Thursday, November 19, 2015
A Tale of Serendipity
I took historical accuracy seriously when I wrote Tempest at Dawn. I not only read dozens of books about the Constitutional Convention, but studied books on Eighteen Century lifestyle and technology; Philadelphia, New York, and New Haven; the international scene; and numerous biographies of the principle Framers of the Constitution. I also made numerous visits to New Haven, New York, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, and Philadelphia as part of my research.
The events and locations outside of the State House were as accurate as I could portray them. Two major venues in the book were the Indian Queen and City Tavern. (City Tavern remains intact, but alas, the Indian Queen is long gone.) In my penchant for accuracy, I tried to lodge the delegates in the appropriate Inns, homes, and taverns, but I couldn’t find where Roger Sherman stayed during the convention. After looking at every source I could find, I finally decided I would need to make something up. He was not rich, so he would probably stay at a boarding house. I used my wife’s maiden name and put him in a room at Mrs. Marshall’s boarding house. This was a fictional contrivance, but not my only one. I left my other protagonist, James Madison, at the upscale Indian Queen for the duration of the convention when he actually moved elsewhere at some point for privacy.
On my third visit to Philadelphia, I made a huge find: a map of the city during the convention in 1787. It showed everything, including streets under construction. I hurried back to our hotel room and examined the map carefully. By this time, I had a near-final draft of the book complete, but I wanted to see if there was any color I could add. My intent was to breathe life into the dry renditions that focused on the political arguments instead of the people and how they lived. As I scanned the map, I suddenly stopped. My first reaction was to ask my wife if she had created the map as a practical joke. It was a stupid question because there were dozens of these maps for sale at the Benjamin Franklin bookstore and my wife would never engineer a prank that complex.
After she demurred, I brought the map over to her and pointed at an illustrated building a few blocks from the State House. The caption read, “Mrs. Marshall’s boarding house where Roger Sherman stayed.” (This is the house inside the box on the detail of the map above.)
In all my years of writing historical novels, this was the oddest coincidence I ever encountered. I took it as a sign that fate or something was guiding me through this grand book project that had consumed five year of my life. Although the house and name are historically correct, I must admit that Mrs. Marshall herself is an entirely fictional character. At least, I think so.