Guest Post by Stephenia H. McGee
I used to teach creative writing at a Christian academy and I will never forget the day when one of my students was brave enough to tell another teen that she “wasn’t normal.” I stopped class in favor of lending a little perspective. “What exactly,” I asked, “is normal? Normal is just another word for average. Never strive to be average.”
It’s a motto I often use in life, probably because I can lean a bit toward the weird side myself. But I believe the idea especially applies to the approach I take when writing heroines for my historical novels. Normal 1905 women didn’t jockey racehorses and they didn’t generally endeavor to train horses or run a racing farm like my leading lady in The Secrets of Emberwild. Normal women in 1912 would be thrilled with a marriage to a wealthy society husband. They wouldn’t be dreaming up a life of work and independence in a backwoods Georgia town like my heroine from The Swindler’s Daughter.
Normal is expected. Normal fits in and is popular. But let’s be honest. Normal can be so boring. And when it comes to books, normal women don’t make for such great heroines.
Modern readers can appreciate feisty females whose ideas are probably a bit more twenty-first century than her contemporaries. Place a progressive woman into a setting where she is at odds with her society and you have a situation ripe for obstacles and conflict. Everyone else is looking for a husband? Maybe she wants to be a single scientist. Everyone else might be climbing the social ladder while the not-so-normal lady is vying for a job as a journalist. Just by being a little different, your character now has an abundance of difficult social situations, awkward conversations, and relational strain to contend with. Then throw in those internal conflict questions like, “will I ever be understood, be accepted, or reach my goal?” and you have the framework for story tension and character growth.
The balance comes with making sure the character isn’t too progressive or outlandishly out of time. Don’t try to slap a millennial girl in a bustle and call her a historical heroine. There has to be a balance between making your character true to her time while still allowing her to push the envelope of social norms and customs. She still needs to exhibit a lot of the characteristics a reader would expect of an 1880’s gilded age socialite or a Victorian era woman. The tension comes with her longing to shed those confines. She must be clearly grounded in the era she lives in, yet at the same time show us a determination to be different.
In my novel The Swindler’s Daughter, Lillian Doyle spent her entire life believing she was a widow’s daughter and submitting to her mother’s plan for her to marry well and advance their station in life. This is an entirely normal goal for women of the early nineteen hundreds. But this is also an era where times are changing. Women’s suffrage is gaining ground. Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party becomes the first national major political party to support women’s suffrage in 1912, the year my story takes place. So when Lillian wants to break out of the traditional confines, she is unusual but not outlandishly so.
In The Secrets of Emberwild, Nora Fenton is everything a woman of her time isn’t supposed to be. She’s outspoken, opinionated, and determined to make her own way in the world. These traits are far more unusual for a country woman of 1905. Because of this, Nora has a lot of conflict in her life. As writers, we know that conflict is good. Conflict moves the story, creates obstacles, and builds a character arc.
When writing historical heroines, remember that a lot of modern readers are drawn to a heroine who is strong enough to struggle against the norms of her time. But historical readers also want to be immersed in history, so keep your leading lady’s “not normal” down to a few distinctive traits. Then set her loose to battle the odds, and you’ll have a story that keeps those pages turning.
Stephenia H. McGee is the award-winning author of many stories of faith, hope, and healing set in the Deep South, including The Secrets of Emberwild. When she’s not reading or sipping sweet tea on the front porch, she’s a writer, dreamer, husband spoiler, and busy mom of two rambunctious boys. Learn more at http://www.stepheniamcgee.com.