10 popular novels that taught me how to write about Quakers

Hi all and Happy November!

When I started writing my first Quaker novel three years ago, I decided to take a look at other fiction featuring Friends. I didn’t want to look at the classics (nope, Moby Dick, don’t think I can write that!), but at popular books. I started by working through the “Fiction with Quakers” list on Goodreads. These books run the gamut…from classic literature to what I would call Hudson News novels (think: evangelical Quakers). Here are a few of my favorites, by time period, and with lessons learned. If you’re interested in reading any, I’m providing links to the authors’ websites (where I could find them). You should be able to order most of these books from your favorite bookseller (or find them at the library!) – Kate

17th Century

  1. 1. The Peaceable Kingdom by Jan de Hartog

“I am George Fox,” said the fair-haired stranger. “May the Lord bless thee and awaken thee, Margaret Fell.” His eyes went on searching hers. They were blue like a sailor’s and of an odd shape and rather slanted.

Oh Mylanta…an 800-page book about Quakers…from George Fox in the 1650’s to the American Revolution? Yes, please! I then started to write one myself…a long, long family saga in multiple time periods. I was so excited! And then I spoke to a friend who remarked that I’d be much better off dividing my book into four books. But what about Jan de Hartog? Don’t people want to read an 800-page book with long, ponderous sentences, and Quakers behaving ever-so-badly and scandalously? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Jan de Hartog wrote in the 1970’s and historical fiction was long…and ponderous. But presenting Quakers with all their frailties and warts? Along with their history? Why not? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peaceable_Kingdom:_An_American_Saga

Lesson: I could write a Quaker potboiler, but did I want to?

2. Forged in the Fire by Ann Turnbull

England, 1665. Will and Susanna, separated for three years, are at last free to marry. But Will’s plans to leave London are overtaken by the spread of the plague, which traps him in the city. Susanna leaves Shropshire and goes in search of him – but has their love survived?

I stumbled into the middle book of this series because the other two were hard to get from the library. By the time I reached “Forged,” the Quaker teens at the heart of the story had raging hormones, were anxious to get married, but then––why wait? The description of the Great Fire of London riveted me. But even more so I loved the story of two kids who can’t keep their hands off each other.


Lesson: I could write a sexy scene with two unmarried Quaker teens.

18th Century/American Revolution

3. The Light by Lars Hedbor

As a Quaker blacksmith, Robert is used to the challenges of fire and iron. When the American Revolution splinters his own family and threatens his community, he will wrestle with questions of belief and philosophy. He must rely on his inner light to keep his family safe, and lead them to freedom.

Lars Hedbor did a ton of research to write this book, including looking at 18th Century dialect and how Quakers used plain speech at the time of the American Revolution. I loved reading the dialogue. Early readers of my WIP were thrown, though, by plain speech, and even remarked that I was using it incorrectly. Not so! My grandfather and great-grandmother still used plain speech on occasion while I was growing up. I had a general idea of how plain speech had evolved, and was sure to use time period-accurate thee’s and thy’s. But so many people complained, I took the plain speech out to make it more readable. P.S. I kept it in, in one scene! It’s a dream sequence where an older relative appears. (I couldn’t get rid of it entirely, I love it so much.) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18474763-the-light?utm_medium=api&utm_source=author_widget

Lesson: I could use plain speech (if I wanted to).

4. The Turncoat by Donna Thorland

Major Lord Peter Tremayne is the last man rebel bluestocking Kate Grey should fall in love with, but when the handsome British viscount commandeers her home, Kate throws caution to the wind and responds to his seduction. She is on the verge of surrender when a spy in her own household seizes the opportunity to steal the military dispatches Tremayne carries, ensuring his disgrace—and implicating Kate in high treason. 

In between ever-so-accurate descriptions of period furniture by Donna Thorland (who I learned worked at the Peabody Essex Museum), there’s a lot of sex, cross-dressing, and spying. Betsy Ross might have been a spy? Really? I love this. https://www.donnathorland.com/revolutionary-war-novels/the-turncoat/

Lesson: I could write about Quaker spies.

5. Sybil Ludington, Revolutionary War Rider by E. F. Abbott

What would you do if your country was counting on you? If you had a message that only you could deliver? That’s the story of sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington’s famous midnight ride.

Quakers get a lot of walk-on roles in books set in the American Revolution. They’re usually not fighting, but patiently explaining pacifism to people, or sort of “helping out” without using weapons. They’re sympathetic to Patriotism and the other fighting characters deeply respect them. This Sybil Ludington book has a helpful Quaker. And then there’s Sybil herself: a girl Paul Revere. So why not a Quaker girl Paul Revere? And that’s where I ended up in my WIP. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250104120/sybilludingtonrevolutionarywarrider

Lesson: Quakers show up for the American Revolution.

19th Century

6. Discipline by Dash Shaw

During the Civil War, many Quakers were caught between their fervent support of abolition, a desire to preserve the Union, and their long-standing commitment to pacifism. When Charles Cox, a young Quaker from Indiana, slips out early one morning to enlist in the Union Army, he scandalizes his family and his community.

A friend mentioned this graphic novel to me, out just last month. Dash Shaw grew up in a Quaker family and I loved what he did in this book. His drawings depict the horrors of war, the horrors of slavery, and the tension in his character’s Quaker family and Meeting as they wrestle with pacifism. I write about questions around the Quakers’ Peace Testimony in my WIP and I wrote about “disaffection” last month. https://www.dashshaw.net/discipline

Lesson: I could pose questions about war and pacifism, without providing easy answers.

7. Delivering the Truth by Edith Maxwell

Midwife Rose Carroll becomes a suspect and then a sleuth in two cases of murder. Can Rose’s strengths as a counselor and problem solver help bring the murderers to justice before they destroy the town’s carriage industry and the people who run it? 

I’m not a mystery reader and this was the first cozy mystery I’ve ever read. It was so much fun! I liked how Edith Maxwell wove details of 19th-Century midwifery in with murder, mayhem, and Meeting Houses. So I have a knife in my next book, which one of my characters picks up AFTER a murder. I’m developing what he does with it.https://edithmaxwell.com/books/quaker-midwife-mysteries/

Lesson: I could include a murder weapon to amp up the tension!

8. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

Honor Bright, a modest English Quaker who moves to Ohio in 1850, only to find herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Sick from the moment she leaves England, and fleeing personal disappointment, she is forced by family tragedy to rely on strangers in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape.

In this novel,Tracy Chevalier not only writes about slavery and the Underground Railroad, but also quiltmaking and millinery. The more I read about Quakers and needlecraft, the more I realized I might and should include embroidery and flagmaking in my WIP. https://www.tchevalier.com/story

Lesson: I could incorporate needlecraft into my Quaker novel.

9. Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton

A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.

“You have to read this book!” my sister told me, over and over. She loved it and went to hear Janet Benton speak in Germantown. The book portrays Quakers not as heroes, but as a sometimes insular community capable of some terrible group and individual behavior (think disownment and heavy drinking). https://janetbentonauthor.com/

Lesson: The Quaker community I write about could be harsh and unforgiving.

10. The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill

It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

This is a quiet book about astronomy and an interracial love affair in 19th Century Nantucket. Wait––did we say 19th Century Nantucket?? So here for that. Beautiful descriptions of the beach, the town, telescopes (!) and another fire. Great period details. I’ve tried to weave descriptions of beautiful landscapes into my writing. So while I’m working on pace, I also have plenty of quiet in my WIP.


Lesson: I could write a “quiet” book

There you have it. What Quaker books have you read and loved? Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you.  – Kate

Published by katehornstein

Writing about young Quakers, religion, and romance over 350 years in England and America

10 thoughts on “10 popular novels that taught me how to write about Quakers

  1. Thank you for including my series, Kate. I’m delighted to pay the role of “evil” Friend, tempting thee into using a knife. Also – read more mysteries! They are great reads.

  2. Thanks for this great list, Kate!

    Our Zoom Book Club has read some of these recommendations, but there are some new ones to us, as well.
    It will be fabulous to add these to our list for Future Selections.

    We can also recommend a few that didn’t make your list.

    Some of these have additional appeal, because they have a Philadelphia (or Philadelphia Yearly Meeting) component, but many don’t have that “tie” and we loved them just as much.

    Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings”.
    Christy Distler’s “A Cord of Three Strands”.

    We are currently reading “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” by Lois Leveen.

    There are several others that we’ve read and would recommend that can be found at:

    Pareto — 80% are historical/fiction. 20% have been non-fiction, but they read like fiction.

    We will keep an eye out for your book, and can’t wait to put it on OUR list.

    Happy Writing!

    1. I just looked at your past and consideration lists. So great! Quite a few books I hadn’t heard of, but which sound fascinating. I may join you at some point. Thank you for the kind words!

  3. Hi Kate, I like your post about Quaker disownment as a theme in fiction. I’ve written a short story which involves the aftermath of disownment, based on history (but not set in Philadelphia). No romance either; the protagonist is already married. If you’d like to see it, email me at quakertheology (at) gmail (dot) com.
    Keep writing!
    Chuck Fager

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