Friday, January 31, 2014

Walking in the Footsteps of History

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: First order of business — hearty congratulations to dear Reds Rhys Bowen, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Julia Spencer-Fleming for being nominated for the Agatha Award, given by Malice Domestic. Kudos and huzzahs, ladies!

This week I'm living two novels at once. I'm doing the final copyedit of the page proofs of THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT, which has coincided with a trip to Arlington, Virginia and Washington, D.C., researching the next novel in the Maggie Hope series, THE FIRST LADY'S CONFIDANT.

Whenever it's at all possible, I love to travel to the places I write about, and walk the actual footsteps of the characters. Since THE FIRST LADY'S CONFIDANT takes place in D.C. and Virginia, during Winston Churchill's trip to North America just after Pearl Harbor, I'm visiting as many places as possible that he and his staff went.

One of those places is Christ Church in Arlington, Virginia, where Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt, and Mrs. Roosevelt all went to to commemorate World Day of Prayer for Peace on January 1, 1942.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day (although cold!). Christ Church is an Episcopalian Church and is also known as George Washington's church. It was finished in 1773 by James Wren in what's knows as the "Colonial style."

The door was open, and I was lucky enough to have the place to myself (along with the ghosts of history).

I sat for a long time in one of the pews, just taking everything in. The light was different from most of the churches I've been to in the UK — the glass is clear, not stained. The confederate graveyard behind the church was visible from the windows, and you could hear the rustling of dead leaves in the wind.

[Anyone looking at my photos would be perplexed, as I often take pictures of small details. I always take pictures of floors, imagining how shoes of the period would sound. (Those are my warm winter boots with rubber soles and wide treads, definitely not what Eleanor Roosevelt would have been wearing!) ]

The highlight of the visit was finding pew #59, George Washington's family pew, and also where the Prime Minister, President and First Lady sat. 

Like Goldilocks, I tried all three seats, each marked with a silver plaque.

And, of course, I had to sit in Mr. Churchill's seat. 

When I did, what a surprise! The poor P.M., although in one of the most respected seats in the church, had a view mostly blocked by one of the white columns.

I make no promises as to whether a scene in this church will actually be written, let alone make it into the book (although I'm thinking it will, along with Mr. Churchill complaining afterwards about the pillar). But I can promise you that it makes it all the more real to me — which I truly hope makes it all the more vivid to you, the reader.


  1. What a surprising discovery . . . I think it is these kinds of incidental details that help to make a book come alive for the reader. Who ever would ave thought of the possibility of a pillar obstructing a worshiper's view? Fascinating . . . .

  2. With all three of your books, I've felt like I was right there with Maggie, so I'm sure the research helps with that.

    But you've got to put that pillar scene in the book. I triple dog dare you.

  3. I wish we could have had better weather for you here in the MD/DC area Susan. It has been bitterly cold.

    The weekend is supposed to be slightly better before the next round of snow/ice arrives late Sunday and Monday nights.

    I am going to have to make trip to visit that church the next time I am down that way. Fascinating stuff.

  4. I'm looking forward to the book and have so much enjoyed the others. A point, though, Christ Church is in Alexandria, VA, not Arlington. They are neighboring communities, but Alexandria is the one with the history.

  5. Yes, Alexandria! Did I say Arlington? I also visited a friend in Arlington. I have "mommy-brain," I'm afraid...

    Mark, I'll take you up on that! I haven't been triple-dog-dared in a while!

  6. Love this post Susan--this is exactly how I like to research too--the more I can see in person, the more clearly I feel I can write it.

    It always amazes me that writers can totally make things up!

  7. And Kristopher, yes, it's really cold! But at least I saw it coming and dressed for it (although not in any of the "Jungle Red Outfits"....

  8. Such an interesting thing about research. We do MUCH more than will ever end up in the book. You go looking for something you think you'll need and don't, and best of all trip over stuff that you didn't know was out there that become essential.

    When I researched the Bronx for There Was an Old Woman, turned out the neighborhood where I set the book had been a summer haven (!) back in the '20s when the only way to get there was by ferry -- beaches, casinos, amusement park. That led to all kinds of subplots.

  9. I have always wanted to be a research assistant. Stumbling onto these little known facts and topics is always so exciting.

  10. Susan, I love reading about this part of your method. Sometimes I think I love writing historical fiction so much because it gives me an excuse to do the kind of research you describe here. I have photo albums filled with obscure details, such as the particular kind of tile that was used in homes in Saigon by the French, or clouds at a particular time of day in a particular place - I'm very big on degrees of light, which is so different from destination to destination. I can't wait to read your new book and look out for these small details!!

  11. Little details like this are what bring a novel to life, don't they, Susan? And you can only find them by being there.
    I have often walked the New York streets that Molly walked, or browsed the old shops in Georgie's part of London. Such fun too.
    I'm looking forward to both new books!

  12. I can't help but wonder why Churchill was given a spot with such a lousy view as the honored guest. I wonder if he begrudged it. Perhaps it allowed him to have a greater measure of security. These are the tiny details that keep my mind ticking.
    Would it have been custom for the gentlemen of the party to defer the good seats to the ladies, or for the most ranking me to have the better spots?
    See, now, you've gotten me going!
    Can't wait for the book!!!

  13. Great peek into your writing process, Susan!

    I love traveling to Ireland for research. One time, I decided to take a hike in the middle of a wind-whipping, rain-stinging rain shower because I wanted to get a real feel for the weather -- and also the smells. No smart. Ended up miserably sick. The weather in the novel ended up pretty mild too...:-)

  14. Oh, this just thrills me. I think research is just about the most fun thing ever, and to see the journey as someone else does it is fascinating. Thank You!

  15. I'm a reader, not a writer! But I love to check out historical details. The bullet holes on the post office in Dublin from the Easter Uprising. The bullet holes on the train station building in Kansas City from a gangland shoot out. Harry S Truman's favorite booth in the bar at the Ritz in KC. I tried to go in the courthouse where John Brown was tried. The nice man at the metal detector courteously let me know that it was not for sightseers. Oh well. What my husband has to put up with. Seeing where history was made makes all the difference in the world. My husband read one of Robert Louis Stevenson's novels recently; I should say reread. He commented that being in Edinburgh made so much of the novel come alive in a new way for him.

  16. Susan, thanks for such an interesting peek into your research methods. I will, with no doubt in my mind whatsoever, read all of your books this year. I am almost caught up on the Reds' reading. I had to laugh at your Goldilocks reference. I, too, have to do such things as try out the seats where historical figures have sat or tread the floors where they have trod. And, I was delighted to read about your habit of taking pictures of small details, including floors. I like to do that, too. Oh, and Alexandria is such a lovely place to explore. The last time I was in the area I ate at an old tavern (can't think of the name right now) where George Washington had eaten, and I was just thrilled. I missed going to the church, and I will definitely have to put that on my list to do. I am so looking forward to reading your books, and I will think of Winston Churchill trying to peak around that pillar when I get to that particular book (that is, if the scene is included).

  17. Oh! I spoke to one of the guides there about the pillar and the seating! She said that as George Washington's pew, it was the most prestigious in the church, and of course Winston Churchill Would have been seated there. Under normal circumstances, he would have been given President Washington's seat, the first in (with a clear view, by the way). But because of President Roosevelt's disability, he was given that seat. Then Winston Churchill had the next one, and then next to him, Eleanor Roosevelt. Forgot to put that it!

  18. FAbulous fabulous Susan...this gives me chills! Cannot wait to read this...xoo

    Kristopher, we can all use a research assistant! Be careful what you wish for..