Once upon a time I was young.  No, honestly.  Then as now I was a history nerd—big time.  In fact (trivia alert), I was the first member of my graduating class to declare a major in history.  Anyway, one day the younger me was given a postcard by her Woman’s History professor.  A postcard showing the black and white image of Belva Lockwood.  This image as a matter of fact.

It took me a while to discover the importance of this gift, delivered, as I remember it, with no real explanation beyond the mild-mannered comment, “I thought you might like this.”  With age and distance I now realize my professor gave me the postcard to galvanize me to action; to make me angry—not at him but at the way history was taught and who got left out.  You see Belva Lockwood was the first woman to have her name on the ballot for President of the United States (yes, I know Victoria Woodhull “ran” but her name did not appear on official ballots and votes for her were never tallied).  She was also the first woman to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court (though mind you she had to write to President Grant just to get the law diploma she’d earned and it took an act of Congress to see her admitted before the High Court).  But I’d never heard of her.

That DID make me angry, and it also made me think.  Just what does a woman have to do to be noticed, historically speaking?  Give birth to a King?  Have her head chopped off?  How can that be when there were so many women throughout history who did so much more?  Even today, Belva remains only the tip of the “over-looked” iceberg.  And because we continue to under-represent women in history and underestimate their activities readers—both of non-fiction history and historical fiction—often think writers get it WRONG when they accurately report what historical female characters did.

I recently saw an example of this in a book review.  A reviewer took Author X to task because her female main-character pressed her right to rule her own territories.  “How dare the author suggest,” and I am paraphrasing here, “that a woman in the Middle Ages would assert such authority, or would even have the desire to rule in her own right!”  The reviewer went on to castigate Author X for imposing modern feminist ideas on long dead women.  But the truth is plenty of women held territory (and titles) in their own right during the time period of the author’s book.  The reviewer was just wrong—likely because he/she had never heard of such women.  I remember wondering what said reviewer would make of the fact that my main characters’ uncle, Thomas of Savoy, was Count of Flanders only by marriage and lost that title when his wife died and her title passed to her SISTER.  My guess is the particular reviewer would think that bit of history was made-up, feminist-revisionism as well.

It is time to recognize, as consumers of history and historical fiction, that women have filled many, varied, roles throughout the centuries—even if we haven’t always heard about them.  Some women did extra-ordinary things with those roles (e.g. just like male rulers, some female rulers were better at it than others), but the fact women held such roles wasn’t, in and of itself, necessarily as extraordinary as modern audiences seem to think.  In each period of history we need to look at the specific facts rather than relying on broad assumptions.  For example, to assume things were necessarily better for women later in history than they were earlier is to incorrectly posit a linear progression in women’s rights and opportunities.

I am happy to say that, imo, there’s a lot of really wonderful historical fiction celebrating women who have been historically overlooked these days.  There are also fabulous books that examine “big name” historical women in new ways—as more than “ornaments of royal courts” or “mothers of kings.”  Personally, I am very interested in telling the stories of women who are more obscure than they deserve to be.  Probably because of that darned postcard.  When I stumbled upon a footnote in a history of Notre Dame de Paris about Marguerite of Provence (her image is carved over Notre Dame’s Portal Rouge) and her sisters I had a Belva Lockwood moment.  Clearly these young women (all of whom made significant political marriages) were celebrities of the High Middle Ages.  Marguerite and Eleanor were the queens of France andEngland for heaven’s sake!  Yet I had never heard of them.  I made up my mind right then to tell their story.

I wish Professor T was alive today.  I’d send him a copy of my book and I’d put the Belva Lockwood postcard in it—as an excellent bookmark and a thank you of sorts.

November 27th1252:  Louis IX of France’s beloved mother, Blanche of Castile, dies.  On her deathbed she “takes the veil” wearing it over her crown. 

Blanche of Castile at her coronation

It will take months for the French King (who is on crusade and moving from place to place in the Holy Land) to hear of the Dowager Queen’s death.  Unlike Louis, Marguerite will not be saddened by the news.

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November 25th 1254:  An older (and wiser) Eleanor of Provence gives birth to her last child—a daughter Katherine—while acting as regent of England.  Henry is in Gascony.

Nov 242011

First a bit of holiday humor

Then—for those interested in some of “bumps turned to blessings” this writer is thankful for—a link to my post on that subject over at From the Write Angle.  Just want to add that I am tremendously thankful for those of you who visit this space, and particularly those who occasionally leave me a thought provoking comment.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

November 23rd 1535:  Young Eleanor of Provence takes a significant step on the road to becoming Queen of England when she exchanges verba de presenti with Henry of England’s representative, Robert de Mucegros, speaking on the King’s behalf.

Good news for fans (and you can number me among them) of  Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf HallAccording to today’s Guardian the BBC and HBO are developing a mini-series based on the fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell.

You know what drives me crazy (currently)?  How much of what passes for author interaction at social media sites these days resembles spam.

I made the connection while clearing out the spam comments at this blog.  They almost all start out the same, with a sentence that looks like the writer (probably a bot) might actually have read my blog post—“I enjoyed this post. This topic is really very interesting. . .”—then they turn into self-serving sales drivel.  While I was gleefully emptying the spam folder it occurred to me that I’ve been seeing lots of this same sort of “let me say a polite thing about you so I can talk about ME, ME, ME” stuff on twitter, in on-line writing groups, and on facebook lately.

Frankly, it’s cheesing me off.

It’s gotten particularly bad in writing and reading related facebook groups.  When I join a group devoted to say “Lovers of Mysteries with Dogs as Their Main Character” (okay I made that one up, but I don’t want to point fingers at actual groups or communities) I expect folks therein to share information on good books with doggy detectives, or links to websites to help me in researching or writing same.  Instead what I am getting these days are nearly naked advertisements—“My book ‘It’s a Dog Eat Dog World’ just got a super-duper review at ‘Dog books R us!’ Read it here. Or better still buy my book here, or here, or here.”  This is just annoying.  If I want advertisements there are plenty running along the top or side of every darn website I visit.  “Come on fellow writers,” I want to scream, “you’ve got a personal facebook page, probably an author FB page, and doubtless an author website to share good reviews and ‘buy it now’ links.”  The essence of communities and/or shared-interest groups (like FB “bookclub” pages) is dialogue—even in the virtual world.

A hybrid of “boast posters” are the folks who share EVERY blog post they’ve ever written or will ever write to a facebook group, or to twitter, irrespective of whether it’s on topic.  Sure, if someone has written a post that is germane to the topic of a group or comment thread (or touches on one of the subjects that they assume people follow them on twitter to hear about) then posting that link is a worthy public service.  But if a blogger is just slapping up everything he can think of to increase his name recognition then he should spare us and save himself the time (because pretty soon I for one am going to stop looking at his posts because I already KNOW what they will say – some version of “look at me.”)

As a writer I understand where this behavior has its roots.  There is a great deal of pressure on writers today to market our own work, and very specifically to have a presence in the virtual world.  If writers join any community of like-minded people as part of “building an internet presence,” however, I firmly believe they should try to interact in a genuine, non-agenda-driven, manner.  And just for the record the interaction is neither effective nor genuine when it amounts to commenting on topics started by others in true spam form (“I am fascinated by cocker spaniels but for a really great blog on poodles, more specifically MY poodles, click here”).  I think spam-types fail to recognize a basic truth – all on-line presence is NOT equal and, specifically, an annoying presence seldom sells a book.

If you are a spammer not a genuine community member you are wasting your time—at least as far as I am concerned.  Because the truth is, when I have my “reader hat” on, I buy two kinds of books: 1) those receiving notable reviews or buzz from reviewers I trust (whether that’s a “R”eviewer in the print or digital media or a guy I sit next to on the bus every morning and discuss books with); and 2) books written by friends (folks I’ve gotten to know through writers conferences, through on-line communities and through their blogs).  You are no friend of mine if you spam me.

Readers, what do you think?  When you join a “readers” or “lovers” group on line (as in “mystery lovers” that was NOT meant to be an X-rated comment) do you expect to encounter posts/comments that are nakedly self promotional?  When you do see them do they bother you or do you merely consider it a convenient way to discover new books in a particular genre?  Am I must imagining a sudden spike in such spam-like posts (after all I am a writer and I do have an overactive imagination), or have you noticed a similar phenomenon?

I am pleased to announce that my wonderful publisher (have I mentioned lately how much I love them?) is making twenty-five (yes! 25) copies of  The Sister Queens available for a giveaway over at Goodreads!  The contest started today (November 3rd) and runs to December 3rd.

So if you are one of the folks who (so kindly) have told me that you just cannot wait for my debut to hit shelves in March, now is your chance to score a copy before the novel’s release date.  Make that a free copy – which is even better right?

If any of the lucky winners are readers of this blog I will throw in a little something extra.  Use the contact form at my author website to send me the good news (plus your address) and I will mail you a signed bookplate to put inside your copy.

Best of luck!

I am happy to be back at the Pittsburgh Historical Fiction Examiner today as part of Kayla’s “10 Question” series. So, if you’ve ever had a pressing desire to know which five people from history I’d like to host at a dinner party, or what I drink when writing (no – not cocktails), now is your chance to find out.

Or, if you are interested in learning more about the inspiration for my debut novel, The Sister Queens, and the amazing women at my story’s heart (Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence), I did this earlier interview at The Examiner on those topics.