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Archive for the ‘Biographies’ Category

Scholar with textsWe authors—especially of historical fiction—cannot get along without our research books. (We also like to visit the places we write about, explore museum exhibits, and participate in archaeology and reenactments, but this post will talk about research of the armchair variety.) We prefer primary sources: journals, diaries, letters, histories, account lists, and literature written in the period, describing the people and events we want to write about; but that’s not always possible. For cultures that didn’t have a written language (the Iron Age Celts), or it was indecipherable (Egyptian hieroglyphs until the discovery of the Rosetta stone), or it was destroyed (Mayan books burned by conquering Spaniards); we have to rely on secondary sources. Books, essays, and articles by academics and other professionals in their fields are the best we can do for written research in such cases. But we have to be careful even with those. Just as in evaluating primary sources we have to keep in mind the biases and knowledge of the writer, we have to do the same with secondary sources. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of dreck out there—particularly on the internet—and historical fiction authors usually like to get as close to the truth as possible.

In researching Sword of the Gladiatix (soon to be available), I collected several books, articles, and pamphlets on Boudica and Roman Britain, most of an academic nature, a few of the more “popular” variety. The two biographies of Boudica I review below are the best by far of both types. You can read either or both and get a well-researched, readable history of the Iceni Queen, her times, and her legacy in popular culture. Which to read depends on your needs and nature. (more…)

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Princesses Behaving Badly book coverOnce upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess who wasn’t afraid to cheat, deceive, seduce or murder anyone who got in her way.

I like these kinds of books—collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. I have one on women at sea; several on women warriors; others on women explorers, mathematicians, and scientists. They generally follow a pattern of one to two page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration.

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Eighty Days coverI delight in spotlighting the lives and accomplishments of women in past times—particularly “ordinary” women doing extraordinary things. Eighty Days is a true adventure story about two young female journalists who traveled around the world—in opposite directions—alone, during the heart of the Victorian Age. From the back cover:

“On November 14, 1898, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left new York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Vern’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. A vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, this is history with the heart of a great adventure novel.”

Matthew Goodman does an excellent job bringing these two women to life, filling in the background of exotic locations and Victorian attitudes as they make their remarkable journey—not just around the world, but through life. In his prologue, Goodman sets up the reader with vivid descriptions of the two journalists leaving on November 14, 1898. He then backtracks to tell each of their stories and the ambitions that led to their history-making race. In a tactic used throughout the book, this leads to exploring the history of women in journalism up to that time—a remarkable tale—introducing the reader to a raft of intrepid women who covered politics, corruption and social justice issues; as well as tea parties and fashion shows in an era hostile towards women in any public role.

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Cover ImageI love a good story about women pushing the boundaries in times past, especially when they are based on real people. The Kings’ Mistresses is the true tale of two sisters: Marie Mancini and her younger sister Hortense, the nieces of one of the most powerful men in seventeenth century France, Cardinal Mazarin (a protégé of Richelieu.) Mazarin, rose from obscure roots in Rome to become Prime Minister to the Queen Regent of France, Anne of Austria and her son Louis XIV. Along the way he acquired great wealth as well as influence and enemies. He hoped to consolidate his influence by the well-known ploy of strategic marriage, so he summoned his Italian nieces and nephews to the French court. In 1653 Marie, “a dark-haired and intelligent-looking adolescent of thirteen” and Hortense, “a mere child of six, with curly black hair and striking in her delicate beauty” left their home in Rome to travel to Paris. It was the first of many journeys in their fascinating lives. (more…)

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Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverHypatia of Alexandria.
Who was she? A brilliant young mathematician and scientist, murdered by a religious mob? An aging academic taken out by a rival political party? A sorceress who kept the Prefect and people of Alexandria in thrall through satanic wiles? Did she discover that the earth circled the sun 1000 years before Copernicus or was she merely a gifted geometry teacher?

Hypatia has been the subject of much mythmaking through the centuries. She’s featured in poetry, plays, novels and movies. Many people “quote” her, including one of my favorites: “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies.” I’ve studied Hypatia and her times since 1980. No writing by her has survived. This oft-quoted statement and many others are fabrications—fables—created by modern authors. Ironically, many who champion truth perpetuate a mythical version of Hypatia’s life and words. This collection of essays pulls back the curtain and lets the reader see the real Hypatia, a remarkable woman in her own right. I’m sure, like me, you’ll find Hypatia needs no embellishment to be a heroine. (more…)

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Cover for The Discovery of Jeanne BaretI’ve been in rewrite mode lately and ignoring my blog. But just in time for Women’s History Month, Glynis Ridley has kindly stepped in with a guest post talking about her non-fiction adventure story The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnaviagate the Globe.  I first ran across Jeanne Baret’s remarkable story in another book She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea by Joan Druett; and, yes, women have commanded navies, captained ships and served as crew long before modern times. I was delighted to have the opportunity to read Ms. Ridley’s riveting account of one these remarkable and neglected woman. Thanks to her publisher Broadway Paperbacks for providing two copies for a giveaway. (See the end of the article for details.)

Guest Post

Hello Faith. Thank you so much for inviting me to be your guest today. You asked me if I could talk about the writer’s process and my book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. While the book was first published in US hardback in 2010, and in paperback in 2011, I actually started thinking about it back in 2001. My husband and I had both been lucky enough to be invited to speak at a conference at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, on the subject of ideas of the exotic in the 18th century. My husband was giving a paper on two different French explorers of the Pacific: Bougainville and Laperouse, and as we were on the second leg of our journey, flying from Singapore to Sydney, he asked me if I knew that there had been a woman on Bougainville’s first French circumnavigation of the globe in 1766-69. (more…)

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Catherine the Great coverFrom the book jacket:

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Peter the GreatNicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.


Massie delivers a wonderfully researched and readable book. My knowledge of Catherine the Great was vague to the point of mythical. I had hazy memories of multiple lovers, a (possible) scandal about her and a horse, and a movie starring Greta Garbo. The lovers were real, but few; there was no mention of the horse; and the Garbo movie turned out to be about Queen Christina of Sweden who lived a century earlier. So much for memory.

To say Catherine is a fascinating character is to do her a disservice. Massie shows her towering intellect, force of personality, and steely resolve from an early age. He also shows her craving for love and approval; denied in childhood and in her marriage. But her story is not a simplistic psycho-drama, it’s populated with complicated characters, shifting political agendas (both domestic and foreign), and colored with the burgeoning philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment. (more…)

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