When I first started doing hardcore research for BREATHE, I was pretty sure that I wanted to set the story in Philadelphia. Though the city is best known for its ties to the Revolutionary War, life in Philadelphia during WWI is also fascinating. As I dug deeper, so many of the best first-person accounts came out of Philadelphia that I finally committed to using the City of Brotherly Love as my setting.
I’m a character writer first, so Virginia, Kit, and Marco came easily to me. Philadelphia has always been a hub for immigrants, so it made sense to put Marco and the rest of the D’Orio family in Little Italy (you’ll hear more about that later). But I struggled with where to put the upper crust Jackson sisters. There are several old money neighborhoods in Philadelphia each with its own fascinating history, but when I walked through Rittenhouse Square on a scouting mission over a decade ago, I knew I had found my spot.
Rittenhouse Square is one of the five original open-space parks designed by William Penn in the late 17th Century. It hasn’t always been an area for the upper crust though. In fact, at first, the square (park) was used as a dumping place for “night soil.” It wasn’t until the 1880s when wealthy Philadelphians started building their mansions around the square. In my mind, the Jackson family's home looks something like this.
Some of the old homes in the neighborhood have an archway leading to a courtyard in the back. They were probably built that way so that the owner had a place to keep his horse and carriage. The Jacksons are a modern family though, so they had the stable converted into a garage to store Dr. Jackson’s only indulgence, a Cadillac Phaeton.
In Chapter 17, Virginia and Mama stroll through Rittenhouse Square on their way home from church. There are several famous statues in the square that would have been around in 1918. The pair sits for a moment near the Lion Crushing a Serpent statue. Antoine-Louis Barye’s masterpiece was originally created in 1832, but then cast in bronze in 1891 and installed in Rittenhouse Square in 1892. There are multiple statues in Rittenhouse Square today, but this dynamic statue made such an impression on me, that I wanted to include it in the book.
Want to find out more about Rittenhouse Square’s history? Here are my sources for this post:
There you go. The first of several behind-the-scenes looks at BREATHE. Stick around this fall as we come up on the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu pandemic. This area and time period are fascinating, and I can’t wait to share it with you. Want to see how all the research connects with my book? You can buy the paperback version of BREATHE here and the eBook here.