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

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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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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The Ascent of Woman: Excellent Series on Netflix

December 24, 2017

Tags: Women in History, History

Empress Theodora

 I discovered The Ascent of Woman on Netflix, an excellent piece by Dr. Amanda Foreman that is quite unique in that it isn’t simple, flashy biographies of a couple of women through history, it is a clear, accessible, and well-written series on the overall rights of women through history as well as revelations of great women of the time, not as an anomaly but as key players in history who have been written out.


Dr. Foreman says that the condition of women is not a straight-forward march from darkness to light, from subjugation to freedom but a journey (more…)

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Thurber, Burleigh and Dvorak Were Key to the Birth of American Orchestral Music

October 26, 2016

Tags: Women in History, History

Jeannette Meyer Thurber
‘Had Jeannette Meyers Thurber put her name on the institutions she established, she would be as well-known as Carnegie and Rockefeller.’ That statement piqued my interest while enjoying the lecture series from The Great Courses entitled Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances.

An accomplished but obscure woman? Just my sort of treasure hunt.

Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 – the first of its kind and an endeavor that some say ushered in the first orchestral music with a distinctively American sound. But in a very radical stance for the day, Thurber championed the rights of women, people of color and the handicapped to attend her school, sometimes on full scholarship. This was 1885—not too long after the Civil War -- and her school was racially integrated, promoted women, and had an inclusive stance toward the handicapped.

“The National Conservatory of Music of America was the outstanding institution for professional musical preparation in the United States for some 25 years or more. At its height in the 1890s it boasted a faculty of international renown…and initiated a course of studies whose features became a basis for the curriculum now taken for granted in the colleges and conservatories of this country. Its achievements resulted from the endeavors of a single visionary: Jeannette M Thurber, a wealthy, idealistic New Yorker who devoted most of her life to the school…Although her innovative design for the Conservatory was influential in shaping the course of American music for the 20th century, Mrs. Thurber and her school have slipped into undeserved obscurity.”(1)

But the conservatory seemed to be her real love, and she grew it from 84 students when it opened to 3,000 students in 1900.(2) Her success was due, in part, (more…)

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Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel

September 10, 2014

Tags: History

I’m always researching new scenes and stories from the Middle Ages. I’m particularly keen on characters who are tradespeople, so I’m looking into information on the length of time it takes to do things in the Middle Ages (re-calibrating your plot is key here.) Today’s investigation is from:

Writing on Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators by Christopher de Hamel.
(italics in the following are mine)
“There is evidence of monastic manuscript-making projects extending over years, and doubtless it was often very much a part-time occupation. An eleventh-century (1000AD) monastic scribe, in no great haste, might achieve three or four moderate-sized books a year. A professional scribe, however, working for a commercial bookshop in the fifteenth century (1400s), was paid by the job and not by the hour. There are manuscripts in which the scribe announces at the end that the work was started and finished (more…)

"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