“You, m’dear, come from very fine stock,” she’d declare. “Descended from a Duchess, you are!”
Now, this was a woman who hailed from cattle farmers in Missouri and had about five hundred empty tuna fish cans stacked in her pantry in case she ever needed an ashtray. Then there were the five diamond engagement rings we found when she died, tucked away in a pink and white peppermint candy bag (She apparently had a habit of getting engaged, breaking it off, and refusing to return the ring)!
A “reliable source?” Not so much…
Years after Granny McCullough had passed away, I stumbled upon a short monograph about “Jane Maxwell: The Match-Making Duchess” appearing in a folksy Scottish-American newsletter called The Highlander.
There, on the front page, was a black-and-white rendition of the famous portrait of the 4th Duchess of Gordon that hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery…and it took my breath away because, if I do say so myself, we looked rather alike!
From that moment onwards, and until the novel was published, I was obsessed with tracing Jane’s story, as there wasn’t a full-length biography written. What I did manage to discover after considerable effort was that her life “read like a novel”—so I decided to write one, my very first.
Sadly, in all those years of research, I could never absolutely prove I was a descendant of my beloved Jane Maxwell. However, I am completely delighted that Sourcebooks Landmark has produced this beautiful new edition of Island of the Swans and will be bringing out my other titles over the next two years, including my latest historical, A Race To Splendor, scheduled to release in Spring 2011.
As for the possible relationship between my heroine and me—I wrote the novel before DNA testing became available to the general public, so perhaps my research isn’t quite complete. Surely there might be a strand of the Duchess’ hair somewhere? Meanwhile.....
What do you think?
Jane Maxwell and Ciji Ware as Duchess of Gordon
Many avid readers are interested to know how writers of biographical historical fiction do the research for such a huge undertaking. In my own case, for nearly a decade before I even had the faintest notion I would write Island of the Swans (which I jokingly call “Gone With The Wind of Scotland”), I earned my living as a print and electronic reporter and also worked as a commentator for the ABC radio and television affiliates in Los Angeles.
With a History degree from Harvard, and having been trained in the world of journalism, chasing after “who, what, where, when, and why,” my approach to research for the six historical novels I’ve produced during my career has always been: “get the facts and get the story,” even if the story is two hundred years old!
The very same techniques good reporting requires are the methods I use for my historical fiction. In Swans, I relied on primary documents to bring to life the world of the incredible figure, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon. Letters, diaries, eighteenth century newspapers and journals, playbills, broadsides—these were the grist for my mill.
Ciji Ware, Huntington Library
A year into working on the novel, I was granted a “Readership” in eighteenth century British-American history at the amazing Huntington Library in San Marino, California. I had the incredible privilege of free rein among the four million non-circulating volumes of rare books and was given a desk where I could work among some of the world’s greatest scholars, and even pick their brains during lunch at the Footnote Café!
I steeped myself in everything from the fashions of the day to the art of Scottish country dancing that was all the rage during the lifetime of this flamboyant eighteenth century “woman of fashion,” a character that grows from a frowned-upon hoyden and minor aristocrat with a distinct Scottish burr, to a woman of stature who gains the ear and respect of political leaders like Prime Minister Pitt, the Younger, and ultimately the King and Queen of England.
Torn between the love and jealousy of two men, the upheavals of the American War of Independence, and a lifetime of duty to her country as the wife of Scotland’s largest landowner, Alexander, the 4th Duke of Gordon, Jane also was loyal to her adopted home in England where she lived for many years as one of London’s leading hostesses and a political rival of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire.
The most difficult part of the story to research was the shreds of evidence that Jane could never escape the pull her childhood companion Lieutenant Thomas Fraser was thought to have upon her deepest emotions. There was even debate over his name, but when several reliable sources pointed to Thomas Fraser of Struy, I took a deep breath and wove a tale of what I believe was a love triangle that endured for more than three decades.
Since Island of the Swans unfolds on such a grand stage, the research for this book demanded an in-depth knowledge of politics, military tactics, and even Scottish poetry, as Her Grace was also a patroness of the poet Robert Burns and the driving force behind his first published works.
I must have made seven trips to Scotland over the five years it took to write the novel. I haunted the Scottish National Library, the National Portrait Gallery and Register House in Edinburgh, and scores of local museums to ferret out documents such as the inventory of all the items that had been in the Duchess’s country home, Kinrara, in the Spey Valley (where excellent whisky is made) at the time of her death in 1812. The lists described in detail the color of the draperies in her sitting room, the type of chinaware she ate on, and the sheen on the copper pots that had hung in Kinrara’s kitchen.
In the course of delving into endless library card catalogues, I discovered a cache of Maxwell and Gordon family letters that had not been removed from the dusty stacks in the Scottish National Library in over one hundred years! Another great find were the political cartoons of the day depicting Jane Maxwell as a conniving “Matchmaking Duchess” for having married her five daughters to three dukes, a marquis, and a baronet.
Digging for the facts and the “telling detail,” as I had done as a modern day reporter, turned out to be marvelous training for this type of historical sleuthing. Going into the project, I knew how important it was to take meticulous notes, keep track of where I found the material I ultimately used in this fictional account of a historical figure, and to never put in anything in this work of biographical historical fiction that I knew to be untrue.
Of course, all the research I did also helped me fill in the blanks with “intelligent supposition” about people and events that couldn’t be clearly discerned, no matter how hard I tried to play the reporter and “nail the evidence. “ My hope is that readers are as swept up in the story of Island of the Swans as I was for so many years…
ISLAND OF THE SWANS BY CIJI WARE—in stores February 2010...
Re-issued in its original full length, this acclaimed and bestselling romantic historical novel by award-winning author Ciji Ware tells the true story of passionate and flamboyant Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812). In love since childhood with Thomas Fraser, when she hears that he's been killed in America, she marries the Duke of Gordon with disastrous results. But Fraser, very much alive, returns to England to claim her love.
In addition to telling a heart-wrenching love story, Island of the Swans also paints a fascinating portrait of a powerful and controversial woman and the tumultuous era in which she lived. Patroness of poet Robert Burns, advisor to King George, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jane Maxwell was a towering figure in her own time and is an unforgettable heroine.
About the Author...
Ciji Ware has been an Emmy-award winning television producer, reporter, writer, and radio host. A Harvard graduate, she has written numerous historical and romance novels as well as non-fiction. When she's not writing, Ciji is a Scottish history and dancing aficionado. She lives with her husband in California.
I really want to thank Ciji for this awesome guest post! The research part of the writing process has always interested me the most. How cool is that to be allowed in exclusive libraries, to be surrounded by all of that history?! Aaaahhh, bliss! Thank you Ciji!!
I'm acutally reading Swans right now and loving it! This woman knows how to write, let me tell you! She's already made me laugh and cry and I'm not even halfway into it! And the protagonist, Jane, is simply wonderful...I just love her! It's killing me to sit here at work and NOT hide somewhere and read it!
Now that Ciji has gotten all of you just dying to read this book, yours truly has got you covered! Thanks to my favorite book publisher, Sourcebooks, I have 2 copies available to giveaway to 2 lucky readers!
Giveaway is for US and Canada entries only. Giveaway ends on February 17th. Just leave and comment and your email to enter!
Good luck everyone!