I recently attended a panel about Women’s History and something came up in the discussion that is both interesting and important as we consider how to write both Women’s History and historical fiction with female characters. One panelist noted that the more we dig into the past, the more we discover that women’s lives were not as limited as we have been led to believe. Historians, especially the Victorians, have done us a disservice by trying to erase women from history.
For fiction writers there are two things to remember when doing historical research for your novel:
- Interpretations of the historical evidence change over time, especially as more evidence surfaces. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a woman would never have done X.
- Historians don’t always agree! Sometimes the things we’ve been told are “facts” are really just opinions based on scant or one-sided evidence. As fiction writers, look for the outliers and tell their stories!
Finding the Gap
According to James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, part of the difficulty in dealing with the history of a subordinate group is that there is a public transcript of events and a hidden transcript, which the dominant group neither knows about nor may access. The hidden transcript is not necessarily a part of the written record, or if it is written, it may exist in sources outside the norm, such as rumors, gossip, songs, rituals, euphemisms, or jokes. Actions may also be a part of the hidden transcript. Add to this the fact that history is written by the victors, and the astute writer of historical fiction will see room for heroines who neither assent nor conform inwardly to the dominant group’s conception of reality. They may even occasionally find ways to express their non-assent, as many real historical women–who had the means and opportunity–did. (See Christine De Pizan, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Heloise, etc.)
This brings to mind Catherine Morland, who observes somewhat dryly, in Northanger Abbey
I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.
One way of looking for characters who were forward thinking is to model them on famous outliers. My favorite example: Aaron Burr. You may think him a villain, but that is because he has been used as a scapegoat for the founders’ shortcomings for WAY too long. In her very excellent biography of Burr, Fallen Founder, Nancy Isenberg argues successfully that Burr was a man of his time with regard to politics, even ahead of his time with regard to women’s rights–an avowed reader and respecter of Mary Wollstonecraft who educated his daughter to the same standard others of his time would have a son. You cannot make a Burr, a de Pizan, or an Eleanor of Aquitaine the average character in your book, but you can definitely make them the focus of the book. Look for where there is something missing—and use your historically informed imagination to fill in the gap.
History, especially women’s history, is never as simple as what we learned in school. As fiction writers, you can use imagination to fill in the spaces where the historical record is silent or incomplete. Look at what historians are finding in newer interpretations of previously unconsidered evidence. The gaps are where you will find inspiration to tell stories that matter. And don’t let people tell you it never could have happened that way. Do your research and show that maybe it could have. Maybe it did.
Are you writing a historical fiction or mystery novel? Could you use a personal research assistant? Find out about free historical research training and a Women’s History Month Special offer for Virtual Research Assistance at: https://readerly.net/your-virtual-research-assistant/
Robin Henry is an independent scholar, writer, book coach, librarian, and history nerd. She loves hot beverages, both tea and coffee, books, and the colors green and purple. You can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org