Writing Believable Historical Women – Guest Post by Helen Hollick, Author of “Shadow of the King”

It is very tricky writing believable female characters in historical fiction. An author needs to make them interesting, a realistic character for the reader to identify with but to be fairly contemporary with the chosen time period. Which is where the problems often arise.

Women were, usually, not very kindly looked upon in the ‘days of yore.’ In fact, unless the woman happened to be someone powerful like Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Elizabeth I, they were regarded as little more than slaves and chattels to be used and abused by the menfolk.
Or were they?

I personally think – and I stress this is my own view, written from the heart not the head,  and may have absolutely no grounds in historical fact whatsoever, so no taking me to task, or outraged screaming of abuse at my historical inaccuracy please! I think the idea that women were brow-beaten skivvies who  did nothing but work in the fields, cook, clean, sew and give birth to children, was a Victorian myth, perpetuated by the fact that most of our history – until very recently – was biased because it was the men who wrote it all down. Men who were often monks and knew very little about the everyday life of a woman.

I base that sweeping statement on the fact the Victorians got so many “facts” of history wrong and in consequence ruined great chunks of historical truth. I cite for my evidence that there were no scythes on Boadica’s chariot, the Vikings did not wear horned helmets, Lady Godiva did not ride naked through the streets of Coventry and Cnut did not try to turn back the tide to prove he was God. (In fact he was trying to prove he was not God and could not turn back the tide!) And for good measure I will throw in; William I, the Conqueror, was not the first King of England and he had no right to the throne – so why do we number our Kings and Queens from him? OK, I grant that is not the Victorian’s fault – but there are plenty of Victorian history books that make Duke William to be a ‘good thing’ – which have utterly distorted the truth behind the Battle of Hastings. (See my novel Harold the King—out in the UK now and out from Sourcebooks in March 2011!)

My point is, I think women had a lot more going for them in the past than we give them credit for. It is only recent ideas that make women unequal – from around Victorian times. I must also add, I am blatantly ignoring the Cromwell years when everything was suppressed – fun and laughter along with womanly feistiness! And I suppose I had better admit to being dreadfully prejudiced against the Victorians. Can’t stand the period! (I reckon my ancestors must have had a series of awful traumas during that era, and the bad experiences have been passed down to me in my genes, hence my dislike of anything Victorian. I wish I could go back in time via regression to find out!)

When writing my Arthurian Trilogy – the Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner and Shadow of the King, I deliberately set out to make my heroine – Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) a feisty, no-nonsense woman who had a sword and knew how to use it. Why? Because I wanted to move away from the Medieval-based novels where woman were given away in a loveless marriage, to a man twice her age, as a means of alliance.

I wanted my Gwenhwyfar to have her own mind, be wise and capable – full of passion and tempestuous moods. I wanted her to be a character that modern women could enjoy, identify with, and back to the hilt. In short, I did not want her to be the usual portrayal of Guinevere because that character of the familiar Arthurian legends, I also admit, I cannot stand! My Gwenhwyfar, despite an often difficult relationship with the man she loves – her husband, Arthur – never betrays him, is never disloyal and never tarnishes her honour. They row, they disagree, they make love with exciting passion, and throughout, my Gwenhwyfar sticks by her man, despite her hot-headed temper and the tragedies that befall them. I have written her like this because I firmly believe, apart from making her more interesting to a reader enjoying a darn good story, that is how she would have been, had she really existed.

Is it so dreadful to make the female characters in historical novels independent, feisty, gutsy girls? After all, a historical novel is, really, nothing more than a series of well camouflaged lies written around a few probable facts that are (wildly) interpreted by the author to fit nicely into a gripping (if the author is lucky!) story.

Historical fiction is just that – fiction. The primary objective is to entertain, although the skill of a good historical fiction author is to make the story appear believable.

To that end, no, perhaps it is not a good idea to make a female character have too much of a modern perspective, but then who wants to read about women doing the daily grind of  cooking, cleaning and sewing in a story?

I get enough of that in real life thank you very much!

Had great fun with this – Thank you for inviting me to your blog! What are some of the things you think are often misinterpreted about women throughout history?

Helen Hollick

SHADOW OF THE KING BY HELEN HOLLICK—IN STORES MARCH 2010
They knew what was coming.
Man and beast knew what lay ahead.
After the war cry.
Bitter the grave.

At long last, the peace King Arthur was born to usher in has settled over the realm. But Arthur was also born to be a warrior… and all true warriors are restless without a fight. Yearning for battle and ever-loyal, Arthur is easily deceived into setting sail for Gaul to defend its territories—leaving his country vulnerable and leaderless.

A beacon of hope in a land of desolation, he was to be the Lord of the Summer Land for now and forever. But first, the Pendragon must face the ultimate test, one that will take all his courage, strength of will, and honor to survive.

Because once destiny is fulfilled, can you ever truly win again?

About the Author
Helen Hollick lives in northeast London with her husband, daughter and a variety of pets, which include several horses, cats and two dogs. She has two major interests: Roman / Saxon Britain and the Golden Age of Piracy–the early eighteenth century. You can Find Helen at the following places:

Main Website: www.helenhollick.net
Blog profiles: www.acorne.blogspot.com
Muse and Views Blog: www.helenhollick.blogspot.com
My Picture Diary Blog: http://helenhollicksdiarydates.blogspot.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/helen.hollick
Monthly Journal: http://www.helenhollick.net/journal.html
Twitter: http://twitter.com/HelenHollick

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