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.