A parting post

Sadly, it’s time for Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks to shut its doors and blow out the candlelight. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed discussing the ins and outs of writing historical fiction over the past two-and-a-half years, but life and writing projects have called us all in different directions. As much as we’d like to keep the blog going, we collectively decided it’s time to let it go.

We will keep the archives up and running indefinitely, so please feel free to peruse our posts from the past. We thank you all for reading our words, contributing your comments, and following us on our quests to breathe life into the past for young readers.

Warmest wishes,

The Christmas Truce


German soldiers in trench, WWI.

Nearly one hundred years ago today, in the midst of the first months of a brutal world war that would claim the lives of millions across the globe, enemies from powerful armies came together, sang Christmas carols, and purportedly even played ball.

The extension of peace started on Christmas Eve 1914. German and British troops sang to each other across the war-torn No Man’s Land, a bombed-out stretch of barbed wire-tangled space that separated the trenches of the opposing sides. German soldiers placed Christmas trees illuminated by lanterns above the trenches. Men called out to each other and exchanged Christmas greetings.

On Christmas morning, Allied and German soldiers crept out of their respective trenches, met each other in the middle, shook hands, and traded cigarettes and food. The dead were fetched from No Man’s Land and taken away for proper burials. Conversations were exchanged. No shots were fired.


Poster for The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 play The Christmas Truce.

Not all regions of the war celebrated the truce. War-related deaths continued to occur on December 25, 1914, but several truces occurred across the Western Front in a moving moment that’s now been celebrated in films, books, documentaries, plays, and even a 2014 British grocery store commercial.

The truce didn’t end the Great War. The goodwill spread among the opposing armed forces on that remarkable day would not be repeated during the following three Christmases spent at war. Yet the beauty of the camaraderie between these enemies—the sheer joy experienced by people moved by the holiday spirit—proves that no matter how horrific our history may be at times, joy and hope will never cease to exist.

Happy holidays.

More info about the Christmas Truce:

ChristmasTruce.co.uk (includes letters from soldiers who participated)

History.com – Christmas Truce of 1914

Imperial War Museums – The Real Story of the Christmas Truce


Shooting at the Stars, by John Hendrix (a new picture book about the truce)

Trailer for The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 performance of The Christmas Truce.

The 2014 Sainsbury grocery store advertisement celebrating the truce.

The trailer for Joyeux Noel, a 2005 movie made about the truce.

What Is Historical?

The year I started writing for young people, I attended my first international SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles.  Four days of writing craft, page critiques, networking and an overwhelming amount of information.  So I almost missed it when an agent, talking about her client’s work, mentioned that it was a novel of historical fiction, set in the 1970s.

Most of the audience gasped, because most of us had lived through the 70s, making it difficult to believe it could be considered history.  As an aspiring author of historical fiction, I had to reset my understanding.  And I continue to do so as I read new books and think about future projects.


The first thing I did was put myself back in the shoes of my younger self.  As a teen, I considered the Vietnam War to be history.  When I was Platoon, it was as a work of historical fiction.  And yet, I was six years old when Saigon fell.  By that calculation, a novel published today about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 could be considered historical by modern teenagers.

Imagine that.

As writers of historical fiction, we are so incredibly fortunate in the richness and scope of our source material.  We can immerse ourselves in ancient Egypt, imagine life amongst the princes of Renaissance Europe or, possibly, write an autobiographically-based novel of our own childhood.  (That is, if your childhood was more interesting than mine.  I had a spectacularly bland and uneventful childhood, full of love and well-being.  Great to live through, but not so interesting to read!)

However, part of me still balks at the thought of writing (or reading) something historical that is set during my own lifetime.  I have a nagging feeling that there are agents and editors out there who might feel the same way.  While I was writing Gilt, I attended a workshop where an agent mentioned that she never wanted to see another query about a book set in the 1980s, because it usually meant that the author wanted to reference her favorite music and was too lazy to figure out how to put cell phones into the narrative.

I bet no one said that to Rainbow Rowell about Eleanor & Park.

Which brings me to my second point–that great historical fiction reads like a contemporary story.  I don’t mean that an author should use anachronistic language and dialogue, or that the story itself should be applicable to any time period (you can’t write a story like Number the Stars set in modern-day California).  What I mean is that characters and their interactions are timeless.  People fought with their siblings and fell in love during the American Civil War in much the same way we do now–which is one of the reasons Little Women is so endlessly beloved.  You can’t take the war out of the story, but we can see ourselves within the people who inhabit it.

One final example:  my favorite book when I was in the third grade was a novel called Amy Moves In, by Marilyn Sachs.  It’s about a short, skinny girl with super curly/frizzy hair, whose older sister is smarter, taller, braver and has (holiest of holies) straight hair.


I could totally relate.

Amy moved to the Bronx, had adventures, fought with her sister, made friends.  That book made me desperate to go to New York.  I read it–and its companions–more times than I could count. Many thanks to the Scholastic Book Club for putting them in my hands.

What I didn’t realize until much later was that the books were originally published before I was born and set in the 1940s.  They were–by all accounts–historical.  They never felt that way.  I always imagined that I could go to the Bronx, find Indian Rock in Crotona Park, and share a chocolate egg cream with Amy or someone just like her.

Readers want to be able to relate to fictional characters, even if they can’t always relate to the setting–be it medieval Wales or post-apocalyptic Chicago.  So we, as writers, have to make our characters believable as people and not just as people from the past.

Think about some of your favorite fictional characters from historical fiction.  What is it that makes you feel like you know them?  And does that work today as well as it works in their own era?

On the Calendar

It’s time to do the holidays, medieval and early-modern style!

Calendar customs are rituals or activities historically practiced on a given day, typically associated with a saint but sometimes a key point in the agricultural year or some other event. Here’s a selection from December:

2014-12-1 Boy Bishop6 December: Saint Nicholas’ Day. The election of the “boy bishop.” Choristers (boys* in the choir) would elect one of their number to be the boy bishop, a kid who would run all official religious ceremonies till Holy Innocents Day (28 December). The Boy Bishop appointed his friends to serve as high officials in the church (the dean, the canons). For all intents and purposes, he and his friends were in charge. Adults would take on all the kids’ roles (acolytes, altar boys), and would sometimes heckle the kids who were trying to conduct services properly. It was basically three weeks of fun, treats, holidays, and general misrule, and it often got pretty rowdy.

16 December: The Bringing in of the Boar’s Head. This tradition is mostly confined to great houses and universities, where the head of a boar is brought in to a dining table beautifully decorated with herbs and fruit while the Boar’s Head Carol is sung. Its origin story goes like this: an Oxford university student was walking through the forest when he was attacked by a boar. He fought it off by cramming his copy of Aristotle in the boar’s mouth, choking it to death.

C'mon, Rufus Sewell...

C’mon, Rufus Sewell…

20 December: Saint Thomas’ Eve. If you stuck an onion full of pins and put it under your pillow, you’d dream of your future husband.

21 December: Saint Thomas’ Day. Poor people in a village, usually women and children, would go a-Thomasing. This was a bit like trick-or-treating from house to house, but they’d be offered a fixed amount of a specific thing (a candle, a cupful of flour). The idea was that they would collect provisions to help them live through winter. This tradition was also called gooding.

28 December: Holy Innocents Day. This holiday commemorates the Biblical story of King Herod having all male babies in his lands slaughtered as he tried to kill off the infant Christ. On this day, adults would fast and do nothing (especially not housework), but kids could do pretty much whatever they wanted. They had treats and went to parties and could play in church, but they were also beaten to remind them of Herod’s cruelty. Being a kid in medieval and early-modern times could be confusing.

* Yes, just boys. Sorry. They hadn’t gotten the memo yet.

From A.R. Wright’s British Calendar Customs (Folklore Society: London, 1940).

Indies First + Our Book-Shopping Recommendations

As many of you may know, tomorrow – the Saturday after Thanksgiving – has been deemed Small Business Saturday, a day to patronize the local businesses that make our communities so special. While there are great reasons to support your local independent bookstore all year round, many authors (including me!) are volunteering as guest booksellers tomorrow to show our support for Indies First.  (You can find out whether there are any special programs in your area here.) All of the members of Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks agree that books make fabulous presents, so we want to recommend some of our favorite titles of 2014 to you — and give a shoutout to our favorite local indies!

I really loved COMPLICIT by Stephanie Kuehn. Jamie and his sister Cate were orphaned as children and adopted by the wealthy Henrys. When they’re teenagers, there’s a suspicious fire and Cate is sent to juvie for it. Jamie develops a weird paralysis in his hands, but it’s under control until Cate gets out of juvie and Jamie starts remembering more and more about the arson that put Cate there and what really happened to their mother. It’s absolutely page-turny and the end is pitch-perfect.

Also, GIRLS LIKE US by Gail Giles. Biddy and Quincy are “speddies” – special education students who’ve graduated from their program and have been assigned an apartment to share and jobs to do. Biddy cleans for Elizabeth, an elderly widow, and Quincy has a job at a grocery store – until a disgruntled co-worker decides to target her. They share the same concerns as all newly-independent young adults; how to get along with a roommate, how to navigate the world, how to build relationships. Biddy and Quincy were beautifully drawn and well-rounded, a perfect example of how to allow characters we don’t see often in fiction to be the stars of their own story.

I’d like to give a shoutout to my local indie bookstore, Third Place Books. It’s a beautiful, welcoming place with knowledgeable, friendly staff and ridiculously good customer service. Love it!

I very much enjoyed reading THE MAGICIAN’S BOOK: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller. ​Like me (and you?), Laura Miller read and reread the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA over and over again as a child, each time coming away with something new. As an adult, convinced that “the first book you fall in love with shapes us every bit as much as the first person we fall in love with,” she goes back into Narnia, and finds that her relationship with the books has yet again changed. I loved reading about C.S. Lewis and his robust walks in the countryside discussing books and religion with his dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien. It was a pleasure and a challenge to revisit these most beloved books of my childhood.

And for middle grade readers, RAIN REIGN, by Ann M. Martin, was my favorite book (so far) of 2014. (But my TBR pile is still towering!) Narrator Rose is someone other people–her single father, her classmates, her teacher– find difficult to relate to, or even to like. She’s obsessed with homonyms and prime numbers and rules. When her dog goes missing in a terrible storm, she goes out into the world and leaves behind everything that makes her feel safe. The story is exciting and layered and true-feeling. I learned a lot about what it must feel like to be a child on the Autism Spectrum. I think this is a book that makes a difference for its being in the world.

My local bookstore, Powell’s, is so vast it’s hard to believe it’s an indie. It’s not called Powell’s City of Books for nothing. A landmark, and an experience no visitor to Portland should miss.

Hands down, the best book I’ve read this year is Jandy Nelson’s I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN.  Every once in a while, a book comes along that makes me want to say, “That’s it, I’m quitting now.”  And this is one of them.  Gorgeous writing, awesome imagery and breathtaking emotion, with characters who feel so real you can touch them.

I also loved Donna Cooner’s CAN’T LOOK AWAY, about a girl trying to survive the death of her sister while in the spotlight of Internet notoriety.  A beautiful book that makes you take a closer look at seeking those 15 minutes in the age of social media.

My wonderful local indie is the Avid Reader in Davis, California.  They’ve got an amazing variety of books for any number of interests in a small area, plus a loft for middle grade readers who just want to stick their noses in a book while parents browse.  They host author and book events every month, from picture books to political investigation.

JENNIFER MCGOWAN is on deadline — but isn’t too busy to celebrate her local bookstores!
There are three Indie bookstores in the Cincinnati area that I’d like to give thanks for: Joseph-Beth, in Cincinnati, Ohio is an amazing destination for booklovers, and they do a tremendous amount to give back to the community, including staging Books By The Banks, a literary festival that grows every year. A relative newcomer to Cincinnati is The Booksellers on Fountain Square, who are doing a fabulous job of bringing books back to the thriving downtown area (woot!). And finally, Blue Marble Books in Fort Thomas, KY has been a staunch and enthusiastic supporter of YA fiction locally–just absolutely wonderful people.


My favorite YA was POINTE by Brandy Colbert.  I’m a sucker for anything ballet, and this story does not disappoint.  The main character, Theo, wants to be among the few elite African-American ballet dancers but her past comes back to haunt her.  Her best friend, Donovan, was abducted years ago by a man she considered her boyfriend, and when he suddenly returns, Theo has to decide if she can testify against the kidnapper and maybe damage her budding career.

My hands down favorite was Diana Gabaldon’s long-awaited latest installment to her Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD. I got to help Diana a little bit with some chicken info in the story and she thanked me in the acknowledgements, which is basically a dream come true for me!

The last independent bookstore in my area closed earlier in the year, leaving only an assortment of used bookstores, an antiquarian bookstore, and a Barnes & Noble (which has been wonderful to me). There are two indies in Chicago that I love.  One is the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Illinois and the other is Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois.  Both are highly supportive of YA authors and work to bring authors, educators, librarians, and readers together.


I’m woefully behind on keeping up with 2014 releases, but my favorite of the ones I’ve had a chance to read is Heidi Schulz’s entertaining middle-grade adventure, HOOK’S REVENGE. Normally I’m not a huge fan of books written as sequels of sorts to long-gone classic authors’ works, but Schulz created such a delightful, hilarious, heartbreaking heroine in young Jocelyn Hook that I wholeheartedly went along for the adventure.
Thank you to two local indie bookstores who go all out in promoting my books: Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, and Jacobsen’s Books in Hillsboro, OR. Bonus points go to FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA, for hand selling an astounding number of my books, as if I’m a local, even though I haven’t yet gotten a chance to step inside their doors.

My favorite book of the year is Marie Rutkowski’s THE WINNER’S CURSE. I was blown away by this incredible fantasy. The world-building, reminiscent of ancient Rome, is utterly engrossing, but never slows down the pace.  The romance between Kestrel and Arin feels as heartbreakingly impossible as it is swoon-worthy. They are both ruthless when they need to be, and while I wouldn’t call either of them exactly “nice,” they’re fascinating. I can’t wait to read the sequel, THE WINNER’S CRIME!

As for my favorite indie, I can’t pick just one! I’ll be guest bookselling tomorrow at local giant Politics & Prose, which is a gorgeous store and a DC institution which hosts lots of fantastic author events. But I also love One More Page in Arlington, VA, where the booksellers are always ready with a personal recommendation and are incredibly supportive of local authors. They also sell wine and chocolates (and delicious gourmet s’mores)! In recent years, President Obama has visited both stores with his daughters Sasha and Malia!

What about you, dear readers? What’s your favorite bookstore? What books are you giving thanks for this year?