The best novels inspired by the real lives of kick-ass women

Katherine Sherbrooke Author Of Leaving Coy's Hill
By Katherine Sherbrooke

Who am I?

I was never much of a history student. Facts and figures rarely stick in my brain until I have a character—their feelings, hopes, fears, and dreams—to pair them with, so I rely a lot on historical fiction to understand different places and times. I’m also a believer that our culture too often serves up the impression that marginalized people have forever hopelessly struggled, held back by those in power. But there are so many true stories that reveal the opposite, in this case, women fighting for their dreams and winning! I aim to bring these stories to light in a way that keeps the pages turning. 

I wrote...

Leaving Coy's Hill

By Katherine Sherbrooke,

Book cover of Leaving Coy's Hill

What is my book about?

Leaving Coy’s Hill is inspired by Lucy Stone, an abolitionist and the first woman to speak out on women’s rights in the US. While she was perhaps the most famous woman in the country in the mid-1800s, she was rather purposely erased from history by her own friend, Susan B. Anthony. In writing this novel I wanted to breathe new life into a woman driven to create change in a deeply divided nation and determined to stand on the right side of history despite painful personal costs. NY Times best-selling author Caroline Leavitt says, “What could be more timely than Sherbrooke’s gorgeously fictionalized and page-turning account of Lucy Stone?... A stunning look at timeless issues…all told through the lens of one extraordinary heroine.”

The books I picked & why

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The Invention of Wings

By Sue Monk Kidd,

Book cover of The Invention of Wings

Why this book?

I think of this novel as a prequel of sorts to my own book, because it is inspired by the life of Sarah Grimke, another abolitionist and pioneer of women’s rights who, along with her sister Angelina, was an idol of Lucy Stone’s. The book opens on Sarah’s 11th birthday when she is gifted a slave, "Handful,” a gift she has no interest in keeping. Kidd makes the courageous choice to tell the story from both Handful’s and Sarah’s perspective, giving us very different views of pre-Civil War life in Charleston and what it takes to defy the rules in hopes of escape. At times harrowing and equally uplifting, this is a gorgeous and inspiring story.

Circling the Sun

By Paula McLain,

Book cover of Circling the Sun

Why this book?

I love historical fiction that opens the door to a lesser-known side of a classic story. Beryl Markham was a record-setting pilot in Kenya in the 1920s, familiar with breaking down boundaries of all kinds. She was also the “other woman” in the love triangle made famous by Out of Africa, the memoir written by Karen Blixon (under the name Isak Dinesen). Both women pine for safari hunter, Denys Finch, but as an adventurer determined to make her mark, Markham’s life is defined by much more than purely romantic desires. I am a big fan of Paula Mclain’s work, but in my view, this is the best of them all.

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O'Keeffe

By Dawn Tripp,

Book cover of Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O'Keeffe

Why this book?

I’m fascinated by historical fiction that sticks to the “facts” of a person’s life but imagines and richly describes that person’s inner world—in this case Georgia O’Keefe’s. The novel focuses on the young painter’s love affair with Alfred Stieglitz, an established photographer and art dealer. Before the art world knows Georgia O’Keefe as a ground-breaking artist in her own right, she is introduced as the female nude in Stieglitz’s photographs. Does her art gain notice in part because of this scandalous introduction, or does it merely eroticize her and her work? And while she learns much from Stieglitz, what does this relationship cost her? This book is masterfully “painted” with O’Keefe-like brush strokes that assemble a tantalizing picture and still leave much to the imagination.

The Movement of Stars

By Amy Brill,

Book cover of The Movement of Stars

Why this book?

Maria Mitchell, raised as a Nantucket Quaker, was the first woman to discover and name a new comet, no easy task in the 1840s when women were not meant to study astronomy, let alone when her only instrument was a small telescope on an island roof. Brill takes artistic license with Mitchell’s story, adding nuance and detail likely outside the scope of her research, and delivers a riveting tale of a woman determined to live her dreams, no matter how high the barriers to achieving them.  


By Lily King,

Book cover of Euphoria

Why this book?

Add to the list of extraordinary women mentioned above, the anthropologist Margaret Mead. I’m embarrassed to say that I knew little of Mead and her ground-breaking work before reading this book. The novel centers on (another) love triangle between three scientists studying the Kiona tribe in New Guinea in the 1930s. The personal struggles of these three anthropologists living in sometimes harrowing circumstances cover profound emotional territory. I also found the rituals of the tribe fascinating. And the inherent conflicts that abound when observing while living inside a community make for page-turning intrigue. Despite renaming her main character Nell Stone, I heard King speak about her detailed research. This novel offers a rare glimpse into the life of yet another woman for the ages.

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