When I set out to write historical novels set in colonial Boston, I found myself often diverted by discoveries of the old city that lie beneath the present one. Take for example, the old State House.
There it is, right in the middle of everything, surrounded by tall buildings. That’s one of the nice things about this city — the unexpected presence of an artifact when you least expect it. But I am interested in showing you a diversion that amused and amazed me for some time.
If you look closely enough at the cover of my first colonial book, you’ll see that there are hills in the background. Rather substantial ones. These were part of what was called The Shawmut Peninsula. Today only Beacon Hill remains, but it is 40 feet lower than the Puritans found it. A British map I located shows us the prominent position these hills played, and what interests me is the remnants. Let’s compare a section of an old, 1776 map and a more modern one.
Two blocks “up” from the State House (circled in red) is Cambridge Street, an extension of Tremont that curves around Pemberton Hill. Even though Pemberton is no longer there, the current map shows us that its curve remains, a living reminder of what once was there. And before then —
The Shawmut Peninsula was composed of a glacial deposit called a moraine. The ice moved along, pushing debris ahead of it, and when it stopped and melted, the stuff it was pushing stayed where it was. Pemberton Hill was part of the Tri-Mountain (Beacon Hill, Mount Vernon and itself). The street running in front of its highest point (Beacon Hill) became Tremont (TriMount). It’s easy to spot on the old map. The modern one has undergone a lot of “clean up” so that my point about Pemberton will make sense, and spotting Tremont Street isn’t so easy. Copps Hill and Fort Hill have histories of their own, which we may explore — some other time.
History is the North Star, guiding my novels in the direction they must go. Everything else fits in around it, and I’ve found that by faithfully following what is known, fictional situations simply sprout like spring seeds in the garden.
Take this serene painting, for example. It is dated June, 1776, and presumably takes place in Philadelphia where Betsy Ross had a shop. Everyone is dressed neatly, hair combed, everyone is is clean, and there is no suggestion of the disaster that would happen the following winter, when the Continental Army camped and starved and froze to death at nearby Valley Forge.The men are admiring Betsy Ross’s new flag, except for General Washington, who seems more interested in the child on his knee than in Betsy, who is showing the guys how to make a five-pointed star. All very nice, even though Betsy’s involvement with the first flag is questionable, according to Wikipedia, and a lot of people were going to get very dirty and very messy and very hungry very quickly.
.It seems that there were many different flags, representing this colony or that, this unit or that, but this one is most often associated with the Revolution itself. It was devised by Ben Franklin on the occasion of a colonial meet-up in 1750, in an attempt to get the colonies to cooperate with one another in responding to the French-Indian menace. Factional turf wars, however, prevented anything from happening. Still, the idea was a good one, and it was easily understood by everyone.
I find, however, that the actual causes of the Revolution aren’t widely understood, aside from knowing that taxation without representation was a catchword, and that the king was a bad guy (whoever he was).
At the present writing, February 2018, few of us deny that the nation is divided and that democracy is at risk. I believe American History and Civics hasn’t been taught in our public schools for a long time, which is another risk factor. Add to it the “fly over” states whose majority observe a fundamentalist religion that rejects new ideas — all of them — the risk climbs higher and higher.
But I think this isn’t the first time we’ve been at risk. In fact, we were at risk long before the Revolution, and only Samuel Adams appeared to see it. For all these reasons, I’m going to focus on the initial risk, which is very much like the one we face today. Now as then, it shows us what to look for (besides taxation without representation) and is uncannily similar to the news of the moment. I think you’ll find it as fascinating as I have!
And I am a writer. Recently I issued second editions of my novels, and I presume you have read or at least looked at one or the other of them — otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But perhaps you’re interested in Early American History, as well. While researching, I found many tidbits that I couldn’t use in my writing, most of which are fascinating. I’d like to share those, which is the reason I am here.
My books have been around for quite a while. This is the House was published by Coward, McCann and Geohegan in 1975, the year of the Bi-Centennial. It was a game-changer for our little family, and gave us the means to continue living simply. We moved to Vermont.
From our wood-heated dwelling in the mountains came The House of Kingsley Merrick— a bigger challenge than This is the House, actually, because its themes are more complicated. The nation was growing, and its merchants were getting richer, most women accepted their place as chattels, and the unavoidable disaster of Civil War approached inexorably — well, you get the picture, I’m sure. But with the certainty of youth, and encouraged by the very great success of my first book, I plunged in while my husband built our house around me, chopped down trees and split wood to heat it, shoveled snow in the winter and made sure the kids caught the school bus, boiled maple syrup in the spring — you know…all the “Vermonty” things newcomers do, akin to traditional Cape Coddy things, like swimming when the Gulf Stream returns in June and digging your own clams for supper.
Our house was coming along nicely by the time I wrote The Heir . In some respects it is really my husband’s story, hugely fictionalized. There are parts of it that are factually true, but since they are relatively recent (compared to the other two books) I had to disguise everything about them. In the category that explores this novel, I’ll elaborate on the events that inspired the fictional ones.
Here’s one — the schooner Alice Wentworth, which sailed Nantucket Sound in the ’60’s. My husband and I met on board, and the impression she made on us was of life-long duration, as you will see when you read The Heir. (By the way, this photo is a part of the Mystic Seaport collection. All that’s left of the Wentworth, until she rose, like a phoenix from the ashes, to become the Jenny Lawrence.)
Then came The Pretender. I wanted to see if I could write a book whose characters were never real, but reacting in a plausible manner to the historical situation in which they found themselves. In this case, the news that Parliament was going to tax the colonies without consulting the colonists themselves. Though less complex than the novels of the Kingsland Series, the same rhythm prevails: how the personal back-stories of my characters shaped their responses both to their day-to-day lives, as well as the political upheavals of the time, compelling them to move along a certain, almost predestined path whether they recognized it or not. Just as do you and I.
Whether we recognize it or not.
Additionally, I discovered ancient Boston. I copied the map made by the British military preparatory to war, then wandered through the city to see what was left. (The building encircled in red is the old State House), shown on the cover of The Pretender. Of course, it’s not so much “what’s left” of colonial Boston as it is finding the remains beneath or beside all the land that’s been created since the Revolution.
The brown section is fill, gleaned from the Trimountain that dominated Boston for years. After the Revolution, the Colonists — excuse me — Americans — started leveling the hills to make more land, and kept at it for years and years. My exploration had to do with the old city (in white), much of which is still there if you know where to look for it. The Pretender’s aforementioned cover is set where the big blue dot is.
I’ll blog about the people who inhabit my books. They populate Deborah Hill’s world, and I know them quite well. I’ll add pictures, too, or clip art, or graphics — anything that helps us to understand the times I portray better.
l’ll try to be a fairly regular blogger, and if I can, write something at least once a week. If you’d like to be notified when I’ve posted an essay, let me know. (Write info@northroadpublishing) And while you’re at it, any remarks you care to make, information you’d like to share, or opinions on just about anything relating to my books or the slice of American history under discussion — these would be very welcome right here, in the ‘comments’ section.