Treatment of Female Characters by Male Writers of Historical Fiction

Mary Magdalene by Georges de La Tour (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Mary Magdalene by Georges de La Tour (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I’ve been thinking about the subject of this post for quite some time now, and I’m hoping that all of you can offer some recommendations. You see, I’ve really been trying to diversify my historical fiction reading by including books written by men. After all, if I preach about female equality, I should exhibit equality in my own reading, right?

Here’s the problem: I can’t find any male historical fiction authors I like. (Tyler, I haven’t read your book yet, so I’m not including you in that statement.) I’ve tried a variety of male authors (whom I won’t name out of respect for them and those who like their books), and my dislike of their work boils down to one of two things:

  1. I don’t really go for military history, so that rules out a lot of male authors who concentrate on that part of history.
  2. Out of the stories I’ve read, nearly all portray women in a negative light.

I’d like to focus on that second point for a moment. The stories that I’m referring to at best treat their female characters as afterthoughts, cardboard props to fawn over their male heroes (my what a big sword you have), and at worst (and more commonly) portray them as prostitutes and/or victims of the male characters. I’ve read the female-character-as-prostitute trope so many times in male authored books that I wonder if I need to write a book called,”Healers, Mothers, Craftswomen and Estate Managers: Other Roles to Give Your Female Characters.” A prostitute can serve a very important role as one who has access to all sorts of information from a variety of types of men, and who can slip in and out of both the respectable areas and the underworld, so I can see why giving that profession to a character could be useful. But that’s not generally how I’ve seen her used in books written by men. Many times, the prostitutes serve no real purpose to the story other than to give the male characters someone to physically and sexually abuse, often graphically. It’s as if the scenes are some sick fantasy of the author (which I hope they are not),  they think this is how readers expect women to be portrayed in history, or maybe it’s just lazy writing. (See my friend Shauna Granger’s post on sexual violence as lazy writing.)

There is no faster way to sour a book than to abuse a woman or an animal for no reason (and rarely is there a good reason). There is one male author in particular who is wildly successful, and whose book I enjoyed immensely until there were multiple gratuitous scenes of abuse of women and animals. I think he was trying to show how sick and twisted one of the male villains was, but I can think of at least a dozen ways that could be done that wouldn’t have involved such needless violence. (Not that I’m saying that I’m a better writer, just that there are other options.)

I realize that throughout most of history, women had little power. But that is no excuse for continuing to reinforce the woman as victim trope. Yes, women were (and still are) brutalized, raped and murdered as part of war or even just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If this is important to the plot and accurate to the time period, by all means it should be included. (One of my books has a fairly lengthy section where the main female character is raped and tortured, but it is traditional to the mythology and serves a larger purpose in the overall plot.) What I have trouble accepting is when such things are used without apparent purpose or just because the author can.

Sometimes I wonder if this portrayal of women is due in part to the gender roles people were raised with. Boys are supposed to like war and fighting and girls are supposed to care about relationships and love, therefore that’s what we focus on when we write. (Although there are a few female military history novelists whom I’ve heard are very good.) It’s also possible that men may feel the need to show how macho or heroic their male leads are by making the females look or be subservient by comparison. Another possibility is our schooling and popular history has enforced the “male as hero, woman as servant role” and these authors are just repeating what they know. However, we live in an age where contrary information (biographies of female leaders, studies of historical gender roles, especially women’s) is easily accessible if one looks, so the latter should no longer be an excuse. Actually, none of these should be valid excuses.

In a world where both boys and girls, adults and children can enjoy the exploits of a boy wizard called Harry Potter (written by woman), shouldn’t it be realistic to expect that as a woman, I can enjoy historical fiction written by a man without feeling the need to defend my entire gender afterwords?

I’m sure this does not represent all male historical fiction authors and that’s why I even brought it up. Please tell me in the comments if you’ve read and/or can recommend non-military historical fiction written by men that has some well-rounded female characters. I would love to be able to write a follow-up post declaring that I’ve found a few I like.

PS – I also realize some female authors are guilty of doing the same things with their characters. But I’ve been able to find plenty who aren’t, which has not been my experience with male authors.

A Peek Behind the Creative Curtain or Why You No Blog?

I’m currently making my way through Justin Kleon’s books Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work. Both are so inspirational and I highly recommend them for anyone in any sort of creative discipline. Anyway, in the later he talks about sharing your process with others, letting your fans peek behind the creative curtain, so to speak. That’s always been one of my aims for this blog, so I thought I’d give you a little insight into what I’ve been doing to get my next book into motion:

  • In the last 2.5 months, I’ve read 15 research books cover to cover and written countless pages of notes.
  • Those notes have become my very detailed 25-page, 15,000 word outline.
  • Which I will turn into a 90-100K book over the next 2-3 months. I’m aiming to write about 1,000 words a day.
  • Then I will let it rest for a few weeks, edit it several times and then let my lovely crew of beta readers beat it up.
  • If all goes well, it will be on submission by late spring.

No pressure, right?

I should also have a new book review up on Historical Honey soon as well as an article on the Historical Novel Society’s site. Will send links when they are up. In November, I’ll be reviewing Robin LaFevers’ Mortal Heart for Sirens (by the way, my next book is a perfect fit for the 2015 conference theme of rebels and rebellion, so you’ll probably see me speaking there), and in December I’ll have two reviews for ebooksforreview.com, my latest book reviewing venture.

So if you’ve been wondering why I’ve been a little scattered and not quite as consistent with my blogging lately, this is why. (Remember, I don’t write full-time, yet!) Plenty more news to come and I’ll try to give you a real blog post next Monday. Love to all!

PS – I kind of want to create a new blog category for Do All The Things, since I seem to always be doing all the things.

Blog Tour – Isla’s Inheritance by Cassandra Page

IslasInheritanceBlitzBannerThis week I’m thrilled to be a part of the blog tour for my friend and fellow author, Cassandra Page. Her debut novel, a young adult urban fantasy called Isla’s Inheritance, was released on October 9. I met Cassandra on Twitter a few years ago when we were both participating in the same pitch contest and it’s been a joy to watch her grow in confidence and mature as a writer. So please, take a moment to check out her first novel and if it sounds like something you’d like, give it a read. Plus, if you read to the end, there’s a giveaway for a $50 Amazon or Barnes and Noble card!

About Isla’s Inheritance

IslaIsla was content to let her father keep his secrets, but now she can’t stand the touch of iron and her dreams are developing a life of their own. She must discover the truth — before it’s too late.

Seventeen-year-old Isla Blackman only agrees to participate in a Halloween party séance because Dominic, an old crush, wants to. She is sure nothing will happen when they try to contact the spirit of her mother. But the séance receives a chilling reply.

SHE IS NOT DEAD.

Isla doesn’t want to upset her father by prying into the family history he never discusses. When the mysterious and unearthly Jack offers to help her discover the truth, Isla must master her new abilities to protect her loved ones from enemies she never knew existed.

 Goodreads | Amazon | Smashwords

Interview with Cassandra Page, author of ‘Isla’s Inheritance’

Can you tell us a little about ISLA’S INHERITANCE?

It’s a young adult urban fantasy set in Australia, and is about a girl named Isla (surprise!). Isla’s seventeen and a bit of a sceptic, in that she always looks for the sensible, mundane explanation for things—something her single-parent father has always encouraged. At a Halloween party, she agrees to take part in a séance because a hot guy she used to have a crush on wants to go; it’s a shock to her when the “spirit” they contact claims her mother isn’t actually dead, as she’s always been told. Of course, she doesn’t believe it at first, and is quickly distracted by said hot guy, whose name is Dominic.

Of course, that’s when things start to get interesting. ;)

Isla’s Inheritance is the first book in a trilogy. The other two books are coming out in the first third of 2015, which is both exciting and utterly terrifying! Getting everything ready is going to be a bit of a mad rush, but the flipside is that readers won’t have to wait years between instalments. GRRM, I’m looking at you!

I notice you write using Australian English spellings. Is the book written that way too?

Yes, it is. Even though Turquoise Morning Press is based out of the USA, the team decided that since the story is set in Australia, it would be more authentic to use Australian spelling and terms where possible. However, I did try and choose words that had common meanings, to minimise the chaos and confusion for readers. As an example, a thong in Australia is a type of shoe that I’m told is called a flip flop in the US. We’d never say flip flop here but, on the other hand, given what a thong is in other parts of the world, I didn’t really want people to get mixed up! There have been a few different decisions like that.

What is your favourite part of the writing process?

Writing the last few chapters of a book, definitely. I’ve drafted four now, and that’s always been the best part of the experience. It’s such a heady rush, seeing all the plot threads come together and the plot accelerate. Also, usually by that point I’m doing mean things to my characters, which is always fun!

The other thing is that it takes me a long time to write a first draft—somewhere between six and nine months—so it’s always satisfying to reach the end of that process. I’m a single mother and work full time, so I have to squeeze in my writing where I can: after my son’s in bed, on lunch breaks, that sort of thing. I also do a lot of plotting (and scheming) in the car.

Given the reference to iron in the blurb, it’s not a surprise to learn the “fantasy” part of your urban fantasy relates to the fae, which are part of European mythology. How did your fae come to be in Australia?

I decided very early on in the drafting process that I didn’t want cute Disney elves. Not that I have a problem with Disney—I’m a mum and therefore know the Frozen soundtrack verbatim—but I felt something darker than Tinker Bell suited young adult readers better. My ruling class of fae are renowned for their vanity, and their cruelty to those in their service. As a result, the fae in Australia are almost all refugees of one kind or another: “lesser” fae who want to live free of oppression.

Where in Australia are the books set?

They set in Canberra, Australia’s capital, which is, in some ways, an overgrown country town. What that means is we have a lot more green spaces than either Sydney or Melbourne do: reserves running through suburbs; low mountains covered in walking trails and with lookouts perched on top; parks for the kids to play.

It’s a great place to set a story when your supernatural population likes green spaces. Werewolves and fairies in particular would love it here—there are places with hardly any iron or steel, and green corridors a wolf could sneak through. I wondered at first whether setting a supernatural tale here would somehow lack credibility. But then I thought, if Sookie Stackhouse can run into vampires in a tiny town like Bon Temps, why can’t Canberra have its own supernatural stories, that element of magic?

When I see the sunlight sparkling off the surface of Lake Burley Griffin on a crisp autumn afternoon, or the glittering lights of the city from Mount Ainslie at dusk, I think that magic is already there. All I’m doing is telling people about it.

Author bio

CassandraCassandra Page is a mother, author, editor and geek. She lives in Canberra, Australia’s bush capital, with her son and two Cairn Terriers. She has a serious coffee addiction and a tattoo of a cat — which is ironic, as she’s allergic to cats. When she’s not reading or writing, she engages in geekery, from Doctor Who to AD&D. Because who said you need to grow up?

Author links

Blog | Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Pinterest | Goodreads

Giveaway

Enter HERE to win a $50 gift card at Amazon or Barnes & Noble – winner’s choice (open internationally, through October 27).

Do you have questions for Cassandra? What do you think about her book? Are you going to read it? Feel free to leave your thoughts below and she’ll pop in to say hi and answer questions.

Come See Me this Saturday at Lit in the Lou

Lit in the LouJust wanted to drop you all of quick note to say if you live in the St. Louis area, please come by the Lit in Lou literary festival and see me speak about place and character in historical fiction. I’m a three-author panel, so I don’t know what the exact questions will be we’re likely to talk about research, setting and putting readers in a historical context. The schedule for the day is still a little fluid, but here are all the details I have:

Event: Place & Character in Historical Fiction 
Date:October 11, 2014
Time: 12:00-12:55
Location: University City Library (Library 1)

Hope to see at least a few of you there!

I’m excited because there are a lot of other panels I want to attend, both as a reader and a writer. I’ll report back after if there’s anything I think you guys would be interested in knowing or if anything particularly cool happens.

 

Why Alphas Aren’t First in My Book

Nicole Evelina:

My October Spellbound Scribes post,

Originally posted on Spellbound Scribes:

alpha maleFor generations, women have been taught that the ideal hero of a novel – regardless of genre, but especially in romance – is the alpha male. You know the type: tan, perfectly muscled, ruggedly handsome, can go all night, likely to appear oiled up/sweaty on the cover.*

I’d like to challenge that stereotype. Actually, I am in most of my books (King Arthur, and Lancelot to an extent, being exceptions because of their existing characteristics).

Why? Well for one, I am so not attracted to the alpha male – it’s part of the reason I don’t like romance novels. Physically, I’ve always gone for what I call the “heroin chic” look: skinny, may or may not have muscles, usually tall. (I think it comes from too many years of hanging out with musicians.) I like someone who won’t crush me under his weight or break me in a passionate embrace…

View original 476 more words

A New Venture into Feminism – Femina Aequalitas

womens blog header small“You, a feminist?” I can hear all of your mock shock and horror. I can also hear some of you saying, “You don’t need another project. Just write.” While that’s true, I have to follow my heart in all that I do, and it was telling me the time had come for this blog.

Those of you who have been around here a while know I’m all about the strong female characters. Well, that extends to other areas of my life, too. So I decided a few months ago to start a blog to talk about issues around feminism, women’s equality, female rights, whatever you want to call it. (Check out my “why I’m here” post for more about why I created this blog.) I gathered up nine of my closest friends and several people who wanted to be guest bloggers, we did some planning via email and voila: Femina Aequalitas was born.

Femina Aequalitas is Latin for Female Equality. (Thanks to Liv for the name!) It was an easy way to show what we’re all about. It just so happens that it was ready for prime time right around the time that Emma Watson gave her groundbreaking speech on the role men play in the fight for gender equality. (If you haven’t seen, go watch it. You won’t regret it.) I’m grateful she broke the ice on the subject; we intend our blog to be a place where it can continue.

We’re not like a lot of other feminist blogs out there. You won’t find any man-hating or hard-line rhetoric. As our “About” page will tell you, we’re a group of men (yes, we have male contributors, too) and women who are searching for equality among the sexes in our lives and in our world – in pop culture (movies, music, books, TV, etc.), world news, politics and in our own lives. We’re want share those thoughts in order to foster healthy discussion and grow a community of like-minded individuals. We are desirous of change, but aren’t necessarily traditional activists.

We’re also taking a different approach to blogging. For now at least, we don’t have a regular posting schedule; we just post when something moves us so that the content is fresh and heartfelt, rather than required by a schedule. (We’ll see how that works.) We also have a Twitter account that all of us tweet from to spread the word about women’s issues that way. Feel free to follow us at @feminaaequalita.

We’re open to contributions, so if any of you would like to get involved, please either subscribe or check out our submission guidelines, or both! We’d love for you to stop by and say hi. While we’re still in our infancy, we hope you’ll join us as we build our community.

They say to practice what you preach, and this is the best way (online) I knew how to do that.

What do you think about the site? Are you interested in joining? Or at least following the conversation? What do you think about the recent discussions about feminism on social media and in the news? How do you define feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

A Hint of What’s to Come…

Image courtesy of The Graphics Fairy: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/category/women/page/10/

Image courtesy of The Graphics Fairy: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/category/women/page/10/

Short post today since I’m pressed for time, so I thought I’d give you a little teaser of my next book, the one I’m almost done researching. I’m still not saying who my subject is (hint: her birthday is tomorrow), but I’ll tell you this…

Those who disliked her saw her as a dangerous force who was too willing to speak out in an age when women were expected to be quiet. To many, she was  a charlatan, con-artist, prostitute, and puppet for powerful men whose ideas about love, sex and married life would corrupt the sanctity of marriage. She was publicly lampooned in political cartoons as associated with Satan and her name became a by-word for the type of behavior no respectable woman would abide.

But those who supported her saw her as a gifted spiritualist medium and healer, a talented financial mind, a fresh voice on women’s rights, the suffragist who just might get women the vote, and the radical idealist needed to move the nation forward.

By the age of 33, this woman who started out dirt poor had been married twice, bore two children, worked on Wall Street, became a self-made millionaire, testified before Congress, gave controversial speeches on women’s equality to packed halls across the country, and began one of only a handful of women-run newspapers in the United States. She rubbed elbows (and later made enemies) with the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe (and her whole family) and even President Grant.

By the end of her life, she ran for political office twice (unsuccessfully), caused a nationwide scandal that riveted the country for years – much like the OJ Simpson trial did in our own time – and eventually fled the country, still dogged by her controversial reputation.

And yet, she’s been largely written out of history. I didn’t know about her until I “randomly” (I don’t believe in chance) came across a pin about her on Pinterest and there’s been no historical fiction written about her in more than 30 years (a book in the ’60s and one in the ’80s, are all that’s been done). She’s one of the most important voices in the women’s suffrage movement and an important late 19th century figure in US politics and business, yet only a handful of people have ever heard of her.

That’s going to change. Look for more information on this fascinating woman over the next six months or so. Hopefully by March I’ll be able to reveal who she is. You can guess if you’d like, but right now I can’t confirm if you’re right.