The Strange History of Spirit Photography

If you’ve seen the cover of my upcoming novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, you’ve probably noticed a ghostly figure lingering behind my protagonist.

The novel does indeed include a ghost: Stephen Embers, my main character’s first love, who was killed in World War I. However, the ghost on the cover is something else entirely…an homage to a strange photography trend that began in the mid-1800s and continued into the twentieth century.

Starting in the 1860s when photography was new and the Civil War was tearing the United States apart, heartbroken people went to the studios of photographers such as Boston’s William H. Mumler, sat for portraits in their best clothing, and fully expected to see the spirits of their departed loved ones standing behind them in the resulting pictures.

You can see an online gallery of such images at, including the historical spirit photographs that served as inspiration for the cloaked figure on the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover. When you look at the photos with a modern eye, it’s clear the spirits are the results of double exposures or other photography trickery. Yet people honestly believed the photographs were genuine. They paid hard-earned money for these portraits.

I think the most frightening aspect of the historical spirit photography craze was the predatory nature of the business. Many of the archival photos are from the U.S. Civil War and the World War I time periods, so clearly these photographers, like the hundreds to thousands of Spiritualist mediums who emerged, took advantage of the widespread grief of the eras. Such unscrupulousness is far more terrifying than ghosts.

You’ll learn much more about the WWI-era séance and spirit photography crazes—and see actual early-twentieth-century spirit photos—when In the Shadow of Blackbirds debuts April 1, 2013. If you’re dying to read about the subject before then, check out Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown’s take on Civil War spirit photos in their illustrated YA novel, Picture the Dead.


Cat Winters is the author of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a WWI-era ghost tale coming April 1, 2013, from Amulet Books/ABRAMS. Visit her online at, Twitter, and Facebook.


The Most Frightening Aspect of the Edwardian Era

Wouldn’t it be great to have a chance to wear the beautiful clothes and hats of the Edwardian era?  To be courted by a handsome man in a sack coat driving an open topped Roll’s Royce?  If you’ve seen Downton Abbey you know what I’m talking about.  The first season in particular had the most mouth-watering fashions, and I read that a lot of the clothes were vintage.  In truth, the glitz and glamour of the Gilded Age was achievable only to the top echelon of society.  The rest of the world had to live an entirely different way.

This week, in honor of Halloween, we’re discussing the most frightening aspect of our chosen time period.  My debut novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, is set in the aforementioned Edwardian era, which was a very small era compared to the Victorian era, which spanned Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901.  Her son, Edward, was the monarch for a short time, from 1901 to 1910, and this is technically the Edwardian era.  The years running up to the Great War in 1914 and beyond to 1919 are often lumped in with the Edwardian era, also called the Gilded Age.

Although socially the Edwardian era was much further forward than the Victorian era, it still was no bed of roses for many, in particular the working class, the poor, and women.

For a modern girl like me, the most frightening thing about this era is the lack of freedom.  Independence was a man’s privilege.  Women were looked at as “half-angle, half-idiot” as politician Keir Hardy put it.  Because females weren’t able to look after themselves, they were expected to marry, and woe betide you if you weren’t able to find a man by your mid-20s.  Being left on the shelf was a fate worse than death; society had a horror of spinsters, and there was no place for them.  Unmarried women were on the lowest rung of the household, and you stayed at home for the rest of your days or moved in with your sister or brother—an odious prospect if you didn’t get along with your siblings or their spouses. So either way, you were not mistress of your house, and you had to defer to the man of the house at every turn. You had to ask permission to do anything. In essence, you were at the mercy of the family that housed you, and you had to be very careful never to create scandal or bring disrepute onto the family.

All women were educated very little. Upper class women, in addition to elocution, comportment, and needlework, learned geography, a language, and a little arithmetic.  This “higher” education made her a charming conversationalist to her husband, and nothing more.  Poorer children would only go to elementary school and learn to read, cook, and clean, and maybe some sums and history.

Your life as an unmarried working-class woman would mean either finding work in a factory or going into service.  If you were a servant and chanced to meet someone during this time (no “followers” was the rule) you’d leave service and become a wife and mother.

Middle-class women faired better.  You could be a secretary, governess, clerk or bookkeeper.  You’d be able to earn money for yourself until you were married and then you’d quit your job to have a family.  Because middle-class women enjoyed more freedom, they largely fueled the women’s rights movement.

Here are some frightening statistics of the Gilded Age, courtesy of In 1901, 85 percent of women over 45 were either married or widowed; in 1911, almost half of all illegitimate children were born to women in service; “unemployable” women would often end up at the workhouse, or as prostitutes.

For all women it was frowned upon and seen as unfeminine to have opinions or to be political, to have desires or ideas of your own.  Any woman who stepped out of this role risked everything.

I don’t know about you, but as a thoroughly modern Millie, the Edwardian era sounds pretty frightening. But you know, I’ve got to admit, something inside me still longs to wear those clothes.


Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, the story of an Edwardian teen who pursues her love of art and a handsome police constable during the women’s rights movement (Viking, winter 2014).  She lived in the UK for six years, after meeting her own British police constable and marrying him.  She did extensive research on the British suffragettes with the help of the curators of the Museum of London—when she wasn’t working as a riding instructor at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace.  Today, she is a full-time freelance writer in the magazine industry in the US and UK, and she has three non-fiction books published under her maiden name, Sharon Biggs: The Original Horse Bible (co-author Moira Harris, Bow Tie Press, 2011); Advanced English Riding (Bow Tie Press, 2007); In One Arena (Half Halt Press, 2001).  She is a dressage rider and trainer, and she lives on a 10-acre sustainable farm in Northwest Indiana, just outside of Chicago with her husband, Mark, two horses, four dairy goats, five cats, two dogs, and 60 laying hens.  You can find her at or on Twitter @sbiggswaller

Jess’s Favorite Historical Movie

Hi! Today I’m thinking about my favorite historical movies.

I’m currently pretty obsessed with DOWNTON ABBEY – but my all-time favorite historical movie is GONE WITH THE WIND, the 1939 movie adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s book starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. As a teen, GWTW was my absolute favorite book. I grew up right outside Gettysburg, and my dad’s a Civil War buff, and the summer I was twelve, my grandparents took me to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. My grandfather was swimming in the Senior Olympics, and my grandmother and I toured plantations. So, GWTW was a natural subject of fascination for me. My copy of the book is falling apart, I’ve reread it so many times – and the movie didn’t disappoint: the hoop skirts, the beauty and selfishness of Scarlett O’Hara, the gallantry of her setting forth dressed in curtains, the dashing Rhett Butler, the burning of Atlanta. Despite the four-hour running time, I watched the movie over and over on summer afternoons.

You know how, when you’re a teen, your family might latch onto one of your interests and lavish you with presents based on that one thing? I was the recipient of GWTW music boxes, porcelain collectible plates, a program from the Atlanta movie premiere, various editions of the book, behind-the-scenes making-of documentaries, and (most embarrassingly) a life-sized cardboard cutout of Rhett Butler. (Seriously. That thing lived in my closet for years.)

The behind-the-scenes documentary – THE MAKING OF A LEGEND – is also fascinating. It took the producer two years to find his Scarlett O’Hara – there had been a widespread search for a new face, and Southern girls screen-tested en masse. So did legendary Hollywood beauties like Tallulah Bankhead, Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, and Lana Turner. There was a huge outcry when an English actress, Vivien Leigh, was chosen for the part. (Side note: she was also having a slightly scandalous affair with the not-quite-divorced Sir Laurence Olivier.) There was so much drama surrounding the film, including the change of directors three weeks into filming from George Cukor to Victor Fleming and the complete overhaul of the script over five mad days.

A million people attended the Atlanta premiere of the movie. The governor proclaimed the day a state holiday and the stars arrived in a parade of limos. It wasn’t all glamour – the film’s African American stars, like Hattie McDaniel, couldn’t attend because of Georgia’s segregation laws. She was the first African American woman to win an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress, for her role as Mammy – though GWTW is justly criticized for glorifying slavery and the Old South. GWTW won a total of 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. And adjusted for inflation, it’s still considered the highest-grossing movie in American history.

Have you seen the movie – or read the book? What did you think?

 Jessica Spotswood grew up in a tiny one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing  the clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. She’s been writing since fourth grade but studied theatre in college and grad school. Now she lives in Washington, DC with her brilliant playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. BORN WICKED, Book 1 in The Cahill Witch Chronicles, is her first novel. Book 2, STAR CURSED, will be out in June 2013. 

My Favorite Historical Movie (and a few extras!)

Ever since I was a little girl, movies set in the past held a certain fascination for me. Unlike a book, where my imagination filled in the blanks, a movie illustrated what people were like “back then.”  The setting, the clothing, the hairstyles, the way people travelled, what they ate, and how they spoke enthralled me. I especially loved movies that explored social aspects, in particular the way girls and women were treated and how they fit into society.  The movies that had female characters abandoning their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things have always made me sit up.  These were the movies that I loved, and still love, because they inspired me to become someone out of the ordinary too. Modern movies are inspirational in this way, but to me historical movies have an extra edge.  It was so much harder to be extraordinary in times when women had fewer options.  And they did so in corsets and long skirts!

In the movies Shakespeare in Love (set in 1593 London) and Stage Beauty (set in 17th century London), Viola and Maria want to act but are forbidden to by the law of the land. Viola gets around this by assuming a man’s persona, and Maria flaunts the law by acting at a local tavern.  In the film adaptation of National Velvet (set in 1935 England), Velvet Brown rides her own horse, The Pie, in the Grand National disguised as a male jockey.  And yes, she wins. The Last of the Mohicans, (set in 1757 against the backdrop of the French and Indian War), takes Cora on a dangerous journey.  Through incredible hardships she sheds her upper-class shell and becomes a woman who understands why a person would risk everything for freedom because she is now willing to do so herself.

If I had to pick a favorite movie that follows along this theme, it would be the 2004 HBO drama, Iron Jawed Angels, which is set in 1910 when the American women’s suffrage movement had reached a boiling point.  The film features two of America’s real-life suffrage heroines: Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor).  This is my favorite period of history because it’s when women began to step out of their traditional roles en masse to fight for their right to vote.  In the movie we watch the frustration turn to anger as the women are turned down over and over, how the US government does everything it can to stop them, including arresting them on trumped up charges and submitting them to brutal treatment and force-feeding in prison.  How much courage did it take to buck the system to gain the vote?  What kind of strength did it take to stand up to (and in some cases even welcome) ridicule, hardship, police brutality, and social disapproval for something that we now take for granted?  Iron Jawed Angels shows us exactly how, and it does it in full Technicolor glory.  Beautiful costumes and scenery and plucky characters illustrate the women’s fight for equality perfectly.

And no surprises, my favorite theme of girls behaving out of the ordinary features heavily in my stories, particularly in my debut novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY.  In FOLLY, Victoria Darling, an upper-class Edwardian teen, must choose between a place where she is safe but never heard and an unknown world where her opinions and individuality matter—all against the backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage.  And yes, there’s a swoon-worthy guy!  I forgot to mention that.  I do love romance in historical movies.   I mean, come on, Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye in buckskins?  Sigh.


Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, the story of an Edwardian teen who pursues her love of art and a handsome police constable during the women’s rights movement (Viking, winter 2014).  She lived in the UK for six years, after meeting her own British police constable and marrying him.  She did extensive research on the British suffragettes with the help of the curators of the Museum of London—when she wasn’t working as a riding instructor at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace.  Today, she is a full-time freelance writer in the magazine industry in the US and UK, and she has three non-fiction books published under her maiden name, Sharon Biggs: The Original Horse Bible (co-author Moira Harris, Bow Tie Press, 2011); Advanced English Riding (Bow Tie Press, 2007); In One Arena (Half Halt Press, 2001).  She is a dressage rider and trainer, and she lives on a 10-acre sustainable farm in Northwest Indiana, just outside of Chicago with her husband, Mark, two horses, four dairy goats, five cats, two dogs, and 60 laying hens.  You can find her at or on Twitter @sbiggswaller

Research Wills and Won’ts

Hello! It’s my debut blog with Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks, and I’m very excited to be among so many talented ladies. I’ve also just finished copy edits on MAID OF SECRETS, so I can officially dive into book 2 of my Maids of Honor series: MAID OF DECEPTION.

But like most historical writers, I can’t get too far without realizing “whoa. I need to research this.” And when it comes to research, you immediately run into questions: What details should you include in your story? How much do “the facts” matter… and when does your story matter more? How much is “too much” whether regarding amount of information or some of the grittier aspects of your time period?

My favorite research books for Elizabethan England… So far!

I have found that, for me, it’s much less of an issue of “Research Dos and Don’ts” than it is “Research Wills and Won’ts”. Because first off, there are no hard and fast rules. You can read two books about the same time period, and one could double as a history book… while the other barely dips its toe into the details of era. Even the details themselves can be altered to suit a story: for instance, two or three real-live people being combined to create one more impactful character. Sometimes, too, the experts differ on what really happened at a certain point in history. And then, of course, there’s the ever popular “well, there is no readily-available information on my specific question” issue. When that happens, what do you do?

To tackle these questions, I’ve created a few “Wills” and “Won’ts” of my own:

When it comes to research, I…

WILL: Gather all of the information I can on my key story elements, even if it’s conflicting (which happens a lot more than you might suspect).

WON’T: Put all of that information in my book. I’m writing historical fiction… not history.

WILL: Highlight the unusual, the intriguing and the super-specific details that can give a character or setting life. If something catches my eye in research, it might catch the interest of my reader, too.

WON’T: Research too broadly.  I may want to know everything that’s happening in Elizabethan England, but I need to know, specifically, what’s happening where my spies currently are, and in the Court. To start researching too far afield is to invite lost hours and days that should be spent writing.

WILL: Make decisions that serve the story. If I uncover particularly grueling or horror-stricken details in my research, I will not necessarily include them in my tale if they don’t fit the tone of my book.

WON’T: Willfully get the history wrong. There are two kinds of inaccuracies in historical fiction: the first is when the author simply makes a mistake. This I hope to never do, though I’m sure it’s going to happen. The second inaccuracy is more the “bending” of historical details to fit the story. I certainly put the “fiction” in historical fiction, but the details I choose to embroider still result in situations that remain authentic to the time period.

WILL: Continue researching, long after the story is done. You never know when you might find a detail you can use in a future book!

There are many more guidelines that other researchers and writers have, I’m sure. But one thing is certain: the more you know, the better your tale will be, no matter what its era. So keep learning… and keep writing!

Jennifer McGowan has been writing fiction since well before she knew any better. A past Romance Writers of America Golden Heart winner and 2011 Golden Heart finalist, Jenn is represented by agent extraordinaire Alexandra Machinist, of Janklow & Nesbit.
Jenn’s debut novel, MAID OF SECRETS, will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on May 7, 2013, assuming she gets her revisions done ;). You can find Jenn online and on twitter.