Portraying Strong Women in Historical Fiction

She may not be a superhero, but there is more than one way for a woman to be strong. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

I was interviewed last week for a podcast and one of the points that came up was the importance of historical accuracy when portraying women in history. Then a few days ago, I came across this interview with historical fiction author Hilary Mantel where she urges novelists to stop re-writing history to falsely empower women.

I could not agree more. It DRIVES ME CRAZY when I see so-called “costume drama” where women are in period dress but everything they do or say is modern feminist. It happens in all sub-genres of historical fiction, but I’ve seen it most often in historical romance (I’m not picking on that sub-genre; just expressing my experience). So many of those women would at the very least have had the snot beat out of them if they really acted that way in their time, if not be jailed or killed for it. It’s only been in the last 40-50 years or that a woman dared speak against her husband in public in the US; in some parts of the world, a woman still doesn’t dare contradict her father, husband, brother, etc. You have to think about the norms of the day when planning action and reaction in historical fiction.

Yes, it bothers me when I read a historical fiction novel where the men are being all “God created man first and he was perfect. You were just pulled from his side, and therefore are inferior” but that was one of the real justifications for men to behave how they wanted for a long stretch of history (at least in the Judaeo-Christian world). I’ve been known to mutter, “you bastard,” when I read such attitudes, but I also appreciate the writer’s faithfulness to the views of the time. The same goes for books that show women being physically, emotionally and sexually abused and then turning around and defending the perpetrator, but I understand why they would and did. For so long women were totally dependent on the men in their lives that even if society wouldn’t have shunned them for fighting back or speaking out (and that’s a BIG “if”), they had no jobs, no shelter, no money without their father/husband/king, so they were stuck. It is at times like this when seeing the mental and emotional fortitude of a woman is more powerful than all the swords or sharp words about independence she could wield.

One of the main responsibilities of a historical fiction writer (I would argue third only to 1. telling a good story and 2. doing their research) is to accurately portray the worldview of the time. If women were expected to cover their heads and be subservient, that is the way you must portray them. You might show the subtle ways in which women were known to fight back, but make sure they are documented. For example, in some time periods and societies, learning to read or write was an act of rebellion that would have been done in utmost secrecy and at great risk to both teacher and student. That woman would not get up the following Sunday and lector in a church, nor was she likely to read her child a bedtime story. She would have to be hyper-vigilant that she never even hinted at having the ability to read, lest she accidentally betray herself. This is when the quiet courage comes in, when we might see people doing extraordinary things in spite of the restrictions of society, but not necessarily in an overt manner.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and telling those stories is great fun. In every time and place there are queens, noblewomen, leaders of religious orders, even everyday women who bucked the trend and spoke up for the myriad women in their societies who could not and their stories should be told. But it is important that the reader understand them for the anomalies that they were; I would argue that their uniqueness is part of the appeal of their stories. When you can find a historically strong woman, go for it – show her in all her outrageous glory! This is what I’ve been doing so far. Victoria Woodhull really was an outspoken, ankle-bearing, sometimes cross-dressing suffragist. There is another woman who was Victoria’s contemporary who demanded equality within her marriage and received it, even publicly (I may write about her in the future). Celtic women had the most rights of any culture in the ancient world, and so my Guinevere is very strong. However, if I was writing about a Roman or Greek woman, I would not have portrayed her in the same way, as those women were considered property of their nearest male relatives and had very little outward power.

Reaction to these outstanding women must be accurate. Just because it is en vogue now to be open about your views, that doesn’t mean it holds true in history. For example, not everyone liked it when Victoria gave her speeches. There was a fair amount of threat, protest and danger. She was lambasted in the papers and lost her reputation quickly, being called “Mrs. Satan,” among other colorful things. She certainly was not widely embraced, not by men or even other women in the suffrage movement. Think about the first women in medicine or science. Do you think men welcomed them into schools, hospitals and laboratories? Not so much. They were routinely harassed, abused, discredited and had their accomplishments usurped by men. It may be hard to read about but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.

As historical fiction writers we owe to everyone – the subjects of the past we’re writing about, our present readers, and future generations who may read us to learn – to portray history as it happened. As Mantel said, we shouldn’t rewrite history to make the victims the victors just because we want to write about strong women. But we can and should dig deep and find those untold stories where women dared to be different. For women constrained by their time/culture, we can peel back the layers and find the less obvious sources of mental, emotional and spiritual strength. I don’t know about you, but my grandmother had steel in her bones and ice in her veins when she needed to. That is the kind of strong woman who lived in every time period, no mater what her society dictated, and that is the woman whose story needs to be more often told.

What are your thoughts on how women are portrayed in historical fiction? What have you read that you’ve liked or disagreed with?

Advertisements

The Melodrama of History (or Yes, They Really Said That)

quoteWhen question of history or research arises that I am aware of I will break my rule of not responding to criticism because I want to present the facts. A few people have been mentioned that some of the dialogue in Madame Presidentess is melodramatic or over the top. While I don’t know for certain which parts they are talking about, I can think of three areas that may be the culprit and the reason is the same for all: they are actual historical quotes. There certainly could be places where I, as the author, am guilty of being too dramatic, but I have a feeling these are the areas in question. The links in the story below will take you to documents that show the conversations in question.

1) Rev. Henry Ward Beecher/Steinway Hall Meltdown
Drama must run in the Beecher blood because not only was Harriet Beecher Stowe (Henry and Catharine’s sister) a famous novelist, but Henry was very much an over-the-top performer. As a preacher, that makes sense because it would help him get his message across. But his flair for the dramatic also appears to have carried over into his every day conversations. “He was unabashedly theatrical, using his whole body to communicate the full range of human emotion, with dramatic gestures and subtle facial expressions (Applegate 211).” He was also known for his “blunt, colorful language” (Applegate 194) and had a propensity to cry and be overly emotional (Macpherson 121).

In a documented interview with a reporter in the November 2, 1872 issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and later reproduced in several biographies of Victoria, she recalled one of their most dramatic conversations, one which took place when she asked him to introduce her before her speech at Steinway Hall and which I have reproduced with only minor alterations in my novel. The context is that Victoria and  Theodore told Rev. Beecher that it would be best if he publicly espoused the Free Love he practiced in his private life by endorsing Victoria; otherwise it would come to light in some other way.  The historical conversation is as follows:

Theodore Tilton: “Someday you have got to fall; go and introduce this woman and win the radicals of this country and it will break your fall.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “Do you think that this thing will come out to the world?”

Theodore Tilton: “Nothing is more in earth or heaven, Mr. Beecher, and this may be your last chance to save yourself from complete ruin.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “I can never endure such a terror. Oh! If it must come, let me know of it twenty-four hours in advance, that I may take my own life. I cannot, cannot face this thing!’

I couldn’t make this stuff up, folks.

2) Catharine Beecher/The Carriage Ride

Whereas Henry was dramatic, his sister Catharine had a mean streak. Victoria and Catharine Beecher fought often through letters and articles. But there is one particularly dramatic event that is documented by Victoria herself. Isabella Beecher, Catharine’s sister and Victoria’s dear friend, thought the two might be able to get along if they just met in person. (A noble, but misguided notion.) Catharine and Victoria ended up taking a carriage ride through Central Park, in which they discussed several of their philosophical differences in thinking about the proper role of women. Toward the end of the conversation, Catharine freaked out and Victoria told her where to shove it. As recounted by Victoria in the May 17, 1873, issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and reproduced in Marion Meade’s biography of Victoria, as well as those written by Barbara Goldsmith, Mary Gabriel and many other biographers, here is the actual conversation:

Catharine Beecher: “Evil! I know my brother is unhappy, but he is a true husband. I will vouch for my brother’s faithfulness to his marriage vows as though he were myself.”

Victoria: “But you have no positive knowledge that would justify your doing so.”

Catherine: “No…No positive… I know he is unhappy. Mrs. Beecher is a virago, a constitutional liar, and a terrible woman altogether, so terrible my brother’s friends and family seldom visit. But unfaithful—no. I will hear no more of it.”

Victoria: “You will hear. In concubinage with his parishioner’s wife—it is common knowledge. And if you were a proper person to judge, which I grant you are not, you should see that the facts are fatal to your theories.”

Catharine: “Victoria Woodhull, I will strike you for this. I will strike you dead.”

Victoria: “Strike as much and as hard as you please. Only don’t do it in the dark so I cannot know who is my enemy.”

This is when Catharine yelled for the driver to stop and let her out. Myra MacPherson continues the conversation with Catharine adding, “I will strike at you in every way; I can and will kill you, if possible” (117).

The rest of their conversation in my novel is pulled from letters between the two. A historical cat fight is better than a fictional one any day!

3) Tennie’s Courtroom Testimony

When Anne Claflin (Victoria’s mother) sued Col. Blood (Victoria’s second husband) for alienation of her daughters’ affection, all of Victoria’s dirty laundry came out in open court, a misfortune that dogged her all the way through the end of her candidacy. Despite her mother’s overwrought testimony, the oddest testimony comes from Victoria’s sister, Tennie. She was supposed to be supporting Col. Blood’s side of the case, and she did at first, but through a series of bizarre ramblings, ended up defending her mother.

The following comes from actual court testimony, originally reported in the New York Herald and reproduced in The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull by Lois Beachy Underhill p. 140 and Mary Gabriel’s Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull p. 104:

“I have humbugged people, I know. But if I did, it was to make money to keep these deadheads. I believe in Spiritualism myself. It has set my mother crazy because she commenced to believe when she was too old.” She turned to the judge. “But, Judge, I want my mother. I am willing to take my mother home with me now or pay two hundred a month for her in any safe place. I am afraid she will die under this excitement. I am single myself, and I don’t want anybody with me but my mother.”

Tennie then collasped in sobs and made such a scene that the judge called both lawyers to the bench.

There is no reason given in any of my sources Tennie’s odd behavior, so as a novelist, I chalked it up to her using some of the drugs her sister was addicted to (her sister was an addict, that part is true) to calm her nerves before testifying.

Sources:
Applegate, Debby. The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Doyle, John E. P. “Plymouth church and its pastor,: or, Henry Ward Beecher and his accusers” 
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age
Meade, Marion Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull
Underhill, Lois Beachy The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull

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.

Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here’s part 1 and part 2 in case you missed them.

All credit to cartoonist Charles Schulz

All credit to cartoonist Charles Schulz

Day three at Hedgebrook was all about setting, plus Deb gave us some additional research tips, which I will share here.

Setting the Scene
Setting is actually my second favorite part of writing, next to character. I’ve been told by editors that I have a talent for writing beautiful descriptions of place (I’ll take that compliment), but as with anything else, it needs to be done carefully. Too much and you will bore your reader; too little and they won’t be immersed in your world.

Deb describes setting as “putting your story in fancy dress.” It not only includes the room, weather, time period and location, but also things like dialect and costuming. In historical fiction, you need to be deliberate in your deployment of historical details. Too much (especially with dialect) will distance the reader; less is more. Like every word in your book, your setting has to do some work. It shouldn’t just be there for its own sake.

You may need to write a bunch of detail before you learn what is really needed in a scene. To illustrate this, Deb gave us copies of three drafts of the same passage from Shadow of Night. The first was her really getting a feeling for the place. She called it a historical sketch based on generalities. The second was longer, as she flushed out details as they related to Matthew as a solider and a spy. The third (which was the published version) struck a nice balance between giving the reader a sense of location and helping the details show us something about the characters in the room. As she put it, “editing is what made it clear to the reader.” Deb’s advice:

  • Write your description, then go back and look at all you’ve written. Pick out only three things that are important and think about why they are important. The “why” is just as important as the “what” in constructing a good setting.
  • Think about this: if your historical story was set in present time, would you stop the action/dialogue to describe this? (She tells a story about how many people get caught up on describing a certain type of  button, when just calling it a button would suffice.)
  • If your description stands in for character development, plot or dialogue, delete it. These three things are much more important than description.

Deb compares writing to cooking. “History [and setting] are like cayenne pepper or tarragon; a little goes a long way. A really effective story is a balance between character, plot, dialogue, setting, action and reflection.”

Nine Historical Research Resources
I’m not sure how we got to talking about research (maybe from the question of how to recreate setting for a previous time period?), but we did. And I’m glad. These are the resources Deb recommends:

  1. Wikipedia –  Yes, she really did recommend this. Using keywords or names, it’s a great place to look for books (fiction and non-fiction) that have been published in a given area/topic. It’s also great for “creating the scaffolding” of your story. But double check facts with other sources and don’t rely on it for interpretations of historical events.
  2. Abe Books – Great source for books written by antiquarians which will give you a lot of time period detail.
  3. Local historians – They can often give you detail you won’t even find in books because history is to them a living, breathing thing that they interact with regularly through their location.
  4. Amazon – (I wrote a blog post about it as a research tool a while back.) Deb suggests sorting your results by date, rather than relevance, and looking for new scholarship. If you are writing about/looking for information on women, family, household life, etc., look for books written after 1974, which is when the old male-dominated mindsets in research began to change. Also, don’t rely on conduct books from a given time period. They often reflect the ideal woman/child/family, rather than reality.
  5. Google Books – It gives you access to at least parts of thousands of books, including Harvard’s entire collection prior to 1890.
  6. Local library’s database collection – Your local public and/or college library should have a good database collection. If you need help with a specific topic or aren’t sure how to access the databases, talk to the reference librarian. That’s what he/she is there for.
  7. Church of Latter Day Saints – Their records include London’s register from the 16th century on and their libraries are gold mines. You can also find some of their information on ancestry.com if you do a family search.
  8. Primary sources – Always read first-hand accounts, if such a thing exists. Primary sources such as letters, journals, and novels written by women are ideal to get a feel for the time and the people.
  9. Newspapers – If they existed in your time, use them. Many are being digitized. Three months of issues will give you a lot to work from.

One More Tip from Deb
Writing isn’t the only thing a writer needs to do. Reading, watching a bird, staring at the fire (or anything else that lets you dream/imagine/use your brain) are part of your job.

Next week: Deb’s lecture on worldview.

What do you think of Deb’s advise on setting and research? How do your favorite authors handle setting? As a reader, what do you like/dislike? If you’re a writer, did you learn anything from Deb’s research tips?

St. Louis Writer’s Guild Interview Now Online

In case you missed it, here’s the interview I did a few weeks ago with the St. Louis Writer’s Guild. Learn about my research and writing processes, tips and tricks, and even get some inside scoop on the Guinevere books!

Fiction isn’t just imagination: researching your novel

In case you haven’t heard enough about research from me here, this is a guest post I did over at Cassandra Page’s blog.

Cassandra Page

Today’s guest post is by the amazing Nicole Evelina, whose dedication to research is awe-inspiring. Don’t believe me? Check out her blog!

I’m a historical fiction writer, so I do a lot of research. But you don’t have to be writing in another time period to find research necessary when writing a novel. Sure, you can make up a lot, but chances are good that unless your characters have the exact same life experiences as you, you’re going to need to do a little fact-finding along the way.

Why research is important

Research can be as simple as getting the details of your character’s occupation right or accurately depicting a route through a city. Sometimes it’s providing realistic descriptions of places that your readers may have lived or want to visit after reading your books. Things like that may seem trivial when we’ve got plots bursting from our brains…

View original post 688 more words

How to use Amazon as a Research Tool

By Jonymamilou, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A while back, someone on Twitter recommended a book to me that traces the evolution of Arthur, Guinevere and Mordred as characters. Naturally, I thought this would compliment my research nicely. The only down side was that it was selling on Amazon for $268. I don’t have that kind of money to spend on a single book, much less one I don’t know if I will like. Luckily, I remembered the interlibrary loan system from the public library and was able to get the needed information right from the book’s page on Amazon, and a few weeks later, the book is mine (at least for three weeks, then I have to return it.) That was when it hit me that Amazon is a great research tool, one I’d been using for years without realizing it.

We all know Amazon is a great place to buy books (I’ve gotten some great rare titles from their seemingly endless list), but it can also help you to:

  1. Know what else is out there – In many ways, Amazon’s catalogue is like a giant research database. A simple search can tell you what’s been written in your area of interest, and since they sell used books as well, you may come across some that are out of print or otherwise hard to find. And sometimes, finding a helpful book by an author can open you up to other things they’ve written (For example, Joan Alcock’s Food in Roman Britain led me to her Daily Life of the Pagan Celts). And because Amazon serves up books similar to the one you’re looking at, you don’t even have to try to find related items. Its search engine can also help if you’re thinking about writing a book. Who else has written on that subject? Is your book title/pen name taken? Has someone already written a book very similar to your idea? All questions that can be answered with a quick search.
  2. Make interlibrary loans easier – I love libraries. You can save a ton of money by using them instead of buying all your research, but sometimes the library just doesn’t have what you need or you exhaust their offerings quickly. This is especially the case in niche areas like mine. Enter the interlibrary loan system. I’ve only ever lived in one state, but I think all U.S. public libraries (and many college libraries) have this service. At my library, all you have to do to request a book you can’t find is go to their web site, click on the interlibrary loan form, fill it out, and they do the searching and shipping for you. But you have to have certain key information, like the ISBN number and place and date of publication. I’m sure there are other ways to find it online, but if the book is on Amazon, all that information is in one place. You just have to copy/paste into the form. If you haven’t tried an interlibrary loan, do it. You’ll be amazed what they can find and where it comes from. All you have to do is pick up the book, take good care of it and return it on time.
  3. Judge what to buy – Of course, no discussion of Amazon would be complete without talking about purchasing books. Their “look inside” feature is great if you’re questioning the usefulness of a book. User reviews are also helpful, although sometimes I question how much some of the people actually read before reviewing.

Some people may say this isn’t a fair use of the site because you’re not purchasing anything from them. It’s a valid point. But I can tell you from my own experience that having used Amazon for other things has made it a “go-to” site for me and I’m a more frequent purchaser because I’m familiar with the site and its offerings.

Note: I was not paid, or even asked, to write this blog post. This is purely my opinion and experience. I have no association to Amazon or any of its affiliates other than being a customer.

How have you used Amazon to help in your writing or in searching for books? Are there other non-traditional ways you’ve found to do research? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.

R is for Resources and Recommendations

I don’t usually post roundups of links, but I’ve been finding a lot of really interesting and informative stuff lately on the web, so I thought I’d share. To me, that’s one of the coolest things about the blogging community – you find people of like mind and, through them, resources you’d never be able to dig up on your own. So thank you to everyone who has helped me so far. I’ll try to give credit where I can remember where I got this information from. (Those who follow me on Twitter may have seen some of these links already.)

Resources

ORBIS  The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World (via Lora Geneva) – Ever wonder how long it would have taken to get from place to place in the Roman world? Or how much of a factor the time of year is? Well, look no further than this amazing system that lets you pick your departure location, destination, route, mode of transportation and time of year. I’ve found the results on par with the mathematical formula recommended by Leslie Alcock and this is so much more fun!

Creating Better Fantasy World Maps – This is for all my fantasy writing friends out there. I’ve hand drawn my own fantasy maps in the past (which is actually kind of fun, even when you are artistically challenged like me), but from the examples given, this software makes maps look so much more sophisticated. If a later version of this exists when I write a fantasy in the future, you can bet I’ll be using it.

Articles/Blog Posts

Random House Explains What Publishers Do – The PR pro in me says Random House’s PR department did a great job with this video because the writer in me actually thought, “wow, I hope I get picked up by Random House someday,” when I finished watching this. My professional issues aside, it’s an interesting look inside the publishing world, especially for those of us not under contract yet.

Story Lessons from Pixar (via Lora Geneva) – Some great tips. You never know where that perfect bit of advice may come from.

What if Grammarians Had Their Own Magazine? – This is just funny.

12 Ways to Research a Historical Novel (via Historical Fiction Daily) – Some of these may be obvious, but a reminder never hurts.

Books

Food in Roman Britain by Joan Alcock – You’d be surprised how much is known about what the Celts and Romans in Britain ate and where it came from. Amazing amount of detail in this book.

Daily Life of the Pagan Celts by Joan Alcock – How have I written 1.5 books without this resource? Seriously.

Celtic Daily Life by Victor Walkley –  I haven’t actually started this one yet. That’s what I’m going to do after I hit “publish” on this post. But it looks very promising.

And if you want an odd take on Arthurian legend that places Arthur, Avalon and whole kit and caboodle in Lothian, northwest England (now Scotland), try Land of the Gods by Philip Coppens. I can’t say I agree with his theories, but I did learn a lot about Traprian Law and Caledon Wood (two locations in my second book).

What articles, blogs, books, etc. have you found useful lately? Do you like these roundups? Would you like to see them more often?