Where Are the Parents?

I’ve heard this question a few times—from parents—about YA literature. The parents are often nowhere to be seen.   One (or both) are dead or incompetent or neglectful or just plain oblivious.

'The Geography Lesson' (Portrait of Monsieur Gaudry and his daughter by Louis-Leopold Boilly

‘The Geography Lesson’ (Portrait of Monsieur Gaudry and his daughter by Louis-Leopold Boilly


I think part of it is because many teens want to experience life on their own—they crave independence and the ability to make their own decisions and mistakes. This can be hard to do when a parent is there, asking about homework and soccer practice and your day and your friends. YA novels are a safe place to explore what it might be like to live on your own—perhaps at a boarding school (I love boarding school books and always have) or a futuristic dystopia where all the adults are busy with something else.

Of course, for most of us, our parents are part of who we are. Their experiences and interactions with us are woven into the fabric of our psyche, like it or not. So I try to give the parents in my novels a bit of weight, just to explore that aspect of my characters’ lives. I tackle parent/child relationships by putting the parents heavily in the background.

Luckily for me, gentry in the Tudor era usually outsourced the actual parenting responsibilities. They performed the duties of conception and childbirth and then handed the baby off to wet nurses and rockers and later to some other household that would teach the child how to be a good aristocratic housewife or nobleman. Henry FitzRoy, the king’s illegitimate son, had a household of his own at the age of nine as Duke of Richmond and Somerset. My teenaged characters basically live at boarding schools (yay!), just ones that include treachery, adultery and executions.

But the absence of parents doesn’t negate their presence—if that makes any sense at all. In Gilt, Kitty Tylney feels keenly the lack of parental feeling—she believes her parents just want her off their hands. In Tarnish, Anne believes her father’s love is tied only to what his children can do for him. Mary Howard lives in the shadow of her mother in Brazen—terrified of becoming anything like her—and clings to her belief that her father will always be her ally.

You never meet Kitty’s parents in Gilt. Anne’s father appears two or three times in Tarnish. And Mary has one interaction with her mother in Brazen. But the parents hover like ghosts in the background, affecting the way the characters speak, the way they interact with others and how they react to certain situations.

I feel a bit guilty writing all of these uncomfortable relationships between parents and children. I’ve always had a very good relationship with my parents. I never felt that they pushed me too hard (because I could always push myself harder) or limited me too severely (I admit, I was a boringly reasonable teenager, though).

When I came to write Manor of Secrets, I knew I wanted to include a sympathetic relationship—even a strong one—for one of my characters. Janie loves and admires her mother (her father, in a classic YA turn, is conveniently dead) and wants to remain close to her. They talk and work easily together. They protect each other. Story-wise, this could be boring, because story is built on conflict. So I made Janie’s love for her mother part of the larger story problem without making the relationship itself a problem.

It’s difficult to cut parents completely out of a character’s life—and sometimes disingenuous. Parent/child relationships can be strained or easy, loving or troubled, but it’s difficult to make them nonexistent—even when the parents are not in the picture. Parents and parental relationships are powerful and can be powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox. Use them wisely.


I can haz research?

Hello history geeks! Here are four and a half of the coolest things I’ve found while researching lately.

The English Broadside Ballad Archive
This site is one of the most comprehensive treatments of early modern popular culture I’ve found. It’s searchable by ballad name (“Twa Sisters” or “Captain Ward”) or by keyword (“sex”, “catastrophe”) or by clever and inspired topics (“Deadliest Catch: Amazing Creatures of the Deep”). Best of all, many of the ballads have recordings attached to them too!

London Lives, 1690-1800
A detailed, searchable, and growing collection of documents and images that detail the lived experiences of ordinary people in London during the eighteenth century. My favorite feature is the “Lives” link; clicking it gives you profiles of individual men, women, and children that you can access by name or keyword.

The Public Domain Review
This site collects and organizes books, pamphlets, images, audio, and other cool stuff that’s fallen into the public domain. The focus is on the weird and interesting, but the goal is diversity and accessibility. It’s fully searchable by keyword and category.

Executed Today
This, folks, is microhistory at its finest. Each day tells the story of one individual (or sometimes a group) and provides the social and political context that surrounded her or his demise. It’s meticulously cited (some people we know more about than others, though) and very well indexed. Bonus content like the occasional video clip just makes it that much more awesome.

And just for fun, here’s how you can be insulted by Martin Luther.

Mother’s Day and the Original Suffragettes

We’re celebrating Mother’s Day on the blog, and so I’m going to talk about my favorite historical mother daughter team that changed the world for women in England and inspired women in the United States: the original suffragettes, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.

Mother daughter suffragettes: Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst

Mother daughter suffragettes: Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst


Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst

The Pankhurst family in general was all about equality. Emmeline Goulden (1858-1928) was only 21 when she married Richard Pankhurst, a 44-year-old lawyer. Possessing a rebellious streak, Emmeline said she would have been happy to forego marriage and live with Richard instead. (This is something she must have forgotten when years later she disowned her second daughter, Sylvia, for living with a man instead of marrying.) Emmeline loved politics and was frustrated by the lack of career opportunities for women in 1878 England, but she found a kindred spirit in Richard. They had five children: Christabel, Sylvia, Frank (who died in infancy), Harry, and Adela. Emmeline and Richard fought tirelessly for women’s rights and the socialist movement, and after his death in 1898, she soldiered on with her daughter Christabel, founding the Women’s Social and Political Movement or WSPU. Two years after her death, a statue was put up in Victoria Tower Gardens near Parliament, where it still remains.


Christabel Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst

Although all Emmeline’s children were involved in the WSPU, Christabel was almost a facsimile of her mother. She was very pretty, very feminine, and had a leader’s way about her. Women would follow her anywhere and do anything for her. She even had a group of women who called themselves the Young Hot Bloods, carrying out her militant directives without question. Christabel had received a law degree from Manchester University but was unable to practice law because she was female. The Bar Council in England forbade women from using their law degrees until 1919 when the government made such exclusions illegal.   Christabel directed most of the WSPU operations and was not a foot soldier. She only went to jail three times and fled the country to Paris in 1912 to escape a three-year sentence. She did return to England before World War I but only served a month of that sentence. She became very religious in her later life and moved to the US in 1921, dying in Los Angeles at seventy-one.


Prison Companions

Prison Companions

Both Christabel and Emmeline could be very demanding and unfaltering in their work. Emmeline often sacrificed her children’s happiness for the movement. They both agreed to cut ties with Sylvia who was spending more time fighting for the rights of working class women and the poor, and Adela who they accused of being useless to the movement, banishing her to Australia. But for all their faults, this mother daughter team did much to ignite the women’s movement, and I, for one, am truly grateful!

Celebrating the release of THE FALCONER!

This week, we celebrate the US release of Elizabeth May’s THE FALCONER in our usual style–by asking all kinds of questions.15791085

Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, was destined for a life carefully planned around Edinburgh’s social events – right up until a faery killed her mother.

Now it’s the 1844 winter season and Aileana slaughters faeries in secret, in between the endless round of parties, tea and balls. Armed with modified percussion pistols and explosives, she sheds her aristocratic facade every night to go hunting. She’s determined to track down the faery who murdered her mother, and to destroy any who prey on humans in the city’s many dark alleyways.

But the balance between high society and her private war is a delicate one, and as the fae infiltrate the ballroom and Aileana’s father returns home, she has decisions to make. How much is she willing to lose – and just how far will Aileana go for revenge?

From Sharon Biggs Waller: You’ve designed book covers yourself, so I’m interested in hearing the story behind your American cover? Did you have much input?

Not much of a story there, I’m afraid! I didn’t have input on the US cover. But my editor really gets the character and the story so I was really content to defer to what she thought would work for the book. I do know the excellent photo on the cover was taken by Daniel Castro, who is an incredibly talented fashion photographer.

From Jennifer McGowan:  My question is about preparing for your American launch–how is it different than your UK launch for you? Anything new and fun that you’ll be doing?

It’s different in the sense that I was such a bundle of anxiety for the UK launch that I feel like I didn’t really get to enjoy it. I feel like I was a lot better prepared emotionally this time around, so I’ve been able to feel happy and excited about US readers finally getting to read it! New and fun: definitely working on the blog tour and articles; I love sharing some of the behind-the-scenes stuff!

From Susan Hill Long:  The book trailer for The Falconer is one of The.Best.Ever.!! Can you tell us something about the making of this Oscar-worthy treat?

Thank you!! I’m so glad you like it! 🙂 I wish I had a great story to go with it, but I actually didn’t see the trailer until it was already complete. But I love it, too!

From Jessica Spotswood:  I love historical fantasy! Which came to you first – the 1840s British setting, or the faery conflict?

The setting! I knew I wanted to write an historical, because it’s one of the genres I read most and I wanted to try my hand at it. I also knew I wanted to include fantasy elements, because I have so much fun writing speculative fiction. But the original draft of The Falconer was a pretty big mashup of monsters from Scottish mythology (including faeries), and in the end it felt like there was a bit too much going on. It was very over-crowded, with lots of conflicting mythologies. So I decided that I’d keep the faeries on as the antagonists because I know a great deal more about faery mythology than anything else.

From Katherine Longshore:  In THE FALCONER, Lady Aileana has to lead a double life—faery slayer and society debutante.  What aspect of each life was your favorite to write?

For her society debutante half, I really enjoyed writing the kind of fish out of water feel there. Certainly, Aileana is the product of her upbringing. She often worries about appropriate etiquette because she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself more than she already has. But at the same time, she’s been sequestered from society for the requisite mourning period (a year, in the case of a parent’s death) and has spent that entire time killing faeries at night. So when she goes back into society, it doesn’t come as easily to her as it did before.

For the faery slayer bits, I admittedly love writing her scenes with Kiaran. They play off of one another really well, and her dynamic with him is so different than with any other character in the book.

From J. Anderson Coats:  “If you could introduce Aileana to any other character from fiction, what would it be and why?”

I want to see Aileana and Hermione Granger meet. Aileana doesn’t have much bookish intelligence like Hermione does, and Hermione doesn’t have as much technical knowledge as Aileana, so I imagine their banter would be EPIC.

From Cat Winters:  I love that THE FALCONER is set in Scotland, where you also live. What do you find to be the most common misconception people have about the country? And what do you enjoy most about the area?

I rather feel like the romanticized Highlander idea of Scotland remains pretty pervasive. You know: all tartans, kilts, brandishing claymores and calling delicate ladies “lassie” type of Scotsman from romance novels. There’s definitely a lot of othering of Scottish culture that tourism and pop culture doesn’t help in subverting.

I’d say that one of the things I love about Edinburgh is how many events we have going on all the time. Markets, festivals, fires, marches, fireworks . . . it’s really a lovely place to live and there are so many opportunities to meet new people.

You can add THE FALCONER to your Goodreads list.

Or order it right now!

Guest Post: Back to the Future: How Dystopian Lit Led Me to Historical Fiction by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker

Whenever I attend a conference, I stand in the audience and think: I’m going to find my next friend…right now. And then I randomly choose a seat. Without fail I’ve always sat next to someone who becomes a lifelong friend. Last year at the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day conference, I plonked myself next to a fellow historical novelist (what are the chances?). Courtney and I became fast friends, and I was very pleased when she accepted our invitation to be a guest blogger.

Courtney’s novel, THE LAST SISTER will be published by Young Palmetto Books, an imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, in October.

And now…here’s Courtney!


Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in South Carolina and has since lived in New Jersey and Illinois. She holds degrees in history and library science from the University of South Carolina and a degree in English from Illinois State University. While trying everything on earth to avoid writing novels, she worked with toddlers to adults as a children’s librarian and as a college composition teacher. She lives with her husband, dog, and cat in Illinois, where she is awaiting the birth of her daughter in September and the publication of her first novel, The Last Sister, in October. It’s going to be a busy fall. Follow her on Twitter: Courtney

I found my way to writing historical fiction by way of dystopian futures. All that mortal danger. How could it not lead me into the past as quickly as into the future? All those sticky love triangles. Sticky love triangles are everywhere, in all the times. All those badass adolescent women. How else have adolescent women survived all these years except by being badass?
I had a plot already, a dystopian novel I’d written almost as practice just to see if I could actually write a novel. I broke it down, used it for parts.
I needed a setting, somewhere mortal danger figured greatly. I wanted a place I knew, a place I could write about with confidence that I wasn’t getting everything totally wrong. As an undergrad, I majored in history at the University of South Carolina. I grew up in Upstate South Carolina, where my ancestors had parked themselves just prior to the American Revolution and stubbornly stuck for two and a half centuries. My husband’s job had exiled me to the prairie, and I wanted to remember that mountains and thick forests existed. I wanted to go home.
And all that is how I came to write The Last Sister, a YA historical fiction about a young woman caught up in the all-but-forgotten conflict known (where it is known at all) as the Anglo-Cherokee War. In terms of mortal danger, it doesn’t get any better (worse?) than this.
In 1759-1760, when The Last Sister is set, there were wars within wars. The Seven Years War, sometimes classified as the first global conflict, was raging. The French and Indian War was the North American theater of that war. And then there was the Anglo-Cherokee War, a conflict between the British colony of South Carolina and the Cherokee Nation that neither government wanted, in short because the British couldn’t hope to defeat the French without Cherokee help and the Cherokee had become dependent in many ways on British trade goods.
Sometimes people are determined to fight no matter what their governments say, and sometimes mid-level politicians make really bad decisions that get a lot of people killed. In the summer and fall of 1759, backcountry South Carolina, populated mostly by impoverished settlers and a world away from the wealthy townhouses and plantations of Charlestown and the surrounding parishes, was simmering. In 1760, it exploded. If you were a Cherokee outside the protection of your town or a settler outside a fort—and those were quickly besieged—you were dead already, and something none too pretty was likely being done to your body as a warning to others. The violence was probably much worse than what I’ve depicted. I didn’t think people would believe it. Many times, I nearly stopped writing, thinking, There is no way anyone survived this. No way. Everyone was constantly shooting, scalping, dismembering, and/or burning everyone else.
I found ways because that’s what authors do. We find a way. If we write historical fiction, we find a historically plausible way.
This setting gave me more than mortal danger, though. It gave me a cool opportunity to think about interactions between the many ethnic groups in backcountry colonial South Carolina. The English, the Lowland Scots, the Highland Scots, and the Scots-Irish all saw themselves as very different peoples, and they were quite frequently ready to fight over it. Along with the Anglo-Cherokee War itself, that’s a largely forgotten part of American history that I find worth examining.
So I had my badass protagonist, the middle-class daughter of a Lowland Scottish missionary and an English baronet’s daughter, lost in the wilderness of the borderlands of what’s now South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I had her fall in love with a Highland Scot, in true romance novel fashion. (Because, really, who doesn’t think Highlanders are hot? Sadly, there was no viable way to put the man in a kilt. Ever. In the whole novel. Stupid historical accuracy.) My beta readers all think this is the best part, except for my husband, who thinks there is too much kissing and not enough scalping during the development of this relationship. Oddly enough, they were all big fans of the one especially gory scalping scene, too. I had no idea I had such bloodthirsty friends and family. Seriously, people. I’m over here having research-induced nightmares, and everyone’s like, “More scalping, please!”
In a lot of ways, historical fiction is a hard road. There’s a lot of research, and every era has its issues that most people would rather not touch with a ten-foot pole, much less comment on. Still, if you take that road, you get to see some really cool things, and you get to be reminded of how lucky you are to live in the twenty-first century.