The first and most important step in writing The Royal We was obviously creating our central characters — fleshing out Nick, Bex, Lacey, Freddie, the friends and enemies they make. But we also needed a Queen. And she needed a family. So we needed to change history.
We’re frequently asked why, in the face of that obstacle, we didn’t just set the book in a country we invented out of whole cloth. For whatever reason, that never crossed our minds. The Royal We needed to feel grounded, because at its crux is the push and pull between an ordinary person and her extraordinary situation, and the potential sacrifice of one for the other. Her world therefore had to be relatable. Familiar. She had to be walking the streets of a real city so that the reader could truly put themselves in her shoes, and empathize with the divide between where she came from and where she went. But more importantly, a huge part of the story is Nick’s destiny. He is going to be king. And that reality, and the burden it puts on him, has so much more heft when the reader brings into the story a knowledge of what that means. Socially, politically, even just terrestrially. In the wonderful FitzOsbournes trilogy by Michelle Cooper, about the family that rules the fictional island of Montmaray off the coast of the UK, an imaginary country works because it’s not REALLY about that; at its core the trilogy is the story of a close-knit group of kids who grew up in bizarre isolation, and then had the sanctity of their unit threatened by the various dangers of World War II (and in fact, even that trilogy eventually forsakes Montmaray for England’s richer tapestry). Those books explore what happens when the world encroaches on you. The Royal We is the reverse, a story about a girl who encroaches on a world. Bex falls in love with a man who just so happens to have another marriage in the hopper — to his birthplace — that is bigger than anyone could possibly imagine. She chose England the first time with just the weight of her own desires and expectations at stake, but when she chose it again, it was a heavier decision. Using the UK in this situation gives readers an innate understanding of just how big a deal, and how explosive a pressure-cooker, that choice is.
Besides, let’s face it, setting the book in London gave us ample and irresistible chances to color the story with actual landmarks, traditions, and references to Henry VIII. Sold.
Creating our fictional Lyons dynasty, however, wasn’t as simple as just pulling Queen Eleanor’s name out of a hat and then making up the rest as we went. That’s a quick way to make a tangled web that won’t unravel. Offhand mentions of random royal relatives would start to step on each other, and risked disconnecting readers from a world where the pieces not only didn’t seem to fit together, but felt like they were pulled from different puzzles. What we had to do was, in essence, our homework. Like using scratch paper in math to work out a problem so that you can fill in the right answer on your exam, even if your teacher never gets to marvel at how you arrived there. We knew we wouldn’t be able to show our work via a full and lengthy Lyons timeline at the front of The Royal We — in our first draft, our attempt accounted for a full five Microsoft Word pages, so we had to slice-and-dice — but in order to thread our narrative with allusions to Eleanor’s ancestors, every reference had to ring accurate. If it didn’t feel true to us, it wouldn’t feel true to the reader.
The trick became tweaking events in the UK’s actual monarchical timeline so that it afforded us exactly the right amount of space. Cut it too close, and we’d cross streams with the Windsors of today; erase too much, and we’d wipe out crucial elements of what makes the UK what it is. We wanted some room to create our own rulers with big romances and zany deaths, but we had to do it without abundance of real Edwards and Georges in the way — yet also without losing too much of Britain’s fabric, or London’s architecture and landmarks. Delete Victoria, and it deletes Albert, which zaps out Royal Albert Hall and the gargantuan golden monument to him that she built after he died. Poof: one grand romantic gesture stricken from the record. It’s a domino effect. Besides, we were already contending with minutiae like the fact that our characters would refer to Queen Elizabeth I as simply Queen Elizabeth, because the regnal number isn’t added until there is more than one, and of course, in The Royal We there is no QEII. In short, there was only so much of the past we could twist without making pretzels of our brains and of British history.
In the end, we chose to keep Queen Victoria, but make two critical changes to her immediate successor(s) — we prematurely eliminated a son, and revived a grandson — so that it created a completely fresh crew (and eventually gave her the regnal number we took away from Elizabeth I).
Oh, and a word about names: We strove to christen our characters in a way that was at least somewhat in keeping with history — we threaded in connections for a few where we needed them, like as middle names, or Frederick and Richard being actual ducal family names for the one we revived for Queen Victoria II’s husband — but which didn’t step on the names of current royals or on any of the kings we eradicated. So, for example, we couldn’t invent a new George, because he’d have been George V, which easily would be confused with the ACTUAL George V that we had eliminated from the timeline. Ditto making a new fictional Edward VIII. Further, we couldn’t invent a Charles, because he’d have been King Charles III in our book, which is the same number the real Charles may be someday (unless he styles himself George VIII or something) and that would create similar confusion in the future. And William and Harry/Henry we stayed away from for obvious reasons, although with William, it’s also the same monarchical issue of not wanting to make up a William V that would someday cross streams with the eventual William V (if that’s what he chooses for himself). Finally, we realized hearing the names of ANY of the present-day crew would take you out of the book because it’s so hard not to picture their faces, so we struck Edward, George, Andrew, Anne, Elizabeth, and Philip from the list. Fun fact: Prince Edwin was originally named Prince George, until we read through the first draft and realized that every time we saw his name we pictured the new little moppet and his CHEEKS.
Here’s our timeline, created with help from my research star of a sister, including children, spouses, deaths, and other historical notes explaining certain decisions we made. There are NO book spoilers herein, but there are in the comments, so beware if you’ve not read the entire book.