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Periods, and how to write them

No, not the punctuation mark. Yes, the other thing.

Periods tend not to show up in fiction, probably for the same reasons that urine and shit don’t show up in fiction. They’re quotidian elements that don’t really add anything to narrative unless they’re indicating sickness or a dramatic turn — pregnancy, miscarriage, sudden reproductive potential, and so on. But the fact is that unless your novel or short story takes place in a span of less than 28 days, your female characters of reproductive age are going to experience them. You could brush over this, but it’s a missed opportunity to actually explore some things with character, setting, and worldbuilding. For example, in Charlie Stross’ Glasshouse, one of the protagonists swaps sexes for an anthropology experiment in historical modelling, and she has a rude awakening upon realizing how exactly periods work. I loved this because it reminded me of a moment I had in adolescence. I was at theatre camp (yes, theatre camp) and I’d made friends with all the older kids (or they’d sort of adopted me, I guess, speaking of anthropology experiments) and one girl, Dallas, told us all about the horrified reaction her boyfriend had when he realized how periods worked.

“He was like, Don’t you just get up and take care of it? And I was like, Well, yeah, but it’s an ongoing process. And he’s like What do you mean, ongoing process? What, it like, lasts a long time or something? And I was all, Uh, yeah, it lasts like five days, and he was totally terrified.”

Then she showed us this really sweet letter he’d written in her yearbook with silver pen. So. Here are some things you should know, if you have to depict somebody having their period.

  • Everybody’s period is different. Your period and your best friend’s are probably different. You might have easy ones and she might have hard ones. Or the reverse. Think about what has the most dramatic potential and go with that. Don’t just give your lady easy periods so you won’t have to talk about it. That’s lazy. And if you try to weasel out of it because of post-humanism, or the Singularity, then fuck you. You’re a thoughtless, cowardly asshole who doesn’t want to to any of the real work of thinking.
  • Period blood is not always red. Fresh blood is. Old blood oxidizes and rusts like all other blood. If you don’t know this, it’s because you’ve a) never experienced your own periods, or b) never handled a woman’s underwear in a domestic setting.
  • Periods change over time. Sometimes they’re really tough when you’re a teenager, and they get easier into adulthood. Or they’re super easy before you have kids, and they suck afterward. Or the reverse. Hormones change, so periods change too. My periods were never fun, but after I turned 25 they turned awful. Now I’m 30 and I take special prescription drugs to deal with them.
  • Sometimes a doctor will prescribe you a birth control pill to deal with your periods. Or an IUD. Or high-octane painkillers. Sometimes you don’t have health insurance, but you do have Jack and Coke with microwave popcorn. Or orgasms. Those help. But they’re another post entirely.
  • Red meat helps. Or rather, foods with high amounts of iron help. This is why women’s mutivitamins have iron in them, and men’s don’t. We need the iron. It’s also why you’ll sometimes find women who take iron supplements even if they don’t take any other vitamins or supplements. Because sometimes you get up from a toilet and it’s full of blood, and that’s kind of rough on the ol’ bone marrow. So red meat helps. Lentils, spinach, and tofu help, if you don’t eat meat. But I find that eating red meat once a month works for me. Once my tongue senses animal blood spreading through my mouth, I feel other systems coming back online. (“Iron? Check. Protein? Check. Ladies and gentlemen, we are go for launch. Let’s take Carrie to the prom.”) Ditto Guinness. Guinness makes everything better.
  • Sometimes you’re late because you’re stressed out. Or you’re early because you’re stressed out. Once I got my period early after a really spectacular fall in my kitchen. I got soaked in the rain and slipped in a puddle of my own drippings, and for a while there I just lay on the floor trying to breathe and figure out whether or not I’d broken a toe, knowing that there wasn’t much I could do if I’d broken it and that my best bet would likely be some popsicle sticks and duct tape and was the tool box too high for me reach? Probably. Then my period came.
  • PMS is a real thing. But really, the fact that a woman snaps at you (or your character snaps at someone else) just before or during her period has nothing to do with her period, and everything to do with the simmering pot of rage she keeps a lid on for the rest of the month. She’s angry at you because you fucked up during a time when she’s bleeding and in pain. Your timing was bad, but so was your fuckup. If you want people to not be angry with you, consider not fucking up.
  • Cramps are not universal. Some women never cramp, but have terrible mood swings and wind up crying alone in the shower because Facebook says that bitch who was mean to them in seventh grade just got engaged and they’re single and they’re going to be single forever and they should just start saving for their time in the retirement home where maybe some guy in his eighties will mistake them for his wife because he has Alzheimer’s and they’ll take it because it’s better than nothing, right?
  • Sometimes it’s just migraines. Only there’s no such thing as “just migraines,” because migraines are the kind of headaches where you can’t move without vomiting. Now imagine that happening once a month.
  • Cramping is awful, but it can be less awful or more awful depending on the month. Sometimes it just feels like those virginity tests they’d administer during the Salem witch trials. Sometimes it feels like Joan Crawford is slowly wringing out your uterus between her trembling, white-knuckled fists. Sometimes the cramping is just in the front. Sometimes it’s just in the back. Sometimes it’s the whole sacrum. But basically what’s happening is you’re having contractions. You know, like a pregnant lady. Only you’re not pregnant. That’s why it feels like someone’s digging out your insides with a rusty trowel/tuning fork/Excalibur.
  • You can feel blood clots leaving your body. You know how it feels to swallow tapioca pearls whole? Now imagine them passing through your vagina.
  • It’s often easier to just sit over a toilet for a while.
  • Not least because you’ll be doing some epic shitting, because all the muscles in your lower body got the “let go” message at the same time.
  • It’s normal to feel dizzy when standing up.
  • Sometimes your joints will swell up during your period. Totally unrelated joints, too, like your knees and ankles. Maybe this what it feels like when your bones go to work making more red blood cells. Or maybe God just hates you.
  • The first day is usually the worst. Or the awfulness will be spread across all the days, if you’re on the pill. Sometimes your period will seem to have finished, and then it’ll come back the next day, like a masked killer in a teen slasher movie. Surprise! More blood!
  • For as bad as all this is, menopause is worse. When you’re going through menopause, you start keeping a mental catalogue of all the cleanest public bathrooms in your general area, because there’s no telling when you might start hemorrhaging. One woman I knew got out of her car to go grocery shopping and noticed a pool of blood in the driver’s seat when she stood up. You start keeping a change of clothes in the trunk. At the job I had in high school, working retail at Value Village, I once found a puddle of fresh red blood under a rack of used blouses. At the time, I had no idea how it had gotten there. Had someone’s stitches opened up, or something? But no. Probably not stitches.
  • Dogs know you’re on your period. Dogs sniff crotches eight days a week, but when you’re on your period they get this panicked look on their face that says: “Oh no! Are you okay? What’s going on? Why did your pack leader let you go outside? WHY ISN’T EVERYONE IN THIS ROOM SCREAMING?!” So if you’re writing a story about, say, werewolves, and they don’t know that your protagonist is riding the crimson wave, turn back to Page 1 and start over. Ditto vampires. Ditto mer-folk. Ditto monsters in general.
  • Kittens will occasionally try to play with your tampon strings.
  • Gym teachers will tell you that exercise can help with cramping. If your gym teacher tells you this, ask her when she had her hysterectomy. She obviously hasn’t had a period in a while.
  • Some people really love having period sex. Sometimes period sex will only work (i.e. lead to orgasms) if you’re in one position and not another. Experiment. Take notes. Put down some towels.
  • Sometimes you’ll crave sex right before your period arrives. Usually this happens when your skin looks like pizza and your breasts are really sore. And you’re like, “What the fuck, body?” and your body’s like, “I don’t know. It was worth a shot.”
  • Getting your first period does not make you a woman. It makes you reproductively available. Your womanhood is not measured by your ability to reproduce sexually.
  • If you miscarry, or you have trouble conceiving, it’s not because God hates you or your body is wrong or the universe is telling you that you’re an unfit mother. It’s because conception is actually really difficult. It’s about as difficult as sending a small missile down a tiny opening at the end of a narrow trench. A direct hit, and only a direct hit, can initiate the chain reaction. May the Force be with you.

That’s a long list, I know. Please feel free to add to it in the comments. But really, my point is that this is an experience that will probably grab at least some of your character’s emotional, physical, and attentional bandwidth in a story. Don’t just write it off. Use it.

Oh, and mainstream radio? This song isn’t about menstruation.

23 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Mur

     /  August 26, 2013

    Excellent post! Couple of notes about IUDs- sometimes your body goes through the hormonal motions of a period without ever bleeding so you will get PMS but you won’t bleeds, so you wont realize it’s That Time and you’ll wonder why everything around you is absolute shit all of a sudden. And sometimes the IUD only hurts a little going in and sometimes it’s excruciating. Also, sometimes your labor feels like cramps (times a billion) – meaning if you have back cramps you will have back labor. Except if you have a change in labor pains, that can also change your post-birth cramps. It’s weird.

    • Madeline

       /  August 26, 2013

      OMG PHANTOM PERIODS?! Jesus, at least when the world suddenly turns to shit (in a less reasonable way than it normally is), there’s usually a bloody explanation for it later on. I’m not sure I could handle the emotional cycling without some kind of physical payoff. (I guess not getting pregnant is the payoff, but it still feels like getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Yay womanhood!)

      • April

         /  August 31, 2013

        I experienced something like that when I started transition. I was prescribed estrogen injections every two weeks. It was a crash-and-bounce cycle twice a month for about a year, getting easier as I learned to deal with it, but never really going away until I switched to pills. (Pro tip: if your doctor ever tries to convince you to stab yourself an inch and a half deep with a 23 gauge needle every other week for the rest of your life, don’t let her.) I don’t have a uterus, so none of the other symptoms manifested, but it was quite an educational experience.

  2. Sheila

     /  August 26, 2013

    I always wonder how people handle bleeding in stories. I know it could be artificial for an author to include the details, but I’m still curious. Hell, authors talk about other clothing technologies, so maybe it wouldn’t seem too artificial to include. I remember one novel covering this, The Moon and the Sun.

    For a future story where bleeding is optional, there’s “Even the Queen” by Connie Willis. I loved that story.

    • Madeline

       /  August 26, 2013

      I think the idea that they would be artificial is part of the problem. It’s just another moment in the long history of treating bodies as inherently bad, ugly, dirty, etc. For example: when Alfred Hitchcock was going over Psycho with the studio censor at Paramount, the censor says that no American film until that point has featured a toilet, much less one that is shown flushing. That was the early 1960’s. Now, of course, things are very different. But the attitude (don’t depict it! you’ll gross out the audience! you’ll hurt their widdle fee-fees!) is still very much a part of how we view, appreciate, and judge stories.

  3. I think maybe this post explains why you write about cannibal robots, Madeline, and I…don’t :)

    And now I feel guilty that my PMS consists mainly of a sudden craving for chocolate (and extra wincing when my cat – coincidentally named Madeline – tries to stand on my boobs. Ow!). Pent-up rage? Yeah, no.

    • Madeline

       /  August 26, 2013

      It’s true, I have a lot of rage. But I find that acknowledging it, naming it, and owning it can help me deal with it. That and therapy. What I find tough is a) the fact that most people are terrified of female anger, and b) learning how to recognize the validity of my anger without indulging in expressing it. It’s a fine balance.

      • I can’t imagine living with that – 99.999% of the time I’m either ridiculously laid back, or mildly manic.

  4. Diatryma

     /  August 26, 2013

    My peeve: all fictional first periods are the same. They are often used in fantasy like a switch– bleeding, now MAGIC or something. But some first periods are ‘woke up with blood on thighs and sheets’ and some are ‘my panties are dirty and brown. Am I experiencing anal leakage?’ for a day or two and six weeks later the brown comes back, but the next day it’s red and you figure it out.

    Cramps come in weird places. I get cramps where I don’t have muscles, I think.

    PMS is an amplification of everything. I use it as an early warning system. If something really, really upsets me before my period comes, that means I should fix it in the next three weeks because I’m ignoring it.

    • Madeline

       /  August 26, 2013

      Ooh, that’s a really lovely bit of wisdom regarding the early warning system. Will try to remember.

      And yeah, the first periods always bug me, too. Carrie, the de Palma film edition, is the worst. I’d have been so very pleased for my first period to be such an easy, steady stream of cherry Kool-Aid, and not the sticky clotted mess it was.

  5. Rob

     /  August 27, 2013

    This is awesome, & something every man should read regardless of whether he’s writing or not. (Also, “you’ll hurt their widdle fee-fees!” is the funniest line I’ve read in ages!) (Also also, I’m now going out to find & read your books, because if they’re as good as this post then I need to read them.)

  6. kersolq

     /  August 27, 2013

    i believed that once: that my anger correlates with my period. on closer and more careful studies i realized that was bullshit. we´re trained to believe that and ower awareness is programmed that way ;)

  7. Eilonwy

     /  August 27, 2013

    I’ll just be really optimistic here and assume lots of people write cross-generational female stories and say: Some stuff about periods seems to be inherited. Some of it isn’t. (Which is actually a great reason for parents of girls to gather info about periods: hers won’t necessarily be like her mom’s.)

    -Some women don’t bleed at night, at least after the first few days.
    -Period sex may have benefits, or at least period masturbation: some women find orgasms still cramps for a while. It can also sometimes speed up flow, shortening overall period length.
    -Exercise can help (I promise, I am neither a PE teacher nor have I had a hysterectomy) but it kind of has to be consistent. Like, a warrior woman protagonist probably gets fewer cramps than she would if she were an innkeeper, but that innkeeper doing jumping jacks is grossly unlikely to help.
    -Most women get tender breasts. This can mean different things for different women — actual pangs, or having to wear the right bra to armor the suddenly sensitive nipples, and/or (and I think this is most common?) a return to the sore bosom of puberty (when they are growing in and any impact is a supernova of pain.)
    -oh oh oh! DON’T automatically write your characters’ cycles syncing up. Evidence is that it’s very rare and largely anecdotal and confirmation bias: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=do-women-who-live-together-menstruate-together but many authors, especially men, seem to take it as given and assume it happens right away. Also note what it says in the article: women’s cycles vary a lot. If Amazon Annie has 5 days every 29, and Sidekick Sally seven days every 32, it just ain’t happening. Just…don’t. Please.

    I do want to emphasize the “periods are different” thing here, in case it has slipped readers’ minds once they get past the later litany of horror: some people DO have easy periods. It does exist. But it also may be a mixed bag of easy and not-easy. Like, one lady will get no cramps, but a ten-day period (Not that uncommon from the discussions I’ve seen) and another may have heavy flow (this varies soooo much, some people never buy the big tampon size) but have it be over in four days. I just want to emphasize that for many people, it isn’t a giant big deal, even if it is lazy and overly convenient for you to write all your female characters as having lucked out on every single count: duration, cramps, headaches, body aches & fatigue, etc. Writing it as a Big Dramatic Event for everyone would also be a little weird.

    • Madeline

       /  August 27, 2013

      Yeah, there’s a need to depict the mixed bag that it really is, and the impact that drugs/diet/lifestyle can have on how each month goes. I think you’ve nailed it: it’s lazy to just throw it away as a one-line event, when in fact it’s a thing you actively have to prepare for and which can ruin a good time if you’re not adequately prepared (like if you get it while on a backwoods vacation, i.e. average epic fantasy setting). It’s a balance.

    • Mel

       /  August 31, 2013

      Yeah, there’s so much variance: I, for example, either can’t orgasm at all close to/during my period or if I can the orgasm brings on cramps (or makes them dramatically worse if I already have them). I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had enjoyable period sex and have four fingers left over.

      While I exercise regularly, when I have my period my normal exercise routine will usually make the cramps worse and if I’m not careful I can end up dizzy or even fainting; my period drains me of energy and my cramps are usually bad enough that lying around uselessly is the best way of coping. I once passed out on the kitchen floor after riding my bike home as a teenager, and it was definitely not exercise outside of my usual routine. I don’t disbelieve that exercise (or orgasms) can help for some women, but both are terrible for my cramps.

      Trivia: I don’t know how common it is, but my bleeding rate will slow or even temporarily stop if it’s late in my period if I’m immersed in water, like if I take a bath or go swimming (in natural bodies of water! I don’t bleed all over public swimming pools).

      Also in 16 years of having periods, mine have never become regular or predictable–the only constant is I usually bleed heavily for three days and lightly for two, but cycle length and cramp intensity and whether cramps start before the bleeding or with the first blood and amount of blood are all wildly variable. (I once had my entire period in two days, which I don’t recommend; luckily it was a weekend so I spent it in bed moaning pathetically, even after I took vicodin.)

  8. Mishell Baker

     /  August 27, 2013

    I’d also like to say here for the record that for some women a period is not a big deal at all, it’s just messy and annoying. I’m not sure highlighting all the most extreme symptoms that some people have during their period is going to do much to demystify/dehorrify the process, or to help men understand that periods are not things that should disqualify women from jobs that require continuous competence.

    I’d say most women have cramps of some variety, but I don’t need to take any kind of pain medication to deal with mine, and nor do many if not most of the women I know. Most of my friends, I wouldn’t know they were having their periods if they didn’t tell me. That said, my sister and best friend have pretty debilitating periods.

    Another common misconception: women do not actually lose huge quantities of blood during a period. You lose about three tablespoons’ worth the entire five days. Furthermore it’s not exactly the same mechanism as bleeding from an injury. The uterine lining is heavily composed of blood vessels meant to provide nourishment to a growing fetus. The blood you see in menstruation is caused by the fact that as the lining breaks down and sheds, so do the blood vessels, and the blood that was in them. A small amount of blood can turn a huge volume of liquid very, very red. But you are not continuously bleeding from some sort of open wound for five days; the blood is all part of a more or less closed system no longer connected to your body. Any dizziness or weakness you may experience during your period is due to hormonal shifts rather than blood loss. If iron makes you feel better, it’s a placebo effect, but if it works, don’t fix it!

    Source: growing up with a gynecologist who was not shy about telling me the gory details… at every given opportunity… including at dinner…

    • Madeline

       /  August 27, 2013

      If anything, I’d think that highlighting the worst symptoms would indicate to the people that don’t endure them that the women who do endure them, and do go to work every day, are tough as fucking nails. And for anemic women, or women with low blood pressure, that small amount of blood loss can still feel pretty major. So while it is a closed system, its impact on each woman’s body is different. For example, you got off light, but your sister and your best friend didn’t.

  9. I don’t really read YA, but at least in other types of fiction women never seem to have their periods when it would be inconvenient. (That one I’ve written in one of my novels.)

    Endometriosis is a very common in women and often badly exacerbated during the period. (In another novel of mine.)

    Monthly hormonal variations can exacerbate many illnesses, and not always at the same time of the month, depending on the illness (e.g. autoimmune diseases, psychiatric conditions and hormonal issues not otherwise related to estrogen and progesterone). Some medications can also work differently depending on the part of the cycle.

  10. Kriss

     /  August 29, 2013

    Speaking as someone who has regular bouts of anaemia due to heavy periods, that three tablespoons thing gets trotted out every time. It might be true for most but it’s still an average, and there are outliers. When you find yourself standing up from your desk at work and blood runs down your legs and all over your office chair despite the hefty sanitary protection you’re using… not fun. And all the accoutrements and compromising, no wearing skimpy clothes to nightclubs, the spare underwear in the desk drawer (no it’s not for one night stands) and the rearranging your schedule so you don’t spend an entire day somewhere without easy access to a toilet, climbing or walking maybe… I often wonder how those WW2 female Russian tank crews managed. Anaemia is sneaky too, it manifests as being easily tired, not losing weight on a diet, being depressed, all things that are part of everyday experience.

    I love it on the rare occasions novelists do mention periods without having some mystical reason to (Gillian Bradshaw, for example, who had to explain how her hero got away with being disguised as a man for years). It makes me think, here’s someone who’s actually thought through the consequences of their plot properly.

    • Sheila

       /  August 30, 2013

      Yep, I was wondering about the three tablespoons. Before I had an IUD my period had changed to about 4 very light days. After the IUD it’s maybe 7 with a few heavy days where I have to use a large tampon at the same time as a pad and replace the tampon every few hours. birth control really sucks. Once I experimented with diva cups but the amount of liquid involved made that an extremely messy experiment. It is kind of cool to be able to get a seat of the pants estimate for how much liquid is leaving one’s body. I don’t think I’m feeling experimental enough to collect all that to figure out how to measure the amount of red blood cells. my inner mad scientist is tempted. maybe there would be a centrifuge involved? or the check people do before you donate blood where they get RBCs to precipitate out?

  11. Foxwatchful

     /  September 5, 2013

    In my experience, heavy exercise–heavy!–is actually a cramp-killer. But I mean like “Ten straight minutes fighting Sensei” heavy, not like push-ups or a bit of running (both of which are about enough to make me throw up, that four or five days a month).

    I’m also ravenously, ridiculously lusty for pretty much the entire time.

  1. Period. – en|Gender
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  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. You can buy her novels here. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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