History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 September 2016

Spies, Loyalty, Betrayal & the Napoleonic Wars Revisited

Someone recently did me the compliment of tweeting a post I wrote several years and four books ago Spies, Loyalty, Betrayal & the Napoleonic Wars. Reading it over it resonated with much of what I am writing about now. I thought I would update it for this week's post. Also helpful because I am in the midst of  copy edits and just got back from traveling (there I am above with my daughter in Ashland, Oregon). I hope you enjoy this updated trip down memory lane.

I gravitated to the Regency/Napoleonic era through my love of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. But I also love spy stories, both James Bond adventure and the sort of intricate chess games and moral dilemmas John le Carré dramatizes so brilliantly. The Napoleonic Wars offers are a wonderfully rich setting for both types of story. So many different sides, so many different factions within sides. The French under Napoleon had been bent on conquest, but they had also brought much-needed reforms to many countries. Some liberal Spaniards saw supporting the French in the Peninsular War as the quickest route to progressive reform. And after the Napoleonic Wars, a number of the victors wanted to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution  and saw any hint of reform as one step away from blood in the streets. Friends easily melt into enemies and back again. Napoleon’s longtime foreign minister Prince Talleyrand  later became prime minister under the Bourbon restoration. Joseph Fouché who had been ruthless in using terror against enemies of the Bonapartist government, was equally ruthless in going after Napoleon’s supporters who were proscribed from the amnesty after Waterloo. In the midst of breakneck adventure, a love affair can have political consequences, a tactical decision can shatter a friendship, it can come down to a question not of whether or not commit betrayal but only of who or what to betray.


I’ve always been fascinated by moral dilemmas. And I’m intrigued by how romantic fidelity and betrayal can parallel other types of fidelity and betrayal (whether between husbands and wives or in their relationship with other characters or with a country or cause). I like writing stories of intrigue set in tumultuous times, but I think in those sorts of times (probably always but then more than ever) choices don’t tend to come down to easy, clear-questions of right and wrong. It’s interesting to see how characters wrestle with those issues and how the personal and the political intertwine. The possibility that a loved one or friend isn’t who you thought they were is perhaps one of our deepest fears in a relationship. And yet most of us are somewhat different people in different aspects of our lives and have different loyalties – to spouses, children, lovers, friends, causes, countries, work. Sometimes it isn’t so much a question of betrayal as of deciding which loyalty comes first. It’s not so far from the seemingly lofty sentiment of “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not Honour more” to betraying a lover for a cause.

Or so my heroine Suzanne might argue. Her husband Malcolm might have more difficulty with the idea. He takes personal loyalties very seriously, though he was the one who went off to the field at Waterloo and risked himself (though he wasn't a soldier) leaving his wife and son behind in Brussels. In the midst of the carnage, he wondered which loyalty he should have put first. While Suzanne, for different reasons, was wondering much the same thing. In the wake of the most recent book in the series, London Gambit, Malcolm and Suzanne have been forced to flee Britain because the secrets of Suzanne's past as a Bonapartist French spy have unraveled. On their way to safety at Malcolm's villa in Tuscany, they stop in Switzerland to see Suzanne's friend Hortense Bonaparte, Josephine's daughter and Napoleon's stepdaughter. They find Hortense in trouble, leading to the events of my forthcoming novella, Mission for a Queen (out November 3). Sitting with Hortense in her elegant salon, Malcolm thinks "He was used to enemies changing into allies. But there was something about sitting in this decorous salon, a few feet away from the stepdaughter of the man who had been his country's opponent for so many years—"

Malcolm's loyalty to his wife has led him into exile from his country and to the stepdaughter of the man he fought against for so many years. He finds himself, alongside Suzanne, helping Hortense with a problem that is intensely personal and yet has political ramifications that could ripple across the Continent.

Writers, do you choose time periods because they lend themselves particularly well to the type of stories you want to tell? Or does your choice of time period influence the stories you create? Readers, do you think you like to read about particular eras because of the type of stories and the issues in those stories that tend to work in those eras? What's the worst choice of loyalties you've encountered in a book? And what's your favorite spy story in any era?

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05 September 2016

How Did 18th Century Gowns Work, Part One

Got an interesting question from a fellow author this week. She was confused about how 18th Century gowns worked (the method of fastening isn't obvious). There are two main styles of bodice on most 18thC gowns: closed-front/compère and the stomacher-front (and some that are a sneaky combo!). Let's talk about the closed-front ones today.

The main thing to remember is that no matter what the new Poldark series or romance novel covers show, these gowns did NOT open in the back. They had a straight edge front opening that can be closed in several different ways.

1770s gown, Victoria and Albert Museum

The most common of which was to simply pin it shut. Yep, pins! Pins were probably the most common method of closing gowns for hundreds of years. You see it all the way back to the 14thC. This is the reason that women received "pin money". You had to constantly replace them as they bent and rusted. A friend was recently in London for a few months and took up mudlarking. She found thousands of pins in the Thames. Thousands and thousands. I've pinned a lot of gowns shut in my lifetime of re-enacting, and I can vouch for the method. It's easy and efficient (ok, it's easy for someone ELSE to pin you in; a bit harder to do yourself).

Another fairly common method is hook and eyes. Just like the ones you're familiar with. They would be set slightly inside so that when done up they'd be invisible. You will also see lacing on extant gowns (remember, no metal grommets, and my best guess is these are not fashionable gowns), and even buttons (though sometimes these are merely decorative).

21 August 2016

A :azy Sunday, Dolls, & Inspiration

After I was gone most of yesterday at a sublime Merola Grand Finale concert, the conclusion of this summer’s Merola Opera Program, my daughter Mélanie and I spent a lazy Sunday today.

I never got to the research I planned and I still haven’t got to my daily word count. One of the things we did was dress up her collection of dolls who live in a Regency-era American Girl doll parlor (which I couldn’t resist and fortunately Mélanie loves to play with ). I would have liked to put them in all the early 19th century dresses we have, but we ended up with a mix of eras (early 19th century, turn of the 20th century, modern).

The discussion, as we dressed them included “she’s getting ready for a ball” and “she’s having a sleepover” from Mélanie with comments from me about “this is like the dresses the characters wear in Mummy’s books” and “see this mantilla? my Mélanie character wore one in Spain.”

It’s those sort of bits and pieces that started my own historical framework as I grew up. And meanwhile, though I didn’t get any of my own research done, It got some historical inspiration dressing dolls.

Did your interest in history start in childhood? Do you remember what sparked it?

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25 July 2016

Queen Hortense's Secret

Hortense Bonaparte by François Gérard 
Readers of my Malcolm & Suzanne Rannoch books know that part of Suzanne’s backstory is that in 1811 she accompanied Hortense Bonaparte, the Empress Josephine’s daughter and Napoleon’s stepdaughter, on a secret journey into Switzerland. The reason for the journey was so that Hortense could give birth in secret to her child by her lover,  the Comte de Flahaut (who appears in my most recent book London Gambit). Suzanne’s involvement in this interlude is of course fictional, but Hortense Bonaparte did indeed go secretly into Switzerland in 1811 to give birth to her child by Flahaut (who joined her for the birth).

Hortense was born Hortense de Beauharnais on 10 April 17883, the daughter of Josephine and her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais. Her parents separated when she was very young, and she lived with Josephine. Her father was guillotined in 1794 and her mother was imprisoned in Les Carmes and nearly went to the guillotine as well. After the Terror, Josephine reigned over Directoire society as the mistress of Paul Barras, and later, in 1796, married Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon was fond of Hortense and her brother Eugene and treated them as his children. But as he became more and more of a monarch, he became more and more concerned with having an heir, and he and Josephine had no biological children of their own. In 1802, Napoleon and Josephine pushed Hortense into a marriage with Napoleon’s younger brother Louis with the idea that one of their children could be Napoleon’s heir. Unfortunately, the cheerful, artistic Hortense and serious, intellectual Louis were not temperamentally suited and the marriage was strained from the start. But within a year of their marriage they had a son, Napoleon Louis Charles, who became Napoleon’s heir presumptive. (My fellow Hoyden Lauren beautifully captures Hortense as the mother of a toddler, organizing theatricals at her mother’s chateau at Malmaison, in her wonderful The Garden Intrigue).

In 1804, Hortense and Louis had a second son, Napoleon Louis. In 1806, Napoleon made Louis King of Holland, and Hortense reluctantly left Paris for the Hague. She came to appreciate her life and role there, but her marriage to Louis continued to deteriorate. In May 1807, tragedy struck. Hortense and Louis’s eldest son died of croup before his fifth birthday. The loss of their child seems to have exacerbated the strains in an already strained marriage, though they did have a third son, Charles Louis Napoleon (who later became Emperor of France as Napoleon III) in 1808.

Hortense began to spend much of her time in France, theoretically for her own health and that of the children. Effectively separated from Louis, she began a love affair with Auguste-Charles-Joseph, Comte de Flahaut, a handsome and charismatic army officer, who already had a string of well-known love affairs in his past. He was officially the son of  his mother’s husband, the late Comte de Flahaut, but it was widely acknowledged that his real father was almost certainly his mother’s lover Prince Talleyrand, Napoleon’s longtime foreign minister (and another important ongoing character in the Malcolm & Suzanne series).

In 1811, Hortense found herself pregnant, and there was no way her husband could be the father. She managed to conceal her pregnancy through the celebrations around the baptism of Napoleon's son with his second wife, Marie Louise. Hortense was one of the godmothers and by then was five months pregnant (thinking back to my own pregnancy, I can only imagine Hortense must have been very thankful for the high-waisted gowns that were in vogue).

Shortly after the baptism, Hortense traveled secretly into Switzerland. On 21 October she gave birth to a son at an unnamed inn. Flahaut joined her for the birth. His mother, Adelaide de Souza, took the baby back to France with her and raised him (a deceptive birth certificate gave him the title of the Comte de Morny). He became an army officer and statesman and also wrote plays under a pseudonym. Many years later, his half-brother, then Napoleon III, made him Duc de Morny.

Hortense’s love affair with Flahaut continued until after Waterloo. Flahaut supported Napoleon’s bid to retake power and fought for him at Waterloo. Talleyrand saved Flahaut from arrest in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, but Flahaut sought refuge in Britain where he married t he Scottish heiress Margaret Mercer Elphinstone in 1817. Hortense went into exile in d’Arenberg in Switzerland. Which is where Suzanne and Malcolm find her (and unexpected intrigue) in my WIP…

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13 July 2016

At Romance Writers of America's Annual Conference

Going to be quiet this week as I'm in San Diego enjoying the annual romance writers conference. I'll report in next week. So far it's lovely. Just enjoyed a wonderful workshop on codes, spies, & cipers.

26 June 2016

Turning 50

Please forgive this shamelessly self-indulgent post. I had a very busy weekend preparing for and enjoying my own 50th birthday party (my daughter Mélanie, with in the picture above, was a big help!).  With my time preoccupied by my own history, I had no time to formulate a post about the finer point of historical research. Though I have been thinking about my books and the history of my characters. In general I avoid dramatizing their birthdays, unless the celebrations play a major role in the story. Though in an ongoing series, one can get locked into dates. I needed to work the fifth birthday of Colin, Suzanne and Malcolm's son, into London Gambit, because I had set it as 14 June and the anniversary of Waterloo on 18 June was part of the plot. I ended up liking how it showed Malcolm and Suzanne juggling real life as parents in the midst of a murder investigation and a possible plot to free Napoleon.

When I started writing the series, I was the same age as Malcolm. His grand dame aunt, Lady Frances, seemed like an older woman to me. I remember turning 45 and realizing with a shock that I was now Lady Frances's age. And now, at 50, I'm the same age as spymaster Raoul O'Roarke, who also happens to be Malcolm's father. Though I still don't feel I have nearly the worldly wisdom of Frances or Raoul. I'm twice as old as 25-year-old Suzanne, but I still identify with her. Partly because, given the era and the life she'd led, she's grown up much faster. Partly because I think part of the fun of reading and writing is being any age we want mentally.

I may not dramatize many birthdays, but I like to imagine what my characters would give each other for birthdays and how they would celebrate them. I like to think they'd have parties as fun as the one I had last night, with good friends from lots of parts of my life.

What are some of your most memorable birthday celebrations, either ones you've had for yourself or ones you've read about in books?

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30 May 2016

Series writing - Continuity & Change

My new release London Gambit ends with a major game changer that pretty much guarantees that at least the next novella and novel in the series will take place out of Britain. This opens a lot of intriguing new options I’m excited to explore. But it also means that not all the ensemble cast will be present. Over the course of the series that cast has grown. I like large casts of characters, so from the first the series focused not just on married agents Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch but on their family and friends (not to mention enemies). And as the series has gone on, new characters who were part of one story have become key parts of the ensemble.

For instance, Harry and Cordelia Davenport. I added them four books back because i realized I needed a soldier character in Imperial Scandal, which focused on the battle of Waterloo. And with the tangled marriage and competing loyalties of my central characters, Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch, it seemed thematically appropriate for Harry to have an estranged wife. I knew Harry and Cordelia would become friends of the Rannochs and appear in subsequent books in the series, but I didn’t quite realize that they would become the Rannochs’ best friends and major ongoing characters who are an integral part of each investigation. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the series, or Malcolm’s and Suzanne’s lives, without Harry and Cordelia.

I love ensemble series, in books and on television. I love getting to a whole group characters and returning to a familiar world. As an author, I love exploring their ongoing interactions. But there’s no denying that as the cast grows, it can tricky to work such a large cast into each story. So in a sense it's refreshing to have a new locale with new people for Malcolm and Suzanne to interact with, and not to have to constantly think "but this character would be there." Or "they would go to that character for help." Even when all the ensemble cast doesn't appear in a book, I feel I have to account for where they are. With the next book, they will simply be "in Britian."

And yet-- Already I find myself missing Malcolm and Suzanne's friends and family as much as they do. Already I'm working on ways to bring at least some of them into the next story.

How do you feel about ensemble series? Do you enjoy a large cast of continuing characters? Do you like it when a change of scene limits the cast, at least for a book or so, or do you miss your old friends?

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