When I saw the writing prompt about this week’s writing challenge by Chuck Wendig, I didn’t even have to think about what to say…
1977: It’s a rainy day in second grade and recess is inside. The fluorescent lights shine with a certain yellow glow under the dark grey skies, and I watch the rain stream down the windows as I think of how to string the words of a story together. I’d stapled some lined and plain paper into a neat stack. Illustrations filled the plain paper, and my shaky writing stayed as close to the blue lines as possible.
A shadow loomed over my desk. “What are you doing?”
“Writing a story,” I said. I still remember the feeling of the thick yellow lacquer on the pencil. It was starting to crack.
The teacher scowled at me. “What a waste of paper!”
I was then instructed to put my head down on my desk and take a nap. My “book” was thrown in the trash.
So much for supporting creativity in schools. My mother was horrified.
I’ve always been obsessed with writing. I’m filled with anxiety if I don’t have a means of putting pen to paper. There is a notebook and an abundance of pens in every bag I carry. (I’m old fashioned. My preferred implement is also a fountain pen. I’m more thoughtful about my words when I do it by hand.) Back then, characters were like invisible friends. I worked out the plots by talking to people no one saw. I suppose it’s still like that to some degree.
Up though high school, my stories were derivative of my favorite fantasy series: Tolkien’s work, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and the Dragonlance series. In 1994, my brother told me I should see The Crow. I told him I hated stupid love stories. It was the last conversation I had with him. A few days later, he was killed while walking to work by a man who had no business driving. His closest friend brought a copy of The Crow on VHS with him when he stayed with me in the days before the funeral. I wasn’t able to tell Matthew how much I loved the movie, but while it played, I felt a desperate need to keep him alive. Writing him into a novel was the only way I knew how to do that.
Four hundred pages later, I was too wrapped up in the grief and had to put the manuscript aside. I began graduate work at Harvard Extension and found other sources of inspiration. And though I didn’t set out with this as my mission in life, a common theme was evident in all that I wrote: finding real women marginalized in history and giving them a voice to tell their tale.
It began with the consort of Vlad the Impaler. Legend had it she committed suicide during a Turkish siege. In movies, she’s referred to as his wife, but the more research I did, including reading Vlad’s letters, it was evident she was a concubine. I traveled to Romania to do research and stayed in the shadows of the Carpathians. This novel became the focus of my graduate thesis, and I self-published it two years later, in 2010.
People were intrigued by the list of women I kept for inspiration. Friends dropped off biographies of women they thought I should write about. Some made it to the list. Since then, I’ve written about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley, who negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I for her family’s freedom. A short piece was published about a woman who dressed as a man to travel with her betrothed, who was fighting for the Spanish armada and she couldn’t bear to be away from him. Her ghost allegedly haunts a barn in England. A trip to an Arizona museum resulted in finding an affidavit about a woman who shot her lover and served as the only female prisoner at the time in an all-male prison. May Woodman ran a cigar stand in Tombstone, and knew all the famous names we associate with that town. Her lover was killed on the same corner as where Virgil Earp was ambushed after the gunfight at OK Corral. May was scrappy and couldn’t stay out of trouble. She was pardoned and subsequently exiled from Arizona after officials discovered she was running a contraband cigar business out of her jail cell.
I delve into all eras and cultures: ancient Mesopotamia, medieval Baghdad, coastal Maine during the War of 1812, and beyond. I’ve branched into speculative fiction as well, bringing Sumer into the modern era as a space-age superpower in my fourth novel, due out next year. Visions of Enheduanna, named by some historians as the world’s first (known) author, link the story to the roots of civilization’s history.
I don’t write about Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. As much appreciation as I have for the most famous names in history, what draws me to the women I write about is that they’re all underdogs, outcasts, and rebels. I never thought I put much of myself into my novels. I’m thorough in my research and hope to portray the most authentic world possible, no matter which slice of history I’m focusing on. But as I look back over my life, I see that correlation. I’ve always been the rebel and outcast. Like I’m an alien stranded on this planet, listening to dark ambient and space music while I write, focusing on the voices of women who led extraordinary lives but are generally overlooked or misrepresented. I’m so into creating accurate settings that I began a blog series about how food is portrayed in historical fiction, recreating recipes in my kitchen to more closely connect with my characters.
I’m 45 and my fourth novel is due out next year. My list of works in progress continues to grow, and I worry about how many I’ll actually get to. I just hope I’m doing them justice, and that somewhere out there, people are enjoying the books about these extraordinary women I happened to find on my journey through this incredibly strange, frequently discouraging, and yet absolutely amazing world.