As a writer of Regency-era romance novels, our client Teresa DesJardien has been fortunate to spend years in the English period beautifully articulated by Jane Austen – and most recently engulfed in the passion and society drama of streaming series Bridgerton.
But according to DesJardien, who has written 15 novels, six short stories and a newly published non-fiction reference book set in the world of palaces, top hats, and stolen glances, the real draw of crafting fictional romances has more to do with universal human nature than finery.
Read on to learn more about what makes DesJardien a pantser vs. a plotter when it comes to story development, her current mission to revise and republish her fiction work, and what she’s learned from the resilience of her own leading man – her husband of 40 years.
Please tell us about the Regency era – when was it and what defines it?
The Regency period lasted from 1810 to 1830. King George III, who had held the crown during the American Revolutionary War, was deemed mentally incapacitated and his son, the Prince Regent, served in his place. The prince then took the throne in 1820 after the death of his father. During that time, George IV completed a lot of building in London. He wasn’t the greatest king or person – but he did build up a lot of London and Bath, and the architecture and infrastructure still make an impact today.
Socially, it was a time of enlightenment, with people trying to be more refined. They didn’t have as many rules as the Victorian era – which followed the Regency – but there were still many rules.
Clearly this is a rich period for literature – but what about it interests you?
When I started my novels, I hadn’t been to England yet, but it fascinated me – the horses and carriages, things were so romantic on paper.
But there was a code to how people lived, especially the upper classes. I try to write in a way that explores those codes and their impact – for example, women didn’t have a lot of options and autonomy in life. I want to make my stories believable but still try to write more of a beta male vs. an alpha – a man that lends something to the life of a heroine. I think a good heroine is someone who can speak her mind and be an individual, despite the social confines and restrictions. My heroines don’t stomp their foot, go in their bedroom and cry. They choose other options besides just being depressed.
Have you seen cycles in popular interest in the Regency era?
With some ebbs and flows, this period has always held a steady interest in literature and pop culture – Bridgerton is the latest example. I think readers are drawn because they really like the manners, the graciousness, the jewels, the gems, the top hats. There’s the constant question of how do you find love in a world where you’re not even supposed to hold hands?
How did you begin writing fiction overall?
My family wanted me to study journalism. I didn’t go to college, but I always wanted to be a fiction writer. After my son was born, I left my job at Boeing and stayed home with my two kids. I was terribly busy, but somehow squeezed out time for writing. I wrote a manuscript for A June Bride, my first novel, and it was accepted by the publisher – thankfully I didn’t have all the trauma that others have. Then I just kept writing for ten more years.
My writing career was kind of a surprise, really. The fact that the publisher bought my first novel so quickly was almost unintentional. I thought, “I guess I have a writing career now,” and then needed to get more intentional. I was writing for fun before, but now had deadlines, character descriptions, artwork to approve, etc. The publisher liked to link books together and asked me for proposals for three or four novels at a time. Writing is a business, so you have to produce.
Overall, over 10 years I published 15 books and was invited to be in six short story collections – 21 works total.
For a long time, I was writing a book about every six months – and when I was under deadline, I didn’t always have the space to develop the ideas as fully as I wanted. That’s part of the reason I’m in the process of rewriting and republishing my novels as e-books; it’s great to be able to put those ideas and details back in.
With more time and space to develop concepts, you’re currently reissuing your novels?
Yes, I’ve been revising and reissuing them recently. I’ve written for decades now, and I know how to write a better book than when I first began. I have a critique group – a group of women, published authors – and they help save me from myself. I had stopped writing new novels, but my critique group said, you’ve got a giant resource with your existing books. I hadn’t really planned to have a second career rewriting these books but it became obvious that it was a good idea – take the product, make it strong and get it out in front of another generation.
Does the reissuing process work differently than traditional publishing?
Yes, traditionally, in the publishing world, you work with publishing houses often in New York. They read your manuscript, offer you a contract and tell you how they want you to rewrite things. There will be four or five different rounds of revisions with editors. You work with the team to select cover art and the book title – often you don’t get to keep the title that you think should go on it. Surprisingly, this is all done via correspondence, you don’t meet in person. The publisher promotes your novel and handles a lot of other administrative activities, but you give up some control.
This was the process for the initial publication of all my novels over about 10 years, and then I stopped writing for several years. There were several reasons, including that my agent passed away and my editor left the publisher.
So now, I’m rewriting my books and self-publishing them as e-books through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and similar platforms. With e-books and self-publishing, you have much more control. I commission my own cover art because I don’t own the art of the original books.
My critique group really helps to fill the gap of the editor or publisher in giving me feedback that helps to shape my characters. We all started as Regency writers, but some of us have branched to other genres – contemporary, Scottish historical settings. That really helps bring diverse perspectives to what we share with each other.
Notably, your latest book, Jane Austen Shopped Here, is non-fiction but still grounded in the Regency era. Tell us more about this move away from the romance novel?
In the process of writing my novels, I’ve done so much research on the period – and over the years, I got tired of looking things up. So, I wrote Jane Austen Shopped Here as a reference book on the Regency period as a resource for myself, other writers and for libraries.
There are so many entertaining details in this time period. What did they call diapers then? Clouts – nappies came later. Or the food of the time, I’ve found much of that in period recipes. A lot of my source material is other books, but this allowed me to rewrite relevant snippets and compile them in one place. You also have to know the difference between time periods. For example, dance cards were a Victorian thing; you don’t want them in your Regencies because they didn’t exist yet.
Buildings burned all the time, so you have to check and double-check where institutions were on a yearly basis. Theaters, in particular, burned down about every two years – so they would relocate the theatre company until they could rebuild.
The internet is a wonderful resource now, but you have to know if the information you’re looking at is real. I used to call the Shoreline head librarian a lot to ask questions, and sometimes the information is nearly impossible to find. One time, I spent hours trying to figure out how windows opened, so that I could describe how a character would do it correctly. For the record, 19th century London windows primarily opened outward from a vertical center opening.
How do you describe your writing process?
I always tell folks who want to do this for a living that writing is rewriting. Your first drafts are usually not great and you have to rewrite.
Thinking about how you construct your story, there are really two types of writers. Pantsers puts their pants in the chair and write what comes out in their brain. Plotters are much more methodical.
I’m not much of a plotter – plotting everything out makes it less interesting for me. I usually know the beginning and ending of the book, but I like to be surprised by the middle part. But sometimes your characters start going to a party you didn’t want them to go to. Then you have to figure out the scene and see if it fits.
I do have a few rules that must be followed. First, there’s the concept of saving the cat, which you’ll find more about in Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. One of the main characters may be a bad person, but if they rescue a cat that’s stuck in a tree or fallen down a pipe, then you’re revealing the soft side, the true person. So you need to make sure that if you have a scoundrel, you see the real person their mate will connect with. The real person under all the bluster.
Also, it’s important to not make men sound like women – they talk differently. A woman will talk about a fuchsia pillow, but a man will say, “that pink thing there.”
What about the couples in your romances – what is your inspiration for them?
I’m very curious about who we choose as our mates. Why these two people? Why do they go together? It’s the concept of pair-bonding – you can love a lot of people, but you shouldn’t necessarily live with them. An individual might make the greatest friend but a terrible husband; they can be part of your life but not your bonded partner. In most of my books, someone is attracted to someone they shouldn’t be, but then they discover the virtues of their partner.
Some of my favorite characters were in my second book, The Marriage Mart. The heroine is not super beautiful – although the hero is good-looking – but they make a deal to get her married off because this is what she needs to do in that lifestyle. It’s an epistolary novel. Communicating through letters, over long distance – that’s actually how my parents met. He went off to the Navy and they courted by mail.
That’s wonderful, do you still have their letters?
No, my mom burned them all. My mom is a nice little Catholic lady and she thought some of the things my dad said were too spicy. I’m sure it was like, “I’d like to hold your hand” – but still, too spicy. They were married for 55 years and Dad passed 14 years ago.
They may be one of the reasons I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people pair-bond. Mom was more subdued romantically. Dad was the flamboyant one in the family, and Mom was the rock.
How did your romance with your husband begin?
We were both working at Boeing, and my cubicle-mate was a very, very good-looking woman. John, my future husband, brought chocolate chip cookies to her, to tempt her, and she wouldn’t eat one – but I did. After that I was like, “Oh, he owns a home of his own and he bakes.”
One remarkable element to our story is that we met and fell in love about ten years after he was seriously injured, and since then he has used a wheelchair. When he was 18, at college, his roommate shot him for playing the radio too loud.
Oh my goodness, but it doesn’t sound like it slowed him down at all.
No, it didn’t. He went on, got his education, and then worked at Boeing his whole career, which is pretty rare these days. And he’s lucky – he had a good attitude and his parents had a good attitude.
One time I asked his mother, “Why aren’t you just devastated by this?” She said, “Well, he’s alive.” So there you go – he’s got that same attitude: “I’m going to do what I want.”
I don’t think I would have married him if he wasn’t built that way; it was part of what I was looking for. We’re planning a 50th year-in-my-wheelchair party that got a little delayed because of the pandemic – but we’ll still hold it.
Tell us about your family and how you like to spend your time away from the writing desk?
I am based in the Seattle area – I was born in California, but Seattle is the place of my heart.
I have two kids – a boy and a girl – and I am a grandmother to five granddaughters. Five girls, all near me, twins who are 10 years old and then ages 8, 4 and 2. I watch them every week, and love it – it’s a completely different kind of bonding.
Both John and I like to travel. We’ve explored Bermuda, all over the United States, and many other places that really open your mind to other lifestyles.
In 1992, I visited England with my best friend. We went for 10 days and cried when we left. It was thrilling to be in places like Warwick Castle, looking at Henry VIII’s suit of armor. It was the trip of a lifetime and enriched my writing; it gave me a better sense of time and place.
Trips of a lifetime are so special – and they tie into the concept we talk about here at CWM, of living richly. What does it mean to you to live richly?
A friend was reading my palm once and said that I have a really long wealth line. Rich in things like love. I found a man who I adore, two healthy and functioning children and now I’m enjoying these grandchildren.
We’ve been happy to discover Comprehensive Wealth Management because their philosophies work for us – they fit us. We’ve lived simply – we have a modest house, and we don’t drive new cars. But our choices made it possible for the kids to go to college and we’ve been able to build an early retirement – I’m still just in my early 60s. Being financially safe and building a family that produced something for society, that’s how we feel rich.
That’s lovely. And one final important question about your novels – do you ever draw on your real-life experiences or people in your life to build your characters?
People always assume, “Oh, you’re talking about your husband John.” And I’m really not, because we’re all figured out. We’ve been married for a long time – 40 years.
Are there people in your life who see themselves in your novels and wonder if you’ve drawn inspiration from them?
I’ve had a little bit of that feedback but honestly, I don’t do that. It’s easier to write a character who’s formed from my head, so that they do what I want them to do instead of trying to map them from somebody else who might do other things. I’ve heard that before, but it’s just a coincidence.
That’s pretty interesting if people see certain qualities in themselves – especially when it comes to the scoundrels.
Yes, but I get it. I go to church and sometimes during the sermon I’m like, “I think that was aimed at me.”
Yes completely! We’ve likely all felt that at one time or another. Thank you, Teresa.
Find DesJardien’s latest book, Jane Austen Shopped Here, as well as her romance novels at online booksellers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, Target and more. Read additional background on DesJardien via her website at teresadesjardien.com.
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