Writing Strong Women in Historically-Based Fiction


June 3, 2019  •  No Comments

What do you do when your assassin is supposed to sneak across the rooftops wearing a corset, a bustle, and high heeled boots? Setting stories in historical (or historical-like) settings opens the door to any number of head-scratching issues, and wardrobing is just the start.

Since I’m a history nerd, I want to understand the era I’m drawing from both in terms of events and how people saw the world. The characters who walk through our stories are individuals, but individuals are shaped by the world around them. At the same time, a storyteller needs to find their particular sweet spot between an authentic historical setting and a tale that thrills modern readers. When it comes to creating a strong female protagonist, bridging that gap takes some finesse.

Finding role models for our heroines takes a bit of homework, but it’s possible to find female painters, composers, explorers, scientists, activists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, doctors, and everything else in most time periods. All the same, despite some exceptional examples (Anne Bonney, anyone? Elizabeth Tudor? Joan of Arc?) women in past centuries were frequently banished to a supporting domestic role.

In Western European history—I use this as an example as I’m most familiar with it, but it is far from the only source material available—females were legally under the control of their husband or closest male relative, with little agency of their own. Even worse for the novelist, unmarried women of respectable families were not allowed to be alone with a man who was not a relative—certainly not behind closed doors—and never stirred out of the house without a chaperone. This makes it desperately difficult to have your protagonist spy, sneak, or otherwise get up to mischief. There is a reason widows are common in fiction—it was one circumstance that gave women a degree of freedom. Depending on the marriage contract, a widow might inherit an independent income and property of her own. For the first time in her life, she openly enjoyed a degree of self-determination—but only if she had money. Otherwise, marrying again was better than the alternatives. According to some scholars, during the Georgian era one in five women were in the sex trade just to feed themselves.

Find out what challenges a woman would face in a particular time period and to make good use of those barriers. Showing a heroine navigating constraints builds tension and demonstrates how clever she can be. Whether she outwits Society’s gatekeepers, crushes the opposition, or intentionally blows off convention, pushing back against the world around her will show her character. If there are serious consequences for failure, so much the better for the story.

I’ll add one safety tip: when pitting a protagonist against the conventions of her time, zero in on the exact decade if possible. The definition of socially acceptable behavior changed over time, and sometimes more rapidly than one assumes.  Most associate the nineteenth century with an elderly and unamused queen, but the 1800s stretched from the Napoleonic era with its see-through gowns and ribald Prince Regent through the corseted and moralizing mid-century and onward to those shocking Edwardian suffragettes. The differences are as acute as those between Carolyn Lamb, Charlotte Bronte, and Emmeline Pankhurst. Masked balls went from scandalous affairs to something holiday-makers did for fun. This all makes sense—we have different attitudes than our great-grandparents, after all. We would expect someone looking back on our own century to know the difference between generations, and so would our protagonists.

Once the time period is nailed down, the next question is how faithfully a story will stick to it. A fast-paced adventure will undoubtedly take the heroine out of the drawing room, possibly with a loaded weapon.  How the story world is portrayed is entirely up to the author. If the desire is to paint an environment that grants females more agency than was the historical norm, go for it as long as it makes sense with the rest of the society and culture in the book. If this is historical fantasy, are we talking dragons, dirigibles, or full on wizardry? How action-oriented will our heroine need to be? What are the rules of engagement? Is she alone, or are all the cool girls shooting zombies? These factors become the new normal for the heroine and need to be treated just like every other element of setting and backstory. People are shaped by their environments, their circle of loved ones, and the ideas they’ve absorbed over their lives. No maidenly miss is going to wake up one morning and think, “Yeah, I’m going to go kill people” without a LOT of context. But given the right approach, we’ll believe in her.

A really good example comes from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Brienne of Tarth is a female knight and utterly at odds with her culture’s concept of womanhood. She’s physically capable of combat, trains hard, and walks the talk. But however competent she is, she is ridiculed. Her dream comes at a cost and it’s hard. One reason she works so well as a character because we fully understand what’s expected from her, how she’s departed from that, and what it’s cost her. Although she’s unique, she is entirely consistent with the historical setting Martin has created. As with many of his female characters, Brienne believably checks all the action-adventure boxes, but it’s a bumpy road.

To recap, when writing a heroine who is going against the norms of her historical period, tell us why she’s doing it, what the consequences are, and how she justifies her behavior to herself and others. Most of all, be consistent with her background. If she picks up a steam-powered aether gun, how does she know how to use it? Why does she think it’s okay? Has she done it before and will she do it again?  How does she feel about the episode afterward?  Is she forced to redefine who she is once the adventure begins? Most of all, tell us her story with as much emotional truth as you can. Then stand back and let her shine.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Eat Like a Victorian—on burgers, fries, and soda


June 2, 2019  •  No Comments

Nothing quite says modern hustle like burger joints, food trucks, and grabbing junk food for that night’s Netflix binge. Fast food answers the problem of our hectic lives, where there’s places to be and work to be done and absolutely no time to spend crafting artisan eats in the kitchen. Plus, many so-called kitchen nooks in new apartments are barely big enough to comfortably butter toast, much less mess around with stock pots and canning jars. Picking up something to go is the obvious answer.

This need isn’t new. As long as there have been hungry people, there’s been food for sale in easy-to-eat forms. Ancient Roman thermopolia provided affordable take-out. Street vendors have been around as long as hungry urbanites have existed. Pretty much every culture has the “stuff wrapped in bread product,” whether that’s samosas, Cornish pasties, or the Czech klobasnek/kolaches. In the old days, if you were out harvesting in the fields or heading down a mine shaft, you wanted food that can be stuffed in a pocket to eat later. We might have better health regulations, but the principles behind fast food remain the same.

The pedigree of some current favorites is fun to look at. Hamburgers and hot dogs immediately come to mind, since they follow the meat-in-bread pattern. Speculation has it the essential ground meat that makes up the hamburger patty was introduced to Europe by invading hordes in the thirteenth century. Tartar horseman stashed raw meat beneath their saddles to tenderize it, a practice that was happily abandoned by later chefs. In the seventh century, Russians brought their version of the dish, steak tartare, to Hamburg, Germany, where it morphed into the cooked version we know now.  In the early 1800s, the “Hamburg steak” was well-enough established to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. The dish emigrated to America in the mid-1900s and eventually appeared with a bun at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The first burger chains appeared in the 1920s and the cheeseburger debuted a decade later.

Hot dogs followed a similar path. Sausages have been around since the ancient world, ultimately establishing themselves in the German cuisine that came to America in the mid-1800s. Around 1870, a German immigrant named Charles Feltman set up a food cart on Coney Island and did a brisk business selling sausages in a bun. From there they were introduced at ball parks as a snack to go with beer.

What about sides? The history of French fries is contested, with origin stories dating back to the seventeenth century. Belgium is petitioning UNESCO to endorse the fry as an icon of Belgian heritage. The story goes that in 1680 the River Meuse froze over, preventing citizens of Namur from catching and frying the small fish they were used to, so they fried potatoes instead. American soldiers, evidently confusing French-speaking Belgians with their neighbors, encountered the fried treat during WWI, taking so-called French fries back to the US.

There are other contenders for title of fry inventor. Spain has a claim. After all, they introduced the potato to Europe in the late 1500s after learning about it in the New World. France maintains an eighteenth-century street peddler on Paris’s Pont-Neuf bridge introduced French fries to the world. Canada has a special affinity since fries are an integral ingredient in poutine (invented in Quebec the 1950s). Without argument, America eats the most per capita.

The first recipe for onion rings is more certain. It’s generally agreed to have been published in John Mollard’s 1802 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined.” Mollard was a cook and proprietor of the Freemasons’ Tavern at Lincoln Inn Fields in London. However, the dish did not become popular until it emerged in its full cholesterolific glory in twentieth century America.

Speaking of fried food, the potato chip was invented by the appropriately-named George Crumb in 1853, a chef in Saratoga Springs, New York. Originally called Saratoga Chips, they were eventually made and marketed by a company in Cleveland, Ohio. Herman Lay introduced potato chips to many customers from Atlanta to Nashville by selling them from the trunk of his Ford Model A. He eventually founded H.W. Lay & Company, which merged with the Frito Company in 1961, which eventually merged with Pepsi-Cola.

Naturally, we want something to drink after eating all these salty foods. Mineral waters have been consumed since Roman times, as they were believed to have curative powers. Readers of Regency novels will be familiar with invalids “taking the waters” at various spas. A man-made version of carbonated beverages was first produced in the 1760s by adding chalk and acid to regular drinking water. Initially, wine was added as flavoring, but various sweet syrups followed and by the 1840s, soda fountains began appearing in pharmacies.

In 1876, Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires concocted a mixture of herbs, roots and berries and added it carbonated soda water to produce the first root beer. In 1886, another formulation containing coca leaves and the caffeine-rich kola nut became Coca-Cola. Marketed as a tonic, the original formula contained extracts of cocaine, which wasn’t illegal at the time. In 1893, Pepsi-Cola was introduced as a digestive aid. Soon bottling facilities replaced soda fountains and, by the 1920s, soft drinks were available via vending machines. The medicinal claims surrounding such beverages were dropped and as early as 1942, the American Medical Association was specifically mentioning soft drinks as it recommended consumers limit their intake of sugar. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Slow Food movement aims to recover the joys of delicious home cooked cuisine, along with traditional methods of preparation. However, as the hipsters rush to rediscover bone broth and artisan sauerkraut, it’s worth remembering that food is as variable as the people who eat it. Our cuisine has a complex family tree, along with a few crumpled food wrappers tucked in the branches. Fast food—despite the overwhelming corporatization involved—is equally traditional, with a centuries-long story of its own.

 


Happy, pretty things


June 1, 2019  •  2 Comments

I love illustrated books, especially older ones with hand-drawn and tinted plates. While lots of my favorites are illustrations of novels and children’s stories, I’m fond of old scientific works as well. Botany texts, seed catalogues, and gardening manuals offer a wealth of gorgeous illustrations (as well as information on how to grow things without a boatload of chemicals). Some varieties that show up aren’t that common in modern gardens, so they are great references when looking for heritage specimens.

Recently I brought home a lovely old English (1843) volume because, y’know, book research.

Here’s a sample page of The Floricultural Cabinet and Florist’s Magazine, conducted by Joseph Harrison, editor of the Gardener’s Record, etc.:

 

I find a quick dose of happiness in the New York Botanical Garden page a day calendar (willowcreekpress.com). It alternates modern photographs of their amazing facility with antique botanical illustrations. I keep this on my desk at the day job so I can take a quick mental vacation to a beautiful green space as required.

Here’s a link to the garden itself:  https://www.nybg.org/.  The online shop is fun for gardening fans.

 


Keep a curious mind


February 17, 2019  •  No Comments

Ever have one of those dreams where you wake up back in high school about to write a math test? You think you should know how to do the problems—and clearly the teacher does—but it’s all a bunch of squiggles on the page?

My first forays into indie publishing felt like that at first. I’d been traditionally published for a lot of years, but did that help me self-publish books? The answer is: some times more than others.

Even late adopters have been forced to respond to the changing face of publishing. Everyone has to be largely self-sufficient when it comes to marketing their work. Even if publishers want to do a good job promoting a book, they may not have the resources, agility, or access to the right tools. These days, it’s up to the author—however their book got published—to attract an audience.

But unless you’ve been taught to market, how do you know what to do? The same goes for formatting, finding covers, hiring editors, and all the myriad steps involved in putting a book out on your own. Remember that dream about an algebra exam?

I had to approach everything with the curiosity of a raw beginner, and I think I’ll keep that mindset for a long time. Wherever an author is along their publishing journey, it’s impossible to know everything because there are so many constantly moving parts. If I have any advice for someone transition from trad publishing to indie, it’s this: Be open, be willing, seek advice, and give yourself permission to push your boundaries. Above all, remember to have fun!


We’ve only just begun


February 10, 2019  •  No Comments

I remember the first e-reader I owned. It was a lovely red Sony thing that became obsolete almost before I figured out how to use it. That beautiful toy was like a lot of the publishing world in that moment—an industry founded on physical art was suddenly forced to reinvent itself in electrons. Everywhere one looked, awkwardness ensued.

As much as I loved that Sony, I don’t identify with it. Unlike my barely-cordless friend, as an author I was able to adapt and carry on. And as antiquated as my traditional publishing roots may seem to some, I value the lessons I learned along the way.

My first published book came out it 2006, but before that I wrote for newspapers and magazines. The best and most brutal of editors, in my opinion, work in print journalism. You write fast and you write concisely. If you can’t tell a story in 300, 800, 1000 or however many words are allowed, you don’t get any more freelance assignments. Do or die. Miss the cut-off for filing your piece and you don’t get paid. It’s a bit like boot camp for paragraphs.

I’ve also had the privilege of working with some amazing fiction editors, and that kind of coaching is priceless. Some were gardeners, shearing and pruning to shape the, um, abundance I presented. Others taught me to plot, build worlds, and dig deep for emotion. They all had a lesson for me, however delightful or dire, and I value every one.

I learned about that side of the writing business, too. I learned to pitch, to pick my battles, and to negotiate with other publishing professionals.

Indie publishing deals with the same things, but the approach is a little different. I can’t say what it’s like coming to indie first, because that wasn’t my experience. What I do know is that I’m incredibly grateful for a solid training in the craft. However, unlike that Sony, I’ve had to evolve. However excellent a foundation I had, I’ve had to keep on learning, and learning, and learning.


Addictive world-building


February 7, 2019  •  No Comments

I was thinking about what I wanted most in a story. Some like spooky chills, others the heartache of a great romance. For me, it’s the OMG wonder of discovering an amazing world. Prydain. Middle Earth. Westeros. I love a fully-formed fantasy realm I can walk into and find friends waiting for me. I don’t take to most I find—I’m picky and take a while to settle in—but I’m loyal once it’s won me over.

I think part of the problem with finding a truly satisfying realm is that they’re hard to build. It goes far beyond naming kingdoms and drawing maps. There is a terroir that infuses everything so that the reader instinctively knows the smell and texture of each item in the place. Great authors can spin that out of the aether, making it distinct and complex and madly simple all at once. The characters grow from it (or vice versa) so that even the agents of change are the natural extension of the realm’s internal conflicts. It’s all terribly logical and consistent, as if the reader is encountering a history rather than a piece of fiction.

I read these things and think: I wish I’d written that. And somehow, weirdly, feel as if I have because the author has made it so incredibly real it’s become part of me just by looking at the page.

Is that writing or summoning a world?


Tropical Muffins


February 4, 2019  •  No Comments

 

Sometimes the most important things in life are comfort food and a house that smells like baking.  In honor of those moments, I give you a new recipe I adapted.

 

Mix:

3 mashed ripe bananas

½ cup yogurt

2/3 cup melted butter

4 beaten eggs

2/3 cup sugar

juice of 2 limes

 

In a separate bowl, sift:

1 and ½ cup flour

2/3 cup oats

1 cup shredded coconut

1.5 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

 

Slowly fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture. Spoon into greased muffin tins and sprinkle extra coconut on top. (Makes about 20 muffins). Bake at 325 F until golden on top.

Note:  these freeze well


How to begin a book (or not)


January 16, 2019  •  No Comments

How to begin a book? Book beginnings tend to go two ways with me: either out of the gate like a shot or in a dithery fashion that means I begin chapter one about twenty times, erase it, make it chapter three, erase it, then go back to whatever it was I wrote the first time.

Some people would say that the latter method results from a failure to plot and/or I didn’t understand the story well enough. This might be true. Most of storytelling is a mysterious process and though people throw theories at it, I doubt it will ever become an exact science. The story might be stalled because my tea was the wrong temperature and/or one sock was inside out. More likely is that I used up my allotted number of story beginnings early on in my writing career, since I started ten stories for every one that I finished.

Half the theorists say the story should begin in the regular, everyday world of the protagonist. The other half advocate for a major explosion. One wonders about the protagonist’s propensity for bomb-making.

The best way to connect these dots (at least some of the time) is to consider that there is exterior action (incendiary vampires, or whatever action you are proposing) and interior action (whatever character growth the protagonist will undergo). What we’re looking for to launch the story is conflict. It could be the start of the action plot (kaboom!) or it could be a high point of conflict for the interior plot (or both, if you can make them realistically coincide).

I’ll throw my advice into the mix: If in doubt, start with the interior plot, but make it a big moment. Show the character sweating so we like that person but understand how he or she desperately needs to change.

Examples of a high-conflict interior plot opening could be a fight, the character getting fired, or the character doing something else high-risk. Whatever flaw they have, demonstrate it to the max. This makes a nice bookend with the end of the novel, where you can show them reacting a different way to the same situation. That’s a straightforward demonstration that they aren’t the same person they were at the start.

Chapter one: Billy gets in a bar fight

Chapter thirty-one: Having developed people skills, Billy de-escalates a similar situation.

This is a stupid-simple example, but you get the point. There is a difference between flashy and important. Billy might win NASCAR and that might make up the bulk of the exterior plot, but it’s important on a personal level that he is a functional human being so that he stays out of jail and weds Mary-Lou.

Put another way, remember that HIGH STAKES are important to open the story, but the HIGHEST stakes are those the protagonist carries inside them. If in doubt, start your story there.


Because it’s a new year


January 14, 2019  •  No Comments

There’s a lot in the news that makes us think things never change, and certainly not for the better.  But not everything HAS to be this way. Imagine a world without war, or kings, or those who have or have not.

I’m a fan of the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who has (literally) dug into the history of neolithic Europe (6500 to 4500 BC).  This is my simplification of the picture she paints:

The folks who live here in the late Neolithic period are mostly farmers, although there are craftsmen (like potters) and traders. Tools are primarily flint. They keep dogs, sheep, pigs, goats, and cattle. The village is formed of concentric circles of houses with common areas in the middle. There is no big, fortified house for a chieftain. Instead, the larger buildings house communal gathering places and some of the bigger families. Inheritance and marriages are organized along the female bloodlines. Some members of those large families are the priestesses of the village, and small temple sights are scattered among the houses.

At the end of their lives, the townspeople are buried with grave goods signifying their role—tools of their trade, or ceremonial accouterments. Craftsmen are honored, both male and female alike. There are no separate houses or burial grounds for the rich. This suggests a level of economic equality.

Most significantly, there are no fortifications, weaponry, or evidence of war. There are no signs of territorial aggression.

This is the culture that builds huge megalithic stone and wood structures. There are graves, such as at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. There are also stone circles or henges at Avebury and Stonehenge in England. The henges are particularly interesting, since these structures are communal property, not designed for the elevation of a single individual or dynasty. Construction required significant dedication and labor. Avebury, by one estimate, required 1.5 million person hours. Talk about collaboration!

My point? We tend to think of great big monuments built by kings and pharaohs, but these megaliths were put in place by a peaceful society of Stone Age farmers and craftspeople. This went on for thousands of years, until warrior tribes conquered Europe and put their kings in place. After that, people began building fortifications instead.


Frostbound: The Dark Forgotten coming up

Sharon Ashwood
January 1, 2019  •  No Comments

Last year, my goal was to re-release my Dark Forgotten series (Ravenous, Scorched, Unchained, and Frostbound). I had three purposes in mind:

  • To get the books in the hands of new readers at a sensible price
  • To give myself the chance to revisit the world and build on it if I so choose
  • To get some indie books into the world so that I can build my sales

Check, check and check. I’m just about to release Frostbound, the fourth in the original series, which gets me up to date. I was slow on this one in order to get Gifted out the door in time Frostbound: the Dark Forgottenfor Christmas but, hey, I really wanted to do a holiday-themed novella. I hope you enjoyed it!

Doing an edit pass of these books was educational. I can see improvements from book to book and also how much I’ve learned about writing since. This is completely natural and healthy.  However, at times I’m troubled by errors that got past the previous professional editing team, but I have to let that go. It’s history. Probably much of what’s bugging me are only things I’d notice but, as a professional, I want to put out the best possible product. In any event, the books are better now than before, and that’s what counts.

Case in point—today I added a new final chapter to Frostbound. After a reread, I thought a more fulsome wrap-up would improve it. Poor Talia needed a bit more time to adjust to the new hellhound in her life—not to mention the rest of the pack—and we were all waiting for election results. Now there’s a few more questions answered. Not everything, of course, because Joe and Darak and the rest still have stories in the future.

Release date will be mid January, 2019. For more on this book, look here.