Sometimes I feel like a fraud as I write my novels. How could I know what it’s like to be an early medieval teenager whose family is seeking a husband for her to build a political alliance? How could I have any inkling of what it’s like to be an adolescent boy of any era, let alone the Middle Ages?
This comes to mind as my 50th birthday draws near and I think about Sister Elisabeth, a nun who appears in The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. I created her when I was in my 30s and needed a motherly character to take care of my wounded hero in my first novel.
At the time I was revising the manuscript, a couple of my critique partners were going through menopause, and I appropriated their experiences. Describing Elisabeth’s hot flashes and insomnia was a way to establish her age. And those symptoms helped make her real to me.
In a couple of weeks, I will be Elisabeth’s age. My first thought was I would soon learn if I indeed got the 50-year-old Elisabeth right, although I know my wonderful critique partners would never steer me wrong. But the truth is, everyone’s experience with this age is different, and more important, Elisabeth’s life as a 50-year-old in 8th century Aquitaine is a lot different from mine in 21st century America.
Elisabeth did not have angst over a milestone. Like most early medieval people, Elisabeth doesn’t know her exact age, yet she is well aware she has lived longer than most people, especially the women who died in childbirth. Her father chose the convent for her—no medieval child was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up—and she runs a hospital. All her life, Elisabeth has been reminded of what awaits her in the afterlife. She is keenly aware of her mortality but knows she still has a lot to contribute.
I enjoyed writing about Elisabeth, and she struck a chord with my critique partners. As I confront stereotypes about what older women should be—witch (or something that rhymes with “witch”) or sweet, submissive little old lady—she strikes that same chord with me. Elisabeth is neither harridan nor pushover. She is devout yet devious when she needs to be, and she is a competent leader with intelligence, compassion, and courage.