Monthly Archives: February 2012

Writing Strong Women into History

I’m having a bit of an issue, this week, with the finicky balance between historical accuracy and modern readability for historical YA fiction.  My writerly instincts are at odds, and it’s making a mess of my first draft.

Here’s my dilemma:  On the one hand, I want to create a believable early 19th century world.  There’s nothing I hate more than reading historical fiction full of whiny 21st century teenagers and anachronistic slang.  Yet— I also feel a very modern desire for my two heroines to overcome some of the restrictions of gender and social class to become self-actualized human beings, and to meet the male protagonist on a more equal footing than they probably would have, if we stuck strictly to historical facts.

"Don't let the facts get in the way of your imagination." -Sam Levenson

This is a conflict that every modern writer has, on some level, when delving into a past that doesn’t share the opinions and prejudices of our own.  Still, we’re not writing for dead people— we’re writing for our peers, who live in a modern world.  And at the risk of making excuses for my own bad behavior, I’ll argue that a novel set in any time or place is often more interesting when it deals with the outliers, not the rule.

The thing is, most of the novels I’ve read that successfully paint the heroine as a whole human being instead of a foil or a fantasy still end with love and marriage— and most of my favorites were written by women who had lived through the time period in which they set those novels.

Spunky, confident, historically accurate women who get the guy are just great— but what happens to an Anne without a Gilbert?  What about characters that don’t end up partnered?  What about characters whose main story arc isn’t a romance?

I can think of a couple of YA historical fiction novels that do this well.  Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy does an excellent job placing a young girl with essentially modern sensibilities so firmly in a historical time period that we believe her utterly.

I’m envious of how masterfully done this book is!  Still, I can’t apply too many of Cushman’s tricks to my project— I’m working within the restrictions of a traditional fairy tale, with three female narrators, two of which are not entirely human.  Tackling a historical world that is also a fantasy world, three different narrative voices AND  a love triangle means that at any given time I’m juggling too many story elements to feel like any one of them is staying constant.  A change in one part of the story has a massive ripple effect on everything else, until to avoid going crazy/writing in circles I just have to keep forging forward with notes to fix inconsistencies later.

I don’t know that there is a solution to my problem, or a trick to doing this well.  It might just be about that ever-elusive line between good writing and bad writing, between lazy cliché and characters with depth.  A character like Catherine who knows how to read even though she’s a 14-year-old girl in Medeival England and hates the idea of an arranged marriage can fly in Cushman’s book because she’s well-written, while a Harlequin heroine with those same qualities rings false because she’s been hastily written and poorly researched… and has early ’90s hair.

Insight or advice about writing strong women into history without tweaking out the conscientious reader would be much appreciated.



Nugget of the Day

My morning kick start was reading this “Things I Wish I’d Always Known” piece over on the Ploughshares blog.  Short, simple, and a good reminder to keep doing what we’re doing.

(photo credit to the amazing Laura Petrilla!)

Oscar Films get Bechdel Tested: 2012

Since I was writing the other day about women’s roles in theatre and film, I thought it would be interesting to share this rundown of how the 2012 Best Picture nominees size up to the Bechdel Test.  (Spoiler: 7 of the 9 films fail it.)


Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in site, only the wind and your breaking heart.  Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating.  As soon as Lenny began speaking, I knew I had mainlined it. I felt like I was strapped in the cock pit with the stars in my face and the expanding universe on my back. In my opinion, that’s the only way a writer should travel. When I finished “Tall Tales” I thought, this one is a keeper. This is a trophy brought back from the further realm, the kingdom of perpetual glistening night where we know ourselves absolutely. This one goes on the wall.

-Kate Braverman

Old News is (Sadly) New Again

I know that this topic was played out a couple of years ago, but I’ve found myself thinking again about the kerfuffle with the 2010 Wasserstein prize, and what it means for young women trying to get started in the writing life— especially in the male-dominated arenas of theatre and film.  Here’s a link to Mike Lew’s original letter that sparked a lot of conversation on the topic.

For those of you who didn’t hear about this at the time, I’ll summarize: basically the panel in charge of choosing a winner of the annual Wasserstein Prize— a hefty financial boost for an undiscovered female playwright under 32— decided that there were no young women worthy of the award.  They didn’t give it to any of the 19 candidates.

In an industry that is undeniably a boys’ club, advocacy and encouragement of new female voices is desperately needed.  For those of you unfamiliar with or skeptical of the gender gap in theatre, I can assure you from personal experience that it’s omnipresent.  Though productions at the high school level are flooded with talented girls with years of vocal, acting and dance training, the roles available both in straight theatre and musicals are still overwhelmingly male.  (Here’s a New York Times article about it, if you don’t believe me.) When we are onstage, so often it’s in roles that are glorified set dressing— I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten my ta-tas out in some slinky outfit while my male costars prance around fully clothed.

Women behind the scenes are even more rare, with numbers of female playwrights and directors dwindling and stalling at numbers that have barely budged in decades.  The quote below is from statistics taken in the early ’00s, but I’ve read since that this is still fairly accurate:

This current season of 2001-02 as listed in American Theatre magazine actually shows a decline, with directors at 16% and playwright representation at 17%, back at the 1994-95 percentages. (When productions of Shakespeare are removed from consideration, playwright representation increases to only 18%.) Considering the considerable media attention given to Eve Ensler and Vagina Monologues, playwright Susan Lori Parks, who won a McArthur genius award, and the ubiquitous Broadway director Susan Stroman, this diminished presence of women is puzzling .

– Read more statistics from this study here.

All of this, and you’d think that the people whose job it is to encourage women playwrights would at least be in our corner.  But no, it was left to a (brilliant, but) male playwright to stand up for us.

The thing is… maybe some of our work isn’t as thoroughly polished or developed as that of our male counterparts.  What can you expect, in a culture that still teaches a girl to encourage and support her boyfriend’s success and self-esteem over her own?  I don’t pretend to be above this— you’re talking to a girl who practically made a career out of hauling equipment and working merch tables for Boys in Bands— but I do see it, now, as problematic.

The thing is, making art is hard.  Without consistent encouragement from others, and without a firm and irrational belief in your own ability to succeed, it can be nearly impossible.  And few girls survive adolescence these days with that kind of blind, cocky faith in their own awesomeness.  Lots of boys do—often because they had really awesome girlfriends working their merch tables and teaching them which direction is stage right, or how to generally not behave like a doofus.

So how do we right this inequity?  The whole thing is hopelessly complicated.  Studies show, for example, that it’s the women on top of the ladder, not the men, who are the cruelest gatekeepers.  Maybe it’s the mentality of “if it was hard for me, it should be hard for you,” maybe it’s the idea that there are only so many coveted positions to go around.  Maybe it’s just the relentless indoctrination into a culture of jealousy and competition that drives us to tear one another down.

Even more often, we hit the self destruct button and give up on ourselves before we’ve had a chance to test our abilities.  Kathryn Chetkovitch writes very eloquently about this:

Most women I know are reluctant to say, ‘I am better than her, and her, and her – OK, I’ll keep going.’ And most men I know rely, when necessary, on some formulation of exactly that. Plus women have not only each other to compete against (in devious and exhausting ways, requiring much track-covering and nice-making as they go) but men to envy; because it’s still the case that women writers are compared to each other, and the big (as opposed to, say, lyrical) literary novel persists as an essentially male category. Women’s books are still not talked about in the same way men’s books are, and women are still sensitive to that.

Read more here.

Blah blah blah, it’s the same old story.  So tell me— why aren’t we able to tell a new one yet?

Slow Writing.

I wrote today.  I’ve been writing every day for the past month or so, actually, which marks a big step on my road from “girl with a BA in writing” to “girl who has actually written something worthwhile.”  On one hand it feels good to finally be making definite, regular progress in the direction of my goals.  On the other hand, I see how quickly my friends crank out creative material and I wonder if I’m doing it wrong.

Because… I’m a slow writer.  I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, because I can be sitting for hours with no distractions and a clear vision of my plot, writing consistently— and still only get a total of 2o0 usable words per hour when all is said and done.  Every November I watch friends document their NaNoWriMo projects, and overwhelmed with awe and despair.  I know better than to even pretend that I could accomplish 50k words strung together in any kind of sensible order in only 30 days.

Yet… I want to write.  I like to write.  I have a story that I want to tell.  It’s just taking me




The idea for this novel came to me 4 years ago.  Two different drafts were scrapped 70 and 90 pages in, because I realized that I did not yet have the foggiest idea of how to write a book.  I started over, with a detailed outline this time, and now between research and world building and keeping characters consistent and feeling my way around the first person voices of my three narrators… I am slow.

There is always a correlation drawn between speed and intelligence.  One has a “quick wit” or is “slow on the uptake.”  In school, I scored in the highest percentile of everything except for something called “speed and accuracy,” which was literally a test where you did nothing but copy letters into the corresponding bubbles as quickly as you could.

I panicked, and placed in the 10th percentile.

So does anyone else have this problem?  Pathological slowness?  And is there a cure?  Thanking you in advance for your insight.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Writing Advice

I was fortunate enough to stumble across this post about how stories fall apart by excellent writer/editor Nalo Hopkinson.  It’s saving me a lot of work, so I thought I’d share!

What is Winter Fodder?

Years ago, I stood at the end of a bar in Ennis, Co. Clare and ordered a pot of black tea. 

I was only 2o and not much of a drinker, but I had heard that one of the best sessions in the west would be at that particular pub on that particular night, and I wasn’t going to miss it.  My own fiddle was stashed by my feet; I wasn’t going to use it, but staying at a hostel meant carrying my valuables with me everywhere I went. 

The fiddle turned out to be a conversation starter for the old men sitting by me, who were tickled about the girl with long red hair and American accent who came into a pub on her own and ordered nothing but tea.  With a few pints to wet their whistles, these old men were more than willing to wax philosophical about anything— life in Clare, music, art, the literary history of Ireland.

I was smiling and nodding and enjoying the craic when one of them said something that has stuck with me ever since.

“This,” one of the old men said with a sweep of his arm to indicate the packed room, “music, and storytelling.  It has always been our winter fodder.”

And it still is.  It’s what feeds me, at least, on cold days of the flesh and dark nights of the soul.  So this blog is my nod to his wise words.  Writing is such a solitary activity now, done in front of a computer in a room with a closed door.  It’s easy to forget the intimacy of storytelling, and how the companionship of a good tale can feed up a soul that has grown wan and thin.  While I write and research and worry over plots on my own, this is where I will open up about where storytelling takes me— and hopefully start a conversation about where yours takes you.

Welcome in from the cold.  Welcome to Winter Fodder!