Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part IV - Don’t Avert Your Eyes

This is the final post in a four-part series from our July featured author. Thank you, Stephanie!

I write about ancient history’s “forgotten women:” Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Egypt, and the wife and daughters of Genghis Khan. These women faced many problems we continue to deal with today: power struggles, raising children, and the deaths of loved ones. But they also encountered many other issues most modern readers will hopefully never see: starvation, death by preventable disease, and incest, to name just a few.

Life for ancient women, even the wealthy and powerful, was hard.

When I wrote Daughter of the Gods about Pharaoh Hatshepsut I had to deal with the fact that she married her half-brother Thutmosis. My early readers commented on how disgusting this was, and that they weren’t sure if they’d keep reading because this turned their stomach so much. I briefly flirted with the idea of cutting the incest aspect, but Hatshepsut married her brother in real life, and therefore, she would marry her brother in my novel. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the ability to change history. (If I did, Hitler would have gotten into art school.)

I found a way around my readers’ squeamishness by making Thutmosis a likeable sort of guy before it’s announced that he has to marry his sister. He’s a caring older brother, handsome and funny, and he’s been gone campaigning with their father for a while. Then the fact that Hatshepsut must marry him, while still not ideal, seems a little more palatable to modern readers than dropping them into the marriage on page one.  

An issue in The Tiger Queens that modern folks might take issue with is that Genghis Khan’s first wife Borte was kidnapped by her husband’s enemies and almost certainly raped. The kidnapping is well-documented in The Secret History of the Mongols, the main primary source text for the period, and although the man who claimed Borte called himself her husband, I doubt she went to his bed willingly after being forcibly taken from her first husband. This wasn’t really a scene I wanted to write, but I did. Still, one of my first readers told me that the scene was abrupt, like I averted my eyes—and therefore my readers’ eyes—from the tragedy. I had to revise to add in more emotions, much as I hated to do it.

As writers, we can’t avert our eyes. And historical writers can’t avert their eyes from the ancient issues that our characters faced.

Borte’s kidnapping and rape is a pivotal scene in her life, and one that impacted that of her family and possibly the Mongol empire for years to come. (Sorry, but I can’t tell you more than that—too many spoilers!) The same was true for Hatshepsut—had she not married her half-brother, it’s unlikely she ever would have become Pharaoh.

So today’s motto? Don’t avert your eyes when you’re writing something historical that makes you cringe. It’s those terrible events, foreign customs, and unsettling issues that often make historical fiction such a compelling read.

Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel. Her first book, The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is now available in bookstores and online. Visit her website at

No comments: