As an author, this is the most common question posed to me. Writers are always looking for inspiration, and I think I can speak for most when I say that inspiration can come from many different sources. Ideas may spring from TV shows, history books, news media, personal experiences, or even the random person standing next to you on the bus having the most hilarious phone conversation. So I thought I'd share some of my sources of inspiration here!
I've had many questions and comments about the dowager duchess, the character who spans all three novels in this series. Her supposed eccentricity, along with her lofty position in society, has allowed her to work secretly with each of my heroines on altruistic agendas (while simultaneously baffling and mortifying her long-suffering son.) Her character was inspired exclusively by Elizabeth Van Lew, aka ‘Crazy Bet’, who lived through the American Civil War.
Elizabeth was a woman with deep Southern roots, an abolitionist, and most remarkably, a Union spy. It has been suggested that her incredible success as a spy was due to the way she brilliantly played upon her reputation as being an eccentric, harmless woman. Her story riveted me. If a well-born woman from a prominent Richmond family could operate a covert Union network using her social connections and a shield of feigned lunacy, imagine what a duchess at the height of Regency England could do!
The chickens (and the python named Phillip) were purely my invention...
Further reading: She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by Bonnie Tsui (2006)
Purveyors of fine medical specimens (aka body snatchers or resurrection men)...
Body snatching, or the illicit removal of corpses from graves or morgues during the 18th and 19th centuries, was a brisk business. The cadavers that these individuals procured were generally sold to medical schools for the study of anatomy. At the time, the only bodies that were legally available for medical dissection were the cadavers of executed murderers, and as you can imagine, demand far outstripped supply.
Geri Walton has a great post up on her website with additional references if you'd like to check it out here: https://www.geriwalton.com/body-snatchers/
Throughout this Regency-era series, Clara and her sister run a boarding school for young women, placing their charges not in dance class, but in fields traditionally reserved for men. Medicine. Law. Architecture. Politics. Unthinkable for the time? Too modern? Not likely?
Not at all.
The fictional life of Clara Hayward was inspired by the very real life of Harriot Kezia Hunt (1805-1875), who was a physician and a staunch women’s rights activist. Harriot was 22 when her father died and she and her sister opened a school to support themselves. Long story short, her sister fell ill and when 'conventional' doctors couldn't help, she took it upon herself to study medicine. She did so under the guidance of Dr. Richard Mott and his wife Elizabeth, also an (unrecognized) doctor. In 1835 Harriot opened her own practice without an ‘official’ degree, though she applied to Harvard Medical School— once in 1847 and again in 1849— and was rejected both times. (Fun fact: Harvard Medical School did not admit its first female student until almost a hundred years later in 1945, mainly due to fewer male applicants as a result of World War II.)
Throughout her life, Harriot was a passionate advocate for the education of women, not only in the field of medicine, but also in other professions traditionally limited only to men. She founded the ‘Ladies In Physiology Society’ in 1843 and gave lectures on physiology and hygiene, as well as championing the abolition of slavery and promoting women's rights.
Harriot was not the only one who felt strongly about the education and rights of women, and refused to yield when society deemed she ‘should not’ or ‘could not’ chase her ambitions. Other trailblazing women fueled my imagination for this entire series and they include; Rebecca Pennock Lukens (1794-1854), steel and iron magnate ; Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), writer, philosopher, and advocate for women’s rights ; Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852), mathematician and writer ; Marie Curie (1867-1934), scientist and Nobel prize winner ; Elsie Inglis (1864-1917), doctor, philanthropist, suffragist, healthcare reform advocate ; Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), internationally acclaimed artist and sculptor ; Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831), mathematician ; Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816), publisher ; Ching Shih (1775-1844), pirate captain and commander of ‘The Red Fleet’.
Harriot Kezia Hunt and the women mentioned above were pioneers who have helped pave the way for many of the opportunities women have now. There are many more women who fought for their voices to be heard throughout history – this is by no means an exhaustive list. But each of their stories are just as believable now as they were then. And they all continue to inspire me.
If you’d like to read more about Harriot Kezia Hunt, I’d recommend:
‘Glances and Glimpses; or, Fifty Years' Social, Including Twenty Years' Professional Life’ - The Memoirs of Harriot Kezia Hunt (Boston: J.P. Jewett and Company, 1856).
Women Medical Doctors in the United States before the Civil War: A Biographical Dictionary by Edward Atwater (2016).
Veterans, smugglers, and prisoners of war...
It is often unusual to come across more than a passing mention of the Napoleonic Wars in British Regency-set novels. Yet there are extraordinary documented accounts of courage, hardship, and bravery that can’t be overlooked. Two of my heros, Eli Dawes and Harland Hayward, are veterans of this conflict. But so is my heroine, Katherine Wright. An estimated four-thousand women accompanied the British Army, working and sometimes fighting alongside husbands and lovers, brothers and fathers.
The wars that engulfed almost the entire European continent for nearly two decades cost 2.5 million – 3.5 million soldiers their lives. And even though the battles were not fought on British soil, they still had a huge impact on the lives of those British citizens left behind. Massive taxes to fund the war effort were levied. At the same time, food prices and unemployment skyrocketed due to wartime trading restrictions and increased industrialization. Many desperate men— and women— faced with starvation enlisted in the military. But at the war’s end, circumstances did not get better.
For those soldiers who did survive to return to Britain, there were no war memorials or recognition. Many were weakened, crippled, or severely maimed. They, like the widows and families of fallen soldiers, were left to fend for themselves as best as they could, reduced, in many cases to stealing or begging. Or, in Kent, where the Devils of Dover series is set, smuggling.
Over the centuries, the smuggling trade had flourished along the Kent coastline with its proximity and easy access to the continent. The practice was not without its risks, yet after the wars, the illicit trade became even more dangerous with the reassignment of the Crown’s soldiers from the battlefields of Europe to the coastlines of England. Their directive was to bring order to the lawless coasts and end all smuggling for good.
For it wasn’t just material goods that were smuggled in and out of England and France. In the years following the French Revolution, many French nobles, their families, and sometimes their hoards of art and wealth, were smuggled into England. At the same time, and in the years leading up to and after the decisive battle at Waterloo, many French prisoners of war were smuggled out of England and back to France. Often, these French prisoners were held in deplorable conditions on the Thames prison hulks.
If there was a silver lining in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the resulting political, economic, and social unrest helped ignite the beginnings of reform. The conflict was huge in scope and their direct and indirect effects were profound. Writing about some of these effects – real facts woven into my own fiction – seems not only justified but essential. The men and women who faced impossible odds and prevailed offer an author no end of inspiration.
Smuggling in Kent and Sussex 1700-1840 by Mary Waugh
Smuggling in the British Isles – A History by Richard Platt
In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow
The Napoleonic Wars by Richard Holmes
The Intolerable Hulks – British Shipboard Confinement 1776-1857 by Charles Campbell
Gaming hells, brothels, sex clubs, and other common stops in London...
Recently, I had a fabulous round-table discussion with numerous historical authors where the topic of sex was broached. Many of us have written individual historical heroines who know about sex, talk about sex, and enjoy sex.
And we discovered, without exception, that each one of us had heard a variation of the comment: 'but that doesn't seem historically accurate - women simply didn't do that in the past.'
At which point in the conversation we all rubbed our hands in glee and started pulling out our research to compare (because historical authors are history nerds first and foremost). And for anyone who may be interested in our sources, I'm going to expound on some of our favorites here.
1) The School of Venus
A very graphic, explanatory text of dialogue between two women. The more sexually experienced explains in great detail sexual intercourse and gives instruction on the best ways to achieve, and receive, sexual satisfaction. Published in the 1600's, it was sold on bookseller's shelves and reportedly made Samuel Pepys blush. There are graphic images that are published with the text and I give you fair warning that they are not for the faint of heart. Those aren't cucumbers the ladies are examining...
2) Pretty Little Games for Young Ladies and Gentlemen by Thomas Rowlandson (b.1756)
A collection of ten plates each accompanied by a bawdy poem. I'll just take a moment to remind everyone that the expression 'flying f**k' has been around for a great deal longer than most people realize...
3) Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure—AKA The Diary of Fanny Hill. This is an erotic novel by English novelist John Cleland first published in London in 1748. It was one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history and it uses euphemisms that are impressive.
4) The Origins of Sex by by Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala
This is a well-written account that documents the idea that contrary to modern mythology, today’s permissive sexual behavior first developed in 17th-century Western Europe and grew from there.
5) Decency and Disorder -The Age of Cant 1789-1837
by Ben Wilson
Historian Ben Wilson details a period when licentious Britain tried to straighten out its moral code - which demonstrates some interesting parallels with our own age.
There are more resources, of course - letters and diaries and accounts (from both the aristocracy and working class) that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination, but the sources above are a great place to start if you're interested in further reading.
So for every sheltered, virginal heroine that you read in your historical tale (and they certainly existed too), just keep in mind that the heroine with experience and/or knowledge is just as believable.