Landscape of a Marriage | Family-inspired Historical Fiction | Gail Ward Olmsted

On Author Chats today, a beautiful and sensitively written historical fiction novel about the Olmsteds and their indelible imprint on America’s landscape. Join me as I talk with Gail Ward Olmsted about her work, and how she was uniquely inspired by a family connection.
Landscape of a Marriage
By Gail Ward Olmsted
A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. A shared vision transforms the American landscape forever.
New York, 1858: Mary, a young widow with three children, agrees to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted, who is acting on his late brother’s deathbed plea to “not let Mary suffer”. But she craves more than a marriage of convenience and sets out to win her husband’s love. Beginning with Central Park in New York City, Mary joins Fred on his quest to create a ‘beating green heart’ in the center of every urban space.
Over the next 40 years, Fred is inspired to create dozens of city parks, private estates and public spaces with Mary at his side. Based upon real people and true events, this is the story of Mary’s journey and personal growth and the challenges inherent in loving a brilliant and ambitious man.
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Gail, thank you so much for chatting. Tell us a little about your writing in general:
If you could go anywhere for a year to be inspired for your next book, what setting would you choose and what would you write?

I am most inspired when I am near water. I could definitely envision spending a year on the west coast of Ireland, writing a historical novel about my paternal grandmother. She was born in Ireland but was sent to the U.S. to work when she was still a young girl in order to support her family back home. I never knew her very well as she and my dad were estranged for years, but I would love the opportunity to dig into her past and find out more. Her final years were spent in Naples, Florida so I could end my year there!
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Landscape is based upon real people, some of whom are related to my husband. I felt that it was important to carefully research their lives and find out as much as I could to ensure that the characters in the book came across as authentic and real. I resisted the urge to edit out their quirks and flaws in my efforts to reveal what I hope was their true selves.
How important is working with your editor or beta readers, and how would you describe your relationship?
Relationships with beta readers are critical if you want your finished project to be something you are proud of. I have worked with a core of the same betas for all five of my books and I rely on them to be honest and direct with me. Their reactions and input mean everything. With editors, I have worked with a couple that I trusted 100%. Their feedback, criticism and encouragement motivated me to deliver the best work I was capable of. I worked with one editor who communicated in such a snarky, sarcastic manner that I was in tears during most of the editing process. Needless to say, that relationship was one and done!
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I like to have a clear idea of my main characters before I start writing. Most of my early research for Landscape of a Marriage was focused on Fred’s body of work and what I knew of his life with his wife and children. I worked as much as possible with the real dates and life events in order to create an accurate timeline. Then I went back and filled in the details about what was happening: the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, the woman’s suffrage movement, and tried to imagine how my characters would be impacted by it all.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Yes, I do believe in writer’s block. Every once in a while, the scene I am working on is going nowhere or the writing is painfully slow. I usually deal with it by moving on to another scene or going for a walk or getting a snack. I’ll talk to my husband or phone a friend and focus on something else. Usually, when I return to work later that day or sometimes in a couple of days, things are much clearer. A couple of times, I have shared my ‘problem’ with other writers in a trusted Facebook group. Their feedback, suggestions and input have helped me to get past whatever was holding me back.
Tell us more about “Landscape”. What did you edit out of this book?
I ended up pulling some of the details relating to the design of the parks and the process and challenges that Fred went through to create his amazing parks, public grounds and private estates. Landscape of a Marriage is written from Mary’s perspective, so she would only know what her husband told her, what he wanted her to know. There are a number of great books written about Olmsted and his parks, but Landscape is Mary’s story.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Landscape of a Marriage is based on real people, primarily Fred and Mary Olmsted. Whenever possible, I used the names of their family members and colleagues. I did change one name as it was getting very confusing for me and I was certain it would be for the readers as well. Fred’s business partner was Calvert Vaux and his wife’s name was also Mary. I concocted a deep friendship between the two women and differentiating between Mary O and Mary V was challenging. So I ended up changing Mrs. Vaux’s name to Anne, after my mother. Problem solved!
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I do read all of them, the good and the bad. I personally don’t post poor reviews of books I’ve read, but I respect the rights of readers to post theirs. The reviews that drive me crazy are the ones that make very little sense, i.e. ‘I hated the ending, did not finish’ or ‘it was an okay read, but I don’t really enjoy this genre’. One of the worst reviews I ever got for one of my earlier books was also the shortest: one word- ‘Huh?’
What was your hardest scene to write?
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Fred and Mary suffered tremendous loss in their lives and writing those scenes were challenging. I get very connected to my characters and I feel their pain!
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favourite? Why?
There is a scene early on in the book when it becomes apparent that Fred and Mary, this couple that entered into a marriage of convenience only a year earlier, have fallen deeply in love with each other. They are strolling through the nearly completed Central Park with their children, just chatting and enjoying the lovely day. The workaholic Fred has become a loving husband and devoted father to his three step-children and Mary is so happy and looking forward to their shared future. It makes me smile to picture them together.
What was the most difficult part of your artistic process for this book?
The challenge for me was to carefully research the culture, language and social norms so that everything the characters did, said, wore, ate and thought was appropriate to life in the second half of the 19th century. Whoever said ‘the devil is in the details’ was spot on!
How long did it take you to research and write this book; were there any “wrong turns” along the way?
I started working on Landscape about 4 years ago. After I finished and reviewed the first draft, I scrapped the whole thing. I had written it from a third person point of view and the story just didn’t click with me. I went back and re-wrote it from a first person perspective and I fell in love with Mary and her story all over again. I hope your readers will too!
Gail Ward Olmsted was a marketing executive and a college professor before she began writing fiction on a fulltime basis. A trip to Sedona, AZ inspired her first novel Jeep Tour. Three more novels followed before she began Landscape of a Marriage, a biographical work of fiction featuring landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a distant cousin of her husband’s, and his wife Mary.
For more information, please visit her on Facebook and at
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