Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Isabel Allende's Violeta spans 100 years in a South American woman's amazing and eventful life

Allende has crafted many unique heroines of passionate, resilient spirit in her internationally best-selling historical novels, and Violeta Del Valle is no exception.

Born during the Spanish flu outbreak in an unnamed South American country (clearly based on Chile) in 1920, Violeta addresses her memoir to a beloved relative, Camilo, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She spins a captivating, cinematic tale of her century-long existence, intertwining large-scale political and social transformations with reflections on her life.

The spoiled daughter in a family with five older sons, Violeta watches the Del Valles’ finances tumble into ruin during the Depression. After losing their illustrious home, her family finds refuge in a remote southern farming town with many Indigenous residents and German and French immigrants.

This supposed exile becomes an enriching experience for Violeta. Her love life is complex, tumultuous, and unpredictable for readers, who will eagerly follow her narrative, which Violeta recounts in a style that’s remarkably forthright about her own and others’ personal failings.

The characterizations are intriguingly layered, and as people’s lives are buffeted by dramatic changes, including a military coup that destroys her country’s democracy, Violeta comes into her own strength. Allende has long been renowned as an enchanting storyteller, and this emotionally perceptive epic ranks among her best.

Violeta will be published by Ballantine in January; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the 12/15 issue of Booklist (I made it a starred review).

There was no room to say this in the review, but past readers of Allende's work may recognize the name Del Valle, and Violeta is indeed connected to the characters from her first novel, The House of the Spirits.  It's not a major part of this book, and you definitely don't need to read any others first, but the link is mentioned. Other Del Valle family members figure in Allende's Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia.

I'll be back after the New Year with more posts. Thanks for visiting my site, and best wishes for good reading for 2022!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Best-of-year historical fiction roundups from around the web

Now that 2021 is drawing to a close, media outlets have been publishing their "best of" lists from the past year.  I've collected those that focus on historical fiction, though there aren't as many of these as I've found for other genres.

NPR's Best Books 2021 (which used to be called Book Concierge) has a historical fiction category with an impressively wide range of subjects and subgenres. I like how they include literary fiction (The Sweetness of Water), historical romance (Wild Rain), historical fantasy (A Marvellous Light), and books for younger readers (Finding Junie Kim) under the same umbrella. Among my own favorites on this list: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray's The Personal Librarian and Laird Hunt's Zorrie.  Here are the NPR selections as a list rather than a visual graphic.

The New York Times presents their best new historical fiction of the season with a dozen recent releases, as well as an overall "best of" for 2021. There's a bit of overlap between them. The focus is, as you'd expect, literary fiction, and I haven't read any of these!

In The Times (London) we have critics Nick Rennison's and Antonia Senior's 15 top favorites of the year. Without a subscription you'll need to sign up for a free login, which gets you access to a limited # of articles. There's a nice mix of literary and commercial here, including Elodie Harper's The Wolf Den (set in Pompeii before the infamous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius), which I also loved. It will be published in the US next March.

In Canada, the CBC has 12 books for the historical fiction lover's shopping list, which includes some novels set in very recent history.

British magazine Woman and Home offers many historical novels (not all by women) for consideration for your TBR, conveniently divided by historical era.

Cosmopolitan has a lengthy list of 27 best historical novels from the last year. While it was posted in late October, some fall reads are included.

Lastly, Goodreads announced their most popular choices for Best Historical Fiction a few weeks ago, and I actually read nine of the nominees (but not the winner, Taylor Jenkins Reid's Malibu Rising).

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

In Protector, Conn Iggulden continues his saga of the Greco-Persian Wars with the heroic story of Themistocles

In 480 BCE, the Persians are back, more determined than ever to crush Athens. Picking up where The Gates of Athens ended, the story continues exploring how the Athenians and their Spartan allies come together, not without difficulty, to repulse Persian invasion forces on land and sea despite being vastly outnumbered.

Three major battles – first Salamis, then Plataea and Mycale the following year – are skillfully choreographed, giving readers an overarching picture of the many moving parts alongside firsthand perspectives of the military commanders. The starring role belongs to Themistocles, an Athenian statesman and general whose tactical genius is matched by pride in his own abilities, a flaw which irritates his fellow leaders.

Iggulden makes a persuasive case for recognizing Themistocles as Western civilization’s ultimate savior. Being inside this heroic character’s head as he strategizes is a breathtaking experience.

The dialogue feels realistic while offering a sense of the momentous through many quotable lines and stirring oratory, particularly from the politician Aristides. Devotees of the ancient world will relish this exciting historical novel.

Protector was published in November by Pegasus, and it was out in the UK in May from Michael Joseph. I wrote this review for Booklist's Oct. 1 issue.  As with the previous book, The Gates of Athens, this series isn't just for military history fans (a group I don't consider myself part of), although the battle scenes really are sharply done. The characterizations are first-rate, and it was great to have the sense of being there while history was being shaped.

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Review of Diane Gaston's holiday-themed Regency romance, Lord Grantwell's Christmas Wish

In her Regency romance featuring two estranged lovers, Gaston adds a dash of Christmas spice to a heartwarming story about the meaning of home and family.

When Lillian Pearson arrives at the palatial Yorkshire estate of Lord Grantwell in December 1817, she’s freezing, starving, and utterly frantic. Her Portuguese former brother-in-law is tailing her, convinced that she murdered her late husband.

Lillian knows she’s innocent, and she takes risks in asking Grant to hide her. They’d had a passionate affair years earlier, in Lisbon, until he caught her giving Wellington’s secret plans to the French—or so he believes. He’s never forgiven her.

Having recently become the guardian of his late brother’s orphaned stepchildren, Grant’s hands are full. But when he sees how well Lillian cares for young William and Anna, his heart starts softening.

The children are adorable, though traumatized from their earlier life; frustratingly, we don’t get the full backstory for their odd situation (they’d previously lived with their hard-hearted grandfather, not their mother and stepfather). Readers get to experience the joy of Regency-era Christmas traditions and children’s pastimes as Lillian and Grant try to give William and Anna a happy holiday, falling in love in the process.

Lord Grantwell's Christmas Wish is a Harlequin Historical title and the second in the author's Captains of Waterloo series, though it stands alone. I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review last month. The first book, Her Gallant Captain at Waterloo, told the love story of Grant's estate manager and good friend Rhys Landon, a fellow soldier he'd met in Portugal, and the woman he married.  Rhys and his wife are major secondary characters in this volume. This romance has impressive depth for a novel of just over 200 pages.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Interview with Jeri Westerson about The Deadliest Sin and wrapping up her Crispin Guest medieval mystery series

With her appearances on this blog during the publication of her Crispin Guest medieval mystery series, Jeri Westerson is coming full circle. Back in 2008, I'd published her guest post about Veil of Lies, in which Crispin made his first appearance in print, and this week the 15th and final book, The Deadliest Sin, will appear from Severn House. I've also reviewed a couple of the books here, including Cup of Blood (the prequel) and The Deepest Grave (book 11).  So including an interview with the author for this series finale seemed like a neat idea.

To briefly recap for newcomers: Crispin Guest is a disgraced knight turned detective on the streets of late 14th-century London. He had lost his noble title and fortune after joining with others to place his mentor John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, on the throne, thus committing treason against King Richard II. Over time, Crispin's successful pursuit of justice under the nickname "the Tracker" has gained him a certain level of renown.

In The Deadliest Sin, opening in 1399, Crispin is asked by the prioress of St. Frideswide's to investigate the deaths of nuns whose murders depict two of the Seven Deadly Sins. At the same time, the political scene is heating up: Henry Bolingbroke, his late mentor's son, is returning from exile abroad and aiming to secure his inheritance. 

So, there's a lot that The Deadliest Sin needs to do: solve a complicated murder mystery, present the historical backdrop and engage with Crispin as he decides whether to side with King Richard or Bolingbroke, and wrap up the whole series.  It accomplishes all three of these goals superbly.  Plus, we get to see a new side to Jack Tucker, Crispin's apprentice, and his former lover Philippa also plays a role. While I'm sorry to say goodbye to Crispin, Jack, and company, the series ends on a terrific note. If you wanted, you could start with this book, since each novel is self-contained, and the necessary backstory is laid out in the beginning of each.

Hope you'll enjoy this Q&A, and thanks to Jeri for answering my questions!

The Deadliest Sin
takes place in 1399, which followers of English history will recognize as a turning point for the country. This created a lot of anticipation as I guessed how that would affect Crispin and his loyalties. You’ve written that you’d known from the beginning that the series would wrap up at this time. That said, did any elements about the storyline (or series as a whole) play out differently than planned when you sat down to write it?

Well, I didn't have any idea what the mystery would be in the last book. That had to come in its time. And with all that had come before in Crispin's life. I had planned his lady love from the beginning, too, but not other details. As for the series as a whole, I hadn't intended Jack as a continuing character, but when my editor asked if he'd be in the next book because readers liked him so well, I was all on board. And serendipitous it was, because Jack stood in for the reader, asking the questions readers wanted to know about the plot, and being the person in Crispin's life who was able to change him for the better, just by his presence. After all, when Crispin reluctantly took in this street urchin and cutpurse (Jack was eleven at the beginning), Crispin had no idea he'd have to raise the boy; teach him to read and write, and begin to look upon him like a son rather than a servant, as close as they had become.

In some ways, St. Frideswide Priory is an unusual and pretty disturbing place for a community of nuns. How did you come up with the setting and the crimes committed there?

Cloistered life is always fodder for disturbing stories, especially for nuns, many of whom had had no desire to be there but were forced by parents because of circumstances; not being able to marry them off, etc. Some of these places were the making of these women, while others were dark and unwholesome places. The women only learned the rudiments of the prayers, some having no skills with Latin with no time to really teach them except for what they needed to know to get by. It seemed a natural place for crimes. And the Seven Deadly Sins...a no-brainer. But really...what is the deadliest sin? Probably not what you think.

You’ve clearly accumulated a vast array of knowledge about daily life and politics in 14th-century England. What new research, if any, did you have to undertake to write this last volume?

There's always something I need to concentrate on for each volume, whether it's the relics or biographies of the real people, and this one I certainly had to get right about both Richard and Henry. Richard had gone to fight in Ireland and later met up with a chronicler poet from France who was an unwitting witness to his downfall. And Henry amassed an army and didn't really meet any opposition when he decided to make for England from his exile in France. It was all very interesting. Originally, I had begun the book in chapters alternating between Richard's venture and Henry's across England as he returned to take back his lands and title and then start the mystery, but the powers that be didn't want that. I still think readers would have easily immersed in it, but... *shrug* All in all, I can see that point of view because though there is an arc of the characters' lives running through the series, each book can technically stand alone, and this could have confused new readers.

Aside from perhaps Jack Tucker, do you have a favorite secondary character (or characters) from the series?

Absolutely. I really got to like John Rykener, a real person from the late fourteenth century. We know about him from one document of his arrest. He was a cross-dressing male prostitute and serviced both men and women. He was arrested not for prostitution, but for dressing as a woman. A big no-no. When he wasn't plying his trade, he served as an embroideress. And really looking deeply at him between the lines of the document, it's possible he is an example of a trans person in a time when such a notion was entirely foreign. Of course, so was homosexuality. He did say in the document when he was embroiled in an altercation with another man about a gown, that he would sic his "husband" on the man. And it was only later that I decided he would get his husband in the person of my fictional lawyer Nigellus Cobmartin, one of my favorite names for a character. They got their own story in Spiteful Bones, the penultimate book in the series.

Different religious relics are another element linking the series together, and it’s always interesting to see how they’ll appear within the books. How did this idea originate?

I was originally writing historical fiction stand alones, with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. But these were not the kinds of books publishers wanted to publish. They wanted recognizable characters in the courts and I just felt that was done to death. A former agent of mine suggested I write medieval mysteries, and it seemed that this kind of conceit worked better as a mystery, with fictional characters killing fictional victims amid the backdrop of real people of the time period. So I had to learn to write a mystery. And I didn't want your Brother Cadfael or nuns investigating, I wanted a man who had been set adrift from all that he had known, a knight who was banished from court and had lost it all. A hardboiled detective in a medieval setting, so I turned to one of my favorite books, The Maltese Falcon, and literally tore the book apart to see what made it tick; beat by beat, climax by climax, paragraph by paragraph. And during all that research, I really liked the idea of the falcon, the McGuffin that propels the plot and has with it its own mystique. In the fourteenth century, that translated to religious relics or venerated objects. They added a little something extra. It could be the center of the action, or something tangential, or even a red herring. We've had all sorts of things: the Crown of Thorns, the Virgin's Tears, Christ's blood, and even the Philosopher's Stone and Excalibur.

Over the fifteen books, the series has moved from Minotaur to Severn House with a dip into self-publishing for the prequel, Cup of Blood, and it’s great to see how well Crispin has survived today’s complicated publishing climate. What are some takeaways you’ve learned about the industry, given your experience? 

Yes, and I was lucky to be at that juncture when all was changing. After all, once upon a time when a big publisher dropped a series, that was it! It was done. But my agent felt there was still some life yet in it and I was definitely not done writing it. I knew it would take some time for him to find another publisher, so I picked up the real first book in the series that St. Martin's rejected--Cup of Blood--dusted it off, rewrote a lot of it, got it edited, and self-published it as a "prequel." My agent, of course, didn't want me to do that since he would have no stake in it, but it garnered two mystery award nominations and it had the added bonus of not letting a year go by without a Crispin book on the shelves. I always liked that story anyway, and it is where Crispin encounters Jack for the first time. So I'm certainly glad I did it. It got a boost because it belonged to an already established series, and I marketed heavily to libraries and knew it would still have the imprimatur of St. Martin's still attached to it. It's always done well and continues to do well. I can't necessarily say that for some of the others I have self-published, though they are in a different genre, that of paranormal.

Now that Crispin’s investigations have come to an end, at least on paper, what’s next for you in historical mysteries or historical fiction in general?

Well, I had just finished my gaslamp-steampunk fantasy series, the Enchanter Chronicles Trilogy, with the last book just released called Library of the Damned. That got me into researching the Victorian era (yes, even though it's fantasy, the era must be researched to give readers a foundation while they navigate all the paranormal things that are going on.) And so I didn't want to waste all that research and I got to thinking about a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche with one of his Baker Street Irregulars--all grown up--who starts his own consulting detective agency, with Holmes being one step ahead of him, and my detective trying to keep a step ahead of the law. It's a humorous mystery series where Holmes makes his appearance every now and then.

And then there is a Tudor mystery series that has been percolating a while in my head, and I finally completed the first in that series, Courting Dragons. Will Somers, Henry VIII's real court jester is the amateur sleuth. This also has a lot of humor, being in the pov of a court jester, and we see Henry through Will's eyes. It's called the King's Fool Mysteries and I hope my agent can sell it next year and to see the first published by the end of 2022 or in 2023. So I think I'll be busy for a bit.

Thank you for hosting me here. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my Crispin series and upcoming series.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Zenobia Neil's Ariadne Unraveled: A Mythic Retelling presents a new side of the classical Greek myth

Best known in Greek mythology as the Princess of Crete who helped the Athenian prince Theseus escape the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur, her half-brother, Ariadne is given fresh treatment in this new retelling.

The prologue impressively evokes her despair and fury after waking alone on the shores of Naxos, abandoned by Theseus, her lover, after betraying her family for him. Neil first moves back and then forward from this low point in Ariadne’s life, giving her agency and showing her as much more than a selfish man’s discarded mistress.

Ariadne Unraveled primarily recounts the romance between Ariadne and her husband Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, among other fun qualities, and how their life together is thwarted by the capricious jealousy of the goddess Artemis, Dionysus’s half-sister, whom Ariadne serves. (Theseus comes back into the picture midway through.)

Many different versions of Ariadne’s story exist, and Neil stitches a collection of them together into a coherent whole, all written in bright and energetic prose. Alongside their love story, we witness the ebb and flow of power: how Ariadne, a high priestess used to being surrounded by eager handmaidens, contends with the gradual loss of hers, while Dionysus, a new god, learns to control his divine abilities.

The writing style is anything but dry. The Minoans are an attractive, athletic, and sensual people, and the varied sex scenes will definitely steam up your Kindle. The special effects are fabulous, too: we have creative shapeshifting, wild drunken parties, gods making trouble, and grapevines that magically twine around things.

In contrast, the author’s portrait of the underworld is hauntingly plaintive. While Dionysus and Ariadne seem to fall in love instantaneously, their relationship grows in emotional richness over time. In all, an entertaining reinterpretation of a classic story.

Ariadne Unraveled was published in July by Hypatia Books, and I'd reviewed it from my own copy for November's Historical Novels Review.  As you can infer, this was a fun book to read, and a fun review to write. Ariadne's story has been a favorite of mine for a long time, ever since reading June Rachuy Brindel's novel Ariadne (1980) when I was in high school. I've also used it as a nickname on various online bulletin boards for years, including on LibraryThing. So of course I was going to read this novel eventually. I haven't yet read Jennifer Saint's Ariadne. Historical fiction readers who enjoy Greek myth retellings now have a lot to choose from!

Friday, November 26, 2021

Some beautiful historical novel cover designs

This is a post about the aesthetics of cover design: an appreciation of the historical novel, the physical object itself, as a work of art. 

I recently ordered a copy of Alison Weir's latest book, In the Shadow of Queens, from Book Depository. It's a collection that reprints the e-shorts (digital-only short stories and novellas) the author wrote to accompany her Six Tudor Queens books, a series of full-length historical novels about Henry VIII's wives.  The e-shorts, which reveal little-known accounts taking place in the shadow of larger events from Tudor history, were only sold in UK outlets, so I, as an American reader, wasn't able to buy them until now. Even then I had to buy a copy from overseas, since the book isn't being released in the US.  There are 13 tales in the collection.

It's not apparent from the image above, but the book doesn't have a dust jacket. Instead, the design is printed directly on the cloth, and it's an absolutely gorgeous package. 

Then I got to thinking about whether I owned any other examples like this, and found only a few on my shelves... not many at all.  It seems more common for genres like cookbooks, reference books, and picture books than for historical fiction (aside from graphic novels).

Five historical novels with printed designs

All but one of these above, the graphic novel/biography about Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi at the center, was published by a British publisher. Moth by Melody Razak, at top left, a new release set during the Partition of India, has an elaborate cut-out design and a stepback cover featuring a woman's face.

Below are two other examples, older historical novels from American publishers. 

The Visionist and I, Elizabeth

Both of these feature art printed directly on the cloth and a near-transparent dust jacket with the title, author, and other elegant design elements. 

These beautiful designs represent a significant investment from their publishers. Can you think of any others like this?  I don't live within easy reach of print-and-mortar bookstores (other than Walmart and a few used bookstores downtown) so do almost all of my book shopping online, but if I saw any of these books on display, I'd be tempted to buy them for the covers alone!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eleanor Kuhns' Murder on Principle unravels a mystery in early 19th-century Maine

A man garbed in a bright yellow waistcoat, fawn-colored pantaloons, and red-trimmed Hessian boots is an unusual sight in the Maine woods, and the state of his body is even more so. The fashionable Mr. Randolph Gilbert lies dead, both strangled and stabbed.

In November 1800, Will Rees, weaver and amateur detective, is asked by Constable Rouge, his sometime rival, to help solve the murder, which was discovered by an elder from the nearby Shaker community. After Rees learns Mr. Gilbert’s purpose in town, he grows nervous. The man was seeking to recapture a light-skinned young woman and her baby who fled enslavement in Virginia, and Rees and his wife, Lydia, have just returned from that state on an abolitionist mission (as recounted in Death in the Great Dismal, the previous book).

The theme explored in this sharply rendered historical mystery, tenth in series, is a powerful moral question. “If the victim is a slave catcher, well then, I say thank you to his murderer,” Rees’s friend Tobias, a free man of color, tells him, requesting that he drop the investigation. Rees’s natural inclination to pursue justice causes him internal conflict, and his Black friends may not forgive him if he succeeds. Plus, he can’t help but wonder if they themselves are guilty. 

Kuhns devotes close attention to fine period details, from cooking implements to rural Shaker lifeways, while the contemporary relevance of some plot aspects is unmistakable. The late Mr. Gilbert was ill with smallpox, the pestilence is quickly spreading, and Rees moves to quickly inoculate his children using a doctor’s suggested methodology. Not everyone puts their trust in science, though.

The novel stands alone, though some characters’ backstories (the origin of Rees’s large, blended family, for instance) aren’t immediately obvious to newcomers. Recommended for readers enamored of early American settings.

Murder on Principle was published in 2021 by Severn House, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for November's Historical Novels Review.  The first book in the series is A Simple Murder, which won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition in 2011. This latest book is the 10th in the series. The author, a fellow librarian, is the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in upstate New York.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries and her team solve another crime in Emily Brightwell's holiday-themed Victorian mystery

In Victorian London, Inspector Gerald Witherspoon of the Metropolitan Police Force has a reputation to uphold as a crackerjack crime-solver. But there’s a secret: he has help, and he’s unaware of it. Whenever he gets a new homicide case, his intrepid housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries, calls meetings with her fellow servants and supportive neighbors, and they put their heads together. After Witherspoon comes home each evening, he relaxes over a glass of sherry with Mrs. Jeffries, telling her about the investigation, and she takes it from there. Even Constable Barnes, Witherspoon’s partner, is in on the ruse, which adds to the amusement.

This is the 40th book in Brightwell’s series, so their system clearly works well. The murders tend to happen around Christmastime, potentially mucking up holiday plans, so the pressure is on for a speedy resolution.

In this volume, the victim is Mrs. Harriet Andover, strangled in her home’s locked conservatory with a dressing gown sash. Harriet was an astute businesswoman who shored up her husband Jacob’s failing fortunes with her personal wealth, and none of her family or friends seem upset at her death. Inheritance swiftly rises to the top as the motive. “They are dreadful snobs, Constable, but like so many of that class, they’ve no money,” one character explains. Each suspect is hiding something, and as alibis are provided and tested, the story pokes fun at their ridiculous behavior. Harriet’s stepson Percy, for instance, is a real piece of work.

Mrs. Jeffries’s team is a motley bunch with different connections and talents. There are many clues of varying importance, and figuring out how they all come together makes for an enjoyable ride. The late Harriet was a sensible woman, respected by her servants; the one remaining mystery is why she’d married into such an unpleasant family.

Mrs. Jeffries and the Midwinter Murders will be published by Berkley on November 16th; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy.

For anyone worried about diving into a series in the middle (or at the end, in this case), let me allay your concerns; I had no trouble starting with this book. The series premise is neatly summarized.  This also makes me wonder about lengthy historical mystery series and if any others extend past 40 books. This one began with The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries back in 1993, and it's stayed with Berkley as the publisher the whole time, which is notable in itself. 

Monday, November 08, 2021

Review of Paulette Kennedy's Parting the Veil, a Victorian romantic suspense debut

Paulette Kennedy’s debut, Parting the Veil, is a veritable Gothic feast. Romantic suspense is a genre the author clearly loves, and the novel’s stuffed full of its hallmarks and tropes: a single woman, a mysterious inheritance, a crumbling mansion reputed to be haunted, its broodingly handsome owner, a shocking Tarot card reading… and that’s just to start.

The fun is in recognizing which of these elements will play out as expected, and which will be given an unexpected twist.

In 1899, Eliza Sullivan and her younger, mixed-race half-sister Lydia, natives of New Orleans, arrive in the Hampshire village of Chesterbridge to take up residence at Sherbourne House, which had been left to Eliza by a great-aunt she barely knew. The terms of Tante Theo’s bequest, though, disconcert the independent-minded heiress. Eliza learns that to take possession of her fortune, she must get married within three months.

Malcolm, Viscount Havenwood, is the sole surviving member of his family after a fire three years earlier damaged his home’s south wing. An immediate physical attraction springs up between Eliza and Malcolm. She throws caution to the wind and – against the practical Lydia’s advice – weds him.

But married life perplexes Eliza. While ardent in the bedroom at night, Malcolm is cold and proper, even condescending, during the day. His behavior will have readers wondering whether Malcolm deserves a happily-ever-after with our heroine.

A profusion of mysteries drives the story along. What (or who) causes the rhythmic tapping Eliza hears at night? What happened to Malcolm’s Scottish mother, who was rumored to be mad? Why does he behave so weirdly? Why is Eliza haunted by painful childhood memories?
author Paulette Kennedy

The atmosphere is a piquant blend of Southern Gothic meets Jane Eyre. As Americans, Eliza and Lydia’s entrance into Hampshire society meets with curiosity; contrary to stereotype, though, they aren't treated like unwelcome outsiders. They form friendships with local women, including newlywed Sarah Nelson, whose candor is a breath of fresh air. There are hints of same-sex relationships in some women’s pasts, which add layers of intrigue. (One minor complaint: the pet name “darling” is overused.)

For readers on the fence about romantic suspense, the ambience may be overwhelming. But for those who adore it, settle into this compulsive read and soak it all in.

Parting the Veil is published by Lake Union this month; I read it from a NetGalley copy as part of the blog tour for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Blog tour banner

Friday, November 05, 2021

The Family by Naomi Krupitsky visits mid-20th-century Mafia families from the female viewpoint

Mario Puzo meets Elena Ferrante in Krupitsky’s dynamite debut novel, a decades-spanning saga beginning in 1920s Brooklyn. “There is no easy way to untangle what is Family and what is family,” her characters realize, to their chagrin and peril.

Daughters of influential Mafiosos, fiery Sofia Colicchio and her introverted best friend, Antonia Russo, know their families aren’t typical. Schoolmates avoid them, their mothers constantly worry, and on Sundays they attend a large Italian feast at their fathers’ boss’s home.

When Antonia’s papa tries to escape his profession, he gets “disappeared,” a terrible warning against future betrayals. Sofia and Antonia are resilient, multifaceted young women whose bond occasionally strains as they test the boundaries of independence, and their choice of husbands ensnares them further in Family business.

Depicting twentieth-century Mafia families primarily from the female viewpoint is a fabulous concept that Krupitsky carries out with aplomb. Perspective shifts are smooth, and the backdrops of Prohibition and WWII are superbly realized.

Italian American traditions (including delicious casseroles) are highlighted, and the unique immigration stories show why and how Italian and Jewish newcomers get pulled into organized crime. Fans of Adriana Trigiani and Lynda Cohen Loigman will inhale this tense, engrossing novel about family ties, women’s friendships, and the treacherous complications of loyalty.

The Family was published on Tuesday by Putnam in hardcover and ebook. I read it back in May and reviewed it for the September 1st issue of Booklist, and I'm glad my editor there decided to assign it to me!  

Also, am I wrong, or does the font used on the cover remind you of the one used for Mario Puzo's The Family, his novel about the infamous Borgias of 15th-century Italy, who he called the "original crime family"? 

Monday, November 01, 2021

Carolyn Korsmeyer discusses writing and researching Charlotte's Story, her novel about Charlotte Lucas from Pride & Prejudice

Please help me welcome Carolyn Korsmeyer with a post about re-creating the world of Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice, and what she learned over the course of the writing process. Her explanation of the differences between approaching a setting from the viewpoint of a reader vs. that of a writer really resonated with me.  


Researching and Writing Charlotte's Story
Carolyn Korsmeyer

I have been drawn to historical fiction since I first learned to read, but my first attempt at writing it came when I wrote a novel in the voice of one of Jane Austen's characters, Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice. It was her realistic, dispassionate, and cool decision to wed the Reverend William Collins that interested me, because I thought reflection on that choice might resonate with contemporary readers in ways that extend beyond Austen's own times.

It was intriguing to imagine the inner life of a woman who faced some of the same choices as we do today, and yet was hindered by customs and limits that no longer exert the same force—although they have by no means disappeared. I decided to write a first-person narrative so that her own thoughts and worries were immediately accessible on the page. Her ruminations needed to conform reasonably well with early nineteenth-century sensibilities, but they also needed to ring true to readers today.

Charlotte is a middle-class woman with few financial resources of her own. She is not particularly pretty, so a stable and prosperous future more or less depends on making a good marriage. It might seem, to use contemporary language, that she "settles" on an unattractive man of means whom few others would want. That, however, is not quite the way I imagined it. Charlotte recognizes and accepts social restrictions that women today would not, and she is not inclined to be rebellious. (Unlike the heedless Lydia Bennet, for instance.) On the other hand, she is also not passive. She is strategic, in her own words "conniving," when the need arises.

Austen is still so popular that for many readers her novels almost achieve the familiarity that we find with contemporary fiction. That was my own impression when I launched into writing Charlotte's Story. But then I began to stumble over details about her household, the way she got from place to place, what she ate, what she wore, how long it took to walk from one neighbor to another, and so forth. Pretty soon I realized the difference between thinking you recognize a world as you read, and actually writing that world, when puzzles and uncertainties emerge.

The same thing, incidentally, has happened with my second historical novel, which is set in a place where I have lived for decades and whose history is very familiar. But when I actually began to write this story, its details demanded an unexpected amount of research. I think this demonstrates a deceptive and elusive distinction between reading—where you enter another world and feel at home—and writing—where inventing that world reveals your ignorance. It brings the gap between now and then into focus.

For Charlotte's Story, I took off from the text of Pride and Prejudice itself, imagining myself in the Bennet rooms (oh—but what's the floor plan?), walking into Meryton (how long does that take?), perhaps riding in a coach (what, actually, is a barouche?), stitching by the fire (how do you net a purse?) Immediately, I realized that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

Charlotte was brought into being just as the COVID pandemic shut us all down, so I was lucky that lots of virtual resources were available. I had recently joined the Jane Austen Society, and they held their 2020 annual meeting virtually. It was full of enlightening and entertaining events. I watched lectures on conveyances, clothing, dancing, manners. I took a virtual tour of Austen's home in Chawton. Later I tuned into lectures sponsored by local chapters. With the libraries all closed, I scoured my own shelves and read every nineteenth-century English novel I could find, plus some old travel literature that had landed in my attic. I looked up maps of English cities like Bath to see how their streetscapes had changed over time. And I also watched period-style movies and TV series, noting with some alarm when they came in for criticism regarding their historical accuracy (Wrong hairstyle! Inappropriate shoes!).
author Carolyn Korsmeyer

However, the errors to guard against are far from just factual. There is also the question of style and tenor of writing, which keeps a narrative in tune with the time of its settings. For example, the dialogue exchanged in Austen's own novels is far more elaborate and repetitive than would be common now, but Charlotte and her friends needed to converse in a manner that fit their times. It isn't a good idea just to try to imitate a style; rather one needs to find a tone and vocabulary that is congenial with an older one, but that also flows naturally for contemporary readers.

Even more subtle are the distortions that might enter one's writing when developing a character from the past. It is fascinating to wonder how influenced we all are by our own times and cultures. If we lived two centuries ago, would we have the same values and attitudes and feelings? Are there universals that apply to all people at all times? Perhaps the very basic ones do: we fear danger, we worry about children, are angry at insults, and so forth. But we are by no means insulted at the same things, and our worries and fears have quite different content now. (Think of Geraldine Brooks's wonderful novel Caleb's Crossing and the way she conjures a fear of hell in her Puritan characters.) Literature that was written in the past gives us hints about those similarities and differences, and fiction can explore them still further. The historical fiction writer can be seen as a historian of emotions as well as of actions, characters, and plots from long ago.


About Charlotte's Story (TouchPoint Press; on-sale October 11th; ISBN: 978-1-952816-58-1; trade paperback and ebook editions):

Charlotte Lucas, a character first appearing in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, has made an unfortunate marriage to the loquacious William Collins, reckoning that his tedious conversation is a small price to pay for the prosperous home and family she hopes to gain. However, trouble brews within the first months of marriage, and she is upset and angered by his presumptuous tendency to interfere with her friendships.

To ease the strain of their relationship, Charlotte leaves her husband to visit the fashionable city of Bath with several women companions. The weeks in Bath prove to be a time for self-discovery and freedom, even license. Although the marital frost between Charlotte and William begins to thaw, that tranquility lasts only briefly, for events in Bath have resulted in an unfortunate, even calamitous, consequence.

Charlotte devises a solution to the advantage of all that combines bold connivance and compassionate duplicity. Some would castigate her audacious stratagem, but she believes it justified by the hope of happiness and the wit and courage to seek it.

About the author:

A longtime admiration of Jane Austen and other nineteenth-century women novelists led Carolyn Korsmeyer to write Charlotte’s Story. She is also the author of numerous philosophical works, including Things: In Touch with the Past, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, and Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Her website is

Thursday, October 28, 2021

New post about popular trends in historical fiction

A Writer of History banner

Author and blogger M. K. (Mary) Tod recently invited me to write a post for her site about current trends in historical fiction, and I was happy to accept. 

Please jump over to A Writer of History to read it, and thanks to Mary for the opportunity!

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Interview with Clarissa Harwood, author of the gothic novel The Curse of Morton Abbey, set in 1890s Yorkshire

I'm glad to welcome Clarissa Harwood back to Reading the Past for an interview about her new historical gothic novel, The Curse of Morton Abbey, which is out today. The heroine is Vaughan Springthorpe, a woman trained as a solicitor, who arrives at the Yorkshire estate of Sir Peter Spencer to help prepare it for future sale in his absence. Her employer's invalid brother, Nicholas, doesn't want his home sold, though. Estate gardener Joe Dixon appears to support her efforts, but there are enough mysterious happenings around Morton Abbey to make Vaughan realize that someone wants her gone. Nonetheless, she wants to prove herself and presses forward with her task, uncovering uncomfortable facts about the estate and the town in the process. I enjoyed trying to predict where the plot would lead, and the story is dark and suspenseful without edging into horror.  If you like romantic suspense, put it on your list!  

How did you choose the time and place of late Victorian Yorkshire?

This was a no-brainer for me because late-Victorian Yorkshire is my happy place! The novels of the Brontë sisters were a formative influence from my young adulthood, especially Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I know I’m not alone in considering the Yorkshire moors the most romantic, evocative place on earth because of these novels. Of course, the Brontës were early rather than late Victorian, but I have a great love for late-Victorian literature because of my academic training. My doctoral dissertation focused on fin de siècle works such as Dracula and Heart of Darkness with their highly symbolic monstrous figures that represented widespread societal fears of the era.

Vaughan has an intriguing profession for a woman of her time, having been trained as a solicitor without the official designation (and with an expertise in conveyancing – a term new to me, but an important role). How did you research her career?

Because of Vaughan’s strong personality, I knew she needed to work at something unusual for a woman, but she’s definitely an introvert and wouldn’t want to be a leader or at the forefront of a movement like Lilia in Impossible Saints, so she needed something she could do quietly while still showing her determination and strength. Also, I needed a reason for her to go to Morton Abbey that didn’t involve childcare (she is not governess material). I taxed the patience of my university’s law librarian as I researched women law clerks and lawyers for months. Since women couldn’t officially practice law in late-Victorian England, it was difficult to find anything until I stumbled upon a real-life woman who was unofficially practicing law in late-Victorian England: Eliza Orme, who ultimately became the first woman to earn a law degree in England. I couldn’t resist giving Eliza a cameo role in The Curse of Morton Abbey.

I enjoyed how you combined classic gothic elements, like the English estate and family full of secrets, with feminist touches. Who are your influences in the genre of gothic fiction and romantic suspense?

There are too many influences to list them all, but I’ll start with the gothic novelists whose work I studied and taught: Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is another iconic gothic novel, and I was scandalized by the way Netflix twisted it into a romance, which it isn’t! (I love romance, but I get testy when brilliant novels are adapted in ways that present them falsely.) For romantic suspense, Mary Stewart is a huge influence, and I re-read her brilliant novel The Ivy Tree regularly. More recent novels that draw on the gothic tradition while offering new twists include Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, which have contributed to the resurgence of interest in this genre.
The author visiting the Yorkshire Moors

The gardens that Joe Dixon maintains are beautiful and provide a restful atmosphere amid the mysteries of Morton Abbey. Do you have a favorite English garden?

This question made me laugh because I have no personal interest in gardens or gardening: in fact, my husband has banned me from working in our garden because I (unintentionally) kill the plants. For a while he let me do some pruning, but apparently I cut too much off the bushes. I do love sitting in a beautiful garden if the weather isn’t too hot, but I had to do a lot of research just to figure out what the names of basic plants were and what sort of work Joe would be doing in a late-Victorian Yorkshire garden.

What have been the most enjoyable and/or challenging aspects of independent publishing?

I feel as if I have the best of both worlds because my first two novels were traditionally published. If I’d started with indie publishing, I think I would have been completely overwhelmed, but because I knew generally how the process worked and how long it would take, I constructed a reasonable timeline for The Curse of Morton Abbey. Another advantage of having two published novels already under my belt was being able to draw on the knowledge and experience of my wonderful community of authors. They have saved me from making plenty of bad decisions!

The best part of independent publishing has been having control over every aspect of the process. It was especially fun working with my cover designer, Tim Barber at Dissect Designs (he was a dream to work with and I highly recommend him). The hardest part of independent publishing has been the stigma that still exists in the industry. It’s difficult and expensive to be reviewed by one of the big trade publications if you’re an indie author. The self-doubt that every author experiences from time to time is also worse if you’re an indie author because you don’t have the gatekeepers of the publishing world validating your work. What has helped me the most in this respect has been the support and encouragement of my agent, Laura Crockett. In fact, The Curse of Morton Abbey is the novel that first got her attention and prompted her offer of representation.

Thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview!

My pleasure, and thanks for answering my questions!


For more information about Clarissa Harwood and her books, please see her website, or find it on Goodreads here.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor explores women's pain and health, past and present

Australian writer Josephine Taylor’s first novel is a psychologically penetrating and honest read that juxtaposes two women, one Victorian and one modern-day, who suffer from the same debilitating medical condition.

In 1866, newlyweds Emily and Arthur Rochdale visit the London office of a physician who proposes a drastic cure for Emily’s chronic gynecological pain. Emily and Arthur are despondent; she can barely function and has withdrawn from society, and he struggles to help her. From boyhood on, Arthur has strived to speak up for those who cannot, but he isn’t sure whether to trust the surgeon and his diagnosis of “hysteria.”

In 2009, a Perth-based academic, Alice Tennant, is struck down by the same disorder, which makes sitting excruciatingly painful and prevents physical intimacy with her older husband, Duncan.

Taylor places readers in the moment with Arthur, Emily, and Alice as they process the pain they all endure and how it changes their outlook on life. An emotional support system can make a big difference. Emily writes letters (which read as believably Victorian) to her sister-in-law, Bea, who provides reassurance and understanding. Alice sees many traditional and alternative medicine practitioners but finds few answers – this hasn’t changed over time – and Duncan’s patience soon wears thin. In researching the history of women’s health, however, Alice taps into a new vein of creativity.

Eye of a Rook dares to travel to uncomfortable places of the flesh and spirit, and does so with lyricism and visceral empathy. It beautifully describes landscapes, like England’s Peak District and the Australian countryside, and the mental respite they offer. Toward the end, the two timelines intersect in an ingenious way. The novel should prove validating for anyone suffering from an invisible illness, and eye-opening for anyone unfamiliar with vulvodynia, which is little-known but not as rare as one would guess.

This novel, for which the author's personal experiences provided source material, was published by Fremantle Press in Australia in 2021; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review, based on a personal purchase (it's sold in the US as well). In Australia, the price is $32.99 in paperback. Read more about the novel's background in the author's interview for The Nerd Daily.

Josephine Taylor is a speaker at this weekend's Historical Novel Society Australasia virtual conference, which I'm attending, though the time zone differences between here and Sydney meant I wasn't able to attend her session in person. Fortunately, everything is being recorded for viewing over the next few months.

Monday, October 18, 2021

A visual preview of the winter 2022 season in historical fiction

Here's my latest seasonal preview of forthcoming historical novels, covering books to be published between January and March next year. I'm featuring 15 titles of personal interest (and I'll be lucky to have time to read them all!), and have aimed to include a range of settings and time periods. They're listed in alpha order by author surname. Will you be adding any to your TBR piles also?  Links below go to the books' Goodreads pages.

Kianna Alexander's Carolina Built (Gallery, Feb.) is biographical fiction about Josephine Leary, a woman born into enslavement who achieved huge success in the business world as a real estate developer in late 19th-early 20th-century North Carolina. Another American-set historical is Leah Angstman's Out Front the Following Sea (Regal House, Jan.), which follows a young woman accused of witchcraft in 17th-century New England. Yonder by Jabari Asim (Simon & Schuster, Jan.), called "The Water Dancer meets The Prophets" by the publisher, takes place on a plantation in the Southern states in the mid-19th century.

Karen Brooks always incorporates intriguing settings and plots, and her latest, The Good Wife of Bath (William Morrow, Jan.; already out in Australia) retells Chaucer's classic story of pilgrimage from the title character's viewpoint.  Danielle Daniel's Daughters of the Deer (Random House Canada, Mar.) has been on my list ever since I saw the publishing deal reported in Publishers Marketplace. Set in New France in the 1600s, it focuses on a Algonquin woman who agrees to marry a French settler in an alliance to save her people. Interestingly, Agatha Christie (and her mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926) has been the subject of several novels of late. Nina de Gramont's The Christie Affair (St. Martin's, Feb.) delves into the mystery from the perspective of Christie's husband's mistress. Lots of buzz for this one.

Basing her first novel on the true story of Queen Victoria's Yoruba goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Anni Domingo's Breaking the Maafa Chain (Pegasus, Feb.; already out in the UK from Jacaranda Books) traces the separate journeys of two African sisters from their homeland to England and America, countries which have different views on slavery in the mid-19th century.  Melissa Fu's debut Peach Blossom Spring (Little, Brown, Mar.) promises to be a moving saga of about three generations of a family in China and America beginning in the 1930s.  A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande (Atria, Mar.) is described as a "sweeping historical saga," which the title emphasizes; it centers on the unexpected love story between a Mexican healer and an Irish immigrant during the Mexican American War.

Stephen Harrigan is an excellent prose stylist (his Remember Ben Clayton is a favorite of mine), and his upcoming novel The Leopard Is Loose (Knopf, Feb.), set in 1952 Oklahoma, shows the tumult of the postwar era through a child's eyes. Skipping over the Atlantic to England just after the Black Death, Peter Manseau's The Maiden of All Our Desires (Arcade, Feb.) plunges into the dramas of faith and flesh within a community of nuns. Louisa Morgan's The Secret History of Witches was a word-of-mouth hit, and her newest, The Great Witch of Brittany (Redhook, Feb.) is a prequel beginning in 18th-century Brittany that reveals the backstory of the powerful clan's magical matriarch, Ursule Orchière.

The wide-ranging, glamorous, hard-working 20th-century life of cereal heiress and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post is depicted in Allison Pataki's The Magnificent Lies of Marjorie Post (Ballantine, Feb.)  Eva Stachniak, who most recently chronicled the life of Polish dancer-choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, moves to 18th-century France with The School of Mirrors (William Morrow/Doubleday Canada, Feb.), about the young women selected as potential mistresses for Louis XV. Lastly, The Last Grand Duchess by Bryn Turnbull (MIRA, Feb.) reveals the inner life of Romanov grand duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Friday, October 15, 2021

When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott, a beautifully written post-WWI novel of mystery, loss, and hope

Caroline Scott’s The Photographer of the Lost (US title The Poppy Wife) is one of my favorite recent novels about WWI, so when I had some free time, her follow-up, When I Came Home Again, rose to the top of my TBR. Like its predecessor, it’s a gorgeously melancholy depiction of the era, evoking the personal and national losses of the Great War and their enduring aftereffects – not just on returning soldiers but on the families left behind.

Both are slow-burning mysteries, though atypical ones. There’s no formal detective, just a natural unfolding of events. The Photographer of the Lost has the stronger plot of the two, though this one is still very good.

The story opens in November 1918 in Durham Cathedral. A man is caught desecrating its Galilee chapel by drawing chalk illustrations on the flagstones. Though clearly a former soldier, he has no memory of who he is. The police give him the name “Adam Galilee” and place him into the care of Dr. James Haworth, who brings him to a convalescent hospital in Westmorland called Fellside, in the hopes he’ll recall his name and previous life. It doesn’t work; the trauma he experienced is so terrible that it remains buried.

In 1920, when a newspaper publishes a collection of photographs, including Adam’s, under the strapline “the living unknown warriors,” a parade of women comes forth, all wanting Adam to be their lost loved one.

Three women feel certain he belongs with them. Scott conveys their desperate eagerness to claim Adam as their son, brother, or spouse, and Adam’s panicked reaction since he doesn’t recognize any of them. But who is he? Is it possible none are right? Memories can be unreliable. And James, in wanting to identify Adam, may be pushing him down an incorrect path. James is also facing his own wartime demons, which affect his marriage to Caitlin, a talented potter.

The principal mystery involves Adam, but because he’s initially a blank slate upon which others project their hopes, the women’s tragic stories resonate more strongly. There’s Celia, who refuses to believe her son Robert will never come home. Anna hopes for a fresh start with her missing, troubled husband, Mark. Lucy was left to raise her brother’s children after he failed to return from France and resents her stifling existence. Caitlin is the only woman Adam feels comfortable with, since she doesn’t want anything from him except friendship.

Over time, Adam’s character gets colored in. He’s a gentle soul with artistic talent who knows the Latin names for plants, but not his own name, or the name of the woman whose image he draws.

At the end, some clues are left unexplained, which bothered me a bit. But I did appreciate how well the novel transported me to the post-WWI era, and into the minds of men and women searching for an exit to the holding patterns of their lives.

When I Come Home Again was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2020 (I read it from a personal copy I purchased on Kindle).

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers unveils the hidden lives of ordinary people in '50s Britain

Can Gretchen Tilbury’s tale about her 10-year-old daughter be true, and if so, how is it scientifically possible?

In 1957, reporter Jean Swinney, pushing 40, has a tedious home life caring for her irritable, reclusive mother. In investigating a claim of parthenogenesis, a virgin birth, for her suburban London newspaper, Jean sees her world unexpectedly transformed.

Surprisingly, she finds no apparent holes in Gretchen’s story. Gretchen had been bedridden in a clinic alongside others when Margaret was conceived. As mother and daughter undergo laboratory tests to prove or debunk the hypothesis, Jean’s intrinsic loneliness leads her to respond to the Tilburys’ friendly overtures.

Margaret is a charming girl, and Howard, Gretchen’s older husband, has a disarming manner that attracts Jean. As Jean’s personal and professional circles become enmeshed, the plot takes dramatic, even shocking turns.

British novelist Chambers penetrates the secret hopes and passionate inner lives of ordinary working people throughout her gripping novel, while its locked-room-style medical mystery calls to mind Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (2016). The characters provoke so much empathy, readers may have trouble remembering that they’re fictional.

Small Pleasures will debut in the US on Tuesday this week; the publisher is Custom House, a HarperCollins imprint.  In the UK, where it's been out since last July, it was longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction and was a breakout hit.  I reviewed it for Booklist's September 1 issue from an Edelweiss e-copy.

I thought about this book for days after I finished and wasn't able to read anything else during that time. If you've read it, you'll likely understand why; I'll say no more!

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Historical Research: A Many-Faceted Jewel, an essay by Catherine Gentile, author of Sunday's Orphan

Catherine Gentile's Sunday's Orphan, a novel of a woman's self-discovery and family history set in 1930s Jim Crow-era Georgia, was published in September. I'm pleased to welcome the author here today for a post about her research.


Historical Research: A Many-Faceted Jewel
Catherine Gentile

The historical fiction of Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, The Known World, inspired me to fulfill my desire to write about the complexities of life during 1930. I envisioned a novel set on a plantation on a fictional island town off the coast of Georgia. Little did I realize the scope and depth of research needed to support the characters who would live in that island town, from the weather, topology, flora, and fauna, to the modes of transportation, the embracing issues of politics and religion, and squirmy birthing and funeral practices—I researched every detail. As painstaking a process as it was, I loved every second!

To gain a deeper appreciation for the layout and management of Southern plantations, I visited plantations in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia. I then designed Mearswood Plantation and located the cabins, barns, and outbuildings, pastures, and gardens within a sketch. This primitive drawing served as an invaluable map that helped me maintain consistency of locations and positions of structures relative to one another.

Shack in woods, side view

I wasn’t sure what the simple cabins and privies on the plantation looked like. Fortunately, while hiking in Georgia, taking photos of the flora and fauna within the marshes, I came upon the serendipitous answer: cabins in varying stages of decay. These pretty much substantiated my imaginings, but the fact that they were situated on raised posts was a revelation.

Shack in woods, front view

I didn’t have the same luck with privies, thank goodness! Again, I resorted to my primitive sketching ability, which gave me enough information to address the privies that appeared in the novel more often than I had anticipated!

Hiking proved invaluable from recreational and research points of view, as I gained understanding of the poor soil quality, the variety of trees, the construction of shell middens, and intensity of forest growth. The abundance of Old Man’s Beard, aka Spanish Moss, became an important detail for the novel. Naughty as this was, I confess to secreting samples of pine straw and other plants home for me to study.

Shell-packed dirt road in the woods

The idyllic nature of hiking found its polar opposite in the unsettling research on Jim Crow “law” and its soul-crushing abuses. Try as I did to circumvent incorporating such information in my novel, fellow authors in my writing group argued that they were essential to the story. Gilbert King’s The Devil in the Grove helped me adjust my attitude and hence, set the stage for writing those chapters. I needn’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say, online offerings, memorials to victims of lynching, helped in this regard. Acts of hanging and reports of the celebratory atmosphere—bands, parties, picnics—surrounding these acts captured the cruelty. Postcards of individuals on whom these acts were committed captured its heart-searing insensitivity. As much as I loved research, working these pieces of human history into Sunday’s Orphan was dispiriting.

Later, during an antiquing trip, the research gods smiled on me when I happened across a 1927 copy of Successful Farming. This treasure trove contained articles on farming, raising livestock and children, putting up preserves, and farm finances. Loaded with ads, these primarily black and white pictures provided close ups of furnishings, kitchen tools and appliances, and gave me a peek at work-a-day clothing and their more fashion conscious cousins, hats and dresses. And yes, I bought that copy of Successful Farming.

Marsh's edge

I located internet photos depicting the scandalous decrease in the post Roaring Twenties length of women’s skirts, and incorporated this small, but telling detail into Sunday’s Orphan, when a fashionable Bostonian visits Mearswood Plantation in Georgia and relinquishes her city clothing for hand-sewn country attire. Fascinating sociological details such as women’s horrified responses to manufactured undergarments replacing those that were hand-made appeared as well, but those had to be saved for another story.

Librarians were generous in helping me locate information. One knowledgeable research librarian at Tybee Library plied me with stacks of resources containing answers to questions I had amassed while drafting Sunday’s Orphan. Another librarian loaned me audio tapes of interviews conducted with rural Southern midwives, describing their practices and experiences.

Catherine Gentile
(credit: Lesley McVane)
There, however, was little documentation to prove that people living in 1930 actually farmed the scrappy soil on Georgia’s barrier islands. I couldn’t find the answer in the library, and residents with whom I spoke weren’t sure. Farming played an important role in Sunday’s Orphan, and I wanted to be sure it had, in fact, occurred on the barrier islands. Walking through a local cemetery, I considered my authorial options should this piece be untrue. Again, the research gods smiled on me: there, in Tybee Island Memorial Cemetery, was the headstone of Nameless Brown, husband, father, and farmer.

Research deepened my experience of Georgia; now, I’m anxious to draft my next work of historical fiction. Learn more at