Category Archives: Writing

Celebrating PLAYING BY HEART with Author Carmela Martino

Hi, everyone! Today, I’m celebrating the release of my friend Carmela Martino’s recently released novel, Playing by Heart. Carmela’s conversation with us here is part of her celebratory blog tour. Read on, then check out the other posts at


Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, being the ‘second sister’ means she’ll likely be sent to a convent instead. Emilia’s only hope is to prove her musical talents crucial to her father’s quest for nobility. First, though, she must win over her music tutor, who disdains her simply for being a girl. Too late, Emilia realizes that her success could threaten not only her dreams but her sister’s very life.

 Playing by Heart is inspired by two amazing sisters who were far ahead of their time–one a mathematician, the other a composer. At its core, the novel is the story of two teens struggling to follow their true calling, even when it conflicts with their father’s goals. It’s a clean historical romance appropriate for ages 12 and up.

Carmela and I met at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)-Illinois revision retreat in 2013—where I think we were notable for being the only two authors crazy enough to set YA novels in the 18th century. I was working on The Last Sister and she was working on Playing by Heart.

Welcome, Carmela!

Let’s talk first about the historical inspiration for your novel. Who were those amazing sisters? And what made you decide to invent new characters rather than fictionalizing the lives of the real people or writing a biography? (I’m going to take a guess that it has to do with available sources.)

Hi, Courtney. Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about my novel.

The main characters in Playing by Heart, Emilia Salvini, and her older sister, Maria, are inspired by two sisters who were well-known in 18th-century Milan. We have more information about the woman who inspired the character of the elder sister, Maria Salvini. She was Maria Gaetana Agnesi, a child language prodigy who was fluent in seven languages. Her studies also included math and science. By age fourteen she was solving difficult geometry problems, and she went on to write an acclaimed math textbook. Emilia Salivini, my novel’s first-person narrator, is loosely based on Maria Gaetana’s younger sister, Maria Teresa Agnesi, who was one of the first Italian women to compose a serious opera.

I did originally set out to write a biography of mathematician Maria Gaetana for ages 10 and up. It was a challenging project, especially because not much remains of Maria Gaetana’s own writing besides her textbook. I kept submitting and revising, but I kept getting rejected. One of those rejections was from the Candlewick editor I worked with on my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and Maria Teresa. Both sisters had struggled to please a domineering father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness.

However, lack of source material wasn’t the only reason I fictionalized Playing by Heart. It was also because I wanted to write the novel for a young-adult audience. The Agnesi sisters’ difficulties with their father didn’t get resolved until after his death. By then they were in their early 30s—too old for protagonists in a YA novel.

As authors of historical fiction for young people, we’re constantly fighting the “history is boring” stereotype. But how could history be boring? It’s about people, and people are rarely boring. What drew you to the 18th century?

The only time I find history boring is when it consists of lists of dates and names. I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, especially historical fiction that incorporates real people and events. I love learning about the past while being entertained. That’s why I tried to include so many historical details in Playing by Heart.

To answer your question about what drew me to the 18th century in particular, I have to say it was mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s story. Even though my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science, I’d never heard of Maria Gaetana until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history. She’d been a celebrity in her day and could have been the first ever female university mathematics professor, but she turned the position down. Instead, she spent much of her life helping the poor and homeless. The more I learned about her, the more intrigued I became. Why hadn’t I heard of this amazing woman before? I was determined to introduce others, especially young people, to her.

Let’s talk about that “clean historical romance” label. It seems like that’s always the question when it comes to romance: how steamy is it? And these days in YA, it seems like there’s a bias toward the steamier the better. (For the record, I find all this obsession with steaminess level very silly, on whichever side of it you fall. It should be natural for the book, and characters should not be forced toward one end or the other.) But I think this is an interesting question for authors of historical fiction because we have to look at historical realities about sex, gender, and physical contact. And not always just physical contact—sometimes we’re in contexts where men and women aren’t even allowed to speak to each other. How did you end up with a “clean historical romance?”

I agree with you that the level of physical interaction should fit the context of who the characters are and the societal standards of the time. It’s funny that you mention the phrase “clean historical romance” that’s part of the novel’s description. I didn’t include that until a writer friend pointed out that many readers assume that if it’s a “historical romance” it’s going to be steamy. Anyone with those expectations would be sorely disappointed with my novel!

Interestingly, there were some details about male/female relationships that I had great difficulty researching for the novel. For example, I was unable to determine if a chaperone would have been required in the room when Emilia was having a lesson from the Maestro. (I chose not to mention it one way or the other. No one’s commented about it so far.) Most of the material I found was about life in England or France, or even Venice. But Venice was a republic in the 18th century, and a rather licentious one, as I understand. The way of life there was significantly different from that in the Duchy of Milan, which was under Hapsburg rule.

I was wondering about that, and I concluded that Milan must have been very different from those other places you mention. To be honest, when I saw “clean historical romance” and “18th century,” I kind of did a double take because the 18th century is not known for its prudishness—quite the other way around, in fact. It’s beloved of historical romance writers partly because it’s one of our more sex-obsessed eras.

Playing by Heart ended up a “clean historical romance” because, based upon my research of the real family that inspired the novel, I couldn’t imagine the physical interaction between Emilia and her love interest going beyond handholding. However, the novel does mention other characters having quite different standards, which fit with my more general research.

On a related note, you ended up publishing with Vinspire, which publishes Christian and inspirational fiction, but I didn’t have the impression that you were writing it with the idea that this was “a Christian book.” Despite identifying as Christian myself, I typically give a hard pass to “Christian novels” because I generally find the religion to be either very forced, very preachy, or very misogynistic. (And if someone can explain to me this obsession with the Amish, I will be forever grateful.) I didn’t find any of this to be the case in Playing by Heart, and I think it’s because your characters’ devout Catholicism is very natural and true to historical norms. It’s not only religion for them, it’s culture, as well. Can you talk a bit about writing a story set in a context so different from our own? How can we make it relatable (ugh, that word!) to modern readers?

Thank you. I take it as a great compliment that you found the characters’ religious beliefs to be natural and fitting. I did not set out to write a “Christian” novel, and have avoided labeling Playing by Heart as such for some of the reasons you mention, in particular, that readers will assume it will be preachy. For the record, while Vinspire does publish Christian fiction, they aren’t exclusively a Christian publisher. As it says on their website, “. . . we are a family-friendly publisher, we do not allow extreme violence, any profanity, drug use or references to drug use, smoking, or the use of alcohol by minors, or sensuality or sex in our books.”

Before I answer your questions, let me back up and say that I faced similar issues when I wrote Rosa, Sola. That novel was inspired by events from my own childhood, including a death in my family. Like me, my main character, Rosa, is the daughter of Italian immigrants who are devout Catholics, and she attends a Catholic elementary school. I felt I couldn’t write the novel realistically without mentioning Rosa’s prayer life and her anger with God in response to personal tragedy. But I tried to keep religious references to a minimum because I was hoping to be published by a secular publisher. To my surprise, after Candlewick Press offered me a contract, the editor asked me to put more of the religious aspects into the story. She wanted me to show how integral faith was to how Rosa viewed the world.

Now, to get back to Playing by Heart, I again couldn’t write the story without incorporating the characters’ religious beliefs. As you say, religion was woven into the culture, possibly even more so than how I portray it in the novel. So, how do we make it relatable to modern readers? For me, I think there are two key ways:

1) By writing the story from inside my character as much as possible. Emilia is a first-person narrator, so as I wrote, I tried to immerse myself in her point of view, like a method actor playing a role. I tried to imagine how a girl with her worldview would think and behave in every moment. I also focused on showing vs. telling. I know that advice is almost cliché nowadays, but that’s what keeps a story that deals with religion from coming across as preachy. Never does Emilia say, “I’m going down to the chapel now because I need to pray that everything will be okay.” Instead, we see her go to the chapel without thinking twice about it and we hear her specific prayers.

2) By showing my characters struggling with the same issues modern readers have. For example, Emilia is so jealous of her older sister she doesn’t recognize how gifted she herself is. Sibling rivalry is something today’s teens can relate to. They can also empathize with many of Emilia’s other concerns, such as coping with the pressure to meet parental expectations, trying to discern her life’s calling, and trying to figure out if the one she loves feels the same about her.

And one thing writers are always interested in: how did you find your publisher?

It was a long path to publication. I started submitting Playing by Heart in Fall 2011. As the rejections came in, I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. Playing by Heart did well in several contests, and even took first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City RWA Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest.

Can we talk about how much I ‘heart’ this plaque? I might enter this contest just to try to get one.

(That was after the revisions I did following the 2013 retreat where you and I met.) Several of the editors and agents who judged the contests asked to see the full manuscript. Unfortunately, they all told me pretty much the same thing: Playing by Heart was well written but historical fiction is a “tough sell” in the young adult market. After studying the market, I realized that the popular YA historicals seemed to incorporate fantasy, witches, secret societies, or a murder mystery.

Yes! And I have to interrupt and say that the witch thing really bothers me. Not because I have a problem with witches (Bring on the Harry Potter and the read-alikes. The Mists of Avalon was life-changing.), but because when authors take events like the Salem witch trials and glamorize them, they’re not respecting the past, and they’re not respecting the lived experiences of the real people who were victimized. With all the concern we have today for respecting the lived experiences of other people, it’s just fine to exploit people who are dead and can’t call you on it? That’s a real problem for me.

Okay, getting back to your book:

Playing by Heart has none of that. I’d thought my sales “hook” was that the novel is inspired by two amazing 18th-century sisters who were ahead of their time. Frustrated, I set the manuscript aside and hoped the market trends would change, as often happens in publishing.

Then, in March 2016, I had the opportunity to pitch to Dawn Carrington, editor-in-chief of Vinspire Publishing as part of the 2016 Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference (CWCO). Figuring I had nothing to lose, I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer. Dawn liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Less than three months later, Dawn emailed to say she wanted to publish the manuscript!

Thanks so much for hosting this interview, Courtney. I hope your readers will visit the other stops on the Playing by Heart Blog Tour. I invite them to go to my website for the complete list of tour links and enter for a chance to win a copy of the novel:

I’ll also be hosting a Facebook Launch Party on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 7-9 p.m. Central Time, where readers can win not only copies of Playing by Heart but other great books and prizes.

Thanks for joining us, readers! I hope you’ll check out PLAYING BY HEART and stop by Carmela’s Facebook Launch Party.

Thanks for being here, Carmela!


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FINDING KATE with Author Maryanne Fantalis (Part 2)

Welcome back to my conversation with author Maryanne Fantalis about Finding Kate, her retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. If you missed the beginning of the interview, check it out here.

Maryanne is back!

I’m interested in the names of the settings, Whitelock Town, where Kathryn lives, and Bitterbrook Keep, Sir William’s home. Where did those come from?

You know, I completely made these up and I’m not even sure anymore where they came from. Generally, with the names of towns I’m making up, I look at the towns in the area I’m working with and try to come up with something that will fit in. I know that with the name for Whitelock, I wanted a sense of cleanliness and order, a place where things are just so. And with Bitterbrook Keep, I wanted a sense of falling on hard times, the idea that things aren’t always as easy as they seem from the outside, even when you’ve got an old family name and a keep that’s been around for a thousand years. Some things are just serendipity, you know?

I loved both those names, by the way, and I thought they fit the book so well!

Speaking of names, I noticed a similarity between Finding Kate and The Last Sister, which is that the love interest calls the main character by a different form of her name than the other characters do. And they’re all variations of “Catherine,” however you spell it, which is not surprising because when you’re working with names from the past that are still recognizable to modern readers, your choices can be limited. (Though in your case, Shakespeare chose Kathryn’s name.) What are your thoughts on this?

Well, Shakespeare seems to have loved the name Katherine because he used it in several plays, and every time, he almost immediately shortened it to Kate (for instance, Lady Hotspur and Princess Katherine of France, just to name two). I don’t know if he did that for the meter (fewer syllables in Kate) or if he liked the wordplay (he conflates “Kate” with “cake” in a particularly yummy pun in Shrew), or maybe he just liked the sound of the name “Kate”.

In any case, I discovered as I read the play closely that everyone calls the main character Katharina pretty consistently, regardless of any considerations of pun, rhyme or meter. However, the love interest Petruchio (whose name I changed in my novel to Will) immediately begins calling her Kate from the very first moment they meet. In fact, she tries to correct him (“They call me Katharina that do talk of me”) but he refuses to listen and launches into a stream of praises of her as Kate (“plain Kate/And bonny Kate… the prettiest Kate…”) that astonish her. Knowing Shakespeare as well as I do, I found that very significant. I believe that Shakespeare was deliberately saying that Petruchio views Kate differently from everyone else, that this stranger is the only one who sees the real woman, as opposed to these people who live with her and see only “the shrew”. Once I grabbed onto that idea, the whole idea of “taming” took on a very different shape and the title Finding Kate followed pretty quickly.

Thank you so much for talking with me about Finding Kate, Maryanne!

Readers, I hope you’ll put Finding Kate on your TBR list. Be sure to enter the giveaway below. If you don’t win, you can find Kate (see what I did there?) wherever you like to buy books. If you’re more of the borrowing type, it’s also very helpful to authors when you request that your local library purchase a copy.

Enter the giveaway below, then leave a comment telling us which of Shakespeare’s women you’d like to see Maryanne retell! (If you have any trouble with the Rafflecopter giveaway, just leave a comment and we’ll make sure you get entered!)

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FINDING KATE with Author Maryanne Fantalis (Part 1)

I used to have a real problem with books that were retellings of other stories. I just didn’t get it for the longest time. It seemed  like the lazy way out to take someone else’s story and tell it from a different angle. It bothered me so much that I did what I always do when things bother me and investigated it very heavily. Leaning on the work I’d done on the Civil War and Reconstruction in my undergraduate History program, I wrote my master’s thesis in English on retellings of “other people’s stories.”

I looked at Geraldine Brooks’ March, a retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

I looked at Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

And I contrasted historical narratives of the legendary Lowrie/Lowry War with Strike at the Wind (a play) and Josephine Humphreys’ Nowhere Else On Earth, two more recent interpretations.

It’s called Reconstructions: A Feminist Perspective on Twenty-First Century Literary Responses to Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Civil War and Reconstruction Narratives. And now you all want to run out and buy it, but you can’t because it’s never been published. So you will either have to visit Milner Library at Illinois State University or me at my house to check out a copy. It’s compelling reading—just ask my mom. (It also relies heavily on theories of haunting and space-place, so trust me, it’s cool.)

Anyway—all that is to say I got over my distaste for retellings long before I met my dear friend Maryanne, and I am so glad I did.

I recently read the first in her series of novels that retell the stories of Shakespeare’s women, and Maryanne agreed to stop by and chat about Finding Kate. Grab yourself a snack and your beverage of choice, because you’re going to want your energy for this discussion!


       Here’s Maryanne!

First, Maryanne, why retell The Taming of the Shrew?

Courtney, in response, thank you for having me here! And I definitely want to read your master’s thesis ASAP! I love to read retellings and adaptations, or any fiction that spins a beloved tale in a new direction or gives us new insights into characters we thought we already knew. So maybe it was inevitable that I ended up rewriting Shakespeare’s stories. As arrogant as that feels at times – How dare I? He’s the greatest writer in the English language! – I think he wouldn’t mind. After all, he borrowed most of his stories from other writers.

I had been kicking around the idea of adapting a Shakespeare play for a while, and in fact, I had begun working on both Hamlet and Twelfth Night in very preliminary stages. But it was a visit to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and experiencing their performance of The Taming of the Shrew in 2010, that pushed me to undertake this adaptation with a whole, committed heart. I’ve talked about this at length on my own blog, but basically, I was blown away by the CSF production. Within the first couple of scenes, there were lightbulbs going off in my head as I suddenly understood things about this play that I had never even imagined. I suddenly understood that this shrew had reasons! That she was never the first one to be harsh or cruel; that she was always on the defensive; that her family treated her abominably; and that Petruchio, the man who in his own words is the only husband for her, saw in an instant what no one else around her saw: an intelligent, vibrant woman being oppressed and warped by her environment. The challenge for him was how to get through to her, and how to convince her to see that her usual reaction – fight with everything she had – was counterproductive once she was removed from that toxic environment. A well-directed, well-acted production, like the CSF’s in 2010, can illuminate this play brilliantly. It did that for me. I hope my retelling can do that for my readers as well.

I don’t have the background in Shakespeare you do, but it seems to me that we don’t get much, if any, direct reference to current events in Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s like he’s determined that this is a comedy, people are here to laugh, and he doesn’t reference the real world in any substantial way. But you set your novel toward the end of the Wars of the Roses, several generations before Shakespeare’s time. Why did you choose that setting and what effect does that setting have on your story?

I had two primary reasons for setting the story during the Wars of the Roses. First, I have studied that period of time extensively, far more than either of the logical historical settings for any retelling: Elizabethan England, where Shakespeare lived, or Renaissance Italy, where Shakespeare set his Shrew. By choosing a time period I know well, I was much more comfortable writing everything – social relationships, economics, clothing, customs, language, housing, current events, etc.

I hear you there. Pro-tip, writers: if you can set your story anywhere, think about what you already know well. And Maryanne, I love that you didn’t go to the logical historical setting.

Second, with reference to the play itself, there is a moment during Kate’s final speech where she compares the relationship between spouses to the duty between subject and lord (“What is [a disobedient wife] but a foul contending rebel/And graceless traitor to her loving lord?” Act V, scene ii). In my take on the play, she doesn’t mean a word of the speech, and it hit me that it would be perfect to put Kate and Will against a political backdrop where most of the noble subjects are in fact “foul contending rebels” and “graceless traitors” to their king, and where the king himself is considered by many to be a usurper and a murderer. It gives greater import to her words, and puts Will, as a knight who will be placed by the king – and potentially by rebels and traitors – in a tricky situation as the novel progresses. The setting provided greater depth to the relationship between my main characters, and gave them a very real external challenge to contend with.

Speaking of genre, I remember a while back when you were struggling with what genre Finding Kate fit in? Did you ever decide? Did your publisher decide? The market is such a ridiculous thing sometimes. I feel like the message we get as writers is, “You must fit in this box. But not too much in this box. We don’t want it to look like everything else in this box. But sort of like everything else in this box.” It’s like we’re supposed to fit in while standing out. A hard balance, as any Strong Female Character knows, and as any woman knows.

Yes, it has been a struggle, and I still feel it. My publisher has listed Finding Kate as “historical romance” and while there are romantic elements to it, I do worry that the “romance” label will turn off some more serious (okay, snobby) readers. Unfortunately, romance as a genre does not get much respect, mainly, I think, because it is written (mainly) by women for women and about subjects that concern women…but we’d need pages and pages to deconstruct that problem.

At the same time, this novel is not a typical “historical fiction” either in that it doesn’t follow the usual structures or tropes of the genre, and it has a great deal of humor which is, again, not typical of the genre. I have often said if it were set in the contemporary world, it would have a wine glass or a cupcake on the front and it would be called women’s fiction, easy peasy. Unfortunately, the historical element throws that out the window. Why? Because women’s fiction doesn’t include stories set in the past…unless they’re terribly dramatic…I guess? When I wrote my queries, I described it as an “unconventional romantic historical” and I still think that works. But that’s not a category on Amazon, so…

Right. Well, whether or not it notches neatly into a category on Amazon, it is definitely the kind of book I have always liked to read.

There were so many times I related to Kathryn, related to her rage at the way the medieval world (and this one) treats women, and related to the things she said to other people or the things that were said to her. And we’re told as women that rage isn’t okay, that it’s not something “nice” girls feel, when in fact it’s the perfectly natural response of anyone who’s paying attention, especially these days. Here are a few lines I underlined:

“You always act like you’re better than me, than all of us, with your books and your Latin and doing Father’s sums. That’s why no one likes you.” (p. 106)

“You never will learn to be quiet, will you?” (p. 93)

“It would have been nice to have some idea of how to act, of how to be different from who I was.” (p.117)

Those first two are things that have been said to me multiple times over the course of my life, and the third is definitely something I have felt and still feel quite often. Care to comment on these lines?

The virtues the medieval world expected of women were chastity, obedience, and silence. When we look back at the past, we tend to focus on chastity, and male ownership of women’s bodies through legal and religious constructs. But to be an outspoken female was nearly as bad as to be an unchaste one. The “shrew” in literature is only one example of this. The idea that such a woman could – and should! – be beaten, physically muzzled, and verbally abused until she learns to be silent is appalling; that it would be the source of amusement in many plays and stories is worse. I believe that Shakespeare began a process of questioning that with his Shrew play. I hope that I have contributed in my own small way to the breaking down of that harmful stereotype.

The terribly disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising truth is that, five hundred years later, the traits we value in women have not changed very much. And that is something women like us talk about quite a bit, and we need to continue to do so. Fiction like Finding Kate, and like The Last Sister, can help with that conversation by helping frame the present in light of the past. Progress may be slow (five hundred years? seriously?) but it will only happen if we keep working at it.

As far as relating these lines to my own life, I definitely heard things like that first line quite a bit as a child. I wrote from the heart when I wrote about Kathryn’s desire to learn and her anger at the small-mindedness of those around her. I think many smart girls are belittled for their intelligence, and we learn to hide our curiosity and drive to learn fairly early on. In addition, our country seems to be in a strangely paradoxical state right now, where “geeks” and “nerds” are valued in our economy, but at the same time ignorance and anti-elitism is prized in our politics. I don’t know how we’re going to survive the schism.

Again, Courtney, I think you and I could have very long conversations about these issues.

We could and we should! And I encourage everyone reading this to think about how you can contribute to that conversation, whether through your writing or in your daily life.

Join us tomorrow when we’ll be talking about naming places and characters. You’ll also be able to enter to win a signed copy of Finding Kate!

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Talking about FOREVER FINLEY with Author Holly Schindler (Part 2)

forever finley

True love never dies – or so Amos Hargrove, a brave Civil War soldier who lost his beloved before they could marry, still believes.  His spirit, some say, pervades the town he founded and named for his sweet fair-haired young beauty.  In Finley, dreams come true, love blossoms, and second chances are unearthed.  Is Amos’s spirit truly at work, granting wishes as he continues to search for his own love?  Does his unfulfilled desire continue to have influence on those who call Finley home?  What will it take to finally unite two souls meant to be together?

Forever Finley is a collection of stand-alone yet interconnected short stories; when read cover to cover, the stories build like chapters in a novel.  As a whole, Forever Finley explores the many facets of love – whether that love takes the form of friendship, romance, or passion for one’s life calling.  These warm, uplifting, often magical tales detail loss and perseverance, the strength of the human spirit, and the ability of love to endure…forever.

Today, I’m back with Holly Schindler to talk about her short story cycle, FOREVER FINLEY. Yesterday we talked about the process of writing and indie publishing a new short story each month, and today we’re digging into the stories Holly tells.


 COURTNEY: I read the stories as you released them each month, and I have to say that they were perfect for 2016 because they felt so gentle in what was not, in many ways, a gentle time. Finley didn’t feel like it was really part of this world—in a good way. Is Finley based on any real place? (True Confessions: Our family photographer has her studio on the town square in a little town called Metamora, Illinois, and the first time I saw the town square, I said, “That’s Finley!” So Metamora plays Finley in my head.)

I love that description of the series feeling gentle. I really hope that readers continue to have that feeling in 2017.

As far as the setting goes, I live in Springfield, MO—third largest city in the state, home of Springfield Style Cashew Chicken and Brad Pitt. But it’s also got a real small town feel—and it’s surrounded by little towns (Ozark, Fair Grove) with old-fashioned small town squares. I did have Ozark, MO in my head quite a bit when I depicted the Finley town square. There’s even a river that runs through Ozark called Finley. I take my dog to walk at the Finley River Park quite a bit—and had that area in my head when I wrote about Founders Park in Finley.

Springfield also has a National Cemetery that I had in my mind’s eye from the very beginning, when I wrote “Come December.” It’s right across the street from an apartment building—just as Finley’s National Cemetery is located near Natalie’s apartment complex. You can see more in my short video.

COURTNEY: So now we know where Finley’s name comes from! FOREVER FINLEY touches a lot of genres, including historical fiction, contemporary fiction, ghost stories, magical realism, new adult, boomer lit. And you’ve written in a lot of those genres, so FOREVER FINLEY brings all that together. How would you classify it? Are there any books or other stories that particularly influenced the book?

I really love stories with a strong sense of local color—any story in which the setting feels like a character (I even love the way the café in Flagg’s FRIED GREEN TOMATOES feels like a character). That was a big part of putting this book together. I’m also an old lit major, and was surely influenced by those Victorian classics that were initially serialized.

I think one of my favorite parts of FOREVER FINLEY is that there’s no one right way to read it. As I was writing it in 2016, I felt that each story, while connected to the others, had to truly stand on its own. (That way, readers who discovered the July story on Amazon wouldn’t feel lost when they purchased it.) Now that the stories are all collected into one volume, you certainly can read cover to cover. But you can also read the stories out of order—the same way you skip around an album, listening to random songs, even returning to the same song several times before moving on. For those who’d like to bounce around rather than reading straight through, I’ve included a detailed table of contents at the beginning of the book, which allows you to get a glimpse of what each story is about.

Courtney: I love making connections between art forms, so comparing the cycle to an album is right up my alley. What else would you like readers to know about FOREVER FINLEY?

I’ve just revamped the cover of the series. I liked the first cover—I think it spoke to the historical element of the book—but it wasn’t as mysterious, romantic, or intriguing as it could have been. To celebrate the book’s new “skin,” I’m giving away a review copy of the series to one lucky reader—either e-book (it’s listed in KU, so it’s only available in Kindle form) or paperback. To enter, shoot me an email at hollyschindlerbooks (at) gmail (dot) com.


You can also check out FINLEY and all my other works at my Amazon page:

Or visit my author site:

Courtney: Thanks for being here, Holly! If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll either enter            Holly’s contest or check out FOREVER FINLEY on her Amazon page.


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“Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline” and I Talk About Mr. Rogers

One of the great things about having a  child is that I have an excuse to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood from the beginning. While my daughter loves the show, especially snapping her fingers to make a “snappy new day,” I often find that Mr. Rogers says exactly the thing I need to hear in my own life and work, and he doesn’t shy away from the hard truths.

We’ve made it to 1982, to the week titled “Mr. Rogers Talks About Discipline.” I confess that my inner child groaned and rolled her eyes when she saw that title, thinking that it was about obeying your parents, blah, blah…but I should have known Mr. Rogers better than that.

It’s about the other kind of discipline. Self discipline, where you make yourself do hard things. Here’s a link to the full lyrics of “You’ve Got To Do It.”

I’d like to quote just a couple of the stanzas here. These are the ones that had me nodding along and (nearly) crying.

You can make-believe it happens, or pretend that something’s true.
You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you’d like to do,
But until you start to do it, you will never see it through
‘Cause the make-believe pretending just won’t do it for you.

You’ve got to do it.
Every little bit, you’ve got to do it, do it, do it, do it
And when you’re through, you can know who did it
For you did it, you did it, you did it

If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall,
You can’t simply sit and look at it ’cause it won’t move at all.
But it’s you who have to try it, and it’s you who have to fall (sometimes)
If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall.


It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one good way to grow.
It’s not easy to keep learning, but I know that this is so:
When you’ve tried and learned you’re bigger than you were a day ago.
It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one way to grow.

Oh, my goodness, Mr. Rogers.

It’s you who have to fall.

It’s not easy to keep trying , but it’s one good way to grow.

I think these are things we tell children, but there’s this persistent idea that as adults, we should never fail and we should be grown.

How silly is that?

As a writer, I fail all the time. I fall all the time. And I try all the time, and I grow all the time. But often I forget that all of that is okay, that it’s expected, that it’s even a desirable state of affairs.

In 1987, I wrote Mr. Rogers a letter, and he wrote back.  My mother found his letter in our attic, and now I have it on my desk in a folder I call “Inspiration.”

He wrote:

 You asked me where the ideas for our puppets come from and why Daniel Tiger is scared and shy. Courtney, ideas for Make-Believe come from many places, just like ideas for your own pretending do.


I wonder if you ever do some play with puppets? You might like to try with sock puppets or puppets made from paper bags. I wonder what your puppets would be like? What you would think of would be unique because it came from you.

Sometimes, on bad writing days, I imagine how interested Mr. Rogers would be to hear about my work, how he would search for the roots of it in my childhood, ask me if I had always been interested in making up stories about history. (Yes. Ask the kids in my neighborhood about “Medieval Times,” everyone’s favorite game.) He would ask if my own little girl influences my work. (Yes. I want to tell stories that say something I would like her to know, but not in a didactic way, just in the way that all good writing says important things. I try to write books I would like her to have.) He would ask if I ever think about the people who will read my work. (Sometimes. I try to think about the pleasure readers, not the reviewers. But sometimes I can’t help thinking about the reviewers.)

I know all this because I’ve seen my share of Mr. Rogers’ interviews recently.

I got a lot out of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I think I might need Mr. Rogers even more as an adult. Children know to keep growing. Adults sometimes need a reminder.


Filed under Uncategorized, Writing

The Joy of Caring Less

I always thought I was a one-project-at-a-time kind of girl.

I have discovered I was wrong.

In my January post at YA Outside the Lines, I discussed the frustrations I’ve been feeling about writing in the last year.

It was bad. As in can’t eat, can’t sleep, drive my family crazy bad.

I’m happy to report that it’s now much better, partly because I decided if writing was making me this miserable I shouldn’t do it because it’s not like it’s paying very many bills, either. But I can’t not write.

I used to write for myself, because I couldn’t not do it, and because I enjoyed making my mother and my English teachers cry—it is something, isn’t it, to make people feel? It’s a kind of power. I wrote with no thought of publication or awards. Those things were too far off.

Then I was published, and there was critical approval, if not money in it, and I have always loved approval better than money, anyway.

I wanted them again, those tiny hits of approval that really do hit my brain like a drug.


That became my goal, not writing what made me glad to write, not the projects that pulled at my heart and made me happy, but this.




I discovered, in my desire for publication and approval, that I could not write. I was holding everything too tightly, afraid of failing, afraid of wasting my time.

Something made me let go. I don’t know what. Maybe my arms finally got too tired. I let myself drift.

I drafted (in longhand, which I haven’t done for over a decade) an historical fiction picture book. A book featuring real people (always very scary to write about) who spent a remarkable evening together and left behind a record of it so sparse it could not become narrative nonfiction because I had to fill in the gaps. It’s something I never would have let myself write while I was holding on so tightly to what would sell.

I began it two Friday nights ago while my husband bathed our daughter. I never write at those times, when it is loud and I can hear her laughing and splashing and him singing some song he loves from his own childhood about elephants playing on spider webs. I began it because the first lines came into my head and I needed to get them down before I forgot. I realized I had been an elephant on a spider web, and no elephant can play on a spider web if she thinks too hard about it. I felt joy in writing for the first time in a long time, and I woke up the next morning and finished the draft. Whether it ever sees the light of day or not is immaterial. Those six hundred words brought me back.

Last Thursday, I forgot to put my daughter’s school bag in the car, and I ended up driving to and from her school three times during what is meant to be my work time. It was okay because in that drive I realized which novel project I should be working on. The one I know is not “commercial” enough. The one I know can come from no one but me. (There are, however, pretty dresses in it, and the calculating part of my brain that knows I can sell historical fiction as long as there are pretty dresses—come on, you know it’s true—rejoices.)

In my research for various incarnations of the above novel over the past year, I stumbled upon a nonfiction story I wanted to tell. My husband has been after me for years to do nonfiction, because I do love it and I am good at it and I was trained as a historian first. I registered for a class on writing narrative nonfiction, because I also find great joy in learning and reading and homework assignments.

These projects are very different from each other, but they all have connections. All are set in my beloved eighteenth century because I think I am right, after all, after much wandering, to focus my work there. There is great joy in knowing a world well, and it’s interesting to see the same world from so many different angles as I work on different projects.

Working on three projects at a time enables me to hold them all with a looser rein. If one fails, perhaps another will succeed. I don’t feel so uptight about things. If I get stuck on one, I can switch to another. Nothing is life or death. Some people need to pour everything they have into one thing at a time, but I can’t. Because what if I give everything I have and still come up short? I can’t do it. I freeze in terror.

Working on a variety of projects keeps me from getting bored, from holding any one project so tight it can’t breathe, so tight I can’t breathe. It keeps me from caring too much. Caring too little is bad. Caring too much is bad. I need to care just enough to do the work well and then to let it be.


Filed under Writing

Greetings from the Playroom (And the Office and the Nursery and Sometimes the Kitchen)

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to spend more time on my blog and social media sites. When my daughter was born (16 months ago!), I panicked and cut everything down to the barest of bones re: writing. That meant spending my precious, precious time actually writing books, so I quit on my personal blog. However, I kept blogging with my blog group at YA Outside the Lines, and sometime last fall I came to the conclusion that if I could write one blog a month there, I could do it here.

I thought I’d bring you up to speed by writing first about where I’m writing. This lovely room with dark paneling and a pretty fireplace (cold and covered in sharp places, don’t worry, the baby is safe) and wooden beams on the ceiling used to be my library. The walls used to be lined with bookshelves. It was my favorite room in the whole house.

I never spent any time in it. It was a storage room for books. Now it is my daughter’s playroom, and I spend lots of time in it. It’s still my favorite room because see: lovely.

About a year ago, we moved the bookshelves downstairs to the basement (finished and dehumidified, don’t worry, the books are safe), where they still provide relatively easy access to the books despite the fact that we have to maneuver around all the other stuff we don’t have room for upstairs. (In other news, I am Marie Kondo-ing my house. I know that book made a lot of people angry, but I have so far done my dresser and looking at my sock drawer is the definition of bliss. So, angry people who are perhaps a little bit sensitive about someone suggesting you own too much stuff, I suggest you do what you would do with any other self-help book and take the parts that work for you and toss the rest. I…really…the anger about that book just baffles me, but I like organizing and tidying, so maybe that is personal bias.)

I’ve just started writing from the playroom. I used to spend all the working hours in my office (like most people), except (unlike most people, I guess) my office is in our smallest bedroom.

Three summers ago, while visiting my parents, I worked in the dining room off the kitchen, discovering by accident that I work better with more going on around me. I can cook chicken while also writing! Who knew? Oh, the possibilities! My childhood home, which you can buy and I will hate you only a little bit, has an amazing kitchen desk, which I think is the greatest thing in the world. I would love a kitchen desk, and I don’t even do much of our cooking.

I’ve made a similar discovery in the playroom. While certain types of writing call for more focused attention, there are loads of things I can do while also taking bites of imaginary food.

And here’s where history comes in handy. It’s a very practical course of study because you realize that things have not always been the way they are right now. As with Marie Kondo, you can take and toss from various eras. Look at me being so postmodern.

I am embracing the meshing of work and life that used to be common when almost everybody worked at home and rejecting the compartmentalization common to the mid-twentieth century, when my house was built. I’m learning rooms can have more than one purpose. (This is probably obvious to other people.) I’m writing with distractions and without them. (To be honest, when I don’t have distractions, I create them. I’m the kind of writer who needs to look up between sentences. Hello, Facebook, what great/horrible thing do you have for me today?) My daughter gets loads of focused one-on-one attention from a variety of adults, including me, but it’s also a good thing for her to see me work, and we are lucky that I can do certain kinds of work and play at the same time.

I started writing this in the playroom, while watching my daughter transport pretend food from one side of the room to another. I’m finishing it in the quiet of my office. My favorite place to write is in the glider in the nursery. That thing is comfy, and when it outgrows its usefulness there, into my office it goes.

How do you use your space to best advantage? Where do you like to work and play?





Filed under Writing

Spelling “Tuesday”

Just in case it makes any difference, Stephen and I have been reading aloud to our daughter while she’s in the womb. Our most recent selections are the Winnie-the-Pooh books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, which I have read many times but not since I wrote a paper on them in my undergraduate children’s literature class ten years ago and which Stephen has never read at all.

Owl Winnie-the-Pooh(Side Note: Judging by the “Lists of Inspiring Quotes from Pooh” and the abundance of Pooh-themed greeting cards, lots of people have never read these books because those “inspiring quotes” are either taken out of context or I have no recollection of Pooh ever saying them. Stephen learned the hard way never to buy me a Pooh greeting card because I will say something like, “When did Pooh say any of these insipid things? Never! Look, it’s not even punctuated correctly!” He has taken to calling this body of work “Apocryphal Pooh” to assuage my offended literary feelings.)

But back to my story. In The House at Pooh Corner, Rabbit observes that Owl must be respected because “You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right.”

Owl gives it a go. He does something, even if it’s not perfect. As a writer, I often feel like I’m spelling “Tuesday” wrong. Like I’m failing even when I’m succeeding, because maybe I could have done better. Have I, in fact, always done my best? Will even my very best ever be good enough?

I was devastated for a minute when Stephen told me he thought my current manuscript was better than The Last Sister, because The Last Sister has a publisher and (some) people will read it and maybe find out that I am a total fraud at this writing thing, while my work-in-progress does not yet have a publisher and maybe no one will ever read it, which seems somehow worse. In both cases, perhaps, I have spelled “Tuesday” wrong. But at least I have spelled “Tuesday.” At least I have not spent my life not spelling “Tuesday” for fear of getting it wrong. Which, I suppose, is a fancy way of saying I have not allowed perfectionism to stand in the way of action. Which is kind of a big deal for me, because I am nothing if not a perfectionist. I have dared to do it wrong, but at least I have done it. I have to respect myself for that. I should respect myself for that, and my work should keep getting better. By the time a book comes out, I should be a stronger writer than I was when I wrote it.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms and devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

To me, that’s all another way of saying that we should try to spell “Tuesday,” even if we fail. What’s your “Tuesday”? How can you dare to spell it wrong today?


Filed under Writing

World War I and the Power of Story

I planned to write quite a different blog post, but then the Internet reminded me that today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, so that other post will have to wait.

All I can really remember about how I came to my interest in World War I is that sometime in middle or early high school, I saw a picture of some soldiers and thought that was the last time guys looked truly hot in uniform. Tell me, who doesn’t love a man in puttees? My mom told me my great-grandfather, who fought in France and spoke of the war only in reference to French girls in order to annoy my great-grandmother, would have appreciated that.

Also, I think it partly came down to a question of fairness. I’m an American. Americans can talk World War II all day long, but we’re kind of lost when it comes to World War I. That’s partly because we weren’t in it very long, but I think there’s more to it than that. World War II calls up more emotions Americans are comfortable with: clarity of purpose, a solid win. As a culture, we don’t like to dwell on the past, no matter how much it affects us. And what’s the use of a war no one could really win? I became interested in that neglected war because I saw that it was neglected, overshadowed by its bolder, more triumphant offspring. All wars are sad, but World War I seemed to me especially so, not as if the events were sad, but as if the war itself—insofar as wars have a consciousness—were sad.

World War I will always appeal to storytellers because it’s such a perfectly constructed tragedy, almost too perfect to have occurred naturally, as if it were scripted to wring the audience’s hearts. For a century, World War I has provided the raw material for excellent works of literature. It’s sometimes called the most literary of all wars, and maybe that also piqued my interest, because the military and diplomatic history of the war doesn’t interest me any more than military and diplomatic history ever does. (Not much).

I’ve grown out of my high school belief that F. Scott Fitzgerald was The Best Writer Ever to Live (Sorry, Dr. Bruccoli. Please think I am still smart.), but his take on the war in Tender is the Night rings truer to me than any other:

“This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty-five.”

“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

You see what I mean about why World War I appeals to writers and other artists? Half the work is done for you before you get there. I’d love to write about World War I, but I don’t know if I could do it right. Perhaps I am too American, too ready to grin into the sunlight, too unwilling to look back and grieve properly, to walk purposely into the darkness of a time which brought no real triumph—and indeed no satisfying conclusion.

What period of history draws you back time after time? Why do you think that is?




Filed under Research, Writing

Working Through A Monumentally Bad Day

A few weeks ago I had a Monumentally Bad Day, and today I’m having another one, though this one is not quite as bad. My Monumentally Bad Days usually start with lack of sleep the night before, which is not necessarily a pregnancy symptom—I’ve struggled with insomnia my entire adult life. Right now, everything is compounded by the stress late pregnancy is putting on my bones, joints, and muscles, so I spend a lot of time in a physically and emotionally draining state of chronic pain. Nine weeks to go. Only nine more weeks. I hope.

Add to that my ongoing struggle with the fact that I don’t feel either my writing or my teaching career is where it should be (and teaching’s on hold until we leave Illinois—thanks, ridiculous state certification requirements that don’t exist anywhere else! I really need another Bachelor’s degree now that I’ve been teaching at the college level for years: that definitely makes sense.), the fact that I feel like I miss out on almost everything important in the life of my South Carolina-based family and I’m afraid my child will miss out on even knowing her extended family, the fact that I AM NOT HAPPY about having a baby so far away from home, and a few other areas of dissatisfaction I feel powerless to change because God knows I have tried, and you have the recipe for a disastrous meltdown.

This isn’t meant to be an Eeyore post. My life is very blessed in many ways, and I’m nothing short of delighted that I won’t have fifteen family members in my hospital room taking pictures of me shortly after giving birth and peeyore in snowosting them on Facebook, so there is always a silver lining. I don’t know if I even have fifteen close family members—we’re a small bunch, like the Tudors but without the beheadings. These are just the things simmering under the surface that rise to the top when I don’t feel well. Yesterday, I had a Monumentally Good Day, so I guess it all evens out.

But I still need to work, even on bad days, even when I don’t feel well, even when Baby seems intent on spending her entire day repeatedly hurling her full body weight at my vital organs. I’ve tried cutting myself slack, and it’s not for me. I’m much happier when I expect more of myself.

I started this list for myself on my last Monumentally Bad Day, just to remind myself of things I can do to make it better and get things done.

How To Work (Even on a Bad Day):

  • Make sure you’re physically comfortable. Make sure the lighting is right for the work. Go to the bathroom if you need to. (I am really bad about this. For some reason I feel it’s a waste of time.) Brush your teeth. Wear comfortable clothes.
  • If you are making no progress on one item on the list, for whatever reason, move on to something else. Sometimes the best thing you can do is leave it and come back refreshed. Don’t use this as an excuse not to work on a project just because it’s hard, though. Only switch if you are really blocked. Just make sure you’re spending your time working on something.
  • Nap if you’re genuinely tired. Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is take a nap, especially if you really are sleep-deprived. This doesn’t have to take all day. Half an hour can sometimes make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of the work.
  • Eat if you’re genuinely hungry. The idea of the starving artist aside, low blood sugar never produced genius. But don’t eat too much, and don’t eat junk. Both will make you sluggish, and that will not help you think.
  • Exercise. I have a treadmill in my office, a recumbent bike downstairs, and several yoga and strength training videos. I am one of those annoying people who really enjoys exercise for its own sake. Sometimes, when I’m achy or tired or cranky, I have to remind myself that I always feel physically and mentally better if I get moving. Even now. And exercise is really good for your brain power.
  • A little caffeine goes a long way. Or it does for me, anyway. I’m limited to one cup of caffeinated tea a day right now because of the baby (I could have two and still be well under the limit, but I’m trying to be as good as I can), but as soon as she’s out, I am going to get so messed up on caffeine. Seriously, it helps. I know some people will get all judgy about caffeine consumption, just like they get all judgy over how long you breastfeed or if you babywear or cloth diaper or make your own baby food or whatever. (These people need to get a life and perhaps some perspective. I will do what is best for my baby, but I shudder at the thought of getting my identity from any part of my baby’s digestive system. Just saying.)

So there you have it. My notes to self about Working Through a Monumentally Bad Day. How do you stay productive at work when either your body or your brain isn’t cooperating?


Filed under Writing