A Celebration of Jennifer McGowan’s MAID OF DECEPTION

MaidofDeceptionYesterday saw the release of our own Jennifer McGowan’s Maid of Deception, the second installment of her Maids of Honor series, and we’re as proud as can be. In typical Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks style, we’re grilling Jenn with questions about her newest book, her characters, her writing methods, and her own special skills that would make her a fantastic Elizabethan spy. Let the celebrations begin!

First, a little intro from Jennifer McGowan herself:

Thanks so much for hosting me today to celebrate the launch of Maid of Deception! Though it seems like forever since the first book, it still is surprising that the launch is finally here!

Everyone asked such great questions, so I’ll dive right in!

From Katherine Longshore:
You have obviously spent a great deal of time and energy creating a cast of unique and carefully-depicted characters, which promises powerful stories for each of your maids-in-waiting. Does this make it easier to write the companion novels because you know them all so well, or more difficult because former narrators try to take over? And which scene in Maid of Deception was the most difficult to write?

Katherine, GREAT question! Writing the subsequent Maids of Honor books after Maid of Secrets has been easier, in the sense that the setting remains the same and the primary cast of characters remains the same. However, what has been harder is to ensure each Maid’s voice remains distinct and authentic. With Maid of Deception, this was fairly easy to do, because Beatrice has such a clearly defined personality. However, as I began work on Maid of Wonder, Sophia’s story, it took awhile for me to find her voice—she’s used to being behind the scenes, after all! The scene in Maid of Deception that was the most difficult to write was when Beatrice believes that she is really alone in the world, unwanted and unloved. For such a proud, bold young woman, this is a humbling realization.

From J. Anderson Coats:
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft? At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?

Jillian, researching these books seems to happen organically. There are some things that I learned a decade ago that I can finally put into a book, and other things I’m learning just because the current story requires it (like details of the Scottish rebellion!). I typically research as I write, though I spend about a month before drafting really pulling together the information I need. And then I research more during revisions. The post-draft research is generally highly specific, focusing on recorded events in history or any contemporary accounts that can help add life to the story.

MaidofSecrets_paperbackFrom Jessica Spotswood:
Each of the MAIDS books stars a different lady-in-waiting/spy. How was writing Beatrice different from writing Meg?

I love this question. 🙂 Meg was very much a fish-out-of-water, an independent young woman who was ready to take on any challenge with pluck, wit and a can-do attitude. Beatrice is more of a jaded insider, a grown-up Mean Girl who has seen and heard it all—the betrayals, the lies, the short-comings of everyone around her. So Beatrice has a more mature outlook, and a grimmer one, too. She’s naturally less-hopeful, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s why, when she falls in love, it was really very special for me. 🙂

From: Sharon Biggs Waller
How do you keep the overall story arc flowing through all the books? And as a follow up, how do you keep track of all those details? Index cards? Notebooks?

Sharon, I confess—there are things with this series that I didn’t know when I started writing Meg’s book, that really came into focus for me during Beatrice’s book. And now, having just drafted Sophia’s book, I can see how the full series arc will conclude, and it’s a little overwhelming (though in a very cool way!). And, sadly, I don’t keep notes or index cards. I hear of people creating a “series Bible” and I go all glassy-eyed… that would be so wonderful! But I seem to be writing the books so quickly that I just have to have the actual stories as a resource. Fortunately, with everything in digital format, “search” has become my favorite tool in Word!

From Susan Hill Long:
Can you tell us how you came up with the names of the Maids? Do they just appear on the page for you, or do you struggle to find a name that particularly suits each Maid and her background and special skill?

Sue! This is the first time I’ve been asked this. I would say Meg Fellowes’s name came to me first and rather easily, as she was the heroine of Maid of Secrets and I needed a good, sturdy, practical name. Then there was Jane Morgan the assassin. Jane Morgan was the name of my very first heroine of my very first historical romance manuscript—a young woman who dressed as a knight to avenge her brother. 🙂 So it was fitting for her to play the role of the assassin for the Maids of Honor. Beatrice came next—I wanted a sophisticated and vaguely haughty sounding name, and it fit the bill! Anna, the genius of the Maids, I love because my older sister is named Ann, and she’s a hydrogeologist and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. 🙂 And then there was lovely Sophia, the youngest and most ethereal of all the Maids, with her fledgling psychic abilities. Sophia just seemed right for her.

From Cat Winters:
Your Maids have their own special skills to help with their job protecting the queen. In Beatrice’s case, persuasion is the tool she uses to try to thwart a Scottish rebellion. If you were personally hired to protect Queen Elizabeth I, what would your special skill be?

Cat, what a great question! If I were hired to help protect the Queen, I would probably be charged with ferreting out secrets of her court and the foreign delegations. I have the kind of face/demeanor that seems to get people to open up and tell me things, and if I wasn’t a tavern keeper in Elizabethan England, well, I certainly could bend my abilities to serve the Queen!

Thank you for answering our questions, Jenn. Huzzah for the release of Maid of Deception!

Buy the book online:

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Find Jennifer McGowan online:



Anachronistic Girls (and How Not to Write Them)

Today our topic is historical cliches, and I thought I’d address one that I personally find tricky  – writing anachronistic girls.

Now, of course there have been women throughout history who have yearned for something more than their lots in life, who have wanted more for themselves than their families or societies expected. Of course there have been scientists, queens, athletes, inventors, writers, businesswomen, and artists of all kinds. But there have also been many, many women who were content to be wives and mothers (or perhaps they were not content, but went along with it anyway, because few other options were afforded them). Marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping are, after all, was much of what society has expected for women throughout the ages – and considering all that went (and still goes) into keeping a family fed and clothed and housed and healthy, it’s no small task.

We all want our main characters to stand out, to be special. They are the ones telling the story or at the center of it, driving the action. And there’s great conflict in a character who wants to buck the system – or, in YA lit, diverge from her parents’ comfortable lives. That’s part of growing up, right?

However, there’s a certain problematic shorthand to making a heroine “strong” that involves making her Not Like All the Other Girls. And one easy way to do that is to make her disdain things the other girls like or want – whether it’s an interest in fashion, sewing, watercolors, piano, or other ladylike pursuits of the era or the pursuit of marriage and family.

I have to admit, it’s a trap I fell into somewhat with my heroine in the Cahill Witch Chronicles. Cate Cahill grew up climbing trees with the boy next door and loves gardening. She disdains dresses and small talk and being indoors and judges the girls who care about fashion as empty-headed fools. But it was important to me that she learn they aren’t cabbageheads – that several of them are using these expectations to hide how powerful and clever they are in plain sight. They wind up becoming some of her best friends. It was also important to me that even as Cate discovers a vocation of sorts in her healing magic, what she wants more than anything is marriage and a family of her own with the man she loves. I think that’s true to the time and world she grew up in.

Here are a few questions I ask myself to figure this out when I’m building new characters (as I am now for a short story set in 1820s New Orleans):

  • How did my heroine’s society shape her?
  • What do her parents and peers expect from her?
  • How do these expectations fit (or not) with her personality, both her strengths and flaws?
  • If she’s bucking expectations in some way, is it realistic that she would cast them off without any qualms, or does it trouble her sometimes?
  • What are the consequences for wanting to follow her own path?
  • Are there other beliefs she still holds that are more traditional? Is there a tension there? How to do these beliefs come into conflict with each other?

I hope this helps!


Tactile Research

We writers spend a lot of our time in our heads.  Replaying scenes, conducting character interviews, thinking of words and phrases, daydreaming.  And, of course, we spend a lot of time at our desks.  Typing, deleting, bleeding red pen all over manuscripts.  Daydreaming.

I’m here to advocate getting up and trying something different, because part of creating a believable story world is writing settings, events and actions that feel real, even when they happened hundreds of years ago.

Because our characters lived in a different time period, they also, truly, lived in a different culture.  They had different belief systems and different ways of expressing them.  They wore different clothes, ate different foods, engaged in different pastimes, were restrained by different social structures.  How can we, as modern writers, even begin to imagine what all of that was like?

One way is to try it out.

I spent much of my young adult life on stage in various different school and community theaters.  I also worked in the costume shop and studied costume design, so I already had a feel for the construction of period clothing.  I’ve worn a 17th Century bodice and stomacher, laced so tight up the back that I couldn’t bend in the middle or breathe.  But I loved it because of the extra support to the diaphragm that gave me that much more oomph to project.  (And because I finally–finally–had a cleavage.)

I knew that our costumes weren’t entirely accurate–they just had to be made to look that way.  But it wasn’t until I started writing about historical dress that I realized how complicated the actual act of dressing was for women in the 16th Century.  Several separate skirts, underskirts, shifts, bodices.  Even sleeves had to be tied on with laces.  I borrowed muslin mock-up pieces from Kristen Held, my costume designer friend, and kitted myself out in skirts and even a bum roll.  But damn, I wish I had taken pictures!

I didn’t want to go into great detail in any of my books about the act of getting dressed–it’s not a scene that would truly move the story forward, nor would most contemporary teens find pages of fabrics and lacings fascinating reading.  But the process helped me to write packing scenes in GILT, sewing scenes in BRAZEN and a (brief!) undressing in TARNISH.  I could have written these scenes without the in-person practice, but something about taking the time to put the pieces on, feel the pressure of the stomacher, the drape and heft of the skirts, gave me a better appreciation of my characters and how they engaged in their world.

You don’t have to find your friendly local costume designer to get deeply into your character’s tactile world.  You can take any common, every-day action and attempt it yourself.  Write with a quill.  Visit a tapestry-making class.  Take the kids to a blacksmith shop.  Learn how to roll your hair into a chignon.

And go beyond the historical to the events and actions that pervade the daily lives not only of your characters, but your readers, too.  For my current WIP, I’ve started taking a jujitsu class–not because my character does, but because she has to learn something that takes her way beyond her comfort zone and jujitsu does that for me.  My friend Stasia Kehoe talks about how she practices before writing kissing scenes.  I’ve been known to get up from my chair and back myself up against a closed door just to feel what my characters might.

What do you do to help yourself write believable sensory details in your historical fiction?

SISTERS’ FATE Release Day Celebration!

One of the greatest things about collaborating in a group blog is being able to celebrate the release of our members’ books!  Jessica Spotswood’s final installment in her Cahill Witch Chronicles trilogy, SISTERS’ FATE, will be on shelves tomorrow and we’ve been dying to ask her some questions about it, but first…

sisters-fate-225SISTERS’ FATE

A fever ravages New London, but with the Brotherhood sending suspected witches straight to the gallows, the Sisters are powerless against the disease. They can’t help without revealing their powers—as Cate learns when a potent display of magic turns her into the most wanted witch in all of New England.

To make matters worse, Cate has been erased from the memory of her beloved Finn. While she’s torn between protecting him from further attacks and encouraging him to fall for her all over again, she’s certain she can never forgive Maura’s betrayal. And now that Tess’s visions have taken a deadly turn, the prophecy that one Cahill sister will murder another looms ever closer to its fulfillment.

From J. Anderson Coats:  The complicated relationships and interactions between the three Cahill sisters are especially well-drawn. Do you have sisters of your own to draw on for inspiration and/or horror stories? What tips do you have for capturing this dynamic?

Thank you, Jillian! Like Cate, I’m actually the oldest of three sisters. Growing up, my middle sister and I argued a lot and tended to define ourselves in opposition to one another, whereas my little sister is eight years younger than me,  so there wasn’t much sibling rivalry there. I definitely drew on my relationships with them to portray Cate and Maura and Tess. As for how to write siblings, I wrote a whole post about it for WriteOnCon last summer. But here are some questions I’d ask yourself: Where does your protagonist fall in the birth order? How do your siblings see the world differently? What are some secrets they share (or don’t share)? What are some memories they share (and how might they see them differently)? Who is the favorite – or the perceived favorite? Is there something about her sibling that your protagonist envies? If they aren’t close now, were they ever – and what happened to change things? What role might your siblings still be playing, even if they’ve outgrown them?

From Susan Hill Long:  You’ve spent so much time with the Cahill sisters, and seen them through the arcs of three books. What are your feelings about saying goodbye to these characters?

It’s bittersweet! Last year at this time – when I was finishing up edits – I felt eager to explore new characters. Now, I rather miss the Cahill sisters. After three books, I know Cate’s voice and her world so well. I know how she’d react to various situations, what she’d say, how she’d say it. There’s something lovely in that familiarity. I’ve definitely considered writing a short story set in the Cahill Witch world, featuring another main character, to celebrate the paperback release next summer, if I have time – or at least writing a little snippet for my newsletter subscribers, if I ever manage to get my newsletter up and running! But overall, I’m really proud of the trilogy, and I hope readers will be satisfied with how things end for Cate and her sisters and Finn.

From Sharon Biggs Waller:  Writing a trilogy is a massive undertaking. I know what it’s like to live with particular characters for one book so I can imagine you’ve grown quite attached to them. How did you say goodbye to them?

I’m not sure I have entirely said goodbye to them, to be honest! I still think about writing shorter pieces set in their world, and even though I’ve gotten a finished copy of SISTERS’ FATE, it doesn’t feel entirely real yet! Maybe once it’s out in the world on Thursday and I start hearing from more readers? But I’m looking forward to celebrating the whole trilogy at a launch party next Saturday at my fabulous local indie, One More Page Books, with wine and cupcakes and friends!

From Jenn McGowan:  As you complete your final book, what has surprised you most about the trilogy? Was there a subplot or character that became more important than you expected, or did some other unplanned-for development take your story in a new direction?

Oh, so many things surprised me! I’m not much of a plotter, and I ended up entirely rewriting STAR CURSED; only the ending stayed basically the same. But overall…hmm. One of the things that surprised me most was how important Rory and Sachi became. In BORN WICKED, my editor wanted me to make them mean girls, perhaps rivals for Finn or Paul. But it was really important to me that Cate have strong female friendships. However, I had no idea that they’d end up following her to New London in STAR CURSED and that Sachi’s arrest would create such a high stakes situation for Cate and Harwood Asylum, or that things would get very dangerous for them again in a pivotal scene in SISTERS’ FATE. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was to write newspaperman Alistair Merriweather – my favorite new character in SISTERS’ FATE. He sort of leapt off the page! I’d love to write a short story about him and Rilla someday; I adore their banter. They kept trying to take over every scene they were in!

From Cat Winters:  What advice do you have for authors who are just now sitting down to write a trilogy for the first time?

Make sure you really love these characters, because you’ll be spending years writing about them! And don’t worry if you know how you want the trilogy to end, but aren’t exactly sure how you’ll get there. That was absolutely the case with me, and I figured it out along the way, with the help of a fantastic editor, some great critique partners, and a lot of wine. (Just kidding about the wine.) (Or am I?)

From Laura Golden:  What was your favorite scene to write within the entire trilogy? Your least favorite? Why?

My favorite scene in the entire trilogy is probably the first kiss between Cate and Finn, with magic and feathers. You can see a version of it in the BORN WICKED book trailer here. It was one of the first scenes I wrote. But there’s also a scene in SISTERS’ FATE – I can’t say much without spoilers, but it’s in Chapter 20 and someone dies, and as I wrote it in the coffee shop, I cried. I’d known for years that death was coming, and still I cried! It’s so sad and I’m very proud of it. I’m also very proud of the last scene of STAR CURSED, because it’s made lots of readers cry and I love that – not because I’m evil, I swear, but because it means they’re invested in the characters! As for my least favorite – gah, all the Inez scenes were difficult to write. It was important to me that she not become a cardboard villain, so I kept trying to add in all this backstory for her, and my editor kept cutting it. I hope we ended up with a good balance!

From Katherine Longshore:  As you and Cate Cahill both head into new unknowns, what advice would you have for her going forward?  What advice do you think she might have for you?

I would tell Cate to be patient. This is highly ironic advice coming from me, because I am hideously impatient myself. But I happen to know that good things are ahead for her, even if they won’t happen at the speed she’d like, either romance or social revolution! As for what advice she’d give me…she’d probably tell me I ought to keep in better touch with my sisters and email them more often. I’m going to visit one of them this weekend, Cate! (I think she’d approve.)

author photo JSBonus question: What’s next?

I’m super-excited to be editing an anthology, PETTICOATS & PISTOLS, which contains 15 short stories about strong, smart, resourceful American girls throughout history. It’s all YA historical fiction and historical fantasy. I’ll be writing one of the stories, and the other contributors include fellow Corsets & Cutlasses members Katherine Longshore and J. Anderson Coats, as well as Elizabeth Wein, Robin LaFevers, Andrea Cremer, Beth Revis, Marie Lu, Marissa Meyer, Robin Talley, Caroline Richmond, Lindsay Smith, Kekla Magoon, and Y.S. Lee. It will be out in winter 2016 from Candlewick. After that – well, I’m working on several proposals, so we’ll see what happens!



Congratulations, Jess!


In a good humor

2014-8-4 CiceroIn Timeline by Michael Crichton, Sir Daniel says of Chris, “He speaks like Cicero.”

While I’m slightly horrified to admit I’ve read this book, this line is probably the funniest line in a work of historical fiction/fantasy I’ve ever read.

Silly, right? Let me tell you why it works for me.

Chris comes from the twentieth century, and he’s trying not to be killed by pretending to fit into fourteenth-century Dordogne. The only way he can communicate is by speaking Latin, but like most of us in the modern era, he was only taught Classical Latin. Sir Daniel knows medieval (or church) Latin, but like us in the modern era, would have read and been familiar with Classical authors like Cicero.

Thus, when Sir Daniel says, “He speaks like Cicero,” a modern reader (who knows this rather complicated set of happenstances) reads a puzzled, bemused tone, and that’s what makes it funny – the confluence of backstory and historical knowledge and the experiences the reader brings to the moment.

If you don’t know this stuff? This line is a total throwaway.

Which, rather circuitously, brings me to my point: Humor is context. It’s execution. And it’s perspective.

All of which dovetail into a serious set of challenges for a historical writer to make something intentionally funny.

Me, I find humor in general is hard to write because it’s so diverse. Dramatic moments are little more universal, but humor is highly personal and relies on a more complex set of inputs.

2014-8-4 Facepalm

Facepalm. Facepalm. Facepalm.

But it’s also not as out of reach as we might think.

For instance, my teenage son loves Jackass. If you’re not familiar with this franchise, it features young men getting hurt by doing bone-stupid things. I watched it with my kid once, and what occurred me wasn’t Wow, this is awful, why would anyone watch this?

I thought, Medieval people would have lined up around the block to watch this show. They also thought people getting hurt, especially by doing dumb stuff, was hilarious.

It was a reminder that not only do we have more in common with the people in the past than we often realize, there are a lot of opportunities to bring these small humanizing moments into historical fiction. We might not all agree on what’s funny, but we all like to laugh.

What about you? What are some moments in historical fiction that you found hilarious? What about them worked for you?