They say that life imitates art. But sometimes, it’s the other way around—just ask Jennifer Ryan, author of His Cowboy Heart. In the novel, Ryan draws on her own experiences with her husband returning from serving in the Army, and uses those memories to tell Jamie’s story. Here, Ryan tells Bookish readers about using her own husband as inspiration for a romance novel.
Readers always ask if the characters I write about are based on me, my life, and people I know. Well, that’s complicated. The short answer: not always. The long answer: Yes, in some ways, a piece of me and people I know are in all of my books. I want my characters to feel real and full—like they’re someone readers know in their own lives.
When I set out to write His Cowboy Heart, I relied on my experience with my husband and his military career to tell Jamie Keller’s story. My husband served in the Army for several years, part of that time as an Army Ranger. He served in the Panama invasion, where he earned a Purple Heart, and Desert Shield/Storm.
Jamie returns home to Montana after surviving a traumatic attack and losing several of her closest friends. She’s devastated by her experience and suffering from memory loss. I remember seeing my husband for the first time after he came home from Panama. More than the bandages and injuries disturbed me. It was the change in his eyes and personality. He’d seen things. He’d done things. He’d lost friends. And all of it weighed on him. His experiences had profoundly changed him. The man I knew was still there, but he was more in a way I couldn’t explain.
When Ford Kendrick sees Jamie again, he sees that same change in her. She’s the girl he used to know and a woman he doesn’t quite recognize. The hurt and trauma show in her eyes and the scars on her body because it’s something she just can’t hide. She’s suffering from PTSD. Though my husband’s symptoms weren’t talked about in those terms back when he came home, Jamie’s symptoms are loosely based on what my husband experienced. Nightmares, flashbacks, hyperawareness of her surroundings, checking rooftops for snipers, bouts of anger and depression, frustration that transitioning from military life to civilian life seems more difficult than necessary. The structured life she had before is gone and each and every day is a struggle because no matter how hard she fights to stay in the present, the past intrudes and takes over against her will. But like my husband had an understanding and patient partner in me, Jamie has Ford to see her through her struggles and push her toward a happy and healthy life again.
After all Jamie has been through, she needs someone who knew her before and knows when to dismiss her odd behavior and when it’s time to give her a loving shove to do and be better. Time heals, but the experience of war never goes away. It fades along with the scars. But it remains a part of your new reality. Learning to live with it and deal with the triggers that bring it all back is easy some days and impossible on others. But having someone beside you, who loves you through the rough patches and hangs in there during the times you’re out of your mind—that’s something special.
Heroes come in all shapes and forms. Yes, Jamie is a hero, but Ford is Jamie’s hero for loving her through her dark times and showing her that life can be light and fun and kind and happy again.
Jennifer Ryan is the New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of The Hunted, McBride, and Montana Men series. She writes suspenseful contemporary romances with outrageous plot twists, deeply emotional love stories, high stakes and higher drama. Her stories are filled with love, family, friendship, and the happily-ever-after we all hope to find. Jennifer lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children. When she finally leaves those fictional worlds, you’ll find her in the garden, playing in the dirt and daydreaming about people who live only in her head, until she puts them on paper.