Sisters, scammers, hijinks ensue

February 10th, 2016

Hello, friends! I am still healing from the wisdom tooth extraction and feeling cross about my soup/hummus/pudding subsistence diet. So! Much! Slime! But I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I’d like to share some of the sources I consulted when writing “The Legendary Garrett Girls”.

As you probably know, I adore research. In this case, though, my research began entirely by accident, with an extended-family holiday to Alaska back in 2007. We rode the White Pass Railway (now a tourist’s toy) and saw the grave of the villainous Soapy Smith, but most of this was secondary. The main impressions I retain from that trip are of the sublime landscape. Still, I bought a souvenir at Parnassus Books (still open! hurray!) in Ketchikan: William B. Haskell’s Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898. I flicked through bits of it and then got distracted. I read other books, wrote about other times and places.

Haskell, Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898

Several years later, Jessica Spotswood asked me for a short story for her anthology. Her parameters? “Any time in American history, with a girl protagonist.” Talk about possibilities!


Illustrated timeline by Simini Blocker

I knew I wanted to write about a place I knew, however slightly. (I’m daunted by the idea of a real place I’ve never visited. Even with the internet at my disposal, I question whether I can take the measure of a place without smelling it.) And I’m drawn to people and places on the margins. Alaska was logical, the Gold Rush almost too obvious. But what kind of story was this going to be?

What happened next was Fate. I opened Haskell’s memoir and my eye fell on this line: “They now say there are more liars to the square inch in Alaska than any place in the world.” And that was it: I knew I had to write a romp about con artists during the Gold Rush.

Of course, there were logistics to work out, questions to answer. But unlike my novels, “The Legendary Garrett Girls” has remained remarkably true to its initial proposal, a high-energy scrawl of words on a page: sisters, scammers, hijinks ensue. I hope I’ve got the setting mostly, nearly right. I hope Alaskans don’t shake their heads with pity for the presumptuous cheechako who had the nerve to set a short story in their place, their legendary time. As ever, all errors in the story are my responsibility.


Publishing on March 8!

If you’re as entranced by the Gold Rush as I became, here’s a list of the books that I found most enjoyable – and, in some cases, infuriating but essential.

The Legendary Garrett Girls: Sources

Berton, Pierre. Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899. 1972.

Emmons, George Thornton. The Tlingit Indians. Ed. Frederica de Laguna. 1991.

Haskell, William B. Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898. (1898.) 1998.

Hitchcock, Mary E. Two Women in the Klondike. (1899.) 2006.

Holder Spude, Catherine. “That Fiend in Hell”: Soapy Smith in Legend. 2012.

Smith, Jeff. Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel. Klondike Research, 2009.

Winslow, Kathryn. Big Pan-Out. New York: W. W. Norton, 1951.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll return to the question of my sources and talk about anti-heroes, historiography, and holdouts.

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The consolations of late dentistry

February 3rd, 2016

(with apologies to Boethius)

Hello, friends. Tomorrow, I am having a “part boney impaction section” – that is, a wisdom tooth pulled. Yes, at my age!

I know, I know: this is a very small thing. I am healthy, I have insurance that covers much of the cost, and I can spare the time – even if it doesn’t feel like I can. Still, I am WORRIED about the whole thing. (I don’t know how much worry is reasonable. Definitely some, since possible side effects include losing the adjacent tooth and permanent nerve damage?) Also of concern: when I asked the dental surgeon what the optimal outcome looked like, he said, “Optimally, you would hop into your time machine and travel back to when you were fifteen and have all four wisdom teeth pulled, because your young body would be able to repair any nerve damage.” Har. Har. Har.

Anyway, I have assembled the following – ahem – consolations to see me through this unpleasant ordeal:

  • Two chapters of a friend’s WIP set in the late C19, which I am to read for authenticity.
  • Coconut ice cream, made with the last of the gula malacca my mother brought back from Malaysia. (I bought the rest of the family some other flavours but I will be eating this whole batch of homemade ice cream myself. For medicinal reasons.)
  • E. K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights, which I bought in October but have been saving for this occasion.
  • This conversation between Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham.

And by the time I’ve recovered, it’ll be the Year of the Monkey. Huzzah! Hope you have a week that’s rich in good reading, ice cream, feminist wisecracks, terrible puns on famous philosophical treatises you’ve never actually read, and whatever else gets you through.

*Update: it went fine! No nerve damage, and the surgeon gave me the tooth in a baggie. In fact, I warmed to him even before the ghoulish parting gift. As he was getting set up, I asked him why he’d become an oral surgeon and he said his main interest is facial reconstruction. Now THAT’s fascinating!

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“tough and memorable and full of heart” – and a Canada-only giveaway, too

January 27th, 2016

This is an exciting week for Jessica Spotswood and we, her merry crew!


A Tyranny of Petticoats has a number of glowing reviews, including a starred review from Booklist that calls it “historical fiction at its finest… The heroines are tough and memorable and full of heart, and the concept is irresistible. Stock up—this one will practically sell itself.”

Pre-orders are now underway! If you are in the U.S. and order it from indie bookstore One More Page, you can get a copy signed by Jessica Spotswood, Caroline Richmond, Lindsay Smith and Robin Talley. The first 50 orders will also receive a print of the book’s timeline, created by Simini Blocker.


Isn’t it terrific? I love the energy in the work: Blocker captures the most vivid, decisive element of each girl’s story. And, of course, I adore the wicked expression she’s given my main character, Lily Garrett of “The Legendary Garrett Girls”. Can you guess which one is Lily?

Exclusive Canadian Giveaway

I feel bad that only U.S. addresses are eligible for the pre-order campaign, so here’s my plan: I will send a copy of Blocker’s timeline to the first five Canadian pre-orders, too.

In summary:

Here’s the link to pre-order if you’re in the States.

If you’re in Canada, email me [ying at yslee dot com] a photo or screenshot of your receipt.

And let the tyranny of petticoats begin!

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Off to the secret studio

January 20th, 2016

Hello, friends. It’s the sickness season and I’ve lost 5 out of my last 6 work days to children’s illnesses. Then, yesterday, I heard my 7yo say to his sister, “I’m going to my secret studio to get some work done.”


So this week, I’m leaving you with “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism” by Nicole Chung (whom I believe was formerly known as Nicole Soojung Callahan?) of The Toast. I’ve been thinking about ever since I first read it a couple of weeks ago. Such casual, clueless racism is something I contend with on a regular basis and still haven’t found a satisfying or consistent way to deal with it. But I remain optimistic, nonetheless. Most of the time, anyway.

Have a lovely week, and I’ll be back next Wednesday.

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Stay tuned!

January 13th, 2016

Hello, friends. I’m very excited about my blog post this week, which will go live at the History Girls on Friday. That’s when I’ll interview Mackenzi Lee, whose historical fantasy debut, This Monstrous Thing, rocked my reading world in November.

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We’ll be talking about inspiration, taking liberties with history, and the scandalous Mary Shelley and her circle. Please do join us on Friday!

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Dare I say “magic”?

January 6th, 2016

Happy New Year, friends! I’m normally pretty careless when it comes to recognizing and observing milestones, making new year’s resolutions, and reflecting on work patterns. But recently, I’ve been persuaded to take a more thoughtful approach to this part of my life.

It started with Stephanie Burgis’s blog post about her 2015 Done List (which is stupendously long and WILL NOT become a yardstick with which to flog myself, but rather something to which I aspire). I sat down and wrote my own Done List (personal and professional) and immediately felt much better about the year that just slipped away. Then I wrote a list of goals for 2016 (divided, again, into work and life categories) and committed to them by writing them into my new bullet journal. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but more than that, it’s exciting. It’s a series of promises made to myself, and I intend to deliver.

To accompany all this The Year is Dead/Long Live the Year business, I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and wanted to tell you how terrific it is.

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Firstly, Gilbert is a WAREHOUSE of mind-blowing real-life stories. I adore the one about Ann Patchett. And about her first published short story. And, really, nearly every story in between.

Secondly, this is not the kind of book I’m typically attracted to. I’m wary of (non-fiction) books that promise magic. I cringed at the hoopla surrounding Eat, Pray, Love. I don’t even like Big Magic‘s splotchy, rainbowy cover.

And yet I love this book with all my heart and desperately wish that my fearful, anxious, self-loathing younger self could have read it, too. In fact, it’s one of the books I specifically want to have hanging around the house for my own children to find when they get a bit older.

I didn’t always adore Gilbert’s voice in this book: it was a bit too chummy, too as-if-she-were-curled-up-on-the-sofa-beside-me-with-a-mug-of-herbal-tea cozy. Even so, I cheered at absolutely everything she had to say about living a creative life. Her observations are clear-eyed and warm and empowering and honest, and they amount to an irresistible conclusion: Live Creatively. (Or, don’t. But know what you’re giving up, when saying no.)

It’s a book I’ll revisit from time to time, and I’m so glad I picked it up. And at this point, I’m not sure why I did. Someone whose taste I trust (Steph again?) must have mentioned it, but I can remember neither the source nor the medium. As Gilbert might say, that itself is a tiny dose of magic.

Conscious magic?

Deliberate magic?

What the hell: BIG MAGIC.

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The haul

December 30th, 2015

Hello, friends. If you celebrated Christmas, I hope you had a warm, joyful, peaceful holiday. Today, I thought I’d share with you my haul: the books I received as well as the ones I gave.

My brother, whose gifts are always always ALWAYS food-themed, in the best possible way, gave me Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

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I’d already found a few of Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s recipes online and some of their flavour combinations sound like magic. I also love cookbooks with a strong sense of place and culture.

This next one was entirely my 7yo son’s idea: Debbie Bliss’s The Knitter’s Book of Knowledge.

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My grandmother taught me how to knit (but not purl or cast on/off) when I was about eight, so I’ve always expected that I’d find my way back to knitting someday. What I can’t explain is how my son might have divined that…

The last book I received is from Nick, who knows me better than anyone and therefore doesn’t hesitate to give me the kinds of books you might buy an 80-year-old man: Special Operations Executive Manual: How to Be an Agent in Occupied Europe.

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And now, of course, I’m wondering if there’s a parallel manual for Force 136, SOE’s counterpart in Southeast Asia… entirely for research purposes, of course.

I gave Nick a copy of Summer World, by Bernd Heinrich.

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He’s a big fan of Bernd Heinrich in general, and still stuns me on a regular basis with facts from its companion book, Winter World.

A couple of months ago, I lucked across a copy of Sarah Thornton’s 7 Days in the Art World at a used-book sale. It was like a sign: we’ve both been meaning to read it for some time, so I also got Nick a copy of Thornton’s more recent book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts.

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Nick’s already raving about it and I can’t wait to read it myself.

I have incredibly fond memories of my Grade 3 teacher, Mrs. West, reading aloud to us from Tom’s Midnight Garden.

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It felt like forever between installments – maybe a couple of times a week? – and that reading time is one of my best memories of elementary school. I couldn’t wait to pass on the experience to my son.

Regular blog readers will know that my 7yo is thoroughly obsessed with dogs, so Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie is his perfect companion book.

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Often, magical realism in adult fiction doesn’t sit well with me but I really enjoyed DiCamillo’s use of it here.

I also have a treasured memory of reading Blueberries for Sal as a child. I’m not sure where I encountered it – probably at school – but my 4yo adores blueberries, bears, and stories about mothers and children.

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As I’ve mentioned before, my 4yo is also a fierce and determined girl who looks strikingly like some of Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings.

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I fell in love with Nara’s work and I hope she does, too. Since we can’t afford a Nara painting, I thought we’d start with his picture book, The Lonesome Puppy.

And that’s my holiday bookstravaganza. What did you give or receive recently? Anything you’d particularly recommend to me?

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Introducing Mac

December 23rd, 2015

Hello, friends. This past weekend, we picked up our dog, Mac! He used to live just south of Little Britain and Manilla. True story.


Things we’ve learned so far:

  • He’s a cautious soul. He was terrified on the 3hr drive back to Kingston, vomited all over the back of the car, and clearly thought he was being kidnapped. We felt utterly evil. But, as a Facebook friend pointed out, Stockholm Syndrome will kick in sooner or later.
  • He’s great with other dogs. For the first two days, he was really only happy when he met other neighbourhood dogs. The rest of the time, he had a worried/sad look.
  • He learns fast. After one walk, he understood that I was okay with him sniffing around lampposts and hydrants, but not garbage cans or recycling boxes.
  • He’s new to soccer and bravely herded the 4yo away from a Very Threatening soccer ball.
  • He’s a pro napper.



Another thing I’ve learned: dog photography is hard. I’ll work on it and have more photos next time.

Hope you have a wonderful holiday!

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Sickbed lit

December 16th, 2015

Is “sickbed literature” already a Thing? If it isn’t, it really needs to become a Thing.

I’ve been down for several days with a weird, nagging virus. (Remember when viruses used to mean either cough/cold/sore throat or gastro? Wasn’t life simpler, then?) However, the one bright side to this illness is that I’m still able to read. Here’s what I’ve been enjoying:

Palace of Spies and Dangerous Deceptions, the first two books in Sarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies series.

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They are delightfully lighthearted, twisty, early-eighteenth-century spy romps. Wigs and lapdogs and Jacobites, ftw! I’m really looking forward to the next installment.

Tamar, by Mal Peet. (I didn’t mean to create a spy theme; it just happened.)

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Set in Nazi-occupied Holland and 1990s England, Tamar is about wartime espionage and the long repercussions of secrecy. It’s making me think (in a really happy, productive way) about my own Second World War work-in-progress.

I’ve also read some dog-training books (we’re picking up Mac in under a week!), the most interesting and thoughtful of which are Plenty in Life is Free, by Kathy Sdao, and Train Your Dog Positively, by Victoria Stilwell.

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Both have really helped me to envision the kind of relationship I’d like our family to cultivate with our first dog. I’m sure we’ll make mistakes, but it’s good to have a plan and an ideal going in.

And that’s it for me, this week. Have you read anything particularly fine or delightful or memorable recently?

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One question

December 9th, 2015

Hello, my lovelies. This week, Nick looked up from his phone and said to me, very gently, “You know, I’ve noticed that your website’s layout sometimes looks a bit odd, depending on the device I’m using to view it.”


You know how you can put off thinking about something ooh, almost indefinitely, and then somebody says something mild and suddenly that Thing surges to the front of your brain and becomes a Major Pest? Yeah, that. So with A Tyranny of Petticoats dropping in March 2016, and the Agency Mysteries being reissued with snazzy new covers in April 2016, I think it’s finally time to redevelop my site.

Me, getting all my ducks in a row. A-boom-TISH!

Me, getting all my ducks in a row. A-boom-TISH!

With that in mind, I have a burning question for you, esteemed readers:

What one thing can I do to improve my website and/or blog experience for you (and yes, I’ll be making it mobile-friendly)? Anything goes. I can take it.

Thank you VERY much in advance for your thoughtful feedback! I really appreciate it.

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