History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 November 2015

Britain 1818


My recently released novella, Incident in Berkeley Square, takes place in late April 1818. The nxt full length novel in my Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series, London Gambit, which will be out in May 2016, takes place in June of 1818. In both stories, danger and intrigue find their way into the secure Mayfair world where Malcolm and Suzanne have found a haven after the Napoleonic Wars. Beyond their jewel box of a house and leafy plane trees of the Berkeley Square garden, Britain is not a very settled place either.

Waterloo is only three years in the past. Napoleon has been defeated and exiled to the tiny island of St. Helena, but the ruling powers from Whitehall to Paris to Moscow still fear he could escape. In France, a restored Bourbon King is on the throne, and the “Ultra Royalist” faction is eager exact revenge for everything since the Revolution. Their zeal has brought about the “White Terror” in which scores of former Bonpartists have been imprisoned and executed. In this fevered atmosphere, political games are played for life and death stakes and personal loyalty is an ephemeral thing. The Come de Flahaut, a real historical figure who plays an important role in Incident in Berkeley Square and returns in London Gambit, is fortunate to have escaped France. Flahaut was an officer in Napoleon’s army and the lover of the Empress Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. He is also the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s wily one-time Foreign Minister (a mentor of Malcom Rannoch's who has also appeared in the series. Talleyrand has managed to survive under the Bourbons and helped protect Flahaut. Flahaut has sought refuge in Britain and married the Scottish heiress Margaret Mercer Elphinstone in the teeth of her father's objections. His former lover Hortense Bonaparte is also exiled from France, living in Switzerland with her two young sons. Hortense and the Bonaparte family have past ties to Suzanne Rannoch.

While the British Government still worries about Bonapartist plots, the situation in Britain itself is far form easy. The Napoleonic Wars left Britain badly in debt. With the end of the war, the British Government is no longer pouring money into munitions and supplies for the Army. Without Government contracts, the textile mills that made uniforms and the iron foundries that made cannon have cut back on workers (and changes in manufacturing had already made jobs scarce). At the same time, former soldiers are flooding the job market. Work is scarce and the price of food is exorbitant. With the Government no longer buying food for the Army and foreign grain markets opening up, the price of corn (wheat) dropped. But Parliament used the Corn Laws to protect the price of homegrown corn. This also protected the profits of the landowners who grew the corn (and who had already benefited greatly from the high corn prices during the war). But the unemployed factory worker or the discharged soldier returning from the Continent (possibly less than whole), faced high prices as well as dwindling income. Yet though the conditions are bleak in Britain ‘s industrial towns, the rural poor keep leaving the countryside and pouring into the cities.

The Tory government (Lord Liverpool the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary, Lord Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary, among others) have a pervasive fear of violent revolution at home. (Echoes of the French Revolution reverberate through the politics of the day). At the same time, the Government Ministers fear Parliamentary reform and see repression rather than any sort of reform as the best way of preserving the world as they know it.

In 1817 a crowd surrounded the Prince Regent’s carriage as he drove to open Parliament. Someone threw rocks at him or possibly fired an airgun. As J.B. Priestley writes in The Prince of Pleasure, “The Regent may or may not have felt panic-stricken–if there is evidence either way, I have not found it–but Lord Liverpool’s government soon behaved as if there had been barricades in St James’s Street and the rattle of musketry along Piccadilly. They may have been genuinely alarmed or they may have seized upon a good excuse to be repressive, but what is certain is that they rushed through a number of deplorable measures, which could hardly have been worse if half the towns in England had been in flames.”

Habeas Corpus was suspended. Based on an act from the days of Edward III, magistrates were given the power to imprison anyone they thought likely to behave in a way that threatened public order (a wide definition, which could end in someone being thrown in prison for making a face at a person of higher social status). Protesting any of this in person or in writing was made difficult by acts against Seditious Libel and an act that prohibited meetings of more than fifty within a mile of Parliament at Westminster Hall.

While the Government feared revolution, they recognized that events such as the mob surrounding the Prince Regent helped pave the way for repressive measures. They also realized that revolutionary talk, violent acts, and rioting were an effective way to separate moderate radicals and reform-minded Whigs from their more extreme fellows. With this end in mind, the Government, particularly Lord Sidmouth, employed agents provocateurs, who infiltrated radical groups and not only reported back to Westminster but actually incited violent action.

Though Malcolm and Suzanne's lives are seemingly more settled after the war, their story now unfolds against this backdrop, in a city seething with suppressed unrest, teetering on a knife edge between reaction and reform. At heart Suzanne, a former Bonapartist agent, is still a revolutionary (and now free to voice her opinions to her husband) while Malcolm, however reform-minded, is still a member of the aristocracy.  Which means that though they may have battlefields and council chambers of the Continent for the ballrooms and alleys of London, there is still plenty of intrigue in their lives.

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19 October 2015

Scenes from Berkeley Square

Incident in Berkeley Square, a novella in my Malcolm & Suzanne Rannoch historical mystery series, comes out on November 2nd. When I sat down to plan it, I realized that though my books are filled with scenes at balls, concerts, masquerades, and other entertainments and though Suzanne is known as a hostess, I hadn't written a scene of the Rannochs entertaining. So Incident in Berkeley Square is new territory for the series in that it is almost entirely set during a ball Suzanne and Malcolm are hosting. It is also new territory for the Rannoch, in that it's the first ball they have hosted since former British agent Malcolm learned his wife Suzanne used to be a French agent and married him to spy for the other side.

The Berkeley Square garden where the Rannoch children play

When I began the series, I planned for them to live in South Audley Street. But on a research trip to London I fell in love with the beauty of Berkeley, and realized how rare is, even in Mayfair, to have a house that looks out on leafy greenery rather than across a comparatively narrow street at someone else's windows. What a wonderful place for Rannochs to raise their children. Which is also what Malcolm thinks in the series, when he inherits the house and decides to brave the ghosts of his past by moving into the house he inherited from his parents. By remaking the house (which Suzanne remodels) and raising their own children there, Malcolm hopes to replace the unhappy memories of his childhood with more positive memories.
The house that is my image for Malcolm & Suzanne's house

I chose a house that is my image for the Rannoch house. The last time I was in London, I went to Berkeley Square and sat there at twilight, drinking in the setting. The square has inspired many scenes in the series and given a shape to the Rannoch family life, from the children playing in the square to Malcolm and Suzanne returning in the middle of the night from a mission and evading questions for the nightwatchman. Incident in Berkeley Square (where an unexpected visit from friends from the spy game disrupts the ball) adds new textures to the Rannochs' life in the square.

The square at twilight, about the time Suzanne and Malcolm's ball would be starting

What settings do you associate most strongly with particular books? Writers, have you ever moved where you planned to have characters live because you visited a certain location that seemed right?

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06 October 2015

What's A Lady To Do?

London was overflowing with places for men to eat or procure cooked meals (taverns, clubs, coffee houses, supper clubs, chip houses, pubs). Many of these same options were available working class women (as were the plethora of street vendors selling pies, bread and cheese, and other portable foostuffs). 

But what was a lady to do when she found herself peckish while on a shopping spree or after a long day touring the British Museum? Obviously if she were ravenous, she could have her footman fetch her a pie, but what if she'd just attended a lecture with a gentleman? Where could they go?
The answer as far as I can tell is a fashionable pastry shop. Anyone who reads Regency-set romances is familiar with the famous Gunter's of Berkeley Square. But there were any other options. 

For starters, there was Perry's: 

Then there's Farrance's:
And you could always make up your own (which is honestly one of my favorite options). I'll be adding these and other locations to the Regency Places map for future reference. 

20 September 2015

Sweep & Specificity - Lynn Nottage's Sweat

Earlier this month my daughter Mélanie and I spent a wonderful few days in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Mélanie is too young to go to the plays but enjoyed the park, a day trip to Crater Lake, and the restaurants such as Alchemy, above).  As always the plays were a wonderful source of creative inspiration for my writing. One of the highlights of a very strong season was Sweat, the world premiere of a play by the wonderful Lynn Nottage. Set between 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pennsylvania, a manufacturing town in which the factories are closing down, the play manages to at once offering a broad social commentary and create vivid, heartrending portraits of specific characters so real you feel you could step on the stage and into their world. A great example of examining complex ideas and impact of an historical event by showing not telling.

I was thinking about this as an historical novelist. One of the hardest things, I think, is to capture the sweep of major historical events and social changes while still telling the story of one’s individual characters. This week I talked about another aspect of this with a writer friend who was lucky enough to be in Belgium for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo. As we looked at her great pictures of the reenactment of the battle I said one of the hardest things for me in writing about the battle was showing the reader the “big picture” while staying in the point of view of my characters, who would be experiencing  sheer chaos. Nottage somehow manages to show the big picture of social change represented by factory closures and manufacturing jobs leaving the country through the individual experience of different characters. Different characters who tragically, if understandably, often aren’t able to see the situation from any viewpoint other than their own.

She also uses time brilliantly. The play opens in 2008 and with two characters being released from prison and then moves back in a time to the events that got them there. This creates wonderful dramatic tension. I love playing with narrative and timelines and how it can affect how a story unfolds. I know some think flashbacks bog a story down,but I think if used to reveal information that drives the story forwards, they can be an effective part of the narrative story line. Television shows use them a great deal of late. Lost was built around flashbacks. Scandal uses them very effectively to reveal bits of character and backstory at just the right moment. The first half of How to Get Away with Murder’s first season was a flashback leading up to the murder with periodic “flash forwards” to the murder’s aftermath. A very different story from Sweat, but it created similar tension as one watches events unfold knowing they will lead to an explosive outcome.

If you get a chance to see Sweat, or any of Nottage’s works (including Ruined and Intimate Apparel), I highly recommend them. Meanwhile, I’m still mulling how I can put the lessons of this brilliant play to use in my own writing.

What books, plays, or movies do you think do a particularly good job of balancing historical sweep and character specificity? Do you like stories that play with narrative timelines?

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23 August 2015

Of Friendship & Carnations

My fellow Hoyden and good friend Lauren Willig recently celebrated a milestone with the publication of the final book in her Pink Carnation Series, The Lure of the Moonflower. Despite multiple deadlines, I devoured this book which finally tells the story of the Pink Carnation herself, Jane Wooliston, a British spy in the Napoleonic Wars who could give the Scarlet Pimpernel a run for his money.

Reveling in this book (and also feeling a bitter sweet nostalgia because it is the last in the series) I reflected on history. The history of this wonderful series filled with intrigue and adventure that has swept from London to Paris to India to the Peninsula and other wonderful settings and involved real historical characters from Hortense Bonaparte to Jane Austen. But I was also thinking about personal history. Lauren stared writing these books when she was in law school. I first met her when she came to the Bay Area on a book tour. We've always shared a special bond writing about Napoleonic spies and both being influenced, in different ways, by the Scarlet Pimpernel (not to mention writing characters inclined to swap Shakespeare quotes). We’ve discussed the finer points of early 19th century espionage over dinner and drinks in Manhattan in the days when we were both single and pre-children. Over lattes n a café while my three month old dozed in her stroller, when Lauren was planning her wedding. On  Lauren’s sofa with our babies asleep in our laps. And most  recently while our toddlers cooked pretend meals and discovered a mutual love of The Pirates of Penzance.

It’s been a treat watching Lauren take the journey of writing this series, talking about the history behind it, and sharing a bit of the history of her writing such fabulous stories with such a wonderful cast of characters. I’m feeling a bit sad that it’s done, but I can’t to see what she writes next.

Cheers, Lauren!

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16 August 2015

The Dog Fancier's Companion

Last week went off the rails for me and I missed posting. My apologies. This week, I thought I'd offer a free book to make up for it. It's not my book. It's not a friend's book, it's my favorite kind of a book, RESEARCH!

A scanned copy of my 1819 copy of The Dog Fancier's Companion.

This little magazine is a fantastic insight into the mind of dog owners of the Georgian era. It offers comments on breeds/types, advice on care (some of which is quite frightening), and a wonderful denunciation of blood sports (in case you want to be sure that such a stance is not in fact ahistorical).

"For the sake of humanity, it is to be hoped, that the cruelty exercised on the animal, had- been repented of by his master, the greater brute of the two [emphasis in original], and that there are none at present who could be guilty of a similar outrage."


26 July 2015

A Hamper from Fortnum's

A wonderful friend and reader of the series sent my daughter Mélanie and me a fabulous gift last week –  a hamper from Fortnum & Mason. I love Fortnum’s. I’ve had some wonderful teas there - both formal tea with a friend all dressed up with hats and more casual popping in for tea and scones after a day of research -  but I’ve never had one of their hampers. I do order things from Britain fairly often, but mostly clothes. It never occurred to me to order one of their hampers, though Fortnum’s was sending their signature wicker hampers all over the world hundreds of years before the days of the internet. Their hampers go back to the late 1730s. Wealthy travelers would take them long on journeys to sustain them in place of the food to be found at coaching inns, often of dubious quality. With the popularity of fêtes champêptres (picnics) in the late 18th century and Regency era, the beau monde found a new use for hampers containing Fortnum’s delicacies.

In my recent release The Mayfair Affair, Spanish-Irish revolutionary Raoul O’Roarke brings a hamper from Fortnum’s filled with typical Regency fare with him when he visits governess Laura Dudley in Newgate, where she is imprisoned on charges of murdering the Duke of Trenchard.

 "I'd have been here sooner, but I stopped for supplies." O'Roarke advanced into the room and set a hamper on the table.

The key scraped as the turnkey locked them in. Laura regarded the hamper. She had seen similar ones tucked into the Rannochs' open landau on expeditions to picnic at Richmond. "That's from Fortnum’s.”

"Do you object to Fortnum's?" O'Roarke opened the hamper, took out a linen cloth, tossed it over the table, and then proceeded to extract a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheddar and one of Stilton, scotched eggs, and apples and oranges. "Perhaps it's hypocritical of me to relish such a symbol of the British establishment, but I confess I'm quite fond of their hampers.”

"It seems a bit extravagant for Newgate.”

"On the contrary." O'Roarke pulled two glasses from the hamper, followed by a wine bottle. "It seems precisely what is called for in circumstances like these.”

In the Victorian era hampers from Fortnum’s were a frequent sight at regattas, cricket matches, and other outdoor events that became fixtures of the social season. But the signature hampers weren’t just found at social occasions. Fortnum’s sent provisions to Wellington’s troops during the Waterloo campaign. Queen Victoria sent beef tea to Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, and during World War I  parcels from Fortnum’s were dispatched not just to troops but to Red Cross outposts and prisoners of war. British troops today still receive consignments of tea, jam, biscuits, and other delicacies from Fortnum’s.

Fortnum’s signature hampers have accompanied explorers all over the world, including on expeditions down the Congo and up Mount Everest and have nourished (and continue to nourish) British ex-pats, Anglophiles, and simply those with a taste for superb tea and other delicacies round the world.

Including in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m finding the contents of our hamper wonderful writing inspiration (I’m sipping the Earl Grey as I write this post) and Mélanie loves the biscuits (“the best cookie I ever had”) and playing with the hamper itself.

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