Category Archives: Research

Writing Historical Fiction: Researching Historic Ships

These are just a few photographs of the USS Constellation, which I took when I was on my research trip to Baltimore two years ago. It was built after the time period of my novel, but I still found the tour of the ship helpful. Clicking on each image will make it larger.

constellation

rigging

ship's wheel

cable tier

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Paying My Respects

Image

About two years ago, I started the process of writing a novel based on the life of Betsy Bonaparte. That November we traveled to her hometown of Baltimore to do research. My first full day there, I visited Betsy’s grave to pay my respects. As you can see, the grave has a high marble slab with carved columns at each corner. Misty rain was falling, and giant crows hopped from gravestone to gravestone cawing. It was like a scene out of Edgar Allan Poe. I was weeping. I promised Betsy that I would do my best to portray her fairly, without some of the stereotypes and harsh judgments that have crept into the historical records about her.

Then I found a violet blooming near her tomb. It was late autumn, yet there was a spring flower. So I picked it. I’ve never been able to smell violets. It always disappointed me bitterly as a little girl. However, the one I picked that rainy November day had a powerful scent. I took it with me to press. I still have it in a notebook I carried that week.

After leaving the cemetery, we visited a historic home that had a piece of Betsy’s furniture on display. It was a home she would have visited during her lifetime. After the tour, I found and bought a box of violet-scented powder in the gift shop. When we got back to the inn, I googled Betsy’s name and the word violet, and I discovered that the flower was associated with those who supported the Bonapartes. That was fitting. In spite of the difficulties she face, Betsy never lost her admiration for the emperor.

The whole story is eerie, n’est-ce pas? To me, it felt as thought Betsy was granting me permission to do this project. And I did my best to keep that graveyard promise to her as I wrote The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.

 

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