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Writing Historical Romance Novels For Mills & Boon, by Mary Nichols

In the middle of the 1980s I was having a few very slight contemporary novels published and getting nowhere with my historical sagas, so I thought I would try Mills & Boon. Rumour has it that Mills & Boon authors earn pots of money for penning books that are an easy option. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are not easy and only a very few of their authors earn anything like pots of money.

Mills & Boon is the undisputed leader of romance fiction. As a global company Harlequin Mills & Boon, the parent company, sells 130 million books a year, in 114 countries and 34 languages.  In the UK one book is sold every 4 seconds. There are one and a half million regular readers and fifty million books are borrowed each year from UK libraries. There are 1200 authors worldwide, acquired through 3 commissioning offices. The Richmond office in the UK works with approximately 200 authors.

The company was originally launched as a general fiction publisher. During 1909, their first years of trading, 123 contracts were signed using well-known authors. But Charles Boon wanted to encourage new authors and in 1912, 1,000 manuscripts were sent in, 95% from unknown authors. Of those only six were published. It is a state of affairs still true today, so I was very lucky that my first submission was accepted. In 1957, the Canadian publisher Harlequin Books began publishing Mills & Boon titles and in 1971 the companies merged and became Harlequin Mills & Boon.

Their books are easily identified by the covers, which has been both its success and its bane. It is why people think they are all alike, without ever having read one, which is untrue and very unfair.

The historical novels are longer than the modern novels and give the writer more scope to develop the background and story. Because they are first and foremost love stories, the hero must be someone many could fall for: handsome, sometimes hard on the outside but soft inside. The heroine, if not beautiful, must be attractive and feisty, with a mind of her own. They both come into the story with ‘baggage’, that is some problem or difficulty that prevents them getting together. Everything is geared to the outcome of that.  It is how it is reached that makes the story. There must be a doubt in the reader’s mind about how it will all turn out. Happy endings are a must! Apart from that, the author is free to tell the story in their own way.

Historical background must be accurate, though it must never take over the story. Fashions, furnishings and social taboos of the time and place must be borne in mind. Dialogue must reflect the setting without becoming stilted. It is better to focus on a single historical event that try to cover several. All of which is true of any historical novel.

For instance: In A Bachelor Duke the theme was Wellington’s triumphant return from the Napoleonic Wars.  In Working Man, Society Bride it was the building of the railways. In A Desirable Husband it was the controversy surrounding the building of the Crystal Palace when the upper class residents of Kensington opposed it on the grounds it would bring in the riff-raff and the value of their properties would fall. In Lady Lavinia’s Match it was George IV’s endeavour to divorce Queen Caroline and prevent her being crowned with him. In The Hemingford Scandal it was the Duke of York’s mistress selling favours on his behalf and causing a national scandal. It’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself.

Last year I finished a series of linked books about how law and order was (or was not) kept in Georgian times. There was no regular police force and anyone who had been the victim of a crime had to find their own way of bringing the perpetrators to justice. My heroes, all honest gentlemen of rank, belong to the Society for the Discovery and Apprehending of Criminals, known also as the Piccadilly Gentleman’s Club, who work to bring criminals to justice. In solving mysteries, each finds the love of his life. There have been five so far: The Captain’s Mysterious Lady (shortlisted for The Love Story of the Year 2010), The Viscount’s Unconventional Bride, Lord Portman’s Troublesome Wife, Sir Ashley’s Mettlesome Match and the latest, The Captain’s Kidnapped Beauty.


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Escape by MoonlightThe Girl on the BeachThe Summer HouseThe Kirilov Star     The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage Adventure

Writing Historical Novels

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