Story Research: Current Go-To Books on the Bookshelf

I love perusing other people’s bookshelves. Don’t you?

As a historical fiction writer, I spend much of my time doing research. Below is a sampling of the books currently sitting on my bookshelf. Have fun browsing!

Bulfinch’s Boston, 1787-1817
by Harold and James Kirker
Oxford University Press, 1964

This book provides a charming, if somewhat biased, view into Federalist Boston through the lens of Charles Bulfinch, the famous Boston architect. Reading it, I feel as if I am walking the same streets as the characters of my story.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840
(Everyday Life in America series)
by Jack Larkin
Harper & Row, 1988

Larkin covers nearly every aspect of early American daily life in this comprehensive social history.

The American Heritage History of the Making of the Nation, 1783-1860
Ralph K. Andrist, series editor
American Heritage/Bonanza Books, 1968

Coffee table books have their uses! A helpful historical survey.

Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century
The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute

Another coffee table book, and gorgeous, too! The Kyoto collection is online, but nothing beats seeing large, glossy spreads and close-ups of historical fashions. All the details!

The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking
by Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox
Page Street Publishing, 2017

My main character is a mantua-maker (dressmaker). I am not. My story could not have been written without this book. I reference it constantly.

America and the Sea: A Maritime History
by Benjamin W. Labaree, et al
Mystic Seaport Museum

And my other main character is a merchant seaman. Another book I couldn’t do without!

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QOTD Emerson

The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay V

Forgive This Emo Moment: The Lumineers and Character Psychology

Fiction writing is a strange process, and fiction writers, strange for it. For me, story writing is largely an analytical process of thinking through cause and effect:

If this happens, then this happens next.

If this character meets with these circumstances, how would this character react? As opposed to that character?

I always have characters A and B together. What would happen if I put A and C together? Or B and C? A and D?

The pacing of this scene is off. Where do I introduce conflict? At what rate did I build it up? Did the scene reach a crisis point? Did the character make a choice? Was their an unexpected twist as a result of that choice?

And so on. But every so often my right brain shuts up, my left brain takes over, and I’ll have an unexpected and almost always dramatic emotional breakthrough that pushes the story forward in ways my right brain never anticipated.

The source of these breakthroughs also always surprises me. Once upon a time, many years and many stories ago, I had a breakthrough while typing on my computer in the middle of McDonald’s Playland. I was seven months pregnant, my oldest was playing with other kids, Hootie and the Blowfish was blaring from the speakers… and my main character decided that this was the exact right moment to tell me her deepest, darkest secret.

Have you ever blubbered like a baby while typing frenetically against the backdrop of squealing kids and “Order 294!” and I only want to be with yooooo-oooo-oooo-uuuuu and that Mickey D’s french fry smell? Well, I have. Just another crazy writer. Don’t mind me.

I’ve had several of these emo moments while working on my current project. One of them came while listening to this song:

I don’t follow popular music. All I know about Stubborn Love was that it hit the top of the charts some years back. My husband and I had listened to the album a few times and liked it, but I hadn’t thought much about it until after I began working on my current project, in which I have a 23 year old male character who is in love, and has been in love for many years, with his childhood friend.

Stubborn Love was the song that gave me an emotional insight into the dynamics of that kind of love.

How? Not entirely sure. Perhaps because Stubborn Love has a male protagonist. Perhaps because the lyrics speak to childhood affection and unrequited love. Perhaps because the beloved in the song is a girl on the run. Perhaps because the lover is faithful to her, regardless of the pain she causes him. Perhaps because the lover is, in fact, stubborn.

All these dynamics are at play in my story. But only when I happened to hear the song again, about four chapters into the story process, did I have the cathartic moment that allowed me to understand my character.

Of all things to help me understand the emotional workings of an eighteenth century man… contemporary folk pop rock.

As I said before, don’t mind me. Just another crazy writer.

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Tax Collectors There Must Be: Inside Custom House

Remember that little kerfuffle we call the American Revolutionary War?

Remember what started it all?


Detail of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770; Custom House visible at right. (Public Domain)

In Book One of my current work-in-progress, the male lead character, Josiah, is offered a job as a secret agent, gathering intelligence for the President’s office. France and England were on the brink of war in 1792 and America was trying to stay out of it. American port cities need to be watched, Josiah is told, and between his foreign language skills and experience as a merchant sailor, he’s a perfect candidate for the job.

(Long story short: Washington had a black ops budget. Technically the funds were allocated for overseas operations and their incident expenses, but it’s not too much of a fictional stretch to include domestic operations among those incident expenses.)

It’s an intriguing offer. But for Josiah, there’s one major drawback: the cover job. Specifically, working as a tidewaiter (inspector) at Boston Custom House.

The idea of being a tax collector doesn’t thrill him, at all.

Tell me how you really feel about paying taxes: A depiction of the tarring and feathering of (British) Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, a Loyalist, by five Patriots on 5 January 1774 under the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts. (Public Domain)

Taxes: America’s favorite controversial topic. This is no less true today than in 1789, when the First United States Congress was faced with the task of figuring out how to raise revenue without ticking everyone off.

Congress’ solution was the Tariff Act of 1789, which established duties (taxes) on imported goods into the United States, and the subsequent Collection Act of 1789, which established the United States Customs Service and designated American ports of entry. Every inbound ship, American or foreign, was required to stop at the nearest port, undergo inspection, pay duties, and clear papers before going on its merry way.

For years, tariffs were the main source of revenue for the federal government – only in 1861, with the Civil War as an excuse, did Congress dare to impose an individual income tax. Tariffs, by comparison, were far less intrusive.

Every customhouse was run by a Collector of Customs. He was assisted by a naval officer (in the case of largest ports), who acted as deputy collector and supervised the clerical staff, and a surveyor, who measured ships and tonnage and supervised ground operations and inspection staff. Customs officers received their appointments from President Washington and answered to Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury.

In order to make the idea of paying tariffs more palatable for the general public, the first customs officers were carefully chosen, well-respected Patriots, many of them war heroes. On the flip side, in order to attract good candidates, the Department of the Treasury paid its customhouse officers a percentage of incoming revenue, making the positions highly lucrative, especially for those officers assigned to the largest ports, such as Boston, where my story is set.

Of course, we know who ran Boston Custom House in 1792. And they weren’t nobodies, either! My character may be fictional, but his employers were influential men. For a writer, this is where things get fun: my job is to blend fact and fiction, playing each off each other and seeing what kind of story develops.

So who is Josiah working for?

Benjamin Lincoln, Collector of Customs

General Benjamin Lincoln by Charles Wilson Peale. (Public Domain.)

Benjamin Lincoln served in the Provincial Congress and then as a major general for the Continental Army. As Washington’s second-in-command at Yorktown, Lincoln was the man who formally accepted Cornwallis’ sword of surrender. Afterwards, he served as Secretary of War for the Confederation government and led the troops that put down Shay’s Rebellion. He was the second Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. General Lincoln was then appointed Boston’s first Collector of Customs in 1789, a post he held until 1809, the year before his death.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more respectable man to fill the position of Collector of Customs. With General Lincoln at the helm of Custom House, paying taxes felt almost patriotic.

James Lovell, Naval Officer

James Lovell was the son of the headmaster of Boston Latin School. After his graduation from Harvard, Lovell joined his father and served as an instructor. In 1771 he gave the first speech commemorating the Boston Massacre, making him a well-known Patriot, while his father was an ardent Loyalist.

In 1775, Lovell was arrested by the British for spying and was released in 1776 in exchange for Colonel Philip Skene. Afterwards he took his seat in the Continental Congress, where he served on the Committee of Foreign Correspondence and of Secret Correspondence, and as such was responsible for creating and implementing cyphers for the country.

So the real-life Lovell was involved in intelligence work, a fact which ought to dovetail nicely into my story, except for one itty, bitty little detail:

The chances of President Washington having actually trusted the man are slim to none.

Admittedly, this is conjecture on my part, but justified, I think. During the war, Lovell was a vocal critic of George Washington and an open supporter of General Horatio Gates. He took Gates’ side in his quarrel with General Philip Schuyler (Hamilton’s future father-in-law) and then (along with the Adamses) supported Gates in his attempt to usurp command of the Continental Army from Washington. Lovell was among those encouraging Gates to send his reports directly Congress instead of reporting to Washington, his commanding officer.

Surely Washington would remember a little detail like that.

But that’s not all! Lovell found himself embroiled in personal scandal on more than one occasion. As a young man, he fathered an illegitimate son. But worse was his… indiscreet flirtation? failed attempt at something more?… with Abigail Adams. Lovell and the Adamses were friends, and Lovell sent her some suggestive letters while her husband was overseas as commissioner to France. (Barking up the wrong tree, methinks.) Between the letters and an accusation that he was having an affair with his landlady, Lovell resigned from Congress in 1782 and returned home to Boston under a cloud.

Afterwards, Lovell served as collector of taxes and customs officer for the state of Massachusetts. His appointment as naval officer in 1789 was, in effect, a continuation of the job he was already doing, except that Custom House was now under the auspices of the federal government instead of the state. I find it notable that Lovell was not offered the job of Collector of Customs, despite being far more qualified for the position than Benjamin Lincoln, who had neither the experience nor education. Washington and Hamilton didn’t fire Lovell, but they also didn’t promote him.

What I’m going to do with all of this in Book Two of my series, I have no idea. I have a draft of the story but haven’t yet incorporated Lovell into it, for the simple reason that I didn’t know of his existence until a month ago, when I found this document. Let the revision fun begin!

Thomas Melvill, Surveyor

Thomas Melvill, artist unknown. (Public Domain.)

Thomas Melvill (or Melville) was a cool cat, and I’ve taken the liberty of making him even cooler. As surveyor of Custom House, he would be Josiah’s direct supervisor, overseeing all tidewaiters, weighers, and gaugers. But Melvill’s supervisory role extends beyond his Custom House duties…

Melvill was a Son of Liberty and a close friend of Sam Adams. He was present at the Boston Tea Party. (He even came away with tea leaves stuck in his shoes, which he saved as a souvenir.) During the war he was an officer in the army and served in the Rhode Island campaigns.

After the war Melvill was appointed to Custom House as surveyor and eventually replaced Lovell as naval officer. He was also a fireward, a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of the Massachusetts General Assembly. But his biggest claim to fame is being the paternal grandfather of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick.

Major Melvill was a well-known figure in Boston, a robust, energetic, and charitable man, most especially loved by his fellow firefighters, and whose death was publicly mourned and eulogized for weeks in both poetry and prose.

Finally, for the purpose of my story, Melvill is also one of Washington’s spies. Because… why not? He’s just the kind of man who would be a secret agent, on top of everything else.

And now… time to go hunt down some bad guys!

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QOTD Deus Caritas Est

The epicure Gassendi used to offer Descartes the humorous greeting: ‘O Soul!’ And Descartes would reply: ‘O Flesh!’ Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: It is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves.

Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 5

From Nothing to Something: Nathaniel Silsbee

Josiah, the male lead of my historical work-in-progress, is not only first mate on a merchant ship, but a small-time merchant himself. His captain allows him a share of cargo space in exchange for a cut of his profits. Josiah has made a small fortune off of his investments, which he squirrels away in boxes hidden beneath his kitchen floorboards. He is saving to build his own ship.

When I first wrote this scenario, I merely assumed it was possible. Would an 18th century merchant-captain share cargo space with his ambitious young officer? Sure! Why not?

Fortunately, as I found out later, this scenario has historical precedent. Elias Hasket Derby, the wealthiest shipowner in Salem, Massachusetts, made it his policy to encourage and facilitate his young employees’ small-time investments in foreign trade:

He allowed his apprentices to put their savings into small ‘adventures’ in foreign trade, for which he gave them space in his vessels. Even his seamen were allowed 800 pounds of freight apiece, to exchange for foreign products.

Alexander Laing, Seafaring America, pg. 69

One of Derby’s young ship masters, Nathaniel Silsbee, was so successful in his investments that

…he retired from water, wealthy, at the age of twenty-eight, to manage his [own] ships from on shore. He made it a family enterprise by bringing in his brothers, William and Zacariah, when they, too, duly swallowed their anchors at the proper age of twenty-eight. Both had become shipmasters at nineteen.

ibid. 69-70

Not only did Silsbee become a wealthy shipowner, but he eventually entered politics, serving as a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and member of both the Massachusetts House and Senate.

Nathaniel Silsbee. (Public Domain)

Josiah’s fictional and Nathaniel Silsbee’s real-life stories are very similar. Both their fathers experienced financial failure. Both went to sea at a young age in order to support their families (Josiah leaves home at fifteen; Silsbee at fourteen). And both are determined young men with enough business savvy to take advantage of the financial opportunities that came of working on a merchant ship.

The scenario works. And the novelist wipes her brow with a, “Whew!”

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Introducing the Story: Welcome to Federalist Boston

Introducing the setting to my upcoming four-part historical fiction continuity series.

Boston, 1792. Four years after the ratification of the United States Constitution. Three years after it came into force.

George Washington is president. John Adams is his restless vice president. Congress is slowly getting its legislative act together. Alexander Hamilton continues to tangle horns with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison over banking, war debt, tariffs, industry, and big government. Factions are forming and reforming—Pro-Administration, Anti-Administration, Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Democratic-Republican.

In Boston, everything is changing. Governor John Hancock’s health is failing. Sam Adams is waiting in the wings as lieutenant governor. Meanwhile, a powerful new political class is on the rise—wealthy merchants, lawyers, and politicians who have moved to Boston from Essex County and are pushing out the old guard. The Congregational Church, the inheritance of the Puritans, is in crisis as more and more churches convert to Unitarianism. Catholicism is now legal. And young architect Charles Bulfinch, recently returned from his Grand Tour of the Continent, is rebuilding the town in a new style.

Joseph Coolidge House, Boston. Charles Bulfinch, architect. (Wikimedia Commons.)
Joseph Coolidge House, Boston. Charles Bulfinch, architect. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Across the Atlantic, the French revolutionary government is upsetting the European political landscape. In a few months, they will have declared war on Great Britain. American trade suffers under European political pressure—no matter where they sail, American merchant ships face heavy duties, prohibitions, government-sponsored monopolies, and unfriendly navies. The one exception is China.

This is Federalist America, the era of Hamilton: An American Musical, when a young country is charting its future course and all decisions matter. A time when the population is small and people know each other, when local, state, and national politics might as well be one and the same.

Boston, 1791. Wikimedia Commons CC.
Boston, 1791. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Against this backdrop… enter Molly and Josiah. Mrs. Robb and Deborah. Daniel Warren. Prudence and Joy and Tabitha. Mark Findley and George Peterson and Filippo and Lewis and the Scamps. Mrs. Beatty. Melvill and Harvey. Daniel Warren. Mrs. Warren. The players in my story of love, family, politics, crime, suffering, and faith.

Writing a story set in Federalist Boston has been a thorough delight! All I need now is a musical score by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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