Jess Wells

Author of Modern and Historical Fiction, Instructor in the Craft











Jess's books




War and Peace


5 of 5 stars




So glad I finally was able to read/​hear this book, all 43 discs unabridged, while commuting to work. He has a wonderful sense of irony, of humor, a jaded eye to the aristocracy. Marvelous ability to describe emotions in a single line. Lo...




Dear Life: Stories


5 of 5 stars




Tremendous work, though the prose is a little sparse for my taste. Nice to see a combination of both open-ended and concluded short stories. And I'm still thrilled that a short story writer has won the Nobel Prize.





The Luminaries


5 of 5 stars




Engaging, great use of language, and a fast-paced whodunit that I couldn't put down.






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Blog

HistFic Questions On Character Development and Scene

July 4, 2018

Tags: Writer's Life, Women in History, A Slender Tether

Much of the discussion around historical fiction has centered on two questions: a) why write historical novels and b) what are the requirements for accuracy? It seems a bit narrow in focus, so I'd like to suggest discussing:

How Do You Write About Outmoded Beliefs?
* Eras in the past are marked by more than just a difference in fashion or modes of transportation; there have been profound differences in beliefs and mind-sets. How do you effectively write about people who believed that pixies and spirits sprang from the dirt or that the sun-god had a direct hand in shaping daily events, without making your characters seem foolish in the eyes of the reader? (In the movie Troy, for example, the Trojans seem silly to consult and trust in the sun-god so much.) It’s a bit like a murder mystery where the reader knows the culprit before the characters unmask him.

How Do You Capture Social Forces That No Longer Seem Relevant?
* Seems to me that some things that were of great concern in the past are not relevant or interesting any more: people’s focus on getting into heaven; the presence of the Devil in every-day life. Even social conditions that had a pervasive impact such as sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, even classism, can only be mentioned once: women weren’t allowed to do that…and the reader thinks ‘yes, yes, get on with it.’ What topics are now off-limits, or at least to be down-played? How do you handle this dismissal of such incredibly powerful social forces?
(I'm thinking partly of my project writing on Christine de Pizan; she is best known for being the first woman to make her living as a writer but saying ‘women didn’t write books back then’ isn’t really that interesting because they certainly do now. But she also wrote a manual on warfare, which elicits incredulity in a modern audience so it highlights the situation better than the book that is actually the one she’s known for (The City of Ladies, the first feminist treatise.) I’m highlighting the lesser accomplishment of the warfare manual, because it still has cultural relevance. So, in fact, you’re challenged (more…)

Medieval Peasants Had More Vacation Time Than You

June 1, 2018

Tags: History

Breugel
We think of the Middle Ages as a time of bone crushing drudgery but recently I’ve discovered new research that suggests that the medieval peasant didn’t work even as many hours as we do!

“Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.” (more…)

More to Battle the Sexist Assumptions of Paleontologists

May 5, 2018

Tags: History, Women in History

Seated Goddess of Catalhoyuk
I am currently reading A People’s History of the World: from the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harmon, and it makes me bristle, again, over many traditional assumptions about human history, human nature, and the position of women:

  • Harmon’s analysis of the Paleolithic period recognizes that for tens of thousands of years humans lived in cooperative groups that were completely egalitarian, with no sign of accumulated wealth or social status. (It’s a fascinating concept that I’ll be digging into later.)

  • But Harmon, like many classic authors, suggest that the reason for the oppression of women is due to their relegation to the gathering side of the hunter-gatherer society and their focus on rearing children. We now know that in the Paleolithic era women had children only every 3 to 4 years [Harmon pg. 13] so how is this justification for wholesale exclusion? They just didn’t have children often enough to be taken up entirely with their care.

  • Look at the math: Paleolithic groups ranged from 20-40 number of people. 50% were women. Let’s say that 40% of those were of child-bearing age (since life expectancy was short), so how many children were there? Surely not so many that one woman couldn’t supervise them all.

  • And why is there an automatic assumption that mothers would only care for children they had borne? Where is the speculation (more…)

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Queen Margaret I of Denmark, The Lady King

April 19, 2018

Tags: Women in History, History

Effigy of Queen Margaret 1 from 1423 on her tomb in Roskilde Cathedral
In studying for an upcoming trip, I have come across Queen Margaret I of Denmark, who was the “builder of the greatest personal position ever achieved in Scandinavia.” Ruling in the 1300s, she governed with “farsighted tact and caution.”

Her rise to power came through shrewd diplomacy. Her father, King Valedmar, had agreed that the Danish throne should pass to the son of Margaret’s elder sister Ingeborg, but on her father’s death in 1375 “Margaret scored her first great diplomatic success by inducing the Danish Council to elect her five-year-old son Olav instead.” As regent she displayed “a capacity for the management of men which caused a Hanse [German] representative to describe the turbulent nobility of Denmark as being seized with “respect for that lady’s wisdom and authority, so that they offered her their services.”

Five years later, when her son was 10 years old, he inherited Norway from his father King Haakon VI “whereupon Margaret’s second regency marked the beginning of a Dano-Norwegian Union which was to last for more than four centuries.”

When her son Olav died unexpectedly at 17, “Margaret reacted with astonishing promptitude and resource. Within a week she had been hailed at the Skane landsthing as Denmark’s ‘sovereign lady, master, and guardian,’ and in February 1388 a meeting of Norwegian lords accepted her as their ‘mighty lady and master’ in defiance of the law of succession. Fortified by these testimonies to her skill as a ruler of two kingdoms, she made a treaty in March with the Swedish nobles who…recognized her as Sweden’s “sovereign lady and rightful master.”

Later, she chose her grandnephew, Eric of Pomerania, as hereditary sovereign, with her serving as regent. “Although Eric came of age in 1401, Margaret continued for the remaining 11 years of her life to be sole ruler in all but name.” (more…)

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Empress Deng: A Just and Capable Ruler in Second Century China

March 28, 2018

Tags: Women in History, History

In my search for women to write back into history…I’ve discovered three (so far) in The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of the Revolutionary Invention, by Alexander Monro.

Monroe is suggesting that the inventor of paper was a Chinese second-century government official named Cai Lun. While Cai is “traditionally credited with inventing paper in A.D. 105… papermaking is in fact at least three centuries older than this, but it was nevertheless Cai who refined paper for more widespread use and who first appreciated the enormous choice of possible ingredients.” However, it was the Empress Deng who rose “up like a conductor and signaled the launch of Cai’s carefully honed substance across China, in a quest to harmonize the country to this new medium.” [Page 13]

“Deng Sui was the granddaughter of a Han prime minister. (Sometimes translated as Chancellor, this was the highest administrative post and involved setting the government budget.) She was born in 81 in Nanyang in the cattle country of the near North. By the age of six she knew Confucius’s Book of Documents and at 12 she had read the Classic of Poetry and the Analects, according to her official biography. (more…)

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New Book Club Guide for A Slender Tether

March 23, 2018

Tags: A Slender Tether

Description of the book: Amid the violent weather of Europe’s Little Ice Age, A Slender Tether offers three compelling tales of self-discovery, woven into a rich tapestry of 14th century France. Christine de Pizan, daughter of a disgraced court physician and astrologer, grapples with her ambition to be the first woman writer of France. A doctor finds an unusual way to cope with the death of his wife. And opportunity alternates with disasters in the life of four commoners, yoked by necessity: a papermaker struggling to keep his business, a falconer with a mysterious past, a merchant’s daughter frantic to avoid an arranged marriage, and a down-on-his-luck musician with a broken guitar and the voice of an angel.

Discussion Questions:

“Raptor Among the Bluebirds”

1. Christine de Pizan works in the library where there was not a single volume written by women. How do you imagine she would feel as a result? Have you ever felt alienation at this level or exclusion?

2. It has been documented that Christine’s father was more supportive of her scholarship and desire to write than her mother. What do you think the mother’s motivation (more…)

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A Salute to Our Stone Age Sisters

March 8, 2018

Tags: Women in History, History

Studying history means actively looking for surprises, despite the fact that it is focused on events from centuries and even millennia in the past. And I know enough to understand that “progress” through history is not a consistent march uphill but a journey during which we have frequently gotten lost, sometimes forgetting things for hundreds of years before circling back and re-learning them.

What has surprised me most recently is the number of important concepts and everyday items still in use that were developed in the Stone Age – the Paleolithic time from 2.7 million years ago up until 10,000 years ago.

Here’s what One Million Years in a Day(1) and other sources say that our Stone Age Sisters knew to create or use:

The sewing needle, the oldest of which dates back 60,000 years , which also means an understanding of the components of all clothing elements – the hat, cape, sleeve and pant; form-fitting boots and shoes; and the geometry to construct them
Linen, developed 30,000 years ago
Jewelry, the necklace, earring (including for pierced ears), bracelet and pouch – 40,000 years ago
Plates, bowls and vessels
Insect repellent and mattresses, “…ancient mattresses were lined with leaves from River Wild-Quince, a tree that naturally produces an insect repellent chemical, and this may have minimized the lethal scourge of malaria. (more…)

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Chicken or Egg? Hobby or Character Development?

February 23, 2018

Tags: Writer's Life, History

Where can I learn to be a blacksmith, I muttered to myself last week, as I decided to put a blacksmith in a new book/project. Might be fun to learn, I thought.

The night before I had packed away my (at this point fairly extensive) collection of chocolate molds and tools, having recently sold my new novel, Straight Uphill: A Tale of Love and Chocolate to Fireship Press.

So it made me wonder: which came first, the desire to learn something like confectionary, or the desire to have a character work in a trade that, for the sake of verisimilitude, I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to master the craft, but I need to know the smell of it, the heat, the feel of the tools in my hand. One can learn the process from a book but there’s so that you have to actually experience.

So, which came first?

I wrote the chocolatiers in Straight Uphill because I was taking on chocolate as a hobby. (I’ve never actually had a hobby. Work, writing, motherhood, relationship, house; that was all I could handle. I had never even asked myself what I might want to do as a hobby, that’s how remote the prospect was.) Chocolates moved from a temporary pastime to a dedicated hobby when I realized that I had just spent hours, transfixed, as I worked with the stuff. The ‘languid quality’ described in the WWII section of the book is how I felt making my first ganache. So, in the case of Straight Uphill, the hobby came first.

I learned to ride a horse for two reasons: (more…)

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New Book Club Discussion Guide for The Mandrake Broom

February 14, 2018

Tags: Writer's Life, The Mandrake Broom, History

Book Club Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Description of the book: A historical novel set in Europe 1465 – 1540, The Mandrake Broom dramatizes the courageous fight to save medical knowledge during the witch burning times and answers the question “what if the witches had fought back?” Based on extensive research of historical sources, herbal remedies and the medicines of the time, this novel has been called “is "stunningly good...tremendously involving and impressive." Meet:

Luccia Alimenti, daughter of a medical professor at the University of Salerno, Italy, destined to carry ancient texts and herbal lore into the dangerous and groundbreaking future.

Fiona, her Irish godmother (more…)

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Remove Native American Racist Statues, Too

January 15, 2018

Tags: Modern Life

Justification to remove statues of Civil War generals is straightforward – there are no statues of Hitler in Germany so there should be no statues built to American proponents of slavery. (I was shocked to hear that 35 Confederate statues have been erected in North Carolina since 2000!) And we should take note that the Germans have taken a very thorough approach to removing visual reminders of World War II, as described here.

But I would also join the chorus of voices calling for the removal of statues that celebrate the racial oppression of Native Americans, perhaps starting with “End of the Trail,” a heartbreaking reminder of brutality (more…)

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"What really ties the stories together is Wells' wry sensibilities and lyrical prose. She mixes tragedy and comedy to great effect; producing stories that feel true as if it were gossip heard first hand." - Amazon.com Review
Historical Fiction
The early adulthood of Christine de Pizan, called "artfully captured with economy and delicacy [that] comes across beautifully in this well-written and researched work." - The Historical Novels Review
"Historical events…are elegantly woven into the plot. The well-rounded characters, constant action, and captivating subject matter unite (in The Mandrake Broom) to enlighten as well as infuriate as the atrocities of the time period become real through Wells’ vivid writing…. Reminiscent of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series, Jess Wells’ third novel belongs on everyone’s reading list”– The Historical Novels Review