Strange Sparks (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

Lord Charles Cornwallis in the early 1780s

As a writer of historical novels, I find sparks of inspiration in lots of places, but especially during the research process. With THE LAST SISTER, I already knew the story I wanted to tell, and the mostly forgotten Anglo-Cherokee War was my spark of inspiration for how I wanted to tell it. My process for my current work-in-progress has been rather different. Instead of starting with a story, I started with a setting: the Carolinas at the end of the American Revolution, in 1780, a year that doesn't get much play in popular culture. (I'm hoping the Revolution itself will help readers—and, uh, people in publishing—find a point of connection.)

Finding a story I wanted to tell was a struggle, so I dove into the research in order to learn everything I could about the Carolinas in 1780. The spark of my story came from a surprising place: Lord Charles Cornwallis, who, bless his heart, had no idea when he was off on the Continent learning everything he could about military theory, serving for decades in the British army, and later governing India, that he would be the inspiration for a YA author's novel.

It's strange, the way time and art bring very different people together.

The book isn't about Lord Cornwallis, but he showed me the way into it. He fascinated me. I found myself wanting to know more about him. And through that process, I met a character who also wanted to know more about him.

I think the reason I became so interested is that the man I found in the historical record is so different from the man portrayed in most fictional interpretations. I paused. I said, Wait, this is Lord Cornwallis? He's not ancient. He's forty-two. (Not even for the time as ancient as you might think.) He's not a stodgy old British officer who hates rebels at all. He's a grieving widower seeking escape in his work. He's not crushed by the loss at Yorktown. His career is just getting started. He looks nothing like Tom Wilkinson.

Tom Wilkinson as Lord Charles Cornwallis in The Patriot

Cornwallis is a strange spark, I'll admit. But through him, I began to hear the voice of my main character, and I haven't stopped hearing it because she does not shut up often and she gets what she wants, I suspect by badgering people until they give in. Hers is not the story I planned to write at all. She's not like the characters who typically attract me. She's wealthy, fashionable, entitled (though not in the way she wants/plans to be), and from the Lowcountry, and despite all this, I like her very much. Just kidding, Lowcountry. You know I love you and your delicious seafood. But I'm not going in the water until this shark situation is resolved.

Now I've gone and talked about it, so I have to write this book.

I have Lord Cornwallis to thank for this new story, and for reminding me that popular memory often lies and that we don't usually know people as well as we think we do.


  1. 'We don't usually know people as well as we think we do.' Gold.

  2. It's because everybody wore those powdered wigs. We just assume they're old. Look at that picture you posted. Stodgy old man, right?

    Can't wait to hear more about this character and your new book!

    1. They actually WANTED to look old. That's why they carried canes, too. They felt it would make people respect them more.

  3. Isn't it amazing how wrong popular views of historical figures can be? It's also amazing how characters guide writers instead of the other way around. Thanks for sharing news about your WIP. I can't wait to read it.

  4. I'm already eager to read whatever comes from this. I call the process that we go through (either in creative moments or in a really good conversation) 'God's Pinball Machine'. It's completely mind-blowing where the right thought can take us.

    1. I'm glad this "spark" works for you! It is so funny how one thing leads to another...

  5. I so loved THE LAST SISTER. I can't wait to read the next one...


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