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….


Welcome to Deborah Hill’s world!


deb picture

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.At low tide, on Cape Cod's north shore, low tide is clamming time.

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.

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. 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.

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

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.

boston 1775 (1)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.

Until later, then…