Wonder Woman, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy Fulfillment

A few days ago, I finally saw Wonder Woman, and it was as delightful as the internet had promised me it would be. I want more movies like this. I want sequels. I want prequels that just focus on the Amazons kicking ass thousands of years ago. I want spin-offs. And I want more heroines, all over the place. More movies focusing on women as central characters, unapologetically, from all kinds of stories and backgrounds and cultures and facets of the multiverse. I want princesses and generals and princesses who grow up to be generals.

I love that the major sentiment women have expressed after seeing this film has been: “Is this how guys feel all the time?” What a powerful thing it is, to come out of a movie feeling like you can take on the world.

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This dovetails with another thought I’ve been having lately: how much articles like “Not in this day and age: when will TV stop horrendously airbrushing history?” and “Women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history” annoy the living daylights out of me.

The basic premise of these articles (both of which appeared this summer) is that women couldn’t express feminist ideals before feminism existed — that writers should stop ascribing “modern” viewpoints to pre-modern female characters. Apparently not wanting to marry a guy who makes you miserable is a “laughably liberal” 21st-century ideal.

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Let’s set aside that such complaints register a pretty narrow and (yes, I’ll say it, despite the esteemed source quote of one of those articles) uninformed view of women in history. I could point to example after example of women throughout time and across continents who demanded some degree of agency and control over their own destinies — and, in fact, I’m doing so over on Patreon!

And let’s also set aside that these complaints about ahistoricity are always centered on women‘s supposed societal transgressions: whether it’s sexual agency, domestic and economic power, disobeying their husbands, whatever, the thinkpieces always want to complain about women not behaving as they expect. Funny, isn’t it?, how the complaints about historical realism are never about suspiciously literate stable boys, the unlikelihood of landless rogues being able to afford the upkeep of warhorses, or the preponderance of male tavernkeepers in an age when brewing was a primarily female occupation.

But even if we grant the articles’ premise that modern historical fiction creates anachronisms in the independence/sexual agency/snarkiness of its female characters — Why in the name of Juno shouldn’t it?

Women are finally beginning to get their own degree of fantasy fulfillment in sci-fi and fantasy. Yet in historical fiction — a genre that has long placed female characters front and center, showcasing their emotional journeys — writers are disparaged for doing the same. Though, I suppose, it’s also worth noting that historical fiction is a genre where male authors have long been taken “seriously” and female authors have been dismissed with the same derision as romance novelists.

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I resent the implication that my modern fiction — the books I read and the shows I watch for pleasure, for personal enjoyment — shouldn’t reflect the sorts of heroines that modern women want to see and enjoy. I resent the implication that any girl discovering history through a fictional lens (as most of us do) should be denied the sorts of role models she deserves.

I’m a historian. A persnickety one, sometimes. I twitch when New World fruits and vegetables get mentioned in Old World stories. I flinch when I see patterned fabrics in pre-industrial-manufacturing societies (looking at you, Hobbits). I’ve spent hours combing my own manuscripts for words that wouldn’t be conceptually available to my characters, even though they’re speaking another language (it is shockingly difficult to discuss energy-based magic without the language of the atomic age — another upcoming Patreon post).

But let me state quite flatly: if my historical fiction features an unusually high proportion of smart, sassy women, I have no objection whatsoever. I’ve no doubt that some will take umbrage at the Vitelliae and their patriarchy-challenging transgressions — and I simply could not care less.

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Give me fantasy fulfillment in every genre — just as men get and have always gotten.

Reading Recommendations (while you’re waiting for FROM UNSEEN FIRE)

Hallo! Cold, grey, dreary wintry days always have me wanting nothing more than to curl up with a good book, so I thought I would share some of my favorites with y’all. Not just favorites, but favorites that, in some way or another, I think will be enjoyable to the folk who will like From Unseen Fire. Or, if you like these books, I think it quite likely you’ll enjoy From Unseen Fire!

Some are on the list because they’re Roman historicals: Colleen McCullough’s wonderful Masters of Rome series, and the exquisite explorations of famous or forgotten women by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran. Others are classical-flavored fantasies, like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. Some are fantasies with elemental magic or other magical systems I find delightful, such as Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series or the works of Cat Valente. A few are nonfiction resources: Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday and Philip Matyszak’s wonderful Roman resources. A great many are simply wonderful epic fantasies, often with historical aspects: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel trilogies, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, the tri-authored Heirs of Alexandria series, the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.

So while you’re counting down the days til September 5th (230, incidentally), give some of these a try, or revisit some old favorites!

Aven Cycle Suggested Reading

And while you’re on Goodreads checking those out, add From Unseen Fire to your “to-read” list!

Reflections on Revisions

So remember those revisions that I started way back in June? Last week, I finally finished them. This draft took longer than some earlier revisions had, because it involved a lot more restructuring — that “Come to Proserpina” moment did its job and forced me to really rethink a lot of the shape of the book. I had to spend a couple of months moodling — looking at my outlines, shifting scenes around, deciding that wasn’t going to work, making false starts, hitting snarls, trying again. I think the right word for the process is “detangling”. I had a lot to smooth out, particularly after I’d made the initial cuts.

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Yeah, it went pretty much like this.

Only in the past month or so did I really start producing new material at a good generative rate. I’m estimating that I scrapped something like 70,000 words, maybe more, from the last version of the manuscript — and then added about 63,000 new ones back in. And that’s not counting the minor changes I had to make to nearly every scene to reflect the adjusted timeline and other little ripples. In a lot of ways, this revision felt like writing most of an entirely new book — and yet that wasn’t what I was doing. The characters and the world are the same; I just had to find a different angle on them.

Someone over the weekend asked me if I like this version of the book better than the last draft. It’s a weird answer to find. I’m in love with this book as it stands now. I was in love with the earlier version, too. I was in love with last year’s draft, or I wouldn’t have inflicted it upon agents. They’re just all differently shaped beasts. As the book now stands, it’s shaped much more like a fantasy novel than it used to be — and that’s good, since we have to sell it in that genre. It has more rapidly shifting highs and lows, more exciting incidents, particularly earlier in the novel, and more intense “high-stakes” moments. The magic is also a lot more front-and-center than it used to be, and that was fun to play with, because I love dabbling with thaumaturgical theory. The earlier drafts were written much more like historical novels — and I liked that about them. I like the idea of treating the magic in this book as just another component of the world, and otherwise going about as though this is straight historical fiction, with the somewhat slower pace and deeper introspection that that genre embraces. But that runs against the grain of the industry as it currently stands, and part of being a working writer is knowing how to maneuver within the system without sacrificing your story, vision, and creativity. For me, it meant not losing the important character moments (something that historical novels display so well) amid the more energetic plotline (critical to moving a fantasy novel along). I think I’ve hit that sweet spot now in a way I hadn’t before.

I did lose some material that I really adored. One major chunk took out close to 20,000 words in a single, devastating blow. It was a major event in the earlier draft, but with the changes I made to the timeline and the plot, it became entirely irrelevant. As I’ve said before, though, I almost never actually “kill my darlings”. I just defer them. I’m sure I can use at least some of that material in the second book. That’s definitely the case for another big scene that I cut, an emotional confrontation between two characters — it no longer fit with the flow of events here, but it’ll definitely make its way into the next book. Other things may not even stay in this story, but might get revived for a later project.

Revisions like this are a lot of work. Since the end of August, I think I’ve spent as many hours on this as I have at my day job. The “I can’t; I have rehearsal” mantra of my youth became “I can’t; I have revisions.” I spent two entire weekends glued to my chair (which made me viscerally aware that I need a writing chair that isn’t straight-backed and made of hard, uncushioned wood), not leaving the house, mainlining black tea and Diet Dr Pepper with nature documentaries running unobtrusively in the background. I’m super-pleased with the results of all of this focused grinding — but I am also, I confess, a little relieved that now I get to step back from the story while my agent and beta readers have at it.

On Writing Historical Fiction

Tips for Aspiring Historical Fiction Writers, by Stephanie Dray (author of Lily of the Nile and its sequels)