The Orphanmaster Origins

A little bit about how The Orphanmaster came to be: For years I have written nonfiction. Never a novel. If I ever thought about writing fiction, I pushed it out of my head, saying, That’s not me, that’s not something I could ever do.

I began to think of myself as a writer when I was small, and experimented with different forms, getting a Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry before turning to the world of facts, of reality, of history and biography, of nonfiction. Which I love.

A few years ago I wrote a book like that, a work of colonial history that featured a strong, determined woman in 1660s New Amsterdam. Margaret Hardenbroeck worked brilliantly in the fur trade, She was so driven that by the time she died she was the richest woman in New York.

I enjoyed writing about that era, when fur was king, and when Manhattan featured a fluid, uneasy mix of peoples—eighteen languages spoken on the street! A threshold time, just before the British invasion, brutal and exciting at once. But I was frustrated by the paltry amount of personal information I could get about Margaret. I wanted to go deeper.

The Orphanmaster’s central character, Blandine van Couvering, came out of that desire. Creating the fictional persona of Blandine, I could write around the gaps of history, fill in the psychological spaces of my character. I could deepen and enlarge upon the strength and intelligence of this real woman, plumb her soul, discover her sense of humor. And give her the wardrobe she deserved.

At the same time, something else about the period haunted me—the idea of the orphanmaster, which I’d come across in writing about New Amsterdam, a real government post that to me sounded spooky and vaguely nefarious. An orphanmaster is actually someone charged with protecting the many children on Manhattan who have lost their parents. But I always felt there was a mystery here, a story that was not all sweetness and light.

Still I hesitated. I was sitting on all my notebooks filled with rich details about New York before it was called New York, I had a heroine, a theme, even the beginnings of a plot. Why don’t you use all that stuff? my encouraging husband kept asking. Could I possibly write fiction? Just write me a murder, he said.

That was the beginning. Many chapters and plot twists later, I am here to tell you that writing The Orphanmaster was as challenging as I’d imagined it would be, but far more rewarding. There is nothing like seeing your characters spring up out of the ground as you go along, to feel every morning as you sit down at your computer that, Today, anything can happen!

October 8, 1663, the island of Manhattan. An early blizzard….

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Filed under Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, The Orphanmaster, Writing

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