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Kate McMurray | A Real Historical Figure Walks Into a Novel

March 30, 2016

Although the Prince Regent spends a fair amount of time flouncing around Regency romances in his custom-made military uniforms and the Duke of Wellington is basically required to show up whenever the Battle of Waterloo is invoked, real historical figures in historical romances aren’t that common, especially not as secondary or even tertiary characters. Characters like that are tricky for writers to pull off, because they don’t want to represent the character inauthentically (or pull the reader out of the story with a glaring factual error).

Some writers have done it well. K.J. Charles recently put a real-life group of rebel conspirators in A Seditious Affair, and it was an interesting way to raise the stakes for the characters. Donna Thorland has included a number of real historical figures in her series set during the American Revolution. One of my long-time critique buddies Tilda Booth wrote a steampunk novel about H.G. Wells and his actual wife called Stealing Utopia that is super fun.

Or maybe real historical figures are not so rare. When I asked my Facebook friends for other examples, there were tons, everything from old-school romances (Bertrice Small, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Janelle Taylor, and even Georgette Heyer wrote historical figures into their books) to more modern authors (Loretta Chase, Astrid Amara, Kimberly Bell, Alyssa Cole, Rowan Speedwell). Time periods range, too, from the American Civil War to ancient Rome to the Ottoman Empire. (My own TBR pile grew three sizes that day!)

I was hesitant to put real historical figures into my own writing, but then I had this idea for a book set during a heat wave in New York City in 1896 and, well, Teddy Roosevelt showed up.

In 1896, the actual Theodore Roosevelt was serving as president of the police board in New York City. This proto-NYPD was run by a 4-man commission, not all of whom supported Roosevelt’s ideas for reform. As police commissioner, Roosevelt went to war against vice in the city. One of his goals was to enforce the ban on selling alcohol on Sunday, for example, a law neither saloon-owners nor working-class men were particularly fond of. Roosevelt also fought to weed corrupt officers out of the police department. Corruption could be defined as taking bribes to look the other way while someone committed a crime or simply committing adultery.

To me, that set up an interesting conflict. What if a being considered for promotion by Roosevelt was secretly a homosexual?

It helped also that Teddy Roosevelt was such a character. I tried to get Teddy’s speech right as best as I could based on my research. Some of the dialogue in TEN DAYS IN AUGUST is pulled from actual police board meeting transcripts or letters Roosevelt wrote. Roosevelt was funny and blustery and had boundless energy, something I tried to convey whenever he shows up in the story. He’s not a bad guy, but he becomes kind of a foil for the book’s fictional characters. And he was tremendous fun to write.

Do you have any favorite romances with real historical characters?

About Kate McMurray

Kate McMurray

Kate McMurray is an award-winning author romance author and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with base­ball. She is currently president of the New York City chapter of Romance Writers of America. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.



Ten Days in August

From the Lower East Side to uptown Manhattan, a curious detective searches for clues on the sidewalks of New York—and finds a secret world of forbidden love that’s too hot to handle…

New York City, 1896. As the temperatures rise, so does the crime rate. At the peak of this sizzling heat wave, police inspector Hank Brandt is called to investigate the scandalous murder of a male prostitute. His colleagues think he should drop the case, but Hank’s interest is piqued, especially when he meets the intriguing key witness: a beautiful female impersonator named Nicholas Sharp.

As a nightclub performer living on the fringes of society, Nicky is reluctant to place his trust in a cop—even one as handsome as Hank. With Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt cracking down on vice in the city, Nicky’s afraid that getting involved could end his career. But when he realizes his life is in danger—and Hank is his strongest ally—the two men hit the streets together to solve the crime. From the tawdry tenements of the Lower East Side to the moneyed mansions of Fifth Avenue, Nicky and Hank are determined to uncover the truth. But when things start heating up between them, it’s not just their lives on the line. It’s their love

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