The Diversions of Boston

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. 

All you’ll see in the background here are Boston’s skyscrapers.

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.

A careful look reveals as background of hills.

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.

The same downtown section


Map detail courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhall Map Center at the Boston Public Library

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 —

This is the earliest sketch we have of the peninsula.

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.






Deborah Hill’s world

deb picture

I am Deborah.

I am a writer. I have issued second editions of my novels, and 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, too, and you know that my novels accurately recount the events of their time period. You wonder where I unearthed the details, and whether there are more I left out.

Well, of course there are. While researching, I found many tidbits that I couldn’t use in my writing, most of which are fascinating. I’ll share them here, along with gossip and the prospects that alternative history offers. Promise, I’ll label these (tidbit; gossip; alternative history).

Before I start, though, I’d like to tell you a little about myself. This is the House, my first novel, was published by Coward, McCann and Geohegan in 1975, the year of the Bi-Centennial. It was a game-changer for our little family. We’d been living on Cape Cod, but we knew it’s advantages were soon going to be undermined by gentrification. But by selling This is the House, we had the means to continue a life of simple living. We could move to Vermont.


From our wood-heated dwelling in the mountains came The House of Kingsley Merrick and after it  The Heir— written 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 can hardly get more “Vermonty” than that).

These books, (the Kingsland Series) are based on my husband’s Cape Cod family, though by the time I reached the last one — which is really my husband’s story — I had to fictionalize a good part of it, since the originals for some of the characters were still resident in town!

One of the primary prototypes hardly needed any disguise at all. Schooner_Alice_S_Wentworth_on_starboard_tackHere’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. It’s all that is 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 Stamp Tax. And yes, I could create characters whose back-stories 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.

The Pretender was followed by The Hostage, and then by The Traitors, to form the Prelude Series. And that is my career as an author.

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’m writing about better.

l’ll try to be a fairly regular blogger, and if I can. If you’d like to be notified when I’ve posted an essay, let me know using the Contact Form below. 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!

Until later, then…