Friday, May 18, 2018

“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK”: How the Sears Catalogue Shaped My Novel, a guest post by Ellen Notbohm

Over the years, I've referred many library patrons to the Sears catalog replicas in our reference collection for insight into daily life in the early 20th century. And so I was pleased when Ellen Notbohm proposed to write a post detailing how she'd used one of these catalogs in the research process for her debut historical novel, The River by Starlight, which is set in turn-of-the-century Montana and based on real-life events.  Please read on for more, and welcome, Ellen!


How the Sears Catalogue Shaped My Novel
Ellen Notbohm

How much research is enough? Writers of historical fiction know the dilemma well. We fall in love with our characters and want to know them as intimately as we can. What did their environment look like, smell like, feel like? What did they eat, wear, have in their homes? What were the tools of their trade, how did they conduct business, spend leisure time, celebrate holidays, doctor themselves and their families?

Researching my historical novel The River by Starlight involved six cross-country trips. Close to 100 books and numerous notebooks bulging with documents and newspaper clippings cram a seven-foot bookcase in my office. But as delightful karma would have it, the book I consulted more than any other, the one I dog-eared with use, cost me all of $1.50.

I found the 1902 Sears Catalogue on a lonely back table at a used book sale. As much an anthropology lesson as any textbook, author Cleveland Amory called it “a view of the American scene at the turn of the century with an excitement and accuracy that would defy the most eminent historian.”

“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK IS PLAINLY SHOWN IN EVERY PRICE QUOTATION” blares the front cover. From the Sears catalogue I learned what everything from thimbles to pianos cost, what they looked like, how many choices there were. What men, women and children wore in every imaginable situation, what size range was available (“Fat men usually experience much difficulty getting a shirt in the right shape.”). How credit worked. How it all reflected the larger economic picture of the country.

Details from the catalogue colored my descriptions of home furnishings, tools and weapons, toiletries and potions. Stoves and washing machines, hay loaders and hobby horses, paint and fabric colors. I acquired some rusty artifacts of homestead life and was able to see what they looked originally.

I wrote a frisky scene giving an intimate look at the layers of societally-required undergarments my female lead, Annie, dares to forego on a sweltering summer day. There’s a charged scene wherein you can all but smell the “overpowering cloud of Le Muguet” enveloping the town’s queen busybody. A gorgeous tortoise shell hair comb becomes an heirloom and a pair of “ugly cloth-top lace-ups” leads to disaster. We see and feel the fabrics used in a prostitute’s costume, a child’s nightgown, a wedding quilt, a funeral shroud, the garish handkerchief of the queen snoop’s informant.

It was exhilarating to slather on such details throughout the story. But how much is enough? Alas, much was lost to the delete button, “cool research,” as more than one editor called it, that didn’t move the story forward. An example: the reader knows Annie and her sister Jenny shared glasses of lemonade out on Jenny’s porch. But they don’t get to see the original version of the scene: Annie sticking a pinkie through a door screen (“handsomer than the cut shows”), opening Jenny’s refrigerator (nope, Sears didn’t call it an icebox) and pouring the lemonade into ruby-stained tumblers while Jenny finishes up her work with a white cedar dash butter churn (“peculiarly adapted for milk and butter purposes”) and puts the butter into brass-locked molds (“securing the utmost possible rigidity”).

But writing those kinds of details helped me experience the world in which my characters lived, and empathize with its beauties and challenges. Even when deleted, the details remained embedded in the story by virtue of how they influenced the thoughts, dialogue and deeds of the characters.

A battered old cast-off catalogue—$1.50. Creating a richly faceted portrait of another time—priceless.


Ellen Notbohm
(credit: Andie Petkus Photography)
An internationally renowned author, Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed and delighted millions in more than twenty languages. Writing from her experiences raising children with autism and ADHD, her perennially popular Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew has been an autism bestseller since 2005. In addition to her four award-winning books on autism, Ellen’s articles, columns and posts on such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing, and community affairs have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent. Her article collection for Ancestry magazine (2005 – 2010) related stories both poignant and uplifting gathered during extensive research for her long-awaited debut novel, The River by Starlight, published in May 2018. A lifelong resident of Oregon, Ellen is an avid genealogist, knitter, reader, beachcomber, and thrift store hound who has never knowingly walked by a used bookstore without going in and dropping coin.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ain't Misbehavin' by Jennifer Lamont Leo, a sweet 1920s-era love story

Dot Rodgers and Charlie Corrigan are sweethearts, though their personalities are very different. It’s 1928 in Chicago, and fun-loving Dot wants to live it up, donning a sparkling frock for a downtown New Year’s Eve party, where she’ll spend time with old friends, chat with the musicians, and maybe get a lead on a future singing gig.

Dot’s grateful for her job selling hats at Marshall Field’s – after her father kicked her out, she needs to make her own way in the world – but loves the thrill of performing for a crowd. Charlie, however, prefers cozy small-town life to glittery social gatherings, especially when they involve illegal liquor and loud people of questionable morals.

A war veteran and churchgoer who helps run a dry goods store, he’s quiet and conservative; he also senses the underlying discontent the partygoers try to hide. Plus, he has other plans for the evening that involve offering his girl a diamond ring. However, although they love one another, both grow convinced they don’t belong in each other’s world.

Leo confidently sets her spirited inspirational romance during Chicago’s exuberant Jazz Age. She brings a full complement of 1920s-era slang to her portrait of this dynamic era, when investments were soaring, the latest fancy roadsters had heaters, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was shaking up local news. The story skips along while also tackling serious issues, like women’s need for independence and the importance of judging people on their own merits.

Dot’s experience of religion is colored by her estranged preacher father’s hypocrisy, but with the help of Dorothy L. Sayers (who wrote books about theology in addition to detective stories -- that was new to me), she gets a new perspective on her spiritual life. The novel’s faith-based elements are lightly interwoven into the plot.

Dot’s and Charlie’s love story endures many ups and downs, and they sometimes make decisions that feel too hasty, but both are good people at heart. Since this is a romance, a happy outcome is assured, and subplots involving Charlie’s old flame, Italian gangsters, and the lead-up to Black Friday add color and drama to this sweet tale.

Jennifer Lamont Leo's Ain't Misbehavin' was published by Smitten Historical Romance in March. Thanks to the author and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for providing me with a review copy. There's also a tour-wide giveaway:

During the Blog Tour we will be giving away two signed copies and two eBooks of Ain’t Misbehavin’ AND an Ain’t Misbehavin’ Compact Mirror! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 18th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US & Canada residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Ain't Misbehavin'

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Immersive Research for Historical Fiction Writing, a guest post by Jacqueline Friedland, author of Trouble the Water

Today I'm welcoming Jacqueline Friedland, author of Trouble the Water (SparkPress, May), who's contributed an essay about researching the historical atmosphere of the pre-Civil War South.


Immersive Research for Historical Fiction Writing
Jacqueline Friedland

It’s difficult to be immune to the intrigue of the old South, the plantation lifestyle, the hoop skirts and debutante balls, unparalleled opulence juxtaposed with the astonishing horrors of American slavery. I struggle to digest the perversity of a government-sanctioned system of slavery, but I am utterly seduced by the heroics of those who refused to sit idly by, those who risked their own lives to fight for the freedom of others and that which they knew was right. I chose to write my first novel about the antebellum South in order to showcase the human compassion and bravery that was a bright light during this dark era, and I knew I would have to dive headfirst into the 1800s if I wanted to get it right.

My foundation in the history of the American South was fair at the outset, as I had majored in United States Culture and Literature during college. I devised a plan to deepen my understanding of the time period through a form of immersion. As a lover of books, I did what I always do when I have questions: I began reading. I read every novel I could get my hands on that had a plot based in any Southern state in the years preceding the American Civil War, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and everything in between. Some of the most useful were Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and Jubilee by Margaret Walker, to name just a few.

I read one novel after another after another, and then mentally synthesized all this fiction, which allowed me to develop a broader sense for the atmosphere of the antebellum South. Feeling that I had strengthened my foundation, I then moved onto drier non-fiction and primary sources about the specific issues on which I aimed to focus. I read many accounts documenting the Underground Railroad, the life of various abolitionists, and political strife over slavery. I also read first-hand slave narratives, including accounts of escapes and attempted escapes. I scoured books about William Lloyd Garrison and other notable abolitionists of the time. I particularly enjoyed All on Fire by Henry Mayer, which was not only informative, but immensely readable.

After this intense reading tour, I finally felt prepared to begin my novel, which takes place between the years 1842-1853 and delves into not only the horrors of slavery, but also heroic attempts to subvert the “peculiar institution”. Of course, additional questions arose as I wrote. How fast does a horse travel? How long does it take to cross the Atlantic by steamship? When did the steamship become a common mode of transportation anyway? For these questions, I can say thank goodness for local libraries and even google.

Perhaps the most useful part of my research was the professor in my writing program who understood my tendency to get lost in details, to become thoroughly engrossed in interesting tidbits about the time period, even if those details had absolutely nothing to do with my book. This professor said to me, knowing the years I had already devoted to learning my era, “Stop it. Enough. Just write your story already.” So I did.


Jacqueline Friedland holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from NYU Law School. She practiced as an attorney in New York before returning to school to receive her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York with her husband, four children, and a tiny dog. Trouble the Water is her first novel. (author photo credit: Rebecca Weiss Photography.)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Article note: Interview with Mindy Tarquini and Susan Meissner about their novels on the Spanish Flu

This year marks the centennial of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic; my library will be offering an exhibit program about this global public health disaster in the fall. There have been a number of historical novels published about the "Spanish flu" recently (which was nicknamed such, even though it didn't originate or hit hardest in Spain).  I'll put together a list of them for a future post.

For May's Historical Novels Review, I got the idea to interview two authors, Mindy Tarquini and Susan Meissner, who both set their novels in the historical American city of Philadelphia at the time.  Other than a similarity of location and topic, the books are pretty different, and their characters probably wouldn't have known one another.

This article is now posted on the Historical Novel Society's website. Please click the link to read it: Philadelphia, 1918: Susan Meissner and Mindy Tarquini discuss their new novels.

Thanks very much to both authors for answering my interview questions!

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Review of Alison Weir's Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, book three in the Six Tudor Queens series

Jane Seymour, the queen who bore Henry VIII’s longed-for son and died shortly afterward, left little behind in period sources, and popular history stereotypes her as meek and plain. Best-selling Weir’s impressive novel shows why Jane deserves renewed attention. Without any dull moments, Weir illustrates Jane's unlikely journey from country knight’s daughter to queen of England.

To evade the domestic scandal stemming from her brother’s unhappy marriage, the devout, sympathetic Jane comes to court as one of Katherine of Aragon’s maids of honor. This third volume in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series offers new angles on its earlier subjects: Katherine, aging, resolute, and losing influence, yet kind to her ladies; and sharp-tongued Anne Boleyn, whose religious beliefs Jane finds dangerous.

A woman of principle, Jane courageously holds her own among prominent court personalities, no easy feat. Later, as Anne’s influence wanes, Jane intelligently navigates a path amid a surprising romantic pursuit by King Henry, whose love and generosity initially overshadow his crueler side, and her family’s ambitions.

From the richly appointed decor to the religious tenor of the time, the historical ambiance is first-rate. With her standout novel in the crowded Tudor fiction field, Weir keeps the tension high, breathing new life into a familiar tale and making us wish for a different ending.

This starred review was published in Booklist's latest historical fiction issue (4/15/18).  Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen will be published next week by Ballantine in hardcover and ebook (576pp).  I think this is the best in the series so far. One theme of this book is: don't underestimate the quiet ones. Jane is a terrific character, and her story is well worth reading even if you think you've had enough of all things Tudor.

Also: the fourth volume in the series, about Anne of Cleves, has a title and a cover on Goodreads (it's still early, so it's not clear if they're final). I really like them both -- it's a great way of presenting her in a new light from the get-go -- and hope I get the chance to review the book next year.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Interview with Susan McDuffie, author of The Death of a Falcon, a mystery of 14th-century Scotland, plus US giveaway

Susan McDuffie's entertaining latest Muirteach MacPhee mystery, The Death of a Falcon, brings readers to Scotland in 1375, as our protagonist and his wife, Mariota, a talented healer, pay a visit to Edinburgh Castle. While helping his superior with political negotiations, Muirteach finds himself enmeshed in a murder mystery as well as unexpected court drama which affects him personally. I was glad to get the opportunity to ask Susan some questions about her book... please read on!

What appeals to you about writing historical mysteries?

Thanks so much for hosting me on Reading the Past, Sarah. It’s such a treat to be here with you today!

I’d always been a voracious reader of historical fiction but never thought much about writing until my thirties, when I made a trip to the paperback book exchange to de-stress after a difficult day of work. I found some Harlequin romances (this was back in the 80s) and thought how easy it would be to write a book and get rich and famous! Was I ever mistaken. I first tried a historical romance (still unpublished) and also wrote a couple of Regencies, which were great fun. I guess I thought romance would be easier to write than mysteries. Eventually, however, I realized that the old chestnut is true, “You must write what you love to read.” I am not an avid romance reader, but I do love historical mysteries.

I think the sense of justice restored at the end of a mystery is comforting, while the historical aspect of it cushions it a bit, and takes the same old tired motives we hear about each night in the evening news—greed, anger, revenge, lust—back into the past bit, somehow cushioning things. It’s a little easier to deal with the cruelty of humanity when they are wearing historic costumes, and it all happened 600 years ago. Long ago and far away.

Another thing that fascinates me about historical fiction is trying to really get into the heads and psyches and attitudes of people in the past. How was medieval justice different? How did people view justice differently?

The Death of a Falcon takes place during a fascinating but less familiar time in Scottish history, with its bustling trade routes to southern Europe and the Norse lands, the Orkneys under Norway’s control, and Robert II’s lively, multilingual court. How did you choose 14th-century Scotland, or how did the era choose you?

The era pretty much chose me. When I was initially developing the idea for this mystery series, I realized I wanted to set it during the Lordship of the Isles, which lasted from about 1350 to 1498. It was a fairly settled time in western Scotland, less chaotic that the couple of hundred years afterwards, when the power vacuum caused by the end of the Lordship contributed to all the horrible clan feuding of that era. I thought, it would be fun era to visit in my fiction, and an opportunity to explore that less well-known period.

The McDuffies, or MacFies, were the Keepers of the Records for the Lordship, which was a confederation of Scottish clans in the Highlands and Western Isles headed by the MacDonald. “Keeper of the Records” sounded very exotic and mysterious to me when I heard about it from my great-uncle and my father as a child. Actually, it might have been less exotic and more an accounting of who owed whom how many cattle, but I thought a role as the Keeper of the Records would give my sleuth plenty of leeway to travel and investigate things on behalf of the Lord of the Isles. The final result is Muirteach. So far he’s investigated in the Hebrides, and in Oxford. Now he and Mariota are in Edinburgh, at the Royal Court. I think he’s had enough of court life, though, by the end of The Death of a Falcon.

author Susan McDuffie
Muirteach and his wife, Mariota, go through some marital difficulties, and while Muirteach is the protagonist, I often found myself sympathizing with and rooting for Mariota. What was the experience like, writing from his viewpoint during this challenging time?

Muirteach is a somewhat flawed character, perhaps more so in this book. When I first began writing the series I envisioned a fairly simple character arc over time with increasing wisdom and maturity, less drinking (he’s a bit of a lush in A Mass for the Dead, the first in the series). However, this book represents three steps backwards for him. When I was writing this I was reading Game of Thrones, and thinking, “Oh I really need to work on my plotting; my plots are far too predictable,” so maybe perhaps some of the credit, or blame, goes to George R. R. Martin. I wanted to break out from the typical predictable hero and ending.

In this book Muirteach also winds up repeating some of the less functional patterns of his father. Don’t we see that in families all the time? We’re all pretty flawed, really, and I like reading and writing complex characters. Although I do believe one of the reasons people like to read mysteries is that sense of justice restored at the end. I grew a bit worried, writing this book, that people would get so frustrated with Muirteach they would throw the book at the wall.

Have you gotten to travel to the places you write about in Scotland?

I have been to most of the places I’ve written about. I particularly loved the Western Isles. I need to go back soon; it’s been far too long!

Muirteach is amused and befuddled by the royal court at Edinburgh, especially the fashions. How did you research this aspect of Scottish culture?

It can be tricky researching Scottish dress before the 1600s. I’ve gone with the assumption that the Highlands and Islands had much in common with Irish fashion and culture of that era. One great resource for clothing is Old Irish and Highland Dress by H.F. McClintock. For the Lowlands, and the royal court, I’ve relied more on general medieval sources for fashion, style, and cuisine.

In the acknowledgments, you’d mentioned visiting the Santa Fe Raptor Center. What did you learn there about birds (and from Gandalf the hawk) that you might not have known otherwise?

Actually, the birds visited me, or visited my day job at a gallery in Santa Fe. During Indian Market the Raptor Center sometimes comes and sets up a display with a few of their friendlier birds in front of the shop. It’s always amazing to be in the presence of these other beings we humans share the planet with. Gandalf was a wonderful inspiration!

The idea of a lost medieval book is compelling, and a bit frustrating that it no longer exists! How did you first come across mention of the Inventio Fortunatae, and then decide to use it in your story?

I got so wonderfully sidetracked by research when writing this book. Initially I knew I wanted to include something about Prince Henry Sinclair, who may have visited North America around 1398 with the Venetian Zeno brothers. That led me to the book Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers by Andrea di Robilant. But di Robilant’s view was that Henry Sinclair had only travelled to Iceland and Greenland. That led me down the Norse in Greenland rabbit-hole and I grew fascinated by their story. Where did they go?

One book that was a great reference was Erikson, Eskimos and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America by James Robert Interline, and that particular book has a lot of information on the Inventio Fortunatae. The description of the giant lodestone at the North Pole, where indwelling currents sucked ships in and dashed them against the rocks, was incredibly compelling. Just imagining early exploration in this region is compelling, actually. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a copy of the Inventio someplace? Or even a bit of old parchment from it tucked into another binding? Or something! I guess we can always hope!


The Death of a Falcon by Susan McDuffie was published by Liafinn Press in paperback and ebook in March. This interview forms part of the author's blog tour, during which we will be giving away 5 paperback copies & 5 eBooks of The Death of a Falcon! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules 

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 11th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Death of a Falcon

Thursday, May 03, 2018

A Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin, a multi-layered literary mystery spanning six decades of women's lives

This is such a surprising book, one filled with layers inside layers and new revelations at every turn. Moving back and forth from WWII-era New York and Winnipeg and a Russian shtetl in the 1880s, and many points in between, it doesn’t offer the chronological path of a standard historical novel. However, its flow feels natural, like the unspooling of memories from a remarkable life.

In 1942, Anna Grieve, a well-off career woman in her sixties and longtime Manhattan resident, has just put her older sister Esther on a train back to Winnipeg after an enjoyable, long-awaited visit. Following Esther’s arrival home on “If Day,” the date of a simulated Nazi invasion, Anna receives a call from a policeman that Esther is dead; she’d walked in front of a moving train, an apparent suicide. Esther, a widowed society matron, had had episodes of mental instability from childhood on—periods when she seemed tuned out from reality—although she’d seemed fine during her stay.

As Anna herself returns to Winnipeg for answers, a mystery unfolds, drawing in reminiscences of both women’s earlier lives. In 1881, when Anna was five and Esther ten, their frightened parents, fearing anti-Semitic retaliation after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination, sent the girls away from Russia with her mother’s aristocratic employers. On their transatlantic voyage, young Anna’s confusion is palpable. Despite a comfortable upbringing, with an adoptive father who respects her intelligence, Anna worries continuously about her fragile, ethereally beautiful sister.

Anna is a woman of astonishing cour​age and hidden complexities. She forms friendships, has several love affairs, and participates in the early birth control movement alongside Margaret Sanger. Chisvin brings this setting alive with vibrant ease. One of Anna’s later travels feels a bit contrived, but this debut is a fine literary mystery with an insightful look at an unusual sisterly relationship.

A Fist Around the Heart (the title comes from a line in the novel) was published by Canada's Second Story Press in April.  I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy.