Gender and Historical Figure Writing – Kaboom!

Guest Post by G.F. Skipworth

If men and women couldn’t talk to and about each other in print, a whole lot of literary fun would be lost, and numerous industries would disappear overnight. If the present couldn’t interact with the past, college seniors would have to abandon history majors and play accordions in the street. Unless you’re contemplating a change, you are what you are, and unless you’ve bested both the relativity and quantum physics folks, you live in the era to which you were assigned. So, in order to do anything fun with sex and/or history, your research will never be first-hand. Add a hot-button male or female issue to the mix, present or historical, and you’ve walked right into the mine-field of clueless inappropriateness, from which few emerge with limbs intact…and you did it on purpose!

In the case of fiction, authors who delve into the psyches of their opposites often forget the mission, which is to write an engaging story. The ego, however, says “You’re writing a book – you must be an expert on this.” And then we’re off, spraying the pages with global conclusions we couldn’t possibly have reached through any useful criteria, then generalizing them to and past the point of absurdity. Congratulations – you began with a pretty good story line and ended up a complete horse’s ass.

Ask the questions –  We know how useless and dangerous generalizations are, but we must also stop using our characters as evidence we had no way of attaining  to solve eternal mysteries. It’s much more important to ask the questions in storytelling, anyway. Humans don’t mind if you ask the right questions. The author who implied that conclusions are those things common to all bad books was largely correct.

Learn the speak – If you’re going to deal with historical characters in your writing, remember that history has weeded out most of the ordinary folks, and your subject might be more special than you are (sorry). If you’re fictionalizing Mark Twain, spend a lot of time learning not only the drawl, but its tempo changes and the whole code of etiquette behind speaking and writing of his region and time…yes, I said “code of etiquette.” If you intend to introduce Dorothy Parker as a character, you’d better hire a staff of the best wits in the writing industry, because ten to one she’s sharper than you. At a minimum, read everything she published until you get into the flow of her thinking and language.

Generalizations – Your mission is the character at hand, not bringing the tablets off the mountain to solve the riddle of the sexes. Tell us what he or she thinks, how he or she behaves and speaks, where he or she comes from – but only this one character, not his or her billions of chromosomal family.

Don the robe of history – The further you go back, the more different social conditions were. To completely rid your work of twenty-first century characteristics, you need as fine-toothed a comb as you used for typo-hunting and grammar-cleaning. We don’t think like they did (one hopes not, anyway), and you’re telling the story of them, not you. Get out of your year, even if it makes you feel like a heel.

Remember, one character at a time, no playing God, learn history’s lingo – one false move…kaboom!

G.F. Skipworth has toured most of the western world as a concert pianist, symphony/opera conductor, composer and vocalist. Educated at Whitman, College, Johns Hopkins, Harvard and UCLA, he worked in speech, comedy and academic writing as well. Entering the fiction world with the four-volume series, Fables of the Carpailtin Campfire, he moved on to historical fiction in his last two efforts, Stormfield – Tales from the Hereafter, and The Simpering, North Dakota Literary Society, a Midwestern American tale set in 1919.

Please visit G.F. Skipworth’s site at


Posted on July 22, 2010, in Featured Authors, History, Writer's Conference, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hey just a thought, you would probably get more readers if you interviewed controversial people for your blog.custom mens shirtsbest toronto movers

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