Review: America’s First Daughter

I cannot say enough about America’s First Daughter. As I was just beginning to read it, I looked at my sister and said, “This is the most well-written book I have read in…” I couldn’t remember when. Usually, the highest compliment I give a book is that it was a page-turner, but I need to take just a moment to honor the craft that Kamoie and Dray put to use in this book. The words flowed like honey. The characters sparkled. The descriptions drew you into the time period. The emotions were beautifully displayed. The scenes were well-chosen. Your trust in the authors is complete.

Now, about the actual story. I can’t say it better than Erika Robuck did in her great quote which is on the back of the book: “Not since Gone with the Wind has a single-volume family saga so brilliantly portrayed the triumphs, trials, and sins of a family in the American South.” That is a powerful appraisal.  Full disclosure: I love Revolutionary and Early Republic history, I love Thomas Jefferson, and I love the American South. But I think you would like this book even if you liked none of those things.

Now, don’t go into it expecting a traditional historical romance. There is romance, and it is beautifully done. But it isn’t neat, isn’t always happy, and it doesn’t necessarily leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. And there’s a lot more than just romance. I would liken this book to Nancy Moser’s fabulous Washington’s Lady, although that book is a little easier to swallow for its sweet, real-life affection between George and Martha. But the books are similar in that they don’t allow you to feel sheltered from the hardships that, historically, men and women faced. People die. Marriages break. People live in despair. And life goes on. I hope I haven’t scared you away because this book is well-worth your time. I just wanted to make sure you were buckled up for the ride!

We follow Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph from childhood through her father’s death. She was an amazing, flawed, strong woman, and it was a joy to view the world through her eyes.
I consider that this book has four great triumphs and three minor downsides.
One triumph is its portrayal of Patsy’s husband, Thomas “Tom” Mann Randolph. I haven’t seen such a deep, honest, and rich psychological study of a character in fiction perhaps ever. The authors “go there” with Tom in ways which have you shifting uncomfortably in your seat, cringing, hating, and yet, remarkably, still feeling sympathy.

Another triumph is Sally Hemings. What an amazing woman! We can’t know what her relationship with Patsy was like, but this felt spot-on. The choices she made, her relationship with Jefferson, and her status at Monticello were on point based on my research. But to give her a personality, a character based off what we do know about her – that gave the book real value.

Another value of this book is rescuing William Short from disappearing into the abyss of history. He was a remarkable, radical figure which has hitherto been rather lost to American knowledge.

The last triumph of this book is perhaps its greatest. I think a lot of historical novelists are afraid to tell the truth as seen from their characters’ eyes. I have felt those pressures: do I say what my character in this era really would’ve thought or modernize their point of view to what we think today so that no one feels uncomfortable? The fact of the matter is that we as historical novelists are dealing with people who lived sometimes hundreds of years ago, who have their own set of experiences and beliefs that are often quite different from ours. This book fearlessly explores that dynamic, dealing with hard topics empathetically and respectfully through Patsy’s eyes while not masking her flaws or the era’s. In this book, we see the truth about history and human weakness and the effects of sin. We see joy and love and hope, too. We see the truth, ugly and beautiful.

Now for my minor grievances (no book review about Jefferson would be complete without a listing of grievances, would it?).

One is that the character of Thomas Jefferson himself often didn’t feel fully fleshed out. For Patsy’s youth we really dig into his psyche, but after that, he kind of felt like a character to fill a chair at the table. I wish he had been a little more dynamic so that we could understand Patsy’s utter devotion and sense of responsibility. Related is another point about Jefferson, which is not a criticism, but a caution. One danger, I think, in seeing things through Patsy’s eyes is that readers might walk away feeling like they know the man Jefferson, but I don’t think that was the purpose of this book. Everything dealing with him was done respectfully and accurately, but since we have only Patsy’s perspective, and since she is no different from anyone else in that she always worried her loved ones weren’t quite capable without her, we don’t get the full impression. For that full impression, and for a non-fiction which reads as fast as good fiction, I would highly recommend Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power.

Another thing, which is totally unimportant, is that I don’t think the portrayal of James and Dolley Madison was the best. That was not the focus, and you can overlook it.

Finally, this book took forever to finish. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to condense an entire life, and such a life, into one volume, but it was really long. It is actually larger than it looks because the pages are quite thin and full. It was also emotionally and historically heavy, which is really the only explanation for why it took me three times as long to read a book that was beautifully written and held my interest. I was ready for it to be over, but I certainly didn’t feel like I wasted my time. It was, on the whole, a very moving experience.

Five out of five stars, which I don’t give lightly. Now go read it!

-Tara

Writing Tips for Novelists

I often get asked how I write best.  I think people expect me to say, “On an island, surrounded by palm trees, with soft music flowing in the background.”  The truth is, my brain is a glutton for punishment.  If I treated it to the island of palm trees, it would completely shut down every creative nerve I have.

But to back up, I thought it would be fun to give you a few insights into my writing life and style.  I consider writing as having two phases, the most important having nothing to do with pen and paper or laptop or actually writing.  There’s the “thinking” phase and the “typing” phase.  Most creativity comes, indeed most of the story is written, during the thinking phase.  That’s when you have a spacey look in your eye, when your family and friends notice you’re not answering their questions exactly right. That’s where the magic happens.  I need 70% of my writing to happen in this phase, or I usually know the story’s not ready to be penned.  This is where you let the inspiration flow.  Often it happens (because of the brain’s rebellious spirit) when I’m still writing something else.

I don’t know about other authors, but I find it is particularly important not to cage my brain.  Don’t outline furiously.  Let it flow organically.  I usually do minimal outlining (i.e., if I “outline,” I write about ten words in chronological order so I don’t forget the general flow) and only write specific lines down if the wording as I have thought it out in my head feels particularly right. Don’t get hung up on a particular story development or plot and sit there and dwell and dwell on it, whether you’re stuck or you’ve just had a grand inspiration.  If an idea comes to you that is particularly delicious, don’t overthink it and carry it to all of its natural conclusions.  You need to leave something to keep the spark alive.  Pull back.  It’s like not wearing out your favorite song.  Leave something to be explored. 

Taking good ideas that thrill you and fleshing them out should make up most of that 30% that’s left for the typing phase.  Thinking and typing happen simultaneously during a lot of the typing phase, and that’s when the juices really get to flowing and you take your story over the edge.  That’s what saves the typing phase from being drudge work.  Sure, you’re having to spend long hours in your chair writing out things that are already in your head, but if you save some of that deliciousness and let it unfurl during the typing, the story will excite you anew, and you’ll pound it out in a couple of months.

So what about that island of soft music?  No can do for me.  During the thinking phase, I do listen to music that inspires me, but once the typing phase starts, the room must be totally silent.  I also work best under oppression, or when my mind is supposed to be entirely devoted to something else.  Are you laughing at me yet?  For example, my first week of law school basically called for me to be a performing monkey/robot.  No time was allotted for me to do anything I wanted to do (barely even squeezed in a shower), and yet, in the spirit of rebellion, my creative juices flowed like never before, and I feel like I wrote half a book in my head.  Also, sometimes at church.  Yes, I know that’s naughty.  But there’s something about knowing you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else that makes creativity sparkle.

I also need total privacy.  if I felt like someone could see what I was writing, I wouldn’t write honestly.  If I asked for someone’s opinion, I wouldn’t go with my instincts.  And honesty and instincts are the very backbone of a good writer.  Now for a few more tips as you picture me writing away in a drab, silent room…

Tips:

-Make a Spotify or Pandora playlist for your book, think of the mood of the book, take that mood one extreme further, and reflect that in the music.  If your book is spunky, play really spunky music.  If your book is serious, go for Downton Abbey trailer material.  Get the idea?  Not all of the music has to be time/place appropriate, although some of that is good.  For example, there’s a Fleetwood Mac song that that reminds me of my Civil War couple, and that’s on their playlist.  But I also add in a lot of instrumental pieces to keep me grounded in the era.

-Have someone to bounce ideas off of when you get stuck.  Occasionally that person will have some brilliant idea to fix it all, but usually the answer is already within you.  You just need to tap it.  Make sure it’s only one or two people, though, and someone you trust implicitly so you don’t lose your honesty and instincts.

-Think about your emotions.  Are you feeling it?  If you’re not, your reader very rarely is, and you’ve gotten off track.  Go back and try to find where.

-Sometimes something as little as one sentence can throw your entire story off.  You’ve described something wrong, set the wrong mood… Don’t always look for huge things.

-For writer’s block: pray.  I mean it.  I’ve been there.  There are no quick fixes.  God will show you a way through when the time is right.  And you’ll probably learn something along the way.

-To stay true to a character’s personality, get an image of the character that is the essence of their personality, and keep bringing yourself back to it when you lose them.  For example, female lead in a candlelit room with vulnerability in her eyes. Male lead staring off into the distance, lost in his thoughts.  You get the idea.

-Write to glorify God.  You might think, “How can my small town rom-com glorify Him when it doesn’t even have a religious vibe?”  It can.  You would be surprised how creative He is.  Let Him take you to the next level.

Stop by soon for the playlists from my current work-in-progress!

Our Favorite Literary Couples

Happy Valentine’s Day!  In honor of this day of love, we (my sister and I) thought we would share some of our favorite literary couples.  Who are yours? Tell us in the comments.  We always love recommendations!

Hannah’s Favorites:
Jane and Mr. Rochester – Jane Eyre
Nora and Sullivan – Now That You Mention It
Anne and Captain Wentworth – Persuasion
Margaret and Mr. Thornton – North and South
Arabella and TurnipThe Mischief of the Mistletoe
Charlotte and RobertThe Temptation of the Night Jasmine
Jade and Daniel – Dancing with Fireflies
Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane – The Lady Julia Novels
Lena and Kostos – The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants
Caroline and Charles – Candle in the Darkness
Brett and Jake – The Sun Also Rises

Tara’s Favorites:
Lizzie and Darcy – Pride and Prejudice
Melanie and Ashley – Gone With the Wind
Natasha and Pierre – War and Peace
Katherine and Petruchio – The Taming of the Shrew
Serena and Rotherham – Bath Tangle
Valancy and Barney – The Blue Castle
Constance and Drew – A Bridge Most Begrudging
Kate and Lucas – The Convenient Groom
Elisabeth and Jack – Mine is the Night
Molly and James – Beyond this Moment
Venetia and Damerel – Venetia
Anne and Gilbert – Anne of Green Gables
Harriet Vane and Lord Peter – The Lord Peter Series
Sophy and Charles – The Grand Sophy
Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe – The Amelia Peabody Series
Emma and Mr. Knightly – Emma

Are yours any of the same?  Enjoy!