Naming Our Characters

Naming characters is one of my favorite things to do when I’m starting a new book. It can also be a really difficult process, though, and I have author friends who get stuck in this phase and throw their hands up in frustration. I’ve been working on honing my naming skills over the past eleven years and thought I’d share some of my techniques!

The most important thing is that the name works for you. It has to wash with the character in your head, or it just doesn’t click. A closely related tip is that the name has to work for the character. Sometimes the name makes the character, and sometimes the character makes the name. Usually, I try to choose names that really suit the person, kind of like you would do if you were naming a pet. An example of this is Shannon’s cousin, Marie, from the Torn Asunder Series. The name just always suited her, so that was easy. An example of the character making the name would be if you had a really bold girl but decided to give her a soft, feminine name, just for the contrast. I’ve seen this work really well.

Using an obviously unsuited name can also work if you want to try out an unusual moniker. I’ve had characters in the past that I’ve done this for, and I think, “Wow, you really pulled that off!” On the flip side, not every name is made for every character. For instance, my historical male lead, John Thomas, was originally Cameron. This is a bit of a modern name, but I knew I could get away with it because it is a surname, and a lot of people gave their sons family surnames back in the day.  However, the name didn’t fit him. It was as though the name tried to make him something he wasn’t. His character even started to change a little from the way I had imagined it in my head. This is the power of naming.

You can also see by my experience with the John Thomas/Cameron debacle that naming can help you get to know your characters when their personalities are still fresh and undeveloped in your head. Through that process, I was able to learn that John Thomas was a little quieter and kinder than I had begun to draw him. The character begins to revolt against the wrong name, and it’s a really helpful tool to keep in your back pocket.

So how did I arrive at John Thomas? It’s hard to remember precisely after so many character names, but I’m pretty sure that John Thomas’s name was inspired by Stonewall Jackson’s. A lot of people don’t know that the famous General was actually Thomas Jonathan Jackson. I always thought the name had a rather nice ring to it. So I kind of flipped it and brushed it up for my character. Why the use of two names? People did this during the Civil War Era. Also, I could never think of one name that fully encapsulated his character.

A name is also a good opportunity to show that you’ve done your historical homework. You probably don’t want a Kayla in 1860. But it’s not always easy to think of good historical names or to know what names were common to your particular era. The best place to start is to pull up census records for the era you want to use. A lot of census records list ages, so you need to look for someone who would have been born in the same decade as your character. There is also a great website that compiles censuses by birth year and lists the most popular names of each decade. It can be found here:

https://www.galbithink.org/names/us200.htm.

I use that site all the time. Remember, if you’re writing a twenty-year-old character in 1850, you need to go back to 1830. Only think how much naming trends change in twenty years in the modern world!  They didn’t change as much, historically speaking, but you can definitely see certain fashion trends as you scroll through censuses. Another tip is to study real people from your era and look at what their children, their sisters, their uncles, etc. were named.

My books also include enslaved characters. For their names, the process is a little different. The censuses also included and counted the enslaved since slave states got a boost in representation in Congress based off the number of slaves held. Obviously, then, you can find historically accurate names for the enslaved from censuses. But you have to find a census from a slave state, and I have often found that historical records from Southern states are a little spottier and more difficult to locate for various reasons. Another good option is to get onto the websites of house museums where there was once an enslaved population. Museums will often do highlights on particular enslaved people or families. The one tough thing about that is that house museums tend to focus on a particular era. For instance, Virginia plantations most all tend to spotlight the Revolutionary Era. So, another thing you can do is read biographies or diaries of slaveowners. Typically, the names of the enslaved will come up. If you have a really hard time tracking down slave records, you can just fall back on the names from the general census from the appropriate era. The names didn’t tend to be too different. For instance, Thomas Jefferson’s rolls list an enslaved woman named Patsy at Monticello, and his daughter was also Patsy.

Okay, so let’s wrap up the conversation on first names with some of my choices from the Torn Asunder Series. Shannon was originally Mary until it struck me that “Shannon” really suited her. Therefore, she became Mary Shannon and is called “Shannon.” Historically, a lot of people gave even their girls family surnames as middle names, so I thought I could get away with that. Frederick’s name just always suited him. “Adeline” (my modern female lead) fit her. It was kind of sweet, kind of quirky, kind of old. Adrian (my modern male lead) kept trying to be “Aidan,” which would have worked for him, but I kept forcing him to be “Adrian” for reasons I can’t now remember!

Now, let’s talk surnames.

I think the most important thing in surnames is remembering that you’re dealing with people who have a family history. I recently read a book that featured a historical character from Tennessee, and he had a last name that was distinctly of Germanic origin. My initial reaction was, “No, he’s not from Tennessee.”  As I sat and wondered why that had thought popped in my head, it hit me that there just weren’t a lot of people of Germanic origins in Tennessee in the era the author had chosen. There were a few, though, and people can obviously move from their original state. I kept waiting for the book to explain the character’s family history, but it never did, and that was when it hit me.  I googled the author’s state, and most of the people there are of Germanic origins. Bingo. It was just an oversight or an assumption, which could happen to any of us. There’s just so much to get right when you’re writing, and it’s impossible to cover it all.

The best thing to do is look at immigration patterns. For historical fiction, unless you’re doing it to make a certain point, it’s best not to stray too much from the area’s human ecology because you run the risk of straying from accuracy in naming. For instance, if you’re writing a book set in New Orleans, it’s best to use mostly French surnames, toss in a few Spanish, and add a dash of English. In Tennessee, immigration patterns show the bulk of the population was from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Always, there will be surnames that stray from the norm, and by all means, it’s great to show those. But do it with intention.

I would just like to make a note here that research should also be done if you have characters who were formerly or currently enslaved. You have a lot of options, including the following: having no surname while enslaved, having a family surname even while enslaved (if permitted), keeping an original African name, taking on an African surname after freedom, taking on a name that meant something special to the individual like “Freeman” or “Ransom,” and taking on the former owner’s surname. You can see the potential for so many wonderful stories and choices. To explore those stories through naming is a particularly profound opportunity.

Also, if your historical story includes a Native American character, similarly there needs to be some research on various naming methods. Sometimes Native Americans would choose to take on a European name either because they were fathered by a European American or as a measure of assimilation. Sometimes Native Americans would choose to keep traditional names.

Obviously, for modern storylines, some of this goes out the window because we live in a much more mobile and diverse society.  But I still think it can’t hurt to do a little research. Even your modern characters have a family story, and I think their backgrounds ring truest when you take a little time to research what that story might have been.

As for my surname choices? Charleston has a strong French Huguenot history, and Ravenel is a French Huguenot name I heard again and again on a nerdy historian’s tour of Charleston.  So I plucked it right from history.  My historical male lead is from New England. Obviously, there were a lot of people of English descent in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century, so I pulled a list of English surnames. “Haley” appealed to me because of Alex Haley’s powerful connection with the history of slavery in light of John Thomas’s abolitionist roots.  So names can also be symbolic or literary while still being historically accurate!  My modern male lead is also a Ravenel due to his family connection back to the historical portion of the series.  My modern female lead is a Miller.  A girl-next-door name, no?

How do you choose your character names? Any good tips? If you’re not a writer, how did you name your kids or pets?

Character Pictures

I ran a poll on my Instagram story as to whether readers like to see the pictures or portraits which inspired characters or whether they instead like to imagine characters for themselves.  As of writing this post, the post is at 70% for seeing the pictures and 30% for imagining.

I have had experiences in which it was super fun to see the author’s inspirations.  I’ve also had experiences in which the author’s imagination and mine were so different that I was a little thrown off!  So my Instagram friend Tammi suggested that I post the pictures I used for my characters on my blog so that people who don’t want to see them don’t have to. I thought that was a great idea.

So just be forewarned… Pictures will follow for my character inspirations.  You can quit reading now if you want to, and I won’t be offended. 😉

One more a caveat: these pictures are really sketchy.  It’s been so long since I first saved them that I have no idea where they came from or who the people are.  One was pulled from an ad for a legal research site.  LOL!  So I credit the pictures to their owners, whoever they may be!

Okay, without further ado, here are my inspirations…

Shannon:

Shannon

John Thomas:

John Thomas.PNG

Frederick Ravenel:

Frederick

Marie Ravenel:

Marie

Where are the modern people, you might ask?  I actually left Adrian entirely to my imagination and didn’t base his appearance off of a picture.  Adeline was kind of the same way.   I also left most all of the side characters to my imagination, too.

Occasionally, though, I will see someone, either on TV or in real life who reminds me of a character, and that’s always fun.  There was a contestant from Season 2 of the Great American Baking Show of whom I remember thinking, “Oh, hey, she looks a lot like Adeline!”  Her name was Amanda Faber.  I remember that she was a great baker!  LOL!

If you are a writer, do you ever meet your characters in real life, either in appearance or personality?  If you are a reader, have you ever imagined someone totally differently from the author?  Do any of the pictures above represent my characters as you imagined?  I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

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!

Northern Fire – First Details Revealed!

Book 2 of the Torn Asunder Series: Northern Fire – First Details Revealed!

Since Southern Rain was published in September 2019, the No. 1 question we have gotten is: “When will the next book be out?” I’m happy to say that Northern Fire will be available in the Late Spring of 2020!

Northern Fire was intended to be a sequel in a two-book series. However, ever since I conceptualized the story arc for this series, I knew there would be some difficulties determining the number of books in the series. So I just decided to write the story in its entirety as if it were going to be only one book and see how it worked out.

A few technical difficulties arose: the historical storyline took such a different path halfway through that it felt like it should be two books, while simultaneously the modern storyline was skipping along happily as one succinct-feeling book (the trouble with dual storylines!). But the biggest problem was the word count. The No. 1 complaint I have gotten about Southern Rain is that it is so big, which has me continually smiling since I’m a nerd who loves big books. But even trimmed down significantly, Northern Fire was finishing out at about 30,000 words more than Southern Rain.

So, with a wince of apology, I gave the behemoth to my sister, who is always my first reader, and told her to fix it. You can find ways to trim it down, right? – Okay, bye!

So she put on her harshest critic’s hat and set about finding scenes to shear. Her response was that we didn’t need to change a single thing. Nothing could go. Everything was necessary to tell the story in its full capacity. And we’re agreed that it has to be divided into two books, right? – Okay bye!

My sister, who has been my first reader and first editor for nearly ten years, has absolutely never led me astray in literary matters, and I knew I should trust her instincts. So there you have it! You will be getting two books, both roughly consisting of 70,000 words, rather than one book consisting of roughly 140,000 words. This will make Books 2 and 3 a little smaller than Southern Rain, but I’m guessing that won’t be a negative for most!

So what will the books cover? I don’t want to give anything away, since we haven’t developed the official blurbs yet, but here is the time frame:

Southern Rain covered:

Historical: October 1859 – November 1861
Modern: A few months

Northern Fire will cover:

Historical: December 1861 – April 1865 (roughly the end of the war)
Modern: The next few months

Book 3 (Title to be released at a later date) will cover:

Historical: April 1865 – November 1867 (well into Reconstruction)
Modern: The next few months

We’ll be releasing the blurb for Northern Fire soon and revealing more information over the coming weeks and months. In addition, we’ll be doing an FAQ interview for Northern Fire to follow up on our FAQ interview for Southern Rain. In the meantime, stay tuned! We’ll be giving a release date for Northern Fire soon!

-Tara

History Behind the Story Series

To celebrate the release of Southern Rain tomorrow, I am launching a series of fun articles dealing with the history behind the story.  I thought it might be fun to look at some the circumstances that molded the plot lines for the book and give you an opportunity to ask any historical questions you might have.  Right now, I’ll give the list of topics I’m planning to cover.  Let me know if there’s a topic you would like to see that isn’t mentioned, and I’ll cover it, too!

  1. French Huguenots in South Carolina
  2. Enslaved People of the Lowcountry
  3. Fashion on the Brink of the Civil War
  4. Societal Rules and Quirky Charleston Customs
  5. Kissing Cousins – Did People Really Marry Their First Cousins?
  6. A Break-down in Civilities – Rhetoric Before the War
  7. The Congregationalist Church in New England
  8. Abolition in New England
  9. The Navy Before the Civil War
  10. Rose O’Neal Greenhow

Southern Rain: Q & A Time!

Hello, friends! I thought it would be fun to conduct an interview before the release of my upcoming novel, Southern Rain. My sister, Hannah (long-time first reader, long-suffering sounding board, and editor-extraordinaire), has compiled a list of questions, and you’ll see a few others which were asked by friends! Do you have any questions? Ask them in the comments or send me a DM on Instagram, and I’ll answer that, too! Happy reading!

Hannah: Charleston is a great setting. Is this typical for you?
Tara:  Yes! My books are set all over the South. I try to pick locations which best suit the characters and storylines, so you’ll find a variety of settings in my books, some in amazing cities and some very rural.

Hannah: Do you relate to your main characters?
Tara: Hmm, that’s a tough one! I’m very different from Adrian, but his family kind of reminds me of mine, and we’re both vegetarians! Adeline is much more laid-back than I am, but any time she’s feeling awkward, you can be sure I’m channeling myself (or my sister!)! I admire John Thomas very much as a character, so he’s maybe more aspirational. And with Shannon, there’s a strong front which covers a lot of fear, and I think we can all relate to that.

Hannah: Are any aspects of the stories based on your own experiences?
Tara: I would like to say that I went to Charleston and met a handsome stranger, but alas… 😉 For the most part, no, the stories aren’t based on my own experiences, except to the extent they draw on human emotions.

Hannah: What themes should readers expect from this novel?
Tara: I think courage versus fear, coming of age, and coming to terms with our past as the future is kind of thrust upon us are a few. And of course, love! (And all of its complications…)

Hannah: What makes your books good?
Tara: Basically, I write what I want to read. I seek out elements that have you page-turning and try to channel that throughout the whole book. Now, opinions might differ, but what makes a really good book to me is one that focuses on the subtleties of human emotions, possesses lightning chemistry between characters, has the occasional spontaneity, and deals with real-life issues, or at least feelings to which we can all relate. I deeply believe in humor, just as much as I believe in dealing with difficult topics with seriousness and empathy, since both are a reflection of real life, at least for me.

Hannah: Do you conduct research for the historical parts?
Tara: I like to read books or articles for the details that make a story feel more realistic or grounded to the era. I also visit historic sites like house museums or battlefields. Those can help you with the feeling you need to create. I’m bad with dates and easily forget specifics, so I always have a timeline pulled up on my laptop.

Marisa: When did your love for the South and the Civil War Era begin, and what caused you to become fascinated with that time period?
Tara: My mom was a 5th and 6th grade history teacher while I was growing up, and she was the BEST at inspiring kids to have a love for history. But funnily enough, I started out with an aversion to the Civil War. I adored history but remember looking at pictures of the battles in our textbook and feeling horrified. All those lives lost, the country ripping apart, and so many desperate stories. There was a happy ending (the end of slavery), but there were a lot of sad stories surrounding the freedmen’s lives, too, and I guess I was just too tender-hearted to make the Civil War Era my focus.
Until… I needed to fulfill my history credits at Tennessee Tech, and one of Tech’s fabulous history professors was teaching his nearly famous course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I thought, “Well, I hate the Civil War, but it’s history, which is better than, you know, Algebra, so I’ll take it.”
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… It was really a wonderful course, but I still wasn’t sold.
Then I got a Civil War story idea while touring a plantation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (This was several years ago, and a different story from Southern Rain.) While I was writing it, I would tell people, “This isn’t my kind of book. I hate the Civil War. Why am I writing this?” But when I was finished, my sister sat down and read it in one sitting, and I began to see the possibilities.
After that, I wrote a series which follows several siblings in Civil War Era Virginia (which I hope to publish once the Torn Asunder series is complete!). The Virginia series is my favorite thing I’ve ever written, and I think setting a family drama in that era and researching minute details for so long is what finally sparked my fascination with the Civil War. The opportunities for drama are boundless in the Civil War, 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.
And as for my love for the South– I’m Southern-born and bred, so that helps! There is a lot of rich culture in the South which is fun to dig into. But mostly, I really wanted to write characters who resonated from my experience. And, for me at least, that meant sticking close to home. But my historical male lead in Southern Rain is Massachusetts-born and bred, which I loved, so you never know where I might take you in the future! (P.S. Marisa, I gave you a really long answer – sorry! 🙂 )

Hannah: How do you (or do you?) stay unattached/unbiased in historic movements or historical characters’ moral actions?
Tara: So much of what our historical characters do or believe can be mind-boggling or even morally wrong to our modern eyes. So the writer has two choices: tell the story like it would have been or sugar-coat the past. That’s not always an easy decision to make, but for the most part, I try to tell the truth. It seems like the best course, and largely, I think that’s the reason readers of Historical Fiction pick up a book: to be transported to another time and place and maybe learn something along the way. For the big questions of morality, I let the peers of the characters judge them as they would have during the time period in question. An example would be Lydia Bennett being engraved on our memories as a flighty girl because everyone in the Regency Era would have said so. A more modern pen might have taken a more sympathetic look at the full picture (she was young, her father was absent-minded, her mother was driving her to be married, etc.) and ultimately ended on a more forgiving note that really wouldn’t have been accurate to the Regency Era. But we want that accuracy as readers of Historical Fiction, or otherwise, we would be reading modern books. Slavery is the obvious example from Southern Rain, and, of course, it takes everything within the modern author not to be heavy-handed with the message, “This is an affront to human dignity!” But I think the facts send that message more effectively, so I try (try!) to take my emotions out of it and let the story tell itself.

Hannah: Did anything in this book challenge you or take you out of your comfort zone?
Tara: Yes! This is the hardest book I have ever written for reasons too numerous to undertake, but largely because the chemistry between the two main couples was delicate, and I kept smashing it and having to fix it. As for my comfort zone, two things immediately come to mind. 1) There were some storylines dealing with feminine health, and proper Southern ladies don’t talk about that. (Okay, I’m seeing that that is funny now and will try to get over my missishness.) 2) There was a storyline which felt a little too edgy for me, definitely out of my comfort zone, but when I prayed about it, I got an enthusiastic, “Yes, go for it!” So, yeah… Sometimes, you just take a leap of faith!

Hannah: What distinguishes you from other historical/romance authors?
Tara: I find that the publishing world pushes authors to write what is called high-concept. Basically, that means you have a cute story hook that will propel the whole story. (Example: With one month left until the big baking competition, Chef Laura is on a mission to find the perfect cake. The only problem is that so is her chief rival, Chef Tom. Will love ensue as they work toward their goal?) On the other end of the spectrum, you have full-fledged literature, which I call high-brow. Those are great, too, and they look deeply at the questions of life and humanity. But my favorite kind of book is those which pull some elements from both: the readable quality of high concept with the depth of literature. So I call my writing style middle-brow: enjoyable reading with a dose of grounded reality.

Hannah: Do you write Christian Fiction or General Market?
Tara:  I would say General Market. I am a Christian, and you will always find Christian elements in my books. I have always tried to be sensitive to whether I am called to write on the Christian market, because I do think that is a calling. I love Christian fiction (a good 70% of my shelves are filled with it!), and really, my books could, for the most part, sit on a Christian Fiction shelf and not be out of place. However, one day, I was gearing up to enter a Christian contest, which, if won, could offer a very lucrative deal. I was plowing ahead, mind you, no prayer involved, or at least only minimal reflection (anyone else have this tendency?). I spent hours formatting my submission to the guidelines, writing a cover letter, proof-reading with a fine-tooth comb… Only to feel, at the last minute, right before I hit “submit,” that unmistakable pull that said, “Don’t do that.” And of course, when we feel that, obedience is always the best course. I closed my laptop, and that was that. So, for the time being, I feel led to market to a broader audience.

Hannah: What age group or audience do you target?
Tara: I think there’s something for everyone in my writing. As far as age – I do deal with some heavy topics: emotions and sin and life and the fall-out from all of that which reflects the human experience. There is romance, but it’s more of a camera panning away variety than a panoramic view. There are a few (as we say in the South!) cuss words because, á la Rhett Butler, there are times when, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn!” just doesn’t cut it. Would I have let my sister read it when she was a young teen? Yes, even though I was a helicopter-older sister about what she read. But I would encourage parents to read first and then make that decision on their own, since everyone feels differently. And, as always, if there are any questions, just contact me, and I will be happy to answer!

Hannah: Why did you choose this book – out of all your completed manuscripts – to be the first published book?
Tara: Well, the simple answer is that I felt led to do so. I have other manuscripts which I would have felt more comfortable putting out there, but I felt that pull with Southern Rain, and I am trusting that God has a plan!

Hannah: What do you hope the reader gets from this novel?
Tara: This is a little hard because Southern Rain is part of a three-book series, which I kind of see as one unit. So you may not see the whole picture when you end the first book, but I’m thinking you will by the third. And I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say generally that several themes do present themselves, and I think you’ll see them. If you don’t, that’s fine: reading is all about what the reader gets from the book, not what the writer intends.

Hannah: What font do you write in? It says a lot about a person. 😉
Tara:  Calibri (Body) 11. I know, so lame. But I love it. No, I’m kidding, it’s just what auto-filled to my Word document, and I got really used to looking at it and couldn’t change when I tried.

Kelly: What is the one book that you’ll read again and again?
Tara: Can I pick two? A Bride Most Begrudging by Deeanne Gist and Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer.

Kelly: On a Friday night, what would we find you doing?
Tara: I’ll usually be watching something on Amazon or Netflix while eating Chipotle. After that, I usually turn the TV off and write if the muses are speaking or read if my eyes aren’t too tired from work. Or sometimes I go and stay with my mom, and we chat and watch British mysteries!

Hannah: What types of books can we expect to see from you in the future?
Tara: Of course, there will be two more books in the Torn Asunder Series, which will be available in the Spring of ’20. After that, like I mentioned above, we’ll be sticking in the Civil War Era (unless something changes!) with a three-book series set in Appomattox, Virginia, which focuses on five siblings and their experiences in life, loss, and love during the Civil War. After that, we might visit Jacksonian America for a family drama, revisit the Civil War, or maybe something modern– who can tell? I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts as we go!

Again, if there’s anything you’d like to ask me, just fire away! Hope you enjoyed the interview!

Release Date: Southern Rain

Hello, friends!  My first novel, Southern Rain, will be published September 13.  I can’t wait to share it with you! Here’s the synopsis:

Charleston, Modern Day
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Adeline Miller, a preservationist, gets a call from a Charleston psychiatrist who wants her to restore his Battery Street mansion to its former glory. Thinking this might be her big break, she relocates to Charleston, moves into the third floor of the mansion, and gets to work. As she begins to discover secrets from the past about the family who once lived there, her future begins to get a lot more complicated than she ever expected.

Charleston, 1859
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Shannon Ravenel, the daughter of wealthy rice planter King Ravenel, is destined to marry into South Carolina’s elite planting class. That conclusion is thrown into question when her brother brings home his friend from the Naval Academy, Massachusetts-bred John Thomas Haley. Love aside, can a planter’s daughter and an abolitionist’s son forge a future in a nation that is ripping apart at the seams, or does fate have other plans for both?

Available on amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle formats September 13.
P.S. The Kindle format is already up for preorder!  Here’s the link:

Hiding Your Light

All of my life I have been shy.  I would be asked, “Would you like to do this?”  My response: “Sure, I’d love to do any behind-the-scenes work you have! Cooking, cleaning, crafting – I’m on it!”  I never even imagined taking the lead – leading the Bible study, being the group President, deciding the angle for a case  in law school – even if I was the most qualified, the most capable, had the best vision.  It actually never crossed my mind.

Until I started to grow with God and He began to challenge me.  The first way was in baring my soul in a tell-all letter to the class a year junior to mine about my experience with growing with God during the period leading up to taking the bar exam.  The words began spilling out of me, raw and real, revealing long-held secrets and things kept private because I felt they were either embarrassing or shameful.  It felt wrong to be vocal.  It felt un-classy.  It felt like I had ripped my heart wide open and laid it on the table for all to see.  Only my conviction that God had called me to do it forced me to hand it over.  And of course, the response was overwhelming.  It helped people.  God had planned it.  It was meant to be.  And it made me wonder what else I had missed out on.  What other plans God had for me because I was an under-the-radar kind of gal.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being quiet or doing behind-the-scenes work, and I’m certainly not advocating for pushiness.  I’m simply saying that there are certain gifts that God has given you, and that, at least in those areas, you are supposed to spread you wings and let the fullness of what He has given you, of what he has called you to be, take root, or so I am learning.

The way this has currently manifested itself in my life is that I am on the brink of publishing my first book and I didn’t even want to advertise.  I didn’t want anyone to know I write.  It almost kept me from pursuing publishing at all.  Bare my soul to the world, reveal my inmost thoughts- bah!  I had refused for years even to have a personal Instagram page and had recently deleted my personal Facebook page.  And then one night, as clear as anything, I felt that God wanted me to start an Instagram for my writing.  Puke.  It made me want to puke.  Me, promoting my blogs, sharing travel thoughts, literary musings, and news about my books?  Never, never, never.  Set aside the idea that if I could imagine something I would like to do with my time, it was precisely that.  It just wasn’t the way I was hard-wired.  But I did it.  And it has turned out really great.  I’m enjoying it, growing in confidence, and revealing my soul to the world one layer at a time.

After the gut-wrenching realization that I needed to post a picture of myself (and doing it, and surviving) the next thing was the decision about whether I would publish my book under my long-used pen name, Juliet Wilkes, or whether I would use my real name.

You see, there are certain advantages to using a pen name.  It’s cool, it’s secretive and…Mark Twain.  Need I say more?  Most writers struggle with being honest in their writing, and that’s a lot easier to do if no one’s ever going to know it’s you.  You can say whatever you like, slip under the radar, lead a secret life.

Only God didn’t want my life to be led in secret.  He didn’t want my talents to be hidden.  They’re not really mine, you see.  He gave them to me to use, for reasons, some of which I know, and some of which are still a mystery to me, but all of which are good.

One day the entire day through, that line from This Little Light of Mine kept playing in my head.  Why did I keep hearing “Don’t hide your light under a bushel” over and over in my head?  It was really helpful, and I found all sorts of ways it might be applicable to my life, but it never occurred to me until I was discussing the question of the day with my sister (whether to use my pen name) that it was directly applicable to that situation.

And so, as soon as realization struck, my decision was made.  The pen name was going to be more of a hindrance than a help, a way to hide when God wanted the piece of him which I can display through my writing to shine.

As for my shyness?  I’m just going to have to get over it.  And I am, with God’s help.  I grow bolder every day.  If you struggle similarly, the greatest help is the conviction that this is what He wants, if you feel it.  Because there’s no arguing with that feeling.  It’s like the adage a child might say: “Mom says.”  Once you accept that and put your trust in Him, it gets a little easier, day by day.

Here’s to letting God shine through us and never hiding who He wants us to be.

-Tara

Sabbath

Rest is something we struggle with, isn’t it.  It seems to be one of those Earth-dweller conditions, like fighting sin and enduring suffering.  We always feel tired.

I thought when I got out of law school everything would normalize.  I’m less stressed, but I’m actually more tired.  An eight-to-five schedule plus a two hour daily commute with only three weeks’ vacation takes its toll.  I’m sure you can relate.  I hear it all the time, from students, teachers, factory workers, truck drivers, doctors, and parents: I’m tired.

There are lots of great books out there on this subject, and I won’t re-cover their ground. And I’m afraid I can’t give you a fix-all solution.  But I will show you what the Bible says and offer a few practical solutions that I’ve used in my own life to ease the struggle.

First, let’s go right to the source.  “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall have labor and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work…”  Exodus 20: 8-10.  I never realized until my most recent read-through of the Old Testament how many times God has to say, “REST!”  I think he knows that our tendency is to plow, to produce, to keep busy.

Conversely, and ironically, he knows that we long for rest.  He had to have felt the yearning in this Psalm: “…Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!  I would fly away and be at rest.”  Psalm 55: 6.  It was almost, seemingly, in direct answer to this desire that Jesus spoke on so many occasions.  “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, and you will find rest in your souls.”  Matthew 11: 28-29.

There are two types of rest: physical rest and soul rest, and I think Jesus is speaking to both.  The physical reasons you need rest are obvious: pull up any medical article on the dangers of lack of sleep.  For the mental side of your health, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that if you don’t take the time to step back, the consequences can be dire.  Listen to your body.  Watch for signs that you need to slow down.  And of course, this is all intimately connected with spiritual rest.  If your soul is burdened, if something is weighing heavily on your heart, you can be exhausted and run-down in another way, one that is just as dangerous.  And that can spill over into the physical side.  And, to complete the circle, the physical side can easily spill over into the spiritual.  Happily, the consequences of resting are just as connected as those of not resting.  “For anyone who enters into God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.”  Hebrews 4:10.

God wants the best for us.  He wants us to be in an optimal condition to serve him and serve others.  He wants us to experience rest and utter peace.  And so he requires from us a Sabbath. Whatever that day may be, we need a day of rest and rejuvenation, mind, body, and soul.  Some of you may be thinking, “Oh, yes!  I go to church on Sunday morning and Sunday night and do a thousand acts of service!”  No, no, no.  That is no Sabbath.

I’m not saying don’t serve your church.  I’m saying spend time in prayer about the things you’ve been called to do, about what God thinks you can handle physically and spiritually.  And ALWAYS remember that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  Mark 2:27.  Rest.  Your Sabbath is for your rest, for recharging your body, and aligning your soul with God.

We have come to a point where we seem to take how much we can do, how many boxes we can check, as a badge of honor.  If you’re having trouble fighting that feeling, think of how many times the Bible says for us to rest.  This is not a recommendation, like your mom saying, “Honey, you should really get some sleep.”  It is a commandment.  And we’re not supposed to break it.  Hebrews calls it disobedience if we do.

That’s not to say there are not times when we simply are not able to rest.  I’m not disregarding that.  I’m also not saying there won’t be times when the Spirit will prompt you to go a little further, do a little more.  An example is Jesus’s frustration when the disciples, obviously exhausted, couldn’t stay awake to keep watch with him just before his arrest.  That was a time to rise to the occasion, and there will be such times in all of our lives.

But I do know that a lot of things we call impossible are not.  We could set them aside if we truly wanted to.  We can say no.  I also know that Jesus promises that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  He only asked one hour of his disciples that night.  He won’t ask more of you than you can physically, mentally, or spiritually bear.

So rest, my friends.  And go out and be the person God has called you to be.  Do it for yourself, do it for your family, and do it in obedience to a decree as old as time.

-Tara

Writing Playlist

As promised, I am sharing my Spotify playlists for my current work-in-progress, which features both a modern portion and a portion set in 1859 on the cusp of the Civil War.  As you can see, I favor a lot of instrumental and choir music while I’m writing, mix in a few that remind me of the characters or the situation, and top it off with some “mood” songs (songs that reflect the proper mood for the story).

Historical Portion
The Story of My Life – The Piano Guys
Gracie’s Theme – Paul Cardall
Echo – Helen Jane Long
Rather Be – Jasmine Thompson
A Thousand Years – Jasmine Thompson
Demons – Jasmine Thompson
Home – Jasmine Thompson
Through The Dark – Helen Jane Long
Baptism – Paul Cardall
Wintersong – Scala & Kolacny Brothers
Storms in Africa – Enya
Delicate – Taylor Swift
Hold Me – Fleetwood Mac
Beethoven’s 5 Secrets – The Piano Guys
With Or Without You – 2Cellos
This Land – Has Zimmer
Willow – Jasmine Thompson
Everlong – Scala & Kolacny Brothers
Be Thou My Vision – Audrey Assad
Crash Into Me – Scala & Kolacny Brothers
Paradise – Midnite String Quartet

Modern Portion
Half of My Heart – John Mayer
Vultures – John Mayer
Your Body Is a Wonderland – John Mayer
Over My Head – Fleetwood Mac
I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Michael Bublé
I’m Yours – Jason Mraz
Lucky – Jason Mraz
Begin Again – Colbie Caillat
I Do – Colbie Caillat
Everything – Michael Bublé
Riptide – Vance Joy
You and Tequila – Kenny Chesney
Wonderful World – Sam Cooke
Night Changes – One Direction
A Sky Full of Stars – Coldplay
Something Just Like This – The Chainsmokers
One – Ed Sheeran
Tenerife Sea – Ed Sheeran
Hey, Soul Sister – Train
What If – Colbie Caillat

See anything you like?  If you’re an author, what is your favorite genre to listen to while you’re writing?  If you’re not an author, what’s you’re favorite album right now?  Have any good suggestions?  I can’t wait to share with you the book these songs inspired!