Finding The Women In Historical Fiction

Until recently I was inclined to think that there was more scope for male than female characters in historical fiction as men were generally the ones in the positions of power. So, when I interview authors who write historical fiction about their work for this blog, I’m interested in their thoughts on this. One of the questions I ask them is “Do you prefer to write one sex or the other? And if so, why?”

For International Women’s Day today, I’ll recap the answers of some of my recent guests to that question.

Eliza Knight who writes historical romance set in Scotland said: “I have to say, I think that is because male historical figures were documented more. If you look back, there are just as many female historical figures that were instrumental in challenging and changing the world (even if they didn’t have a front row seat), just not as well documented. One of my all-time favorite female historical figures is Elizabeth I—she ruled for forty-four years, without marrying, and was hounded for it. Women were not supposed to be superior to men—and thank goodness there has been a shift in thinking!

I definitely prefer a female, because I can relate better, as I’m a woman. In historical fiction (my E. Knight books coming out later this year), I tackle the female’s point-of-view only—these books are generally about the journey of that historical female figures life. But in romance, I think it’s important to see both sides of the story. To watch them fall in love and understand the motivations, goals and conflicts on both sides. When I first started writing, I would ask my husband what he thought of my depiction of my male characters, and he was instrumental in telling me whether or not a man would think like that, or say something like that. Crit partners help, too. So my answer is two-fold. For romance, I prefer both. For historical fiction, so far, I prefer to write from a female’s perspective—but that only means I’ve now challenged myself to take on a male!”

Christina Courtenay who also writes historical romance said: “I enjoy writing both.  Naturally the men had many advantages in the past and so much more freedom, but that just means the heroines have to be more feisty or clever in order to get their way.  It can be great fun to try and figure out how they can manipulate the people around them in order to achieve their goals.  It also means they sometimes need the hero’s help and if he is reluctant to give it, that can create sparks.  I like reading and writing both the male and female point of view as I feel that makes for a more rounded story.”

Alrene Hughes, a debut author who is writing an historical trilogy set in wartime Northern Ireland, said: “Martha’s Girls focuses on five feisty women at a time when young women, in particular, sensed a sudden opportunity to shape their own lives. Many worked in the war industries, the girls in the book seized the opportunity to join a troupe of entertainers, and the ever present threat of bombing encouraged a ‘live for the moment’ attitude. I also enjoyed writing about Martha, especially her attempts to control her girls. As a mother, I knew the delicate line she had to tread and the unspoken fears that haunted her. So maybe I prefer to write women, but sometimes you just fall in love with a man you’ve created!”

My current work-in-progress features a Fermanagh woman at the turn of the last century. And when I’ve finished writing tonight I think I’ll go back to where I left off in Fenella Miller’s Barbara’s War: The Middle Years.

On International Women’s Day it’s good to know that women characters are on stage, not hiding in the wings, in recent historical fiction.





About Dianne Ascroft

I'm a Canadian writer and author, living in Britain. My first novel, 'Hitler and Mars Bars' was released in March 2008. More information abo
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