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.

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