Getting the History Right

I finished my first draft of Smuggler’s Paradise (working title) last week. Now the fun begins.

Amazon link
Update: Smuggler's Paradise has been Release as Willing Love by The Wild Rose  Press. 

As I mentioned in my post on historical research, I do the research for my books before, during, and after the writing.

Before – Many of the basic plots for my books come from reading non-fiction. Although I’ve ended up setting the story in a different time and place, the seeds of the plot for Smuggler’s Paradise came from reading Harlow Giles Unger’s biography John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. (5 stars for me)

During – While I’m plowing through the first draft, I’ll do a little bit of research, usually relying on weak secondary resources to check this or that. For example, I might double check what was covered under the Stamp Act using a resource like Wikipedia. (Yes, I am familiar with all Wikipedia’s shortcomings, but for this stage, it works well.)

After – After the first draft, as I’m working on refining everything else, I double down on research. This phase will last throughout every manuscript revision as I check and recheck facts and figures. It sometimes happens even after publication as I reassure myself that I got everything as correct as I possibly could!

The first step in this “after” phase is to make sure I have the location and date nailed down. It’s no longer good enough to set Smuggler’s Paradise in “Rhode Island, 1760s.”

Golbez/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0
Location: Smuggler’s Paradise is still set in Rhode Island, and I’m pretty sure I’ll set the story outside Newport. (Another thing I will have to research is what the Rhode Island coast line looks like! I have a vague idea, but living in North Dakota it’s not like I can “go have a look see.”)

Time Period: Here’s where it gets tricky. Given how quickly things were happening in the American colonies at the time, I need to make sure I get things down to the right month. As the working title implies, the smuggling trade (rum and molasses) plays a fairly important part in the plot. I need to make sure I time things appropriately so the scenes in the story make sense given the various Acts introduced and repealed by Parliament, taking into account the delay in communication that was inevitable as news of the Acts had to travel across the Atlantic.

Originally I had set the story in 1763 since smuggling was common by then. The Molasses Act had been in effect since 1733 but customs officials were commonly bribed to look the other way. The import duty on molasses from non-British territories was 6 pence per gallon so it was easy to name an attractive price for many custom’s officials.

Unfortunately, 1763 lacks the element of danger I needed for a good story backdrop. The French and Indian War had just ended, so while the economy in the colonies was taking a turn for the worse, most Americans weren’t quite in the rebellious spirit yet. Plus, while the Molasses Act was in effect, it wasn’t being enforced. Putting aside any idea of “right and wrong” or duty to “King and Country” everyone seemed happy with the arrangement.

Quick aside: the Molasses Act was never intended to be revenue-producing tax. It was intended to protect the British trade of molasses between the mother country and her colonies.

I’ve decided to move the story a year later to the spring of 1764. By now, it’s become obvious to Parliament that they are up to their eyeballs in debt due to the French and Indian War. (Seven Years War in Europe) Many are arguing that the colonists should pay for their portion of the war, after all, the British Troops had come to their defense! (There is way more behind the animosity and resentment that this simple logic, but that’s a discussion for another day – or perhaps another story!)

As I mentioned in my Revolutionary Timeline post, The Sugar Act was passed in April of 1764 and news reached the colonies by May. What I did not know, but learned from reading Reporting the Revolutionary War by Todd Anderlik was that the Colonists were also starting to hear about rumblings in Parliament of a tax on paper goods - later known as The Stamp Act.

Burning of the Gaspee
source: Wikimedia Commons
This image is public domain in the US
because its copyright has expired
The Sugar Act is key for my story because it halved the import duties to 3 pence per gallon, making it harder to bribe the customs officials. It also made it clear that there would be more efforts on enforcement.

In the end, the spring of 1764 heightens the plot elements for Smuggler’s Paradise:
-          • My heroine’s family business (and her person) is being threatened due to more aggressive enforcement.
-         • The colonists are starting to resent the heavy hand of Parliament.
-         • And I have an excellent opportunity for a villain in the guise of one over-zealous customs official.

My only disappointment is that I can’t work in the attack on The HMS LIberty  (1769) or The Gaspee Affair (1772). The attack on the HMS St. John might do, however that ship managed escaped the rebellious Rhode Islanders, so it’s not as well known.

If you’ve made it this far in my post, I’d love to hear from you! (I realize not everyone loves the history as much as I do.) Let me know what you think about the books setting and time period.

All the best!



  1. I love learning both about your strategy for approaching research and about your current WIP. One of my sisters was born in Newport, RI, and while I haven't been there in years, I'd love to visit through a well-told story!

  2. Smugglers are always interesting. Did you find any proof that Hancock was smuggling? From what I've read, he refused to let customs agents board his boat, and then they found a lot of wine missing, like he'd unloaded it elsewhere, but I don't recall that he was ever caught.

  3. It's been awhile since I did the core research and read Unger's book on Hancock. Frankly, I don't know that I ever did find anything conclusive. Maybe it's like the knowledge that the Sons of Liberty were behind the Boston Tea Party. It's easy to believe, but that doesn't make it true. What gets stated so many times comes to be accepted as fact. It's unfortunate, but I suppose it's human nature.