August 23, 2009

Guest Author - Believe it or not. Truth really IS stranger....

I'd like to welcome multi published author Blythe Gifford as my guest today. Thank you, Blythe for being here. She's done a great blog on women disguised as men in historical novels. Leave a comment and you could win Blythe's book IN THE MASTER’S BED.

Believe it or not. Truth really IS stranger

An poster has a put together a list of “woman disguised as a man” romances with the comment: “good for a laugh.” It does, indeed, require the reader to suspend a good deal of disbelief to accept that a woman could actually live hidden among men undetected, yet it remains a popular theme.

Perhaps even stranger, it has actually happened.

I took heart from that when I wrote my September release from Harlequin Historical, IN The MASTER’S BED. In it, my medieval heroine runs away from home disguised as a man in order to study at the University. At that time, women were not even allowed into the living quarters to do laundry, let alone into the classrooms to take courses. My heroine ends up living in the 14th century equivalent of a fraternity house, where she manages to maintain her secret for longer than you might expect.

To research how she might have done it, I read the biography of a real woman, Billy Tipton, who in the mid-twentieth century, managed to pass as a man for some 50 years. Reportedly, only when s/he died did his/her wife and adopted sons discover her real sex. I am not making this up! If you want to know more about Billy, read SUITS ME: The DOUBLE LIFE OF BILLY TIPTON by Diane Wood Middlebrook. As I read the book, I picked up several tips on how she fooled so many for so long and let my heroine in on the secrets.

Incredibly, it still happens today. While I was writing the book, I read a newspaper account of a 33 year old woman who attended school in Oslo, Norway, for months posing as a 13 year old boy. “It’s not easy to know,” the school principal said after the truth came out. “Children at that age can be so different.”

Very well, you might say, for the twentieth century, when women are accustomed to freedom. Surely it would be impossible in medieval times when pantsuits didn’t exist. Yet I discovered that Joan of Arc wasn’t the only medieval woman dressing as a man. There is a reliable account of a woman in medieval Poland who attended the university there for two years before she was discovered. This happened less than fifty years after my story is set, so I felt totally justified in thinking that it COULD have happened. In fact, I began to wonder whether that poor soul had tapped me on the psychic shoulder and asked me to tell her story.
Fooling the public is one thing. Fooling a strong, smart, sexy romance hero is much more challenging. Of course, my hero uncovers her identity before anyone else and then they must struggle to keep her secret while their growing feelings for each other threaten to expose all.
The woman-disguised-as- a-boy theme has been a mainstay of romance novels for years. What other classic themes are your favorites? Are there any conventions you find just too hard to believe or are you willing to go along with the story no matter what?

BLYTHE GIFFORD ( is the author of a four medieval romances from Harlequin Historical. She specializes in characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. A past president of Chicago-North RWA Chapter, she has given several online courses and spoken at numerous RWA Conferences, including the National Conference. When not nurturing her first love, writing historical romance, she feeds her muse with art, music, history, long walks, good food and good friends.


She's disguised as a man in a place where women are forbidden. Now, she's met a man who, for the first time, makes her want to be a woman. What will happen when he discovers her secret and she's discovered IN THE MASTER'S BED?

Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ®and T are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.


Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Yentl came immediately to mind. Several American women passed themselves off as men to fight in the Revolutionary and Civil wars as well. Good for a laugh, my behind. Those reviewers 1)don't know their history, and 2)probably lack the chutzpah to try it themselves so prefer to believe it can't happen.

Silly folks, those. The ingenuity of some people makes almost anything not only plausible but possible.

Sally_Odgers said...

It would have been easier to pull off in the days when anyone in trousers (breeches, tights... etc) was automatically a male. I was once mistaken for a male by a woman in a (ladies') loo! In her defence, I WAS wearing trousers and boots, and I AM something of a hipless wonder.

Blythe Gifford said...

Gwynlyn - my "high concept" for IN THE MASTER'S BED was "Yentl in the Middle Ages." You pegged it.
Sally, you make a good point I overlooked. It might have been easier at a time when pants = man. One of the things my heroine counts on is that people will see what they expect to see.

robynl said...

some women have a manly shape and looks, especially if they have shorter hair and spiked would do it.

Some wrap a tensor bandage around their breasts to flatten them and succeed if they are a small size to begin with. Some wear a ball cap, work boots. This all adds up to the look of a man in passing and even quite close up.

As for the private parts and the use of a washroom, I don't know about that.

Terry Blain said...

Your blog made me think historically. Stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst - it wasn't until his neighbors came to check on him and found him dead and then discovered he was a woman.

Cherie J said...

Sounds believable to me. Some women have shapes that are more angulare than curvy. Other classic themes I enjoy are the rags to riches theme. I am a sucker for a good cinderella story. Thanks for guestblogging. This book sounds very good.

Susan Macatee said...

Although I've heard the woman disguised as a man is a cliche in romance fiction, it really did happen. I have a romance novel coming out next month where my heroine is a Confederate soldier, living among men who haven't a clue. And the truth is, many women disguised themselves as men to fight in both the Confederate and Union armies during the American Civil War. Some were found out, but many weren't and quite a few continued to live as men for the remainder of their lives.

So, truth can often be stranger than fiction.

Blythe Gifford said...

This is a very savvy group! Terry and Susan know more about examples of American women than I do. Robynl and Cherie, you're on the right track. My heroine is broad shouldered and small chested, which makes her disguise a little easier.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Blythe,
Terrific blog, I found it particularly interesting because my heroine in Devil's Ridge, my Whiskey Creek press novel,masquerades as a boy and gets away with it for months. I think it can add real drama to a story, because the hero and heroine are acutely aware of each other, and have the added worry of wondering what is wrong with them, and this racks up the tension.

Debra St. John said...

Hi Blythe! Just waving hello. I was checking out another blog and found a link to this one. Your name jumped out at me!

Blythe Gifford said...

Margaret, you're right, there are several layers of tension to this setup. For my couple, after he discovers who she really is, there's the tension of having to keep the secret when they can hardly keep their hands off each other.
Debra - thanks for saying hello!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Congrats to Cherie J. She won the drawing for Blythe's book IN THE MASTER'S BED.

Thanks so much for blogging for me, Blythe. I found the post very intersting.

Cherie J said...

Thanks so much! I am looking forward to reading it.

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