Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

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 http://www.carmelamartino.com/blog/posts/2406.


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!


Filed under Author Interviews, Publishing, Reading, What I'm Reading, Writing

Old Projects and New

Well, hello. I feel like it’s been forever since I’ve blogged, though the calendar tells me it’s been only a month. The holidays always seem to create this big dividing line in time, I guess because I enjoy them so much that I make sure to take plenty of time off to do said enjoying, and then I have to get back in the swing of things.

I like getting back into the swing of things. I like to take time off, but I like to get back to work, and I have had plenty of work to get back to. When I decided to take the plunge and become a full-time writer, I didn’t really think having too much work was going to be a problem, but so it is.

I have galley proofs coming in this month for my novel, which is releasing in October. I’m very excited for the release, and of course, very nervous that it will be revealed that I am a total hack who makes mistakes in her history and can’t structure a story to save her life, etc., etc., etc., but all I can think about right now is that I have to read that book again. And convince people to buy it, which means tooting my own horn, which is not something I have ever been comfortable with. Practice: “This is an amazing book. You should totes buy it.”

But lately I’ve been working on another book, something completely different. It’s not straight-up historical fiction—because let me tell you, I was tired when I finished the October release, and I wanted to do something completely different. It’s sort of loosely based on the Black Death, which, fun fact, was not called that until the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is loosely based on the Black Death in that it is not at all really based on the Black Death. Does that make sense? No?

I just finished the second draft, and now that I have my story (mostly) straight, it’s time to work on delightful things like character and world-building. That’s where the research comes in. This kind of research is easy, fun even, because I don’t feel the stranglehold accuracy puts on straight-up historical fiction. This book is fun. It may never advance my career. It’s not trendy. It’s just for me because I had the first scene in my head for a few years and it wouldn’t get out, so I wrote it down to find out where it went. It didn’t go where I thought it would, but that’s okay. I’m a big believer in the idea that the greatest part of art is work, but within that you have to let the story be what it wants to be. This one didn’t want to be straight-up historical fiction. It wanted to be a rough-and-tumble fairy tale without magic set in a pre-industrial world.

(Note: My pre-industrial world has a religious system because pre-industrial worlds do. I read a series of books a few years ago that I liked except for that the author was very careful to make her pre-industrial world absent of any type of religious system. I do not buy a pre-industrial society with no religious system. Do. Not. Buy. It. People die a lot in pre-industrial societies. Other people need an explanation. The end.)

My “research” consists of reading about the Black Death and the 14th century, which is more fun than you’d think. I just read The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher. Hatcher describes it as a “docudrama.” It’s an approach in which he takes what is known about the experience of the plague in one village and sort of novelizes it, filling in the gaps—because there are a lot of gaps—with plausibilities. While it’s obviously necessary for what I do, I tend to struggle with nonfiction, so it’s even more important to me that it be interesting and engaging. I’m currently reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by Barbara W. Tuchman, which is also amazing. It’s also way long and has inspired lots of thoughts, which I’m sure I’ll share over the coming months.

It’s hard for me to talk about my writing process, mostly because it’s hard for me to talk about being a writer at all, which is something I need to get over. Is it hard for you to talk about new projects or other things that you do?

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized

Home by Christmas

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for anything Christmassy. The day after Thanksgiving I liberally sprinkle the surfaces in my home with Christmas books, so I can have them handy and remember all of them. I’ve read most of my Christmas books so many times that I have them memorized, so I can just look at them and recall what they have to say. I’ve been reading the same edition of A Christmas Carol for as long as I can remember. It’s a paperback that cost $2.95, so I know it’s at least twenty years old. The books are like relatives that come to visit for a month every year. Relatives I don’t have to feed or clean for or entertain.

I always keep room for new Christmas books. I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned that I’m also a sucker for books set during World War I. As is the case with my annual reading of A Christmas Carol, I can’t remember when my interest in World War I began, but I think it was as a quiet rebellion against all the World War II 50th Anniversary stuff that was happening in my childhood. If everyone else was going to be interested in World War II, then I was going to be interested in World War I. So there. I have always liked to be different for the sake of it. I think it might also be because I am a literary person, and World War I, perhaps more than any other, was a literary war. Also, World War I was the last time uniforms were seriously sexy. Just saying.

For a new book this year, I chose The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd, the pen name of a mother-son writing team whose World War I mysteries I’ve quite enjoyed as audiobooks on long car trips. The Walnut Tree is billed as “A Holiday Tale,” but frankly, I think that’s marketing more than anything else. Set in late 1914 and early 1915, it features one Christmas scene, but a better argument for its relationship to the holidays comes from the notion of being “home by Christmas,” which is what everyone was saying in the autumn of 1914: the war would be over by Christmas. It wasn’t, of course. It dragged on for four more long years, but the idea of “home by Christmas”—a longing, seeking sort of thought—entered our collective consciousness, where it has remained for ninety-nine years, popping up at odd places in all the arts from time to time. We have cherished the notion that the nightmare, whatever it is, will be over by Christmas.

I have so much to say about The Walnut Tree and how it makes me think about Christmas and reading and writing. I read it quickly, in a couple of days. I picked it up at lunch yesterday, and two hours later, I was still sitting at the kitchen table, shivering a little because the kitchen table is next to glass sliding doors, and it is by no means the warmest place in my house. I had other things to do three days before Christmas—my laundry still is not folded—but the only time I budged was to make myself a fresh cup of tea.

I’ve been trying to figure out why. I knew, from about a quarter of the way in, exactly how the story would play out. I didn’t know every detail, but roughly, I knew what was going to happen. And I was right. The Walnut Tree isn’t a mystery; I didn’t need to discover whodunit. I knew this story, so it wasn’t plot that kept me there. It wasn’t character, either. These, too, were characters I knew well. They did nothing that surprised me. They were true to themselves and didn’t try to pull the wool over my eyes or pull the rug out from under my feet. They were courteous people, and I appreciated such courtesy from them. I think what kept me in my chair, more than anything else, was that I knew this world, I knew these characters, I knew this story, and I wanted to be with them all. It’s as simple as that. It’s a book I wanted to be with. It felt like familiar, like home.

In one of his Father Christmas letters to his children, J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “—but after all you don’t want Christmas to be different each year, do you?”

I think it’s the same with stories. I appreciate a thick plot and a twist as much as the next person. Still, I think sometimes the value of “make it new” is overrated. So often, I hear people in publishing say they want a “twist.” Sometimes a twist is good. But sometimes we want to just be comfortable with a story we know, told with new details. Sometimes, we don’t want a book to trick us or keep us on the edges of our seats. Sometimes we want to be “home by Christmas” and a story can give us that, even when nothing else can.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker

Comments Off on Home by Christmas

Filed under Uncategorized

The Problem with “Nothing Good”

It’s been longer than I intended since my last blog post, friends, because the second half of November was something of a doozy. In old books, like Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, characters are wary of November because it’s such a big month for shipwrecks. I guess November has remained rough seas (literally) in spite of modern technology because The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald does have that line about “the witch of November.” Haunting.

On the date of my last blog post, November 14, I was reading Mal Peet’s much-acclaimed novel Tamar, which is about British-sponsored SOE operatives in Nazi-occupied Holland. I was thinking to myself, Man, I have got to stop reading books about British SOE operatives in Nazi-occupied Europe. I was thinking this before I went to the mailbox and a random dog bit me, before my husband got rear-ended on his way to pick me up to go to the doctor, before I was told I was going to need the entire series of rabies shots as a precaution because we didn’t know and couldn’t find the dog. (I don’t have rabies. Happy day. But it doesn’t take a lot of medicine to do a number on a 115-pound body.) And before an EF4 tornado ripped through the next town over, and another two dozen hit around the state of Illinois in one day, leaving many people homeless and generally upsetting the whole place.

Guess what I did not especially want to read about? British SOE operatives in Nazi-occupied Holland who are pretty nasty to each other even when the Nazis are leaving them alone. But I finished the book, anyway, because I hate to leave things unfinished. It was a good book, maybe even a great book, as objective analyses of books go. I made it through thanks to the all-too-brief flash forwards into the mid-1990s, where a granddaughter is, with the help of a cute Dutch guy, trying to unravel the mystery of what really happened to her grandparents in Holland in 1945. Hint: nothing good. I clung to that frame story like it was a raft in a sea of sharks. Or a sea of Nazis.

It occurred to me that maybe this is why many people resist historical fiction. There’s a whole lot of nothing good in history, and I’m only willing to be immersed in it when things are going swimmingly in my own life.

I realize I’ve probably not inspired anyone to read Tamar today, which is sad because, objectively, it’s a great book. But you might want to make sure the only kicking and screaming you need to do at the time is over the story.

Of course, there are all kinds of historical fiction that are Downton Abbey candy, and that’s where I’m headed next. Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford is speeding to my door.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized

“A Little Bit Smart”

One of the many great things about being friends with librarians is that they can keep all your interests on file in the magical card catalog in their brains and pass along stuff that corresponds to those interests. Accordingly, a few weeks ago, I received a plain white envelope holding one of these gifts: two articles on historical fiction from Booklist. I’m going to talk about just the first one this week, since I think each deserves its own post.

The article deals specifically with young adult historical fiction and is titled (get this) “A Genre without a Readership?”

At least there’s a question mark.

I’ll take what I can get.

If you’ve spent any time around the children’s and young adult literature community in any capacity, this is not news to you. (Take a second for a quick sob, and then pull it together. That’s what I do.)

However, the article is not all doom and gloom. The author, Michael Cart, also argues that the strength of historical fiction offerings for young adults lies in their literary quality. He writes, “Some of our finest fiction falls in this category…In this context, it’s obvious that quality trumps quantity. For if historical novels are few in number, they are positively profligate in the richness of their content.”

I was discussing this with my husband, who with his characteristic tact—he actually is quite tactful, just not with me—said, “That’s because historical novelists have to be at least a little bit smart.”

Thank you, dear.

I think he’s right, though. While I’m not diminishing the work done in other genres, I do know that writing historical fiction comes with an additional set of challenges, not the least of which is the army of armchair historians waiting for you to slip.

There’s the world building, like in fantasy, but you have to make sure you’re being true to the world as it once existed.

There’s the constant friction of memory versus history. The world wasn’t necessarily exactly the way we remember it, but sometimes it’s tough to convince readers of that.

There’s the research. You have to know how to do it well, which means you spent long hours under a mentor who taught you how to “do history” or you figured it out through trial and error. Either of those means you’re probably just a little bit smart.

I was lucky to have good mentors.

The fact that publishers are often reluctant to publish historical fiction is, as Cart recognizes, no reflection on the quality of the work.

I think it’s a reflection of the fact that we don’t give our young people enough credit for being willing to try something new, for wanting to know what the world was like before they were born, for being able to recognize and crave literature of quality. (Again, this is not to say that there’s not plenty of great literature in other genres. There is, and I love a lot of it. Cart’s point is that, in comparison to other genres, a greater percentage of historical fiction is really good literature.)

If young adult literature is fundamentally concerned with answering the question, “Who am I?” then historical fiction is a natural fit.

History is the story of humanity asking the same question.



Cart, Michael. “A Genre without a Readership?” Booklist 15 April 2013: 51. Print.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized

Happy Halloween from Me and the Headless Horseman

Happy Halloween!

For Halloween, I decided to reread Washington Irving’s 1820 ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I say reread like I read it recently, but really it’s been since like high school. Maybe middle school. I have a dim memory of watching the Disney cartoon in seventh grade around Halloween, but I didn’t really remember much about the original.

As I started writing, I realized that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow would’ve fit right in with my M.A. thesis, which was about the ways narratives haunt each other. (Wooooooo! Spooky, right?) It was about why we can’t let stories rest in peace, why we have to keep resurrecting them and rewriting them. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is definitely one we can’t let rest in peace. It’s been retold so many times that the original really surprised me.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is hilarious, y’all. It’s not even remotely scary. I LOLed. Mostly, it just made me hungry for all the delicious Dutch delicacies Ichabod Crane gets to eat and homesick for fall in the Northeast, where I lived/visited a lot for three years—long enough to know that the Northeast has us all beat for autumn scenery. (If you don’t believe me, check this out.)

Irving is writing around 1820, but he sets his story thirty years earlier, in 1790. The people of Sleepy Hollow give itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane the shivers with stories of a fairly recent ghost: the Headless Horseman. Rumored to be the ghost of a Hessian mercenary whose head was blown off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War (ouch), the Headless Horseman rides forth at night to terrify unlucky passersby…blah, blah, don’t go past the cemetery at night, blah, blah.

Yeah, that’s what everyone remembers about The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

But the narrator also repeatedly references the story of the very real Major John André. I must have read over it the last time because the narrator assumes his readers know what happened to Major André, but in middle school, I didn’t know. But this time around I knew about him, and the presence of his memory gave the story a certain bittersweetness, a certain tone of regret.

The British officer was caught up in Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Colonial Army hanged him near Tarrytown, New York as a spy—even though he wasn’t, not exactly. He was caught behind enemy (American) lines in civilian clothes, which was enough to convict him. André claimed that as a prisoner of war, he had a right to try to escape in civilian clothes. His commanding officer refused to turn over the more valuable Benedict Arnold to George Washington to save André’s life, so André was hanged even though no one really wanted to do it, but they had to because The Rules of War and all that…It’s a sad, sad story.

I don’t think Major André’s execution ever sat quite right with anyone who encountered it. It never has sat right with me.

There’s no reason for André’s story to be referenced in association with the Headless Horseman, and Irving doesn’t explain much about André. He takes it for granted that readers know André’s story and will find the reference unsettling. Certainly the people of Tarrytown would have found a reminder of André unsettling in 1790. Probably they would have found it unsettling in 1820. Many people who remembered the 1780 hanging of John André would still have been alive forty years later.

Major John André is the real ghost in the story.

BAM! Proof right there that people tell ghost stories about things they feel bad about.

But back to the story itself. Irving has a real Jane Austen vibe going as he makes fun of all the characters out the side of his mouth. This makes me think people in the first quarter of the nineteenth century would have been big fans of the current trend in irony as humor.

So if The Legend of Sleepy Hollow isn’t really scary, why have so many adaptations insisted on making it so? Is humor not as much fun as horror?

What are your favorite spooky reads?

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized

In Which I Disagree Vehemently with the Newbery Committee

So I said I wasn’t going to bash books on this blog, and I’m not going to. Individually, that is. I made no promises about books as a group.

However, sometimes—as my dear and long-suffering friend Michelle well knows—a book makes me so viscerally angry that I have to tell everyone about it. If you were getting tired of me just liking books all the time, this is for you.

The title of the specific book that’s infuriating me right now doesn’t matter because there are a million others exactly like it, and I’m angry at all of them.

It’s a book about how horrible it is to be a girl.

It won a Newbery Honor, a medal that still is awarded by a mostly female panel.

Chew on those facts, o ye who believe we live in a post-misogynist world.

Also, it shouldn’t have won a Newbery Honor because it’s your basic paint-by-number—thanks for that phrase, Kristi—middle grade novel. The character has zero internal arc. She is exactly the same person at the end of the book as she is at the beginning. The book’s obvious flaws as literature bother me, but they are not what make me angry.

I know the Newbery Committee needs to read fast, so I forgive them. It took some stewing to work myself up into this blog post. And some thinking maybe I should just ignore it. And some deciding I couldn’t.

As I read, I thought about how glad I was that I hadn’t encountered this book as a child, when no doubt it would have put me in tears for days about the eternal unfairness of having been born female, as so many books did. Sorry, Mom and Dad. I was a sensitive child, born eerily attuned to the inequalities of gender.

As I read, I got really upset anyway. By getting married, had I in fact turned my life over to my husband? Would children erase any part of me that mattered?

I had to consciously pull myself out of that slump, remind myself that I have a pretty sweet deal in a husband who does all the cooking and has never once expected me to do his laundry. For that, I can thank the mother-in-law who raised him to be self-reliant.

I realized that the book felt like many a frustrating conversation with a second-wave colleague who just can’t believe my husband’s entire goal in life isn’t to actively oppress me.

The history of feminism is divided into waves, and most unfortunately, Second Wave Feminism is the only one the general public is familiar with, so here’s a very simplified sketch.

First Wave Feminism refers to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Pankhursts and the Vote. Second Wave Feminism refers to the movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Third and Fourth Wave Feminism, which are what we’re on now depending on who you talk to, recognizes the gigantic “oops” of Second Wave Feminism.

Second Wave Feminism did a lot of great things. It was necessary. It threw a wrench into the male domination of everything. It had to happen. It also devalued everything women had done, been, or valued since time began. Everything female or feminine was abandoned as less worthy.

The price of liberation was self-hatred.

Maybe there wasn’t another way. But there is another way now, a healing way.

I am not disputing the facts of history at all. Being a woman has, for most of history, been a pretty bad deal. What I dispute is the idea that in order to be free, we have to hate who we are, we have to abandon all aspects of ourselves that are feminine, we have to become like men.

That is what’s presented in this book and in the far too many like it. The protagonist is positively proud of any feminine skill she isn’t good at. I kind of want to tell her that lots of people suck at knitting, myself included, and it’s really not that big of an accomplishment. She’s proud of tripping and getting dirty. Being clumsy isn’t that big of an accomplishment either, sweetheart. Neither is making a soggy apple pie.

What really bothers me about this book, though, is the way the protagonist positively reviles her mother and the family housekeeper—the only other women in the house—in favor of her male relatives.

Yeah, she has a housekeeper. Her life is way hard.

I was hoping throughout that there would be a turnaround, some realization that the older women in her life are valuable people who do valuable things, even if they aren’t the things she wants to do. I wanted to shout at her something along the lines of, “If they don’t cook, you don’t eat! If they don’t mend your clothes, you go naked!”

There is not one single positive female character in this book.

It would have made me cry as a little girl. It almost made me cry as a grown woman.

These are not the stories we need.

These stories will not heal the self-hatred that was the cost of our freedom.

As women, especially as female authors, we need to show love and compassion toward each other and toward our foremothers. We don’t need to lambast them in fiction for doing the best they could in the world they had to live in. Certainly we should be honest about the challenges and limitations of that world. But we should honor what they achieved within and despite that world, even if their only accomplishment was a happy life. That in itself is no small thing.

There’s nothing wrong with ruffles and pink. Nothing inherently demeaning about valuable life skills like knitting and cooking and managing a household. But the self-hatred continues to fester.

Little girls don’t need more books about how horrible it is to be a little girl. We have plenty.

Stop giving them awards, Newbery Committee.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized

Seeing Beyond the Walls in THE WICKED AND THE JUST

As mayhap I’ve mentioned before, I have always loved me some Medieval Times, but I spent all my formal history training studying American history. I like to be hands on, and there wasn’t a whole lot of Medieval England up in Columbia, South Carolina.

All right, there was a little bit because we South Carolinians are nothing if not all about keeping the past alive, but let’s just say the Colonial Period and American Civil War were a lot more accessible.

I have to feed my Medieval Times habit with books, which is why I picked up a copy of J. Anderson Coats’s The Wicked and the Just. That, and I love the title. It is a shivery title, by which I mean the sound of the words gives me shivers. I always read a book whose title gives me shivers, no matter what it’s about.

My dear friend and I have very different tastes in books. I like historical fiction and swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and she likes contemporary fiction and supernatural fantasy. I am simplifying both our tastes, of course, but you get the idea. We joke that if one of us likes a book, the other one is sure to hate it. (Not entirely true, but often. If we both like a book, you know it must be good. Oh, and we both like dystopian fiction.) We both geek out over books and are constantly trying to trick each other into reading our own favorites. Because that’s what friends are for.

“I’m reading a great book,” I told her, with obvious history nerd glee. “It’s set in English-occupied Wales in the thirteenth century.”

That’s probably not what I should have led with, because she gave me raised eyebrows and the pseudo-polite, “Mmm hmm…,” which is what I give her when she tries to tell me about books in which there really were witches in Salem.

For a couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to think about what I could say about The Wicked and the Just that wouldn’t make me look bad. You see, there are two narrators: Cecily is an English girl, and Gwenhwyfar is a Welsh girl who serves in Cecily’s father’s townhouse in a walled city. Cecily is kind of a spoiled brat who doesn’t realize how good she’s got it, and Gwenhwyfar is just consumed by hating the English and trying to survive.

And I like Cecily so much better. I get Cecily. Cecily has First World Problems. I have First World Problems. Cecily is kind of a snarky snob. I definitely have those tendencies.

It’s no wonder, really, that I don’t get Gwenhwyfar as much as I get Cecily. I sympathize, but I can’t empathize. Like Cecily and her father, like most of the middle class, I have no idea what true poverty looks like. I’ve never known hunger. I’ve never feared for my physical safety. Like most of the people I know, I was born among the privileged of this world. Even when we think we’re not privileged, perhaps because, like Cecily, we can’t always keep up with the neighbors down the street—we are. I have lived inside the walls.

Five years ago, I started teaching English at a community college. That experience has given me many glimpses of what life is like outside the walls of middle class comfort. It was my first opportunity, really, to look and to see. Like Cecily outside the walls, I saw a world I literally did not know existed. I suppose I knew it intellectually—but only in a very detached, academic way.

The climactic event of the book reminds us that people will only be pushed so far, and that, for those of us who live inside the walls, ignorance is bliss for only so long. Eventually, we have to look and see. And hopefully, as we learn to do that, we move toward a better world for everyone.

History holds patterns of oppression, violence, rebellion, crushed rebellion. The hope is that, like Cecily, we all manage to find a way to see beyond the walls.


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized

Slapstick with Wolves

As I promised about a month ago, from time to time I will write about historical fiction movies I like. This is one of those times.

However, it’s a known fact among my friends that I have not seen any movies. I like movies—I just don’t think about going to see them very often. Especially if they’re Big and Important and I-Suspect-They-Might-Be-Boring or Make-Me-Feel-Sad-About-the-World. It’s true: my entertainment tastes are quite shallow.

Conversations often go like this:

Someone (usually a student): “Reference to important movie everyone has seen in which student has some vested interest.”

Me: “Mmmhmm. I haven’t seen that one. I mean to see it soon.”

Colleague (to Someone): “Don’t take it personally. Courtney hasn’t seen any movies.”

It’s sad, really.

I especially haven’t seen movies that came out when I was a kid and were deemed too old for me, which is how I wound up watching Dances with Wolves for the first time a couple of months ago.

As I realize I am perhaps the only person who has been deprived of Dances with Wolves, I will not summarize it here.

Suffice it to say that I expected a whole lot more dancing with wolves—the movie is called Dances with Wolves!—and a whole lot less slapstick.

For a serious drama about serious things (the Civil War! PTSD! Manifest Destiny!) I expected a little less slapstick. Don’t get me wrong—I am all about the slapstick. People falling off wagons and getting hit on the head with their own hats brings some much needed levity to a story that could have easily jumped on the History-with-a-Capital-H train.

It’s just unexpected. For example, in the scene where Lt. Dunbar first encounters his love interest, she has just slashed her wrists out of grief for her dead husband. Lt. Dunbar sits on his horse staring at her, and then the American flag he’s holding hits him in the face and he gets all tangled in it for a minute before he can go bind her wrists with that same American flag.

(I bet there’s some kind of symbolism there. Ignoring it. Also ignoring the whole disturbing Noble Savage element that always shows up in these movies in order to focus on the slapstick and why there’s not more dancing with wolves. They don’t let you do this in grad school, which is reason #984 why writing this blog is better than grad school.)

It turns out the movie is called Dances with Wolves because a wolf sometimes hangs out around Lt. Dunbar. Buyer beware: there is no actual dancing with wolves. I was immensely disappointed. I had a Newfoundland/Lab growing up, and we used to dance all the time. She would put her front paws on my shoulders. I thought it was going to be like that.

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this movie. Until the end—spoiler alert. All the way through, Lt. Dunbar has been interacting with the Sioux. Then he marries a white woman who was captured as a child and grew up as a Sioux—and then he gets captured by the U. S. Army, and they think he’s a traitor/deserter, and it’s this whole big thing, and they all nearly get killed.

But Lt. Dunbar finally gets back to his wife and her family, and they manage to escape from the U. S. Army patrol that’s chasing them…this time. Then the movie just ends! And there’s one of those epilogue things with writing on the screen about what happens next.

Except…it doesn’t tell me what happens to these fictional characters I’ve come to care about. It’s just some very general paragraph about the closing of the frontier line and reservations and the U. S. government being jerks. I already knew all that! If I didn’t, I could have looked it up.

So what I get out of this movie re: the importance of historical fiction is summed up in my reaction to that paragraph on the screen. I’ve said this before, but—historical fiction is the closest we can get to understanding the past as it was lived. Nothing in that final general paragraph makes me feel anything, really. It’s just general, impersonal statements. But I cared about Lt. Dunbar, and his wife, and her family. I cared about what happened to those people. And I didn’t find out. And now I will always wonder.

Which fictional characters do you wonder about?

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized

An Open Thank You Note to Kirby Larson, Author of HATTIE EVER AFTER

Dear Kirby Larson,

Thank you for Hattie Ever After. I liked it even more than Hattie Big Sky, and I liked Hattie Big Sky a lot.

C. S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone,” and Hattie definitely makes me feel less alone.

I only wish I’d had Hattie Ever After in 2004 when I handed the engagement ring back to my now husband, who took it with about the same grace Charlie does in the book—until he remembered there were still amazing things like cookies in the world and got over it. I’m lucky that my Charlie understood, my Charlie didn’t hold it against me, and my Charlie was willing to wait. Young adult literature needs more Charlies and fewer demon lovers. Charlie is the one you want to live with.

Still, nearly a hundred years after Hattie moves to San Francisco in 1919 to chase her dream of becoming a reporter, I see women rushing into marriage, not thinking. Though I often think too much, thinking is better than not thinking, so I don’t blame myself or Hattie.

Because writing is a hard dream. It’s hard because writing itself is hard and because any kind of writing is competitive, and there’s never any guarantee of success, and really there is no path, no Point A to Point B to Point C.

Like Hattie, I don’t talk about my writing much. This is partly because I don’t like to fail publicly, because I’d rather dust myself off in secret. It’s also partly because I went to grad school, where I saw a definite inverse relationship between the amount of boasting the creative writers did—I was there for literary criticism—and the quality of the work.

Like Hattie, I have not failed. I had a few false starts, but overall I’ve had moderate success. I published one book shortly before I married my Charlie, and I have another one in the pipeline, with a real, solid, respected publisher. While novels don’t often pay the bills, the education writing I also enjoy pays at least a few of them. I need to learn to talk about my writing, to advocate for it, to believe I have as much right to do it, and as much of a real job, as anyone else.

“I’m pretty sure people think I sit around eating bonbons and watching TV all day,” I told my Charlie.

“That’s your own fault,” he answered. “You don’t tell anyone what you do.”

The idea that marriage is a hindrance to a career still exists. The idea that to be dedicated to one’s career is to be less dedicated to one’s family, and vice versa, is still strong. It’s a lie we fight every day. Yes, priorities must be made. Crises of both must be handled.

But I’m so glad you included the example of Hazel Archibald, the married reporter at the Seattle Times. Even now, we can never have too many examples of those who show us it can be done.

Ultimately, like most young adult literature, Hattie Ever After is a story about finding out and being true to who we are. In real life, of course, that takes longer than it does in the pages of a novel.

Last summer, a friend and I, feeling we had at last acclimated to marriage, were discussing potential motherhood and how that once terrifying idea had become exciting.

“I think,” I said, “that once you really know who you are, it’s easier to give part of yourself to other people. You have a place to give from, and you’re not afraid of running out of yourself because you know can always replenish it.”

Sometimes, I have deep insights.

I’m glad I didn’t read Hattie Big Sky until just before Hattie Ever After came out. I was in a want-to-read-this-book-right-now sort of mood, and I stopped by my local big box bookstore. (Don’t judge. It’s very close to my house.) I searched the shelves. Several times. I didn’t find it.

I went to the customer service desk.

“Oh, that book came out a couple of weeks ago,” said the clerk.

“Oh, it’s sold out?” I asked. Naïve little me.

“No, well, we can only keep the books on the shelves for a week or so because we have to make room for the new ones.”

“The new vampire novels?” I couldn’t hold back the snark. I’d just searched through piles of books with black covers and shiny writing. Books that all, essentially, looked like exactly the same book.

She smiled apologetically, an uncomfortable, I-don’t-make-the-rules kind of smile.

“So you’re telling me that you can’t keep one copy of a book by a Newbery Honor-winning author on your shelves?”

I stalked out, annoyed, and fearful for the future of literature in America.

But here’s the thing. Historical fiction probably will never have the sales figures of supernatural romance, but the world needs books like Hattie Ever After, if only because we all do live in the real world and in the real world brooding boys are no fun to live with, and we have to get jobs, and we can only hope they are jobs we like. Really, who wants to live with a Heathcliff type? Have I somehow missed all the want ads for new van Helsings?

I know Hattie’s story has reached its end, but please keep writing books like these, Kirby Larson. Like Hattie’s Female 49ers stories, they are important. And I love them.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Courtney McKinney-Whitaker


Filed under Uncategorized