A Home For A Hero: Gravetye Manor

When it comes to inspiration for our stories, I think most historical romance writers are visually-oriented.  We take research trips to historical sites, haunt the corridors of museums and libraries, and develop terrible posture and bugged-out eyes from hours spent staring at our computer screens as we search the internet for that perfect location in which to place our characters.  In actually seeing these locations, writers can more easily imagine the details and textures that bring a scene to life.

And, frankly, it helps us to get things right.  My last book, Sex And The Single Earl, took place in Bath.  I had forgotten how hilly that charming city is, and my characters spend quite a bit of time dashing about the place like Olympic athletes.  Only when visiting Bath again did I realize my mistake.  If my characters had indeed raced around the place as I had initially visualized, I’m afraid they would have all eventually collapsed in exhausted heaps at the top of one Bath’s many hills.  I can assure you, corrections were immediately made to the manuscript.

My next Regency-set historical romance, My Favorite Countess, won’t be released until May 3 but I’m already moving ahead to my next project.  I don’t yet have a title for Book 4, but I do know where much of the action is going to take place.  It will be at a lovely manor house similar to the one pictured at the top of this post – Gravetye Manor, a beautiful Elizabethan home in Sussex, built in 1598.

I stumbled across Gravetye Manor while reading Patrick Baty’s blog.  Patrick is the owner of Papers and Paints, a London-based company that specializes in many aspects of paint and color.  He’s also one of the foremost authorities on architectural paint and color, and he’s worked on and restored an incredible number of historic buildings and structures, ranging from Queen Charlotte’s Cottage at Kew to the Tower Bridge. He’s one of my favorite sources of inspiration and research, and the slide shows of his many projects are fascinating.  If you have any interest at all in architecture or paint colors – or even just in looking at beautiful historic buildings – I recommend you add Patrick to your blog roll.

Anyway, it was on one of my regular checks of Patrick’s blog that I decided that Gravetye Manor would be the perfect setting for Book 4.  I needed an old estate, preferably a little run down and not far from London.  It had to be beautiful but neglected, and need lots of care and attention from its new lord, the hero of my book.  Gravetye is currently undergoing a major renovation and looks anything but neglected, but the weathered beauty of this Elizabethan manor really appealed to me.  And the interiors of the house are lovely, too.

Can’t you just see the lord of the manor relaxing in front of this wonderful fireplace on a cold winter’s night, his hounds snoozing at his feet?  Okay, we do need to get rid of the flowers in that grate, but you get the picture.  And how about this cozy sitting room?  I think it’s going to be a perfect retreat for my heroine when she needs a bit of a break from her handsome but moody new husband.

These lovely photos were obviously taken in the spring or summer, and everything looks positively idyllic.  My book, however, is set over the Christmas holidays, so this is where the imagination part will come in.  As much as I would love to visit Gravetye in the winter, I don’t think that’s going to happen.  But with the help of a little additional research, I know I’ll be able to imagine a Regency Christmas for my characters, all played out against a fictional setting inspired by beautiful Gravetye Manor.

Regency Friday Fun (not really) and Giveaway

Earlier this week we made a visit to Fort Clinch, a well preserved military installation in a beautiful state park on Amelia Island, just on the border of Florida and Georgia.  Throughout it’s long history, Amelia Island has been under the governance of eight flags, and was first settled by the French in 1562.  For the next few hundred years, the island passed back and forth between the French, the British, and the Spanish, finally falling into American hands in 1821.  My laughably brief history doesn’t even cover the period during the Regency when Amelia Island was under the control of pirates and smugglers – I’ll cover that in another Regency Friday Fun post in the next few weeks.

As you can tell, Amelia Island had a tumultuous history and was considered by all its occupiers to have great strategic importance.  In 1842, the U.S. government purchased a tract of land on the northern tip of the island, on which to build a military installation to guard the mouth of the St. Mary’s River and to defend the deepwater port of Amelia’s thriving town, Fernandina.  Construction began on the fort in 1847, but was as yet uncompleted by the start of the Civil War.  With no federal garrison on site, the Confederate Army claimed it until 1862, when federal gunboats and troops moved in to reestablish Union control.  Units of Army engineers than began a push to complete the fort.

Today, Fort Clinch is preserved as it was during the Civil War and its occupation by the 1st New York Volunteer Engineers.  The guides are trained reenactors, much like those in Williamsburg, Virginia.  They do a great job showcasing life at the fort during the Civil War.

The fort itself is a large set of fortifications on the beach, with some of the rooms built right into the massive walls.  As you can see from the picture at the top of the page, it was a cold and gloomy day when we visited.  We scuttled over the Officer’s Kitchen, which had a fire going and was the warmest room at the fort.  The kitchen also served as the dining room, and held a degree of elegance since the table was set with linen and proper china and cutlery.

Also in the kitchen was an impressive display of pots and pans.

The Guard Rooms, where the off-duty guard contingent stayed, also felt pretty cozy on a blustery day, and the men stationed there clearly tried to make the room something more than a utilitarian bunkhouse.

The clock is beautiful, and the presence of the chess board on the mantelpiece indicates how the men passed their time.  But make no mistake – this was a working fort, with a pretty spare way of living, especially for the enlisted men.  Here are their barracks, complete with rifle rack to store their weapons.

Here’s a closeup of the rifle rack, which gives you an idea of how many men probably shared the same living space.

You’ll no doubt be shocked to hear that the officers didn’t reside at the fort but in town, living in the beautiful Victorian houses that lined the streets of Fernandina.

But the men at the fort obviously preferred it that way.  After all, they were doing all the work, while the officers just mucked things up and made life difficult.  According to our guide, the soldiers and engineers breathed a collective sigh of relief on the days when the officers stayed in town.  It’s amazing how some things never change.

I have lots more pictures of Fort Clinch, but I’ll save those for another post.  And since it’s Friday, I’m doing a book giveaway.  It’s  a copy of Lord Of The Isles, a paranormal Highland historical by my very talented friend, Debbie Mazzuca.  All you have to do to win is tell me what’s your favorite historical site or park to visit.  Fort Clinch is certainly one of my favorites, and well worth the visit.



New Orleans: It’s Complicated

After hubs and I went to Mobile last week to visit with writer friends Manda Collins and Cynthia Eden, we decided to swing by New Orleans for a quick visit.  I love NOLA, and Randy has never been, so we were both eager to go.  But I haven’t visited NOLA since Katrina hit, and I was really hoping the city was staging a comeback in a big way.

What did we find?  It’s complicated.

We all know about the devastation wrought by Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and most of us have seen pictures of the Ninth Ward, one of the worst hit neighborhoods in the city of New Orleans.  We’ve heard the reports that reconstruction and recovery has been a slow and difficult process.  Still, we hoped that the uniquely beautiful NOLA was roaring back to its prominence as both a tourist destination and a cultural gem of the South.  It is still those things, of course, but to a much lesser degree than we anticipated.

As we drove into the city, we were stunned by the level of destruction that was easy to spot, even from the interstate.  Neighborhoods that still looked wrecked, some with rebuilding going on, and some with little evidence of activity.  Exiting onto Canal Street, the first thing we saw were large office buildings and hotels, clearly abandoned.  I guess that’s not surprising, since a lot of business simply packed up and moved after the hurricane.  There was some rebuilding going on in the downtown core, and I take that as a hopeful sign.  But like most cities in the country, NOLA has been hit pretty hard by the recession, and the Gulf oil spill had to be a significant blow, too.  Given that a significant segment of the population was forced to move away after Katrina, I imagine the local tax base has been substantially diminished.

I know I sound gloomy, and it was hard not to be depressed by the signs of struggle and devastation.  But NOLA is still a beautiful city with much to offer.  As soon as we dropped our bags off at the hotel, we headed to the French Quarter to sample the food, drink, and fascinating mix of cultures in the Vieux Carre.  We wandered through the gorgeous streets, marveling as always at the beautiful balconies and centuries-old streets.

It’s Mardi Gras season, too, and many of the houses and shops are decked out for the celebration.


After lunch, we headed down to Jackson Square and the magnificent Saint Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.  St. Louis is a spectacular church and well worth the visit, if only to see the unusual pulpit in the shape of a giant shell.

Of course, no visit to NOLA would be complete without a stop at the Cafe Du Monde, the original French coffee house just off the Square.  The beignets and coffee are simply amazing, and better than I remembered from previous visits.  And Jackson Square is as beautiful and interesting as ever, surrounded by a collection of wonderful shops and home to tarot card readers and musicians hanging out in front of the Cathedral.  Here’s a picture of me, with the Square in the background.

You’ll notice, though, that the Square looks pretty quiet, another thing that really concerned me.  I’ve been to NOLA in the winter before, and it was a good deal more crowded than it was on this visit.  Maybe the weather didn’t help.  As you can see, it was a cool, overcast day that made everything seem a bit gloomy.

Of course, if you’re feeling in need of a pick-me-up, you don’t have to walk far.  Bourbon Street hasn’t changed at all, as you can see from the sign below.

Not that you’ll find me ripping off my shirt to get some beads, but the young folks seem to have a good time.  And, as always, there’s something you come across in NOLA that makes you scratch your head.

I’m hoping a hand grenade is a drink.  They do like their drinks big down in NOLA.  And how can you not love a city that still proudly proclaims, after everything they’ve been through, that their favorite alcoholic beverage is the Hurricane?

Our trip to NOLA was short, and we barely touched the surface of all the things to do.  We never got to the Garden District or visited the cemeteries.  We’ll save that for next time, whenever next time rolls around.

But I can’t help worrying about the future of NOLA, especially since it seems to have faded from the news.  So many disasters and crisis have pushed NOLA off the front page, but the struggle to reinvent herself is, clearly, far from over.  But NOLA has survived an incredible number of catastrophes and come back better than ever.  I hope NOLA and her citizens pull it off again, and I hope we never forget what was lost and has yet to be recovered.



Hangin’ Out In Mobile

Wraparound Porch in Mobile, AL

Recently, the hubs and I had a chance to visit friends who live in Mobile, Alabama.  It’s a very pretty town with some spectacular Victorian mansions, many of which have one of my favorite things – front porches.

It’s also Mardi Gras season, which is a very big deal in Mobile.  Many of the houses are decorated for Mardi Gras much the same way houses are decorated for Christmas, with wreaths, garlands, and even special flags.

We also visited the historic Oakleigh House, a beautiful mansion built in 1833 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Oakleigh House

Unfortunately, the house was closed the day we stopped by, but we were able to wander the gardens and view the magnificent oak trees that shadowed the house.  Mobile is famous for its canopy of oaks, and when you see these phenomenal trees you can understand why.

Oak trees at Oakleigh House

If not for my friends, I might never have visited Mobile.  It’s a lovely and gracious city that also knows how to throw a party.  I can assure, I’ll be back!