Travel for research


Come with me to the Docklands museum!

The London Museum of the Docklands is a delightful place to spend a few hours learning new docklands-museumthings, one of my favorite activities. They offer well-curated exhibits about shipping and trade from the late 16th century to the present, including an extended section on slavery. Each exhibit included curious objects in glass cases, as one would expect, but there were also lots of maps and paintings of the docklands from the period in question, along with excellent notes.

I took the tube to Canary Wharf and followed the ever-present signs directing tourists to the fun stuff. The streets here are lined with tall, new office buildings. Lots of people in suits walking briskly to and fro. I stupidly went out to forage for lunch at noon and found every single eatery jam-packed with those people in suits. I ended up eating at a burrito place, though one does not normally travel from Texas to London to eat Mexican food. Ah, the irony.


Where we were

The modern Canary Wharf area spans the old parish of Poplar, Limehouse, and the Isle of Dogs. In isle-of-dogsElizabethan times, the Isle of Dogs was desolate marshland. Poplar was nothing; blink, and you’d miss it. Limehouse was a village with a bustling strip along the riverside. A couple of pubs have survived from that time to this: The Grapes and, closer to Wapping, the Prospect of Whitby. The characters in my latest Francis Bacon mystery, The Spymaster’s Brother, stop in at the Grapes.

In Victorian times, Limehouse was notorious, with narrow, filthy streets, big warehouses, and dodgy taverns. You took your life in your hands, wandering through those alleys at night. Naturally, Sherlock Holmes knew that terrain like his own violin.


Instruments of destruction

The museum calls them tools for weighing and measuring, but we writers of murder mysteries know better. You could sabotage some of these things, I’ll bet, though the curator failed to provide that sort of detail. You could certainly use them to cause seemingly accidental deaths. And then there are all these giant hemp baskets to hide the body in! You could probably nail your victim’s corpse inside a big barrel and set it where it will be loaded on the next ship to China. SO many options!



I love these old barrels, for some odd reason. I’m thinking about a young woman —  a teenager, really — who hides in such a barrel to smuggle herself onto a ship, to travel to London to consult the great Sherlock Holmes. She’s clutching the tattered copy of The Strand which someone read to her, telling a tale about the brilliant detective. Somehow, she ends up consulting my Professor Moriarty instead, lucky for her!



Life on the docks

I love the way they intersperse art from the period with the artifacts. Look at these sailors carousing in a Wapping alehouse. I’m pretty sure you won’t this sort of rowdy behavior at the Prospect of Whitby nowadays!


I take pictures of these things partly so I can share them with you, but also because it’s easier than taking notes. When I get home, I can look up the image and see who owns it. This one comes from the Guildhall Library. Hm.

They set up a few tableaux as well, so we can imagine our warehouse clerks and customs officials at their jobs. These exhibits are fun to look at, but hard to photograph because of the shiny glass and the somewhat dim lighting. But I try, because someday Moriarty is going to have to go down to this office to sneak a peek at some records while Angelina distracts the clerk.



At last, the whole story is told

All the museums I visit have updated their exhibits to include a period of English and American history that was suppressed for a long, long time. We’re talking about slavery, a great disaster perpetrated by one group against another. We’re still struggling to repair the damage wrought by those centuries of shame. Getting the story straight is part of that process. Here’s some of them well-written exposition from the Docklands exhibit.


This part of the exhibit was full of people, so I didn’t take pictures of the stuff, sorry. They also had a typical dock-workers home that kids could play in. Some kids were cheerfully demolishing it, so I didn’t get pix of that either. And then there were rows of boxes filled with fragrant stuff that you could open and sniff and try to guess which was what. They had vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon…  all the spices that came to England through the docklands. I opened all the boxes and found no opium, so it wasn’t perfect. (They never have opium in these exhibits!)

All along the waterfront

I take pix of the cards under paintings I want to study at home, like this one.


I found this one in Wikipedia, just as I hoped.

Greenwich Hospital by John Paul, 1835

And here’s another look at the life of the folk who lived and worked in the docklands.


The caption says, “The kitchen of one of the poorer lodging houses visited by Henry Mayhew around 1861. The lodgers are all eating because Mayhew provided them with a meal, but there are few chairs and virtually no cutlery.”

Henry Mayhew wrote London Labour and the London Poor (1851), the result of his deep dive into the lower reaches of London life. I have a copy on my shelf, as it happens. If and when my Moriartys take their own dive into those precincts, I’ll read at least some of it. Pretty stiff stuff.

Where ideas come from

Sometimes people ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” One of my answers is, “In museums.” I looked at this exhibit and my mind exploded. What do you think: Moriarty Smells the Coffee? I think I may have to go to Jamaica for this one…

Customs officer drawing off a sample of whisky, around 1920.



Three nights at the theater

Two nights in London last month; one night in Austin last year. The performances in London inspired me to share them all with you. Each was fabulous in its own way and wonderfully relevant for both of my series, the Elizabethan and the Victorian. The theaters themselves were a big part of the fun.

The theaters

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The minstrel gallery by candlelight

This is the indoor theater at Shakespeare’s Globe in London (another experience to put on your bucket list.) The SWP is a recreation of a 17th-century theater, loosely modeled on Blackfriars Theatre, which was possibly the first indoor theater in England.

The Blackfriars Theatre was opened in 1596, over the objections of Francis Bacon’s aunt, Lady Elizabeth Russell. I’ve blogged about her before and probably will again. There’s a great book about this conflict: Laoutaris, Chris. 2015. Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. London: Penguin Books.

Note the dress-up hiking clothes. The guy in the black suit works there.

The Wanamaker Playhouse is lovely, lovely, lovely. It’s an intimate space, very vertical so you look down onto the projecting stage. The actors use all the space, often emerging from the stalls or the aisles, sometimes sitting next to a startled — and delighted — person in the audience. It officially holds 340 people. I guessed 150, which shows you how bad I am at guessing quantities. We sit on lightly padded benches with barely enough room for purses under our knees. There’s a cloakroom, so you don’t have to bring your layers in with you.

People were not dressed up, in case you’re wondering. Standard costume seemed to be what I call dress-up hiking clothes, which all tourists seem to wear everywhere nowadays.

Scottish Rite Theater

Scottish Rite Theater from the parking lot

I have lived in Austin since 1974, and I didn’t know about this theater until a local writer pal recommended this particular performance on her Facebook page. Ya think ya know a place…

The theater was built in 1871, so I have no excuse, though t is unassuming on the outside. It started out as a German opera house, then became the home of Scottish Rite Masons, who created the non-profit theater in 2004. They mostly host children’s plays, which look hugely fun. The Victorian reproduction I saw was an unusual event I sincerely hope they’ll repeat. 

Marlowe by candlelight

Before the play begins: Edward I’s coffin

This was amazing, and it took me by surprise, even though they say on the SWP website where I bought my ticket that plays are performed by candlelight. This is as close to the Elizabethan experience at Blackfriars as I’ll ever get. If I’d been wearing period garb, I would’ve taken up two spaces instead of one, but the usher told me that Blackfriars Theater was much bigger, so there would’ve been more room.

The candles weren’t just lighting at SWP; they became part of the performance. We started out fully lit, with two big candelabras hanging over the stage and lots of candles in sconces on the pillars in front of the stalls and the musician’s gallery. The gallery stayed lit throughout, but as the play turned to the dark side, actors lowered the candelabras whilst delivering a thoughtful monologue and snuffed out the candles. Spooky!

Then later another actor lit a few of them again. During some impassioned scenes on the floor of the stage, an actor would take a sconce from a pillar and hold it to illuminate their faces. Once or twice toward the end, actors came out with a basket of candles to set at the front of the stage. Footlights!

The floor, designed for Edward II, though this pic was taken before Edward I

One thing I wouldn’t have thought of just from pictures and floor plans: the theater grew cooler as they put out more candles. The Swedish lady sitting next to me and I were quite chilly! That’s exactly the sort of detail that makes a whole trip worthwhile.

The play was Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe. I’ve blogged about him before and will again. This play is dark and grim, like all of Kit’s plays. This one was first performed in 1592. It just occurred to me that I will definitely blog about this play again next year, when I publish Now and Then Stab, which will be the 7th book in the Francis Bacon mystery series. That title is a quote from Ed II. That ticket was tax-deductible in all directions :-).

The performance I saw in February consolidated several characters and cut several scenes that didn’t carry the central conflict. The result was a play more about prejudice than about favoritism; a modern perspective. Marlowe balanced the two. In a nutshell: King Edward had a favorite, a lover named Gaveston. He showered money and titles on this upstart, neglecting his queen, the other noblemen, and his subjects. Naturally, this caused resentment, also distaste for the unnatural relationship between the two men. Nobles remonstrated Edward; he refused to mend his ways. So they rebelled and ultimately murdered him. Gaveston dies too, of course.

Apart from re-aligning the major theme, the alterations kept the show down to two hours. Which I appreciated, because it was cold as the dickens that night and I had to walk about 6 blocks to the tube station. Safe as houses, though. Even this old Houston girl felt comfortable (apart from the cold) walking those well-lit streets. Next time, I’ll bring a sweater in addition to my raincoat.

Actors turn a hash into a feast

Sunday night’s fun was a “reading” of George Peele’s play, Famous Chronicle of Edward the First. This was published in 1593, so it must have been performed sometime before that. Before or after Marlowe’s hit play, I wonder?

The minstrel gallery. For Edward II, they had brilliant musicians playing a variety of period instruments.

I downloaded The Works of George Peele, edited by A. H. Bullen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1888) to read on my phone whilst riding the tube hither and tither that day. Don’t we love the internet and the kindly people who scanned these classic works to make available through Google Books? (We don’t thank Google because they rarely acknowledge the librarians who preserved, catalogued, and scanned these works for us.)

I actually never got past the introduction, which is excellent; very informative. Recommended, especially when you’re stuck waiting in line or somewhere like a subway where you can’t get a signal. At some point I jotted down this quote to share with you, because it is the perfect description of that wacky hodge-podge of a play. Bullen said, “It is tiresome, windy, bombastical stuff, but it held the stage.”

More of the amazing ceiling.

Only because the actors were so enthusiastic about what amounted to an improvisation of a long dead and quite terrible play. They performed in street clothes with highlighted sheafs of paper in their hands. They’d had a read-through earlier that day — their entire acquaintance with the play. I had expected this reading to be a scholarly, somewhat dry event. I grossly underestimated the talent, inventiveness, and spirit of the London actor!!

Edward was played by Jason Hughes, who played DS Jones on Midsomer Murders. He was totally convincing as the imperious king, and the rest of the cast was equally delightful. They climbed all over that theater, using the whole space. They had minimal props like a crown or a bench, which they carried in and out as needed. Electric lights were on and it was always fairly bright. The usher told me that actors love these readings, because it’s only a day’s commitment, but they get to really exercise their acting skills in the company of a little group of equally engaged colleagues.

The play is dreadful as literature, but Bullen was right: it held the stage, meaning it was entertaining. It’s like a song hits of the 1590s. Here we have a scene where a messenger delivers troublesome news to the king. Then later, for no discernible reason, Evil Isabel the Queen poisons somebody (the king? her son? I can’t remember) by pouring poison in his ear. (Hm, we wonder who else saw this play back in 1592?) The next scene bears no relation to what came before or what comes after, but it was fun, in and of itself. This is what you get when you write without a theme.

The plot is ridiculous and the set speeches the very definition of bombastical. But the actors were having so much fun, we did too. We laughed and laughed! Perhaps not the effect George Peele was looking for, but if he was a typically pragmatic Elizabethan, he would have shrugged and said, “It likes me well enough.”

Boo! Hiss! The Victorian experience

Scottish Rite Theater, from their website

The Hidden Room Theater calls itself “A theatrical curiosity shop in Austin, TX. We make time machines.” And that’s all I can find out in a general way. They’re not a place; they’re a group who now and then conjures up a unique theatrical experience.

The one I got to enjoy was a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. The script and staging were taken from the original book of John Wilkes Booth. Yes, you read that correctly! So this was a 21st-century recreation of a Victorian production of a Jacobean play. Pure experiential ambrosia for a writer of historical fiction set in those periods!

The Beth Burns, the director, spoke to us at the start of the play to explain a bit of the context. She encouraged us to enter into the recreation by performing the role of a good Victorian audience. We should boo, she said, and also hiss, and call out things like “He’s lying!” or “Look out!”

The dastardly Richard III, from Austinot.

It was a riot. Nobody must ever have fallen asleep at the theater in Victorian times. You’re too busy participating!

Judd Farris played Richard. He also played us like a well-tuned violin. He would creep out onto the stage, sort of hidden from the other actors by the curtain, and grimace at us with his hunchbacked wickedness gleaming in his eyes. We would hiss and boo and stamp our feet. That just made him all the more wicked!!! We cried “Kill him! Kill him!” and eventually they did. We cheered lustily.

I am longing for them to do this again with another play. Any other play. The worst play from the 19th century would be an evening of great entertainment in these people’s clever hands.

Sorry I don’t have pictures of the actual performances. But only a barbarian — or a theater critic — takes photographs during a play.

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