The English Lieutenant’s Lady: What’s it about?

The English Lieutenant's Lady

British Spies in Oregon

Sometimes when I write a novel, I don’t know what it’s about until I’ve written it. In the case of The English Lieutenant’s Lady, my subconscious nudged me into including details about the Oregon Territory itself, how beautiful it was. (And is.)

I wrote a scene when I was first playing around with this story, discovering the story, that turned about to be one of my favorite scenes in the book. At the time, I didn’t know why it needed to be in there. It wasn’t until I finished writing the novel that I saw the whole picture, as it were. Geoff gives her a little gift at the start of the story that becomes a reminder for her, throughout the story, of the beauty of nature and the need to put your trust in nature’s Creator.


Mr. Montgomery was silent. It was as if he were listening to the words Lia had not spoken aloud. Then he said, in his deep voice, “‘In my Father’s house are many mansions.’ That’s what the Bible tells me. I should imagine there’s a place waiting for you. If the Lord went to all the trouble of creating a world so beautiful, with so much attention to the smallest details, do you think he would have neglected to pay a little attention to what happens to you?”

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like such a beautiful world.” Lia refused to turn around and see Henri discussing his future with his uncle. Deciding her fate. She would not look. Instead, she turned to look up at Mr. Montgomery, this enigmatic man who could quote scripture but who was clearly hiding something from her.

Mr. Montgomery took a few steps down to the water lapping against the shore. He crouched down and plunged his hand into the river. A quick scoop, then he was up again and striding back toward her.

He opened his hand. On his palm lay a collection of pebbles that glittered like jewels: gold-flecked rose quartz tumbled in with carnelian, topaz, and jade-colored stones, all glistening with water and sparkling in the sunlight.

“Beautiful,” she murmured. The tension inside her began to ease. She wasn’t sure why exactly—his obvious concern perhaps, or the warmth in his eyes as he stood there looking at her. There was still something about him that she couldn’t quite figure out. Even so, she felt better.

Hands as large as his should have been bumbling and awkward, but his fingers deftly plucked an arrow-shaped stone, red as a rose, out of the pebbles and handed it to her. “As a memento of our meeting.”

He gave her a bow, like a gentleman from back east. The courtly gesture was so incongruous in this wild land that her lips curved upward.

“Ah, you can smile,” he said softly. “Beautiful indeed.”

The English Lieutenant’s Lady: the Beginning

The English Lieutenant's Lady

British Spies in Oregon

Tongue Point, Oregon Territory
October 1845

Geoff heard the click of a rifle being cocked in the bushes behind him, and then a woman’s voice, deadly calm. “Stand up—slowly, now—and keep your hands where I can see ’em.”

He obeyed without question. Several years of service in Her Majesty’s Army had taught him not to argue with people pointing weapons at him. Not at the moment, at least. Once he got his hands on the pistol at his belt, this would be a different conversation.

Her voice came again. “Turn around. Let’s have a look at you.”

Slowly, hands raised, he followed her orders. The sunlight fell through a gap in the trees overhead, almost blinding him. He blinked. As his eyes adjusted to the light, a young, dark-haired woman stepped onto the path. She was a tiny thing, the top of her head almost level with his shoulder. But the eyes that studied him were as steady as the rifle in her hands. The one that she was pointing straight at him.

He cleared his throat. “Good afternoon, madam.” Civility never hurt at a time like this.

“Are you calling me a madam?” She tilted her head as though trying to determine if the word was intended as an insult. A loosely bound braid of dark hair shifted to fall over one shoulder of the overlarge man’s coat she was wearing. Her eyes were a truly beautiful gray, the color of woodsmoke before it dissipates in a breeze.

“I meant no offense, ma’am.” He nodded toward the opened pack at his feet. “I was not going to steal anything.”

This wasn’t the first time he’d been on the wrong side of a rifle. He could usually talk his way out of a bad situation. All the same, his heart raced and a tiny thread of sweat trickled down his back. The autumn day was not unusually warm, but he welcomed the breeze that wafted up the hill from the Columbia River.

“So you say.” The woman raised the rifle a bit higher. “If you weren’t bent on thieving, why were you going through my pack?”

“I was looking for some identification, so I could return the pack to its proper owner.” I was looking to see if it had any information that I could use.

Her eyes narrowed, as if what he was thinking showed on his face. He shifted his gaze to focus on her lips, avoiding direct eye contact. “My friend and I are private travelers on a tour of the Oregon Territory. Seeing the sights. Scientific exploration of the New World. Sketching scenic vistas. That sort of thing. While my friend was securing the boat at the landing, I decided to come up the hill to, er, see if I could get a view of the surrounding countryside. The leaves changing colors and all that. Charming, don’t you know.”

As he spoke, he relaxed his features into what he hoped she would take to be an expression of amiable fatuousness. “I was merely passing by when I saw the pack on the side of the road.”

If he were being honest—which he mostly wasn’t, considering all the lies he had just told her—“road” wasn’t how he would have described a barely navigable trail through the woods. Still, this looked like one of those times when it would be as well to be diplomatic. The young woman might take exception to any criticism of the area. A local, by the look of her. Surely no female brought up in civilization would ever dress in an ill-fitting man’s shirt and trousers, topped by an oversized coat. She wore the odd clothes with all the self-possession of Queen Victoria herself, though this girl could not have been much above twenty.

She looked as if she had forgotten how to smile. The corners of her lovely mouth seemed fixed in a permanent curve downward, but the charming sprinkle of freckles across her nose made her seem less forbidding, more approachable. Or as approachable as anyone could be while pointing a rifle.


When I’m reading, I tend to look for stories that start off with a bang. So that’s how I started this story.

Is it too abrupt? I know some people like stories that develop gradually over the course of the novel.

Adventures in cat training

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After much discussion, I have persuaded NotMyCat to come inside to eat, since leaving food outside meant also feeding every other cat in the neighborhood, as well as NotMyWasp and NotMyRaccoon and, on one memorable occasion, NotMySkunk. She doesn’t linger, just comes in to eat and then wants to be let outside again immediately. I’d thought it was safe enough to leave a bowl of cat food on the floor in the kitchen. Until yesterday.

Last winter, mice had found a way to get into the laundry room. Ack! I made sure the dryer vent was closed and for that matter closed the laundry room door so they couldn’t get into the house. I hadn’t seen or heard any sign of them in months, so I had forgotten all about it.

The other afternoon, I came into the laundry room and saw something dark moving along the baseboard. It could have been a fast-moving shadow from the trees outside the window. It was windy; the boughs were going up and down. But I was suspicious.

cropped-img_1194.jpgI lured NotMyCat indoors with food bribes. Then I picked her up and carried her to the laundry room. I talked at great length about her hunting prowess and how much I appreciated what a mighty huntress she was and by the way if she felt like doing some hunting I wouldn’t mind in the least.

When I set her down, she showed no interest in her surroundings. She merely trotted to the door and asked to be let out.

Ten minute later, I heard a muffled meowing at the sliding glass door. Her voice was muffled because she was holding a bird in her mouth. She was standing there expecting praise.

Luckily, the cat’s idea of bird hunting is catch-and-release. I slipped outside before I started to praise her extravagantly, which gave the bird the opportunity to fly away. But I have learned to be much more specific when I ask NotMyCat to do me a favor.

Cat training is not for the faint of heart. In His Forgotten Fiancée the heroine, Liza, is fiercely determined to keep mice from eating all the grain. The hero, Matthew, gets her a kitten and tries to teach the little one to hunt mice. It’s uphill work:

Liza left Pa sharpening the scythe and went to find Matthew. He wasn’t washing up down by the creek or anywhere in sight. She heard the rumble of his deep voice coming from the barn. Curious, she went to investigate.

“Still hungry, even after all that milk? I really do not understand how you expect to get anywhere if you just crouch by that empty dish and cry. Go out there and find some mice! No, don’t look at me with those sad eyes. I am impervious to such maudlin sentiment.” A heavy sigh from inside the barn. “Here, look, I’ll show you. It’s simple. Pretend my hand is a mouse. You’re hungry. I’m right here. What do you do? You pounce. Yes! Just like that. Let your instinct guide you. No, my hand is not, in actual fact, edible.” Another sigh. “Oh, all right. I seem to have saved a bit of salmon from breakfast this morning. I will share it with you.”

Slowly, she peeked in around the door. Matthew was crouched down, lecturing the kitten as seriously as if it were an entire jury. “This is not setting a precedent, do you understand? You need to learn how to hunt.”

His Forgotten Fiancée

Put a bonnet on it

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Actual Oregon Trail prairie bonnet, modeled by a kind docent at the Newell Pioneer Village

The Newell Pioneer Village in Champoeg is a fabulous place to visit if you want to know about how the Oregon Trail pioneers lived. A lot of families donated the clothing the pioneers wore, or the string beds they’d slept in, or old flintlocks, schoolbooks, all kinds of things.

Plus, there are kind, knowledgable docents who can explain the stories behind the artifacts. One lady was nice enough to model a bonnet for me. She said it made her feel like a horse wearing blinders. It cut of all peripheral vision.

Beautiful horse head profile
On the one hand, it’s good to have something to protect you from the sun, especially when you’re out harvesting the crops in the blazing sunlight. They didn’t really have much in the way of sunscreen back then. Plus, being tan was seen as lower class. The fashion was to have skin as pale as possible.

On the other hand, I would hate to feel like a horse wearing blinders.

I liked the idea of using details from daily life in my story, so I made this a point of conflict between Matthew and Liza. He wanted to keep her protected from everything, including the sun, while she wanted to be free and independent.

“Women’s fashions are often ridiculous, but there is some merit in wearing a bonnet. It will protect you from the sunlight.”

“But I’ll be able to better see what I’m doing without it.”

“It’s not proper for a lady to go bare headed.” They had arrived at the wheat field, and he handed her the bonnet again.

She squinting up at the sky, then around at the fields on every side. “Who would I shock? The birds?”

“You are not taking into account the feelings of this innocent, young kitten. They’re very sensitive at that age.” One corner of his mouth twitched up, as if he were trying to restrain a smile.

“I am starting to wonder about this kitten. No matter how often I offer him food, he never seems hungry. Are you still feeding him snacks at odd hours of the day?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, straight faced.

“I think I should name this kitten here Elijah. The ravens must be bringing him food.”

I think you are trying to change the subject.”

“It is my head, and whether I put a bonnet on it — or not — is my decision.” She draped the bonnet over a stump.

Liza knew she was being stubborn on this issue, but it seemed important to make that point clear. He was trying to look out for her, protect her. That was his instinct with women. But he could not have it both ways. He could not protect her at the same time he was planning to leave her.

– His Forgotten Fiancée

His Forgotten Fiancée: the beginning

IMG_1497I would never have written this book if it hadn’t been for a kind editor and Harlequin’s Manuscript Matchmaker contest.

One of the things that tempted me to enter the contest was that the initial requirements were so simple. They asked for a paragraph describing the story and for the first page. With a few minor changes, the page that I wrote was what ended up in the finished story:

“Who am I?”

Liza Fitzpatrick dropped the cleaning rag onto the counter of the dry goods store and spun around. A man stood in the doorway, his rough, working-class clothes soaked to the skin. He stared at her as if she were the first woman he’d ever seen.

Ten steps to the back room, half a minute to grab Pa’s rifle. She might be able to make it. Sober, the long-legged man could easily outpace her. But not the way he was swaying from side to side. It was getting dark outside, and she found it difficult to guess his age in the light from the single lantern, but beneath the beard and the bedraggled brown hair that fell to his shoulders, he looked under thirty.

“Well?” Impatience edged his tone like a well-honed knife.

She cleared her throat. “Um… good evening. Mr. Vandehey, three doors down, serves liquor —“

“That’s the last thing I need.” He sagged against the doorframe, his head drooping.

She took a couple of cautious steps closer, to get a better look at the man. Red streaks trailed down his forehead. “You’re hurt!”

His head came up. “Obviously.” Those thick eyebrows could have been designed to scowl at her. His dark eyes woke the memory of a pain that she had thought buried safely away. Recognition twisted inside her like a knife plunged straight into her heart. He repeated, “But who am I?”

“You don’t know?” She stared at him. This encounter was starting to take on the unreal qualities of a nightmare. That was ironic, considering she had been dreaming of this moment for months. She had imagined all the different ways the scene would play out — or she thought she had.

“I am trying to be patient, madam.” The man spoke with a cultured accent at odds with his wild, mountain man appearance. “I would appreciate the courtesy of an answer to my one — simple — question. Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” she said. “You are the man I am going to marry.”

He swayed further, and his eyes closed. Then he leaned against the doorframe, sliding slowly down to the ground in a faint.

His Forgotten Fiancée

Every book on writing says that you need to grab the reader from the start with an eye-catching opening. Does this work? Do you feel grabbed? Is your curiosity tickled, your attention caught, your interest piqued?

Giveaway: Only two more days left to win a copy of His Forgotten Fiancée at Christian Shelf Esteem!