The Pretender, History, and Self-Publishing

Writing historical novels is a blast. Once the author decides on a setting and a time period, the progression of events carries the plot along. This leaves plenty of room to explore character development and dalliances between the male and female protagonists. But, in order to be a REAL historical novelist, the writer has to look into the details — as many as can be found — about the setting and time chosen. They must not be allowed to dominate, of course. Not an easy constraint, if you love history.

One of the first things I like to do as a self-published author, is to get the novel’s cover under control, select the characters and the background where they are living so I can easily picture them in their own setting. As I went about trying to decide these things for The Pretender, I found all kinds of details that diverted me endlessly. And still do! Primarily, the city of Boston.

Here’s a picture I recently took:

A suspended art show!
A suspended art show!

It’s not at all the Boston seen on the cover of The Pretender, and the cover of the Pretender isn’t at all like the scene today.

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


A careful look reveals as background of hills.
But a careful look at The Pretender’s cover reveals hills in the background, right?

But here’s a look at Boston in 1768:

Not a mountain or hill in sight
Not a mountain or hill in sight

The etching above was created by Paul Revere, whom we have every reason to believe  was living in Boston in 1768.  His etching is all I’d ever seen of colonial Boston, so I assumed everything in those days was the way everything is today — relatively level. But no. The leveling didn’t take place until after the Revolution.  The sketch below is more like it:

This is the Shawmut Peninsula, where Boston was begun
This is the Shawmut Peninsula, where Boston was begun. The labels are misleading; pay them no attention!

When you stand beside the State House today, where my protagonists are located, and look behind it, you’ll see that in two short blocks it stops and intersects what is today called Cambridge Street. Across Cambridge Street is a huge curved building. Hmmm. Curved? Why? I mean, there’s no reason why it should curve like that — except that once upon a time, I discovered, Pemberton Hill was there. If the  Shawmut sketch is at all accurate, it becomes clear why the street curves, and the building too. Thanks to Mapping Boston, published by the MIT Press in 2001,we learn some interesting facts:

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

This map is part of one drawn by the British in 1776 to show where His Majesty’s munitions and bunkers were. This small section shows Pemberton Hill; I’ve taken the liberty of coloring it green so it’s easy to see what was controlling development in colonial times. The building circled in red is the old State House, right behind my heroine and hero. And behind that — voila! Pemberton Hill. And — voila –from this discovery, my cover. With hills in the background.

Since I am in the self publishing business, I can decide exactly what I want, and make it happen. (I learned, to my unhappiness, that when you commercially publish, everything is out of your hands. As a result we ended up with brigs anchored off Cape Cod’s north shore, where they’d lie on their sides at low tide, like beached whales.)

This has been something like a slide show, hasn’t it? Unfortunately my posts can’t all be that way. For instance, the next one explores how the colonists of 1765 felt when they learned they were going to be taxed (without anyone in Parliament seeking their opinion about it). We’ll try to understand how the British seemed to have no clue as to why the Americans opposed the Stamp Act. I’ll include some pictures, you may be sure — but I haven’t figured out yet how they might relate to the topic. Maybe a portrait of Ben Franklin, who is said to have been as surprised as most Englishmen to discover that there existed a very disturbing, very clandestine colonial undercurrent of opposition. And maybe a portrait of Samuel Adams, who led that opposition….