Strong Women by Linda Sittig

Linda Harris Sittig has three novels in her Threads of Courage series – the latest, Counting Crows, released in October. Linda is passionate about strong women – check out her Stories of Strong Women site – the latest post is about women in WWII who used their knitting to send coded messages. Welcome to A Writer of History, Linda.


I know the amazing stories of 90 women whose names you’ve never heard. And I know these stories because I’ve profiled each woman’s life on my monthly blog, Strong Women in History followed in over 64 countries.

Today, I’d like to share the common threads that tie Strong Women together.

How did I discover my first Strong Woman? I found her in a graveyard.

I was doing family genealogy and wanted to put flowers on my great-grandfather’s grave. I had grown up hearing my mother’s stories of how James Nolan had become very wealthy during the Civil War because of a unique cloth he produced for soldiers’ uniforms; and how his wife had inspired him.

My mother was most proud because none of his cloth was shoddy.

Let me explain.

Shoddy is a term from the Industrial Revolution in Britain when unscrupulous manufacturers took large pieces of previously processed wool and cut out the spoiled sections. Then they glued the good parts together, ran the cloth under large industrial irons, and when it came out on the other side, it looked like new fabric.

You can stretch shoddy, cut shoddy, and sew shoddy. What you can’t do is let it get wet.

The Philadelphia manufacturers sold the shoddy to the unsuspecting U.S. Federal Government because cloth for soldier’s uniforms was in high demand at the onset of the Civil War. Now, the first major battle of the Civil War was the Battle of Manassas (or called The Battle of Bull Run if you were a Union soldier. During the first year of the Civil War, the Union named the battles after local sources of water; the Confederates named the battle after nearby towns).

The North thought they would win, but they didn’t.

When the Yankee soldiers walked the 16 miles back to Washington DC, a tremendous rainstorm occurred. It rained for 6 hours, and the uniforms made with shoddy began to dissolve. A sleeve fell off here, a pant leg there.

But not from my great grandfather’s cloth.

In 1998 I arrived at New Cathedral Cemetery in Philadelphia and found our family mausoleum. The caretaker handed me the list of who was in each crypt, and I saw James Nolan’s name at the top. On his left was my great-grandmother Sarah Jane Brady and on his right was the name of a Mrs. James Nolan. I asked the caretaker who she was, but he had no idea.

Within a week, I began to search who she might be. Months later, I finally found the answer: she was Ellen Canavan, my great-grandfather’s first wife. No one in our family had ever heard of her.

Months of researching turned into years, and I discovered she had been a determined young Irish immigrant with no money, little education, and no connections.

But she had a passion– to become a businesswoman in the cut-throat textile empire of 1861 Philadelphia. She was proactive– she studied textile production on her own at the Mercantile Library archives. And she persevered, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

I admired her bravery and determination so much that I eventually wrote my first novel: Cut From Strong Cloth, telling her remarkable story.

Then I started my blog.

In the eight years that I have been blogging about Strong Women, I have found that they all share these common threads:

They have a passion, they are proactive, and they persevere.

And like Ellen Canavan, the women of my blog disappeared from history without the accolades they deserved, like Annie Charbonneau—so I told her story in my second novel, Last Curtain Call. And Maggie Canavan, my newest Strong Woman. Her legacy is in my most recent historical fiction, Counting Crows.

In Counting Crows, Maggie Canavan leaves her small town in western Maryland and journeys to Greenwich Village, NYC, with the hopes of studying art. Once there, she becomes quickly caught up in the bohemian lifestyle of the Village. Before long, her passion for sketching becomes entwined with the feminist movement. And all goes well until the 1918 Flu Pandemic hits the city and 33,000 die, altering Maggie’s life forever.

Passion, proactive, persevere. These are the threads of Strong Women. Strong Women are all around us, and each one deserves to have her story told.

Congratulations on your writing, Linda, and on discovering the unsung women of history.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Writing biographical historical fiction

I’ve always wanted to tackle biographical fiction but so far, I haven’t taken the plunge. Susan Higginbotham has made this a specialty and today offers insights into the writing of her latest fictionalized biography – The First Lady and the Rebel. 


Part of the fun of writing (and reading) biographical historical fiction is the supporting cast–those people, some famous and some obscure, whose lives intersect with those of the main characters. While The First Lady and the Rebel is concerned chiefly with the lives of two sisters, Mary Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, a number of other historical figures make appearances. Some, like Mary’s dressmaker, former slave Elizabeth Keckly, will be familiar to many readers; others will probably be new to most. Here is just a handful of the people you’ll meet in my novel:

  • Major Benjamin F. Ficklin: Kicked out of the storied Virginia Military Institute, he returned to graduate near the bottom of his class. He was one of the founders of the Pony Express and briefly owned Monticello–yes, that Monticello.
  • Princess Agnes Salm-Salm: Born in Vermont (or maybe Quebec) as Agnes Elisabeth Winona Leclerc Joy, she may or may not have gone on the stage during her youth, and probably did not work as a circus rider, but she indisputably turned up in Washington, D.C., in 1861, where she met Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk, Prince Salm-Salm, a Prussian nobleman whom she married the following year. Following her husband, an officer in the Union army, into camp, she impressed onlookers with her abilities as a equestrienne, but made a very different impression on Mary Lincoln.
  • Phil: The enslaved manservant of Emily’s husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm,he spent his free years working as a hack driver in Louisville. One of his passengers was Sarah Bernhardt, whose strong perfume forced local police to admit that she had indeed ridden in his carriage.
  • Cranston Laurie: The wife of a civil servant, Mrs. Laurie was a spiritualist who hosted séances at her Georgetown residence. Her guests included Mary Lincoln, who attended on New Year’s Eve, 1862. Mrs. Laurie’s revelations, which included the information that “the cabinet were all the enemies of the President,” fortunately did not interfere with the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln issued the next day.
  • Thomas Conolly: An Irish MP who dabbled in blockade running, his misadventures earned him a front-row seat to the demise of the Confederacy, which he enlivened by keeping the cocktails flowing at Richmond’s battered Spotswood Hotel.

While none of these characters were so rude as to steal the show from the main characters (as did Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland, who appropriated half of an earlier novel, Her Highness, the Traitor, for herself), each could well carry a novel on his or her own. For the writer of biographical historical fiction, there’s never a shortage of stories to tell-whether they be of a first lady, a rebel, or even one’s own grandparents.

Many thanks, Susan. I’m sure these characters will enliven your latest novel. And with Mary Todd Lincoln (hello – my name is Mary Tod!) and Emily Todd Helm, it sounds like a perfect one for me! Wishing you lots of success.

The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham ~~ The story of Mary Todd Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, two sisters on separate sides of history, fighting for the country they believe in against the people they love most.

When the Civil War cracks the country in two, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln watches from the White House as the blows of a divided nation shake her people and her husband, President Lincoln, to their very core. As the news of wartime enter the Oval Office, Mary waits with bated breath, both for the hopes of a Northern victory as well as in distress of a bloody Southern defeat.

Mary, like many people during this time, have a family that is torn between North and South. her beloved sister Emily is across party lines, fighting for the Confederates, and Mary is at risk of losing both the country she loves and the family she has had to abandon in the tides of this brutal war.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indie Bound


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website