One of the reasons I love historical fiction is because I feel like I’m learning as I read. But that said, when it comes to portraying historical figures and real life events, we authors sometimes take certain liberties needed to facilitate the telling of a good strong narrative. It’s that old saw, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” But trust me, that’s easier said than written.
While working on WHAT THE LADY WANTS I had to make some critical choices in terms of how much creative license I was willing to take. This is never an easy decision, particularly when you are dealing with well-known subjects. In the case of Marshall Field, who is a Chicago icon, I came up against one enormous obstacle. While he was a public figure, he was exceedingly private when it came to his personal life. The more research I did, the more questions I had. At one point I was so overwhelmed that I felt certain I could not write this book. It wasn’t until a dear friend reminded me that I was writing a novel and after that, I made the decision to treat it as such.
I dove in full speed and greedily used whatever facts I could find, but at the end of the day, all I had was a skeletal vision of who Marshall Field and his mistress, Delia Caton really were. It was really no different from creating fictional characters from scratch. You have a few known elements and then need to put some meat on their bones. I wanted to bring these figures to life, but in a way that would fit with the facts that we already had in place. So I went as close to the source as I could. The Chicago History Museum and the Newberry Library house the archives of both Marshall Field’s and Delia Spencer’s niece. I was given a pair of white gloves and boxes upon boxes of photographs and documents, including engagement books and letters. The photographs were especially helpful. I got a sense of how Delia and Marshall Field dressed, how they posed and interacted with each other and with their spouses. I got a glimpse inside their magnificent homes and in the case of Delia, I observed that she was rarely photographed without her little Yorkshire Terrier named Flossie.
As I let my imagination wander, I felt and still feel a responsibility to the real figures behind my characters. I spent a great deal of time on the author’s note in the book so that readers would know what was fact and what was fiction. Let me also say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for historians and those who write narrative nonfiction. The citations alone would put me over the edge! So at the end of the day, I think I’ll stick with fiction and the luxury of taking creative license here and there.
* * *
The night of the Great Fire, as seventeen-year-old Delia watches the flames rise and consume what was the pioneer town of Chicago, she can’t imagine how much her life, her city, and her whole world are about to change. Nor can she guess that the agent of that change will not simply be the fire, but more so the man she meets that night.…
Leading the way in rebuilding after the fire, Marshall Field reopens his well-known dry goods store and transforms it into something the world has never seen before: a glamorous palace of a department store. He and his powerhouse coterie—including Potter Palmer and George Pullman—usher in the age of robber barons, the American royalty of their generation.
But behind the opulence, their private lives are riddled with scandal and heartbreak. Delia and Marshall first turn to each other out of loneliness, but as their love deepens, they will stand together despite disgrace and ostracism, through an age of devastation and opportunity, when an adolescent Chicago is transformed into the gleaming White City of the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893.