Portraying Women in Historical Fiction – part 2

This is the second of two posts on Portraying Women in Historical Fiction based on a presentation author Gina Buonaguro and I did for the recent History Quill convention. You can find part 1 here.

Continuing with the seven elements of historical fiction as a framework for this discussion, next up is dialogue. Dialogue reveals character – a character from the past. As such, it must also reflect the values, norms, and customs of that character’s era. Dialogue between two people reveals relationship – a relationship in keeping with – or at least, a relationship that is aware of – the culture and rules of the day. Interior monologue is also dialogue.

The slide offers a few tips on the topic:

Consider an example from The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick: “Within her the core of rebellion hardened. She would dress as she chose, because clothes and appearance were part of a woman’s armor in this world.”

Or this from America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray: “Patsy, suffering strengthens our constitutions and builds inner fortifications so that we never fall prey to the same agony twice. We must take upon ourselves a smaller evil to defend against the greater evil. We must take upon ourselves a smaller pain in order to survive.”

Potential sources to consult: first-hand accounts, letters, diaries, and novels written in the period offer insights on language and dialogue. You can also consult sites like Jonathan Green’s slang timeline, Online Etymology, and Historical Thesaurus.

Setting is not just where and when events happen, it is also why they happen. Without the context of the American Civil War, Gone with the Wind would be nothing more than a love story. Setting should be evident from the very first page – sometimes even the very first line.

Here’s the first line of The Birth House by Ami McKay set in Nova Scotia about 100 years ago: “My house stood at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.”

Or the first line of The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory as shown in the slide – a powerful evocation of time and place.

To portray women in historical fiction, pay attention to female spaces: homes, markets, convents, whorehouses, salons, kitchens, tea rooms and so on. Not to say that women don’t live in other spaces – they do – but female spaces can be unique places of power, place, desire, and subterfuge. Of course, more details of setting are revealed through costume, food, furniture, housing, scenery and so on.

The different types of conflict listed here reflect a presentation given by Alma Katsu at the June 2021 Historical Novel Society conference.
  • Central or major conflict – the challenge that the main character must overcome by the end of the story
  • Underlying or chronic conflict – an ongoing conflict that complicates a character’s life (eg: famine, death of spouse, childhood trauma) – in Four Winds by Kristin Hannah it’s the unrelenting drought
  • Internal character conflict – a flaw or mindset that the reader will want the main character to resolve
  • Transient conflict – a weather problem, a transportation problem, a sudden illness – each of which interferes temporarily with the character achieving his or her goal

Conflict for women is not necessarily different from that of a man, however, it comes from a different point of view and a different set of expectations. An unmarried woman in the 16th century – such as those in Gina Buonaguro‘s The Virgins of Venice – might be forced into marriage with a man she doesn’t know or into the taking of religious vows. Both circumstances set up conflict. For women, there is often conflict related to romance, love, and marriage. For women of the past, these relationships with men almost always determined the course of their lives.

Women portrayed in historical fiction experience professional conflicts, sibling/parent conflicts, conflicts with friends, war, hardship. There are also conflicts for those who rail against the status quo, against the accepted thinking of the age, against their place in society.

In the interests of time – yours and mine – I will complete this topic in a third post, hopefully next week. Feedback, ideas, and suggestions are very welcome.


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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8 Responses

  1. This has been a question of mine, particularly in the most recently published scene of Ann and Anna, Part 19: would enough (as in, most) readers still recognize certain words as part of important phrases from the period in question, or should I define words, somehow, in the text, or as a footnote? And can a footnoted word be defined in a novel?
    (in this case the word is “Peculiar” and never mentions the rest of the phrase, assuming that readers will be familiar with “The Peculiar Institution”).

    1. Hi Shira – I’ve just looked up what The Peculiar Institution means. I would use it as is – more powerful that way. I’m sure the context you will have built on the page will allow readers to understand the meaning. You might also want to explain the usage of this euphemism in an author’s note. I hope that’s helpful – just my opinion of course!

      1. Ummm, I wasn’t sure if I’d built enough context, as the scenes are spread apart, and I was trying to show the subtlety of the era: did you read the scene, as commenting there would help me pinpoint which words to focus on. May I drop the link here?

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