Feminist Noir, Exploring Social Issues in Fiction

I’ve been writing nonfiction books for twenty years, often on difficult subjects such as sexual violence, assisted reproductive technologies, oppression, capital punishment, genetic engineering, and war.

When I started writing mysteries, I made a conscious choice to let my nonfiction research on women’s issues inform my fiction.

The fact that I’d already done the research was, of course, an advantage for writing the novels. I had extensive knowledge of some of the issues from my previous research efforts. But, I quickly discovered that writing fiction enriched my nonfiction writing, too. Writing novels gave me new ways of approaching tough issues I’d been thinking about throughout my career as a philosophy professor.

I wrote my first novel after researching a nonfiction book on the connection between images of strong girls giving as good as they got in films such as The Hunger Games and Divergent at the same time as weekly reports of unconscious girls being sexually assaulted on campus.

I was so shaken by this research project that my turn to fiction was a kind of self-defense against the harsh reality of sexual violence. In my invented world, the girls would fight back, and together defeat the rapists. I knew that a novel set on a college campus featuring young women had to deal with the issue of campus rape. But, in my imagined world, young women would have each other’s backs to prevent sexual violence. And anyone who messed with these tough, but vulnerable young women, would get their ass kicked.

Call it a sort of feminist revenge fantasy to counter-balance all of the horrible stuff I’ve uncovered in my nonfiction research.

Writing fiction became a personal compensation for me, a way to imagine a better world, and a different future for young women through feminist noir.

I decided to make my novels center around contemporary women’s issues, many of which I’d researched in my nonfiction work. It was important to me to try to raise awareness of issues that often remain in the shadows because they are too difficult to confront head-on. I thought if I could tell a compelling story with rich characters in settings readers could relate to, move the plot along with page-turning action, and sprinkle in a large dose of humor, then I could shine a light on hard issues in a way that wasn’t threatening or preachy.

 It’s one thing to describe different viewpoints or opinions in nonfiction books, it’s quite another to inhabit them and make them come alive in a novel.

In order to make characters with differing perspectives on the same issue, an author needs to find a way to understand, if not sympathize with, viewpoints other than their own. This is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing fiction, getting into other people’s heads. You have to understand and respect even your bad guys.

Writing fiction gives us a chance to explore the world through other people’s eyes, to imagine lives other than our own, and characters that have radically different ways of seeing the world. Fiction is an adventure in perspective, a way of traveling the world in the imagination.

Where does your fiction take you? Are there any issues close to your heart you’re called on to write about?