Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Karen Heenan, Author of Coming Together: A Novel of Philadelphia and Beyond (Ava and Claire Book 3)

6 October 2023

Special Guest Post by Karen Heenan, Author of Coming Together: A Novel of Philadelphia and Beyond (Ava and Claire Book 3)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Ava and Claire have moved on from the traumatic events of 1934 - while Ava has decided at last to marry patient Max Byrne and allow love back into her life, Claire and her husband have gone to France to repair their relationship. Harry encounters an old friend in Paris and offers to assist two Jewish refugees trying to flee a continent on the verge of war.

Local History

The tagline I use for my author business is “the past is present.” This came about due to my first series, The Tudor Court, where I explored the similarities between modern men and women and their 16th century counterparts.

Though I grew up listening to my father and aunts talk about their lives during the Great Depression, I never intended to write modern historical fiction. I found their tales interesting, but almost incomprehensible; that level of poverty and uncertainty, in a time so close to our own, was hard to fathom.

And then, as it happens, I got an idea. And that idea turned into a trilogy. Ava and Claire are long estranged sisters who, over the course of three books, come to terms with each other, the choices they’ve made, and the choices that have been forced upon them, all set against the backdrop of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the Great Depression.

While there are a few similarities between those long-ago family stories and my characters, none of those people are my people. But Philadelphia is my city. And I knew Philadelphia. Didn’t I?

Not so fast, writer lady. Philadelphia had a few surprises in store. I learned some things about my hometown that not only expanded my knowledge of the city, but, just as importantly, gave me several plot points for the story.

One of the things I enjoyed about writing my previous novels set in the UK is that so many of those places are still there. Even if they’re in ruins, you can visit them or zoom in and walk around on Google Earth - which I did during the pandemic, since my Edinburgh research vacation was canceled.

While most of the locations included in Coming Apart and its sequels still exist physically, almost none of them serve the same purpose or hold the same businesses as they did in the 1930s. America has a tendency to disappear its old buildings, or at least paper over them. It was like an archaeological dig, going back through old photographs and articles about Wanamaker’s department store - which I remember, although not in its heyday, and which is now a bland Macy’s, with courtrooms and office space upstairs, rather than a magical toy department with a monorail and a crystal tea room for the ladies who lunched.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the city’s largest museum, opened in 1927. Now it’s a landscaped marvel overlooking the city; during the early years of the Depression, when Hoovervilles (camps for the homeless, derisively nicknamed for President Herbert Hoover) sprung up in cities all over the country, desperate men dug into the hillside behind the museum and set up camp. 

I saw a photo of this and my mind immediately went to my main character's coal miner husband, and how this would be something that he would do, if driven to such an extreme. When Ava comes to Philadelphia, she visits the camp and learns for the first time that the Depression has touched what she perceives to be a wealthy area, and not just her impoverished coal town in northeastern Pennsylvania.

When it came to housing my characters, I was on firmer ground. Claire, the wealthy sister, had to live on Delancey Place. Many people in her wealth bracket would have moved out of the city, but I wanted her to be centrally located, and there are still plenty of rich people on that particular block to this day. She lives in my favorite house, and I was lucky enough to be able to find a recent real estate listing so I could get a sense of the building’s interior layout.

On the other hand, when Ava moves to the city with her family, they live in what we call a trinity house - three stories, one room on each floor, connected by a tight circular staircase. These houses were built for mill and factory workers, and there was a mill just south of Ringgold Place, although it was shuttered by 1932. Another reason I chose that street was that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, which I made a nice inclusion of another era of local history, and some historical trivia for my historical characters.

A final point about that trinity house. I lived in it from 1985 to 1987. I had one roommate and we were squeezed tight in that house; it was impossible to imagine Ava’s large family in such a space, but their house in the mining town would have been much smaller.

Writing my Ava and Claire series has allowed me to do a fascinating dive into a place I thought I knew well. I’ve found so many things that didn’t fit into the books; I could keep writing about strange incidents in Philadelphia history until I’m too old to type, except there’s a whole other list of books waiting to be written and I’m not sure which one is going to win out.

People who live in Philadelphia tend to make fun of our hometown, and ourselves. We’re brash, we’re loud, we’re not always polite. Philly fans at a football game threw snowballs at Santa Claus, something we’re not allowed to forget. And also, we don’t always realize what a special place this city is, that if you just sift carefully through the layers right in front of your face, you’ll find things you never knew existed.

Karen Heenan

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About the Author

Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia. She fell in love with books and stories before she could read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams -- which which include gardening, sewing, traveling and, of course, lots of writing. She lives in Lansdowne, PA, with two cats and a very patient husband, and is currently hard at work on her next book. Find out more at Karen's website and find her on Twitter @karen_heenan

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