Join me on Facebook, too!

Friday, April 28, 2017


Gabriel Valjan and I connected because our short stories share the pages of the WINDWARD: Best New England Crime Stories anthology. His take on Lizzie Borden's life after giving her father forty-one whacks is a marvel of great story telling as well as terrific research. When we finally met at an author event (and via multiple tweets), I learned we shared many interests as well as a love of great writing. When the conversation turned to making great characters, I knew I had to share his insights with you. Enjoy! -cjh


In 1997, eight-year old Alice Newton stayed up all night to finish reading a manuscript after her father had teased her with the first chapter. The next morning she insisted — no, she demanded — that her father Nigel, the chairman of Bloomsbury Publishing, publish the book twelve publishers had considered either too long or demanding for children. The book? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. A Muggle had intervened and saved Kathleen Rowling, the writer on welfare and single parent, from obscurity. J.K. Rowling is now the world’s most lucrative author.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf asserted the barest of necessities a woman writer needed for success: “A room of her own and five hundred a year.” Chance once again interceded. The death of an aunt provided her with the £500 [about $45,000 today] per year for life. Though she self-published most of her work, she experienced success. Virginia Woolf is considered both a great stylist and an innovator of the English novel.
Talented as they were, success had come to them through luck. Let me introduce you to the world’s first successful women writer. Another strong woman. Born in Venice, Italy in 1364, Christine de Pizan would live most of her life in France, where her father served Charles V as physician and astrologer. Her father believed that she should have an education. Christine married at the age of fifteen. Girls in her day married at twelve, boys at fourteen. Ten years later, with three children, she is a widow. Worse yet, Charles V and her father and another child died, so Christine lost her standing in court and became the sole means of support for her children, her mother, and a niece. She turned to writing to support her family.

Christine wrote whatever would fill the money purse. She started with poetry, moved onto biographies, moral treatises, and military theory. Gunpowder was new and artillery fascinated her. The Hundred Years War was raging and she had patrons in England and France, on both sides of the conflict. Her last work was a poem in honor of Joan of Arc. Christine supervised the production of all her books, oversaw their translations from Middle French into Middle English, and hired women scribes and an illustrator named Anastasia. She controlled every aspect of publication. She believed in quality artwork and design. The printing press would not exist until 1450 and an illuminated manuscript was a work of art.

Not only did she live off her quill, she defended women in print. Women were then thought of as morally and intellectually inferior to men, and they were portrayed as such in the works of Boccaccio and especially in Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose. She tackled misogyny by accusing male authors of ingratitude and slander against all women. Christine used sophisticated rhetorical strategies to point out the ironic contradictions that men would create the genre of courtly love to seduce women only to mock and devalue them in society. Christine advocated for the education of women and for greater roles in society. Though prolific, she is best known for The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, which provide insights into the daily lives of women, autobiographical details, and chronicle the lives of famous women throughout history. Both works speak directly to women readers. Christine de Pizan died in 1430. Almost forgotten, even by medievalists until the mid-twentieth century, these two works were translated into modern English in 1982 and 1985, respectively.

At a time when books by women are reviewed less, awarded fewer literary prizes, the risk for disappearance is greater. The underlying, less obvious, theme here is strength, of women helping women. A girl, Alice Newton, helped J.K. Rowling, who in turn created Harry Potter, a worldwide social phenomenon. Had Virginia Woolf not received an inheritance, had she not written her novels, Hogarth Press, which she founded with her husband Leonard in 1917, would have nonetheless secured her place in letters. She and Leonard would go on to publish Vanessa Bell, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Sigmund Freud, and Katherine Mansfield. In the long interlude of centuries between Christine de Pizan and us, we glimpse a strong independent woman who created art and commerce for women and by women.


Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series from Winter Goose Publishing as well as numerous short stories. He lives in Boston’s South End, where he enjoys the local restaurants, and his two cats, Squeak and Squawk, keep him honest to the story on the screen.

The first book in his historical fiction series will be out in fall 2017.

Twitter: @GValjan
Amazon Author page: