I Read (and Write) Books Set in the Past Because of My Elementary School

My 4th-grade school picture, 1980

Cat Winters’s 4th-grade school picture, 1980. She lived in Southern California, not Germany, despite what the braids might suggest.

I distinctly remember the day my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Jones, told us about a special, extra-credit assignment: a chance to join a classroom reading club. If we read the books she was about to list on the chalkboard (yes, chalkboard—this was the early 1980s), and if we answered a few questions about the books, we would be able to eat lunch with the teacher! In the classroom!

Many kids probably stopped listening when she said the words “extra-credit assignment,” but my ears perked up and I sat up tall and alert. Ms. Jones wrote the name of an author on the board:

Frances Hodgson Burnett

I had never heard of the author, and I wasn’t even sure if it was a woman or a man (Burnett was a female author/playwright who lived from 1849-1924). Ms. Jones then listed three of Burnett’s books:

ALittlePricessA Little Princess

The Secret Garden

Little Lord Fauntleroy

I started out with A Little Princess. Burnett immediately sucked me in with her tale of an imaginative girl named Sara Crewe who falls from wealth into poverty in early-1900s London. In fact, I wrote of my love for this book back in a 2012 post on this site, and I’ll repeat what I said back then: through this novel, I learned about class struggles of the era and the contrasts between the time period’s grand beauty and unbearable ugliness. The book felt like both fantasy and realism—a fascinating combination.

Before the special lunch day, I also had time to read The Secret Garden, which, too, mesmerized me with its depiction of the past as a place of both grandeur and unspeakable sadness. In my mind’s eye, the setting and clothing were gorgeous, haunting, and magical, and the dark secrets and character struggles made for an absolutely compelling read.

I indeed got to eat lunch with Ms. Jones and a handful of other brand-new Frances Hodgson Burnett fans. I distinctly remember our teacher bought us fast-food hamburgers, and I didn’t like mine much because it was a cheeseburger, and I don’t like cheese. More importantly, however, that special class project opened my eyes to literature set in the past. It led me to where I am today.

Island-of-the-Blue-DolphinsThroughout the rest of my elementary school years, I discovered other beloved classic and historical novels. Favorites included Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

My love of history and literature continued into high school and college, and in my early years of adulthood I tended to read nothing but historical fiction. I started writing my first attempt at a historical novel when I was eleven, in the sixth grade. It would take me several more decades and numerous manuscript attempts before I would ever sell my first book to a publisher, but not surprisingly, my debut was a historical novel (In the Shadow of Blackbirds).

So, thank you, Ms. Jones, for creating that special reading club. Thank you for choosing Frances Hodgson Burnett as our first author to study. The path I’m on today can be traced directly back to your classroom at Crown Valley Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, California, and I’m extremely grateful.


Speaking for the past

If you’re writing a historical novel, chances are you’ve worried about writing dialogue at some point or another. You’re putting words in the mouths of people who’ve been dead a long time. It’s an extra layer of interpretation, and it can be tricky. Here are some thoughts on how to make it easier:

Do your research. If you’re lucky enough to be writing about a time when there are recordings of regular people speaking, listen to them. Especially if they’re candid recordings. You can get a good sense of the cadence of different accents and regional word choice that can go a long way to enhancing voice.

If your time period happens before recording technology, read diaries or correspondence (if they’re available) to get a sense of how people put their thoughts together. Newspapers have letters to the editor and advice columns that can be useful. If your era happened before the printing press, things like court records can give you confessions or testimony that are occasionally in the person’s own words.

Be creative; even in eras before regular people left written documentation of their mental landscapes, they often had brushes with people who could and did keep records. Just remember these records were kept by human beings with an agenda, so read them with that in mind.

But be careful not to overdo your research. People often speak differently when they know they’re being recorded. Radio and TV were (and are) scripted and intended to be consumed a certain way for certain purposes. It’s not that you can’t learn from sources like these, but like all evidence, you should use them with an understanding of their potential biases.

If you’re writing about a time before sound recording, be especially careful as you analyze written sources. People speak very differently than they write, so if you faithfully reproduce the writing style of an age but the words come out of people’s mouths, you run the risk of having a person (especially a young person) sound too stilted and flowery. You also may sacrifice readability and character development for pretty clauses and ornate diction.

Know your character. Consider things that would influence your character’s speech patterns. Social class and ethnicity are good places to start, but think, too, about things like education (or lack of it) and hometown and birth order and habits of mind.

For instance, if your character has never seen the ocean and then refers to feeling seasick, it’s going to feel inauthentic. Does she have a lot of friends, or is she relatively solitary? Rural or urban? All these things impact the words a character will use and how comfortable they’ll be around different people and in different situations—all of which affect what (and how much) comes out of their mouth.

But also consider your reader. One of the important tasks of historical fiction is making the past accessible to a modern audience. The way a character talks is a great way to make this connection, but it can also put the reader at arm’s length.

For me, too much dialect is offputting. Too many ain’ts and fers and hangin’ apostrophes don’t sound authentic; they just make it hard to follow the story when there’s so much emphasis on the character’s speech patterns. It’s like the story is the speech, and unless that’s the story you want to tell, you may want to consider how you’re presenting a character’s words on the page.

Be sparing with unfamiliar words. We historical writers love to geek out over our research. But consider every unfamiliar word you use (especially if the word is in a language most of your readers don’t know) is going to stop a reader and take them out of the story while they try to figure out what the thing is. Using just the ones you need balances readability with worldbuilding. An example (using ridiculous words just for the hell of it):

“Take your tregnum off the dillyhopper and get outside to pick grunches for Noonmeal.”

“Go put on your tregnum so you don’t get cold, then go outside and pick some salad greens for lunch.”

The first example overloads us and makes the line all about the words, while the second is more selective in what it emphasizes and also gives us more context. We can figure out that a tregnum is some kind of jacket and then move on with the action – the harvesting. Determining which foreign item or concept you want to emphasize can develop your character’s voice and worldbuild as well.

But don’t be afraid to use terms that fit the time period. If your character is a well-to-do girl in the antebellum American South, she’s going to have calling cards and wear hoopskirts. Overexplaining an unusual item feels clunky and wouldn’t make sense for the character, especially in terms of dialogue.

It’s good practice to assume an “ignorant but interested” reader. That is, your reader might not already know what a calling card is, but is curious to find out. Trust that your reader is going to be able to figure out things from context, then provide that context in an unobtrusive way.

Be willing to sacrifice strict historical accuracy. One of my all-time favorite historical TV shows is Deadwood. If you’re not familiar, it’s about the South Dakota town of that name in its nineteenth-century frontier days when everything was dirty and violent and full of rough people looking for gold.

One of the best characters constantly uses a swearword that rhymes with “rockmucker,” which is definitely not historically accurate, and the writers were called out for it.

Their argument for using the word stuck with me.

A lot swearwords people used in the nineteenth century would seem comical and goofy and old-timey to a modern audience–“bullfeathers” or “gol ding it”–and the writers wanted to capture the raw impact of bad language to help develop this character. To do that, they had to choose a modern swearword that would shock a modern audience.

It wasn’t that they didn’t know this word was historically inaccurate. It was that they made a creative decision in spite of it. And it worked very well.

But be willing to give up a historical word that feels modern. A good example is the f-bomb. This word has been around in English since at least the sixteenth century. It has the same meaning and rude connotation then as it does today.

But yet, if a sixteenth-century girl says something like, “I wish she’d stop f*****g my sweetheart,” it’s going to sound like something you’d hear in the hall of the average high school. Perfectly historically accurate, but since it would take a reader out of the story, you’ll do better to change it (however reluctantly).

Good dialogue in any book works well when it feels effortless, when the reader is so pulled in that they feel like they’re over the character’s shoulder and in the middle of the conversation. Historical fiction is no different. Bottom line: make your historical people feel real. Readers can forgive a lot when characters speak to them clear and honest and true.

Remembering the Great War, a great woman, and a great deal more

(We are delighted to welcome YA and middle-grade author Jeannie Mobley to the blog today. Her second historical novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, comes out on September 2, 2014.)

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, the Great War, the War to End all Wars. Across Europe, commemorations have taken place, and will continue to take place over the next few years, remembering the soldiers who died, the fields and towns left mangled and destroyed, the harsh brutalities of what is often called the first modern war–a war that can only be considered Great in terms of scale.

The World War I centennial memorial being installed at the Tower of London, consisting of nearly 800,000 ceramic poppies. Photo courtesy of Diana Wilson.)

The World War I centennial memorial being installed at the Tower of London, consisting of nearly 800,000 ceramic poppies. Photo courtesy of Diana Wilson.)

There are myriad stories in war time, stories that, like history, repeat themselves from generation to generation, war to war. Perhaps that is why war stories have a perpetual fascination to so many people. There is a timeless quality to the conflicts and to the heroes that they make.

But I have not written a war story. At least not in the conventional sense of the term. But war, any war, has stories on the home front as well as the battle field. There are heroes keeping the home fires burning, keeping the wheels of industry turning, sending love and prayers and dry socks to their husbands, sons, and sweethearts on the front lines. Perhaps because I am a woman, or perhaps because I like the unsung, these are the stories of war that fascinate me, and World War I gave us particularly interesting stories at home.

SilverheelsFRONT300pxI didn’t set out to write a World War I story when I first conceived of my new book SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, which releases this week. The story started, for me, with the local legend of a dance-hall girl in the Colorado gold rush, nearly sixty years before the US entered the Great War. Here is her legend:

Silverheels was renowned for her beauty, but in the winter of 1861, the town of Buckskin Joe was hit by a devastating small pox epidemic. Most people fled the stricken town, but the beautiful Silverheels stayed and nursed the sick and dying miners. Eventually, however, she herself contracted the disease. She survived it, but the pockmarks had scarred her face, destroying her legendary beauty. The miners collected gold to support her, but when they went to her cabin, she had disappeared. They never found her, and they never knew her real name, but the named the nearby mountain after her, so that her love and sacrifice would not be forgotten.

Mt. Silverheels. Not a bad way to be remembered, but why didn't they know her real name?

Mt. Silverheels. Not a bad way to be remembered, but why didn’t they know her real name?

I’ve known the legend of Silverheels for as long as I can remember, being a Colorado native. I could have written a story just about Silverheels–a retelling or re-imagining of the legend, but I decided not to. Because when I heard this story a few years ago, not having thought about it in many years, the story bothered me in ways it never had before. It got me thinking about all the quiet, behind-the-scenes way that women are heroes. It got me thinking about how seldom or how little women have been acknowledged in their own right. After all, if those miners loved and appreciated Silverheels so much, why didn’t they even bother to learn her real name in all that time she was dancing and being beautiful for them?

Ah, the good old days. Beloved wife, dead at 16, and no first name on this headstone in the cemetery of Como, Colorado, where SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS is set.

Ah, the good old days. Beloved wife, dead at 16, and no first name on this headstone in the cemetery of Como, Colorado, where SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS is set.

It got me thinking about all the ways women are strong, and how many of the things they do are undervalued by society, so that their strength goes unacknowledged. (Anyone who has spent the day trying to clean the house, do the laundry, got kids to and from school and sports and girl scouts, make sure their homework is done while also keeping up with a toddler, can attest to the hypocrisy of stay-at-home moms aren’t working! It makes me tired just to think about it.) Not that Silverheels did all that. But surely some women in Colorado have done worthwhile things–and yet Mount Silverheels, Colorado’s 99th tallest mountain, is the only mountain in the tallest hundred named for a woman. There are dozens named for men–governors, explorers, war heroes, even law-breakers (Zebulon Pike’s illegal border crossing into Mexican territory got his name on a mountain!)

So thinking about the legend of Silverheels got me a little fired up. I wanted to write a story about all the ways women are strong–all the things women have done through history that go unsung, but are really quite amazing. All the reasons why maybe we should have more mountains named after them.

Enter World War I, stage left. This is what I love about writing historical fiction. When I get an idea about a theme or an issue I really want to write about, I know I can find a time and place in history that will really highlight that issue. So, as soon as I decided I wanted to write about the many ways women are called upon to be strong, I knew I wanted the story to be set in wartime, when that call becomes even louder than usual. I could have picked any war, but World War I had something special to offer.

During World War I, women in the United States were fighting for the vote, and when Woodrow Wilson finally declared war in 1917, his justification was the need to defend civil rights and liberty in the world. The suffragist movement latched onto that at once, crying out the hypocrisy of defending civil liberties abroad while denying them at home. The perfect setting for talking about women’s rights.

Women's suffragists in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Women’s suffragists in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Except I wanted to talk about more than the women who stand out in public demanding their rights. Yes, those women were strong and heroic, but they overshadow all the women whose strength was keeping the home fires burning. Quietly supporting the people they loved and the ideals they believed in.

These are the reasons I decided to set SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS in World War I, and the reasons I decided to write about characters searching for Silverheels, rather than about the legendary dancer herself. These are the strong women and unsung war heroes I wanted to write about–a romantically minded girl faced with hard decisions about standing up for what she believes, an outspoken cynic afraid of love, and the power of love itself, strengthening mothers, wives, daughters, and sons through brutal, confusing times.

The Great War was not the war to end all wars. History has repeated itself. It will again. But I hope we can, on this 100th anniversary of its beginning, remember the power of the human spirit, the strength of good people standing up for what they believe in. I hope we can try again, one hundred years later, to hold those ideals dear, as well as the ideal to end all wars.


Jeannie Mobley writes middle grade and YA fiction. Her debut novel, KATERINA’S WISH (Margaret K. McElderry Books), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award, is on the 2014-2015 William Allen White Award Master List, and represented Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival. Her second novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS releases September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and a professor of anthropology. Jeannie is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.


A Celebration of Jennifer McGowan’s MAID OF DECEPTION

MaidofDeceptionYesterday saw the release of our own Jennifer McGowan’s Maid of Deception, the second installment of her Maids of Honor series, and we’re as proud as can be. In typical Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks style, we’re grilling Jenn with questions about her newest book, her characters, her writing methods, and her own special skills that would make her a fantastic Elizabethan spy. Let the celebrations begin!

First, a little intro from Jennifer McGowan herself:

Thanks so much for hosting me today to celebrate the launch of Maid of Deception! Though it seems like forever since the first book, it still is surprising that the launch is finally here!

Everyone asked such great questions, so I’ll dive right in!

From Katherine Longshore:
You have obviously spent a great deal of time and energy creating a cast of unique and carefully-depicted characters, which promises powerful stories for each of your maids-in-waiting. Does this make it easier to write the companion novels because you know them all so well, or more difficult because former narrators try to take over? And which scene in Maid of Deception was the most difficult to write?

Katherine, GREAT question! Writing the subsequent Maids of Honor books after Maid of Secrets has been easier, in the sense that the setting remains the same and the primary cast of characters remains the same. However, what has been harder is to ensure each Maid’s voice remains distinct and authentic. With Maid of Deception, this was fairly easy to do, because Beatrice has such a clearly defined personality. However, as I began work on Maid of Wonder, Sophia’s story, it took awhile for me to find her voice—she’s used to being behind the scenes, after all! The scene in Maid of Deception that was the most difficult to write was when Beatrice believes that she is really alone in the world, unwanted and unloved. For such a proud, bold young woman, this is a humbling realization.

From J. Anderson Coats:
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft? At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?

Jillian, researching these books seems to happen organically. There are some things that I learned a decade ago that I can finally put into a book, and other things I’m learning just because the current story requires it (like details of the Scottish rebellion!). I typically research as I write, though I spend about a month before drafting really pulling together the information I need. And then I research more during revisions. The post-draft research is generally highly specific, focusing on recorded events in history or any contemporary accounts that can help add life to the story.

MaidofSecrets_paperbackFrom Jessica Spotswood:
Each of the MAIDS books stars a different lady-in-waiting/spy. How was writing Beatrice different from writing Meg?

I love this question. :) Meg was very much a fish-out-of-water, an independent young woman who was ready to take on any challenge with pluck, wit and a can-do attitude. Beatrice is more of a jaded insider, a grown-up Mean Girl who has seen and heard it all—the betrayals, the lies, the short-comings of everyone around her. So Beatrice has a more mature outlook, and a grimmer one, too. She’s naturally less-hopeful, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s why, when she falls in love, it was really very special for me. :)

From: Sharon Biggs Waller
How do you keep the overall story arc flowing through all the books? And as a follow up, how do you keep track of all those details? Index cards? Notebooks?

Sharon, I confess—there are things with this series that I didn’t know when I started writing Meg’s book, that really came into focus for me during Beatrice’s book. And now, having just drafted Sophia’s book, I can see how the full series arc will conclude, and it’s a little overwhelming (though in a very cool way!). And, sadly, I don’t keep notes or index cards. I hear of people creating a “series Bible” and I go all glassy-eyed… that would be so wonderful! But I seem to be writing the books so quickly that I just have to have the actual stories as a resource. Fortunately, with everything in digital format, “search” has become my favorite tool in Word!

From Susan Hill Long:
Can you tell us how you came up with the names of the Maids? Do they just appear on the page for you, or do you struggle to find a name that particularly suits each Maid and her background and special skill?

Sue! This is the first time I’ve been asked this. I would say Meg Fellowes’s name came to me first and rather easily, as she was the heroine of Maid of Secrets and I needed a good, sturdy, practical name. Then there was Jane Morgan the assassin. Jane Morgan was the name of my very first heroine of my very first historical romance manuscript—a young woman who dressed as a knight to avenge her brother. :) So it was fitting for her to play the role of the assassin for the Maids of Honor. Beatrice came next—I wanted a sophisticated and vaguely haughty sounding name, and it fit the bill! Anna, the genius of the Maids, I love because my older sister is named Ann, and she’s a hydrogeologist and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. :) And then there was lovely Sophia, the youngest and most ethereal of all the Maids, with her fledgling psychic abilities. Sophia just seemed right for her.

From Cat Winters:
Your Maids have their own special skills to help with their job protecting the queen. In Beatrice’s case, persuasion is the tool she uses to try to thwart a Scottish rebellion. If you were personally hired to protect Queen Elizabeth I, what would your special skill be?

Cat, what a great question! If I were hired to help protect the Queen, I would probably be charged with ferreting out secrets of her court and the foreign delegations. I have the kind of face/demeanor that seems to get people to open up and tell me things, and if I wasn’t a tavern keeper in Elizabethan England, well, I certainly could bend my abilities to serve the Queen!

Thank you for answering our questions, Jenn. Huzzah for the release of Maid of Deception!

Buy the book online:

IndieBoundAmazon.comB&NBook DepositoryBAM

Find Jennifer McGowan online:


Anachronistic Girls (and How Not to Write Them)

Today our topic is historical cliches, and I thought I’d address one that I personally find tricky  – writing anachronistic girls.

Now, of course there have been women throughout history who have yearned for something more than their lots in life, who have wanted more for themselves than their families or societies expected. Of course there have been scientists, queens, athletes, inventors, writers, businesswomen, and artists of all kinds. But there have also been many, many women who were content to be wives and mothers (or perhaps they were not content, but went along with it anyway, because few other options were afforded them). Marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping are, after all, was much of what society has expected for women throughout the ages – and considering all that went (and still goes) into keeping a family fed and clothed and housed and healthy, it’s no small task.

We all want our main characters to stand out, to be special. They are the ones telling the story or at the center of it, driving the action. And there’s great conflict in a character who wants to buck the system – or, in YA lit, diverge from her parents’ comfortable lives. That’s part of growing up, right?

However, there’s a certain problematic shorthand to making a heroine “strong” that involves making her Not Like All the Other Girls. And one easy way to do that is to make her disdain things the other girls like or want – whether it’s an interest in fashion, sewing, watercolors, piano, or other ladylike pursuits of the era or the pursuit of marriage and family.

I have to admit, it’s a trap I fell into somewhat with my heroine in the Cahill Witch Chronicles. Cate Cahill grew up climbing trees with the boy next door and loves gardening. She disdains dresses and small talk and being indoors and judges the girls who care about fashion as empty-headed fools. But it was important to me that she learn they aren’t cabbageheads – that several of them are using these expectations to hide how powerful and clever they are in plain sight. They wind up becoming some of her best friends. It was also important to me that even as Cate discovers a vocation of sorts in her healing magic, what she wants more than anything is marriage and a family of her own with the man she loves. I think that’s true to the time and world she grew up in.

Here are a few questions I ask myself to figure this out when I’m building new characters (as I am now for a short story set in 1820s New Orleans):

  • How did my heroine’s society shape her?
  • What do her parents and peers expect from her?
  • How do these expectations fit (or not) with her personality, both her strengths and flaws?
  • If she’s bucking expectations in some way, is it realistic that she would cast them off without any qualms, or does it trouble her sometimes?
  • What are the consequences for wanting to follow her own path?
  • Are there other beliefs she still holds that are more traditional? Is there a tension there? How to do these beliefs come into conflict with each other?

I hope this helps!