Dispatch from London 1: What Plots Await at the Tower of London

Today I toured the Tower of London via Walks, a company that I used when I was in Rome last summer to see the Vatican in all its claustrophic glory. Our guide, Richard, was fantastic at giving us the highlights and lacing humor and factoid into the big picture of how this complex — a village, rather than a tower — served its purpose over centuries as a fortress, palace, prison and epicenter of drama for the royal families of England. 

Maybe writers should try their hands at being walking tour guides. I know a number who could learn a thing or two from Richard.

Anyway, there were so many little details that could lead to amazing stories. I found myself wishing I could go back and major in history along with journalism so I’d feel qualified to write some of these potential topics:

  • “Cromwell’s Mistake:” There’s a conspiracy that when the original Crown Jewels were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell after he overthrew the throne, they weren’t totally burned. So there could be some remnants of the original Crown Jewels floating around out there, but A) you’ll never be able to prove it and B) If you could, you wouldn’t be able to do anything public with them without incuring the wrath of the current royal family. So what happens if someone discovers that the family heirloom is actually centuries old and escaped Cromwell’s purge?
  • “The Whipping Boy:” The term “whipping boy” comes from Henry VIII’s rule. When his only son, the sickly and weak Edward, misbehaved, they wouldn’t punish him like they did other kids — with the whip. Instead, they’d whip one of his friends, the “whipping boy,” and he’d have to watch. Imagine a two-sided story of Edward and his friend, the “whipping boy,” as their friendship is tested by this situation. Of course, Edward died at age 14 after serving only two years as king. I’d like to think this story ends with his coronation.
  • “Two Princes:” When one of the many Richards took the thrown, he was actually usurping it from his nephew, the rightful king, and his nephew’s brother, the rightful second heir. He promised the young boys he’d just lead until they were old enough, and in the meantime they could stay at the Tower of London and learn to fight and joust. The day he was coronated, the boys disappeared, never to be seen again. Their presumable bodies were found buried in an archway under the tower years and years later. I guess if they did DNA testing, they’d be able to confirm that the bodies are indeed theirs, but Queen Elizabeth II won’t let that happen. After all, if they’re confirmed to be the two sons, that puts the legitimacy of the current royal family in jeopardy. I’d love to do a “what if” piece on the rogue anthropologist who submits the DNA for testing anyway.
  • “Jane:” When Henry VIII’s heir was close to dying, one of the court’s highest advisors sought a way to insert his own family into the royal lineup by having his son marry Jane Grey, the most likely (in his mind) to succeed Edward. But what he didn’t count on was Mary, Henry VIII’s firstborn, to show up with an army supporting her claim to the throne. But there she was, and so Lord Guildford Dudley and his wife, Lady Jane Grey, were executed as usurpers. Guildford was executed in the town where everyone could watch, but not until after he had to watch Jane die in the middle of the Tower of London’s courtyard (the same spot where two of Henry VIII’s wives met their end — there’s a lovely monument there now). Guildford apparently scratched “Jane” into the window sill of his quarters, and it’s still their today. Just retelling the story from his perspective would be interesting.

Of course, people probably have already told these stories. I just ordered Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book, English HistoryMad Brief, Irreverant and Pleasurable. If you have a better suggestion, please share it in the comments. I picked Smith’s book because my mom grew up near him and has mentioned him when talking about her childhood. 

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London calling: Another, but far different, airport scene

I’m sitting in the American Airlines Flagship Lounge at O’Hare and it’s a definite departure from the last time I blogged at Chicago’s international air hub. No corned beef and red wine for $20 this time. Now it’s free self-serve champagne (and harder, if you want); a buffet of free sushi, salads, pork loin, you name it; and a PA that announces the next boarding flight when you need to hear it.

What hasn’t changed? The people watching is still spectacular. 

A group of legging-clad women just left after only putting their phones down to doulbe-fist champagne and coconut water. One of them said something about “If she really wants to be a rich-bitch, sure,” and I couldn’t help but think how money can’t buy self-awareness.

An older couple took their spot and tried to decypher their kid’s text mesage to them warning them not to eat too much of the sushi in the buffet. I think the “LOL” threw them off.

And now I’m anxiously awaiting the announcement that my flight to London is boarding so I can get my A1 seat in business class. I sold my soul to corporate almost four years ago, and today I don’t particularly regret it.

But a note: While I’m in London, I’m going to try my hardest to post once a day, either a “scene of the write” or a part of the book I’m working on in between running a senior leadership meeting, touring one of our company’s factories, and trying not to get lost on the Bakerloo line. Thought what could be better than hearing Helen Mirren announce that you’re on a subway line called “Bakerloo?”

Character sketch: The Debutante

It felt like yesterday despite being almost 15 years ago when Billie Jean Carusoe walked down the country club’s grand staircase — left standing just for this purpose — in a white satin gown with matching gloves. Head-to-toe in status symbols, from a great-grandmother’s add-a-pearl necklace to her very own diamond tennis bracelet, Billie Jean floated along with ten other girls her age, all competing to outdo each other with the perfect blend of Mommy and Daddy’s dream and teenage rebellion.

Thanks to the full white skirt, no one could see Wendy Jackson’s black lace thong, shoplifted not because she couldn’t afford it but because she couldn’t risk her mother finding the receipt. The white satin bodice hid the diamond stud in Trina Sawyer’s navel (though her mother didn’t mind that, as she had been the one to take her to Spencers for that little 16th birthday gift). Sniff close enough and you might detect the weed Loretta Debs had smoked the night before, if you didn’t suffocate from the smell of Ed Hardy perfume she had bathed in before slipping on her bespoke gown.

And as for Billie Jean? The white gloves hid her knuckles, bruised and swollen from the week’s boxing matches at Arturo’s. Her slight black eye had healed in time, and with an extra coat of makeup expertly applied by her sister, no one was the wiser as to what the tallest of Poppleton Fields Country Club’s debutantes did after school every day.

Now Billie Jean silently guarded an event filled with the same kind of tycoons, socialites and ladder-climbers who politely applauded her ability to be 17 and walk in a glorified Disney princess costume. Her gloves were no longer white satin, but indestructible teflon-coated fibers that firmed up when she made a fist so that every punch landed twice the blow. While the gown decayed in her mother’s closet, her cowled coat fluttered in the night air. But despite leaving that traditional Southern lifestyle behind, Billie Jean refused to forget the feeling of satisfaction she had when her parents beamed all summer after her debut.

Her enemies knew her by the beatings she delivered in dark alleys and on slum rooftops, but she prefered another monicker: The Debutante.

Writespiration: “bury a friend” by Billie Eilish

My friend Hannah describes Billie Eilish as “if Tumblr was a person.” She’s artistically angsty with a dramatic edge that can almost induce an eye-roll if you’re not paying enough attention.

The first song I heard from her, her new album’s first single, “bury a friend,” was exactly that. God, she’s like the girl from The Ring meets Wednesday Addams meets a record deal. But then I payed better attention. The song is clearly about mental struggles — burying a friend isn’t literal, as it is in My Chemical Romance’s “Kill All Your Friends” (in that one, the singer laments that “We all wanna party when a funeral ends; and we all get together when we bury our friends; it’s been eight bitter years since I’ve been seeing your face,” hence the reason for the murder spree). For Eilish, it’s dealing with the emotional demons that haunt us. 

So perfect for half the character I write, as the greatest enemies they face are themselves.  

Vignette: At the Symphony

By the way…

I’ve never fallen so hard for someone as I did for you as I watched you fall hard for the symphony. How your hand squeezed mine as the conductor walked on stage. How I could feel your heartbeat drumming along with the tympani. How you drew breath as the first-chair violinist drew her bow.  

You said you couldn’t imagine ever feeling this way over music. I thought I couldn’t imagine ever feeling this way over a person. 

A story of me

This week my day job has sent me to California to work with a team from all over the country in establishing a learning program for employees. I’ll be in charge of communicating to more than 140,000 people globally that this program is now available — come July, anyway.

But this meeting is about spending three days face-to-face with the people behind the project so that I can tell the story accurately. After all, people like stories. At least, that’s the theory that’s behind pretty much everything I do as a professional and as a moonlighting novelist. 

Part of my pre-work for this meeting is to prepare a story that will explain to the group who I am and how I got here to a Fortune 25 company’s communications function. So I’m taking advantage of this four-hour flight to Orange County and writing it here. 

My life has been a series of fortunate events. I was born into a middle class family in middle class Chicagoland, attended a good school district, went to the best journalism college in the country, and graduated with a near-perfect GPA due to a zealous obsession with acing each class, a film minor I practically snoozed through (ever watch L’Avventura on less than four hours of sleep?), and a complete disinterest in the more destructive social scenes. 

A lot of my best work came from lucky breaks. As a reporter for the Columbia, Missouri, city paper, my best story — a profile of a family who participated Viking re-enactments — came from walking past a house in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood without a raincoat as a storm started to rumble overhead. They happened to be sitting on the porch and invited me up to stay out of the downpour, and I walked away with a story that would define my time at the university. I became “Viking Finder,” or at least “that girl who found the weird-ass family that fights with battle axes in their front yard.”  

After college, I happened to apply for a corporate communications gig that on the surface I had no business filling. I didn’t get it, but 18 months later — and a career at an HR magazine publisher that gave me no upward mobility — they called me back when the woman who did get it moved on to a different role. Now, three and a half years later, I’m still there, clawing my way up and over into another role that I still feel like I have no business filling. (I’ll probably leave that part out when presenting to the group this week.) 

Outside of work, it’s the same thing. My greatest breaks have been a matter of luck. A vice president likes my last-minute idea of writing a retrospective on the Vomit Comet and sends me on a zero-gravity test flight, where I meet Joey Fatone of *Nsync, the band that defined my fourth grade experience. A literary agent in Italy likes my tweet about my novel-in-progress and six months later I’m a represented author waiting for a publishing deal. The Man with Time on His Arm happens to think I’m as cute as I think he is and goes from being the bartender at my favorite Chicago watering hole to being one of the most important people in my life who often says “I’m proud of you,” which always brings me to elation.

Now that I’ve written this, it looks a lot like humble-bragging. Maybe it is. But know that a hell of a lot of work followed those lucky breaks — a lot of stress-dreams, late writing nights, chewed-up lips looking for the right word or working on a deadline. I’m still in the middle of an intellectual battle between imposter syndrome and a Wonder Woman complex of wanting to fix everything, regardless if it’s in my job description or emotional capability.  

So that’s my story, at least so far. In the spirit of last weekend’s holiday, maybe it’s the luck of the 40-percent Irish. Maybe my parents forgot to mention the fairy that blessed me with good fortune as a way of apologizing to my mother for the twelve hours of labor she had to endure. Or maybe fate is a real thing, and I’m just embracing the plot twists as they come.  

Scene of the write: Colectivo Coffee

I envy how little kids can fall and get back up without blinking an eye.

An almost sickeningly cute child in glasses just took a nosedive off the bench outside the window, tucked, rolled, and resumed eating his perfectly in-tact, cartoonish pink-frosted donut like nothing had happened. Meanwhile, little sister in white tights and black vinyl Mary Janes looked on, absentmindedly patting the head of her minature beagle mut mix of whatever.

Last time I took a spill like that, I bled through the knee of my jeans during an entire Colts-Dolphins game at Lucas Oil Stadium. A blend of blood and leaking ego turned the denim black.

There are two women down the row from us. One just announced she couldn’t decide whether to buy something in a size two or four. Then she continued picking at her avocado toast.

What I thought might be a coffee first-date next to me turned out to be a few friends meeting up. That’s why I like coffee shops on Sunday afternoons: A lot of times you get first dates between people who met at the bar on Friday and knew they’d be too hungover the next day to be first-date worthy. But no, these are just a couple mix-matched grad students from DePaul trading stories of where they studied abroad: Peru, Sweden, Texas.

Of course, I don’t even know how many people have eavesdropped on my conversations in these places before. I’m sure it made someone’s nght when The Man With Time on His Arm and I discussed Taco Bell Cantina’s presumable house wine as a fermented version of their taco sauce. Or just now, with Frannie and I talking about starting a Tindr-like app for people who want to spend just an hour with a dog on their lap while watching Judge Judy.

Oh, the conversation snipets we leave behind, like skin cells and donut sprinkles smeared across the pavement outside this window.