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.



6 thoughts on “Writing Strong Women into History

  1. Linda Proud says:

    This is a really good question which I wish more writers (and readers and publishers) would take note of. The only answer that comes to mind is, given your period, to soak yourself in George Eliot. She wrote female characters who itched inside the corsets society tied them into, were aware of the constraints and despised them. Eliot’s own life was wildly out of kilter with respectability but not immoral in her own judgement.

    As to the volatility of creative work, this taxes me every time. It seems to me that ‘completing’ a novel is not getting to the last page, but to the last layer or draft, when, at last, everything is fixed and not moving any more. The quicksand has turned into cement!

    • winterfodder says:

      Thanks so much for the advice and the support! I love, love, love George Eliot… My copies of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda have been dog-eared beyond recognition, and she’s been a definite inspiration. She’s farther on in the 19th century than I’m working, though– my project is hovering around 1800-1806, in a fishing town in Northern Ireland. While Eliot does so much deep examination of how industrialization and progress influence agrarian life, I’m struggling with the almost opposite problem of how to keep the real, historical outside world from disrupting the fantasy/fairy tale element of the story. How can revolution and oppression be the backdrop for a much older, more magical tale without taking over the narrative, or making the reader feel that those details are an unnecessary digression from the plot? Every decision I make seems to sprout eight new heads of other questions or plot snags!

      • Linda Proud says:

        Do you think we worry too much? I’ve just been watching a TV drama where a man locks his daughter in her room for days, and I’m beside myself wondering what she does for a toilet or if her chamber pot ever gets emptied, whereas clearly the TV producers ignore ‘reality’ on the good ground that most people won’t notice!

        Something else that comes to mind in answer to your fascinating question is Pan’s Labyrinth, where the backdrop is the Spanish Civil War but barely impinges at all, given that the Labyrinth is the girl’s route of escape. Would that help? I don’t think it matters to copy technique. Nobody notices!

        Sorry about delay in responding – no notification came through usual routes. I just found your reply on my dashboard, which I don’t visit too often.

  2. Sgaile-beairt says:

    FYI – google “Lady Jane Digby” for the rl contemporary answer to “women couldn’t do cool stuff back when” per the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. (I wouldnt have minded being Lady Jane Digby when I grew up…)

    Also Eleonora of Arborea, Giudicessa (judgess aka lawgiver) national heroine of Sardinia from an earlier era, who I discovered by accident when researching falconry…and they werent totally anomalous either!

    • winterfodder says:

      I know, it’s amazing how many women did manage to lead daring lives given the restrictions of the time! I’m currently reading the diaries of Anne Lister, which are pretty eye opening.

      • Sgaile-beairt says:

        Wow, thanks for tipping me off about Ms. Lister! Fancy that, an out butch lesbian businesswoman contemporary of the Brontes, missing from popular awareness. Womens history isn’t revisionist, it’s recovering of a palimpsest erased & overwritten. Heres another great resource – http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com/ – archeologist studying Zenobia of Palmyra & the rest of antiquity thru her. The bit about Roman moralists ranting about how proof that Rome was going to the dogs found in how many women were studying martial arts “these days” & some even willing to risk death for a chance at fame & fortune was….interesting!

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