Congreve Rockets

by Ann Tracy Marr

The night before Waterloo, from a painting by Henry Nelson

In my Regency fantasy romance, Round Table Magician, military plans for a revision of the British rocket troop are stolen. How did I choose rockets as the subject of the nabbed papers?

Rockets do not interest me in the slightest. As an avid fan of the Regency period, I knew Wellington used them in the war against Napoleon. The rockets were not accurate. That was all I knew -- and all I cared to know. Then I wrote a romance wherein papers were stolen. As the plot evolved, my dilemma was that stolen papers lacked substance.

Papers didn't dazzle. To interest an agent or editor in one's writing, everything must dazzle. Like a supporting character, the formless papers had to become something readers could comprehend and appreciate. I added Papers to my cast of characters and brainstormed how to make them interesting. Considering the plot line, eccentric would be great. I doodled in my head.

If I had to go into the papers in depth, why not make them something real? Ahh, a research problem. Regency readers tend to be knowledgeable about the period and unforgiving of errors. No mistakes allowed. The Regency period (roughly 1800-1820 in England) must have had something that could be slapped on my papers. I wandered the Internet for two days, searching for diaries, letters, or other information from the time that would fit my papers. There were a few economics bits that might morph into the papers, but one can't get much duller than discussions of the Corn Laws (imports, exports and money. Yawn. And a year or two off for my plot.)

By luck -- searching the Internet is pure luck, near as I can determine -- I fell into a website about the Napoleonic Wars hosted by war aficionados who knew where England's cavalry rode in each battle, where the Dragoons stood. Whew, a ten foot bluff in a field that soldiers lay on to shoot at the French was no more interesting than the Corn Laws.

The war lovers posted some of Wellington's correspondence. I propped my eyelids up and read about problems getting supplies to the troops, complaints about Parliament's attitude, praise of divisions. Arrgghh. I wasn't getting anywhere.

Then I struck gold, diamonds, and oil.

Lord Wellington complained about the rocket troop. He didn't like them; rockets were inaccurate, unreliable, a pain in the patootie. He didn't know any other use for them other than to burn a town, which he didn't want to do, the army being in Spain where towns housed allies. Wellington only accepted the rocket troop because he could use their horses. Like I said, oil, diamonds and gold. Factual, interesting, quirky, even eccentric.

I dug further. Lo and behold, a revision of the rocket troop was proposed. By all that was holy and looking down on me with favor, the proposal was made in the right year. Rockets were true, fit nicely with what was needed for my plot, and the timing was perfect.

The stolen papers morphed into plans to improve stupid rockets. That Wellington disliked them added a punch of humor -- rockets that were as likely to boomerang at their launchers as fly toward the enemy are a plot device with character.

The reader doesn't bog down in details about rockets. Just as a cook doesn't have to spell out that a pinch of thyme flavors the soup, I don't have to bore my readers.

I only mentioned that Wellington didn't like the rockets and that he accepted the troop to get his hands on the horses. Like spice, the rocket's unsteady character melds with other elements of the story into a savory whole.







The lesson I took away from two days of wandering the wasteland of the Internet is that somehow, eventually, given persistence, the perfect plot device will appear. Just as a magazine editor screams for the perfect graphic to illustrate an article, spending time to discover the perfect bit of historical truth to grace Chapter Two, page ten, paragraph three can lift a manuscript from ho hum to hmmmm.

Of course, I learned more about rockets than I care to know. Here is the gist of my research, in case you are interested.

The rocket was an iron tubed model developed by William Congreve, the favored son of a gunpowder manufacturer. Congreve was a prolific inventor, coming up with designs for inlaying metal and a steam engine, among others.

Based on those used against British troops in India, Congreve's rocket was first tested in 1806 against French invasion barges in the bay of Boulogne. Two hundred rounds achieved little on the water but inflicted heavy damage in the town. As they tended to wander off target and could explode prematurely, their greatest value was in bombardment.

Congreve rockets were used by the British navy, and then dispatched to Portugal under command of Lieutenant Colonel Fisher. Lord Wellington wrote to Earl Bathurst 22 Nov 1813: 'I have received your letter of the 11th, regarding the Rocket brigade. The only reason why I wished to have it was to get the horses; but as we are to have them at all events, I am perfectly satisfied. I do not want to set fire to any town, and I do not know any other use of the rockets.'

They were used in the War of 1812 against America as well as against the French. "The rocket's red glare" in Francis Scott Key's poem referred to Congreve rockets being fired at Fort McHenry. The rocket's design was improved in 1815 by adding a base plate with a threaded hole for more accurate aim. So the papers Robert Jackson had to go over in Round Table Magician were important; the conclusions presented in them were adopted by the military. I successfully added a bit of real Regency life into my fantasy romance.