. Sorry again, Sid, for being so careless.”

It took all she had to get away from Sid’s wheedling, and she was afraid he would follow her. Moving quickly through the stalls, Lucy stepped over piles of dung and refuse that lay scattered across the cobblestones. Looking about, she finally spied Sid’s victim, now sitting dully at the edge of the cobblestone street, her arms wrapped around her skirts. No one was paying her any mind, and she looked quite forlorn indeed. Lucy strode up to her. “Pardon, ma’am.”

“What do you want?” the woman growled. “Can’t you see I’m not in a good way? Just got my pocket stolen and two good bones. What I shall tell my master, I don’t know.”

Lucy held out the woman’s worn pocket. “Yes, I saw what that witless lad did. But wouldn’t you know it? He dropped your pocket, the clumsy oaf.”

The woman’s mouth parted, but she said nothing.

Lucy turned away. Before she had taken two steps, however, she felt a hand claw at her elbow, forcing her to turn around. The woman twitched the left half of her lips in what might have been a smile. Lucy nodded. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.

* * *

Doubling back, Lucy entered the print shop where she was to meet Adam, a heavy acrid smell jolting her nose. Two men were working the presses, shouting back and forth. Adam was nowhere to be seen. As she waited, she read haltingly through some of the ballads and broadsides drying on the great racks. All told stories of monstrous births, unnatural events, and the like, or else offered quick recipes or advice. Having gone to petty school as a girl, Lucy had learned her letters and numbers but little else. Only in the last two years, when she’d found ways to listen to Sarah’s tutors in secret, had she figured out how to pick through her letters and read at a reasonable pace.

The title of one of the woodcuts now caught her eye. “‘Murder, or a Vengeance Cast upon a Candlemaker,’” Lucy read out loud.

“Murder most foul,” said a man stepping into the room, followed by Adam. Lucy guessed he was Master Aubrey. A fat and balding man, the printer had spilled ink all across his person, so that it had stained his beard, his forehead, and his smock, as well as his hands. “But fortunate, too,” he added. Seeing Lucy’s quizzical look, he explained, “The dismal act of murder—vile, disgusting, monstrous—will make this piece easy to sell. Watch.”

Stepping out of his shop, Master Aubrey climbed onto a small bench. Adam and Lucy followed him outside. “Good people!” the printer called. “Let me tell you the true and most horrible story of Anne Johnson of Scarsbruck, a she-devil who poisoned her husband with an ill-begotten stew.”

Hearing Master Aubrey’s call, several passersby stopped to listen. A good story was always a treat, a murder even more enjoyable. Pushing up his sleeves on his heavy, sweaty arms, Master Aubrey launched into a sordid tale of greed, lust, and murder—the desperate plot of a woman weary of her husband’s adulterous ways. “The moral of this candlemaker’s sad end?” The printer wagged his finger at the men in the crowd. “Do not dip your wick in the neighbor’s tallow!”

The crowd let out a collective satisfied sigh. A few people cheered. The story complete, the people began to drift away, returning to their homes and stalls, with details of the murder carefully memorized. Master Aubrey and one of his printer’s devils scurried about, collecting coins from people who purchased the penny broadside to share with their families and neighbors, or even to post on their walls at home.

As they took their leave, Master Aubrey murmured something to Adam that Lucy did not catch. Lucy wondered what his business with the printer had been, but she knew she could not be so forward. Instead, she asked Adam how he knew the man.

“What? Oh, I’ve known Aubrey for some time now,” he said, sidestepping the question. “Say, Lucy, you have a brother? Will, is that right?” When Lucy nodded in surprise, he continued. “I know Aubrey’s looking for an apprentice, a turner. He wants an eager lad who knows his letters and who could belt out a right good story. Father says you’re quick enough, so I thought it might run in the family.”

Lucy shook her head. “Will cannot read so well. ’Sides, he’s fair settled with the smithy. I thank you for thinking of him, sir.” Her lips twisted ruefully. “Although if I were a man, I could think of no finer trade in which to apprentice.”

They fell silent as they walked along. Adam glanced at her. “So there was no coffee to be had at the market?” He looked pointedly at her basket.

Lucy flushed. Had he seen her talking to that rogue Sid? No, he could not have, he’d have been with the printer. The lie came out quickly. “No, the price was too dear. I should not like to waste the magistrate’s money.”

“No eggs to be had either?”

Lucy glanced at him, but his tone was casual, disinterested. “No,” she said. “I got to looking at a piece of Holland cloth for the mistress and forgot to get the eggs.”

Her cheeks burned, but she kept her gaze straight ahead. She thought he did look at her then, but he just said, “That’s too bad. I should have liked an egg at supper.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Indeed. So am I.”

They did not speak again, each lost in thought, for the rest of the walk home. Back at the magistrate’s house, Adam disappeared. Lucy had barely had time to pass the shilling she had saved to Cook when Bessie pulled her aside. “Did you hear about the body?” she whispered, her whole face animated. “The woman who got herself murdered?”

Copyright © 2013 by Susanna Calkins

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