I am delighted that Britt Skrabenek graciously agreed to a guest blog post to commemorate Women’s History Month. Britt and I have been “blogger friends” for several years. I have enjoyed the many life-affirming conversations that we have shared. Her writing is authentic, generous and speaks to the need to honour our personal stories. In June 2016, Britt invited me to participate in her Life Enthusiast Chronicles. It was a joy to connect with other like-minded individuals who seek positive outcomes for all.
Celebrating Heroic Women From History Through a Fictional Lens
I hate to use the term “old soul” to describe myself because I feel like that sounds a bit uppity. Simply put, I’ve always had this unexplainable connection to the past.
In elementary school, like most kids, I read The Diary of Anne Frank. This book really stuck with me, because I loved writing about life experiences in my diary. And, here was this girl who lived in hiding while World War II happened right outside the attic window where she was imprisoned.
Through her brown eyes, Anne innocently captured a dark moment in time and the involuntary role she led within that darkness. Still, she wrote with joy and curiosity and continued to hope for a happy ending. Anne Frank was my first hero, someone I looked up to as a writer and as the woman she never quite had the chance to become.
I learned all that I could about WWII, and then I learned about the Vietnam War. In my middle school and high school years, I went through an extremely dedicated hippie phase as some sort of anti-war self-expression movement.
I listened to The Doors, Janis Joplin, and The Mamas and The Papas before and after school. I obsessively watched the Woodstock and Monterey Pop documentaries, pillaged Southern California thrift stores for bell bottoms and long flowy skirts, and wore handmade flower wreaths in my hair.
My parents scratched their heads and wondered: Where in the heck was this flower child coming from?
Why Telling the Stories of Heroic Women Through Fiction Sparks Progress
Writing historical fiction about strong female characters was perhaps a natural evolution later in my adult years. There are so many women of history who have made an impact on the world. Back in the day they were really swimming against the current. Their accomplishments were that much harder to pull off, simply because they were women.
We’ve made progress, but we still have a long way to go. Through fiction, I explore social barriers of the past that are still widely relevant today. I also focus on telling the stories of brave women who were overlooked and misunderstood.
WWII Changes Everything with Women Spies and Ball Players
As I explored the roles of women during WWII, I became endlessly intrigued. Everybody had to make sacrifices and chip in. This was one of the first wars when women rose up in substantial numbers to adopt a stronger role…to take on the roles of men.
In the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) alone, which was America’s WWII intelligence agency, 4,000 women contributed to the war effort. It wasn’t glamorous, it was hard work—and many women sacrificed their lives.
Women truly stepped out of their caretaker responsibilities to use their skills and talents in new ways. Not everyone became a nurse, uniform seamstress, or factory worker. Women worked as spies behind enemy lines and they played baseball.
The first novel I wrote back in 2012 was Beneath the Satin Gloves. The book is about a modern-day woman who wakes up in WWII Berlin to discover that she’s a famous lounge singer spying for the Allies. The story came to me in a dream, yet I’m sure I willed that into being.
Beneath the Satin Gloves was the kind of story I wanted to write all my life. And though I knew nothing about how to write a novel, I had to get Alina’s story out of my system. I developed a character who was strong-willed, but also vulnerable. Alina was from 2012, but she had to survive in 1945. By weaving in the time travel element, I played with social behaviors and issues that spanned women’s history.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League first piqued my interest when the film A League of Their Own released in the 1990s. This film brought a lot of awareness to women in the league, after many decades when this important piece of history was blanketed by the fact that women were expected to return to the kitchen when the men came home from war.
In a chance encounter, a vintage handbag I purchased turned into a treasure trove of historical fiction inspiration. My life suddenly became intertwined with women in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
I discovered a pair of baseball tickets from 1954, along with a voting receipt that had a shopping list written in a woman’s handwriting on the back. The women’s league folded that same year, so it was a serendipitous discovery that led me to write my third novel, Nola Fran Evie.
In this novel, I share the stories of three women who played in the league together and what happened to their lives afterward during the 1950s. Because of their role during the war, their life paths were permanently altered. These women didn’t all want to go quietly…they wanted more out of life.
Writing Historical Fiction That Celebrates Strong Women
Writing historical fiction involves a great commitment to research and immersion. Essentially you spend several years living in another era.
Even on a sunny Saturday when you’re in a fantastic mood, you have to hunker down in your writing cave and step into a dark place. Then, you write a chapter where someone like Alina is dragging her bleeding body through a foot of snow as she tries to escape the Gestapo right after being stabbed by a double agent.
Fiction is an avenue for me to bring more of these stories forward. Women have worked hard to make strides in feminism, all while saving lives, creating art, making scientific discoveries—and presumably caring for families somewhere in there as well.
As a fiction writer, I think it’s important to be respectful of these women. All too often Hollywood gets it wrong, with some gun-slinging woman in a clingy outfit kicking ass and seducing the enemy. It’s not realistic and it’s not respectful. Women harness power differently and that is demonstrated by the approach heroic women from history have taken to achieve what they did.
The lines of reality and fiction become blurred during the writing process. In a way, you become the characters that you write. And, I believe they stay a part of you for the rest of your life. If I’m going to dedicate my life to something, I want it to be meaningful.
When I write historical fiction, I’m able to learn about heroic women of the past and share their stories with people in the present. These women should never be forgotten. I suppose I’m doing my small part to preserve their accomplishments—but also to encourage other women to be courageous, to celebrate their femininity, and to make an impact (no matter how seemingly microscopic) on the world.
I invite you to connect with Britt Skrabanek and discover the profound insights that are found in her writing.
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