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Historical Fiction and Philadelphia

My great aunt Ruth and my grandparents lived in Philadelphia as young people and into their adult lives. Ruth lived in Philadelphia her entire life. I visited her Wynnewood apartment as a child. That's where the inkling for a story began. She was one of my favorite people though I didn't know her very well. It was her impression that I remembered. She carried herself with style and grace even though she was not particularly attractive. She paid attention to me, which revealed to me that I mattered. Her apartment was impeccable, right down to the yellow wing chairs and the baby grand piano. It was classic elegance.


I lived in the Philadelphia area for several years and gathered Census records about my family. I visited where Frank lived, where Ruth and her brothers and sister lived with Hannah. I visited the neighborhood including Clark Park and the Penn campus. I spent quite a bit of time in the city for my own purposes and got a feel for the streets and the neighborhoods. I taught Urban Studies and City Development as a professor. I notice places and how people use them.


When I began writing the book I wanted to set it in real history as I fictionalized the lives of my family as characters. Suffragists seemed to be a worthy topic given the time frame. I researched the history of the suffragist movement and how Philadelphia was involved. Prominent women from the Powellton neighborhood were part of the movement. The Liberty Bell parade is real and included hundreds of suffragists in white proclaiming their intentions for the vote. Philadelphia was hit hard by the pandemic of 1918 and the war bonds parade was the trigger. If Ruth had been a suffragist, she would have seen Alice Paul give a speech in the city, would have gathered at the Roosevelt hotel for suffragist events, would have travelled to Washington, D.C. as suffragists rallied, were arrested, and buttonholed Congressmen and President Wilson.


I had heard my grandmother speak in glowing terms about the Main Line and her obvious desire to have such a tony address. She also took me to Wanamaker's to shop. It reminded me of Marshall Field's in Chicago. The Merion Cricket Club, which still hosts social parties, would have been a place for Ruth to see and be seen as it was the social hub of those communities. The old train station in Wynnewood still exists and is not unlike old commuter suburb stations in other cities. I grew up next to one in a Chicago suburb. There is a rhythm to daily life near the trains.


Historical fiction requires a great deal of research from books and articles and especially newspapers. But more than that, it requires being able to either bring real experiences in that place or events or the ability to transpose experiences from similar places and events to that setting. I picked events that are political, social, and transformative. I am a Political Scientist and I played to my strengths. But historical fiction is a context. This is not a historical treatise or documentary. It is a romantic tale set in a specific period of history. The fiction is about how these characters might have engaged the time and events that are real. The events and actions of the time lend depth to their world.


Historical fiction is a very popular genre. Some authors spend more time on the history, even fictionalizing the life of actual historical figures. My favorite author is Anne Rice, though she may not be automatically associated with historical fiction. She has a travelogue style of history and places as context for her world of fictional vampires. I also enjoy Therese Anne Fowler (A Well Behaved Woman) who wrote about a woman who married a Vanderbilt, T.C. Boyle (The Women) who wrote about the women who were involved with Frank Lloyd Wright, and Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts) who wrote about the American ambassador to Berlin in 1939. Creating fictional settings and dialogue in the context of actual history requires truth to the past and creativity of invention. That's what makes historical fiction fun.

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