Walking the Walk

       19th century daguerreotype of Tuckahoe

One of the great pleasures of writing historical novels is visiting the sites where my characters lived, loved and worked and where events occurred affecting their destinies. I was fortunate to experience Edgar Degas’s New Orleans studio while researching Creole Son, Glenburnie Manor in Natchez where The Goat Castle Murder occurred, the old Spanish California missions which were the setting for Communion of Sinners, and even Abu Simbel, Egypt, for a long-ago historical romance entitled O’Rouark’s Treasure. More recently I traveled down to Richmond to explore Tuckahoe, one of five plantation houses figuring prominently in my latest work-in-progress, Defamed! Tuckahoe was the childhood home of Nancy Randolph who, in 1792, was at the core of America’s first great scandal. The house went out of the Randolph family many years ago and is now a country home available for private tours. Built 1715-40, it once dominated a 25,000-acre tobacco plantation along the James River and miraculously escaped damage during the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Its remarkable collection of original outbuildings makes it one of the most complete 18th century plantations in North America. Aside from Nancy’s notoriety, Tuckahoe is also famous as the childhood home of Thomas Jefferson, another character in my story, and was used as the home of Judge Richard Woodhull in the AMC series set during the Revolutionary War, Turn: Washington’s Spies.

Tuckahoe teems with priceless period antiques, but I was mostly interested in seeing Nancy’s bedroom and the Burnt Room with walnut paneling scarred in a fire which may (or may not, as the docent stressed) have occurred when a jilted suitor hurled a lantern through a window. It figures in my plot, as does an etching Nancy made on a window pane the day of her beloved mother’s death. The plantation gardens, formal and informal, are still there, as is the Randolph family cemetery. Both yielded more rich fodder.

It’s difficult to explain the sensation of standing on the same spot as my protagonist or walking the same garden path as my antagonist. When I was in Wales two years ago, home to many of my ancestors, I learned the Welsh word hiraeth. There’s no precise translation because it means many things including nostalgia, deep emotion, bittersweet memory or yearning for something that no longer exists. That’s as close as I can get to describing my vicarious journeys into the past.

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