What Genre Am I?

My first series was a time-slip contemporary/historical with romantic elements. My next novel was sort of a niche Southern fiction/small town/humor with romantic elements. I think some of my initial audience was drawn to the immersive Civil War themes of the Torn Asunder Series, with some happening to fall in love with the modern characters along the way.

There is no question that, for marketing purposes, it would have been great for my next project to sort of resemble my previous series in some tangible way, in order to build on the following in that direction. I was aware of that and actually made the conscious decision not to do that.

I am independently published, and currently not trying to be published traditionally. One of the great advantages of that is literary freedom. I have observed authors propelled in a single direction, only much later in their careers to try to change directions, and their audience is confused and even sometimes angry or let down. My group and I made the decision to go ahead and rip off that Band-Aid so there wouldn’t be any expectations that would be a cap on creativity or authenticity of what I am wanting to put out there in the moment.

But obviously, that’s a lot of trust to request from your readers. Some of my Torn Asunder readers who were historical fiction-oriented didn’t translate to Thank God for Mississippi, and that’s okay. Thank God for Misssissippi has a sort of Southern/small town/humor following that is separate that won’t necessarily always translate into my later works.

Right now, I’ve got in the pipeline a few books that are very different: one being a Southern contemporary with a historical tie-in through letters that is quite muted compared with Thank God for Mississippi, another set in 1840s Virginia, and another being a post-Civil War romance quite different in tone from Torn Asunder.

There are two threads to what I write: Southern and romantic. I’m not prepared even to always say Southern (although that will be the bulk), but I do think romantic will always be key because that is what propels me as a writer. So I can’t promise anything in the way of precise consistency in genre, theme, decade, or mood.

But I do promise you that you will have an enjoyable, page-turning book in your hands, every time. And I’m hoping readers make that leap with me.

New Persuasion Film

I subscribe to the fabulous Jane Austen’s World and was excited to see a new post today about a new Netflix adaptation of Persuasion, which is in the works. Here is the link: https://janeaustensworld.com/2022/03/22/is-2022-the-year-of-persuasion/.

I read Persuasion when I was in college, and it has a special place in my heart. Published after Jane Austen’s death, I think the novel is likely her finest. It is grown up, quiet, and compelling. I have trouble saying Persuasion is my favorite because I have all these periphery favorites as well. The 1995 Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite movies of all time. Pride and Prejudice was my first Austen and is truly extraordinary. I also adore the 1996 adaptation of Emma with Kate Beckinsale. But I did feel Persuasion was special enough to be labelled my “favorite” when I read it about a decade ago, so I will stick with that.

Now, film adaptations of Jane Austen works have an occasional tendency to cast men slightly too old for their parts. For instance, who doesn’t love Alan Rickman, but there’s no denying that at age fifty, he was too old to be playing the part of the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon. It gave a totally different cast to the relationship with Marianne than what Austen intended, taking it from being spring/summer to spring/autumn. I will caveat here that I think Rickman performed beautifully and definitely fit the script as written for the adaptation.

As to the odd aging up of men, the same could be said of the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion with Ciaran Hinds, who was forty-two at the time he was supposed to be playing the thirty-one-year old Captain Wentworth. This isn’t a huge gap, but there is a difference, I think, in where you are in your life at thirty-one and forty-two, and that translates onto the screen and takes the book into a slightly different direction from its intention. It was Austen’s intent that the couple meet after a seven(ish)-year separation, which is the foundation for the story. If we go with a hero of Hinds’s age, we would have the impression of more like an eighteen-year separation, which is another thing entirely. I should also caveat here that Hinds is not really my idea of a swoon-worthy lead to begin with, so that might be clouding my vision. I know a lot of people love him, but to me, his performance wasn’t even close to being as good as that of Rupert Penry-Jones in the 2007 Persuasion adaptation. Which brings me to…

When I was in college, I was looking for a good adaptation of Persuasion to watch after reading the book, and found a clip for this version on Youtube. I remember being blown away by how handsome Penry-Jones appeared to be in the role. He definitely fit the bill for me (except I hadn’t envisioned him as blonde, but that was fine). It would really be unfair to talk just about how handsome he was, however, when he did a fabulous job in the role. In fact, he delivers the speech about his friend losing his fiancee (while really talking about himself losing Anne) with perfect timing and sense of emotion. Do you remember the line? “A man cannot recover from such a passion to such a woman. He ought not; he does not.” Boom. I watched this one first, and I have to say, this may be what pitted me against Hinds’s interpretation. He sort of jerks the line out in an emotional fit, while Penry-Jones uses a lot of gravity.

Now, I am the first to say the 2007 Persuasion was not perfect. While Penry-Jones and Sally Hawkins complemented each other well, everyone always seemed to be breathing hard, and taking short, choppy breaths, or something… It makes me hyperventilate just to watch it (go watch it; you’ll see). It’s really odd! I also thought some of the filming techniques were a mistake. There was a choice made to have the camera unsteady to give a sense of urgency to the film. Instead of doing that, it almost felt unprofessional. There was also an odd decision to have Sally Hawkins look directly into the camera at the end of a lot of scenes, and… She just doesn’t really pull it off. I didn’t hate her as Anne, but I’ve never really felt that anyone totally captured Anne.

So now we come to… What do I think of the new casting choices? We have Dakota Johnson as our Anne. It was a little jarring to leap from Fifty Shades of Grey to Persuasion. I think anyone would have to admit that. But I don’t totally write her off just because she is known for quite another genre (and American as opposed to British). I always thought she had a certain confidence, so who knows? She might do a great job.

I don’t know anything about Cosmo Jarvis, who is starring opposite Johnson as Captain Wentworth. The picture released shows him having dark hair, so that is more along the lines of what I thought from the book (if I remember correctly). He is also spot on for age at thirty-two. But he has a lot of proving himself to do, in my opinion, to top Penry-Jones.

They’re saying we will have the new movie on Netflix this year, so we shall see!

Some Thoughts on A Separate Peace

I was in a bookstore while on a weekend shopping trip. The title had been stuck in my head all day, just kind of rotating around nonchalantly, meaninglessly, as phrases do. A Separate Peace. I’ve never known anything about the book, but the title has always seemed to me singularly beautiful. The kind of title you wish you had thought of first. Shimmering with meaning. With significance. I have no idea how it came into my mind.

That night, I was ambling around a bookstore when I looked down, and there it was. A Separate Peace, laying on a shelf with the most beautiful, evocative cover I have seen in a long time. I picked it up, read the back.

I almost never buy literature. I have a shelf full of it, and I’ve read my fair share of it. I like my books that I read for pleasure to be meaningful; I don’t necessarily like for them to be profound. Books that are profound often lack a certain story-telling element that I find necessary for enjoyment. But something was definitely calling to me from this book. Something in my spirit was propelling me to buy it. I’m still not sure why.

My mom likes to do amazing stocking stuffers, and she had requested that I pick out two books for her to put in mine. At the end of my search, I took her The Bridge to Belle Island, by Julie Klassen, and A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. She held up the latter, saying with mild surprise, “Really, you want this one?” I answered, “It’s very pretty.” And that was that.

It appeared in my stocking, and sat on my shelf for a few weeks. This weekend, I finished it. It was profound. There’s no getting around that. I wished heartily for one of my literature-reading circles in my college classes, where the professor could tell us what the greats thought about it, and we could fire back with what we thought about it. But I don’t have that, and, as a change, I have decided to reflect on what it means to me before I look up any reviews to see what it means to others. The author of the afterword in my copy, David Levithan, talks about “the double life of all great literature—there is what it is meant to mean, and then there is what it means to any given reader.” I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on it. There are spoilers ahead.

  • The book is set in a New England boy’s school, Devon, during WWII. It follows its protagonist, Gene Forrester, who is sixteen through being on the cusp of eighteen. He is in his final years of high school, contemplating going to war and dealing with adolescent friendships, most prominently with his roommate, Phineas (Finney). It is a coming of age story, but I think it speaks more deeply than simply to the things we learn as we are propelled from childhood to adulthood. It is a very human story.
  • I loved the New England private school setting. There is something deeply interesting and compelling about it, not to mention that historic feeling that is so unique.
  • Obviously the most profound thing the book has to offer is a study of the human condition. Of our negative capabilities. Our sins. Our ability to hurt other people, and the consequences of that, what to do with that. I don’t want to sound too negative here because I believe we also have endless positive capabilities, so I’ll caveat what I’m about to say with that. But the novel touches on that dark spot in our soul, those things we are most ashamed of that we spend our lives trying to cover or convince ourselves are not there. Of course, as a Christian, I believe that there is an answer to that: grace. But we try so desperately to convince ourselves that we are incapable of harm or bad things, almost as if to save ourselves. We believe that there are good people and bad people, and we are good people. I would imagine many can identify to some extent with the narrator/protagonist, Gene. He’s a rule-follower. A studious kid, not half-bad as an athlete, reasonably popular. He is mesmerized by his friend, Finney, who is one of those kids who has a certain flare about him that draws people; Finney is excellent at sports, has a unique outlook, and a strong charisma. He doesn’t follow the rules. Gene, I think, secretly believes he is a better person than Finney, and yet, at the same time, or maybe at varying times, Finney is also through Gene’s eyes also morally perfect. He doesn’t seem to grasp the gray areas at sixteen to seventeen years old. The boys, while close, are very different and don’t understand each other. They are also deeply jealous of one another, a very common thing among childhood friends. I felt a deep pity for Gene because he doesn’t know he is ensnared in Finney’s intoxicating web. He, while not charismatic, is actually the stronger personality, but he doesn’t have the confidence yet to be his own man. As Finney drags Gene away from his studies and into things he wouldn’t normally do, as the unspoken simultaneous magnetism and rivalry between them grows, all I could think of, now being just turned thirty, was… Finney, for all his undeniable charm, unmistakeable good qualities, and real charisma, is someone I would absolutely not want a child of mine hanging out with. That is so simple to see as an adult. But in a school setting, the play is set, and the players are absolute, as are the peer leaders, and there is no perspective.
  • When Gene realizes Finney is jealous of him academically, and his rage builds, he believes Finney hates him, and he hates Finney. Later, Gene gaslights himself into believing that it was all in his head and Finney was perfect. But I think he got it right the first time. I also think that, while Gene isn’t one to play a deep rivalry game and he felt no malice towards Finney for his athletic prowess, he was more ruthless in his own perfectionism than he ever would have thought. But because of the social structure, he was used to thinking of people like himself as good and people like Finney as bad. When he comes face to face with his own dark capabilities, it shatters him, as it does all of us—all the more so because he had never realized he was capable of sin. Or at least not that kind of sin.
  • When Gene, in a split second, shakes the limb and Finney falls, I think we, the readers, all get that sinking feeling. Most of us have likely never injured someone when angry with them, but we have all been in a rage before. So angry that if our feelings, our looks, our words could do real damage… Gene doesn’t know what to do with that sort of realization in himself any more than the next person, especially because he is so young. And he can’t hide from it, can’t tell himself lies to smooth it over. The damage is on display for him to see every day. He is, because he has a strong moral code, unwilling to compensate mentally, so he won’t even cushion the blow for himself. He is also unwilling to look at outside causes, such as the fact that Finney knew the tree was dangerous and that he should not climb it. However, Gene sees in a glance the depravity of his soul, or as a Christian would think of it, that thing that separates him from God absent grace. For anyone who has ever struggled with an inordinate burden of guilt, this episode will feel very significant. Again, it makes me think of faith. Of that load that is too difficult for us to bear, that weight of sin. And of why grace, from God and from each other, and the love that comes with it, is the most vital thing in the world.
  • I liked that Gene was casually Southern. This was a nice little surprise in a book that I had thought would be about two New England boys. In literature, generally the every-man American is not Southern. This isn’t a complaint. It’s just a truth that is caused, I think, by economic disparities. There is more opportunity in other places, and so the representative characters usually end up being from those places, often because the authors are from those places. If a character is a Southerner, they are typically defined by that alone, and not necessarily capable of being representative, especially if the setting is not in the South. That was not the case here, which probably has something to do with Knowles’s own West Virginia roots.
  • I didn’t realize until I lead Levithan’s afterword that A Separate Peace has a lot of significance almost as a gay literary icon. As I read the book, it did cross my mind that Gene and Finney almost have a pull of attraction between them, and that the words used to describe that attraction are often used in literature romantically. So I could see how this could be read into the book, almost in a Brideshead way. But in an interview much later in life, Knowles said that there was nothing romantic in the relationship between the two, and that, given the time and place, if they had been gay, it would have changed the way he had written everything, which, once you think about it, would be very true. It would have been much more careful; they would have been much more careful. So I don’t want to deny the meaning the book has to anyone, but this did have me thinking… Do we, as we read books and watch TV (or write) tend to think of romantic relationships as the only ones that have this level of impact on our lives? (The answer is: yes.) But all sorts of relationships outside romantic ones define us, move us, get into our heads, have meaning for us. Knowles was emphatic about the point that they are seen as friends, and I think this is why: he wanted to delve into the significance of relationships that aren’t romantic. While we pretend that amorous connections drive everything, friendships and other connections have an impact on us whether we recognize them or not, and I think Knowles wanted us to recognize that.
  • I wrote about the American war novel here. This book could fit alongside any of them. It reminded me most strongly of The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell to Arms. The former, for its “young man contemplating war” theme, and the latter for its searching for the meaning of life. A Separate Peace isn’t solely a war novel, though. It proclaims that in the title. By taking peace, literal and spiritual, as one of its themes, the war was always going to be a side character. As a side note, it was a brilliant insight into what it was like to be a teenage boy during the WWII years, waiting for eighteen to hit.
  • I think I was led to the book for a reason. I’m glad I read it. Even if it was profound. 

Q&A: Thank God for Mississippi

Hi Readers! I am excited to share the official Q&A for Thank God for Mississippi with you! I always open these to readers and anyone with an interest. We have some great questions, and I categorized them by topic. Starting off, there are questions about the writer (moi!), followed by questions about TGFM itself, which lead into questions about small town and Southern life, Southern literature in general—and then we bring it back to the book. The questions were very wide-ranging this time, but I think they’re all pertinent and related. Enjoy!

Q: What is your favorite part of writing?

A: I think…the storytelling. I love the process of sparking an idea, then considering how to tell it in a way that is effective, then the feeling of getting it right (if I do), and then sharing that and having readers connect with it… I love it!

Q: What is your least favorite part of writing?

A: The nuts and bolts stuff. The actual writing at the keyboard is not necessarily the most fun part, but it’s fine as long as the story is going well. But if something isn’t working, it can be very frustrating. I have always wished I could mentally beam the story out of my head onto the paper, because sometimes you can hit it right easily, but sometimes it takes a lot of work and stress to get it right, and occasionally you never can fully replicate what you had in mind. I also very much dislike editing, but I do a lot of it before it ever goes out to first readers and then a lot after they give feedback. Totally necessary, but not necessarily the fun part!

Q: Do you have any tips for new writers?

A: Maybe not tips, because I truly think every writer’s process is different. But I can tell you my process! I usually formulate the ideas almost totally in my head. I have a sort of “Go” button in my mind when I know the story is complete enough to actually put pen to paper, so to speak. If I outline, I only do so minimally, with a handful of words to serve as my guide for plot points so I don’t forget any of the ideas. There are usually about 10-12 scenes that I have in mind that serve as a sort of mental outline. In between them is not just blank; there is a muddier sort of impression/feeling of what’s supposed to be happening that I need to recreate. When I sit down to write, I usually do best if I can have days and hours for huge writing binges. The creative juices and stories flow most naturally for me that way.

Q: Do you send reviewers copies of books in exchange for reviews or participate in any books-for-free programs like NetGalley?

A: No (thanks for asking!). I’m committed to earning organic reviews from spontaneous readers because I think that leads to the most honest reviews.

Q: What is your favorite genre?

A: Probably Regency. I had always loved Jane Austen (the movies most of all), and then Julie Klassen came onto the stage, and I devoured her books at the end of high school and beginning of college. I discovered Georgette Heyer my freshman year of college. I remember so many happy evenings spent consuming her prolific collection, generally while also consuming Zaxby’s. 😂

Q: Is there a playlist for TGFM?

A: Yes! The book is set in Middle Tennessee, so music is a huge inspiration for the book. I am going to release the playlist on the blog in just a few days.

Q: Tell me about the title!

A: Well, first the book is set in Tennessee, not Mississippi. My main character’s name is Mississippi, and there is also an inside joke that some in the South will already recognize, and you can find out what it is by reading the book!

Q: Why Tennessee?

A: I originally began to set TGFM in Alabama to give myself mental space for creativity, since I live in Tennessee. But then the storyline just got very realistic, and I realized that, similar as the cultures of the two states are, there could be some differences. If I was going to get so involved, I might as well know I was going to get it spot on. Also, I happened to think: why shouldn’t Tennessee get some airtime? 😂 Alabama seems to show up a lot more in movies. So I thought: let’s just get really close to home here and speak from true experience.

Q: What genre(s) would you put TGFM in?

A: Probably most prominently contemporary romance. Thank God for Mississippi is a little hard to categorize because the romance element is subtle, and there are also hints of women’s fiction, mystery, humor, and Southern commentary. I wasn’t sure how TGFM would come down on categorization, but the element most first readers have wanted to discuss was the romantic, so I think that is telling as to categorization. Readers of clean romance will find it comfortably within that wheelhouse. I discuss suitability for young readers, along with faith elements in my books in an earlier Q&A here.

Q: Are your main characters typical of your writing?

A: I actually think you’ll find them quite different from my other books. They really take on a persona all their own. Mississippi is a unique character—very gritty and determined, unafraid to speak her mind but also struggling with the same insecurities we all have. The male lead, too, is a character all his own—kind, sophisticated, and full of joy and humor. 

Q: What is Mississippi’s job in the book?

A: Mississippi was employed both in a professional and personal capacity by Hammondsville’s district attorney, who needed help because he was elderly and blind. She helped out at work with documents, drove him, and lived in a cottage on his property. He passes away, and then she holds over for a little while until the new DA (who happens to be his grandson) can get his feet under him. That’s where the story takes place.

Q: What is the best thing about the book?

A: Mississippi is serving as Joseph’s guide in many ways. So you get a lot of training and commentary on the South, and of course, there are a lot of hijinks along the way. The chemistry between the two main characters works, and so it’s just a really fun ride.

Q: How would you categorize the romance in the book?

A: As you might expect from a Georgette Heyer groupie…subtle, but compelling. 😊

Q: Is Hammondsville a real town or based on a real small town?

Q: Hammondsville is fictional and is not meant to replicate any one town exactly. It’s meant to be a sort of an amalgamation of small Southern towns that would be easily recognizable to people from towns of similar populations. I happen to be from a small Southern town of about Hammondsville’s size, so I did draw on my experiences there and what I know of several other small towns.

Q: What is the best feedback you have gotten from first readers?

A: The comment that has excited me the most is that Mississippi is a strong role model for girls. I hadn’t even thought about that, because she’s so atypical of a heroine. But when I considered it, I thought: yeah, we definitely need more Mississippis in the world!

Q: Do you take on the tougher aspects of living in the South in TGFM?

A: Yes, I think so. I just came at it from a really realistic point of view. My goal is never to paper over anything. I also don’t want to overlook positive aspects. So you get the good with the bad, the funny with the sad, and there’s no shortage of any of it.

Q: You said you strove to strip the book of anything inauthentic. What was the creative process like to write about a small Southern town without any of the cutesy fluff?

A: It was interesting. I have actually never read a book like TGFM that is really authentic to the Southern experience I have lived. They may be out there and I just haven’t come across them. But it felt like there was no rubric. It was different to create a portrait of a small Southern town that would be instantly recognizable to people actually from those towns, without any of the bells and whistles or immediately perceivable charm. So I had to get creative, and somewhere along the way, I realized in this instance creativity just meant digging deep and being real. There will be something comforting to readers about the raw honesty of the whole thing, I think. It just feels like it’s your life, and if they can be the hero or heroine of their own story, you can, too.

Q: What is one small town Southern theme TGFM covers?

A: One is the decision of whether to stay near family and community, or to leave for opportunity and living a more fast-paced life. Everything you have been taught about being prosperous urges you to “get out,” while the ties of home draw you to stay. I think most every young person from a small town has to grapple with that decision at some point in their lives, and make that decision for themselves.

Q: What is the best thing about living in a small town?

A: The community. You are never alone. You don’t have to walk through anything—illness, deprivation, loss—alone. They will be there, and they will bring a casserole. 

Q: What is the worst thing about living in a small town?

A: The community. You are never alone. 😂 There is usually someone “up in your business,” as we say. Privacy is not a given. Gossip is. 

Q: Are you a big fan of the Southern literary greats?

A: Of course, in many ways. But I am very middle-brow. I’ve talked about this before in another Q&A, I think. I recognize the contributions of the greats, I know their worth and powerful impact, and I’m sure in some ways I’m influenced by them—but I don’t particularly enjoy reading them. I find almost anything termed “literature” boring. Of course, I acknowledge that the sole purpose of literature is not to be page-turning. But as a novelist who loves the readable quality that sparks and holds your interest, neither high-brow perfection nor low-brow fluff is going to get me there. So I tend to like my reading a little elevated, but completely grounded to reality. I like real-life stuff, and I do think that is a benefit of Southern writing in general—being hugely grounded. Southern writers are real and raw, almost shockingly so at times, and they have a way of cutting to the chase.

Q: Who are some Southern authors I should read?

A: I may not be the person to ask after the last answer, haha! Some authors I have read are Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison (not from the South, but somewhat in the Southern tradition), Margaret Mitchell, Bobbie Ann Mason… There are so many more, of course. If you are a fan of Christian fiction, I’ve really enjoyed Deeanne Gist and some by Tamera Alexander. I know many love Fannie Flagg (I just haven’t gotten to read her yet).

Q: Which Southern stories really stand out to you?

A: The quirky ones (which is most of them!). I’m still scratching my head over A Rose for Emily (Faulkner) and Good Country People (O’Connor). Shiloh (Mason) stays with me. And I think it’s impossible for any Civil War writer to escape the influence of Gone With the Wind (Mitchell), whatever your feelings about its modern resonance or lack thereof.

Q: You talked about how movies often get the South wrong in another Q&A. Are there any Southern movies that get it right?

A: I definitely haven’t watched every Southern film out there, but I can think of a few. Sweet Home Alabama is pretty spot-on. I haven’t watched them recently, but I remember Walk the Line and O Brother, Where Art Thou? really going over well in the South. The accents are pretty horrendous, but there’s a lot that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil gets right, too. For kids, The Princess and the Frog is great (although I have it on excellent authority that there are scary bits!).

Q: What do you think about stories set in the South, written by non-Southern writers?

A: Sure! I’m very open to that! It will be a greater challenge, probably, to get it right. Part of my Torn Asunder Series was set in New England, and I felt like I had to do my homework doubly. I was a bit nervous I would get something hugely wrong. Of course, if you do get something wrong, it’s not the end of the world, but it can be hard for perfectionists. But as long as you’re willing to take that on, absolutely I think there is room at the table. A number of people have done this quite successfully. 

Q: What are you excited to share about Thank God for Mississippi?

A: The humor. I think we so need that right now.

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?!

A: I will say that we have talked a lot about this being a small town book. But I think a lot about an interview with Ronnie Dunn on CMT or something that I saw a long time ago. I may not get it perfectly right, but the gist of it was: He was talking about his song “Red Dirt Road,” and he said he had a guy come up to him and say, “Man, that’s just like how it was where I grew up.” Dunn said, “Where did you grow up?” And the man answered, “Brooklyn.” So, while I do believe the book will resonate with people who are from small towns, it’s really a book about home, and that is for everybody.

Public Service Announcement – Alex Rider Series has been adapted for TV!!!

I don’t know if you are familiar with the Alex Rider books, or if the popularity of the series was a phenomenon limited to my age group. I remember the series being the star of our school book fairs, starting roughly around 2002 when I would have been in the 5th grade. As millions of children across the world remember the Harry Potter Series as being the stories of their childhood that made them readers, so I remember the Alex Rider Series. I had always been a reader, but looking back, these are the books that made me a passionate reader.

Set in London, the series follows a schoolboy of extraordinary ability who, following the death of his uncle, a spy, is recruited by MI6. They are written by Anthony Horowitz, who now has some James Bond credits under his belt. I know it all sounds very fantastical, but it is somehow believable. The action and adventure, which usually bores me, is splendid, and, for the most part, the plots are really sound. The character of Alex is enormously layered and compelling.

I can’t remember how I got started on them. I think one of the boys in my class may have told me I needed to try them. I started Stormbreaker in 6th grade and was blown away. I told my best friend, and she tried them and was similarly transported. Everyone who read them told their friends, and pretty soon we had a wave of Alex Rider fanaticism in our grade at school. Even people who weren’t readers were so absorbed in them that they didn’t want to put them down when our classes began. We—boys and girls alike—carried this fixation with the books on up to the 8th grade. They were so popular that our librarian had to begin keeping them behind her desk with waiting lists. If you’re a reader, you probably are familiar with the delight a new book being published in a series can bring. When Ark Angel came out in the 8th grade, there was a pretty deep waiting list. I, who loathe line-cutting, snuck into the library (perhaps taking a cue from the teen spy himself?) on the day we knew it was arriving at the school, and looked at our librarian with puppy dog eyes. She laughed and said, “It’s on my desk, Tara.” 

Apparently the series is hugely admired in England. Obviously, it was really popular with my age group at my particular school. I’m not sure of its influence in America beyond that. My brother, who is just two grades ahead of me, thinks he missed the phenomenon entirely. My sister, who is six grades behind me, read and loved the books, and all of her grade did, too, but sometimes I wonder if that was because a lot of people in my class happened to have little siblings in her class. When a class I recently spoke to asked me what I liked to read, I told them about the series, and they weren’t familiar with it (although, I think their teacher, who is wonderful and was also my teacher, planned to introduce it to them!).

Anyway, obviously, I know the series has sold millions of copies in the U.S., so obviously a lot of kids were reading it. But I don’t hear it spoken of very often these days. There was a movie some years back based on Stormbreaker, which I think critics are pretty hard on, but I didn’t mind it when I watched it as a child. I’ve been away from the series for a long time and actually didn’t even know Horowitz has added subsequent novels (the last one I read was Snakehead, and I thought the series was complete).

But imagine my delight when my sister called me and said, “Did you know there is an Alex Rider series on Prime?!” So obviously, I watched it. There are currently two seasons available. The first series skips over the plotline from Stormbreaker and goes straight into Point Blanc, which happens to have been my least favorite of the books. (It involves a cloning storyline, which was a rare departure from conceivable reality for the series.)

Anthony Horowitz was an executive producer, so I felt pretty good about it going in. The casting, I think, was incredible. It was like actually watching these characters from my childhood come to life. Alex wasn’t exactly as I had pictured him looking, but Otto Farrant, himself a childhood fan of the novels, inhabits the role beautifully and really gets the character. Mrs. Jones, Alan Blunt, and Jack were other phenomenal casting jobs. The spirit of the novels that makes them delightful and readable is there, and overall, I am very impressed.

A few things that were interesting to contemplate as I watched… The streaming adaptation was not made just for kids. It is almost told from an adult perspective, and they apparently did that both for the sake of casting the audience net as wide as possible and for allowing the series to sort of grow up with people like me, who grew up reading the books. It was interesting, and not totally ineffective. It may have even been the best thing to do. I am a bit of a purist, however, when it comes to really good books being adapted for the screen, so… I wouldn’t have minded a less omniscient viewpoint.

In addition, when I was Alex’s age and reading the books, I knew Horowitz was careful to include the moral discussion about employing a teenager as a spy, but those discussions just sort of washed over me. He was a teenager, sure, but he was capable, and he was doing it for his country. Now, of course, watching the series, my eyes are kind of wide at the audacity and moral repugnance of the fictional MI6 characters using a teenage child in this way. I just thought that perspective shift, while not at all out of the ordinary as we grow up, was interesting to note. 

I remember the books made it plain that Alan Blunt (the boss) made the decision in a cold-blooded, clear-eyed way because it was the best way he could do his job, with the ultimate goals being good ones, but still, he was willing to use Alex with varying degrees of humanity over the course of the series. I wish the series had dug into that moral dilemma a bit more, and into the characters of Blunt and Mrs. Jones, as the books did. It just seems odd that the writers, who were giving a more adult brush to the series, missed that opportunity. I think this may be something that they intend to rectify in future seasons, however. 

Season 2 is based on Eagle Strike, which was a good book. Season 3 has been announced, so it looks like the show will go on!

All in all, I’m delighted to take this journey back to a lovely time during my childhood, and to the lovely books that sparked my reading passion. Go watch the series on Prime!

Review: The Women of Chateau Lafayette

Hi friends!

I am reviewing my most anticipated book of 2021, The Women of Chateau Lafayette, today.  I don’t review many books anymore, especially if I have any critiques to make (my thoughts on this in a later post), but there are certain authors who are too famous for my polite criticisms to injure their sales. And when I do make them, you can be sure that it’s because I have a great deal of respect for the author.  Usually, I think many issues with books by more well-known authors are at least half the fault of the publishing world.  So, with that in mind, here we go… [Note: There are mild spoilers ahead.]

The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sort of follow-up by Stephanie Dray to her Revolutionary War era books, America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton.  Since the Revolutionary War is my favorite era to study, I have read and loved both. I have seen in many reviews and, indeed, on the cover of this new book, that Stephanie Dray is touted as the author of those former books, but she is actually a co-author with Laura Kamoie.  The fact that Kamoie wasn’t on this one made me a bit nervous that it wouldn’t be the same as the first two books because, frankly, they are such a dream team.

But having always adored America’s “favorite fighting Frenchman,” The Marquis de Lafayette, I was ecstatic to see he was the next subject one of these authors would be covering.  Which, of course, is always a bad way to go into reading a book—with a ton of expectations.

When I received the book in the mail, I was stunned by its size.  I haven’t done a page comparison, but I’m not kidding when I tell you that the only fiction books on my shelf which compare in size are War and Peace and Gone with the Wind.  Needless to say, I expect no more whining about the size of Southern Rain, as it is quite dainty in comparison. 😉

Another thing that made me nervous about the book was that it didn’t stick with just the Revolutionary Era.  There were to be time slips between WWI and WWII eras also.  But I have to admit that the idea of Lafayette’s home being used as a beacon of freedom during the very dark hours of Vichy and Occupied France was breath-taking on the grand, sweeping scale of history, and I couldn’t fault Dray for going there.

Now, I am a person who does not mind a lot of things to remember in a book.  Give me a family of eight siblings, and I will memorize their names and ages.  But to be honest (and hopefully not to be condescending), in a present when many are kind of fuzzy on the distinction between WWI and WWII, and given that the wars do have a lot of similarities from the French point of view (fighting Germany for one), one of the more modern eras should have been left out.

And for me, that era would have to be Beatrice and the WWI time-slip.  Beatrice was an amazing woman, and though I had never heard of her, I should have.  So I tip my hat to Dray for rescuing her from the abyss of history.  But the Beatrice sections were a bit on the boring side.  Dinner with a nondescript character here, tea with another character there…. I could tell there were tie-ins with characters from the WWII era, but we weren’t invested enough in those characters, who were barely mentioned or described, for those connections to be exciting in the way that a not-too-distant time-slip can be.  I’m not even sure why we started Beatrice’s storyline where we did, or why precious pages were devoted to so many dawdling scenes.  What I mean is, it seemed to take forever to get to the point with her portions, and I’m not sure we ever did. (Note: In the Author’s Note, Dray discusses her historical sleuthing that led to some quite remarkable finds about Beatrice. But those would have been a better fit in a biographical nonfiction book. Here, they distracted from the overall thesis of the book. Those discoveries’ connection to Lafayette were too tenuous to sustain the thread between the time-slip.)

I was a little more interested in the WWII Marthe bits because France was so…apocalyptic during WWII.  Marthe is bi-sexual, which seems to have bothered some reviewers, but there have been bi-sexual people throughout history.  Marthe is a fictional character, so it was Dray’s only opportunity to change things up a bit given the historical characters she was working with.  But Marthe’s segments were largely her considering her attraction for a woman who was heterosexual and married (so…it was a storyline that never could develop).  It is not much of an exaggeration to say that fifty percent of the WWII bits are Marthe merely exploring this attraction in her mind.  Unrequited love is not unusual, but it’s not necessarily very interesting.  Again, precious time to be wasting in a massive book which was attempting to cover enormous ground.  

For both of these eras, these things just struck me as so much dawdling given the War and Peace size of the book.  We could have (and should have) started two-thirds of the way in for both the WWI and WWII plot lines and more thoroughly explored those times, and both would have been much better stories with a tighter connection to Lafayette. I will say that the WWII parts felt very WWII—so well done to Dray for capturing an era.  And I also liked Marthe as a character.  It was brave to make her crabby and a sort of anti-heroine, and that part worked very well.

The Adrienne parts (American and French Revolution) were clearly the strongest.  I wondered if that was because it always should have just been Adrienne’s story. Dray even says in the Author’s Note that this was what was originally intended. (Although, again, very compelling to make a broad sweep of French history, especially WWII.)  But due to the necessity of covering two other storylines, Adrienne’s part, which was the largest in terms of years covered and scope, was cheated.  Whereas we would see a week here, a few weeks later there with the more modern storylines, we would often see for Adrienne’s, “Three years had passed, and…”  Instead of the soaring, poignant statement about a real woman’s role in historical events which leaves you pondering history itself (like the aforementioned two earlier books), Adrienne’s reads more like a biography, albeit a very well-written and succinct one.  

There is little plumbing of the depths of her relationship with Lafayette, which I don’t think would have been inappropriate given that they were sort of the reason we’re here reading this book at all.  Said plumbing of the depths of a marriage, although not always happy or pleasant, was one of the absolute wonders of both Martha Jefferson Randolph’s and Eliza Hamilton’s stories.  The Lafayettes’ marriage was historically fascinating, and, while I know it would have been a huge undertaking to have dived in with both feet to all of that foreignness, drama, passion, and devotion, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t deeply disappointed that we didn’t.

Something that the Adrienne parts did very well was convey the origins of the French Revolution.  The starvation and effective slavery of the French people in order to give the nobles wealth which had persisted for hundreds of years is actually included here.  Dray highlights this dichotomy and settles the score on that front.

Something that it didn’t do so well was…include Lafayette.  It felt like we talked about him more than we actually saw him, which weakened the story a great deal.  He was so excluded that, if you didn’t know the background, you would almost have to wonder what the big deal was, why we were even talking about all of this.  While in the Eliza Hamilton and Martha Jefferson Randolph books, you really get the impression that these two women play the vital role in shaping the legacy of the men they loved and that they were a driving force behind many of their actions, that wasn’t necessarily the case here.  Certainly Adrienne was a remarkable and brave woman, but Lafayette was the driving force behind this particular history, and I think it would have been okay to have admitted that, or at least to have given him a more vital role in the narrative. Instead, it was a thesis (the legacy of Lafayette) based on a background which was never firmly established.

So…as you can see, I struggled a bit to get through this one. It was well-written, and Dray pays attention to prose in a way that not many modern authors do.  There were some stunning lines, especially those devoted to concepts of liberty.  I always trust Dray historically; you are safe in her hands.  But the book needed an editor clipping out chunks, adjusting timelines, accelerating pacing, and removing boring bits.  For these failures, I lean toward blaming the publishing industry.  The whole thing felt rushed, like if more time had been given to consider what worked and didn’t work, all of this would have been figured out and the corrections made.  There was nothing overwhelmingly wrong with the book that couldn’t have been corrected by some very slight adjustments here and there. But this book was obviously going to be a big earner, banking on Lafayette’s popularity in Hamilton, and publishers have a relatively narrow window to capitalize on that before it fades.

In other words, what was a well-written, exhaustively researched book based on a breath-taking premise was a bit boring and rambling when it could have been a showstopper.  The searing resonance that I expected just was not present. But I will continue reading Dray and absolutely hope she and Kamoie continue their exploration of the Revolutionary generation.  And do I think you should read The Women of Chateau Lafayette?  Despite my criticisms, yes.  Lafayette’s story and message of freedom should be shouted from the rooftops.  I have always thought this, and always will.

Southern Q&A

Introduction:

The following is a collaboration by Lance Elliott Wallace of New South Essays Blog and Tara Cowan of Tea & Rebellion Blog.  We are excited to share a Q&A on Southern life and culture based on questions we have received.  Before we jump in, we thought we would give you an idea of our conception of Southern culture.  Southern culture is, by its very nature, multicultural.  Historically, the South is rich in diversity with heritages including Native American, Spanish, English, Scottish, Irish, African, French, Mexican, and Central and South American, just to name a few!  A blending of many cultures and the passage of time has led to certain social trends, habits, and styles that can be identified as distinctly Southern.  At the same time, there remain many individual cultures within the South that maintain their own distinctive identities.  Self-identification as Southern cuts both ways, sometimes celebrating history and values that are not shared by the subcultures that make up the regional identity. It’s not always pretty, but the complexity provides endless opportunity for exploration and commentary. This is a broad overview to keep in mind as you read!

Q: What are some beautiful places to see outside?

Tara: The South in general has some beautiful national and state parks. The mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina are gorgeous any time of year.  Savannah, Georgia, is renowned for its many city parks. There is a lot of beauty in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.  To me, the most beautiful place to be in the South is on the Gulf of Mexico; you can’t beat the pristine white sand or the emerald water.

Lance: Absolutely agree, Tara. Our family has vacationed at Santa Rosa Beach on 30A in Florida’s panhandle for nearly 20 years. The white sand and emerald green water are imprinted  on my psyche providing the backdrop for some of our best memories. I have hiked the approach to the Appalachian Trail with each of my three boys beginning at Amicalola Falls in north Georgia, and those vistas still come to mind easily. We have also spent time in the mountains of North Carolina. We enjoyed hikes and driving through the high country of North Carolina during several trips with friends. West Jefferson and Blowing Rock are particularly scenic. One of the benefits of living in the Atlanta area is that I don’t have to drive far to get to beautiful beaches or scenic mountain tops. The cities I like best for their beauty are Savannah, Charleston and Asheville. 

Q: Where are the best spots for food?

Lance: We have lived in the Atlanta area for 18 years and have enjoyed many wonderful meals in town for special occasions. Upscale dining in Buckhead offers the full range of world class fare while Midtown’s diversity has everything from updated versions of Southern staples like fried chicken and deviled eggs to Asian cuisine from every ethnic origin to fantastic Mexican flavors. As a native Texan, I have to put in a plug for the BBQ brisket in the Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio.

Tara: Yes! The South is famous for BBQ, and I think there is actually a bit of a competition between Texas and Tennessee (where I live)! For traditional Southern cooking, Tennessee is a great place—Nashville and Pigeon Forge particularly, if you are feeling touristy. If you want traditional blended with other influences (like French and Gullah Geechee), I’ve had fun exploring restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. For seafood, I highly recommend Destin, Florida.

Q: What historic sites should I see?

Tara: There are so many different points of interest. If you are looking for an immersive historical experience, there is Williamsburg, VA, and several other Southern cities that put a premium on history, like Natchez, New Orleans, and Charleston.  Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, is a must-see.  McLeod Plantation Historic Site in South Carolina is a great place for a focus on the lives of an enslaved community and its descendants.  I recently visited Shiloh National Military Park—obviously, there is a lot for Civil War buffs to see, but there are also Indian mounds preserved within the park, which is unique, and the park overlooks the Tennessee River and has a really stunning view.

Lance: I lived in Macon, Georgia, for 10 years, and it is often overlooked as a historic destination because of Savannah’s obvious claim to that reputation. In his march from Atlanta to Savannah, Sherman went around Macon, so there are great spots that survived the Civil War. If you do go, plan to spend time at Rose Hill Cemetery, take in the view from the Woodruff House atop Coleman Hill, tour the Hay House and see a show at the historic Grand Opera House. Macon’s architecture is amazing, and seeing the city when the Yoshino Cherry Trees are in bloom in March enhance the city’s charm.

Q: What is your favorite Southern tradition?

Lance: Though not nearly as fanatical as I once was, I have a genetic predisposition to enjoy sports. There is nothing better on a fall Saturday than to boil a pot of peanuts and watch college football from noon to midnight, interrupted only by firing up the grill and cooking something delicious. I know they play football all over the country, but in the South, college football is on a pedestal. No matter who you root for, you can find a way to care about any game on TV.

Tara: Grilling and college football—yes, indeed! It’s hard for me to identify exactly what Southern traditions are because I’ve never lived anywhere but the South.  But I like the gathering (maybe someday again!), the close-knit families, the extensive Sunday dinners, and the ties to home.

Q: What is the craziest Southern tradition?

Tara: One that I hear people express the most shock over is our funerals.  It may be more of a Middle Tennessee thing—I can’t speak to other places in the South.  Funerals are a big deal in my area. A lot of what happens strikes me as very Victorian. You need to wear black or at least dark colors to the funeral. You stand in a queue and wait hours if necessary in order to talk with the family beside the casket, where you will be invited to look at the deceased for as long as you wish (and forced to do so if you express a wish not to). The deceased is open for viewing for about two days. The room will be bedecked with flowers people have ordered, which just before the funeral will be taken and set up at the site of the burial. Every person you know brings food until there is literally nowhere to put anything else. At the actual funeral, there is usually a preacher who delivers a message, and several songs will be performed. Funerals can run an hour or two hours long. Then, as if they were the royal family, the family of the deceased is taken to a motorcade where the funeral home employees have discreetly lined up the family vehicles in order of precedence (usually determined by relationship to the deceased). The other mourners fall in behind the hearse and the family if their vehicles have not also been lined up (and usually they have). A policeman (or several) leads the procession, and another usually follows. No matter how distant the cemetery, every person you meet on the road is required by social tradition to pull over on the side of the road. If you are behind a funeral procession, even on a highway, you are not to pass. At the cemetery, a tent is usually constructed over the burial site, where all of the mourners proceed, and you basically have another funeral. Then there is a huge meal. Some of it is amusing and exhausting, of course, but I think most all of it is done out of respect for the grieving family.

Lance: Having recently attended the funeral for my wife’s aunt, a beautiful service despite the pandemic precautions, I agree with Tara that the way Southern families conduct their funerals can be weird for some folks. One of my go-to phrases in conversation is “As they say at Southern funerals, ‘Don’t he look natural.’” Tara’s thoughtful response also reminds me of one of my favorite songs by Southern singer/songwriter Kate Campbell. It’s called “Funeral Food,” and it’s signature line will stick with you: “Pass the chicken, pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies.” 

I would add that every Southern town has a festival. These border on the sacred in some places and the utterly ridiculous in others. The smaller the town, the weirder their festival. My personal favorite is the Kaolin Festival in Sandersville, Ga. This celebration of white clay mined in the region isn’t a household word in areas of the world bereft of these clay deposits, but this celebration of a substance found in everything from paper coating to toothpaste has a wonderful parade, a Kaolin Queen pageant and the requisite carnival rides out at the fairgrounds. The pandemic has put too many of these festivals on pause. Here’s hoping they can safely return soon.

Q: Why do Southerners sometimes refer to people from the North as “damn Yankees?”

Tara: I do hear that occasionally.  It’s unfortunate and not very “Southern” given the emphasis on hospitality and friendliness in the South. The roots of the South using the term derogatorily are historical. Later on, it became a stereotype used when a Northerner did something displeasing to a Southerner, particularly something considered discourteous. Southerners tend to put a premium on social politeness, and there is a perception that Northerners aren’t as concerned with that. So when the stereotype is perceived as coming true, that is the label that gets stamped. Of course, none of this is really thought out by people today and stereotypes are just never fair. But history has a way of handing legacies down to us that tend to be perpetuated—however rude they may be!

Lance: All true, Tara, but let me take a slightly different approach here. Yes, there is still regional animosity between the former combatants of the “War of Northern Aggression” as it is still known with all seriousness in some quarters of the South. The phrase went mainstream in popular culture after the release in 1955 of the musical comedy “Damn Yankees,” which was adapted from the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. It was adapted into a movie of the same name and released in 1958 starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston. The basic story is that a longsuffering Washington Senators fan, Joe Boyd, sells his soul to the devil to see his team beat the Yankees. I, for one, do not sit in judgment of the fictional Joe Boyd on that count. In real life, the New York Yankees have won 27 World Series titles since 1903, and they have been a nemesis of the teams I grew up a fan of—first the Texas Rangers and later the Atlanta Braves. It was painful to watch the Braves lose the 1996 World Series to the Yankees after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, winning both games in New York by a combined score of 16-1. The Braves proceeded to lose the next four giving the Yankees their first title since 1978. Not prone to swearing, that series made me want to utter “damn yankees” more than once.

Q:  (Three questions actually follow from this one!) When speaking of a modern Southern comedian, Lance recently wrote in a blog post, “…[H]e does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.”  What do you think makes Southerners unique as storytellers?

Tara:  Authenticity is key in good Southern storytelling. There is usually something that strikes a chord or touches us in Southern stories. There is a willingness to settle in and weave an intricate narrative. I think that quality is the legacy of cultural heritages renowned for oral storytelling—Native American, Scottish, Irish, and African, to name a few. Storytelling is a learned and practiced tradition from childhood on in the South.

Lance: Time, place and adversity have shaped Southerners into good storytellers. The late 19th Century was a simpler time, and much of life in the South was agrarian. People had more time and spent it together on the front porch because there was no air conditioning. With the advent of radio and TV and the ubiquity of air conditioning, the culture shifted, but for at least a generation the prevailing form of entertainment was listening to your elders tell stories on the front porch after supper or after Sunday dinner with the family. The stories that held the most resonance were filled with humor and heartache, both of which were in abundance at the turn of the 20th Century in the South. Southern stories have an element of self-deprecation, a respect for ingenuity and distrust of progress and technology. The comedians, writers and storytellers that are known for being Southern have mastered their craft by being good listeners and refining their stories after many retellings as they see the response of their audience. That’s why so many Southern storytellers I have been around, famous or just family, can entertain even when they tell the same story over and over. They blend the familiar with a few twists to keep it interesting. We listen to see if it will be different this time.

Q:  What makes Southern storytelling’s rhythm and pacing distinctive?

Tara: There is a certain musical flow to Southern stories, something that draws you in gently but immediately and then flows like a river as it unfolds from there. There is a certain pulling from the past/working toward the future dichotomy that makes it circular. And a distinctive tone to Southern storytelling reflects Southern speech patterns.

Lance: My grandmother had a way of stringing the details of her stories together with the verbal pause “and uh” that gave her stories a rhythm. Like a sermon in the African American church tradition, her stories would start slow and build to a dramatic conclusion, usually humorous. She would often laugh at her own stories. She called it “tickled.” I am “tickled” anytime I get to hear such a story. I agree, Tara, Southern storytelling is musical, whether it’s read or heard. To get a sense of what I mean, pick up a copy of Rick Bragg’s latest book, “Where I Come From” or any of his previous works. Read a few paragraphs out loud, and you’ll hear it immediately.

Q:  Are Southerners caricatured in media such as movies, books, etc.?  If so, what makes a Southern voice have an authentic ring?

Lance: Without a doubt. As a fan of Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” television adaptation of the Cohen brothers film, though, I have to admit that any time a region becomes the focus of a story, the opportunity for caricature exists. I see it most when someone without experience or appreciation of the South attempts to tell a Southern story. They paint with too broad a brush. Because I like to listen to accents, no matter where they are from, it’s often the over-done dialect that makes it so egregious. I like it best when writers, storytellers and actors capture the specifics of a Southern place. There is no one accent or way of life down South. If they know us well enough to grasp the nuances, they can avoid caricature and actually tell a story with authenticity. My favorite theme is the underestimated Southerner that turns the stereotype on its head. I know that can be its own cliche, but I am drawn to stories that flip the script. As for authenticity, I think that emerges from directness, lack of pretense, and color. Honesty is often hard to take, but Southerners can speak from their heart with surprising frankness.

Tara: That is a good point, Lance, that when any region becomes a focus there is an opportunity for or danger of caricature. I also see caricature a lot with religious or ethnic minority groups—any group that is numerically smaller in the broader culture. But yes, Southerners are caricatured broadly to the extent that when a character actually feels like a Southerner, it is a welcome surprise. Behaviors are stereotyped (wearing big hair, being backwards, practicing oppressive forms of religion, being prejudiced more than the general population, etc.). I agree that the accents are often the most cringeworthy. A Southern voice (and as an author, I can add any voice) has more authenticity when the character is first presented as a person and only then as a person who may have certain distinctive regional or cultural traits.

Q:  What makes Southern society complex and complicated?

Tara: History. The South has a troubled, or one might almost say tortured history. The presence of slavery deep into the nineteenth century, the forced removal of Native Americans, and an almost caste-based social structure have all made the South and its history complicated, to say the least. There is a history of deep prejudice that still gives the region a troubled legacy today. That’s not to say that the whole country, or every country, doesn’t have the same truth. Prejudice exists in the South and everywhere. To deny that would be to paper over the very real, lived experience of many.

Simultaneously, I think the South has been forced to deal with prejudice on a fundamental level in a way that other regions may not have. I recently read a study that found that quantifiable inequality (unemployment, home ownership, education, etc.) was several percentage points less in the South as a region than in the nation as a whole. But that is not the general perception of Southern society.

Adding to the complexity, the South has also historically been riddled with poverty, to the extent that the default “American” in media or popular imagination is not Southern. Not being the default obviously leads to some problematic handling of the region as a whole by the uninitiated. For example, we wouldn’t normally allow for critical caricatures of people struggling with poverty, but the stereotype of all Southerners as prejudiced somehow makes those depictions acceptable, which does real damage.

And yet, the legacy of an aristocratically tiered social structure does still persist. There is a bit of a “haves and have-nots” element to Southern society that adds another dimension to the complexity, all the more so because it isn’t necessarily in a good versus evil way of a Dickens novel. The complexity of Southern society is profoundly difficult to grasp, but I can say for certain that a lot of it goes back to history.

Lance: Well said, Tara. The South’s agrarian history, which is rapidly being erased, contributes to the complexity. Moving from an inequitable and exploitative rural economy to a high tech and services based economy has changed the landscape so quickly, many who control the systems of wealth and influence have leveraged the old prejudices to stoke division and maintain control. Race is just one level of the conflict. Class is another. And with the growing abandonment and diversification of religious practice, there are even more opportunities for cultural clashes. It’s complicated because it feels like whenever there is progress toward unity, there are ugly, violent events that remind us of the past and erase any gains in trust and goodwill. We’re never that far from what the Baptists call “backsliding.” It feels to me like an addict in recovery. We can never get too confident we’re over the old troubles. We have to take it one day at a time, with humility, and try to do better accepting people for who they are as individuals and not for their membership in a larger group identity.

Q: How is the South and Southern culture changing?

Tara: I think the concept of Southernness may be developing into something that reflects more of the diversity that we have talked about. I feel like there was a time when identification with Southern culture was more common among middle- and upper-class people of European ancestry. But it seems like that perception is broadening today to acknowledge and include the culture and contributions of more and more of those who live in the South. I haven’t researched in this area, so I base this on the fact that I hear people identify as Southern who might not have done so in the past and see Southern magazines exploring the Southernness and contributions to the South of people who may first identify as something other than Southern. This is definitely a great question for Lance!

Lance: This is the very question at the root of New South Essays. I’ve mentioned some of it above. We’re becoming more urban, technology dependent and diverse. Small towns are drying up because people are moving to where the jobs are, and population loss in rural areas is palpable. Family is still important, but jobs are taking people farther and farther away from their roots. We’re experiencing a mix of stubborn pride and pervasive shame over a past that we once reflected on and talked about often. Now, everything about Southern is being reinterpreted. I find particularly interesting the work that The Bitter Southerner and The Oxford American are doing in that regard. I hope one of the messages people take away from my blog is that it’s OK to be Southern and talk about it openly and honestly. It helps to be humble and self deferential with a healthy dose of humor, which I see as growing in the New South.

Q: What is the best thing about the South?

Tara: For me it is the hospitality.  Southern history is, of course, fraught and complicated, and, like anywhere else, it still isn’t a perfect place. But at its best today, there is a kindness to Southern culture, a sort of “welcome home” feeling that can and should be extended to all.

The best way to explain would be through a visit to Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah, Georgia. There are ten or eleven people seated at a big table that is reminiscent of a Sunday dinner. You pass about a dozen dishes back and forth between you, making conversation all the while like you’re family. People line up and wait for hours for this experience with total strangers.  Both times I’ve been, people from different regions or countries want to know all of the details of Southern life, and of course the Southerners are happy to oblige. This leads to trading stories about our homes and the different ways cultures do things.  The last time I went, at our table were: my sister and me, a couple from Canada with their two children, an Indian American couple from Manhattan, and a couple from Alabama.  All were such lovely people, and if we had met in any other setting, we might never have been acquainted with one another well enough to have known that.  But when we left, we all talked about the connection we had felt. I still remember what all of their faces looked like, and for that moment, we were family. It’s a transforming experience, connecting with total strangers just because you can really feel harmony and peace around you.  I really think the world would be a kinder place if everyone could experience that type of distinctly Southern setting, because you get to see the goodness in people, and you remember that and carry it with you.  Southern hospitality mixing with Southern cooking is just one of the greatest things in the world.

Lance: I can’t argue with that, Tara! We’ve covered most of what I truly enjoy already, but I would be remiss if I didn’t devote some space here to Southern writers. I hope you will check out Tara’s books that weave history and relationships in a way that expose relatable truths. My favorite Southern writer of all time is Clyde Edgerton. I find the work of Larry Brown gritty and real. I’ve always enjoyed Rick Bragg, as I mentioned, and William Faulkner’s well-documented contributions inspired me to take up writing in the first place. You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate great Southern literature, and as it diversifies, its impact only grows.

The Contributors:

Tara Cowan the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain, Northern Fire, and Charleston Tides. She writes fiction set mostly in the South and loves all things history, travel, and culture.  An attorney, Tara lives in Middle Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel.

To connect with Tara, visit her blog at www.TeaAndRebellion.com, follow her on Instagram, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

A former newspaper reporter and editor, Lance Elliott Wallace chronicles life in the New South from his home in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. He is a Fort Worth, Texas, native who has lived in Central Florida, Alabama and Georgia, gaining a fascination with contemporary Southern culture along the way.

To connect with Lance, visit his blog at www.newsouthessays.com. He’s most active on Twitter and Facebook.

Note: This post is running simultaneously on New South Essays Blog (link above). Check out Lance’s great blog for more on Southern life!

The American War Novel

Today is Veterans Day in America.  I thought that, in special recognition of this day, I would talk about a class I took in college that meant a great deal to me and greatly influences my writing: The American War Novel.  We got to discuss topics like the changing attitudes regarding PTSD throughout the centuries, the conceptualization of women in war literature, realism versus romanticism, and the nitty gritty effects of war on the people who fight them.

Our professor was just out of grad school “up north” as we say in the South, and he brought to Tennessee Tech a passion for war and trauma literature (shout out to Dr. Williams!).  It was a small class in which we sat in a circle and discussed the literature assigned.

Going chronologically through history, we started with some essays and excerpts from the nineteenth century.  There was a lot of romantic and flowery language during this era, the language of glory in death, etc.  It is beautiful language but way off base in accuracy, according to most veterans, in that it doesn’t touch on the realities of war. I always thought that this rhetoric, which was what much of America took into the Civil War, must have led to a huge wake-up call in the wake of what became America’s most violent conflict to date.  It may even have prolonged the conflict. You see in primary documents people clinging to this rhetoric of glory and “knights on a charger” even amidst the growing casualty counts deep into the war.

After that, we read The Red Badge of Courage.  This book, written about the Civil War by Stephen Crane in 1895 (thirty years after the conflict ended), is, according to Matthew Arnold, “a touchstone for modern war fiction.”  In other words, it is the mother of all war novels.  While “the war” is kind of universal in The Red Badge, most believe that The Battle of Chancellorsville is the setting.  Crane’s work is remarkable in that it obliterates the clichés of prior war fiction, giving us a depiction of a young boy who is simply a human, afraid that he will run at his first battle.  Every sentence is literary and could be carefully unpacked.  Romantic traditions are rejected in favor of reality and genuine courage.  I remember so vividly Henry Fleming’s inner struggle.  Even though we as a class could never take away a distinct “meaning” from the book (not a bad thing), it resonates.  And I have to think that was due largely in part to the fact that Crane interviewed a lot of Civil War veterans.

We moved on to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  This is about an American lieutenant serving in World War I in Italy who falls in love with his nurse, Catherine, after he is injured.  It is part gruesome and realistic war novel and part romance (although not in a happy-go-lucky way).  I liked this one for its narrative ease, for the way Hemingway strips his language down to the bare bones, and for the fact that a woman featured prominently in it.  However, the really depressing ending stays with you long after you read it.  It does contain one of my favorite quotes, however: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  Just don’t read the line after that—hope never lasts long with Hemingway!

Next, we read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, which was WWII-related and linked to the firebombing of Dresden.  It was also part sci-fi, part meta, part really off-the-wall novel!  This was not my cup of tea at all, but I am glad we read it to get exposure to all of the different varieties of war novels, and Vonnegut is certainly one of the legends of the war novel genre.  My reaction paper for this one was about the sexism used towards every female in the novel and my theory that it was done to highlight the degradations towards women that sexism causes (in other words, in an attempt to help, not to hurt).  The sexism was so blatant that my professor commented on my paper, “I really hope you’re right!”

After that, we moved on to Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko.  This was my favorite war novel and stands as one of my favorite novels of all time.  It is about a Native American soldier who fought in WWII in the Pacific Theater and was forced to take place in the Bataan Death March.  After this, he returns to his tribe with what was then called “battle fatigue,” and would now be known as PTSD.  We follow his journey to healing, which was aided by the spiritualism of his heritage.  It was beautiful.  I remember feedback from a fellow student who was commenting on how fascinating the war’s effects were to explore through the Native American experience.  She said, “When I try to think, What is the opposite of PTSD, I think, It is balance.”  Balance is such an important concept in Native American culture, so in this and in many other ways, you watch an entire culture’s answers to his illness come to the forefront.  I presented on this book in my class, and the subject I chose was the history of the Bataan Death March and the physical toll it took on the soldiers.  This book was a wonderful contribution to American literature, and, for me, a constant reminder that, of all racial, ethnic, and cultural American groups, per capita, Native Americans served in the largest number in WWII.

Next, we read Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran who went on to write war novels.  I think he is most famous for his book, The Things They Carried.  O’Brien has a lot to tell us about the nature of war as it is actually fought and lived.  He was almost like a second professor for our class; we read so many of his quotes that they could frame almost every discussion we had.  For instance, we talked about the theme of masculinity in war, or the concept in literature that, if war does nothing else, it makes you a man. The thing I loved about O’Brien was that he seeks to present you with the truth; he doesn’t deny any reality about war.  His answer to the “war makes men out of boys conversation?”  He agrees, but he doesn’t stop there.  He says, “War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”  Try grappling with that quote!  He talks about the beauty of war and juxtaposes it with its grotesque nature.  In addition to the Hemingway quote above, another of my favorites is by O’Brien: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.”  That quote has influenced me so much as I grapple with war themes in my own novels.  It gives a first-person perspective to those of us who have not fought in wars but want to honor the experiences of those who have in our own writing.  Cacciato is about a soldier in Vietnam who sets off on a journey to find another soldier who has gone AWOL.  It was another book that was very heavy on the literary elements.  It blends reality and fantasy.  It wasn’t my favorite, but Tim O’Brien is certainly worth discovering.

Last, we read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.  This one featured an Iraq war veteran who is sent on a victory tour after coming home.  It explores the reactions Americans had to troops during the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and the ways in which they might not have been helpful.  For instance, really vivid in my remembrance is the scene in which Billy and his group are expected to go down on a football field at halftime while Destiny’s Child performing.  It was revealing about the fact that we need to go much, much deeper in addressing the needs of returning veterans.  However, it was, in my opinion, a bit too political.  Our class was all over the political spectrum, and everyone seemed to agree on that.  Like I said, though, there were lessons to be gleaned from it.

We were slated to read In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason but had to cut it because we ran out of time.  I was disappointed by that because it details the home front experiences of a little girl during Vietnam.  Most war novels focus primarily on men, and I would like to read more featuring women (one of the reasons I focused so heavily on women’s experiences in Northern Fire).  We did discuss women in relation to every book, era, and theme, however, so I felt like I left with a pretty good grasp of war novel trends throughout time with regards to women.  If you want to see a movie that plays with a lot of those themes (and don’t laugh…), I actually have to tell you that Mulan (animated) is excellent.  You can tell that the writers were students of the war novel genre.  Every song could be used as one of the war novel themes we discussed in relation to women.  For example, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” was a recurring theme in early war literature, etc.

I really like the genre of the war novel.  It is a field that builds on every previous generation’s theme, almost as if all of the authors from Stephen Crane onward are having a conversation.  We discussed many difficult themes, and I think the class helped me to get just a small glimpse inside of the experience of those on the frontlines of wars and conflicts.  In the words of O’Brien, “That’s what fiction is for.  It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

To all veterans, thank you is not enough.  “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including the silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” – Tim O’Brien

Q & A: Northern Fire

Hello again, friends! My sister, Hannah, and I sat down for a Q&A about Northern Fire, and I have also included some questions from some wonderful readers. Some are about the book, some are about writing in general, and some are about me! (Just a word of caution, if you haven’t yet read Southern Rain, there might be a few spoilers for that one! However, there shouldn’t be any spoilers for Northern Fire, and I encourage you to read the Q&A before you read it.) Here we go!

Hannah: What was the inspiration for Northern Fire? Was it hard to narrow down your ideas?

Tara: It’s all very hazy now, but I think the inspiration for the Torn Asunder Series came to me while I was taking a walk during my two-month intense isolation/study time for the Bar Exam. I had this idea for this historical heroine who leaves her husband, an absolutely shocking thing for the Civil War Era, and I really wanted to know how that would play out. Hmm, could I pair it with this modern storyline about a preservationist that had been floating in my head? Yes, I could! It’s not usually hard to narrow down your ideas because something always comes to you passionately and has to get out.

Hannah: What kind of audience do you expect to read Northern Fire?

Tara: The tendency is to say women who love Historical Fiction/Romance, but several men have read and liked Southern Rain, too. I think, between the history, the modern romance, and the Women’s Fiction dimension, there is something for everybody. I will refer you to the Q&A for Southern Rain for information about young readers/parents’ discretion, which can be found in its own special tab on my blog at http://www.teaandrebellion.com. As always, you can contact me if you have any questions.

Hannah: What should the reader know going into Northern Fire?

Tara: I think I always underestimated the series, in that, whether modern or historical, I thought it was going to be lighter than it was. There are some heavy topics, which may be difficult for some people. There are a couple of sad scenes and some overarching struggles that may be relatable for a lot of people, in both good and tough ways. I think the advantage of having a book that tends towards heaviness is that, wherever there is pain, there is also a lot of depth.

Hannah: How do you deal with difficult subjects? How do you strike the balance of far enough/too far?

Tara: It’s sometimes hard to know how much is too far. I have learned that a good rule of thumb for me is that if something makes me uncomfortable, I should probably take it a step further even from there and push the boundaries a little bit to experience the truth of the story. When a book does tend towards heaviness, the great balancer is always hope. Human life is so difficult, but there is such beauty in it, too. It’s important not to overlook either.

So many readers: Why don’t you just give Shannon and John Thomas a baby already?!

Tara: So sorry! This is probably the number one question I have gotten. It’s touching that everyone is so worried about their happiness. When I first started reading clean historical romance about twelve years ago, I found some truly talented authors, and many of those books have beloved spots on my shelves. But I noticed a recurring structure: boy meets girl, usual struggles ensue, they get together, happy ending equals healthy baby. That didn’t quite ring true to me. Historically speaking, a lot of couples struggled in conceiving (George and Martha Washington, James and Dolley Madison, Andrew and Rachel Jackson) or in carrying to term (Louisa Catherine Adams, Mary Church Terrell). Sometimes the mother died from something as simple as severe morning sickness during the pregnancy (Charlotte Brontë). If you could have a baby, the birth was an extreme ordeal for which you could thank God if both mother and child survived (Stonewall Jackson’s first wife died from a hemorrhage just after giving birth, and their child was stillborn). Lots of men had two families because the first wife died in “childbed” (Theodore Roosevelt). Many women made it through the birth only to linger and die from puerperal fever or physical complications (Thomas Jefferson’s wife) days, weeks, or months later. Of course, for those who did not have as many difficulties, families were often large due to lack of effective birth control methods, and I think that is perhaps where the idea that “everyone in history had eight kids” comes from. But even for those large families, it is difficult to think of a historical figure who did not lose a child to a childhood illness. All of that is a long way of saying that I’m not sure the notion, historically speaking, of a happy ending culminating in a modern-type birth where there are no worries quite passes muster. I kind of wanted to represent the full range of historical experiences in this story. Shannon struggles, while Marie has a whiplash-inducing honeymoon baby. And, while I won’t tell you here whether Shannon and John Thomas have a baby, or even whether they reunite (this is all just a matter of plot), I will tell you that their ultimate peace, if they find it, will be in acceptance of whatever situation in which God places them, of themselves just as they are, and of God just as He is, which is what I think we all must find before we can get down to the more trivial business of daily happiness.

Hannah: What do you think it takes to make a strong male character likeable, but also real? Do you think John Thomas and/or Adrian apply?

Tara: My sister and I (ahem) talk about this a lot. For me, a main male character (“MMC”) has to be loyal, and his love cannot waver. He also has to be gentle with the female character, physically speaking—there can be no love where there is any sort of fear. I don’t mind a good argument, but I don’t like a lot of yelling or any verbal abuse. I also like the MMC to be capable and to have a good grasp on his situation. I like to write male characters that you know are good ones, deep down. I don’t think that’s an unrealistic expectation at all (and if it is, we’re better off alone, girls!). Other than that, I think the sky is the limit! I love writing all different sorts of male characters. It’s totally okay for them to have their own struggles. They don’t have to be superheroes. Do John Thomas and Adrian apply to my criteria? Funnily enough, I’ve had several people tell me they don’t trust Adrian yet. So I hope this isn’t a spoiler when I say that: yes, they meet all of my main criteria. I will say that they both surprised me with the depth of their emotion by the end of the series, which I loved.

Hannah: Do you relate to Shannon or Adeline personally?

Tara: I always say that there is a little bit of me in all of my characters. I relate to Adeline’s love for history, desire to keep the peace, and awkwardness. I don’t relate to her laid-back personality, or her ability to not overthink things, unfortunately. I think every human being can relate to Shannon, since she kind of represents the human condition, that knot of tension that grows in all of us from childhood on, through numerous and varying causes. She also represents the choice we have of letting those dark forces overtake us or of overcoming them through the only way I know how—clinging to God.

Hannah: You put a lot of work into side characters. Do you ever wish the main plot had followed them instead of your MMC and MFC?

Tara: I know you’re asking this because you love Frederick and Marie. Sometimes, I wish I had made Frederick’s story on equal par with Shannon’s. However, sometimes, there is something enticing about a side-character only when the person is a side character, so I think it worked out fine.

Tammi: What other interests do you have, in addition to history and crafting stories?

Tara: That’s a great question! My day job is a lawyer, and I’m fortunate enough to work with my brother. I do a lot of property law, but my favorite thing to do is estate planning. I read a lot of historical fiction. I watch pretty much any historical drama that comes on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. I really enjoy Audible for books that I would love to read but don’t really have time to dig into, like historical biographies and religious/theological books. I have been studying Contemplative Prayer and have found a lot of meaning in learning to listen for God’s voice in new (to me) ways. I love antiquing, particularly buying old furniture. Of course, I absolutely love touring historic homes. I just bought an old house, so there is always something to keep me busy. The History Chicks Podcast and Ben Franklin’s World Podcast have become something I love to have on in the background while I’m cleaning or working in the house.   I like to listen to music and have several playlists on Spotify. I played piano in another life and would like to get back to that soon. I like Royal Watching and follow the “From Berkshire to Buckingham” Instagram page and blog for fun analysis. I love going to plays and am fortunate to have three excellent amateur theaters nearby. I’ve recently gotten back into shopping/fashion in an effort to step up my wardrobe. And I have been dieting for about four years now and in the course of that have picked up a lot of healthy eating habits, so I’m always looking for great vegetarian or organic options.

Josette: What is your favorite historical book?

Tara: I always have trouble narrowing this down because I love so many. For historical fiction, I’ll have to give you four, loosely in order of my preference: A Bride Most Begrudging, by Deeanne Gist, Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer, The Silent Governess, by Julie Klassen, and America’s First Daughter, by Laura Kamoie and Stephanie Dray. For books that were written in historical times, I would have to say: Persuasion, by Jane Austen, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, and The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery.

But if I had to pick an absolute favorite, that would probably be A Bride Most Begrudging. I’ve read it so many times, expecting it to disappoint as I get older, but it never does.

Tammi: Do you listen to music while you write?

Tara: I make a playlist on Spotify for every book or series. Sometimes I listen, and sometimes I prefer silence. I always play a song which I’ve chosen as a kind of theme for the book when I write the last scene and just push replay over and over until the scene is finished. I really like music with choir or strings and piano. I love The Piano Guys, Scala & Kolacny Brothers, Paul Cardall, Helen Jane Long, and 2Cellos. I had never heard of a lot of them until I started listening to the Scala & Kolacny Brothers Pandora Station (after hearing their music for the Downton Abbey trailers), and now they’re some of my favorites!

Tammi: How much time do you spend writing each day?

Tara: I used to spend about an hour or two writing every day, even while I was in law school. Now, sometimes I’m not able to do that because of eye strain from said law school. So I usually end up writing on the weekends. I like to write in bulk and might write for eight hours one day and none for the next four days. If I’m really feeling inspired and am able, I usually write for about two hours per day.

Tammi: Where do you write?

Tara: In my living room. I like a room with lots of windows and light. I have a desk that I wrote three novels on in college and still sit there sometimes, but I often write on my couch now.

Tammi: How did you become interested in writing historical fiction?

Tara: My mom would bring me home Christian Historical Fiction books that she had bought on the sale shelf at our local Hastings bookstore. I absolutely devoured them (Deeanne Gist, Julie Klassen, Lynn Austin…) One day, I said, “I just love these!” And my mom said, “Why don’t you write one?”

Tammi: When did you start writing?

Tara: When I was seventeen, pretty much right after that conversation with my mom. 🙂 That’s been about eleven years now. My first manuscript was written in a composition notebook and was set in Nineteenth Century England. It was terrible. 🙂

Tammi: When did you develop your love for history?

Tara: My mom was a 5th and 6th grade Social Studies teacher during my childhood, and my dad likes history, too, so my siblings and I grew up in a very history-friendly household. My mom would tell us fascinating historical tidbits. My parents knew how to make history fun, taking us to Washington, D.C. and Charleston when we were little, with the emphasis always on history. I remember one Sunday, they took us (after wrangling us all to church and back, no less!) with the grandparents to Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville. I remember when we walked through the door and the docent directed our attention to the ruby glass above the door. “Pretty,” she said, “but there to serve no other purpose than displaying the Harding family’s wealth.” Me: Oooh. My brother and I found that fascinating. Then came the time for the trip down to the mausoleum. (I should note that in Middle Tennessee, mourning customs were heavily followed and are always a huge part of most any tour.) I was petrified. I was not going down there. Luckily, my grandpa felt the same. Skirting the cooling pad (yes, where they laid out the bodies—it was just lying in the hall, for crying out loud!), he found a bench and said, “Sissy, I think I’m going to sit right here.” My response: “Me, too, Pa!” That trip is one of my fondest childhood memories.

Matthew M.: How did you get interested in the American Civil War?

Tara: I actually started out with an aversion to the Civil War. I always liked history, but I remember looking at pictures of the battles in my 5th grade textbook and feeling horrified. I kind of stayed away from the Civil War until I needed to fulfill my history credits at Tennessee Tech, and one of Tech’s history professors was teaching his nearly-famous course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. He really brought the Civil War alive for us. It was an intensive course, with multiple books, articles, papers, etc., and we were required to learn battle movements and plans for all of the major battles and recite them in narratives on our tests. We covered all aspects—the home front, the lives of the enslaved, theories that developed in the post-war era… After that, I wrote a series which follows several siblings in Civil War Era Virginia. I think setting a family drama in that era and researching minute details for so long is what finally tipped me over the edge for the Civil War. The opportunities for drama are boundless, the range of human emotions breath-taking. We see the best and worst of humanity, and, as an author, that’s exciting to explore. I realized that if I could get a little braver in dealing with a very tough time period, there was a wellspring of experiences to be discovered and retold!

Matthew M.: Do you use any primary source material for your novels?

Tara: Yes, I absolutely love getting my hands on a letter which gives special insight to the time period. You can find some great letters in online archives, and I have a book called War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars by Andrew Carroll, which has been great. I also find that docents are excellent to read you parts of letters when you tour historic homes. And touring historic homes is something I love to do to get a feel for the time period, and, if it’s close enough to my setting, the place. Seeing an antique from the time period can really ground you in the era, too. I also read diaries and recipes from the era, and I look at a lot of photos or portraits for the fashion.

Reaching out beyond that, I also look at scholarly works or biographies. For the Torn Asunder Series, some of the books I read in preparation were:

At the Precipice, by Shearer Davis Bowman
The Civil War at Sea, by Craig L. Symonds
An Antebellum Plantation Household, by Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClercq
Grant, by Ron Chernow

Hannah: Not all authors enjoy the subjects of their own books. Would you devour this one?

Tara: I would read it, yes, and I think I would enjoy it. I have written other books that are more to my taste. I think this one is geared more towards my sister’s taste (wink). But there is, I hope, always an element that I strive to put in my books that makes you want to keep reading or read the next one. Can I tell you a secret? There’s another cliffhanger in Northern Fire! Gotta run now before readers attack me!

Stop by the Southern Rain FAQ Page for some more questions answered about the series and my writing in general. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me!