Friday, August 29, 2014

They dressed as men and went to war

We've been seeing many new historical novels about brave women who went to war in male disguise. All six of the novels below have publication dates in 2014 or 2015, and I can't think of a single event or benchmark title that got this mini-trend rolling, other than maybe an increased interest in women's history in general.  I've also been pondering earlier novels that fit this category and haven't come up with much, other than Sharyn McCrumb's 2003 release Ghost Riders, which had Civil War soldier Malinda Blalock (a historical figure) as a character.  Can you think of others?

These novels aren't fanciful in premise.  In actuality, there were many women who disguised their sex and fought in the US Civil War and in earlier battles, but recognition of and pride in their accomplishments has often been long in coming.  These works of fiction, some of which are based on the lives of specific historical women, help to spread word about their deeds and heroism in the popular consciousness.

A young woman who had been fighting for the Union in disguise has to hide her loyalties after she's wounded and gets trapped behind Confederate lines.  RiverNorth, June 2014.

A rare novel that looks at this scenario from the Confederate side, as two Southern sisters enlist in the Confederate army as new recruits, their secret known only to one another.  The so-authors are sisters as well.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2015. 

Her husband being too weak to go to war, an Indiana farm wife dons male garb and marches off to fight for the Union.  I'll have a review of this new literary novel shortly.  Little Brown, September 2014.

Believing her place is with her newly-wed husband, Rosetta Wakefield secretly follows him into the Union ranks, fighting alongside him and proving her worth in battle.  Loosely based on the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.  Crown, January 2014; out in paperback in September, with a beautiful new cover.

This novel about Massachusetts heroine Deborah Sampson shows her external and internal transformations during her service in the Revolutionary War.  See my review of Revolutionary as well as Alex Myers' guest post here.  Simon & Schuster, January 2014.

From the author of the 4-book Far Western Civil War series comes a new novel about Emma Edmonds, who signed on with the 2nd Michigan Volunteers under the name Frank Thompson.  BookView Cafe, April 2014.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Venturing into teen historical fiction: A guest essay by Deborah Swift

I'm glad to welcome Deborah Swift to my site today for a guest post.  I've positively reviewed three of her earlier novels here: The Lady's Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all set in the 17th century.  With her latest release, she stays in the same time frame but has moved over to the Young Adult arena, although I'm told adult readers will enjoy Shadow on the Highway too.  I've already bought my copy and look forward to reading it.  In the following essay, she explores the adjustments that were needed to gear her writing to a teen audience.


Venturing into Teen Historical Fiction
Deborah Swift 

I’ve been writing novels set in the seventeenth century for adults for quite a few years. During my research, I’ve often come across young women aged between fourteen and eighteen, and yet expected to run a household, accept adult responsibilities, marry and bear children. That was the way of life back then. When writing for adults, these heroines of 14 or 15 years of age seem unlikely – far too young to have such maturity. Yet for today’s teen readers of that age, the same characters can appear too mature, too ensconced in an adult life.

As Eliza Graham points out in her excellent article on Historical Fiction Connection, teenagers were not a separate group with their own rules and identity until the twentieth century.

I pondered on this on and off, as I’m sure it is a problem many historical fiction writers have grappled with, but I came to no definitive answer. Usually, if the character is too young to be behaving in a certain way by our modern standards, I’ll try not to mention her age in years, but just refer to her as ‘young’, for example. Or better, try to make sure the milieu in which she lives, supports and describes such a maturity.

When I came across the history of Lady Katherine Fanshawe – married at fourteen, and a highwaywoman (if we believe the legend) by eighteen, I was attracted to the story, but unsure exactly who would read it. The theme sounded as though it might be attractive to teenagers so I thought I would try writing for a younger age-group. I looked in my local bookshops for examples of historical fiction designed for readers 14 plus, and could find very few. This year at least, readers of that age, according to the bookstore owner, want fantasy and sorcery. To my relief, my local library (hooray!) yielded a much better and more varied stock, and I was able to plunge in, and try to see what creating a younger ‘voice’ might mean for me as a writer. Teen readers, like adult readers, I’m sure are of all different tastes.

What was immediately apparent was that the tone would have to be different from my adult novels. To create a younger voice, my characters would need to be more vibrant, less world-weary and more impetuous. Old-fashioned language would need to be replaced with something more direct. Shadow on the Highway feels more ‘modern’ than my other books, not least in the fact I had to find creative ways to reproduce seventeenth century versions of ‘OMG!’ I hope I have still kept some period authenticity. Immersing myself in the idealism of young people in the 17th century, led me to the Diggers – an early example of an alternative lifestyle, and one I thought might resonate with ecologically aware young readers today. (Read more about them here.)

An added difficulty for me was that the book would need to be shorter – it would be a rare teen that made it to the end of one of my other 500 page books (though I’m sure there are exceptions, including most of us writers when we were younger)! Fortunately the historical material neatly divides into three sections, and there are three main characters, so I thought the story might work as a trilogy. But a trilogy has its own three act structure, and the first book is necessarily quieter, building the bedrock for the rest of the action. With this in mind, the risk is, that if nobody enjoys the first book, it might founder at first base, and then I’d feel awkward spending time writing two more that nobody wants!

Books where I admired the creation of the teenage voice were Phillip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke, where the voice was lively and opinionated, something I wanted for my character Lady Katherine. I very much admired Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, but was aware that my book was not going to be quite so literary and was set a lot further in the past. I turned to Cassandra Clare’s books such as The Clockwork Princess, which had the right tone, but these books veer away from a purely historical setting with their steampunk approach. Here are some other authors with historical settings I enjoyed: Brian Jacques, Eva Ibbotson, Victoria Lamb, Celia Rees, Ann Turnbull, Anna Godbersen amongst others. If I was to highlight one I particularly liked, I would go for The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd, which had an outstanding sense of time and place.

Writing historical fiction for teens is every bit as demanding as writing for adults, more so, as my teen beta readers were frighteningly direct in their assessment. Some quite frankly didn’t like it. Some got bored. An immense amount of world-building has to go on in the head of the reader for historical fiction to work, and not all readers have a mental image bank yet that they can draw on to help them create the scene in their heads. But when you get a great response it is equally direct – and immensely rewarding. Especially when you have introduced them to a whole new genre of reading. I hope many adults will try some of these books too, after all, as Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy says, “I think everyone’s got a little teenager inside of them still, and you just have to work to help yourself access that teenager.”


Deborah Swift used to work in the theatre and at the BBC as a set and costume designer, before studying for an MA in Creative Writing in 2007. She lives in a beautiful area of Lancashire near the Lake District National Park. She is the author of The Lady’s Slipper and is a member of the Historical Writers Association, the Historical Novel Society, and the Romantic Novelists Association.

For more information, please visit Deborah’s website. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Shadow on the Highway was published in July in paperback and as an ebook (see Amazon UK or Amazon US). 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book review: Lisette's List, by Susan Vreeland

In her moving latest novel, set in Provence between 1937 and 1948, Vreeland explores the power of art and how painters help us interpret our world. This involving work also traces one young woman’s maturation as she adjusts to a new life.

Although Lisette Roux resents leaving Paris with her husband, André, to care for his grandfather Pascal, she loves hearing Pascal reminisce about Pissarro and Cézanne. Their paintings and others, which hang on his walls, have immense personal and monetary value, so André conceals them before leaving to fight. Alone during wartime, Lisette endures tragedy and hardships while developing close friendships; they, and her mission to recover the paintings, drive her on.

The stunning countryside, with its ochre mines, fragrant orchards, and cold mistral, is passionately depicted, and Vreeland is an informed guide to the Impressionist through Modernist movements. The book’s most touching moments, though, intertwine art with human connections, such as how the love between Marc and Bella Chagall—in hiding from the Nazis in Provence—is evoked through his work.

Lisette's List is published tomorrow in hardcover by Random House ($27, 410pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's July issue.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The background to Finding Fortune, an essay by Pippa Goodhart

Today British writer Pippa Goodhart speaks about the family artifacts and subsequent research that inspired Finding Fortune, her children's historical novel set at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush.  Please read on!


The Background to Finding Fortune
Pippa Goodhart

When I was a child I would watch my mother getting ready to go out to occasional parties. It didn’t often happen, and my mother didn’t have a great range of jewellery to choose from. But she did have one ring which she would add to the wedding ring and engagement rings on her fingers, and this is it...

It is a Victorian ring made of gold, and holding a stone in which there is a splash of gold, just as nature laid it down. The ring had been given to my mother, Christine, by her mother, Dorothy, who had been given it by her mother, Florence, who had been given it by her mother, Polly, who had been given it by her brother, William James, when he came back from the Klondike Gold Rush. Here are Polly (who was blind) with daughter Florence. 

What, and when, was the Klondike Gold Rush? I began researching, and what an amazing historical moment of madness it was! Fur trappers came upon great quantities of gold in the far north-east of Canada in 1896, and, when the summer thaw let them travel into Seattle in early 1897 the newspapers picked-up on the story of scruffy men arriving with suitcases and jam jars and pockets full of gold, apparently there for the taking. Over a hundred thousand people from all over the world then made the heroic/stupid journey to that remote place. Some found fortunes. Many more of them didn’t.

So a story began to grow in my mind. Ida’s lovely Ma has died, and now she and her father are being told what direction their lives should take by a domineering Grandmama. Ida is to go to boarding school, and Fa is to travel to some place in the Empire where he can make himself a living. Fa is going to try his luck in the Klondike … and Ida is determined to run away and go with him.

I had a wonderful time researching. There are photographs showing men and women dressed in adventuring outfits, posed in studios before they set off, and then hollow-eyed and desperate on trails lined with dead horses and hit with avalanches. I also found this book:

…selling cheaply because its cover is ‘worn and scuffed’ to such an extent that you can hardly read that it is The Chicago Record’s Guide For Gold Seekers, published in 1897. Inside are pristine pages, some clearly not even opened before. There are maps, there are boat routes and prices, there are instructions on how to extract gold, and there are long lists of all the equipment and food and clothing that you should take with you into that wild place, just short of the Arctic, where, of course, supplies are cut off for the long frozen dark winter months. That book must surely have gone to the Klondike in somebody’s ‘outfit’! I was handling a book that had lived the adventure of the Gold Rush! Gosh, I do love research!

That research soon showed that the bulk of Ida’s story would be taken-up with the journey to get to Dawson and the Klondike area. By boat from England to the east coast of Canada, across Canada by train, down to Seattle to buy supplies, then a rickety and overfilled ship up the west coast to the tent encampment at Dyea before beginning the notorious Chilkoot Pass trail into the mountains. 

Then building a boat and waiting for the thaw, until the race amongst the thousands to get down the river in time to find a patch of land to search for gold before winter hit again.

Unusually, with this story I began writing before I knew what the ending would be. I didn’t know whether or not Ida and Fa would find gold. If they did, that would feel a bit too easy, and very different from the experiences of most of the ‘Argonauts’. But if they didn’t find gold, wouldn’t that feel an anti-climax for the story after all those months and thousands of miles of travelling? As I wrote, this story seemed to take on a life of its own. I was chasing after it, writing it down, rather than having to drag it along as you do with some stories. The story development and ending just revealed itself, taking me by surprise! If you want to know how, then you’ll have to read the story!

Footnote: The book’s cover shows a silhouette of Ida against a background provided by a board game from 1897, which the publisher cleverly found, showing mountains and claims and Indians and Gold Rush people, moose, dogs, and more.

PS: My lovely Mum has now given that ring to me. And, yes, it does appear in the story.


Finding Fortune was published by Catnip Publishing in 2013 (trade pb, 251pp).  Visit the author's website at

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book review: Liberty Silk, by Kate Beaufoy

When I first read the catalog description for Kate Beaufoy’s Liberty Silk, I’d pegged it for a traditional saga about independent 20th-century women, one which would whisk me away to stylish locales and eras and make for an agreeable diversion over a summer afternoon or two.

What I got was much more. I was wowed by this book: by the author’s sparkling language, the wistful ambiance, the stunning settings, and the genuineness of its heroines. Although I enjoy historical novels about glitz and glamour, they often have a heartlessness at their core which keeps me at a distance. This isn’t the case here. The main characters, each of whom is very different, have a vulnerability that remains with them despite the life-changing experiences they endure.

The story intertwines the stories of three women from adjacent generations. Born into a wealthy London family, Jessie Beaufoy follows her heart and marries a handsome artist, only to have him abandon her on the final day of their honeymoon in Finistère on the Brittany coast. An eternal romantic, Jessie is despondent and longs to find him again – but her reduced circumstances and the corresponding shame persuade her to accept a role as muse to a famous painter in postwar Paris and on the Riviera.

Twenty years later, gregarious Baba MacLeod escapes London for a career in Hollywood, reinventing herself as an actor’s personal assistant and, later, as film star Lisa La Touche. Although she becomes a household name, she’s devastated by the rampant hypocrisy and the codes of conduct she’s obliged to adhere to. Finally, in the mid-1960s, Cat leaves her beloved parents in rural Connemara, Ireland, to become a war photographer.

Threaded like a silver chain through both Jessie’s and Lisa’s stories is the theme of how women’s freedom is held in check by men. Only Cat, living through the more relaxed social norms of the 1960s, has the opportunity to direct her life as she chooses.

And, yes – the dress on the cover. One other element linking the women is a custom-designed crepe de Chine gown from Liberty of London that’s “tiered like a Grecian tunic: a classic Doric column when one stood still in motion, a swirl of colour – primrose and geranium and cornflower blue and moss green.” Although it doesn’t play a large role in the story, it comes to symbolize where they came from as well as their connectedness.

Liberty Silk is high-class literary entertainment. The author was inspired by letters sent home from Paris and Italy by Jessie Beaufoy, her grandmother, who must have been a remarkable woman. Her novel makes for a beautiful homage to the real-life Jessie and to all women who aim to follow their dreams.

The novel was published as a paperback original by Transworld Ireland in July (£6.99, 496pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The inspiration behind the women of The Vintner's Daughter, an essay by Kristen Harnisch

In today's guest essay, Kristen Harnisch tells us more about the real-life women who inspired the female characters in her debut novel, The Vintner's Daughter, which I reviewed earlier this month.

The Inspiration behind the Women of The Vintner’s Daughter
Kristen Harnisch

The mother, daughters, midwife, wine maven, and the harlot of The Vintner’s Daughter were inspired by the real women of the time, and in some cases, shaped by the constraints of the late-nineteenth century societies in which they lived.

Sara Thibault, the book’s heroine, struggles to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard and the life that was stolen from her. Her tenacity and grit were inspired by three women wine-making pioneers of the late 1800s: the Duchesse de Fitz-James, a Frenchwoman who touted the benefits of using American rootstock to replant French vines decimated by the phylloxera louse; Josephine Tyschon, a widowed mother who built and ran the 55-acre Tyschon Winery in St. Helena (now Freemark Abbey); and J.C. Weinberger, the only California woman to win a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine. Sara is passionate and daring, and when author Roberta Rich praised the novel by predicting it would “invoke inevitable comparisons to Gone with the Wind,” I recognized that Sara does indeed share these traits with Miss Scarlett O’Hara. Why are these women so connected to their land and willing to risk everything to salvage it? Because it’s fruitful, predictable, and, as Sara hastens to point out, “It does not disappoint.”

Marguerite Thibault (Sara’s “Maman”), and Sara’s sister Lydia, serve as able foils to Sara. Maman lived through the German occupation of nearby Tours in 1870, and waited anxiously for her new husband to return from fighting the Prussians in 1871—she has endured her share of uncertainty. Her failure to protect her daughters after their father’s death is rooted in fear: her fear of being alone, and her fear of having to start over with nothing.

Although Lydia is the eldest of the two sisters, she is vain and flirtatious, and more concerned about her marriage to the village rogue than the preservation of her father’s beloved vineyard. Despite their differences, Sara and Lydia have shared their childhood and care for each other deeply—they are “two sides of the same coin, one minted for practicality, the other for pageantry.” Maman and Lydia are essential to moving the plot forward. If Lydia had not blindly given herself to Bastien Lemieux, or Maman had ensured her daughters’ safety early on, Sara’s life would not have taken such drastic turns.

Marie Chevreau, the Manhattan midwife and single mother—cast aside by the same man who married and mistreated Sara’s sister—is a go-getter. Her character, in this novel and in its sequel—The California Wife—was inspired by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American school (in 1849), and who later founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the school Marie attends. For Marie, a life free of romantic entanglement is the key to her success as a midwife, until the sequel, when her involvement with one of her medical college professors threatens to derail her ambitions.

author Kristen Harnisch
(credit: Alix Martinez Photography)
What can I say about Linnette Cross, the novel’s harlot? She’s a working woman, just like Sara, Marie and Aurora, yet she’s not entirely jaded. She harbors a passion not only for a particular man, but for the plight of the disenfranchised, and the Chinese immigrants, who were frequent victims of bigotry. She started at the infamous Clinton Street House, a real and flourishing brothel in Napa’s history, and she possesses a keen knowledge of her place in the world. However, Linnette has a soulful side, and in the novel’s sequel, we will see it blossom.

Aurora Thierry, I have to admit, is my favorite secondary character. When I was researching the story of Josephine Tyschon, I learned that she enjoyed driving her carriage at top speed, just for the thrill of it (and perhaps to irritate her many critics). Aurora Thierry would absolutely do the same. Aurora is a widow, and a self-made expert in winegrowing, herbal remedies, and husbandry, and she quickly becomes Sara’s surrogate mother when our heroine arrives in Napa. Everyone needs a friend when they come to a new town and who better than a Winchester rifle-toting, straight-talking, fiery, redheaded suffragette?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the women in my own life—my mother, sister, aunts, cousins and friends—who also inspire my characters’ personalities and the way they handle the obstacles they face. The most joyful part of being a writer, for me, is breathing life into my creations, dwelling in their company, learning their idiosyncrasies, and testing their mettle in new and exciting ways.


The Vintner's Daughter is published this month in the US in trade pb by She Writes Press ($16.95) and in Canada by HarperCollins Canada ($22.95).  Visit her website at

Saturday, August 16, 2014

1933 and 2014: A look at then and now, an essay by Michael Murphy, author of The Yankee Club

Please help me welcome Michael Murphy, author of the newly published Prohibition-era suspense novel The Yankee Club, who's stopping by with an essay which makes a detailed comparison between 1933 and today.


1933 and 2014: A Look at Then and Now
Michael Murphy

My historical mystery, The Yankee Club, takes place in New York City, 1933. Prohibition has been a failure and has led to the growth of organized crime. Banks have failed; twelve million people are out of work. Homes are lost, and hopes are dashed. A polarized society turns to politicians offering extreme views.

I wrote The Yankee Club, a mystery inspired by actual events, as an homage to classics of the Golden Age of Mysteries during the 1920s and '30s. A Goodreads reviewer, Susan Johnson said, “It’s like reading one of the witty 1930s movies where the humor offsets the darkness and you root for the characters. You could almost imagine Dashiell Hammett writing the book.”

As much as I enjoyed writing the novel, I couldn’t escape the similarities between events of 1933 and life in America today. Many will say back then we were in a Great Depression and today we’re working out of the 2008 recession. One definition of a recession I heard is “when my neighbor has lost their job.” A depression is when “I’ve lost my job.”

Today, the unemployment rate continues at record levels, and banks have failed. Dreams of owning a home, which used to be a given, are now out of reach for many. Plenty of people work two jobs to make ends meet. Politicians point fingers at past leaders and each other. Promises are offered, but few solutions are ever enacted. One can’t ignore comparisons between then and now:

Comparisons between then and now how well segments of the country have responded to economic crises of each generation. Charities provided soup kitchens in 1933 and today provide homeless shelters and job training. Our country rose from the depths of the Great Depression. Things have improved since the recession hit in 2008, and a glimpse of history tells me we’ll recover from that as well.

Followers of this blog enjoy historical fiction for many reasons. Readers and authors of historical fiction often compare people and events with life today, so my novel is not unique in this regard.

The Yankee Club has been described as a rollicking mystery. I’m proud of the novel; the story, the mystery, the introduction of Jake and Laura who appear next in All That Glitters. But I’m also pleased I was able to craft a historical novel that provides readers with a glimpse into the past as well as a reminder of the present.


Michael Murphy's The Yankee Club is published this week by Random House Alibi in ebook format ($2.99; see links for Kindle and Nook).  For more information, visit the author's website and his \Mystery & History blog.