Friday, May 25, 2018

Checking In with Ashley Sweeney

Two years ago this month, Ashley Sweeney released her debut novel, Eliza Waite. The book chronicles the life of a young woman who, having lost her husband and her beloved son in an epidemic, ends up living alone for several years on Cypress Island, in the Puget Sound. Once a month or so, Eliza rows across the Sound to collect supplies. Occasionally, after visiting her son’s grave, she stops to share a cup of tea and the baked goods she brings with one of the island’s few remaining residents. Otherwise, she supports herself entirely on her own emotional and material resources, in a life of hardship and unending toil, until a lucky find gets her a boat ticket to Skagway, Alaska. There she establishes a café and a new, less isolated life.

As I noted in my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Ashley Sweeney and my original follow-up post on this blog (July 22, 2016), food plays an important part in Eliza Waite. Now I love historical research, whether it is for  scholarly publications or novels, but the research that went into this novel is particularly tempting, in every sense of that word. Because each one of Eliza’s recipes comes from a newspaper or magazine from the 1890s, and each one underwent extensive testing by Ashley Sweeney and her friends. They had to, because as you’ll see from what follows, recipes and ingredients were approached much more flexibly in the 1890s than in our digital, technological, count time by the seconds age.

But what is especially charming about this book is that each recipe has a specific place in the evolving story. For example, on September 1, 1896, Eliza is having second thoughts about enduring a second winter alone on Cypress Island. Although she has just injured her leg quite severely, she takes a long walk to visit her son’s grave—the reason she can’t bear to leave the island—and drops off a cake at the porch of that remaining resident. The recipe follows right away (saleratus is similar to what we call baking soda).

This is one of the best of plain cakes, and is very easily made.
Take one teacup of strong coffee infusion, one teacup molasses, one teacup sugar, one-half teacup butter, one egg, and one teaspoonful saleratus.
Add pinch of salt.
Add spice and raisins to suit the taste, and enough flour to make a reasonably thick batter.
Bake rather slowly in tin pans lined with buttered paper.
Top with cinnamon sugar and serve warm.

Three months later, Eliza greets December 31, 1896, with a list of tasks, one of which involves making her mother’s fruitcake, a symbol of home and family.

One teacup of butter, two of brown sugar, one of molasses, one of strong coffee, four and one-half of flour; four eggs; two teaspoonfuls of saleratus, two of cinnamon, two of cloves, two of mace; one pound of raisins, one pound of currants, one-quarter pound of citron.
Be careful to cut paper for each loaf pan before putting in the mixture.
Bake in layers and put together with icing.
Leave out the currants if you like.

By September 29, 1898, Eliza has made it to Alaska and established her own  café in Skagway, where she has become renowned for her cinnamon buns and other baked goods—instructions for which are all supplied in the text. As she goes out to run errands, she encounters a stand of wild rhubarb.

Mix together one-half teacup lard, one egg, two teaspoonfuls vanilla, one teacup buttermilk, and two teacups diced rhubarb. Set aside.
In second bowl, mix two and one-half teacups flour, one-half teacup brown sugar, two teaspoons saleratus, pinch of salt and one-half teacup shelled walnuts, if you choose.
Fold mixtures together and spoon into greased muffin cups.
Bake until toothpick comes clean.

And so it goes, one landmark-signifying recipe after another, from Ida’s Coffee Cake to the Pecan Tarts that close out the recipes on November 29, 1898. The story continues up to the epilogue in March 1900, but the bulk of Eliza’s transformation has already taken place, and only the resolution remains.

Note, too, that the creative use of baked goods doesn’t begin to capture the many pleasures of this wonderful novel. Its greatest asset is Eliza herself, a woman who keeps stubbornly moving forward, no matter what life throws in her path. As she does, she encounters a group of complex and believable characters who intersect in at times unexpected ways. Even the geographical locations acquire distinct natures of their own, forcing Eliza to adapt to their idiosyncrasies. It’s no wonder this book has won numerous awards.

You can find out more about the author and her book at her website, or you can go straight to Amazon for the paperback or e-book. But either way, don’t forget to set aside some time to test out the recipes. It would be a shame to let all that lovely research go to waste.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Power of Hope

Someone casting a cursory glance at Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight might mistake it for a historical romance. For sure, the central relationship of the novel, between Annie Rushton and her eventual husband Adam Fielding, is certainly both passionate and intense, but the real contribution of this novel is the way it fleshes out and complicates its characters, gradually revealing their traumas and flaws, their desperate desire to connect with each other and the ways in which their individual personalities and the demands inflicted on them by society and by fate alternately tie them together and push them apart.

Annie and Adam are, in many ways, ordinary people living ordinary lives. Except for the absence of appliances and technology in the early twentieth-century “Wild West,” they could be our next-door neighbors, our friends. But we know from the time we meet Annie that she has a tragedy in her past: a loving marriage and a beautiful baby ripped from her as the result of her own postpartum depression. When she moves to Montana and meets, then marries, Adam, she longs for another chance at motherhood, perhaps even a resolution of—or restitution for—her earlier loss. But one crisis after another strips each baby from her, and her (and Adam’s) psychological responses to each new grief eat away at their otherwise functioning partnership.

Even so, as Ellen Notbohm emphasizes throughout our interview, this is ultimately a book about hope—hope found in sometimes unexpected places, but hope that is nonetheless ultimately fulfilled. What sets The River by Starlight apart is its author’s rich appreciation of human frailty and resilience. For me, that made it a deeply satisfying read.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

When Annie Rushton heads west to keep house for her older brother on his Montana homestead, she expects to leave marriage and motherhood behind her. After all, the husband she walked out on at twenty, after the birth of their daughter sent her into a spiral of panic and depression, has divorced her and forbidden contact with their baby, citing fears for his own and the child’s safety. In 1911, a record like that should keep most men at bay.

Adam Fielding also has no interest in marriage, but he’s drawn to Annie from the start, despite the frequent clashes of will between them. When her older brother sells them the homestead and skips town, Annie and Adam settle into a partnership that is as economically successful as it is romantic. But fate intervenes to prevent them from having a child, and with each disaster the return of Annie’s depression drives her farther apart from the husband she loves. In a world that understands psychological conditions as lapses in morality, the judgment passed on Annie is harsh and unyielding. Yet somehow she manages to hold on to hope.

Ellen Notbohm’s thought-provoking and beautifully written debut novel, The River by Starlight (She Writes Press, 2018), dives into the depths of family life and individual psychosis and uncovers a cast of complex and compelling characters that will keep you entranced to the last page.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Interview with Jacqueline Friedland

In addition to having a lot of authors to interview at the moment (a wonderful position to be in, on the whole!), I also have several pairings of authors whose books are being released on the same day. In some cases, because commercial publishers tend to focus their publicity campaigns on the weeks surrounding a release, that means one author gets a podcast interview and the other doesn’t. With smaller independent publishers, it means one has a podcast interview close to the release and the other waits a few months. As someone who knows next to nothing about marketing, this seems to me not such a bad thing: why not remind readers that a book exists?

In any event, this week’s post offers a brief Q&A with Jacqueline Friedland, whose Trouble the Water appeared on May 8. I’ll be talking with her about the novel at more length in late summer/early fall. Meanwhile, Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight, which also appeared on May 8, is the subject of my May podcast, which should go live any day. Don’t forget to check New Books in Historical Fiction nd this blog at regular intervals to find out more about these and the other amazing writers who give me the chance to interview them about their books.

And now, a big thank you to Jacqueline Friedland for answering my questions!

Like several authors I’ve interviewed—including my fellow Five Directions Press member Claudia H. Long—you began your professional life as a lawyer. What led you to start writing novels instead?

While there were some aspects of law I did actually enjoy, like analyzing complex texts and drafting persuasive writing, I always felt like something was missing, like I was a puzzle piece being jammed into the wrong jigsaw puzzle. I had been afraid to pursue writing straight out of college, as it felt like a true gamble, but my desire to write fiction nagged and nagged at me until I ultimately gave in.

And why this novel in particular?

I have always loved historical fiction for its ability to teach and entertain simultaneously. Trouble the Water focuses on the American South twenty years prior to the Civil War. This era is so full of juxtapositions—cruelty and heroism; opulence and deprivation; tragedy and hope. There are still so many untold stories from the time period, so many emotional components to explore, and I wanted to add my voice and my characters to the conversation. 

What can you tell us about your heroine, Abigail Milton, in a paragraph or two, that will set the stage for her story?

Abigail Milton is a British young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Her middle-class family has fallen into insurmountable debt, and they have been forced to spend the past several years in a tenement village near the factories in Wigan, England. Abby works long hours in the local cotton mill alongside her younger sister, but her meager earnings do little to increase the family coffers. When Abby begins having emotional outbursts of increasing proportions, her parents decide to send her to the United States, where she will be able to live off the charity of a family friend in Charleston.

Abby arrives in Charleston intent on saving herself from the secret horrors she endured in Wigan. When she moves into an enormous estate owned by the reclusive Douglas Elling, Abby’s main objective is to build a life of independence for herself. As she begins to settle in and grow more comfortable in Charleston, however, she finds herself inadvertently dropping her guard and discovering new reasons to hope for happiness.

The man who takes her in, Douglas Elling, has quirks and secrets of his own. What do we need to know about him?

Douglas Elling is a twenty-seven-year-old shipping tycoon who has suffered great tragedy in his life. He traveled to America from England after university and fell so deeply in love with an American girl that he stayed in the States to marry her. Shortly after marriage, he inherited his father-in-law’s booming import/export business and he also freed the family’s slaves. His clear lack of bigotry arouses suspicion throughout Charleston, as people wonder whether perhaps Douglas is doing more to fight slavery. As rumors spread that he is a secret abolitionist, bandits set fire to his home, most likely to send a message. Unfortunately, his wife and daughter are killed in the blaze, and Douglas is never the same.

Abigail, by the time we meet her, has not only endured a rapid decline in her fortune but must also cope with a change of country when her impoverished family sends her to the US South to live with a wealthy friend of theirs. How does she handle this disruption in her life?

By the time Abigail arrives in Charleston, disruption is the only constant in her life. She is adamant, however, that she will no longer be a passive victim to her own circumstances. She has decided to build herself a new life, one where she is the master of her own destiny. She devises a plan to become a teacher or a governess and to remain forever unwed so that she will be able to live independently and determine her life’s path. As she walks deeper into her new world in Charleston, though, she begins to reconsider many of her deeply held beliefs.

What are you working on now?

I am putting the finishing touches on my second novel and doggedly attempting to brainstorm ideas for my third.


Jacqueline Friedland, once a practicing lawyer, earned her Masters of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College in 2016. When not writing, she is an avid reader of all things fiction. Trouble the Water is her first novel. You can find out more about her and her book at

Friday, May 4, 2018

It’s All in the Timing

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been enjoying a Russian TV miniseries set in the late fifteenth century and based on the life of Grand Princess Sophia—the wife of Ivan III and niece of the last emperor of Constantinople.  As I also mentioned then, the series is historical fiction rather than history. Moreover, it becomes more fictional with each episode, until by the end it’s basically making stuff up.

Now as a person who knows a fair amount about the period and writes historical fiction myself, the failure to stick to “just the facts, Ma’am” doesn’t bother me a whole lot. I understand why the writers and directors made most of the choices they did, since those choices both clarify the action (and the characters’ emotions) and heighten the drama.

Life is messy; fiction can’t afford to be. In life we want things to go well and people to get along with one another, yet most of us have to live with the reality that we will never fully understand what motivates others and that happy endings, if we manage to achieve one, don’t last. In fiction we want to see things head south as fast as possible and characters who shove and needle one another, but we also expect a clear, consistent story line that resolves in a satisfying way—whether that turns out to leave the characters better off, worse off, or in a state of bittersweet resignation.

So for this week’s post, I thought it might be fun to look at what Sophia tells us about the difference between fiction and history. Specifically, I’m planning to focus on the question of timing: what happened when. That question is, after all, basic to the study of history, the framework on which we scholars hang our explanations and hypotheses.

Things start out in a fairly straightforward way. Ivan III was born in 1440 and married for the first time at the age of twelve to a Maria (not the one in the series, who is his mother), by whom he had one son, also named Ivan, in 1458. Maria died, and in 1472 Ivan III married Sophia. At that time, Ivan was thirty-two, and his son fourteen—which is about how old they appear to be in Episode 1, if we take into account that Ivan the Younger doesn’t really look fourteen; his father just treats him as if he is. For example, Ivan III doesn’t want his son involved in military affairs, although the son is chomping at the bit, both reactions appropriate to an age when most noblemen began state service at fifteen.

Sophia’s case, however, is more complicated. She may have been as born as early as 1440 or as late as 1455—estimates vary. What we know for sure is that she died in April 1503 and that between 1474 and 1490 she bore twelve children, which suggests she was probably closer to seventeen than to thirty-two when she married Ivan III. Perhaps not the beauty portrayed in the series, but she’s the heroine, after all. If she were my heroine, I’d make her pretty too. If she’s to attract the hero, we need to give her as many assets as possible. And the developing relationship between her and Ivan III, whether historically accurate or not, is a major appeal of the series and quite charming all on its own.

So far, so good. It’s the extended time frame of the series (1472–1490) and Sophia’s phenomenal childbearing that make things sticky. By the time Ivan III brings Novgorod to heel in 1478, Sophia has already had four daughters, at least two of whom died in infancy. By 1480, when Ahmet Khan engages in the Stand on the Ugra (a great plot point, even though historians wonder if it happened as portrayed), Sophia has a surviving daughter and two sons. By 1490, when according to Episode 8 Ivan III exiles her to the White Lake for her supposed complicity in the death of Ivan the Younger, she would have to drag along not just a cute Vasily but three, possibly five, daughters and three other sons. And Vasily, having reached the age of eleven rather than the four or five he appears to be on screen, would be hauling some of the younger ones through the fields and supporting his mother, pregnant with the future Andrei Ivanovich, rather than dashing beside her hand-in-hand before she picks him up and shields him from the bad guy.

Moreover, if Ivan IV, on the way to his coronation, really did imagine the ancestors who had come before him as indicated by the ending, it would be a much bigger crowd. And perhaps, given the fates of some of those brothers—both Vasily’s and Ivan III’s—the missing faces in the crowd would raise some important questions about loyalty, authority, and memory as well. As it stands, the carefully selected ancestors resemble one of those portraits from the Stalin era with all the “undesirables” inked out.

My point is simply this: the series works much better as it is. The overall timeline is clear enough, although it’s odd to realize that twenty years have passed but most of the characters don’t age. And as I noted before, the production values are spectacular. But it’s important, in approaching historical fiction, to realize that it’s not simply a disregard for historical fact that causes novels and TV shows and films to deviate more or less from reality. One photogenic child lost in infancy and a second endangered by malice and self-interest are simply more effective in storytelling than four of the first category and eight of the second. The dinner table is more dramatic when it includes poison, the main character more sympathetic when she’s under threat, and the court more compelling when everyone and his brother is jockeying for position and engaged in skullduggery.

Now, writers like me do strive to keep our facts straight whenever possible. I worry about months and weeks, not years or decades. I obsess over who went where when and did what. I work to structure my story around those events rather than picking and choosing based on what fits my overall character arc. I do that not only because I consider myself a historian above all, but because I believe that history as it occurred (to the extent we can determine that) has something to reveal about how people thought and acted in the past. If I can unravel the secrets contained in those sequences, I can impart greater depth and complexity to my characters.

Even so, I understand that the story comes first. And because it comes first, historical fiction must always be a genre aimed foremost at entertainment. Be gentle with its creators, who have worthy goals in mind in addition to historical accuracy. Enjoy it to the hilt, but don’t believe everything you see. And if you want to find out what really happened, well, that’s what historians do.

Images: Forensic reconstruction of Sophia Paleiologina by S. A. Nikitin; Ivan III as portrayed on a monument in Novgorod the Great; both CC SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.