24 Sep

Writing a Historical Novel

Forty years ago, I had a dream in which Blanche Ames told me to write her story. I’d read about Blanche while I was working on a team to write a massive women’s history reference book, and of course her name caught my attention. Then I learned that Blanche was my grandmother’s aunt. 

What was her story?  I started doing research. I spent days perusing primary sources in the Ames Family Collection at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. I examined cartoons by Blanche, letters to and from Blanche, speeches, meeting minutes of the Birth Control League of Massachusetts, flyers, and newspaper and magazine articles. I reviewed material about the Birth Control League of Massachusetts and the New England Hospital for Women and Children at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at Radcliffe College and the Nursing Archive at the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University. I read Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, biographies of Margaret Sanger, and diaries, poetry, and novels from the Progressive era.

I learned that Blanche Ames, born in 1878, was fiercely committed to women’s rights. She was active in the suffrage movement, participated in marches, and created political cartoons that were published in newspapers and magazines across the country. One of them was excoriated by President Taft in the Saturday Evening Post

After the defeat of the suffrage amendment in Massachusetts in 1915, Blanche turned to birth control. Disseminating information about contraception and birth control devices was illegal. In 1916 when socialist Van Kleek Allison was arrested for distributing pamphlets on limiting births among the poor, Blanche helped organize his defense committee and co-founded the Birth Control League of Massachusetts, where she served as president until 1935. Birth control was a radical cause for a privileged woman like Blanche, but she believed that women had to gain control over their bodies if they were to be able to map out their own lives. 

The Birth Control League held rallies and public meetings and lobbied legislators.

Blanche went further: she carved a penis and took it out on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston demonstrating how to apply a condom. She was promptly arrested. She cooked up recipes for spermicides and made diaphragms in her home using liquid latex and rings. Later in life she served as president of the New England Hospital for Women and Children. 

Blanche was also a portrait painter, a botanical illustrator for her husband Oakes Ames (a Harvard professor and world authority on orchids), an inventor, and mother of their four children. She had such a multifaceted personality! 

I thought about writing Blanche’s biography, but I was advised by an editor I respected that Blanche wasn’t famous enough for a book about her to sell sufficient copies. The field of women’s history was still young in the early 1980s. Traditional historians focused on the men who were leaders in the military, politics, business, religion, the arts, and other fields – not women. I figured that what I wrote would have to be fiction – historically accurate fiction. 

Her eyes in the photo on my writing desk inspired me to keep at it.

The problem with doing a lot of research is that one can get bogged down. I love the details, like reading that Blanche and Oakes rang an old bell every night until women won the vote. But a writer can drown in details. I had a lot of information about Blanche, but all the facts I learned didn’t actually provide me with a plot to propel the action. I didn’t know exactly what drove Blanche.

In writing LEMONS IN THE GARDEN OF LOVE, I wanted to create a central character whose motivations are transparent and understandable. Blanche was the inspiration for the character of Kate, but Kate has a life of her own. I dug into Kate’s emotions and determined what she is most passionate about. What does she want? What happens when she doesn’t get what she wants? I created challenges for Kate in order to bring the story to life. As a result, Kate’s history diverges from Blanche’s. Kate has a botched abortion in Paris while studying painting there. Later she learns that she can never have children. 

To provide more tension in LEMONS IN THE GARDEN OF LOVE, I created a protagonist named Cassie, Kate’s descendent. A graduate student in women’s studies in 1977, Cassie is seeking a topic for her doctoral dissertation. On the way to her sister’s wedding in Massachusetts, she stops at Smith College and discovers Kate’s suffrage cartoons, records of the Birth Control League of Massachusetts, and many other items. At the wedding, Cassie starts hearing bits and pieces about Kate’s life, and she tries to piece together what happened to Kate in Paris. Then Cassie’s story begins to parallel Kate’s in surprising ways.

In 1984 I sent the first version of this novel to the Feminist Press, who turned it down. After many other queries, an editor at Seal Press told me they really liked my story, but she advised me to send the manuscript to the Feminist Press. At that point, I put the manuscript away. Over the following years I learned a lot from writing two other award-winning historical novels: Eleanor’s Wars and Don’t Put the Boats Away.

When the 45th President was inaugurated in 2017, I pulled my original manuscript back out. I believed that my story had become more relevant given the state of the nation and the increase in the limits being placed on women’s access to reproductive health care. I reworked my story until I had a manuscript that passed muster with She Writes Press. Ironically, I finished the last chapter during the inauguration of our new President on January 20. 

While the story in LEMONS IN THE GARDEN OF LOVE takes place during two historical periods of feminist activism – the 1910s-20s and the 1970s, I believe it is terribly timely today, for reproductive freedom and even access to birth control Is being severely restricted throughout this country now.

Finally, I wrote this novel for my daughter and all the other women born after Roe v. Wade, who don’t know what it was like to face an illegal abortion at the hands of a butcher, and for all those other women who do remember.