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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Susan Higginbotham

* What was it about your protagonist, Eleanor le Despenser, that compelled

you to tell her story?
Just a few years back, I re-read Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II and somehow became fascinated by the historical background to the story. After a while, I became particularly interested in the relationship between Edward II and his last favorite, Hugh le Despenser the younger—the relationship that destroyed Edward's kingship but that strangely has been overshadowed by his relationship with the much better known Piers Gaveston.

In my research on Despenser, I saw it mentioned that his wife, Eleanor, had married one of his captors. Naturally, I wondered what had led her to marry one of the men who had helped to destroy her husband. I began to dig around to find further facts about her, and the more I dug, the more interesting things I learned about her. Her life was ready-made for a novel—love, lust, lucre, loss, land, and litigation, with some startling turns of Fortune's wheel.

* How much of your protagonist’s life is fact and how much is fiction?
The framework of the story—Eleanor's service as a lady-in-waiting, the politics and infighting of Edward II's reign, her imprisonments, the fates of her children, her marriage litigation, and so forth—is all based on historical fact. It's also evident from the gifts she was given and the trust that was placed in her that she was a favorite of Edward II throughout his reign. What the records don't reveal was what she was like as a person and what her motivations were, or what she thought of people like her brother-in-law Piers Gaveston or her grandfather Edward I. So as far as Eleanor's personality, thoughts, and relationships with others were concerned, I pretty much had to fill in the blanks. There are a few business letters of hers that survive. They have a certain charm of expression to them, but otherwise aren't very revealing—unlike the letters of her husband Hugh, where his character is very apparent.

* Tell us something surprising about women in 14th century England.
What surprised me about Eleanor, and about so many other women of her time, was how resilient they were—it's a picture so at odds with that of the damsel in distress waiting for some knight to save her. So many of these women lost close family members, either through violence or, later in the century, to plague, and yet they kept on going through the routine of ordinary life: running their estates, giving to the Church, hosting their feasts, marrying off their children. We go on today about how empowered women are, but I think in many ways the women of centuries ago were much, much tougher emotionally.

* Often, historical fiction writers will choose to tell the story of an
extraordinary woman who defied the conventions of her time. In your chosen
time period, what was the *average* woman’s life like?
Busy. Even a wealthy woman with plenty of servants had to run her household , and when her husband was away, she would have to be able to help manage his affairs too. Although a noblewoman's children were taken care of by servants, she might have other people's children in her charge, as Eleanor did in the case of the king's younger son. Visitors and travelers had to be entertained daily.

I get amused and at the same time quite irritated by romance novels that have medieval high-born heroines hopping heedlessly from bed to bed as if they're in a fourteenth-century version of "Sex in the City." While sexual mores weren't as tight as they were, say, in Victorian times, a young woman of high birth in medieval England was expected to be a virgin on her wedding day, and there weren't very many opportunities for her to run around unsupervised. (Widows, on the other hand, could get up to more trouble, as Eleanor demonstrated.)

One thing that I think tends to get overlooked by novelists, perhaps because it doesn't make for a particularly juicy story, is the importance that patronage played in the lives of noblewomen. Eleanor was instrumental in making the choir of Tewkesbury Abbey, with its beautiful stained-glass windows, the glorious sight that it is today, and her sister Elizabeth was a patron on a much larger scale, whose many good works include the founding of Clare Hall at Cambridge University.

* In what way is Eleanor le Despenser distinctive of her time (14th century)
and country (England)?
That's hard to answer, because in many ways she was a very conventional woman of her times. Certainly in what seems to have been her unswerving, perhaps even blind loyalty to her husband, she was fulfilling the role that a woman was expected to fill—it was her misfortune that her husband wasn't worthier of her devotion. On the other hand, she certainly had a reckless streak, shown by her theft of the crown's jewels—which, unfortunately, is one of those episodes in which we know nothing about her motives.

Eleanor's mother, Joan of Acre, a daughter of Edward I, was notorious in the thirteenth century for her love match with Ralph de Monthermer, a squire whose birth is so obscure that we today don't even know who his parents were. It's interesting that both Eleanor and her sister Elizabeth seem to have made similar runaway matches, though we know a lot less of the circumstances behind them. In acting in defiance of the king, all three of them evinced an independent streak that would definitely not have been appreciated by the men around them.

* Who is one historical woman you would like to write a book on, but
probably won’t?
I'm interested in Constance, the second wife of John of Gaunt. In most novels where she appears, she's a minor character and a very unprepossessing one—dour, gloomily pious, obsessed with the Castilian throne, and not given much to bathing—as opposed to Gaunt's mistress, the glamorous, charismatic Katherine Swynford. Yet Constance seems to have tried to fit into English life as best as she could, and as a young foreigner coming to England to marry a man who already had an established mistress, she was in a very difficult position. I'd love to see a novel where she was the protagonist instead of being the foil to Katherine Swynford, but the idea of tackling her life story and all of the associated goings-on in Castile is too daunting for me.

Thank you Susan! And feel free to visit Susan Higginbotham online for more information about her novel The Traitor's Wife.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Q&A With Fiction Author Anna David

Your debut novel PARTY GIRL features a protagonist named Amelia Stone who writes for celebrity magazines and finds herself caught up in a past-paced life of sex and drugs in Los Angeles. Like Amelia Stone, you are a former celebrity journalist and have also dealt with substance abuse. Is this novel a roman à clef, and if so, how much is fact and how much is fiction?
I feel like I'm supposed to offer far enigmatic answers than I do on this topic, but the fact is that much of what happens in PARTY GIRL is based on my life. I was a wildly self-absorbed, alcoholic girl who toiled at celebrity weekly magazines. I kept getting in my own way and would always wonder why I couldn't seem to get anywhere in my career or life. And I always seemed to be that girl that crazy things happened to -- people would love to hear about my antics. But after years and years of increasing drug use all the time, the stories became less cute and there were far fewer people around to hear them. I think that's how I became fascinated by the idea of the way someone's life looks, and the assumptions people make about it being fabulous or glamorous, and what it's really like. I'm glad that I waited until I was at least five years sober before I tried writing about the experience because it took me at least that long to get some perspective on it.

*Although your novel is not considered historical fiction, PARTY GIRL explores a segment of Los Angles society that historians may someday look back on and wonder about. Could Amelia Stone be a poster-child for her generation, and if so, why?

When you look at what's going on with the Hollywood party girls -- the Lindsay, Paris and Britney contingent -- and the fascination our culture (particularly young girls) has with them, it does seem like the struggle to control substance abuse is one of the central issues of our time. In many ways, I think this is a good thing and a result of the great advances that have been made in terms of dealing with or arresting alcoholism. Before the 1930's, alcoholics or drug addicts would be institutionalized. And while programs have existed to deal with alcoholism for several decades, being a sober alcoholic was still something to be ashamed of. Now everything's out in the open and I do think that makes this an important time in the fight to arrest addiction. I think Amelia's obsession with celebrity and fame also speaks to this generation. I've read studies about how kids interviewed today would rather be famous than be president and you need only glance at the newsstand to see how the adventures of the bold-faced names are covered in more meticulous detail than ever before. Because Amelia does end up getting sober and realizing how self-absorbed and self-destructive she is, it would be wonderful if she could be the poster child for this generation; I'd love for us to be considered the group that deals with problems and doesn't just allow them to fester.

*As an investigative reporter, you wrote several pieces for Details Magazine about crystal meth use and high-class prostitution. Did any of this research feature in PARTY GIRL?
I'm so glad you asked that because while I didn't use any of that material for PARTY GIRL (I'd actually done all that "research" first hand), I fictionalized a lot of what I unearthed in the high-class prostitution story for a novel I recently completed called KEPT. I'd spent six months infiltrating the world of prostitution in Los Angeles, a slice of life I knew nothing about, and was always sad that the bulk of that information couldn't be included in my 1200-word Details story. I'd love to be able to incorporate more research into future fiction because honestly, I feel like I'm running out of life experience to cover.

*Are you currently working on a new novel, and if so, will it be set in Los Angeles?
Another excellent question because after finishing KEPT, I realized that I'm incredibly burned out on Los Angeles, and particularly Hollywood, as a backdrop. I have an idea for another book -- really just a seed of an idea right now -- and I'm toying with the idea of placing it in Idyllwild, this beautiful little mountain town I recently visited. I'm still not sure if I've just come up with this idea as an excuse to spend time there, though.

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Thank you Anna! And feel free to visit Anna David online for more information about her debut novel Party Girl.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Mary Sharratt
Vanishing Point

*Tell us something surprising about women in 17th century England, where
your novel THE VANISHING POINT begins.
Our view of women’s history tends to be sadly distorted. Too often we rely on lazy stereotypes that women in the past were always completely helpless and disempowered, or we base our view of women in previous centuries on the Victorian model.

Women in the 17th century, in fact, were freer in many ways than their Victorian counterparts. Far from being dismissed as idle “angels of the home,” 17th century women played a crucial role in their family’s economy. Upper class women managed estates and supervised servants, while tradesmen’s wives often acted as business partners, even taking on the role of “deputy husband,” independently managing business affairs if their husbands were traveling or otherwise indisposed. Women were brewers, tavern-keepers, even itinerant preachers, not just wives, mothers, and homemakers.

Also, unlike the Victorians, people in Restoration era England were quite frank about sexuality—they would have held little regard for a frigid, sexless Victorian lady. On the contrary, men of science believed that female orgasm was essential for the conception of children.

*Your novel also takes places in
America. How were women's lives different
America than in England at that time?
The Thirteen Colonies were quite heterogeneous. Thus, women’s lives in Maryland and Virginia during this era were very different from those of their sisters in both Old and New England. The slave trade brought both malaria and yellow fever to the Chesapeake region, and the resulting mortality rate was so high that, until the end of the 17th century, immigration contributed more to the white population than live births. There was also a skewed gender balance—three white men for every white woman—and most of these women were indentured servants. Female mortality in childbirth was very high, families were fractured, and orphans were commonplace. Female servants were subject to sexual predation by their masters, who could use the servant’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy as an excuse to prolong her indenture. A harsh double-standard was in place. Whereas New England Puritan society at least attempted to enforce the same moral code on men and women, men of wealth in the Chesapeake region could do largely as they pleased, while adulteresses and unmarried women who bore bastards were punished by whippings and public humiliations. The scene in my novel where an adulteress is dragged behind a boat until she is nearly drowned is based on a documented event.

All the above problems were exacerbated by the fact that most people lived on far flung plantations; the social support networks that might have helped women back in England did not exist here.

*Often, historical fiction writers will choose to tell the story of an
extraordinary woman who defied the conventions of her time, like Hannah
Powers. In 17th century
England, what was the *average* woman’s life like?
Married women spent most of their fertile years bearing and raising children, while, at the same time, contributing to their family economy by working on the farm or in the family business. The work-life balance is nothing new. Upper class women supervised, trained, and often disciplined their servants. The average woman took care of the medicine for her household as far as minor ailments were concerned. Most kitchen gardens contained medicinal herbs. The average woman was expected to help care for the sick and aged in her community and to attend childbirths even if she had borne no children herself. The average woman could expect to spend her few “leisure” hours spinning wool and flax to keep her family clothed. Thanks to the Protestant emphasis on Bible reading, most women of the middling and upper classes were literate and would teach their daughters to read and write, as well. Pamphlets were circulated, spreading new ideas. The 17th century was a period of profound social change and the average woman would have played some part in that rapidly changing society.

*In what ways are May and Hannah Powers not distinctive of their time (17th
century) and country (
With May’s character I wanted to explore what would happen to a late 17th century woman who was determined to carve out her own destiny and who demanded the same liberties, both social and sexual, as a man. Her uncompromising will to live out her desires makes her a rebel, not only for her sexual passions but also for her lust for life. She is a woman who refuses to be ruled by anyone. She is definitely transgressive in the choices she makes.

Hannah, her younger sister, is very different. Her physician father has given her a secret and forbidden education in medicine and surgery, something she is not legally allowed to practice. Only by crossing the ocean to the frontier of an unknown world, can she hope to make use of her talents and live out her dreams.

I think it’s important to point out that, although Hannah and May are fictional characters, they are not anachronistic. The late 17th century certainly had its share of unconventional and adventurous women. A shining example is Nell Gywn, an illiterate orange girl who rose to become Charles II’s celebrated mistress. Every inch the commander of her own destiny, she was one of the first women to act on the stage in England. Aphra Behn is another huge idol of mine. She earned an independent living by writing plays and novels, and reputedly traveled to Surinam and later to Antwerp, where she worked as a spy for Charles II. Although she was briefly married, her husband remains an obscure footnote in her very colorful life.

*Are you working on another historical fiction novel, and if so, who will
be your protagonist?

The Art of Memory, my recently completed fourth novel, is a ghost story set in and around Manchester, England during the Industrial Revolution and the present day. The theme is that the past never dies—the souls lost in the tumult of historical progress continue to haunt and exert their influence on contemporary lives.

The heroine of the historical part of the novel is Annie, a girl whose father, an impoverished handloom weaver, dies in prison after taking part in the East Lancashire machine breaking riots of 1826. Though still a child, Annie has promised her father that she will do everything in her power to keep the surviving members of her family together. Working fourteen hours a day in a cotton mill, Annie must go to terrible lengths to fulfill her vow to her dead father.
Thank you Mary! And feel free to visit Mary Sharratt online for more information about her novel The Vanishing Point.