Fiona McTavish found that no one was taking her scientific discovery seriously, so she decided to fix that by dressing as a man.
Many frustrated female scientists must have considered this course of action, and would love to know how it went.
If you want to know, dear reader, you’ll have to read the book – the fictional historical romance novel How to Deceive a Duke by the Engagement Manager in the TMOS Centre of Excellence, Samara Parish.
Known around RSPhys by her actual surname (Thorn), Samara has now published two more episodes in the Rebels with a Cause trilogy, featuring not only Fiona McTavish, but other feisty, capable women, with scientific talents, business acumen and an understanding of how science can connect with society, alongside male counterparts.
“I was working as a teacher, trying to encourage girls to get into physics. But girls as young as year 5 already had it in their heads that science is a boys’ thing,” Samara says.
“What’s required is representation, seeing themselves in other women who love and are good at science; I had been doing this work in my day job, so it was really important to me to push against these pre-conceived ideas in my writing too, even if I hope no girls that young are reading my romances.”
“Women in science is a passion of mine, so Fiona was an extension of that. If I’m writing a series about engineers, on what planet would I not include a woman?”
Samara herself didn’t realise science was for her until her late twenties, when she was studying to be a teacher. She’d always felt drawn to the arts: creative writing and storytelling, and it was a lecturer in science education at Griffith University who inspired Samara to join the dots.
“Dr Ali Sammell was so interesting! She taught science through story, and narrative, and metaphor – it was so fascinating. So that was it. She changed my life!”
So Samara brought her own brand of inspiration to students, as perhaps the only teacher in Victoria trained in both Physics and Drama.
“My students spent a lot of their lessons up on their feet, moving around,” she says.
With the writing happening in parallel to her day job, Samara’s partner was posted to Canberra, and she found herself in TMOS just as the first instalment in the trilogy (How to Survive a Scandal) was published.
That book went on to win the Romance Writers of Australia Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) award in 2022.
The reaction from her readers has been gratitude for providing an antidote to the unpleasant times of the COVID pandemic.
“We’ve had a difficult few years, and romance novels can feel safe, in a time when thing are not feeling safe. You trust the author that it will all work out in the end, even if you can’t see how.”
She says her books are not meant to be historically accurate – “it’s modern characters and themes in dress up” – but she does research the science, occasionally consulting her engineer partner.
For example, a handbook on the development of the steam engine, found at Lifeline Book Fair, gave Samara her hero’s invention. In early steam engine designs, people shovelling in coal had a significant risk of being decapitated. Drawing on the steam engine handbook, Samara used a historical design innovation that decreased that risk as Fiona McTavish’s fictional claim to fame.
Nonetheless she’s not trying to write science textbooks that educate the reader. Nor is it all about the fantasy. Instead, she points out that romance literature is strongly feminist.
“Not everyone realises this – but romance is written primarily by women for women, so it explores issues relevant to women,” Samara says.
“Diversity and inclusion, for example, has been discussed for decades.
“We pride ourselves on exploring contemporary issues – while being very effing entertaining!”
The Rebels with a Cause trilogy is published by Hachette.