Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writing Authentic Women's History--Getting Inside Your Character's Skin

On Monday, Mary Ann kicked off our series of posts in honor of Women's History Month. The logo you see at left is from the Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month site, which will feature posts from 31 different children's authors and bloggers discussing the topic of women's history in books for children and teens. Today's post there by Elizabeth Bird of School Library Journal's Fuse#8 blog highlights several great children's books about uncelebrated women of history.

Today also happens to be World Read Aloud Day. When you're finished reading this post, head on over to the official World Read Aloud website to learn more.

Now, back to the subject of Women's History: Like Mary Ann, I love reading well-written historical fiction featuring female protagonists. It's the next best thing to time travel! However, I despise books where female protagonists are not portrayed authentically. One of my specific "pet peeves" is the absence of church or prayer in novels set in times and places where daily life revolved around religious practices. Historical novelist Linda Proud expressed similar feelings on her blog:
"I’ve just read a book set in the 13th century where neither the feisty heroine . . . nor her lover nor her horrible husband nor any other character ever goes to church. Never a priest wanders into the story, never a bell rings, never a new cathedral appears on the skyline. Don’t get me wrong – it was exceptionally-well written and a gripping read. It was just that something was missing, . . . ."
As an author, though, I know it can be tricky to incorporate religious practices without boring our readers, especially when those readers are children or teens. My current work-in-progress is a young-adult novel set in 18th-century Milan and inspired by two real-life sisters. More is known about the elder sister, Maria, a child prodigy who could speak seven languages by her teen years and who became famous as a female mathematician. I originally considered making her the novel's main character. But Maria was a devoutly religious girl who spent her teen years trying to convince her father to let her become a nun. I decided it would be too challenging (for me, at least) to hook today's average teen reader with such a main character.
Milan's Duomo (cathedral) still under construction, circa 1745

So instead, I'm writing from the younger sister's point of view. Teresa was a child prodigy herself, known for her talents as a singer and harpsichordist, and later as a composer. She clashed with her father when he wouldn't allow her to marry a poor suitor--a dilemma more likely to appeal to today's teens.

Despite wanting modern readers to empathize with Teresa, however, I'm not going to simply transplant a contemporary character into a historical setting. So I need to research and understand what life was like for girls like Teresa and Maria, who were born into 18th-century Milan's upper class. I've learned that, although they were surrounded by luxury, their lives were extremely limited. And that, despite their many accomplishments, the sisters had only two socially-acceptable options when they "came of age": an arranged marriage or life in a convent. The choice wasn't even theirs, but their father's. I think it's important for girls of today to read stories that realistically portray those times. Otherwise, how can they truly appreciate the challenges women had to overcome to get to where we are now?     

So how do we get inside the skin of a historical character who lived and died long before we were born? I found an article by Juliet Waldron called "Day in the Life Method of Writing Historical Novels" that contains tips and exercises to help do just that. I've adapted an exercise from Waldron's article into the following Writing Workout to make it appropriate whether you're writing about historical or contemporary characters. I hope you'll give the Workout a try, then come back and let me know what you learned.

Meanwhile, if you're writing historical fiction, here are two additional articles you may find helpful:

Writing Workout: Getting Inside Your Character's Skin

  1. Imagine your character waking up in the morning. What awakens her? An alarm clock, sunlight, household sounds?
  2. What is she sleeping on? A bed, a couch, the floor? What is the bed made of? How big is it? What are the covers like? Is she sleeping alone or sharing the bed?
  3. When she opens her eyes, what is the first thing she sees? Is the room furnished? With what?
  4. What is the first thing she smells? Are they welcome cooking smells or less pleasant aromas?
  5. What is she wearing, if anything? How does the fabric feel against her skin?
  6. When she gets up, what is the first thing she does?
You may never use the answers to these questions in your story, but pondering them should help you better imagine your character's life, and that will come across in your writing. For additional questions to consider, see Juliet Waldron's article, "Day in the Life Method of Writing Historical Novels."  

Happy Writing!


Lisa L. Owens said...

Great post, Carmela! Funny, I am working on a YA historical, and I switched my protagonist to the younger sister who was not the one that originally caught my attention. Once I made the shift, writing the story became so much easier!

Carmela Martino said...

What an interesting coincidence about your main character shift, Lisa. Good luck!