By Leslie Lindsay
I am in absolute awe of historian Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s YA historical debut, THE LAST SISTER (October 15, 2014). Set in the rolling South Carolina backwoods, down the spine of the Appalachians, we come to know strong willed, yet fair-minded Catronia Blair (“Catie”), her struggles with a lesser-known war, the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-61), in a tender coming-of-age story.
Technically dubbed, YA, THE LAST SISTER could very well be one of those cross-over books that both adults and high school students would enjoy. The language is clean, and there’s just a hint of romance, but you won’t get off the hook where violence is concerned. There’s a good deal of scalpings and gun shots—but it is a book about a war, after all.
Today, I am honored to have Courtney McKinney-Whitaker join us on the blog couch and chat with us about the book, the war, and more.
Leslie Lindsay: I read in the back of THE LAST SISTER that the inspiration for the book started as a dare, as in, “I bet you can’t write a historical YA novel and find an audience and publisher.” But you did! Can you speak about your motivations and inspiration, please?
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker: It was actually a dare to myself. I knew writing a YA historical was a risk, and in fact I’d been warned several times that YA historicals are a notoriously hard sell, which is absolutely true. I think it was even more true in early 2012, when I started writing, than it is today. Many great YA historicals have been published just in the last couple of years, which I hope will lead more people in the publishing industry to take the risk on them […] it struck me that I had the perfect combination of skills to write historical fiction […] I wanted avoid those elements that often make historical fiction such a tough pill to swallow—the teachiness, the didacticism, the often unrelatable settings, while highlighting those elements that make any book fun for the reader—the world-building, the fast-paced plot, the characters and their specific struggles within the larger world. I wanted to write a historical where the story came first—before the emphasis on the history itself. In other words, I wanted to let the history fill in around the story, and not the other way around.
L.L.: So full disclosure: I had never heard of the Anglo-Cherokee War until I read THE LAST SISTER. Can you give us a quick historical overview of the time period, touching a bit on what this war was about?
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker: Trust me, you are among many people who have never heard of the Anglo-Cherokee War. That’s probably been my biggest challenge, both in writing the book and in selling it. I had only a passing familiarity with it myself until I dug into researching this time period, and I have a history degree from the University of South Carolina! The century and a half when the East Coast was home to a pile of British colonies is often overlooked, which is a shame because it’s truly fascinating. [above image: Peixotto’s depiction of the Cherokee ambush at Cane Creek from Wikipedia]
I learned in school that the Seven Years’ War and the French and Indian War are interchangeable terms for the same thing, but that’s not true. The Seven Years’ War refers to the global conflict going on between major European powers; it’s the first real world war, and to simplify greatly, it’s about property, like most wars, but here the property is colonies and crowns. The French and Indian War refers to the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War, and the name comes from the British perspective, referring to their adversaries: the French and their native allies. In the middle of this North American conflict comes the Anglo-Cherokee War, a war that neither the British government nor the Cherokee government wants.
By 1759, the British absolutely cannot win control of North America without Cherokee support […] It’s a war that starts gradually and quickly becomes a matter of shoot (or scalp) first and ask questions later. The frontier line is ultimately pushed back a hundred miles and many of the Cherokee towns nearest the frontier are destroyed. I think it’s hard for us to imagine the scale of the destruction and violence.
L.L.: I found THE LAST SISTER to be deeply researched, beautifully written, and glowing with detail. Can you talk about what your research and writing process was like?
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker: Thank you so much! Sometimes I read an author’s note that says the author has played with the facts of history, and I feel cheated, even if I enjoyed the book. My historical training was too intense to ever allow me to do that. I also hate it when real people’s names are used, but there’s no attempt to be true to what we know of that person. I don’t worship the past, but I do respect it, and it seems unfair to the past to manipulate it like that, and especially unfair to the real people whose names are used without their permission. With that in mind, I’m very particular about sticking to the facts as far as they are known, so once I had a first draft that was just a sketch of Catie’s story framed within the general setting, I knew what I needed to know. I knew which real people would make an appearance, so I researched them more. I knew where Catie would be at different points, so I researched those areas at the specific times when she would be there. I visited Fort Loudoun (beautifully reconstructed in Vonore, TN, by the way. Fort Prince George is under a lake, so I couldn’t visit the exact spot). I read memoirs and other first-person accounts from people who were in similar situations as my fictional characters. Then I wrote several more drafts, taking my new information into account. Around the fifth draft, I did a “research questions only” draft, where I looked at very specific details, like “What is this button made of?” An eighteenth-century reenactor told me she found only one mistake: print fabric didn’t exist yet. All cloth was woven […]It took about a year to write the entire book.
One element of the writing I should probably mention is my decision not to write in dialect. Eighteenth-century writing and speech comes just ahead of a major linguistic change in English at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
L.L.: Catie (Catronia) Blair is such a great protagonist—she’s strong-willed, fair- minded, and imperfect. The imperfect part is something I find particularly riveting; no one wants to read about perfect people. Did you work first with developing character, plot, or premise?
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker: Again, thanks for your kind words. I developed this story from a previous novel, I’d say premise came first. There’s a girl, and she’s going to be driven out of her home for some reason, and she’s going to meet a guy who’s alone in the woods for some reason, and they’re going to have this lovely, constantly threatened romance.
As I developed the plot, the historical setting informed those reasons, and then the plot informed who the characters ultimately became. They were very different from the characters they were based on from the first novel because the forces acting on them were different.
I’m working on a novel now in which the characters came first, and I’m finding it much harder to feel my way around the plot.
L.L.: I understand you’re a busy mom of a one year old. Can you talk about how you balance the demands of a writing career and that of a toddler? What tips might you give to mom-writers?
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker: I desperately wanted to have a child, and at the same time I was so apprehensive, mostly because people love to tell you how you’ll never do anything other than care for your baby again, and worse yet, you won’t want to. You will lose all other interests, etc. That terrified me, because I didn’t want to lose myself, but luckily it’s not true! It’s one of those ridiculous things people say!
So the first thing I would say is to get ahold of the story you tell yourself about who you are. You are still a writer. You can absolutely be a writer and a mother. We have these misty, dreamy thoughts about writing and the lonely garret, etc., and devoting ourselves exclusively to our art, blah, blah, but the truth is it’s a job that you do. If you can be a teacher or an engineer or a chef or whatever else and a mother, then you can be a writer and a mother. Historical perspective has been key to helping me with this because at no time in history have we looked at mothers and children the way we do now, and it’s helpful to know that there are other perspectives.
The tough thing about today is that we’re simultaneously telling women to mother more intensely than ever before and to cut themselves more slack than ever before. The right answer for me is to do neither of those things. That means that I don’t cut myself slack when it comes to writing. But I do cut myself slack when it comes to Pinterest. The writing matters to me. The Pinterest doesn’t. I play to my strengths, which means my daughter has tons of books and a highly detailed baby book and a few essays already about her babyhood and (inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien) a correspondence with Santa Claus. But she does not have a perfect nursery or homemade baby food or homemade Halloween costumes or homemade birthday cakes. These are the right answers for me. They will be different for every person, but you have to let some things go. This year, I’m letting Christmas cards go.
In a lot of ways, though, the challenges of writing while mothering are the same as writing while doing anything else, like working, or caring for your parents, or gardening. There’s always something else to do, and because writing is really hard (for me, anyway), there’s always something easier or more fun to do. Writing requires discipline, often called “butt-in-chair,” and the thing I find most helpful there is setting and achieving small goal after small goal, like so many words per day, or a draft finished by a specific time.
Also, get a babysitter. It’s good for you, and it’s good for your kid to have fresh attention. That is straight from my mother-in-law, who is a very impressive person in the field of special education, so I trust.
And keep in mind that writing is not just about writing. It’s also about reading. I have read so many books since I had my baby because breastfeeding is basically free reading time. I comforted myself with that thought: whatever happens, I can always read. My e-reader is my best friend. Get one, because you can hold it with one hand, and print books sometimes take two. [above typewriter image retrieved from The Art of Writing Blog, visit for more tips on juggling parenthood and writing]
L.L.: What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am always thinking about my new book project, currently in its first draft stage. I am very, very excited about it, although you wouldn’t know it from the slow pace of my drafting, which is not the baby’s fault so much as my own difficulty stumbling through a complex story with an ensemble cast. It is going to be such a great book, if I can pull it off! It’s another historical, set in the last years of the Revolutionary War after the fall of Charleston to the British in 1780. I was inspired by the Rice Kings, those men of extraordinary wealth who owned rice plantations in the South Carolina Lowcountry and had some very interesting reasons for choosing to rebel […]
I discovered this story while researching what I thought was going to be a companion to THE LAST SISTER. I don’t think the companion is going to happen anytime soon, if ever, but I am hoping to put out a short story featuring two favorite characters from THE LAST SISTER this December.
L.L.: What question might I have asked, but forgot?
Why the eighteenth century? What’s fun about it?
As I was brainstorming my new novel, my husband asked me that question, because there are a lot of opportunities for fun in this new novel that there weren’t necessarily in THE LAST SISTER. It wasn’t all scalping and gunshots, though there was a level of casual violence in daily life that is hard for us to grasp. Here’s a partial list.
–instruments (I just read about a group of musical spies who communicated with each other through their performance pieces. What?! You can’t make this stuff up.)
–weird food, drinks, and recreational drugs (Snuff, anyone?)
—the clothes, especially if you’re rich
–People have far fewer inhibitions about everything than their Victorian descendants (It’s hard to be that inhibited when nobody’s wearing underwear. At least not in the sense we think of it.)
–People still actively use family crests and coats-of-arms and mottos. I love that stuff.
–duels: fun in books, not so much in real life.
–-Dragoons (fast-moving cavalry units) go to war with foxhounds to keep the men and horses in shape.
–obsession with being exactly like classical Greece and Rome (This is where we get that ridiculous English rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition. It comes from trying to make English work like Latin, which it doesn’t, because it isn’t Latin. I refuse to follow it.)[…]I wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s an exciting time to visit, in research and in fiction.
L.L.: Courtney, it was such a pleasure to chat with you today—and learn more about THE LAST SISTER. Thank you!
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker: Thank you for having me. It’s always fun to talk about books, writing, history, and THE LAST SISTER.
Bio: A native of Greenville, South Carolina, COURTNEY MCKINNEY-WHITAKER lives, writes, and drinks a lot of hot tea in Illinois with her husband, daughter, dog, and cat.
[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. All other images as cited]