Tag Archives: research

Betsy’s Circle: Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy Bonaparte’s more surprising friendships was with Dolley Madison. On the surface, the two women seemed to have little in common, yet they had an amiable relationship that lasted many years. For example, while Dolley was in the White House, Betsy often looked in on Dolley’s son at his boarding school near Baltimore. And Dolley Madison once gave Betsy the commission of buying her a turban or anything fashionable on her next trip to Europe because she so admired Betsy’s taste. 

Dolley Madison, born Dolley Payne, was raised as a Quaker in Virginia. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was a teenager. When Dolley was twenty-two, she married a young lawyer named John Todd, with whom she had two sons. Tragedy soon struck, however. The terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793—which wiped out some 11 percent of Philadelphia’s population—killed both her husband and her younger son, who was only three months old.

Within a year, Dolley had met and married James Madison, a bachelor who was seventeen years older than she was. As the main author of the U.S. Constitution, Madison was an important political figure, so this new relationship thrust Dolley into a much different social sphere than she had been used to.

She proved to be more than up to the task. After Thomas Jefferson became president, James Madison became his secretary of state and Mrs. Madison served as the hostess for the widowed president. After eight years, Madison succeeded to the presidency, and Dolley Madison officially became the first lady. She was famous for her entertaining. The following description comes from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Under Mrs. Madison’s direction, Benjamin Latrobe had transformed the oval drawing room into a blazingly colorful salon that was the talk of Washington. Latrobe had repainted the walls sunflower yellow, highlighted moldings with strips of pink wallpaper printed with white and dark green leaves, hung crimson velvet curtains with gold tassels, and laid a carpet with a red, blue, and gold arabesque pattern. Dolley Madison held open houses every Wednesday in the lavishly decorated room. So many people attended—sometimes as many as 400 in a day—that the regular event became known as Mrs. Madison’s “crush or squeeze.”

Dolley Madison became a beloved national hero during the War of 1812. When it became evident that the British were going to take Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and that it would not be possible to protect the President’s Mansion, Dolley stayed to oversee the removal of as many precious and important items as possible—including a full-sized portrait of George Washington. It is this action for which she is best remembered today.

Gilbert Stuart - George Washington - Google Art ProjectGeorge Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Dolley and James Madison remained devoted to each other, Dolley did have one major sorrow. Her surviving son Payne Todd was an irresponsible alcoholic. His behavior was a trial to his mother, particularly after James Madison’s death. Because of Payne’s heavy spending, Dolley Madison spent much of her later years in poverty.


Filed under Extra Tidbits

Just in Case Research

Last summer, while we were visiting my husband’s sister, we strolled through the formal gardens at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Since I think it’s quite possible I might have to describe an estate with a formal garden in historical fiction someday, I took a lot of photographs as “just in case research.” Here are a few of my favorites:









Filed under Research

Thinking About Act Two

Thinker Philadelphia

When I think about starting my next book, I find myself torn between two different ideas. I may do both eventually; the problem is in deciding the order.

The first idea–which I’ll call Cécile’s story—builds off some of the research I did for The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte (AMB). The time period and the locations are similar. The plot would be quite different. Unlike AMB, it wouldn’t be based on real people. The story I have in mind was inspired by the life of a couple of women I read about, but it diverges significantly from real events.

The second idea—which I’ll call Sarah’s story—is based on the memoir of a real woman caught in a real conflict. It is set in a different place and a later time period. I have a stack of books in my office that I purchased to research this particular event.

Pros and cons?

Both books would focus on women in time of war / conflict. Both deal with issues that intrigue me.

I suspect that Cécile’s story may be less commercial than Sarah’s, which has more action and more external conflict. If I wrote Cécile’s story next, I will likely get “branded” as someone who writes about  one particular period and one particular set of locations. Since I don’t want that to happen, it might make more sense to do this as my third book.

I was actually intending to start Sarah’s story this fall. However, I need to take a research trip that, for reasons related to the plot, has to take place in summer. We intended to go in August but weren’t able to swing it because of our work schedules. That setback seems to have deflated whatever mojo I had for the project. I keep telling myself if I start the book research, the drive will come back, and then I can do the research trip (which mostly relates to setting details) next year. My inner muse remains stubbornly unconvinced.

For whatever reason, Cécile’s story is the one tugging at my imagination. It will require just as much research, but at this point, I’m not planning a trip to do any of it. Yet, I remain troubled by the suspicion that it doesn’t have the same marketable hook of Sarah’s story or AMB, for that matter. (I’m not totally sure of that though. I have thought of one idea that could ramp up interest in it.)

And so I dither and tell myself I’m just too busy  with the last details of AMB and a too-full freelance schedule to start anything new.

One of these days soon, however, I’m going to have to make a decision and commit to it. Otherwise, I run the risk of AMB being an only child.


Filed under Writing Historical Fiction

Research Photographs

In retrospect, I wish I had taken more photographs when I took my research trip to Baltimore. The ones I did take were so helpful.

Here are a few more of the images I referred to as I wrote the novel:

Shipyard, Federal Hill, Baltimore

A Shipyard at Federal Hill, Baltimore


Baltimore, circa 1850

Constellation, model

Constellation, caption

Chasseur, model

Chasseur, caption


Filed under Research

Artifacts of a Life

Just a few accessories that belonged to the real Betsy Bonaparte, with a portrait showing her wearing the tiara. She was 37 or 38 and living in Europe when the painting was made.


Everytime I see the photograph of this jewelry and small handbag, I think how fashionable they would have been in the 1960s!


This tiara features seed pearls and garnets.


Painting in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, photograph by Michael Chatlien, 2011


Filed under Extra Tidbits

Writing Historical Fiction: Period-Appropriate Language

Today, I simply want to share a tool that I found very helpful while I was writing my novel—a website called the Online Etymology Dictionary. It’s a great resource for writing historical fiction. Every time I wondered if a certain word was appropriate for my 19th century characters to use, all I had to do was look it up on that website, and I’d learn when the word came into use and how its meaning evolved over time.

The site contains some fascinating information. For example, I knew from Betsy’s letters that she used the exclamation Fudge! What I didn’t know until I looked it up was that the expression didn’t originally come from the candy. It came from a man’s name—Captain Fudge, who was known for telling lies. That reputation gave rise to sailors using the term fudge whenever they thought they were being told lies or nonsense.


Filed under Writing Historical Fiction

Writing Historical Fiction: Researching Period Furniture

The following photographs are pictures I took of period furniture displayed in the Maryland Historical Society. During the writing of the novel, I had to do a lot more research than this, but it gave me start.

bed and bed steps

Notice that the bed steps open up to reveal a potty seat — for when nature calls in the middle of the night. (I seem to be pursuing a theme this week!)


Bejamin Latrobe designed this chair for Dolley Madison to use in the drawing room of the President’s Mansion. (It wasn’t called the White House until after the War of 1812.)


Charles Pinkney, U.S. Attorney General, used this inkstand to write a draft of the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.


I didn’t use anything like this particular piece of furniture in the novel, but I love the exuberance of this dressing table. The figures on the upper doors represented Commerce and Industry.


This armchair inspired me to choose teal upholstery for the furniture Betsy’s parents had in their drawing room.


I love the color combination on the Grecian couch. It helped me to realize that the color palette from Betsy’s time period wasn’t quite as somber as I might have assumed.


Filed under Uncategorized

19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore for research, my husband and I toured the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. (You can see it in the third image on this page.) The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my special interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so unexpectedly encountering her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than just a hazy historical figure.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun (Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome gave it to Betsy after they married—or bought it for their home.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six, so theoretically, she could have used it there.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp sense of humor, I feel certain she would have been amused.

205 Bourdalou mit Blumenmalerei Frankenthal c1756-1759
A Sample Bourdelou (not Betsy’s), Photograph by Austin Towers, via Wikimedia Commons


Filed under 19th century life

Writing Historical Fiction: 19th c. Information Lag

While I was planning the plot of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I had to deal with what I call information lag. In the current age of instant communication, it’s hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometimes amused themselves by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious that you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice? Especially knowing that the letter might be lost and you’ll have to start all over again six months from now?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure it was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for the information lag because it helped to add considerable tension to the plot. The specifics of how that tension plays out will not be revealed until the book is published. (That’s my contemporary version of information lag.)



Filed under Writing Historical Fiction

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.



ship's wheel

cable tier


Filed under Research