Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Changing It Up - Creating Fresh Historical Fiction

by Suzie Johnson
Keeping fiction fresh is a challenge for every writer. No writer wants to construct a plot that’s been done repeatedly with characters who could be snatched off the pages of any other book. Since there are only so many goals, conflicts and motivations to go around, the challenge increases.

One way to change things up and intrigue the reader is to give the heroine an unusual interest or occupation. This especially works in historical fiction because what might constitute an ordinary occupation today might have been unusual or even considered unseemly a hundred or more years ago. The interest or chosen profession of a historical heroine can provide conflict and scandal that it most likely wouldn’t provide for contemporary characters.

Scientists, midwives, doctors, writers, sheriffs, political leaders, and suffragists, are just a few of the roles that provide challenges no matter the time period. But a female doctor in the 1800s, a woman running for congress before women could even vote? In an era where women were wives, mothers and teachers, these roles were not the norm, and a savvy writer is able to use these challenges to keep his or her readers turning the pages.

In The Girl in the Gatehouse, by Julie Klassen, Mariah Aubrey secretly writes novels. This is definitely not unusual today, but for women of Regency England, it was quite scandalous. One need only look to Jane Austen or Beatrix Potter to see the stigma and disapproval that accompanied a woman’s desire to write. Also by Julie Klassen, Lady of Milkweed Manor featured what is undoubtedly the most unique women’s role I’ve ever read. In Regency England, Charlotte Lamb finds herself in the unusual position of a wet nurse in a foundling hospital. This subject matter is so unusual and worked so well, it was nominated for a Christy Award.

The heroine of Chasing Katie by Robin Lee Hatcher runs for congress before women could even vote. Ms. Hatcher has also tackled a similar subject with A Vote of Confidence where her heroine runs for mayor.

In Crescent City Courtship, Elizabeth White introduces readers to Abigail Neal, a heroine who wants to attend medical school in 1879. The challenges Abigail faces provide conflict a-plenty.

In her novel, Lady in the Mist, Laurie Alice Eakes gives readers the story of Tabitha Eckles, a heroine who is a midwife during the colonial era. This may not seem like such an unusual occupation for a woman, but as an unmarried woman who has never borne a child, Tabitha must earn the trust of her patients. And during the early days of young America, it is Tabitha’s very occupation that propels the intrigue in this page-turner.

Switchboard operator Georgie Gail leads the way in a new occupation that will help lead the way in revolutionizing communication, in Love on the Line by Deeanne Gist. This is not the first unusual occupation for Deeanne Gist’s heroines. Essie Spreckelmeyer runs a bicycling club in Deep in the Heart of Trouble and her passion for teaching others to ride keeps trouble stirring on each page.

Do you find yourself drawn into a book by the activities of the main characters? What kind of role would you like to see represented by women in historical fiction?

Suzie Johnson has won several awards for her inspirational novels (writing as Susan Diane Johnson), including the Maggie, Lone Star, Heart of the West, and Beacon awards, and has been a finalist in the Touched by Love, Finally A Bride, Linda Howard Award for Excellence, and Virginia's Fool For Love contests. She is a member of ACFW, RWA, and is a cancer registrar at her local hospital. The mother of a wonderful young man who makes her proud every day, she lives with her husband and naughty little cat on an island in the Pacific Northwest. And although the beaches are rocky instead of sandy, lined with Madronas and Evergreens instead of Palm trees, and the surf is much too cold for wading, it is still the perfect spot for writing romantic fiction.


  1. Ooh, ooh. I do love to see historical heroines that are pushing societal restrictions. BUT I want it to be done in a believable way, and showing due respect for the historical mindset and culture that produced this incredible heroine.

    I do love reading about pioneering women in the fields of law and medicine, or really any creative pursuit.

  2. Fun post. Loved many of these, especially Girl in the Gatehouse and Lady of Milkweed Manor. Another book I really enjoyed was A Lasting Impression featuring an artist. Oh, and A Healing Season featuring a theatre performer. I could hang out in those worlds nonstop.

    And finally, a fun minor character, Serena in Love Finds You in Annapolis is a young society lady with a penchant for running through town. Today we'd call her a jogger, I'm sure. No doubt she'd be running marathons.

  3. Ooooh! great subject, Suzie. And I enjoyed seeing so many books I've read, including Chasing Kate. It's been too long since I read a Robin Lee Hatcher book!

    As Lisa said, giving an unusual occupation must be dealt with carefully. I don't think I'd ever try to do the 'woman poses as boy soldier or groomsman' to save her life or gain some secret information. It's exciting to read but I am constantly questioning the reality of it.

    I loved The Lady of Milkweed Manor for many things, one of them being the premise you spoke of. That was such a delightful, fresh idea.

    I look forward to chatting about this today. Thanks!

  4. I agree, Lisa. Believable is a must. As are the other things you mentioned. You can't just slap a label on a heroine without showing us the how and the why.

    And, I think it's also important to show her in her element. The reason I loved Crescent City Courtship so much is because we saw the desire and the struggles, but it was also richly detailed with medical school history.

  5. Dina, who wrote A Lasting Impression and A Healing Season? I'm sure I'd love them. I love reading about creative heroines.

    Since you mentioned the jogger in LFY in Annapolis, it reminds me of a book I read but can't remember the details. The heroine exercised a lot and at first the hero thought she was kind of nuts.

  6. Deb, I remember reading a few books about women posing as boys. They were fun, but I don't think it's a subject I could do well.

    TL Higley had the heroine in Pompeii posing as a boy learning to be a gladiator. Not only was this unusual, but it was very detailed and very believable - right down to the pain and fear. I loved it.

  7. PS! Whoever fixed the commenting situation, Thank You!

  8. It's possible the thing I did yesterday fixed the comments but just didn't click in until today. Unless Lisa did something magical.

    A Lasting Impression - Tamera Alexander

    The Healing Season - Ruth Axtell Morren

    Eve in Havah by Tosca Lee loved to run, even into her old age. I found that charming and inspiring. I can't do much running because my joints haven't allowed me to since college, but I love the feel of running.

  9. Yes, what Lisa said! Push the boundaries, but make the heroine a woman of her times. Know and acknowledge that people from other times aren't us. They had different mindsets and different expectations and priorities. Not that they all thought in lockstep, but they would at least realize if an ambition or desire of theirs was unusual for that time.

    Great post!

  10. Thanks for the fix, Dina, and the author names. I'll look for those books for sure.

    I was never a good runner - the joint thing you mentioned - but I used to love combining walking and jogging. More walking, less jogging, but it was fun.

  11. Thanks, DeAnna. I totally agree. If she isn't a woman of her time, if she doesn't recognize her dreams aren't the norm, it would ring as false. Besides that, I think the book would lack its historical flavor - and then what would be the point?

  12. Great post, Suzie. I am challenged to look into unusual occupations now! Thanks for the post.


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