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Herstory: Writing historical fiction

Mid-afternoon on Day One saw us in conversation with three women who have written epic historical novels involving women. Jesse Blackadder, award-winning writer and journalist hosted the panel.

Emma Ashmere’s debut novel, The Floating Garden tells the untold stories of the working class lives that were destroyed when the Harbour Bridge was built at Milsons Point in 1926. Subversive, secretive, and with an atypical “bended” love story, it reveals an untold layer of Sydney’s history.

As Ashmere said: “It was about giving the women a voice.”

She found that doing the historical research for the book required her to let the characters take on their own lives. With so much information available, it was a major chore to not get swamped.

In The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader explored the lives of women who had chosen to seal their lives away in a tiny dwelling, a box just seven-by-nine paces in size, close to their church. They were the Anchoresses (or Anchorites), committed to their ‘living death’ in the box they would not leave until they died.

Their movement could be traced back to thirteenth century England. The women believed they were sinful or daughters of Eve, and in cloistering themselves, they became committed to God.

Cadwallader said she made sure she was as committed her writing, to stay true to the anchoresses’ lives.

Cadwallader was so shocked at the extreme quality of their beliefs, self-denial, and even madness, she had to find out more. She questioned the motivation behind choosing to live like that.

Feminist writer Jane Caro has published her first YA novel, Just A Girl, about her historic idol, Queen Elizabeth I.

Caro wanted to “write it for herself” and when she presented the novel to her publishers they suggested it was perfect for the YA market.

As a ruler, Elizabeth yielded power, making powerful and lasting decisions, “operating a lot like a man,” Caro said. During a period when women were regarded a property, and playthings, Elizabeth refused to sign up for any of the restrictions she saw thrust on women in 16th Century Tudor society.

Exploring this influential woman’s personality, Caro found out a lot about women in The Golden Age, how they dealt with loneliness, sexuality, power and fear. Elizabeth had power but she was lonely, and hated the pressure put on her to marry.

Despite the differences between the women in the novels of Caro, Cadwallader and Ashmere, we see three remarkable stories of women through history.

Emily Pierce is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Creative Writing at Southern Cross University. She has interests in theatre, history and feminism.

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