Bringing History to Life in Romance Novels

by Mary Jo Putney

I really enjoy putting the “history” in historical romance because it’s so interesting, and gives me an excuse to do a lot of research and buy more history books. And the early 19th century Regency period I write in has a lot of interesting history. The Industrial Revolution was transforming Europe from the old aristocratic era to the modern age of democracy that created more opportunities for more people. It was the era of Romantic poets and artists, and clothing became a lot more comfortable. 

It was also a time of war when Napoleon Bonaparte was doing his best to conquer the world. I’ve always felt there were parallels between fighting Napoleon and fighting Hitler. In both cases there were times when Britain stood alone against the Continental Monster—and this produced a lot of real life drama to enrich fiction.

Britain and France were fighting almost continuously from 1792 until 1815, when the Battle of Waterloo ended it. But there was one brief period of truce between March 1802 and May 1803. 

It’s an intriguing time. Britons who had been stuck at home during the war swarmed across the English Channel to sample the delights of Paris, while the governments of Britain and France busied themselves with rebuilding their armaments and not living up to the provisions of the Treaty of Amiens that both countries had agreed to.

Silver Lady is set in the spring of 1803, just before the fighting resumed. My hero, Bran Tremayne, works for the Home Office and he’s gifted at tracking spies and potential dangers. Intuition sends him to Cornwall where he’ll meet the family that had thrown him away, and where he rescues a beautiful amnesiac young woman. 

Once I have a setting, I start researching the history around that time and place. That led me to the Royal Naval Dockyard in Devonport on the border between Cornwall and Devonshire. The Royal Navy was the source of Britain’s great military power, so I thought it might work to get my characters involved in potential sabotage of the ships or the dockyard.

Once I started researching the dockyard, I came across the story of the disastrous explosion of the frigate Amphion when the ship was docked for repairs. It took place in 1796 so only a few years before when my story was set. I was lucky to find a first person account by one of the very few survivors. 

The explosion wasn’t sabotage; it seems likely that a crew member who was stealing gun powder to sell ashore accidentally sparked a fire in one of the powder magazines. But it did give me an idea for the grand finale of the plot. One of the fun aspects of researching history is finding ideas I might never come up with on my own!

Over and over, historical research has given me the structure for plots. Action and adventure test the courage and honor of my characters, and danger can bring people together. Not only is military history good for building plots, but the psychological costs of war make for interesting characters who work their way through their experiences to build better, healthier lives.  

I’ve written about exhausted soldiers and sailors and I wrote one heroine who “followed the drum” through the Peninsular Wars, and became a battlefield nurse. War also provides interesting opportunities for spying and skullduggery on the home front. 

As an example of how this works, my Rogues Redeemed series is built around five men who met in a Portuguese cellar. They had been captured during a real French invasion of Portugal, and all had been arrested while trying to rescue drowning civilians who were fleeing French soldiers. Accused of spying, (not without cause!) the five men were awaiting execution at dawn by their French captor.

Needless to say, they all escaped or there would be no series! But the historical background of invasion and a bridge of boats that shattered under the refugees brings the fictional situation alive. 

Whenever I’m at a loss about where a story is going, I know it’s time to dig more deeply into research for inspiration. Real history adds texture and authenticity to stories, and it provides challenges and depth to the developing romances. It’s also educational—I have a number of teachers in my family tree so I like writing about real history. If I find it interesting, surely some of my readers will also.

Plus, a major bonus of reading historical romance is that seeing the challenges of the past can give us more confidence that we can solve the challenges of the present!

Cornwall calling! From New York Times bestselling author Mary Jo Putney, the first in an intoxicating historical romance series set on the rugged Cornish coast, filled with swashbuckling adventure and real-life history, intrigue and an unshakeable love—perfect for fans of Poldark.

A smoldering nobleman and a beautiful amnesiac with paranormal gifts discover they share a powerful passion, a unique legacy—and a common enemy.

Together they faced the past . . .

A sense of duty sends Bran Tremayne to Cornwall to confront his heritage of British nobility. Abandoned at birth, Bran wants nothing to do with the embittered remains of his family. But as a special agent for the Home Office, he senses trouble brewing along the coast. And he can’t turn away from the vulnerable woman he encounters in the Cornish countryside. Merryn’s amnesia makes her past a mystery to them both, but with her life in danger, the only thing Bran knows for sure is that the beautiful stranger needs his protection . . .

But would they share a future?

Leaning into Bran is difficult enough, but can Merryn trust the strong bond—and the powerful passion—she feels for her rugged rescuer? She has no choice once Bran uncovers that she is at the center of a plot between French agents and Cornish smugglers. From misty woodlands to stormy shores, the two join forces with a band of loyal Cornishmen to bring down a common enemy. Yet will their growing love survive the coming peril?