Andrea here, musing today about heroines . . .or more specifically, hellion heroines. Murder at Kensington Palace, my latest Wrexford & Sloane Regency mystery released this week, and as the creation of a book is quite a journey, from the first glimmer of an idea to the final pages being ready for a reader to begin turning, I always like to sit back and reflect a bit on the process.
It’s great fun constructing the plot and weaving in enough twists and turns to keep people guessing (though as a total “pantser”, I confess that I’m sometimes in danger of tripping over my own two feet!) However, for me the real heart of crafting a story is creating the characters—how to give them challenges and vulnerabilities, how to make them both flawed but appealing enough that readers will cheer for them to overcome all obstacles. And in a series, where the protagonists carry over from book to book, the characters have to grow—as we all do through our journey through life.
In reflecting, I’ve been thinking about my female protagonist, Charlotte Sloane, and how it is that I always seem to write strong, unconventional women. Even as a child, I chafed at the rules concerning what girls could and couldn’t do. As a 9 yr. old, I remember standing with my nose pressed up against a chainlink fence watching a Little League game and wanting desperately to be out on the field with all the boys. But no—girls weren’t allowed to play. No matter that I was the best baseball player in the neighborhood of either sex! I remember asking my father why girls weren’t allowed to play baseball. He turned scarlet, and mumbled something about it being because we might injure our breasts. To which I replied, with impeccable nine-year-old logic, “But Dad, I don’t have breasts!” (Thank Heavens girls today can play sports with the boys!)
So, clearly my motivation in writing hellion heroines is deep-seated. And today, as history is slowly being rewritten to include all the stories that didn’t fit into the narrow, traditional narrative of the past, we’re discovering so many rich and inspiring stories of extraordinary people who until now were relegated to the shadows—many of them women.
In creating Charlotte, I gave her a backstory—which very slowly comes to life in the series. Very early on in life, she made a momentous decision to give up everything in order to have the independence to shape her own life. She struggles with poverty and loneliness. She lives with fear that if her secret is discovered—the fact that she makes money drawing satirical cartoons of the high and mighty—that she’ll be left destitute. She’s strong and brave, but she’s also wary and hard-edged. She has a right to be cynical about the world.
Now, I fell in love with the Regency era through reading Jane Austen. And during my recent musings, I realized how much of the nuances of Pride and Prejudice deal with how little choice women had in life other than to marry. While we all roll our eyes at Mrs. Bennett, her fears and hysterics about marrying off her daughters were, at heart, terribly real. They have a home, but none of the girls can inherit it. Only boys get the goods! How terrifying that must have been for families. Women had no way to make their own way in life other than marry or work in servitude or very menial jobs. Austen’s comedy of manners deals with so many foibles of human nature. But the societal restrictions really resonate as well.
The restrictions governing women were, of course, true in so many eras. But as I write in the Regency, its rules and restrictions are of particular resonance to me. At times I wonder whether I’ve gone too far with Charlotte and her independence—it takes incredible courage to challenge convention. But the more I research Regency women, the more I discover stories of extraordinary individuals who DID dare to live life on their own terms, regardless of the consequences. Ada Lovelace, Lady Hester Stanhope, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Anning . . . the list goes on and on.
There are many Regency books I love that feature heroines who don’t feel compelled to be rebels. I’m just not going to be writing one of them! I guess it’s simply not in my DNA. Another snapshot from my childhood is one of the earliest photos my mother took of me—it’s Christmas morning. I’m four years old and have, like my older brother, received a cowboy outfit, complete with hat and six-shooters. The look of pure bliss on my face makes me laugh when I look at it now. Clearly I knew even then that boys were allowed to do far more interesting and adventurous things than girls. So, I decided to break the rules! (I’ve never really stopped.)
So what do you think about unconventional, offbeat women heroines, especially in historical novels? Do you find them jarring? Do you question whether they could get away with some of the things they are doing? How far is too far?