What We’re Reading Now

This month’s installment of our regular blog feature!  An interesting mix of history and fiction, it’s definitely inspired me to seek out some of these titles!

Susan Hill Long— I’m reading the delightful, funny, action-packed HOOK’S REVENGE, by Heidi Schulz. Captain Hook’s 13-year-old daughter runs away from finishing school and sets out to avenge her famous father’s death. This book is so much fun!!


Jessica Spotswood— I’m reading Tiffany Schmidt’s HOLD ME LIKE A BREATH, which comes out next May from Bloomsbury. It’s about the daughter of a crime family that deals in black-market organs. Penny has a blood disorder that results in her bruising very easily, so she’s been raised as a delicate princess – but that all changes when tragedy strikes and she’s forced to fend for herself for the first time. As with all of Tiffany’s books, the characterization is brilliant; Penny’s journey toward independence is so compelling.

J. Anderson Coats— I’m reading DEATH BY TOILET PAPER, a charming middle-grade contemporary by Donna Gephart about a boy trying to save himself and his mother from eviction by winning contests – particularly a toilet-paper jingle contest. I’m also reading CUSTOMS IN COMMON by E.P. Thompson, about traditions and rituals occurring in the English countryside before the Industrial Revolution.


Cat Winters— I’m reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun–one of the big-buzz books of YA this fall. It’s the story of two twins, a brother and a sister, who have a falling out in their early teens because of circumstances that become clearer as the book progresses. Both twins narrate the novel in alternating sections, and I’m especially enjoying the chapters narrated by Noah, a character who bursts straight out of the pages in a kaleidoscope of colors. The novel also involves ghosts, which was a pleasant surprise for me.

Sharon Biggs Waller— I’m in the throes of researching the Victorian era for my work-in-progreess, and so I’m reading THE INVISIBLE WOMAN by Claire Tomalin.  It’s about Charles Dickens ad his 13-year love affair with an actress named Nelly Ternan.  It’s fascinating to read about how Victorian dalliances could ruin people, and the steps Dickens went to cover his up.  I saw the film based on the book in the spring and really loved it.


Katherine Longshore–I’m reading Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH.  It’s fascinating to read a book intended for adults, but so far (I’m about a third of the way through) written from the perspective of a teenager.  It’s beautifully written with startling images and evocative prose.

What are you reading?


The Book Most Likely…

With the recent development of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series as a cable show on the Starz network, the subject of influential time travel and historical books has intrigued me, taking me back to the stories that helped shape my own love for historical fiction.

The two titles that instantly come to mind were written for “adult” readers, but back in the (cough) years of my youth, we didn’t have the wealth of YA-targeted historical fiction that we have today. Still, I discovered both of these books in my late teens and early twenties, and they had a profound effect on me as I began writing my first tale of historical romance (which I never submitted for publication, and trust me, that’s a good thing.)

Green Darknessgreendark
Anya Seton

While I have long been a fan of Elizabethan England, and am the proud owner of stacks of research books on the subject, I can point to a single book that spawned my fascination with Elizabethan fiction—and it’s an old one! Anya Seton’s Green Darkness.

Who would have thought a chance book found in my mother’s overflowing bookshelves would end up meaning so much to me? But this story of time travel(!) and mysticism(!) in Elizabethan England(!) was the perfect combination of romance and adventure, and completely immersed me into another time and place.


A Knight In Shining ArmorA-Knight-in-Shining-Armor
Jude Devereaux

Another story that I can hold up as extremely influential in my love of romance, history and time travel is the Jude Devereaux classic, A Knight in Shining Armor. Once again, the combination of time travel(!), Elizabethan England(!) and a completely swoon-worthy romance(!) absolutely transported me, and I found myself creating stories of my own . . . stories which eventually led me to become a published author.

Admittedly, I have yet to pen a time-travel book, but every time I find myself back in the world of the Maids of Honor, I feel like pieces of every romance and historical fiction book I’ve ever read weave their way into the narrative. There’s grand romance, mysticism, spies, political intrigue, over-the-top celebrations and feasts, combat, code-breaking, and royal plots aplenty. All the things I love as a reader.

Not every book is going to hit all readers the same way—what can send one reader swooning can leave another reader cold—so your mileage may vary on the books listed above. But think about what books made a difference to YOU—whether as a reader or a writer. Can you imagine your life without them?

I Read (and Write) Books Set in the Past Because of My Elementary School

My 4th-grade school picture, 1980

Cat Winters’s 4th-grade school picture, 1980. She lived in Southern California, not Germany, despite what the braids might suggest.

I distinctly remember the day my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Jones, told us about a special, extra-credit assignment: a chance to join a classroom reading club. If we read the books she was about to list on the chalkboard (yes, chalkboard—this was the early 1980s), and if we answered a few questions about the books, we would be able to eat lunch with the teacher! In the classroom!

Many kids probably stopped listening when she said the words “extra-credit assignment,” but my ears perked up and I sat up tall and alert. Ms. Jones wrote the name of an author on the board:

Frances Hodgson Burnett

I had never heard of the author, and I wasn’t even sure if it was a woman or a man (Burnett was a female author/playwright who lived from 1849-1924). Ms. Jones then listed three of Burnett’s books:

ALittlePricessA Little Princess

The Secret Garden

Little Lord Fauntleroy

I started out with A Little Princess. Burnett immediately sucked me in with her tale of an imaginative girl named Sara Crewe who falls from wealth into poverty in early-1900s London. In fact, I wrote of my love for this book back in a 2012 post on this site, and I’ll repeat what I said back then: through this novel, I learned about class struggles of the era and the contrasts between the time period’s grand beauty and unbearable ugliness. The book felt like both fantasy and realism—a fascinating combination.

Before the special lunch day, I also had time to read The Secret Garden, which, too, mesmerized me with its depiction of the past as a place of both grandeur and unspeakable sadness. In my mind’s eye, the setting and clothing were gorgeous, haunting, and magical, and the dark secrets and character struggles made for an absolutely compelling read.

I indeed got to eat lunch with Ms. Jones and a handful of other brand-new Frances Hodgson Burnett fans. I distinctly remember our teacher bought us fast-food hamburgers, and I didn’t like mine much because it was a cheeseburger, and I don’t like cheese. More importantly, however, that special class project opened my eyes to literature set in the past. It led me to where I am today.

Island-of-the-Blue-DolphinsThroughout the rest of my elementary school years, I discovered other beloved classic and historical novels. Favorites included Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

My love of history and literature continued into high school and college, and in my early years of adulthood I tended to read nothing but historical fiction. I started writing my first attempt at a historical novel when I was eleven, in the sixth grade. It would take me several more decades and numerous manuscript attempts before I would ever sell my first book to a publisher, but not surprisingly, my debut was a historical novel (In the Shadow of Blackbirds).

So, thank you, Ms. Jones, for creating that special reading club. Thank you for choosing Frances Hodgson Burnett as our first author to study. The path I’m on today can be traced directly back to your classroom at Crown Valley Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, California, and I’m extremely grateful.


Speaking for the past

If you’re writing a historical novel, chances are you’ve worried about writing dialogue at some point or another. You’re putting words in the mouths of people who’ve been dead a long time. It’s an extra layer of interpretation, and it can be tricky. Here are some thoughts on how to make it easier:

Do your research. If you’re lucky enough to be writing about a time when there are recordings of regular people speaking, listen to them. Especially if they’re candid recordings. You can get a good sense of the cadence of different accents and regional word choice that can go a long way to enhancing voice.

If your time period happens before recording technology, read diaries or correspondence (if they’re available) to get a sense of how people put their thoughts together. Newspapers have letters to the editor and advice columns that can be useful. If your era happened before the printing press, things like court records can give you confessions or testimony that are occasionally in the person’s own words.

Be creative; even in eras before regular people left written documentation of their mental landscapes, they often had brushes with people who could and did keep records. Just remember these records were kept by human beings with an agenda, so read them with that in mind.

But be careful not to overdo your research. People often speak differently when they know they’re being recorded. Radio and TV were (and are) scripted and intended to be consumed a certain way for certain purposes. It’s not that you can’t learn from sources like these, but like all evidence, you should use them with an understanding of their potential biases.

If you’re writing about a time before sound recording, be especially careful as you analyze written sources. People speak very differently than they write, so if you faithfully reproduce the writing style of an age but the words come out of people’s mouths, you run the risk of having a person (especially a young person) sound too stilted and flowery. You also may sacrifice readability and character development for pretty clauses and ornate diction.

Know your character. Consider things that would influence your character’s speech patterns. Social class and ethnicity are good places to start, but think, too, about things like education (or lack of it) and hometown and birth order and habits of mind.

For instance, if your character has never seen the ocean and then refers to feeling seasick, it’s going to feel inauthentic. Does she have a lot of friends, or is she relatively solitary? Rural or urban? All these things impact the words a character will use and how comfortable they’ll be around different people and in different situations—all of which affect what (and how much) comes out of their mouth.

But also consider your reader. One of the important tasks of historical fiction is making the past accessible to a modern audience. The way a character talks is a great way to make this connection, but it can also put the reader at arm’s length.

For me, too much dialect is offputting. Too many ain’ts and fers and hangin’ apostrophes don’t sound authentic; they just make it hard to follow the story when there’s so much emphasis on the character’s speech patterns. It’s like the story is the speech, and unless that’s the story you want to tell, you may want to consider how you’re presenting a character’s words on the page.

Be sparing with unfamiliar words. We historical writers love to geek out over our research. But consider every unfamiliar word you use (especially if the word is in a language most of your readers don’t know) is going to stop a reader and take them out of the story while they try to figure out what the thing is. Using just the ones you need balances readability with worldbuilding. An example (using ridiculous words just for the hell of it):

“Take your tregnum off the dillyhopper and get outside to pick grunches for Noonmeal.”

“Go put on your tregnum so you don’t get cold, then go outside and pick some salad greens for lunch.”

The first example overloads us and makes the line all about the words, while the second is more selective in what it emphasizes and also gives us more context. We can figure out that a tregnum is some kind of jacket and then move on with the action – the harvesting. Determining which foreign item or concept you want to emphasize can develop your character’s voice and worldbuild as well.

But don’t be afraid to use terms that fit the time period. If your character is a well-to-do girl in the antebellum American South, she’s going to have calling cards and wear hoopskirts. Overexplaining an unusual item feels clunky and wouldn’t make sense for the character, especially in terms of dialogue.

It’s good practice to assume an “ignorant but interested” reader. That is, your reader might not already know what a calling card is, but is curious to find out. Trust that your reader is going to be able to figure out things from context, then provide that context in an unobtrusive way.

Be willing to sacrifice strict historical accuracy. One of my all-time favorite historical TV shows is Deadwood. If you’re not familiar, it’s about the South Dakota town of that name in its nineteenth-century frontier days when everything was dirty and violent and full of rough people looking for gold.

One of the best characters constantly uses a swearword that rhymes with “rockmucker,” which is definitely not historically accurate, and the writers were called out for it.

Their argument for using the word stuck with me.

A lot swearwords people used in the nineteenth century would seem comical and goofy and old-timey to a modern audience–“bullfeathers” or “gol ding it”–and the writers wanted to capture the raw impact of bad language to help develop this character. To do that, they had to choose a modern swearword that would shock a modern audience.

It wasn’t that they didn’t know this word was historically inaccurate. It was that they made a creative decision in spite of it. And it worked very well.

But be willing to give up a historical word that feels modern. A good example is the f-bomb. This word has been around in English since at least the sixteenth century. It has the same meaning and rude connotation then as it does today.

But yet, if a sixteenth-century girl says something like, “I wish she’d stop f*****g my sweetheart,” it’s going to sound like something you’d hear in the hall of the average high school. Perfectly historically accurate, but since it would take a reader out of the story, you’ll do better to change it (however reluctantly).

Good dialogue in any book works well when it feels effortless, when the reader is so pulled in that they feel like they’re over the character’s shoulder and in the middle of the conversation. Historical fiction is no different. Bottom line: make your historical people feel real. Readers can forgive a lot when characters speak to them clear and honest and true.

Remembering the Great War, a great woman, and a great deal more

(We are delighted to welcome YA and middle-grade author Jeannie Mobley to the blog today. Her second historical novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, comes out on September 2, 2014.)

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, the Great War, the War to End all Wars. Across Europe, commemorations have taken place, and will continue to take place over the next few years, remembering the soldiers who died, the fields and towns left mangled and destroyed, the harsh brutalities of what is often called the first modern war–a war that can only be considered Great in terms of scale.

The World War I centennial memorial being installed at the Tower of London, consisting of nearly 800,000 ceramic poppies. Photo courtesy of Diana Wilson.)

The World War I centennial memorial being installed at the Tower of London, consisting of nearly 800,000 ceramic poppies. Photo courtesy of Diana Wilson.)

There are myriad stories in war time, stories that, like history, repeat themselves from generation to generation, war to war. Perhaps that is why war stories have a perpetual fascination to so many people. There is a timeless quality to the conflicts and to the heroes that they make.

But I have not written a war story. At least not in the conventional sense of the term. But war, any war, has stories on the home front as well as the battle field. There are heroes keeping the home fires burning, keeping the wheels of industry turning, sending love and prayers and dry socks to their husbands, sons, and sweethearts on the front lines. Perhaps because I am a woman, or perhaps because I like the unsung, these are the stories of war that fascinate me, and World War I gave us particularly interesting stories at home.

SilverheelsFRONT300pxI didn’t set out to write a World War I story when I first conceived of my new book SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, which releases this week. The story started, for me, with the local legend of a dance-hall girl in the Colorado gold rush, nearly sixty years before the US entered the Great War. Here is her legend:

Silverheels was renowned for her beauty, but in the winter of 1861, the town of Buckskin Joe was hit by a devastating small pox epidemic. Most people fled the stricken town, but the beautiful Silverheels stayed and nursed the sick and dying miners. Eventually, however, she herself contracted the disease. She survived it, but the pockmarks had scarred her face, destroying her legendary beauty. The miners collected gold to support her, but when they went to her cabin, she had disappeared. They never found her, and they never knew her real name, but the named the nearby mountain after her, so that her love and sacrifice would not be forgotten.

Mt. Silverheels. Not a bad way to be remembered, but why didn't they know her real name?

Mt. Silverheels. Not a bad way to be remembered, but why didn’t they know her real name?

I’ve known the legend of Silverheels for as long as I can remember, being a Colorado native. I could have written a story just about Silverheels–a retelling or re-imagining of the legend, but I decided not to. Because when I heard this story a few years ago, not having thought about it in many years, the story bothered me in ways it never had before. It got me thinking about all the quiet, behind-the-scenes way that women are heroes. It got me thinking about how seldom or how little women have been acknowledged in their own right. After all, if those miners loved and appreciated Silverheels so much, why didn’t they even bother to learn her real name in all that time she was dancing and being beautiful for them?

Ah, the good old days. Beloved wife, dead at 16, and no first name on this headstone in the cemetery of Como, Colorado, where SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS is set.

Ah, the good old days. Beloved wife, dead at 16, and no first name on this headstone in the cemetery of Como, Colorado, where SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS is set.

It got me thinking about all the ways women are strong, and how many of the things they do are undervalued by society, so that their strength goes unacknowledged. (Anyone who has spent the day trying to clean the house, do the laundry, got kids to and from school and sports and girl scouts, make sure their homework is done while also keeping up with a toddler, can attest to the hypocrisy of stay-at-home moms aren’t working! It makes me tired just to think about it.) Not that Silverheels did all that. But surely some women in Colorado have done worthwhile things–and yet Mount Silverheels, Colorado’s 99th tallest mountain, is the only mountain in the tallest hundred named for a woman. There are dozens named for men–governors, explorers, war heroes, even law-breakers (Zebulon Pike’s illegal border crossing into Mexican territory got his name on a mountain!)

So thinking about the legend of Silverheels got me a little fired up. I wanted to write a story about all the ways women are strong–all the things women have done through history that go unsung, but are really quite amazing. All the reasons why maybe we should have more mountains named after them.

Enter World War I, stage left. This is what I love about writing historical fiction. When I get an idea about a theme or an issue I really want to write about, I know I can find a time and place in history that will really highlight that issue. So, as soon as I decided I wanted to write about the many ways women are called upon to be strong, I knew I wanted the story to be set in wartime, when that call becomes even louder than usual. I could have picked any war, but World War I had something special to offer.

During World War I, women in the United States were fighting for the vote, and when Woodrow Wilson finally declared war in 1917, his justification was the need to defend civil rights and liberty in the world. The suffragist movement latched onto that at once, crying out the hypocrisy of defending civil liberties abroad while denying them at home. The perfect setting for talking about women’s rights.

Women's suffragists in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Women’s suffragists in Colorado. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Except I wanted to talk about more than the women who stand out in public demanding their rights. Yes, those women were strong and heroic, but they overshadow all the women whose strength was keeping the home fires burning. Quietly supporting the people they loved and the ideals they believed in.

These are the reasons I decided to set SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS in World War I, and the reasons I decided to write about characters searching for Silverheels, rather than about the legendary dancer herself. These are the strong women and unsung war heroes I wanted to write about–a romantically minded girl faced with hard decisions about standing up for what she believes, an outspoken cynic afraid of love, and the power of love itself, strengthening mothers, wives, daughters, and sons through brutal, confusing times.

The Great War was not the war to end all wars. History has repeated itself. It will again. But I hope we can, on this 100th anniversary of its beginning, remember the power of the human spirit, the strength of good people standing up for what they believe in. I hope we can try again, one hundred years later, to hold those ideals dear, as well as the ideal to end all wars.


Jeannie Mobley writes middle grade and YA fiction. Her debut novel, KATERINA’S WISH (Margaret K. McElderry Books), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award, is on the 2014-2015 William Allen White Award Master List, and represented Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival. Her second novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS releases September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and a professor of anthropology. Jeannie is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.