“I write dark, gritty romances set in the London slums,” I say to a woman who owns a trinket shop in Raleigh. “So send me your prostitutes, thieves, and general malcontents.”
In 2004, PBS made a show called Regency House Party. Those servants lined up in background—yep, that’d be me if I was back in Regency England.
Okay, so perhaps that’s the simplistic version of that story. I’ve yet to figure out a socially acceptable tagline for my series The Rookery Rogues, which centers on a group of people who live in the poorest neighborhoods of 1830’s London. But I think of that conversation now in reference to Historical Romance Week’s theme—pursuing the allure of the past. What allure, really, is there in a rookery? These neighborhoods were not beautiful, not clean, and certainly not safe.
Oliver Twist Illustration (1837) – Child pickpockets
But somehow, that life still appeals to me viscerally. It is not that I wish to go back in time and live that life, as one might with your more typical historical romance fare dealing with the bon ton (as who wouldn’t want to marry a Duke and live in a gorgeous palatial estate?). Instead, I want to examine behaviors back then to connect in today’s world. When I began plotting out the Rookery Rogues, I was especially drawn to character archetypes in the old London underworld that we could see in 21st century crooks as well. Thieves, be it pickpockets, house breakers, or those that pull off grand heists like in the movie Ocean’s Eleven, were very much a part of London’s rookeries. Prostitutes and human trafficking is still as relevant today as it was in the 19th century, whether or not we want to dignify that. People live in poverty every day, with a portion of our American population facing starvation.
It’s no surprise I liked these guys. Look at their fabulous uniforms.
Through telling these stories of the past, I believe we are better able to understand today’s world. We figure out where we come from when we look back into history, and it is those cornerstones that shaped our society. From an American standpoint, as a writer who spends all day stuck in British history, I see a far different side to my nation’s history than I would have been taught in school. (It’s generally not encouraged to root for the redcoats when you are in fourth grade learning about the American Revolution, but here I am with my little flag). I have found myself researching topics for my novels that I never would have otherwise—the state of the London prison system, the forming of London’s first real organized police force, and the trade in human corpses for dissection. Every one of those topics has enriched my knowledge of the world around me because now I understand what stemmed certain laws and trends.
Gustave Doré painting: 1827 – What story does this mother have?
These stories may not be easy to read, as our heroines and heroes face very real problems: murder, death, starvation, illness, poverty, sexual or physical assault, and loss of livelihood or property, to name a few. You may be thinking, where’s the romance in that? Perhaps the appeal is harder to find, when the ending of the story does not have the heroine transformed into a Cinderella princess. Instead, the heroine may come to grips with her own life, and relish in the freedom her nontraditional role provides, or realize that with the love of the hero she can face difficult circumstances head-on. The happily ever after in these darker stories of the poor can take on a socially interesting role: what changes do we really see in the hero and heroine when they reach the end of the novel? Their financial status might not have changed—they could still be faced with deep poverty. But they have most likely reached a place of emotional stability and happiness within.
A Dangerous Invitation, Book 1 of The Rookery Rogues
It is that emotional happiness that draws me most. I have always loved stories of the underdog. The ability of the human mind to triumph over the most horrible obstacles astonishes me. I hope to show in the Rookery Rogues that one set of experiences does not define a person: because a man is raised in the Ratcliffe rookeries he is not necessarily a crook; if a man is forced into stealing to support his family he may not be an entirely wicked person. There are so many facets to these so-called underworld characters that even in scratching the surface you would be amazed. I chose to make the hero of A Dangerous Invitation an alcohol abuser in recovery, so that I could show his struggles with addiction and his eventual triumph and realization of his own strength. I gave him a heroine afraid to love again, who must face her personal demons before she can truly understand the impact he has on her life.
When we got married, we promised to love each other for better or worse
I love stories of seemingly broken people—people cast out by society because of some unforgiveable sin—who find their perfect matches in equally broken people. To me, the most romantic stories are ones where two people are everything to each other. My husband and I lead relatively normal lives, and to an outside audience, we probably don’t appear all that important in the grand scheme of things. He’s into computers, and I spend my days picking apart weird bits of history. But to each other, we occupy the most pivotal spheres in our lives. He is my everything, and I his. That is what makes me write romance: I believe that every person out there deserves to be the center of someone’s universe.
No matter what your circumstances happen to be, you’ve got a story and it matters to at least one person out there. Maybe you’re not from a wealthy family. Maybe you don’t live in the best of conditions and maybe you’ve done some unscrupulous things in the past. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are as worthy as anyone else to have your story told. All stories have a place in literature, from the wealthy soon-to-be-Countess who marries an even wealthier Earl in an arranged marriage but then they fall madly in love, to the divorced woman who scandalized society by refusing to submit to her husband’s lascivious desires.
So I write historical romance because in the end, I believe in the power of the human soul. Because I believe we need a little darkness to show the light, and I believe that magic can happen with every day people.
Biography: Erica Monroe writes romantic suspense set in regency London. Her debut novel, A Dangerous Invitation, Book 1 of the Rookery Rogues series, will be out in December 2013. Erica can also be found blogging every other Saturday at Teatime Romance. When not writing, she is a chronic TV watcher, lover of pit bulls, and shoe fashionista. She lives in the suburbs of North Carolina with her husband, two dogs, and two cats. She can be found at ericamonroe.com, on Twitter as @ericajmonroe, on Pinterest, and on Facebook.