I’m Harry. That’s Harry-short-for-Henry. I’m not a closet Harriet, or Harmony, or Hilary, or Henrietta. If you met me, you would, I think, find me a fairly normal guy. A married-with-kids kind of guy.
In my writing life, however, I’m a professional cross-dresser. I write first person in the voice of a young (late-20s) woman, Fiona Griffiths. If she worries what to wear for a date, then I worry with her. If she needs to sort out make-up, or buy a skirt, o
r wonders if she’s pregnant, I’m right there with her: fingering through the make-up, trying on clothes.
For the most part, I don’t find those things either weird to do, or all that hard. I’ve been on enough shopping trips with my wife that I’ve got easily enough experience to draw on. I know to get the little things right. So a dress that I might just call “pink” or “purple” will have some whole other name in Female Land. It’ll be fuchsia or amethyst or crushed berry or something else completely. I might have to go online to check what the contemporary colour names are, but that’s fine. I’ll make sure that Fiona will end up looking at dresses in the kind of colours that people are wearing today, not five or ten years back.
(That online research is easy enough, but it does come at a price. I often get followed around by those ads that target you, based on your recent browsing history. I’m often being offered a nice pair of high-heeled shoes, or a gorgeous new amethyst skirt. The book I’m writing at the moment has a corpse who was identified via some plastic surgery that she’d had done. That incident required me to check out various plastic surgery websites – and I’m currently being followed around by ads inviting me to have breast enlargement surgery. I’m tempted . . .)
Relationships are a tad harder to write about, but only a tad. The basic chemistry of fancying someone isn’t so different, no matter what sex you are. And, yes, I personally don’t fancy tall men with flat stomachs who show me a good bit of kindness and attention, but it’s not so hard to figure that women might well find that combination attractive. I never get very detailed in my sex scenes, but I don’t think I’ve messed up wildly there either.
“But isn’t it weird for you?” people always want to ask. “Isn’t it strange writing as a woman?”
Well, kinda, but I write fiction. I make things up. Jumping into other people’s heads is my core professional skill. I’ve written historical fiction too, and thinking my way into the head of (say) a 1920s oilman and World War 1 veteran is probably a bigger ask then just switching sex. Also I don’t think anyone would question a woman’s right or ability to write as a man. I can’t see that the issue should be so different the other way round.
But finally, it certainly helps that I’m not writing women’s fiction and Fiona Griffiths is not – to put it mildly – a girly girl.
I write crime and my character is simultaneously a highly talented and tough detective and a woman with a fragile, dangerous mind. In the words of one Amazon reviewer, “it is brilliant to have such access to her beautiful, freaky mind. Fiona is an incredibly talented detective. She is similar to Lisbeth Salander, an intelligent but profoundly damaged young woman, but Fiona is less hostile and more curious, sort of a good guy sociopath.”
In the words of another reviewer, “She’s now a brilliant, awkward, socially aware but extremely awkward waif of a copper who is also explosively dangerous and somewhat ambivalent about procedures and laws, as long as she catches the criminals.”
And those things give me a fabulous combination to work with. Fiona’s astonishingly tough in situations of danger . . . but she’s absolutely hopeless at some of the most basic life skills: cooking dinner, going on dates, shopping for clothes. Likewise, she’s nothing short of a genius at matters of criminal investigation . . . but can misread social situations in the most clumsy of ways.
Probably the main reason why I chose to write as a woman was so that I could really maximise those contrasts. We’re very used to Jack Reacher type models of toughness and I wanted to get away from them altogether. So Fiona is petite – a slim 5’ 2” – but she’s extraordinarily tough and resourceful in situations of physical danger. We’re also used to the seen-it-all maverick cop having arguments with his bosses. Fiona is young, junior and female . . . but she simply refuses to act feminine and deferential, even in situations when, you know, a little deference might really help.
I think that’s probably something of a feminist agenda, but it’s definitely a gift to me as an author. Put everything here together and the hardest thing – by far – about writing as Fiona Griffiths isn’t that she’s a woman but that she’s her. An utterly unique, explosive, and surprising individual who comes roaring off the page like nothing else I’ve ever written.
I’ve absolutely no idea what it is about my mind that created this woman. I don’t know why my fairly even-tempered mind should produce this scorching force of nature. But I’m delighted that it has. My one real challenge as a writer now is to think my way into being Fiona Griffiths, then just let her be herself.
And that’s why, I think, I never really relate to people asking me whether it’s hard to write as a woman. Because novelists don’t work with stereotypes. We work with individuals. And I don’t write as some Universal Woman, I write as just one person, who just so happens to be female. It is, I’m happy to say, the best job I’ve ever had.
Harry Bingham is the author of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, which can be found here on Amazon. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop and Agent Hunter, websites which help first-time writers improve their skills and find literary agents.