Tag Archives: family saga

Jenny’s Spring 2017 Calendar: Join Me at GBF!

Hope you’ll join me for one or all of these upcoming events:

Inspirational Women in Literature virtual conference, Saturday, March 18th from 9-6. These are some high-powered women! I’ll be speaking at 9:40 about some the strong women who inspired me to write. Contact me for login information.

Maryland Writers’ Association 2017 Writers Conference, Saturday, March 25th at the Crowne Plaza in Annapolis, MD from 8-7. I’ll be presenting “From Family to Fiction” at 11:00, and I’m thrilled to be following the always-inspirational Austin Camacho, though he’s a tough act to follow.

Kensington Day of the Book, Sunday, April 23rd on Howard Avenue in downtown Kensington from 11-4. It will be tough to beat the beautiful weather we had last year, but this is a vibrant and growing book festival with lots to see and do no matter what the weather holds. It’s great for families! Plus, I’ll be sure to have good chocolate!

Books Alive! 2017 Washington Writers Conference, Friday and Saturday, April 28th-29th at the College Park Marriott Conference Center (Friday from 6-8:30 pm and Saturday 8-5). I’m chairing this conference, which is one reason I’d love to see everyone there, but I’m also on a panel with luminaries Michael Dirda, long-time book critic at the Washington Post, and Tom Shroder, author, ghostwriter, and former editor of the Washington Post magazine. We’ll be talking about “The Twilight Zone: Between Memoir, Fiction, and Family History” at 2:50 pm with Chloe Miller, memoir writing instructor at Politics and Prose.

Gaithersburg Book Festival, Saturday, May 20th on the City Hall green in downtown Gaithersburg from 10-6. This is one of the largest book festivals in the DMV and draws nationally and internationally known authors. I’ll be moderating the Historical Mysteries panel with authors David O. Stewart and Burt Solomon at 11:15 in the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion, and signing books from Politics and Prose after that.

Listen In! Jenny talks about HOME on Epic City

caroliviaRecently, I was honored to join author and talk show host Carolivia Herron on her weekly book program, Epic City, on the brand new Takoma Park radio station WOWD, broadcasting worldwide on takomaradio.org. Carolivia and I met through Upshur Street Books when I read there in July, and–among many other things–she is very interested in the underappreciated Battle of Fort Stevens. We discussed that in detail during the hour-long program, and I read from the chapter in Up the Hill to Home that’s all about the battle, “Jubal’s March”. We also talked about D.C. voting rights, the various characters in the book, and the surprising parallels between black and white family experiences in the then-segregated city.

You can listen to the discussion section of the program by visiting Epic City Broadcasts and scrolling down to the October 18th entry. The program is separated into four sections.

The music used in the program is not included here, but Carolivia introduced me to a haunting song written and sung by Bob Weir called “Lay My Lilly Down”, which she played during the broadcast. You can listen to it here.

Join me for Kensington Day of the Book

thumbnail_autographThe DC/Baltimore area is blessed with a vibrant book scene, illustrated in part by the increasing number of independent book stores and popular local book festivals the region supports. One of those festivals is Kensington Day of the Book, which is celebrating its 11th year on Sunday, April 24, from 11-4 on Howard Avenue. I’ll be one of the participating authors this year, so I hope you’ll come out to wonderful little Kensington, Maryland to celebrate all things book-related, and enjoy mingling with a slate of local and nationally known authors to talk books. Fingers crossed for warm, sunny weather!

Finalist in Two INDIEFAB 2015 Book of the Year Categories


Foreword Reviews Magazine is dedicated to exploring, discussing, highlighting, and celebrating all that is best in independent book publishing. On March 7th, Foreword Reviews released the list of finalists in its 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards, and Up the Hill to Home is a finalist in both the General and Historical Fiction categories. Award winners will be announced at the American Libraries Association annual conference in June.

2015 Readers’ Favorite Awards Ceremony

Each year, in Miami, Florida, Readers’ Favorite holds a weekend-long celebration for the recipients of its annual book awards, which recognizes the best in independent publishing. The festivities are always held the same November weekend as the huge Miami Book Festival, making this an all-books-all-the-time extravaganza. This year, Readers’ Favorite recognized Up the Hill to Home with a gold medal in the category of Christian Historical Fiction, so I took a quick weekend trip to attend the awards ceremony.

Book award On display On the Carpet

People are Talking!

It’s hard to believe that Up the Hill to Home hasn’t been out for six months yet, and it’s already in 25 library systems worldwide, including Auckland, New Zealand! (Check out WorldCat.org.) That’s thanks to all the publications that have had such good things to say:

“An emotionally powerful, gorgeously imparted family saga.” —Foreword Reviews Magazine

“Complex characters . . . take up residence in your imagination, fully formed and breathing.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“The author creates believable characters . . . with convincing details of 19th- and early-20th-century city life . . . a good book.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A masterpiece in the genre of historical fiction. . . Up the Hill to Home is a treasure, and one to which you should definitely treat yourself.” —Readers’ Favorite five-star review; 2015 Gold Medal Winner

“Beautifully and lovingly written . . . pure enjoyment” —Romance Reviews Today, Perfect 10 Review

“. . . nothing short of remarkable.” —Curled Up with a Good Book

Up the Hill to Home is a novel of complex relationships and complicated people . . .” —Historical Novels Review

2015 Gold Medal from Readers’ Favorite

On the heels of receiving a five-star review from Readers’ Favorite, Up the Hill to Home was also named the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal recipient in the category of Christian Historical Fiction. Though readers may be surprised by the category, since the book does not necessarily fit the traditional image of Christian fiction, Up The Hill to Home tells the story of a Catholic family for whom faith is a crucial element of both personal identity and community, and the theme of faith as a bedrock of this family suffuses every part of the story.

It’s interesting to note that Up the Hill to Home is demonstrating wide appeal among readers of many different genres, since the book also garnered a Perfect 10 rating from Romance Reviews Today, making it eligible for RRT’s Best Book of the Year designation, even though the book also doesn’t fit the mold of what most readers would consider a romance novel.

In her review for Readers’ Favorite, Tracy Slowiak highlights the book’s evocation of time and place in history:

“I loved, loved, loved Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s new book, Up the Hill to Home. This debut novel is so beautifully and lovingly written that if I didn’t know that it was based on the author’s ancestors, I would have assumed as such. Up the Hill to Home follows the life of Lillie Voith, beloved wife of Ferd, only daughter of Emma and Charley Beck, and mother of nine, soon to be ten. When Lillie discovers her pregnancy, she happily asks Ferd to bring her the treasured memory box, the sweet custom she follows when she is expecting each of her children. When Lillie takes a fall in the basement one day, then develops a worrying cough, everyone starts to fear that they may lose the glue that holds the family together.

“Up the Hill to Home is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a masterpiece in the genre of historical fiction. Taking place in the late 1800s until the 1930s, the experiences, conversations and surroundings of the Beck and Voith families ring so truly of the time period that when I needed to take a break from reading, I’d have to shake my head a bit to clear my mind and bring myself back to the present moment. This book would appeal to any reader of authentic historical fiction, any lover of fiction in general, and any reader longing for a story that showcases true familial love and connectedness. I simply cannot recommend this book any more. Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s Up the Hill to Home is a treasure, and one to which you should definitely treat yourself.”

WIROB Review of Up the Hill to Home

In today’s edition of Washington Independent Review of Books, reviewer Katy Bowman offers a lovely and detailed critique of Up the Hill to Home. Ms. Bowman says, “Yacovissi shines in her descriptions of daily life, whether that life is taking place in Civil War-era Washington as Jubal Early and his Confederate troops are closing in, or in the crowded mid-1930s household that Lillie calls home as the book begins.” Particularly gratifying is her assessment of the book’s “complex characters,” in which she notes, “She brings the people and the places to life in such a way that they take up residence in your imagination, fully formed and breathing.”

Virtual Book Tour: No Need to Pack

I’ve been on a virtual book tour since my debut historical novel Up the Hill to Home came out on 28 April. I’ve met lots of people online and on the air, and had a great time without needing to hit the road. Many thanks to the folks who interviewed me, invited me to guest post on their blog, reviewed the book, featured the book, and made the book available to their readers. Thanks especially to all the readers who were interested enough to sign up to win hardcover, paperback, and ebook editions of Up the Hill to Home, and congratulations to those who won!

Here’s a round-up of all the places I’ve visited on the tour:

4/20: Late Last Night Books review

4/28 to 5/11: Goodreads Book Giveaway (577 people signed up!)

5/3: Big Blend Radio with Lisa and Nancy, on-air interview–hands down, the most fun ever!

5/4: Night Owl Reviews online chat

5/5: Romance Reviews Today review (received a Perfect 10, which makes it eligible for their Best Book of the Year!)

5/6: Curled Up with a Good Book review, interview, and giveaway

5/7: Book Release Daily listing

5/11-5/26: The Celebrity Cafe book giveaway (13,877 people signed up for three books–wow!)

5/12: Fresh Fiction guest blog post and giveaway

5/13: The True Book Addict listing and giveaway

5/14-5/28: Library Thing giveaway

5/15: Romance University guest blog post

5/18: Novels Alive feature

5/18: Foreword Reviews magazine summer print edition ships; see more on the debut fiction highlight

5/20: Historical Fiction Connection listing and giveaway

5/20: Late Last Night Books interview

5/21: Unusual Historicals excerpt, interview, and giveaway

5/27: Indie Book Week guest blog posting

5/29: Romance Reviews Today interview

All the credit for planning, scheduling, and execution of the tour goes to the incomparable Stephanie Barko!

Your Ancestors as Fiction

This blog post first appeared as a guest post at Romance University on 15 May 2015.

My fascination with my ancestors’ stories was ignited when I was about twelve and my mother gave me her mother’s diary. In it, my grandmother Lillie May Beck captured a brief six months of her life from April to October in 1915 when she was eighteen and nineteen—but what a six months! Even then, I appreciated the lovely story arc of the diary. It starts out as my grandfather Ferd Voith is trying to wheedle his way into Lillie’s affections, and ends with her admitting that she is in fact in love with him. She begins the diary because she’s finally been asked to the Easter dance by one handsome, charming fellow who ends up playing a very small role in Lillie’s daily records. Instead, from the first entry to the last, there is Ferd, proving that persistence pays off. “What a great story that would make,” my twelve-year-old self thought. Forty years later, that story formed the basis of my debut novel, Up the Hill to Home.

By the time I finally started writing, I had collected an impressive amount of original source material from several generations of ancestors. Items included my great grandmother’s far more voluminous diary, and letters from my great-great grandfather, a surgeon who served during the Civil War. In the middle of the project, I unearthed an inch-thick folder in the National Archives that added eye-popping detail to the lives of these ancestors.

Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to fictionalize ancestral stories successfully.

Wide appeal is the name of the game.  If reading good fiction over the years has taught me anything, it’s that any story can be made broadly appealing: it’s all in how you tell it. But people forget that what makes a family story interesting to them doesn’t necessarily translate well outside of the immediate family. It’s as though the author is telling an inside joke and is surprised that no one else is laughing. My beta readers helped me to understand this when they protested my inclusion of large swaths of my great grandmother Emma’s diary. They were right, of course. While possibly interesting to her descendants and an historian or two, the diary got in the way of moving the story forward. I eliminated most of it, and carefully selected the entries that remain for the specific information they supply. For the people who might be interested in the entire record, I published the whole diary on my website.

Consider whether your ancestors’ lives intersect in some way with larger historical events. You may find that your family’s story is simply a good launch point for a wider-ranging narrative, and takes you in a direction you didn’t realize you were headed. Allowing the story to unfold organically is the path to writing appealing, engaging fiction, ancestors or not. This brings us to the next point.

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction often makes the better story. This is a corollary to the point above. Often, people are motivated to write about their ancestors when they think, “Wow, you can’t make this stuff up. A book would practically write itself!” But it’s crucial to remember that you still need to structure your story using all the normal elements of good fiction: a protagonist who wants something, an antagonist who is blocking the way, an inciting event, rising action, a climax. So even though you know the story, you’ll probably need to step back and consider how to translate what you know into an effective story arc. It’s here that you sometimes discover that knowing what really happened—and sticking with that—can get in the way of discovering the better story that’s hiding somewhere underneath. Again, I learned this valuable lesson as I wrote my own book. At the beginning, I imagined that if I knew the “true” version of events, I would use that version. What I found as I spent more time inhabiting the story and getting to know the characters was that I needed to make a choice between relating a family history and telling a richly layered, nuanced story that wasn’t necessarily the way things actually happened. It didn’t take long for me to come down on the side of the better story. This was especially true of the story’s ending. Once again, it was my beta readers (bless them!) who made it clear that the original ending—whether or not it was true—was unsatisfying, and in fact undercut the story that had come before. I spent more time rewriting the last four pages of the book than I did on any other part of the novel, because I needed to discover the real ending, the correct ending, rather than the one I had carried in my head all those years.

 You’re putting your ancestors in the public domain. Remember that your ancestors belong to more than just you, and not everyone may be happy that you’re writing a story about the family of which they are members also. Generally, the closer your story is to the present day, the more concerned you’ll need to be about raising hackles, and you should think about whether anything you’re writing might be considered libelous. In particular, if the story you want to tell “belongs” more to other people in the family than it does to you, tread carefully. Consult with them ahead of the project and along the way, and do what you can to garner their support for your effort. After all, the rest of your family may be a great source of additional information. My uncle had done extensive, well-documented research into our ancestry long before the advent of the Internet. Having that information gave me a starting point of factual data that saved me years of work. Most crucially, he was able to capture childhood stories from the last generation I was writing about. By the time I started my book, a number of those folks were no longer with us. There were nine children in that generation who then produced a legion of offspring—me, my siblings, and all my cousins—and I put out multiple data calls in order to collect up the photos, letters, legal documents, and other artifacts that had been distributed among all those kids, especially to those whose parents had died. Finally, a number of my cousins were beta readers of my book, which allowed them to be close to the project. Plus, it was wonderful to hear their perspective on the stories we had all heard growing up.

This takes more than Ancestry.com. Depending on the historical period and geographical setting, you’ll need to do a lot of homework to get the details of time and place correct. Historical fiction is very popular now, and fans are sticklers for accuracy. My own book covered almost one hundred years, which demanded a lot of fact-checking. I found that Wikipedia was my best friend for avoiding anachronisms when I needed to know when zippers were invented or when petroleum jelly started being called Vaseline (answer: that was its original name). The Internet is truly a boon for historical writers, if you use it prudently. Many historical archives are now digitized and available online so that you don’t always have to visit them physically. Online access to these original artifacts, like those available through the National Archives, as well as to information about different libraries, databases, historical societies, and other source material is the best use of the Internet for historical research. The key is to find original source material. I recommend against relying upon other people’s online interpretation of historical events without additional reliable verification. To the extent that you can, visit archives in person that may contain source material about your ancestors and the time period or events you’re describing. I am lucky to be writing about Washington, D.C.—a document-heavy town if ever there was one—and I live nearby so it was easy for me to spend a lot of time culling through original source material. As I mentioned, I found a treasure trove of information concerning my great-great grandparents from his Civil War records and post-war government records, and from her application for a pension from his war service. The most surprising discovery from the official archives? That their daughter, my great grandmother, held a patent for a device she invented early in her career with the Post Office. No one in my family knew that story before, but we all know it now.

What story about your ancestors do you think would make a great piece of fiction?