Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things

Fellow Women Writing the West member BJ Scott joins us today to share about strong female characters and his new novel. Welcome BJ!

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I am thankful to my host, Shanna Hatfield, for kindly inviting me to appear in her blog to mark the release of my new novel, The Rail Queen.

I am probably somewhat rare in the literary field in that as a man, all of my books are built around strong, courageous women. They are the chief protagonists; it is they who move the story forward. So I thought I’d take some time here to talk about the special process of building a novel around strong female leads, because I think the notion of courageous female protagonists is an idea whose time has come. They are common in other media now. We are bombarded with movies and tv shows full of barbarian queens, warrior princesses, tail-kicking female martial arts fighters, and so on. I think there’s room for them in American popular literature too.

Readers sometimes have asked me over the years, “where do you get the ideas for these bold women that move your stories along?” And for years, I didn’t have an answer. Then, just this year, in a moment of deep Freudian insight, it all became clear. My female characters—strong, determined, bold, adventurous—possess the qualities I always wanted to have but never did. Through them I live out the life I might have wanted for myself. That’s one of the reasons creating them has been so satisfying, and so much fun. Guy du Maupassant once said that when we write a character, we are writing about ourselves. I didn’t believe that at first, but maybe it’s my hidden self. Ever wondered if your characters are really a reflection of you? I think knowing that there is part of you in your characters will make it easier to fully realize them. It is probably more difficult to convincingly write a character completely foreign to everything you are. May hat’s off to those that can do it.

The formula for traditional romance, as I understand it, is that no matter what happens in the story, it must end with the gal being rescued, physically or emotionally, by the guy. Turning that on its head presents a lot of new ideas for stories. One reviewer described my female characters as “women who want men in their lives, but don’t need them to succeed”. A take-charge woman will face unusual obstacles as she pursues her dream in a male-dominated world. It’s a fresh take on the challenges of western pioneers. Women largely didn’t write the history of their times, but they were there, walking side-by-side across a dangerous environment with their husbands. Let’s let their stories come out; let’s hear how they faced the challenges of survival in a life-and-death journey through the Old West. You can do this by building a fictional story around actual historical events.

But we don’t want to make these women superhuman. I once saw an inspirational poster showing a picture of a woman jogging along a beach. She looked like she was preparing for a big test, perhaps a marathon. The picture contained these words: “Real heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things”. That’s the way I write women: strong, courageous, bold, and adventurous—but often deeply flawed. They might be foolish, unprepared, overly optimistic, or possess a hot temper that gets them into real trouble. In other words, just like a lot of us. Readers can identify with a character who has easily recognizable human foibles. It also makes the characters’ triumphs all the sweeter. I once had a reader tell me she was scared to finish my book because she was deathly afraid my heroine was going to meet a terrible fate (the heroine didn’t; my women always come out on top). I had one reader (a man, amazingly enough), tell me he went through two boxes of tissues reading the last two chapters of my fourth book. Now that’s the kind of reader involvement an author should dearly love to have! It’s also the reason my fan base buzzes with anticipation when they learn a new book is soon to come out. So to achieve that, write characters your readers will admire. Give them flaws and personal challenges along with their strength and ambition. Make them their own worst enemy at times. Make them real, and your readers will identify with them and love them.

I don’t enjoy writing about repellent weirdos. It’s long puzzled me why some authors seem to. I once read a book in which every character was a jerk. They never did anything worthwhile or uplifting. Consequently when I reached the last page, I could only shrug my shoulders. The people in the book weren’t admirable, and I didn’t care what happened to them. And I considered the time I spent reading the book wasted. Perhaps in literary fiction such a formula can be made to work. Not in my books. Nearly every character in my books has a certain amount of dignity, even the most vile of my villains. And dignity in a villain is delicious. They just can’t understand why anyone would oppose them, and it makes their eventual downfall all the more satisfying. Try giving your characters a bit of dignity. Dignity can lead to cluelessness among villains, and too much pride among heroes, traits that provide more plot ideas.

So consider trying a different take on your female characters. Make them bold, make them ambitious, but make them flawed. Make them ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I think you’ll develop a deep loyalty in your readership. For me, it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.

Readers of my new book, The Rail Queen, will encounter some fun information about some of the most independent and spirited women of the Old West—the Harvey Girls. The book isn’t about Harvey Girls, but my heroine does spend some time as one. A detailed description of Harvey Girl training and work practices is contained in The Rail Queen.
It’s been a pleasure conversing with you through Shanna’s blog. Happy reading!

Bill Scott 2B J (Bill) Scott is a writer and speaker, and the author of five historical novels which he refers to as “Tales of Strong Women”. His first three novels, Angel of the Gold Rush, Angel’s Daughter, and Legacy of Angels, form the Angel Trilogy. His fourth novel, Light On A Distant Hill, was declared winner of the 2011 WILLA Literary Award for Original Soft Cover Fiction, sponsored by Women Writing the West (Bill assures us that yes, they do allow men to join). His new novel, The Rail Queen, was released in November of this year. He is a veteran, former college instructor of public speaking, former professional photographer, and did other things “too numerous to count”. He lives in Oregon with his wife and youngest son.

Excerpts from all of B J Scott’s books may be found on his website, www.bjscotthistoricals.wordpress.com. Like him on facebook at facebook.com/billjscottfan. Read his amazon author page at amazon.com/author/billjscott.

The Rail Queen may be ordered as an ebook or in paperback from the following sources:

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