Making History Sexy
I don’t do a lot of historical romance. Not that I don’t love history — history is one of my passions, as a matter of fact — but I find that my single historical romance — Snowball in Hell — doesn’t sell as well as my other titles. It’s not, as my natural insecurity would lead me to believe, unique to me. I hear from a number of romance publishers that historical can be a hard sell — so many variables, you see. Readers tend to have preferences for time periods, so while a reader may adore Age of Sail, she may not be so hot on the Jazz Age. Regencies were huge for a long time, but the market was flooded and for a while there you could sell Stone Age more easily than Regency (although Regency is once again experiencing a resurgence). Like real history, these things go in cycles.
Anyway, I’ve always been partial to the rich dramatic possibilities of World War I. The tragedy and horror, the romance and chivalry — forty million casualties — and the dawn of a new age. In particular I’ve been fascinated by the aerial battles and the aces — the canvas falcons. There’s a lot of potential there for powerful storytelling. So I finally decided to write a novella about a WWI ace. It’s called Out of the Blue, and it’s coming from Liquid Silver sometime in August, from what I hear. It’s a nice little crime story…with wings. But the thing is, I have to make a living at this, so I had to find a way to take this historical tale and make it sexy and modern and appealing to contemporary readers, of which, I hope, there will be many.
Easier said than done, perhaps. Part of the difficulty is the early Twentieth Century itself. Westerns, Medievals…they’re far enough back that they almost have a fantasy quality to them. And stories from the 1930s and 40s…well, who hasn’t seen The Maltese Falcon or at least Chinatown? These stories have a sort of vintage cachet to them. But the early 1900s…it’s tricky. It’s modern enough to be a little less romantic than, say, the Victorian period, but it’s so…quaint.
There’s a danger of parody as with this letter from British ace, Albert Ball, to the folks at home.
Cheerio, dears…Really, I am having too much luck for a boy. I will start straight away, and tell you all. On August 22 I went up. Met twelve Huns….
A little of that goes a long way. Obviously, to keep it real, you do want to sprinkle in a few “old beans” and “jolly goods,” but it’s got to be done sparingly or the modern reader begins to feel too detached, like she’s watching characters in a play. In good fiction, we’re in the moment with the characters, we’re living each scene with them — flinching at the bullets singing past, laughing at the jokes, blinking back the tears at the death of a beloved friend.
Part of how we achieve the goal of keeping the reader in the moment with us — even if the moment is April 1916 — is by staying focused on the humanity of our characters. Humans haven’t changed as much as you might think (and hope) since the dawn of time. Okay, our hygiene is better. Our hair is definitely better. But though our definitions may change, but we still need to feel successful, to love and be loved. We still experience the same emotions: joy, sorrow, jealousy, triumph, fear…
Fear is a good one for m/m romance because western society’s views on homosexuality have altered significantly throughout history — from generation to generation. Passionate but platonic male friendship was the order of the day during WWI. Homosexuality carried a potential death penalty. So we can play on that paranoia, we can use that fear effectively, and the modern reader can identify with that — can certainly identify with the need for love and companionship, and from there can empathize with the strain of having to disguise your true nature, the difficulty of hiding your needs…indefinitely…from those closest to you.
In order to write comfortably about the past, you need to know your stuff. That means doing your homework. But when the time comes to share that knowledge with the reader — to build the stage upon which your characters will play — it’s got to feel real and casual. Historical romance should never be clinical or textbookish. And part of how we keep it real and avoid reading like a sexy syllabus is by putting in the sensual details. No, I’ve never taken a bi-plane for a spin, but I do know how the icy wind feels blowing in my face, what petrol smells like, what a sunrise looks like, or how ale tastes.
Details matter — and never more than in historical fiction. Do not put your Knights Templar riding into battle in 1315 or have Apaches attacking in Ohio. Mistakes are not sexy.
And the last and most obvious way of making your historical sexy is…er…putting in a lot of sex. As much as makes sense. Yes, I know it sounds crass, but when it comes to historical romance, take a tip from those old bodice rippers of the 1970s. Sex sells. Sex is one of those universals, and there seems to be a certain amount of kink inherent in seeing people from the past doin eet. Maybe it’s the costumes. Maybe it’s the suspicion we all have that our parents couldn’t really have done that. Whatever the charm, romance readers — m/m romance readers in particular — like sex. If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that some things never change.
By Mark R. Probst
My current writing project is a piece about a gay soldier in a famous historical battle. It is a unique challenge to write a fictional story with fictional characters and have them interact with real characters and true events in a historically significant battle, especially one as well-known as the one I have chosen. I have to envy fantasy writers as they have the liberty to completely invent the battles to serve their characters. However in my case I must delicately weave the threads of my fictional story into the tapestry of history while carefully avoiding collisions that would alter true history.
My first step was to thoroughly research this particular battle to see where my story would best fit in. I read a book written by an authority and I also dug up all the information I could find on the internet (isn’t Wikipedia great?)
In my case it was necessary to choose a specific real-life troop to which my soldiers would belong, and map out the logistics of the story based on all the known facts about this troop. If a battle is large and complex, a writer might get away with inventing an entire troop. I didn’t have this luxury as the specifics of this battle are rather well documented. Research can be either fun or a drudge. For me, reading non-fiction materials comes under the drudge category, while watching all the movies about this battle is definitely on the fun side. As a film buff, I like to pattern my writing style after classic movies. This particular battle was immortalized on film a number of times, and it is quite interesting to compare all the different interpretations. Though I do have to be careful, because some of the movies I encountered in this instance took a ridiculous amount of artistic license to reinvent history!
I found that with my one other published work, I had the most success by marketing it as a traditional romance since it did fit within those guidelines. Now, writing about war, I’m making a departure from that genre. Because I am striving for authenticity, it occurs to me that “happily ever after” rarely exists in war. Sure, being away from home and under extreme duress, soldiers often found comfort in the arms of lovers. But once the conflict ended, they returned to their wives or families and left these temporary wartime romances behind.
One problem I see in a lot of gay historicals, is what Erastes has coined as OK homo – the tendency to make it a little too easy for gay people to live and be happy in a historical context. While it is certainly pleasant to imagine a happy idyllic gay couple living in the 19th Century, it’s just not realistic. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against these feel-good gay historical romances, after all I wrote one myself! It’s just that my goal with this new story is to create a believable environment in which a soldier knows he has romantic yearnings for a comrade, and also knows that to reveal these desires would be fatal.
The whole subject of gays in the military became a rather conspicuous news story 17 years ago when President Clinton made a campaign promise to lift the ban; and then again as our present administration announced its intention to abolish “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that by the time President Obama leaves office, gays and lesbians will be proudly and openly serving their country.
For research purposes this book is essential
So the fact that gay and lesbian military personnel have had to serve in secret throughout history makes for a rich landscape in which to cultivate stories. For inspiration, check out Randy Shilts’ wonderful book entitled “Conduct Unbecoming” that documents real-life gay and lesbian cases all the way back to the Revolutionary War. You will be astounded to know the very large number of dishonorable discharges that were processed every year for homosexuality as the U. S. military was actively entrapping and ferreting out gays and lesbians. Not to mention the cases of soldiers who actually spent years in military prisons after being court-martialed for sodomy. What is absolutely inconceivable to me is that in 1975 decorated Viet Nam war hero Leonard Matlovich was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force after publicly coming out. He sued the Air Force for reinstatement. While he was never reinstated, he did get his discharge changed from dishonorable to honorable. The Air Force did this mainly to rescue their eroding PR, but policy did not change and thousands of men and women continued to be ferreted out.
In closing I’d like to bring your attention to this submissions call. We are looking for good stories that demonstrate what life must have been like for gay and/or lesbian military personnel in a historical setting. Whether it’s 18th Century English Naval officers, 19th Century cavalry soldiers, the men storming the beaches of Normandy on D-day, or the draftees of the Viet Nam War, homosexuals were present and participated in these events and its time they got their due.
LGBT Military History Submissions Call
And finally please allow me to mention a few of the books that have been written with major gay characters in military settings: The upcoming Transgressions by Erastes (English Civil War) and False Colors by Alex Beecroft (One of those English Naval Wars), A Different Sin by Rochelle Hollander Schwab (American Civil War), Ransom and all its sequels by Lee Rowan, Captain’s Surrender by Alex Beecroft, and last but certainly not least The Charioteer by Mary Renault.