Today I am joining the blog tour for Julie Ferry's The Million Dollar Duchesses. The book sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading it, but I have to admit, I was really drawn in by that beautiful cover:-) Julie Ferry has generously written a very interesting guest post about how she went about researching for this book. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!
How to Research a Biography
When I began writing my group biography, The Million Dollar Duchesses, which tells the story of the American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy in 1895, I knew that the book would require a lot of research. I was profiling nine heiresses, at least five of them in detail plus the two aristocratic matchmakers who helped them make such influential marriages during the Gilded Age. Then there were the other big players who inhabited this world. Characters that were on the periphery of my subject’s stories but were nevertheless crucial to understanding their motivations and the atmosphere of the period. Initially, I have to admit it felt quite overwhelming, however once I had recovered from the sheer enormity of the task ahead, I began to devise some simple strategies for the research process. I began with coloured index cards, assigning each heiress their own colour, so that over time if I came across a key fact while in a library, archive or just reading at home that I wanted to use, I could write it down, reference it properly and then easily recall it later. I also did this for locations, as the women in my book travelled widely and it was important for me to capture the differences and similarities of the social seasons in Paris, London and New York. Finally, I split my research into other smaller categories such as fashion and architecture. While many people may consider this process lengthy and basic, I found this method of working incredibly helpful when it came to collating my research and beginning to write the book. I already had a very clear idea in my head as to the structure of the book, as I was following the heiresses over one year but looking through these cards and visually laying them out on my kitchen table helped me to position them around the world by date, so I knew where all of my main players were at any one time. Every author will have a different way of working and I always find it interesting to be invited into that world. It is fascinating for me to discover and understand how a biography is pieced together. Similarly I love to hear how fiction authors, particularly crime writers, meticulously plan their books. There is value to all of the different methods and while learning from other writers I may change course in the future. However, for The Million Dollar Duchesses the use of index cards, colour coding and visually laying out my research, was invaluable. I have kept the cards and still look at them from time to time as a reminder of those many hours spent reading and writing.
On 6th November 1895, the young and brilliant heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt wedded the near-bankrupt Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. A dazzling yet miserable match was made – one which glittered above all others for high society’s unofficial marriage brokers who, in a single year, initiated and manipulated a series of spectacular transatlantic pairings. Injecting millions of dollars into the ailing aristocracy; fame, money, power and prestige were all at play.
Characterised by scandal, illicit affairs, spurned loves and unexpected deaths, The Million Dollar Duchesses reveals the machinations which led to these most influential matches between America’s heiresses and Britain’s elite. The Gilded Age was a tumultuous period for society’s most eligible.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julie Ferry is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and the Independent, among others. She writes on subjects ranging from protecting women’s rights to discovering Paris alone.
She graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in English Literature and then upped sticks and moved to a tiny island between Japan and South Korea to teach English, where she quickly got used to being followed around the supermarket by her students. It was in Japan that she got her first byline and was quickly hooked. Since then, she’s been fortunate to write for most of her favourite publications, but always harboured dreams of seeing her name on the front of a book.
Now, she’s managing to combine her love of writing and an obsession with interesting and largely unknown women from history, with the school run in Bristol, where she lives with her husband and two children.
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