Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part IV – Don’t Avert Your Eyes

This is the final post in a four-part series from our July featured author. Thank you, Stephanie!
I write about ancient history’s “forgotten women:” Empress
Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Egypt, and the wife and
daughters of Genghis Khan. These women faced many problems we continue to deal
with today: power struggles, raising children, and the deaths of loved ones.
But they also encountered many other issues most modern readers will hopefully
never see: starvation, death by preventable disease, and incest, to name just a
Life for ancient women, even the wealthy and powerful, was
When I wrote Daughter of the Gods about Pharaoh Hatshepsut I
had to deal with the fact that she married her half-brother Thutmosis. My early
readers commented on how disgusting this was, and that they weren’t sure if
they’d keep reading because this turned their stomach so much. I briefly
flirted with the idea of cutting the incest aspect, but Hatshepsut married her
brother in real life, and therefore, she would marry her brother in my novel. Unfortunately,
I don’t possess the ability to change history. (If I did, Hitler would have
gotten into art school.)
I found a way around my readers’ squeamishness by making
Thutmosis a likeable sort of guy before it’s announced that he has to marry his
sister. He’s a caring older brother, handsome and funny, and he’s been gone
campaigning with their father for a while. Then the fact that Hatshepsut must
marry him, while still not ideal, seems a little more palatable to modern
readers than dropping them into the marriage on page one.  
An issue in The Tiger Queens that modern folks might take
issue with is that Genghis Khan’s first wife Borte was kidnapped by her
husband’s enemies and almost certainly raped. The kidnapping is well-documented
in The Secret History of the Mongols,
the main primary source text for the period, and although the man who claimed
Borte called himself her husband, I doubt she went to his bed willingly after
being forcibly taken from her first husband. This wasn’t really a scene I
wanted to write, but I did. Still, one of my first readers told me that the
scene was abrupt, like I averted my eyes—and therefore my readers’ eyes—from
the tragedy. I had to revise to add in more emotions, much as I hated to do it.
As writers, we can’t avert our eyes. And historical writers
can’t avert their eyes from the ancient issues that our characters faced.
Borte’s kidnapping and rape is a pivotal scene in her life,
and one that impacted that of her family and possibly the Mongol empire for
years to come. (Sorry, but I can’t tell you more than that—too many spoilers!)
The same was true for Hatshepsut—had she not married her half-brother, it’s
unlikely she ever would have become Pharaoh.
So today’s motto? Don’t avert your eyes when you’re writing
something historical that makes you cringe. It’s those terrible events, foreign
customs, and unsettling issues that often make historical fiction such a
compelling read.

Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has
been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve.
She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her
next novel. Her first book,
The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is
now available in bookstores and online. Visit her website at

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