Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

Robert Appleton | When a Man Writes a Woman

February 4, 2011

Robert AppletonTHE MYSTERIOUS LADY LAWHi everyone!

It’s a real treat to be here at Fresh Fiction. Before I start, I’ve a quick question to ask you: How often do you read authors outside your own gender?

Based on my formative reading material, I should by rights be the worst chauvinist author imaginable. I’m not kidding when I say the first time I read a complete book by a female writer was THE LOVELY BONES in 2005. And before that, most of the female literary characters I’d read were either barbarian queens or damsels-in-distress, women locked away in modes of male fantasy inside stories written about men, for men. I know the hero journey inside out, sideways, jutting jaw to bloody hilt. Growing up with the tales of H Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and JRR Tolkien will do that to a boy. And it was wonderful.

Wonderful…and incomplete.

Then something bizarre happened. Carl Sagan’s rambling but extraordinary novel, CONTACT, introduced me to a larger-than-life heroine in a traditionally (at least in my SF) male pursuit. Ellie Arroway didn’t just dream of becoming an astronomer and discovering the secrets of the universe, she went out and made it happen. She had flaws, deep scars from her childhood, and seemed incredibly real to me. But not only that, she was chasing my dreams, my fantasies and achieving them with cool intelligence. No simpering pleas for help; no OTT aggression: Ellie was a genuine woman with a sense of herself in the universe. She was more complicated than most of the heroes I’d ever read. I was hooked.

Later, I devoured Alice Sebold’s haunting tale of a murdered teenage girl watching her family from the hereafter, then made a point of sampling work by female authors in every single genre, including romance and erotica. And somewhere along the way I discovered my secret for crafting a compelling heroine.

Snatch her dream away from her. Now make her find a new one.

Knowing a person in real life and knowing how to write her on the page are oddly incongruous. Describing a person objectively is pretty straightforward. What you see of her is all she needs be. But getting inside her head, assuming her subjectivity—her view of herself and the world—is a subtle but vital tweak of that observation. It requires a shift of perspective, the surrender of one’s preconceptions. Whether in reading or in writing, you must let the character walk apart from your own experience enough to discover her. And that was what Sagan gave me with Ellie Arroway. A woman that, while feminine and nurturing, didn’t necessarily have to come from Venus.

She became my literary template for how to write a three-dimensional heroine. In my first published book, THE ELEVEN HOUR FALL, I took that experience and crafted a strong but repressed heroine fighting for survival on a barren alien world. The man of her dreams, unconscious in her arms, needed rescuing for half the book. When he finally woke up, Kate Borrowdale wasn’t about to let him call the shots like he was some Edgar Rice Burroughs hero. No chance. My Kate stood her ground and took her licks ahead of him over two subsequent books, becoming my first and still-favourite heroine out of all my published stories. Over half of them focus on a strong female lead.

In my latest, THE MYSTERIOUS LADY LAW (out now at Carina Press), steampunk Victorian London is the setting for an unusual battle of wits between two strong but (appropriately for the era) feminine characters. Here’s the set-up:

In a time of grand airships and steam-powered cars, the death of a penniless young maid will hardly make the front page. But part-time airship waitress and music hall dancer Julia Bairstow is shattered by her sister’s murder. When Lady Law, the most notorious private detective in Britain, offers to investigate the case pro bono, Julia jumps at the chance—even against the advice of constable Al Grant, who takes her protection surprisingly to heart.

Lady Law puts Scotland Yard to shame. She’s apprehended Jack the Ripper and solved countless other cold-case crimes. No one knows how she does it, but it’s brought her fortune, renown, and even a title. But is she really what she claims to be—a genius at deducting? Or is Al right and she is not be trusted?

Julia is determined to find out the truth, even if it means turning sleuth herself—and turning the tables on Lady Law…

I’d never have predicted it before I was published, but editors, reviewers and fellow writers alike now remark on the consistent balance I achieve in my female characters:

“the heroine is a strong woman without being a Wonderwoman clone. She is assertive without being strident and emotional without being shrill.”

I think one of the main reasons I enjoy writing women is because, in a literary sense, they were a mystery to me for so long. And in genre fiction, they have more of an underdog quality; in some ways, they have to endure much more to achieve the same heroic status as a  male hero. I can write a strong hero in my sleep; but a heroine as admirable, driven and complicated as Ellie Arroway—well, let’s just say I thrive on a challenge.

Here are a few of my science fiction women and their day jobs:

Kate Borrowdale (The Eleven Hour Fall Trilogy)—deep space terrain scout, survivalist

Godiva Randall (Godiva in the Firing Line)—paratrooper, NCO

Varinia Wilcox (Sparks in Cosmic Dust)—ex-model turned deep space prospector

Steffi Savannah (The Mythmakers)—deep space smuggler, captain of her own vessel

Julia Bairstow (The Mysterious Lady Law)—airship waitress, music hall dancer

Harriet Law (The Mysterious Lady Law)—a notorious private investigator

Bianca Burnett (Grandiloquence)—pop starlet who hides her high IQ

Evelyn Lyons (Claire De Lune, co-written by Sloane Taylor)—beauty queen with a dark secret

What is your experience of men writing women? Or men women writing men?

Robert Appleton


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