Portraying Women in Historical Fiction

Author Gina Buonaguro and I gave a presentation this past Sunday at the History Quill Convention, a five-day virtual conference. The title of our talk was Women in History – but I like to think of it as portraying women in historical fiction so that the novels produced are approachable to modern day readers. The folks at History Quill, who put on a great conference, support historical fiction writers with historical fiction editing services, group coaching, and a wealth of resources tailored to the historical fiction genre.

Gina and I spent quite a lot of time preparing – did I tell you that I was one of those people who always had her homework done early? – and got to know one another in the process. It was total serendipity that we both live in Toronto, although we did all our prep work using Google docs and Zoom and have yet to meet in person! But enough of that!

Gina and I began the presentation with two bits of context: (1) Why do readers read historical fiction? and (2) a few thoughts on the purpose of historical fiction.

As those who’ve been following A Writer of History for a long time know, I’ve done several reader surveys (5 to be exact). Each of them echoes these fundamental reasons: to bring the past to life, to learn about history, and to be entertained. Beyond that, readers tell us that their favourite historical novels must be authentic and superbly written.

Donald Maas, well-known literary agent, speaker, and author of fiction and non-fiction offered this perspective on fiction: “Fiction is about us. It captures our condition. It confronts us with our fears. It celebrates our human joys and triumphs. It’s a mirror, a telescope, a microscope, a record and a reminder. In it we discover what drives us apart and what binds us together.” Historical fiction must do all this while portraying recognizable human characters who lived according to very different values, norms and customs, providing insight into their minds, and educating readers about the past. Done well, historical fiction allows modern-day readers to contemplate social, religious, and political change and to understand how the events of history have an impact on today.

Beyond this, what about historical fiction and women? The genre offers recognizable women living in various times of history. It provides insight into the minds of these women. It allows readers to consider the milieu of women in the past, how they lived, what concerned them, what guided their decisions, and so on.

According to Jerome de Groot’s The Historical Novel, “historical fiction offered women readers the imaginative space to create different, more inclusive versions of history.” Additionally, de Groot suggests that historical fiction can “report from places made marginal [by history] and present a dissident or dissenting account of the past.” What is more marginal than a woman’s place in history?

At the same time, the modern reader needs to relate to these characters of the past. Gina’s upcoming novel, The Virgins of Venice, considers two teenaged sisters whose lives are decided by their father: one will marry, the other will become a nun. A jarring thought for many readers. While this is not the fate of today’s young women in most societies, they must still contend with growing up, coping with the world, and interacting with family, friends, and lovers. They face puberty and emerging sexuality. They consider what meanings they want to make of their lives – just at the two sisters do in Gina’s novel.

Armed with an understanding of why people read historical fiction and a big picture sense of the purpose of fiction and, more specifically, historical fiction, Gina and I used the seven elements as a frame to discuss the portrayal of women living in the past. Each element plays a role. We began with character.

As the slide says, in order to reveal the people of the past while ensuring they behave in keeping with the era they inhabit, authors have to discover ‘the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and their station in life.” An 18th century seamstress with reflect different norms and attitudes from those of a Roman slave; she will also differ from an aristocrat living in the 18th century.

To understand and then reveal the people of the past, a writer must look for:

  • social customs, arrangements, and attitudes
  • expectation of the time for different stations in life
  • what people valued
  • cultural, religious, political, scientific and philosophical beliefs
  • manners and mannerisms
  • morality and changing mores
  • class divisions and the potential for upward mobility
  • marriage customs
  • fears of the time
  • family responsibilities and obligations
  • material culture
  • sex
  • education and literacy

The list goes on, but in every case an author is looking for glimpses of how these aspects of bygone eras affected women in order to portray them successfully, sympathetically, and as rich, fully formed characters.

We gave an example from Caroline Lea’s The Glass Woman which is set in 17th century Iceland. In the story, a young woman has to marry a man she’s never met who lives a three-day journey away in order to provide for her mother. The man is a widower and a village leader. Rosa’s new life is hard: “The list of tasks is dizzying. Washing, cooking, cleaning, mending, gutting, reaping.” The word ‘gutting’ made me stop and think about the past. Although Rosa knows it’s her duty, intimacy with her husband makes her feel “small and soiled.” Consider the words duty, small, and soiled and how they help a reader understand this woman’s life. As the novel unfolds, the mindset of the time comes through:

  • the subservience of the poor
  • the powerlessness of women
  • the power of the church and village heirarchy
  • the supremacy of superstition over logic
  • the acceptance of one’s lot in life

While today’s mindset is quite different, readers can readily appreciate and relate to the dilemma’s faced by this 17th century woman, the struggles she faces, the decisions she makes to protect herself and those she loves.

In the next post, I’ll look at the other seven elements and offer further tips for portraying women in historical fiction.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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6 Responses

  1. I am looking forward to your next blog. In this one you certainly put your finger on a very important–and often difficult–job of writing accurate historical fiction.

  2. Hi Mary. thank you for sharing this. I attended the convention but wasn’t able to hear your presentation. Looking forward to the rest.

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