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Writing Women into HistFict: How-to Book Has Great Advice

Writing Historical Fiction: a Writers and Artists Companion by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott, (Bloomsbury) 2014 is an interesting book: part how-to manual, part history of the genre, part fascinating opinions by best-selling and best-known authors of the historical fiction genre, with a reasonable amount of space spent on the unique challenges of writing about women in the past. Here's what struck me about the book:


How Women Are Written and How to Correct That

The headless woman (shown from the neck down) "is a visual cliché on the covers of historical novels…" (pg. 50) but the trivialization and downright erasure of women in history goes much further.


"Women, especially women not from a ruling class, are the largest group to have been marginalized, or even deleted from the record, in historical terms. So the first challenges [in writing about women in history] will not only be a lack of records to research, but a consensual understanding that is thoughtlessly misogynistic. Royal blood has been no protection against the sexism of generations of historians and dramatists, who even today celebrate queens in European history as victims rather than rulers. Cleopatra and Boudicca are famous for their deaths rather than their lives; and Mary, Queen of Scots has been celebrated for her victimhood, while her incompetence was overlooked until Jenny Wormald published Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure in 1991. If a female ruler was unquestionably successful, historians and writers alike have argued that she was in some way deficient as a woman, claiming that Elizabeth I's approach to her rule was founded on romantic disappointment, or holding up Queen Victoria as a bad mother to her 13 children. "Page 52


"It is hard to find unbiased records, to find any records at all in many cases, and hard to combat enduring portraits of women as impotent victims. Many writers are concerned to reimagine the events of the past with women as active protagonists but encounter these forces as an undertow that is constantly dragging their imagination towards the stereotypes." Page 54 "For a writer, especially a writer who wants to respond to the challenges of being a woman, there is an uncomfortable sense that archetype is working against you and that the industry is more willing to back the archetype than innovation." Page 102


"A writer who wants to create a heroine in a work of historical fiction needs to consider that:

  • historical records may be meager and biased
  • the consensual image of a prominent female figure will almost certainly be at odds with the historical record, and also with contemporary expectations of the woman
  • powerful stereotypes will distort your imaginative process
  • you will need to balance historical accuracy and current understanding of a woman's role and behavior. " Page 57


The Difference Between History and HisFict: The Story of the Heart

At the same time, though, Hilary Mantel reminds us that you "mustn't express ideas [the characters] couldn't have had, and feelings they wouldn't have had. They did not draw metaphors from a scientific worldview but from a religious one. They weren't democrats. They weren't feminists. The past doesn't respect the sensitivities of the present. The reader should be braced by the shock of the old; or why write about the past at all?" Hillary Mantel, page 136


"Edmund White has written, "The job of the enlightened historical novelist is to show that the sun never sets twice on the same human sentiments. Each period has its own character, and no sentiment is natural, uninflected by the prevailing social forces. White says that if historical fiction is to be given the same weight we admire in the best novels of modern life, we must kick out the picturesque and trace out the consequences of moral choices – but only those that were genuine options at the time. We must forget modern ideas of fairness and of sexual erotic appeal, and happy marriages between sharing and loving partners of the same age and station; we must dig up the buried shapes of long-forgotten values and social arrangements. He says, "the new historical novel must not sanitize the past for contemporary tastes." We want to know what it was really like, and it is not difficult to reconstruct how it was." Page 28


Other Pearls of Wisdom

  • "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history "– Novalis (1772-1801)
  • On research: "First build your iceberg, then use the tip of it. Some icebergs are bigger than others." Page 224
  • "Margaret Atwood has said, "all novels are historical novels – the present never really exists in fiction." Page 18
  • "The fact is that we know far too much about the present.... The paradox is that the past, about which we know much less, is more manageable: there's less information to plow through, it's easier to research, easier to grasp. " Page 18
  • The very best historical fiction presents to us a truth of the past that is not the truth of the history books but a bigger and more important truth – the truth of the heart.
  • "To paraphrase Edmund White (who is talking about autobiography): History shows us formal long-shot panoramas of crowds – especially armies – historical fiction gives us the individual in all his [or her, sic] glowing detail." Page 18

"So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past." (F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby. Page 29) calling on Clio, the muse of history. Page 35

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Do You Have the Courage to Write?

I'm about to box up the remnants of the research and outlines for a book that got to 47,000 words and was the most fun I have ever had writing anything. Ever.


Unfortunately, a major pivot is required for this piece of work and, after rescuing about 20,000 words, I have to call it quits on the project. I've been moping around about it, in mourning. Adrift.


And then I am reminded of something I have been wanting to tell a young writer friend: nothing in writing is ever wasted.


Dear Friend:

First and foremost, congratulations and welcome to the world of writers. You may be thinking "she doesn't know if I'm a good writer" or "I don't know if I'm a good writer" but that's beside the point. You have found your way of relating to the world: through the written word, through your imagination. It's a wonderful gift to know this about yourself when so many around you don't and having a passion like writing can give your life a purpose and direction that can keep you going even when almost everything else seems pointless.


But when we spoke last, you were throwing away all copies of your writing and I want to encourage you to hang on to them. Here's why:

You say that you throw them away because you don't want your parents to find them, but you can put a special password on the folder filled with your writing materials so that's not really an obstacle. I think just as daunting is that, in a way, you don't want to look at them yourself.


And I get that! I totally get that!


The best part of writing is the daydream, the invention of the imaginary world. The second-best part of writing is trying to translate that imaginary world into words, in the first draft.


Then comes the most difficult time of all: the incredible courage that it takes to sit down and tackle the second draft.


And writing takes more courage than most other things (speaking someone else's lines in a play; performing music you haven't written) because there are few things more personal than writing.


Facing a second draft, you have to give yourself permission to be imperfect; the editor inside you has to be kind to the writer inside you; you have to put yourself through the inevitable disappointment when you realize that all the giddy excitement and pride that goes into the imaginative first draft hasn't succeeded in creating perfection.


Some say that writing is rewriting because in rewriting you tap into the structure and craft of writing. But rewriting is harrowing, most definitely!! It's an act of self-acceptance, of compassion toward oneself, to muster the courage for the second draft. Courage is not the absence of fear, as they say, but the strength to proceed in the face of fear. It takes courage every day, every page, to write, and the sooner you develop it, the better off you'll be because...


Writing will always require courage, no matter how many books you publish or awards you win.


Of course, there are practical reasons to hang onto your work: you can use it in your schoolwork. Let's say you write five pages of a story set in the undersea world. Next week in biology class you take what you've written and create a little synopsis for a cover sheet that says, "Life Under the Waves is an excerpt showing the importance of tackling climate change blah blah blah." It doesn't matter whether the piece is finished or not, it's an excerpt. By tying it back to classroom schoolwork you can get extra credit which might bolster your grades on the rest of your class work. Now that you know writing is your favorite tool, think of ways it can help you with other things that you're not as fond of.


But I think the most important reason to hang on to everything is because nothing is ever wasted in writing. A phrase, an idea, the way the light looks through a certain window, all of these ideas and explanations are things that can be used in another setting, another piece. I keep a document called Fragments on my hard drive where I am able to put snippets of descriptions or story ideas that I want to get down. I prefer this to putting them in my personal journal because I don't want to slog through a bunch of whining about the state of the world when I'm looking for a story idea. And when I'm working on a particular piece, I have another document called Outtakes which is where I put all of the things that I've stripped out of the first draft so that it's handy if I want to reinsert some things. It also comforts me to know that while I have taken it out, I have not lost it altogether.


So please, have compassion for yourself, muster your courage, and welcome to the harrowing world of fiction.


Now, bolstered by my advice to my young friend, but with a heavy heart, I will box up the project, take a deep breath, and begin something new.

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Pamela Colman Smith: Tarot Illustrator and Bohemian

The illustrations for the classic Rider-Waite Tarot Deck were painted by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) who also designed and painted theater sets for the likes of William Butler Yeats; she was a writer/publisher of "ballads, pictures, folktales and verses" via her own broadsheet, and designated an "elderly female companion who shared her flat" as her heir.


Here's what the deck itself (released in 1910) has to say:


"She was born February 16, 1878, in Middlesex, England to American parents. Her childhood years were spent between London, New York, and Kingston, Jamaica.


During her teens, she traveled throughout England with the theater company of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. Thereafter, she began formal art training at the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, graduating in 1897. Although American by birth, she returned to England, where she became a theatrical designer for miniature theater, and an illustrator, mainly of books, pamphlets and posters.


Around 1903, she joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1909, under the guidance of Arthur Edward Waite she undertook, for token payment, a series of 78 allegorical paintings described by Waite as a rectified tarot pack. The designs, published in the same year by William Rider and Son, exemplified mysticism, ritual, imagination, fantasy, and deep emotions of the artist.


Despite occasional art shows and favorable reviews by critics, the continued slow sales of her works and rejections by commercial publishers left her deeply disappointed.


She never married. She had no known heirs except for an elderly female companion who shared her flat. She died on September 18, 1951, penniless and obscure. There was no funeral procession to honor her life. There was no memorial service to touch upon the impact her work would one day have upon her admirers. She died disappointed that her paintings and writings failed to achieve success, yet she never stopped believing in herself.

Pamela Colman Smith would all but be forgotten except for the 78 tarot paintings known as the Rider-Waite Tarot pack. She would no doubt be astonished and gladdened to know that today the deck touches the hearts and emotions of millions of people." [From the explanatory card in the deck]


"Ms. Smith was brought up in Jamaica and during her early teens traveled with the stage acting partnership of Terry and Henry Irving. [Note that they have shortened Ellen Terry's name to make it look like she is a male brother of Henry Irving.] By the age of 21 Ms. Smith was established in England as a theatrical designer and illustrator. Her interest in the theater led to her collaboration with William Butler Yeats on stage designs. Subsequently, she worked with his brother Jack Yates on the illustration and publication of a small magazine entitled The Broad Sheet before bringing out her own The Green Sheaf, which was filled with ballads, pictures, folktales, and verses." [Introduction to the instruction booklet, written by Stuart R Kaplan, Stamford, CT 06902, revised February 2004]


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Segmented Sleep: Great for the Creative Mind

We take pills, potions and vitamins, get special pillows and now have beds that will tell us whether we have achieved that sought-after thing called a good night's sleep – eight uninterrupted hours. It's a multi-billion dollar industry but evidence is mounting that prior to the industrial revolution, we slept in two shifts with a period of activity between them. We can thank our pituitary gland that makes it a hypnotic time, a creative time.


In the pre-industrial past, it went like this: the "first" sleep started after dinner and sunset, which was close to 8 p.m. One slept about four hours, woke up at midnight and then spent two or three hours stoking the fire, playing music, making love, checking on food, telling stories, even visiting friends. Then, back to bed for the "second sleep" until dawn. In modern parlance, it's called segmented sleep.


A Hypnotic, Creative Time of Night


"Back when segmented sleep was common, this period between "first" and "second" sleep inspired reverence. The French called it dorveille [pronounced 'door-vay'] or wakesleep, a hypnotic state. English speakers called it 'the watch,'" says Jesse Barron, in "Letter of Recommendation: Segmented Sleep."


Wakesleep for creativity! For all those hoping for a little solitude and silence for creative pursuits, the middle of the night,  Read More 

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Himiko, Tomb Raider's Real Queen

Tomb Raider

I recently re-watched the new Tomb Raider (2018, starring Alicia Vikander), and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when I discovered the next morning that the Japanese queen whose tomb was the focus of the film had been a real person: Himiko, a Japanese queen reportedly responsible for ending 50 years of war.


According to Prof. Craig G Benjamin, lecturer in "Foundations of Eastern Civilization" with the Great Courses Plus, "the extraordinary and enigmatic" Himiko ruled the Japanese state of Yamatai in 235 CE (also known as AD).

According to classic Chinese texts[i]: "The country formerly had a man as ruler. For some seventy or eighty years after that there were disturbances and warfare. Thereupon the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler[ii]. Her name was Himiko [卑彌呼]…Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance." (tr. Tsunoda 1951:13)


"After ascending to the throne, she went on to restore order and maintain peace for the next 50 or 60 years."[iii]


Queen Himiko had 1000 handmaidens and was apparently served dinner and had her wardrobe managed by one man. Others say "the only person that ever saw her in person was her brother…. In 238, the Wei sources tell us that Himiko sent a tribute to the Wei court in northern China seeking a tributary relationship. This request was accepted and Himiko was named as "Ruler of the Wa, friendly to the Wei." This was a powerful validation of her claims to leadership in the Yamatai."


"Yamatai kingdom prospered under Queen Himiko's rule and was observed in the Gishi no Wajinden records to have had more than seventy thousand households, well-organized laws and taxation system and thriving trade."[iv]


 Read More 

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New Book Reveals The Surprisingly Sophisticated Druids

The Discovery of Middle Earth, by Graham Robb

I had always thought that Druids were ancient magicians: Merlin and his group of men skulking in the shadowy forest. But Graham Robb, in his book The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, has described a surprisingly sophisticated culture.


Here's the historical snapshot: "Fifty generations ago the cultural empire of the Celts stretched from the Black Sea to Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. In six hundred years, the Celts had produced some of the finest artistic and scientific masterpieces of the ancient world. In 58 BC, Julius Caesar marched over the Alps, bringing slavery and genocide to western Europe. Within eight years the Celts of what is now France were utterly annihilated, and in another hundred years the Romans had overrun Britain. It is astonishing how little remains of this great civilization."

Robb ― called "one of the more unusual and appealing historians currently striding the planet" by the New York Times -- planned a bicycling trip along the Heraklean Way, the ancient route from Portugal to the Alps, and discovered a beautiful and precise pattern of towns and holy places based on astronomical and geometrical measurements: the three-dimensional "Middle Earth" of the Celts. (Honestly, a lot of historians write compellations of other people's work or might have a unique idea based on other people's discoveries but here's a guy on a bicycle with his maps, uncovering something genuinely new. Kudos.)


Let's look at four common misconceptions about the Druids:


First, they were crude forest dwellers. While we tend to believe that the Romans brought the first roads and architecture to Europe, the Celts had sturdy and well-designed roads before they arrived. "Caesar found roads and bridges already in place wherever he went… In Gaul, the marching speed of the legion was always well above the average for the Roman empire… Which gives some idea of the resilience of the road surface.[i] The Romans could no longer take credit for the first roads."

  Read More 

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A Brief History of an Obsession: Fashion from Pre-Human to the Rental Box

We’ve apparently been at it for 60,000 years, this fashion thing, this daily obsession with clothing. I’ve always thought of it as a feminist issue: we get paid 80 cents on the dollar and then spend a foolish portion of that on clothing, accessories and make-up, unlike men. Not to mention the Pink Tax that reportedly costs women an extra $1,350 per year because of discriminatory pricing. And it’s always been ‘women’s work’ to create both the fabric and the clothing.

Early Clothing

Surprisingly enough, there’s evidence that we were making clothing before we became modern humans (!) “The oldest example is 60,000 years ago, a needle point (missing stem and eye) found in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. “Sewing needles have been dated to at least 50,000 years ago (Denisova Cave, Siberia) – and uniquely associated with a human species other than modern humans, i.e. H. Denisova/H. Altai. Other early examples of needles dating from 41,000-15,000 years ago are found in multiple locations, e.g. Slovenia, Russia, China, Spain and France. The earliest dyed flax fibers have been found in a prehistoric cave in the Georgia and date back to 36,000.” By 5,000 BC (nearly two millennia before writing) we had become fairly sophisticated at making fabric: “Archaeologists have discovered  Read More 

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Medieval Peasants Had More Vacation Time Than You


We think of the Middle Ages as a time of bone crushing drudgery but recently I’ve discovered new research that suggests that the medieval peasant didn’t work even as many hours as we do!

“Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate, and when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment. There were labor-free Sundays, and when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year.”  Read More 

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More to Battle the Sexist Assumptions of Paleontologists

Seated Goddess of Catalhoyuk

I am currently reading A People’s History of the World: from the Stone Age to the New Millennium by Chris Harmon, and it makes me bristle, again, over many traditional assumptions about human history, human nature, and the position of women:

    • Harmon’s analysis of the Paleolithic period recognizes that for tens of thousands of years humans lived in cooperative groups that were completely egalitarian, with no sign of accumulated wealth or social status. (It’s a fascinating concept that I’ll be digging into later.)


    • But Harmon, like many classic authors, suggest that the reason for the oppression of women is due to their relegation to the gathering side of the hunter-gatherer society and their focus on rearing children. We now know that in the Paleolithic era women had children only every 3 to 4 years [Harmon pg. 13] so how is this justification for wholesale exclusion? They just didn’t have children often enough to be taken up entirely with their care.


    • Look at the math: Paleolithic groups ranged from 20-40 number of people. 50% were women. Let’s say that 40% of those were of child-bearing age (since life expectancy was short), so how many children were there? Surely not so many that one woman couldn’t supervise them all.


    • And why is there an automatic assumption that mothers would only care for children they had borne? Where is the speculation  Read More 

Queen Margaret I of Denmark, The Lady King

Effigy of Queen Margaret 1 from 1423 on her tomb in Roskilde Cathedral

In studying for an upcoming trip, I have come across Queen Margaret I of Denmark, who was the “builder of the greatest personal position ever achieved in Scandinavia.” Ruling in the 1300s, she governed with “farsighted tact and caution.”

Her rise to power came through shrewd diplomacy. Her father, King Valedmar, had agreed that the Danish throne should pass to the son of Margaret’s elder sister Ingeborg, but on her father’s death in 1375 “Margaret scored her first great diplomatic success by inducing the Danish Council to elect her five-year-old son Olav instead.” As regent she displayed “a capacity for the management of men which caused a Hanse [German] representative to describe the turbulent nobility of Denmark as being seized with “respect for that lady’s wisdom and authority, so that they offered her their services.”

Five years later, when her son was 10 years old, he inherited Norway from his father King Haakon VI “whereupon Margaret’s second regency marked the beginning of a Dano-Norwegian Union which was to last for more than four centuries.”

When her son Olav died unexpectedly at 17, “Margaret reacted with astonishing promptitude and resource. Within a week she had been hailed at the Skane landsthing as Denmark’s ‘sovereign lady, master, and guardian,’ and in February 1388 a meeting of Norwegian lords accepted her as their ‘mighty lady and master’ in defiance of the law of succession. Fortified by these testimonies to her skill as a ruler of two kingdoms, she made a treaty in March with the Swedish nobles who…recognized her as Sweden’s “sovereign lady and rightful master.”

Later, she chose her grandnephew, Eric of Pomerania, as hereditary sovereign, with her serving as regent. “Although Eric came of age in 1401, Margaret continued for the remaining 11 years of her life to be sole ruler in all but name.”  Read More