Talking about Writing with Pamela Toler, Author of Women Warriors

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I virtually met Pamela several years ago, shortly after she published her book Heroines of Mercy Street about Civil War nurses. She generously shared valuable ideas about promoting my own book. She was already into research for a book that came out early this year, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History.

We recently carried out an email conversation about her writing process and related ideas. If you are gathering information for a book now, read Pamela’s answer below about how she organized and made sense of her voluminous research.

Q: How and when did you realize that your early interest in women warriors could become a book?

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A: I've been fascinated by the idea of women warriors ever since I was a nerdy little girl, but the real trigger for me came in 1988 when Antonia Fraser's Warrior Queens came out. Fraser's book not only introduced me to women I'd never heard of before, but also to a new idea: that women "fought, literally fought, as a normal part of the army in far more epochs and far more civilizations than is generally appreciated." That caught my imagination.

Once I was aware that women warriors had existed in many times and places, I ran across references to them everywhere. I began to collect their stories in a casual way. I had a paper file that I added notes to whenever I stumbled across the story of the Trung sisters of 1st century Vietnam, or Queen Njinga of 17th century Angola, or Jean the Hatchet in 15th century France.

When women warriors caught the public imagination several years ago, I was ready!

Q: I loved the idea of grouping the women in themes, rather than a series of biographies. Can you explain how and when in the process you decided on this structure?

A: I knew from the beginning that I didn't want to write a series of biographies.

There is a long tradition of collective biographies of notable women, warriors and otherwise, that emphasize the heroic aspects of individual women’s stories. A growing number of these books are aimed at adult audiences, but often they are written to provide female role models for girls. It’s a worthy goal. I loved those books as a kid. I still love them.

But those books tend to isolate each woman's story in her time and place. Instead I wanted to look at women warriors across historical periods and geographical boundaries and see what patterns emerged, if any. Because I had already collected so much material, I gave myself several months to take a first look at what those patterns might be before I started writing my proposal.

Q: How did you organize your research, with so many different (as I gushed above) people, places, and eras?

A: There is no doubt that Women Warriors represented a research challenge. When you write a global history of anything, you are inevitably dependent on secondary sources and translations of primary sources that you can't read. (You're also frustrated by hints about stuff that has not been translated. Or worse, hints about sources that no longer exist.)

That said, I'm pretty low tech when it comes to organizing my research. And I use the same basic tools for every book, whether it's global in scale or not.

In the initial stages, I used a loose-leaf notebook, with divisions for each possible chapter and separate pages for individual women, ideas, etc., and a single paper file folder. At that stage I'm generally collecting bibliography, little pieces of data and phrases. It's easy to pull out the pages I need for a day's work and carry them to the library. It's also easy to move them around from chapter to chapter as things evolve.

As the file folders multiply, I move to plastic file boxes for hard copies—an idea I borrowed from Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit. The boxes are more than just storage. In some way, the division of material into file folders, like the shuffling of single pages, helps me shape the book in my head. By the end of the project those boxes hold multiple drafts of chapters, copies of material from secondary sources, relevant pages from primary sources, maps and images, any stray publications I've picked up, data about image permissions, and my original loose-leaf notebook. I ended up with three very full boxes for Women Warriors.

There is always an ugly stage where my desk is surrounded by piles of books that bristle with sticky notes. This is not exactly organization. But it isn't as chaotic as it looks.

I use Zotero for my bibliography, backed up with a box of 3-by-5 index cards. Each card includes all the bibliographic info for a single book, the call number, and the library where I found the item. (Can you tell I worked for library technical services back in the days of card catalogs?) Not only are the cards even easier to carry around in the library stacks than notebook pages, but they are a security blanket. In the final stages of writing my dissertation, my computer crashed and my backup didn't work. I was very happy to have that card file to help me rebuild.

I'm a big believer in building timelines for a project, not only for keeping track of what happened when, but because occasionally the juxtaposition of disparate elements provides a revelation. Back in the days when cut and paste was not a metaphor, I drew them by hand on sheets of legal pad turned sideways. Then I used Excel, which was more legible but clunky, because spreadsheets and timelines are not really the same. These days I use Aeon's timeline software. In the case of Women Warriors, building a universal timeline for the book proved to be overwhelming, but I built multiple smaller timelines for things like tracking the reigns of the Roman emperors.

I use Scrivener to write my first drafts. Lots of people rave about Scrivener as a place to keep their research. That doesn't work for me for nonfiction. (Though I'm trying it for a novel that I'm playing with right now.) But I love using the keyword feature. One of the challenges of Women Warriors was choosing women from across many cultures and places. Being able to tag individual sections of the book according to time, place, and theme gave me a quick way to check on whether I was keeping the stories balanced.

Bottom line: I'm pretty obsessive about keeping track of where I found what so that I can retrace my steps. And I still ended up madly searching once or twice for something that knew I had read and hadn't made a note of.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in getting the book from idea to print?

A: Image permissions. *shudder*

Q: What has been the biggest surprise along the way?

A: A lot of individual women’s stories surprised me. Who knew, for instance, that Alexander the Great had an older half-sister who led armies in her own right? (Other than a lot of classicists.)

But the thing that surprised me most was the importance of a group of women who I really hadn’t thought of as warriors until I got deep into my research: ordinary women who helped defend besieged cities. In the fourth century BCE, a Chinese statesman named Yang Shang called them “the army of adult women” and recommended that military commanders use them to defend a besieged city. Over the centuries, the “armies of adult women” who fought on the walls and in the trenches to defend their cities far outnumber all the other women warriors put together.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from the book?

It's pretty simple. Women have always gone to war, and they've gone for the same reasons as their male counterparts. They have fought to avenge their families, to defend their homes (or cities or nations), to win independence from a foreign power, to expand their kingdom’s boundaries, or to satisfy their ambition. They weren't always heroic, but they were there.

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