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.


About Sharon Biggs Waller

I'm the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY (Viking, Penguin Jan 2014) and THE ORIGINAL HORSE BIBLE (i5 Publishing). Visit me at

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

  1. Wilhelmina Von Drake says:

    Love this! When can I read it? 😉

  2. […] in progress. Yesterday, I blogged about The Last Sister, my forthcoming October release, over at Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks, and today I’ve decided to write about the inspiration for the book I’m working on now, […]

  3. Courtney says:

    I would love for you to read it! Release is set for early October 🙂

  4. Carol Woodriff says:

    Hi, I can’t wait to read your book in October! I have a mysterious female ancestor with the unusual given name of Asia who was born in 1764 on Farm or Horn Creek in District Ninety Six, South Carolina. Nothing else is known of her family, their origins or demise but she must have experienced some adventures akin to your heroine’s as the approaching Revolutionary War forced her to flee the backcountry, probably to Charles Town and likely as an orphan, where she met and married a young British Naval Lieutenant. Together, they traversed the St Johns River, transporting throngs of fleeing Loyalists and their property to British East Florida and on to Halifax and the Caribbean. I’m hoping your story’s “history” will help me see Asia in her place in time and, I hope, find a thread that will unlock her secrets. In anticipation, Carol in Houston, TX.

    • courtneymck says:

      What an interesting story, Carol! I love those colonial names! The backcountry remained an extremely violent area through the Revolutionary War as the British tactic of total war in the region (see Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, among others) inspired those who might not normally have done so to take up arms against them, so I wouldn’t doubt if your ancestor did encounter some tough situations and wouldn’t blame her in the least for refugeeing east. If her family were known Loyalists, as many were, remaining in the backcountry after their deaths would have been even more dangerous for her. I do hope Catie’s story will help you to understand some of what Asia dealt with as a young woman on a highly contested frontier. Can’t wait for you to read the book! For a very readable history of SC in the Revolution, check out Walter Edgar’s PARTISANS AND REDCOATS.

  5. […] dystopian novel, which I ended up revising from scratch. (You can read more about that process here.) I know that definitely affected the final product. I wouldn’t have written this novel […]

  6. […] dystopian to historical fiction, back in May at Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks, so check out that post if you’re interested in what that process was like, what I did, and why I did it. I started […]

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