Alex Beecroft


Although I’ve done a number of historicals now – enough to say I am a ‘historical novelist’ – I still feel that not all historical eras are equal. People have said to me ‘the Tudors are very popular. I’d like to see you do something set in Tudor times.’ I nod politely, because there’s no predicting where my muse might take me next. But inside, I’m still going ‘ew, the Tudors. They’re all torture and paranoia and witch burnings.’ I can’t really imagine wanting to write in an era where my nation’s best battleship sunk because someone forgot to put the plug in.

This is slightly hypocritical of me, because I like the Anglo-Saxons a lot, and they are not without brutality either. Plus, their technological level is much lower. But they nevertheless seem more civilised to me – a thoughtful, religious, melancholy people with less tendency towards burning women alive. Maybe I’m reading too much from the example of King Alfred and the Venerable Bede – both the sort of humane intellects I wouldn’t mind meeting in real life.

The 18th Century, though, is still my favourite. Part of this is the clothes. I can’t take Henry VIII seriously in his padded bloomers, but when we’ve moved on to tricorn hats, poet shirts, tight waistcoats and frock coats with swirling skirts; tight breeches and men in white silk stockings, showing off their toned calves to the ladies, well, then you’re talking.

But it’s more than that. I prefer civilization to savagery – I like to write in a world in which I would not find it unbearable to live – and the 18th Century is a time in which it’s possible to exist as something other than a warrior. More than that, it’s a time of great exploration. The world was opening up before Western Man, and as a result the spirit of the age is one of excitement. New things are being thought of every day. New places are being discovered. The world and the human spirit is expanding, and for the first time people are beginning to think about freedom and equality and the rights of man. An awful lot of what we take for granted nowadays was first being thought of in the 18th Century and it’s fascinating to watch it blowing their minds.

I read a lot of 18th Century journals as part of my research, and I find no difficulty in liking these people. They are urbane and amused, confident and surprisingly open minded. They have none of the self-righteous imperialism and prudery of the 19th Century, and while you’d have to cover the ears of the sensitive, because of their vulgarity, I wouldn’t feel a qualm about inviting them around for dinner. The tendency to fight a duel at the drop of a hat would be worrisome, I suppose, and they do drink and quarrel a lot, but they’re never quite what you expect. I think Jane Austen, who was that little bit later, would be shockingly disapproving of them. But in a fight between Lady Mary Wortley-Montague, lady of letters, who travelled the world, wrote letters from Turkey, and invented an early form of smallpox inocculation, and Jane Austen, my bets are on Lady Mary. She, at least, had attended the Empress of Austria when the fine ladies of Austria exhibited their honed pistol marksmanship. I think she’d be the one to walk away from that duel.

BlessedIsle_200x300

Blurb:

For Captain Harry Thompson, the command of the prison transport ship HMS Banshee is his opportunity to prove his worth, working-class origins be damned. But his criminal attraction to his upper-crust First Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, threatens to overturn all he’s ever worked for.

Lust quickly proves to be the least of his problems, however. The deadly combination of typhus, rioting convicts, and a monstrous storm destroys his prospects . . . and shipwrecks him and Garnet on their own private island. After months of solitary paradise, the journey back to civilization—surviving mutineers, exposure, and desertion—is the ultimate test of their feelings for each other.

These two very different men each record their story for an unfathomable future in which the tale of their love—a love punishable by death in their own time—can finally be told. Today, dear reader, it is at last safe for you to hear it all.

You can read an excerpt and buy Blessed Isle here at Riptide.

Author Bio

Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years. Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two daughters in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.

Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.

You can find Alex on

her website,Facebook,Twitter or her Goodreads page

 

Alex Beecroft:

Music doesn’t seem to work that way for me. For a start, I don’t listen to much music these days, except when doing housework, and that tends to be trance music without any words. I did listen to a lot of 18th Century sea shanties when I was writing my Age of Sail books, and they were excellent for letting me know the kind of things that the sailors of the time thought and said about themselves and their lives. I also listened to classical music of the time, so I could hear the soundtrack of the officers’ lives. I think that gave the overall setting a bit more texture, but nothing really became part of the story in such a dramatic way that it could have said to have inspired scenes or plot points.

Oh… oh, I lie (or at least, I have just remembered something.) Actually I did watch a TV programme about the castrati, which featured male soprano Michael Maniaci, whose voice is amazing. Listening to him sing inspired me to make John Cavendish in False Colors a countertenor and gave rose to the scene in which Alfie persuades him to sing and is awed by the result.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8GnxqotJiw

KC Warwick:

The music running through my mind while I was writing ‘Prove A Villain’ was Vaughan Williams ‘ Fantasia on Greensleeves’.  ‘Greensleeves’ always reminds me of Elizabethan times, though I must admit that I smile to myself when I remember Michael Flanders’ wonderful monologue on  ‘Green Fleeves’, (this chap Anon’s writing some perfectly lovely stuff, but no one seems to know who his agent is…) Sorry, I digress.

Erastes:

I’ve never been one to constantly have music on, I’ve never owned a walkman or an ipod or anything like that. I seem to have entirely skipped the CD generation and most of my records are vinyl. And I have nothing from this century, either, to the horror of the children of a friend who visited once!

It seems entirely incongruous but while I was writing Transgressions I was addicted to Billy Holliday and would play her obsessively on repeat while writing. The era is completely wrong but the “he was my man and he done me wrong” soulfullness was entirely right at the time.

Mozart’s Requiem sparked a plot line in Standish where Rafe’s son dies and he holds an enormous funeral where he meets up with Ambrose again. But I never actually wrote that, because it seemed entirely out of character for Ambrose to allow such a tragedy to bring them back together. So I dumped the entire idea which broke my heart as I adore that particular requiem.

I can hear a piece of music and have it paint pictures in my head as to what is going on–there’s a piece of music  (Polovetsian Dances by Borodin from Prince Igor) which very clearly tells me the story of a war-hardened warrior and him falling in love for a young recruit all bare chest and no chest hair. I haven’t allowed myself to watch the ballet, because I know jolly well there’s no such plot line in it. But it has sparked a bunny and the notes have gone into my “to do later” file.  Probably around the time of Ghenghis Khan. Oh great. More research.

Charlie Cochrane

Just a short one this week.  Many thanks to Lee Benoit for sending in a link to this

possibly the first ever onscreen m/m kiss.

And to Syd McGinley for this link to a blog featuring some historical hunks:

Bangable Dudes in History

From Syd McGinley
http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.
The dates beside a word indicate the earliest year for which there is a surviving written record of that word (in English, unless otherwise indicated). This should be taken as approximate, especially before about 1700, since a word may have been used in conversation for hundreds of years before it turns up in a manuscript that has had the good fortune to survive the centuries.

~

Two links from Erastes:

from lgbtukmonth

http://lgbthmuk.blogspot.com/2011/02/secrets-out-on-hidden-life-of-gay.html

hidden life of gay victorians

and

glbt objects in the Victoria and Albert – (disappointingly only 21!)

http://www.untoldlondon.org.uk/article/get-our-free-lgbt-trail-british-museum

~

and some vintage cross dressers:

from the Bilerico project, a young male impersonator

http://www.bilerico.com/2011/02/boi_from_a_bygone_era_vintage_male_impersonator.php

and from the blog A Gender Variance Who’s Who, Ross Hamilton as Marjorie

http://zagria.blogspot.com/2010/05/ross-hamilton-1889-1965-female.html

I see I forgot to do a Friday post last week.  My apologies!  However, that does mean that I’ve got an especially good selection of links this week.  So, without further ado:

Ever had your historical character sigh and stare at the wall, only to wonder exactly what he was seeing?  Have a look at these historical wallpapers discovered in a renovated house:

http://ht.ly/3SdYn

I haven’t yet looked at the rest of the site, but that looks pretty interesting too.

~

This is an absolute must bookmark site for anyone doing stuff set in the Victorian era:

http://www.victorianlondon.org/

several thousand pages of Victoriana, available free to the general public.”

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Some evocative photos of London during WW2

http://www.howtobearetronaut.com/2010/06/london-blackout-february-1944/

I liked these photos in particular, but I follow the Retronaut on Twitter because it’s consistently interesting and inspiring with regular little glimpses into different eras and historical subjects.

~

And now for something completely different – some writing resources!

Ever stuck for a new story idea?  This may help:

http://www.creativity-portal.com/prompts/imagination.prompt.html

~

Oh no! My historical gay romance character has put on a deerstalker and is insisting he’s a detective, what can I do?  I know nothing about plotting mystery novels!

Fret not, but check out

http://ticket2write.tripod.com/mysplot.html

~

And for a bit of fun, and in case you were absolutely yearning for a banyan of your own

http://www.lacma.org/art/ffpatterns.aspx

downloadable patterns for a man’s banyan, a sleeved waistcoat, an unsleeved waistcoat and a late 18th Century man’s coat.  (Well, I can’t be the only one in the world who saw this and went “I want one!” can I?)

Valentine’s Day letter from Garnet Littleton to Harry Thompson from Blessed Isle

Lo!  When the rosy fingered dawn
Her gentle light in at the casement shine
And from the Stygian depths, new-born,
She draws this soul of mine,
I contemplate with grateful breast
The manly bosom whereon I rest.
Shaped for the Titan’s herculean task,
Yea, as of marble fairly wrought,
By a master’s hands, and though most dearly bought,
Containing every blessing I might ask.

Here beats a heart of Attic kind,
Fit for the ancient heroes’ company,
Here slumbers quiet a lively mind,
That I would bend with kisses upon me.
And, Harry, though I think you’d blush
I dream with greatest pleasure of the power,
The thrust and elevation of that tower,
About whose proper name I must say “hush”.

So, sleeping warrior, awake
The day of lovers taps upon the glass
And of its nectar let us now partake.
The deed of Venus we should soon surpass,
When the angry god of war she overcame
In swooning bliss.  The lion most tame
Lay with the lamb.  Just so, with you
My nature wild you effortless undo
And make me answer only to your name.

Reply from Harry to Garnet
My dear fanciful lad, you are of the two of us the eloquent one.  Though I should try my hardest to string together fine words – to somehow attempt to reply appropriately to such a poem, a great deal of which, I may say, went over my head – I could not do better than to answer plainly “I love you too.”  I will endeavour to show you by actions what I cannot express in speech.  Today and always,

Yours,

Harry.

Quite a different take on the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian here

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/10/re-reading-patrick-obrians-aubrey-maturin-series

a weekly read-along and discussion with a group of SF/F authors and fans.  I include it here because PoB is the very model of a modern major general historical fiction writer, and we can all learn something by pouring over the good stuff.

~

Not sure if I’ve linked to this before, but a great way of finding out those little details that make your historical writing so authentic and fully immersive is by joining a historical reenactment society.  You can get quite new perspectives on stuff by handling the artifacts and wearing the clothes yourself.  Here is a list of reenactment societies in the UK

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/LivingHistory/LivingHistorySocieties.htm

and one here which has some US societies and some international ones

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_historical_reenactment_groups

~

I thought this was funny and very instructive at the same time:

The impotence of proof reading (proving that the penis mightier than the sword.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OonDPGwAyfQ

~

On a more serious note, if you ever feel moved to demand satisfaction in an 19th Century style, the full code covering duelling is available from Gutenberg.org

THE CODE OF HONOR;

or

RULES FOR THE GOVERNMENT

of

PRINCIPALS AND SECONDS

in

DUELLING

by John Lyde Wilson

Published in 1838, but containing material from 1777

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6085/6085-h/6085-h.htm

~

And some very not safe for work vintage photos and illustrations of gay sex

http://classicgay.canalblog.com/

~

Anyone with any interesting links concerning writing, history or gay history please do share them with us.  Thanks!

 

Picture of Sisyphus, by Titian

In November a young writer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of NaNoWriMo.  This annual event with the ugly acronym is the National Novel Writing Month, during which a bunch of mad writers attempt to crank out a 50,000 word novel in thirty days.  It’s not too late if you want to have a go!  Sign up is here, and I’m reliably informed that the tighter the deadline, the easier it is to rack up the words. (more…)

Another eclectic round-up of links which may or may not be useful to your research.

Erastes says that she wishes this had been available when she was writing Transgressions, as Jonathan from that book was partially inspired by 17th century Puritan writer Nehemiah Wallington:

Journal of the Witchfinder General

A whole bunch of links to articles on io9.  I follow this blog because I’m a big Science-fiction and Fantasy fan, but they also occasionally come up with some fascinating historical trivia, and today was obviously a good day for it, as they have articles on:

18th/19th Century coffin technologies that protect you from being buried alive

Eerie listening – the theremin (invented in 1920)

55,000 years ahead of their time – a group of early humans in South Africa

And I’ve been noodling around looking for sites with information about society’s attitude to homosexuality during World War Two, for my next book, and came up with these:

Wikipedia, while not a good place to rely on, is often a good place to start, and I thought this was at least a nice succinct summary:

Timeline of LGBT history

And then I got distracted reading about The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, which was interesting in itself and convinced me that moving to Paris might be a better post war strategy for my lads than staying at home.

This seemed like a good book for anyone researching for a WW2 story set in Canada:

Paul Jackson. One of the Boys: Homosexuality in the Military during World War II.

And this looked like an absolute godsend for me, with my story set in my back yard around Mepal and Witcham in the UK:

BBC – WW2 People’s War, an archive of WW2 memories, written by the public, gathered by the BBC

particularly when it contained this:

A Gay Soldier’s Story “They used us when it suited them, and then victimised us when the country was no longer in danger. I am glad I served but I am angry that military homophobia was allowed to wreck so many lives for over 50 years after we gave our all for a freedom that gay people were denied”, said Cave.

As before, two men and a title. The rest is lunacy.

Robert Scoville and Jonty Stewart in The Shade on a Fine Day (Charlie Cochrane)

Tall, slim and devastatingly handsome Robert Scoville has only one rival for the title ‘Britain’s bluest blooded stallion’ – Jonty Stewart. Jonty has eyes as blue as Laurence Dalaglio’s manties and hair the colour of Strongbow cider. His chiselled good looks send women into ecstasy and men into Boots the Chemist for a facial kit.

Will their rivalry erupt into violence? Or will the dreadful secret they both hide – that they’d both rather run with the geldings rather than the mares – be revealed by sulky temptress Charlie Cochrane who wishes either or both of them would come and share her jelly babies?

Garnet Littleton and Jack Darling in Lessons in Prevarication (Alex Beecroft)

Charming but feckless rich boy, Captain Garnet Littleton is being
blackmailed for his affair with the First Sea Lord by the Sea Lord’s
corrupt manservant, Jack Darling. But when Garnet sends the Impress
service after Jack, dragging him on board ship and imprisoning him in
the hold, the tables are turned. Will he enact a bloody (and possibly
titillating) revenge on the man who threatened his life for so long?
Will they succumb to the fellow feeling of men who have both suffered
the stigma of silly names? Or will Garnet just put off dealing with the
problem for so long that Jack starves to death in the dark? Find out in
the psychological thriller, Lessons in Prevarication.

Orlando Coppersmith and Etienne Beauchene in Aftermath

When brilliant but moody Etienne Beauchenne, star of the Sorbonne Applied Mathematics department, loses his lover in a duel over the correct way to pronounce Moet et Chandon, he flees Paris for Brighton. There he finds Orlando Coppersmith, once a numerical genius but now a curator at the geological museum, heart-broken because his lifetime love has run away to join the Tiller girls.

Will Etienne’s steady hand make itself felt on Orlando’s Arsinoitherium? And will they discover that there is, indeed, life after math?

And this one has to be today’s winner, for the last line if nothing else.

Jack Darling and Garnet Littleton in Lessons in Prevarication

Jack spots Garnet across a crowded auction floor and falls desperately in love with his bloodshot eyes and his air of lank Byronesque lassitude. He can’t bring himself to broach the subject of his infatuation but goes home and writes letter after letter none of which he posts. Desperate for Dutch courage, he takes brandy laced with laudenum, finds the muse within him, writes and writes letter, none of which are perfect, but still he strives for the PERFECT words to express his love for the beautiful Mr Littleton.

Sadly, the drug takes hold, he forget to eat and drink and he’s found
crushed to death beneath a hundred weight of shifted papers he was too weak to push off – and clutching a badly drawn picture of Garnet.

The story is told in blank verse.

You know the form. Take two random gay historical romance heroes plus one random title. Add nutty authors.

Robert Scoville and Jonty Stewart in The Shade on a Fine Day (Alex Beecroft)

High powered government scientist Robert Scoville is trapped when his lab is hit by mysterious objects falling from the sky. Rescued by handsome fire-fighter Jonty Stewart he falls head over heels in love at first sight. But the falling objects are debris from a huge comet hurtling towards the earth, blocking out the sun and causing tidal waves and earthquakes throughout the globe. And it might be love, but they’ve only got 14 hours to save the world…

Edward Easterby and Adam Hayward in Hard & Fast (Charlie Cochrane)

When Edward Easterby suffers a career-ending injury to his sideburns and has to retire from first class rugby, he seeks to end it all by drowning himself in a vat of Magners’ cider. As he suffers the slow death – emerging for the third time to go to the loo – he encounters smoulderingly sexy Adam Hayward, who’s had to sell his body to see his little sister through drama school.

Their roller-coaster romance takes them through the back streets of Derry and the front pages of the tabloids when it emerges that Adam is really the long estranged heir to the HardnFast SuperGlue empire. Will they stick together or is the solvent of distrust too strong?

David Archer and Hugo Lamont in Mistaken Identity (Charlie Cochrane, who really needs to get a life…)

Hugo Lamont has it all – brains, looks, money, and the biggest didgeridoo this side of Bell’s Beach. But his urbane frontage hides the painful secret of a heart broken in several places, at least one of which was Cardiff.

David Archer hasn’t got nuffink. One minute he was on a Georgian frigate, warming the captain’s hammock, and the next he’d found himself in Plas Roald Dahl, being touched up by a handsome man with botox and a military greatcoat who thinks he’s someone else entirely. Only Hugo can rescue him from a fate worse than playing for Newport Gwent Dragons.

Can love really blossom between two such disparate souls? And will a Mr Whippy 99 with chocolate sauce be the catalyst to romance?

And, possibly the star of today’s offerings:

Aftermath – starring Ioan Griffith as Orlando Coppersmith and Gerard Depardieu as Etienne Beauchene (Bruin Fisher)

Shy academic Orlando Coppersmith, having survived the First World War with the loss not only of his eyesight, one leg and most of his lung capacity as a result of surviving a mustard gas attack, is now searching for his greatest loss, his lover and life partner, Professor Stewart of Cambridge University.

In France without a guide, his search initially leads him round and round in circles until he chances upon the massive bulk of Etienne Beauchene, local baker and gastronome, who clasps him to his bosom in the mistaken belief that he is his long-lost cousin from New York. Thus begins an unlikely relationship which blossoms into near tolerance as the two find ways to communicate, although neither speaks a word of the
other’s language, Orlando is blind and Etienne is very deaf.

Follow the story to see how Etienne bakes his world famous croissants, how Orlando learns to ride a bicycle despite his shortage of limbs, how they both career through the rural French countryside with strings of
onions over their handlebars and how true love gets jammed between the spokes.

On April Fools’ Day, some of the Macaronis were playing at Speak Its Name, taking various pairs of historically romantic lovers, mixing them up and allocating them to the Macronis’ book titles (some real, some ridiculous).

We were inordinately proud of our efforts at plots and blurbs which ensued and would like to give the world the benefit of our lunacy.

For your delectation, batch one:

Nehemiah Gillis and Gideon Frost in False Colors (Charlie Cochrane)

When feisty Nehemiah Gillis opens ‘No Fail Nails’ in the sleepy backwater of Echidna Creek, how can he know that fate will deal him the equivalent of a smack in the puss with a wet sock full of sand?

How will stunningly handsome, if myopic, Gideon Frost cope when he enters the nail salon mistaking it for the local branch of Ladbroke’s?

And will their love survive the shocking discovery that Gideon doesn’t suit Kylie Pink?

Harry Thompson and Finbar Thouless in Transgressions (Alex Beecroft)

Uptight hell-fire preacher Harry Thompson is determined to stamp out
vice across the Bible Belt of America. So why is it that everywhere he
goes there’s a bank robbery, a rash of break-ins, a sex scandal and a
prison breakout? Could it have anything to do with his PA, the soft
spoken Irishman with the laughing eyes, Finbar Thouless? And why does he find himself so reluctant to find out?

David Caverly and Rafe Goshawk in Ransom (Erastes)

David Caverly falls asleep in a fairy ring and wakes 200 years later to find that he’s still hot and his hair has grown back and yay! no-one speaks in thees and thous any more.

While admiring his hot self in a river he’s discovered by Rafe Goshawk, who mistakes him for a river nymph and thinks “well, if it’s not human, it’s not TECHNICALLY infidelity” and much shaggage is had and no-one bothers to get David any clothes.

When Rafe’s live in lover, Ambrose disturbs their smexxing he curses them and the fairy king emerges from the river and takes them off to fairy land saying that only a Ransom of a true heart and sacrifice will save the pair of them.

Will Ambrose recant and work to save the man who has betrayed him AGAIN? What do you think?

I have to recommend this blog

Got Medieval

because my life was not complete without ambulatory genetalia.  I particularly like the one on stilts, and the girl power one with the crowned vagina being carried on high by three phalluses.  I swear that one in the hat is wearing roller skates, though.

badges1

But it isn’t all pudenda. The Medievalist can be funny on practically any aspect of his chosen area of study. I have this blog bookmarked and it gives me a giggle every time. But watch out what you use the word for! You don’t want him going all medieval on you ;)

Let me tell you all about my grand adventure on Wednesday…

Window

(more…)

captain_cook

There are lots of modern myths about the past which it’s very easy for us as modern people to buy into. I was thinking about this today because I’ve recently acquired a number of reprints of 18th Century journals, and I keep coming across sentiments which are startlingly at odds with what popular thought believes about 18th Century people.

We’re accustomed to the idea that the past was a different place from the present – that people thought in ways which are at odds with our modern understanding – but I think that our tendency is to make that a value judgement. The people of the past were old fashioned and wrong. They believed things which no progressive modern person would ever believe. They were, in short, not as good as us.

One of the joys of reading original sources, however, is the way that they challenge this assumption. Yes, the past was different from the present, but it was often different in ways we don’t really suspect, and in ways that challenge our casual assumption of modern superiority.

For example, the idea that women in the past were somehow less critical of men; they were passive wallflowers without a thought of their own, in comparison with modern, kickass heroines.

By contrast I just found this opinion in the correspondence of Mary Delany (published as ‘Letters from Georgian Ireland’ edited by Angelique Day)

Dublin 17 January 1731/2

Would it were so, that I went ravaging and slaying all odious men, and that would go near to clear the world of that sort of animal; you know I never had a good opinion of them, and every day my dislike strengthens; some few I will except, but very few, they have so despicable an opinion of women, and treat them by their words and actions so ungenerously and inhumanly. By my manner of inveighing, anybody less acquainted with me than yourself would imagine I had very lately received some very ill usage. No! ’tis my general observation on conversing with them: the minutest indiscretion in a woman (though occasioned by themselves), never fails of being enlarged into a notorious crime; but men are to sin on without limitation or blame; a hard case!

It’s a complaint I hear daily echoed around my Livejournal communities, and so startlingly familiar that I laughed out loud. Who would have thought it – we’ve been complaining about the double standard for over two hundred years. Of course, in the next line she breaks that familiarity by continuing – not the restraint we are under, for that I extremely approve of, but the unreasonable licence tolerated in the men. How amiable, how noble a creature is man when adorned with virtue! But how detestable when loaded with vice!

These days we would rather argue for the right of women to behave with the licence she detests in her men, rather than the duty of men to behave with the self restraint she hopes for in women, but still it’s apparent that our foremothers were not quite as uncritical as they are sometimes supposed to be.

Another myth that doesn’t quite stand up to the evidence of the original sources is the idea that the 18th Century explorers went out with a doctrine of Imperialism and certainty of superiority, intent on dispossessing the peoples they found of their culture and lands.

With hindsight developed from watching the ghastly results of that first contact, we work backwards and assign the original explorers motives and world-views that are quite inaccurate. In doing so – in our haste to make it plain that as modern people we abhor imperialism in any form – we misrepresent the attitudes of the time.

This is Captain Cook exhibiting his feeling of cultural superiority in Tahiti

We refused to except of the Dog as being an animal we had no use for, at which she seem’d a little surprised and told us that it was very good eating and we very soon had an opportunity to find that it was so, for Mr.Banks having bought a basket of fruit in which happened to be the thigh of a Dog ready dress’d, of this several of us taisted and found that it was meat not to be dispised and therefore took Obarea’s dog and had him immidiatly dress’d by some of the Natives in the following manner. (Cook describes cooking in a hole in the ground.) after he had laid here about 4 hours the Oven (for so I must call it) was open’d and the Dog taken out whole and well done, and it was the opinion of every one who taisted of it that they Never eat sweeter meat, we therefore resolved in the future not to despise Dogs flesh.

Cook on the superiority of Christianity to Tahitian religion:

Various were the opinions concerning the Provisions &c laid out about the dead; upon the whole it should seem that these people not only beleive in a Supream being but on a futurue state also, and that this must be meant either as an offering to some Deitie, or for the use of the dead in the other world, but this last is not very probable as there appear’d to be no Priest craft in the thing, for what ever provisions were put there, it appear’d very plain to us that there it remaind untill it consum’d away of it self. It is most likely that we shall see more of this before we leave the Island, but if it is a Religious ceremoney we may not be able to understand it, for the Misteries of most Religions are very dark and not easily understud even by those who profess them.

My emphasis added. Do these sound to you like the opinions of a man certain that he was the spearhead of civilization? I’m not for a moment denying that his arrival in many of the places he visited was the start of a disastrous and appalling period of exploitation and oppression. Nor that the Imperialism and cultural superiority followed, but the myth tends to be that the first explorers arrived with ill intent. When you read the man’s actual thoughts it’s much harder to keep hold of that.

Cook is not what you expect. And he’s not what you expect in a different way from what you might expect, because although many of his entries read with an almost Star Trek ‘strange new worlds’ delight in discovering new things which I for one find easy to empathize with, in many other places he is as archaic and strange as you can imagine. Here’s his entry in the log for a tragedy early in the voyage:

In the morning hove up the Anchor in the Boat and carried it out to the Southward, in heaving the Anchor out of the Boat Mr Weir Masters mate was carried over board by the Buoy-rope and to the bottom with the anchor. Hove up the anchor by the Ship as soon as possible and found his body intangled in the Buoy-rope. Moor’d the ship with the two Bowers in 22 fathom water, the Loo Rock W and the Brazen head E Saild his Majestys ship Rose. The Boats imploy’d carrying the casks ashore for Wine and the caulkers caulking the Ships sides.

As modern people we would expect at least a conventional expression of emotion here, but there is none.

To sum up; the past is strange, but it’s strange in ways that we don’t expect. If it’s possible at all to find original sources there is no substitute for them in correcting the assumptions we take for granted as modern people. In many respects, once we start to hear the genuine voices of people from the past it becomes much clearer that we aren’t superior to them; that we, like them, are subject to our own culture’s prejudices. Original sources – there’s nothing like them for broadening the mind and the sympathies. (And in Cook’s case, also the spelling. I’m going to have such trouble not writing clowdy and intangled in future!)

The Language of fans.

No, I don’t mean OMGWTFBBQ! Or ‘squee’! Though I’m sure a post on the language of media fans in the 21st Century would be invaluable to the historical novelists of the future. No, I’m talking about the kind of fan you use to cool your face, particularly in the ballrooms of Regency novels, and the suggestion that they were used to convey coded messages through a well known repertoire of gestures.

Since I’m concentrating on the language of fans, I’ll pass over the other uses of fans throughout most of history by cunningly referring you to this handy website: Life was a Breeze with Fans

So… Googling on ’18th Century fans’ will inevitably turn up a number of sites like this

http://www.ideco.com/fans/language.htm or this http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/riley/200/fans.html

which give long lists of different fan positions and the different meanings which are to be attached to each. This struck me as extremely cool. But the lists were sometimes quite different from each other – sometimes dangerously contradictory. It’s a bit of a disaster to drop your fan, meaning ‘let us be friends’, only to discover you’ve really said ‘I am yours forever’. Suppose your right arm gets tired? Then you only have the choice of getting really hot or saying ‘do not flirt with that woman’ to your entire acquaintance.

This led me to wonder how much truth there was in the idea of a formalized language of fans at all. Sadly, a bit more digging brought to light the news that the well known language as practiced in Georgian ballrooms was actually an invention of a 19th Century fan maker named Duvelleroy. He printed out a sheet of instructions and enclosed them with his fans as a marketing gimmick. See this exhibition of the language in use in the delightfully named ‘Fan Slang’ page of the royal collection.

For people who are determined that there must have been an earlier version of this language in existence, some hope is held out by the fact that Duvelleroy is said to have adapted (and vastly expanded) an original German version of a pre-existing Spanish guide.

Liza Picard, whose ‘Dr. Johnson’s London’ seems to me to be a very reliable guide, mentions fan language, and gives a much shorter list of meanings, which comprises just fifteen gestures, including ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘hush, we are being overheard’. I wondered where she had got this from – whether this was the original pre-Duvelleroy list – but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a reference in the back of the book or a footnote to give her references.

So I thought I’d see what the people of the period have to say. Here is Addison in 1711 with a tongue in cheek proposal to set up a new academy of the fan for genteel young ladies:

Mr Spectator – women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them

I’ve linked that because it’s long and well worth reading in its entirety. But clearly Addison, in mocking the use of the fan to express its bearer’s emotions, has no idea at all that it might be used for sending coded messages. I’m inclined to think that if it had been so used at the time, he would have known about it.

It wouldn’t have been a very good language if none of the men you used it with recognized its existence. I’ve actually got a scene in False Colors where Mrs. Deane is attempting to tell the hero, John, that he is being indiscreet, and that the two of them will be good friends. But sadly John is entirely ignorant of the existence of fan language and doesn’t even notice that she’s trying to say something. If Addison is to be believed that may not be too off the mark!

Fans could be used for other communication, however – all sorts of information could be painted on the backs of them. This site has some lovely pictures of a fan with samples of botanical classification, another with dance steps, and another with a calendar of saints days marked on. They could also be used to demonstrate political leanings or patriotism – for example this fan commemorating the Battle of the Nile.

Of course there’s nothing to prevent there having been the occasional informal use of a fan to send pre-arranged signals – in fact it seems unlikely that that wouldn’t have occasionally happened among groups of friends or a certain ‘set’. But still, on balance I would be wary about including too much general knowledge of any ‘language of the fan’ before the 19th Century. I don’t think it was the popular phenomenon that some websites would have you believe.

(Not quite ‘see below’, but if you click on the picture it will take you to the ITV Lost in Austen page.)

So, did anyone see ‘Lost in Austen’ last night? What did you think?

I admit I arrived a little late and the modern girl had already switched places with Lizzie Bennett. But as she was only being introduced to the family, I can’t have missed that much.

The premise of the programme, if you haven’t seen it yet, is that Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice switches places with a modern Austen fan. Lizzie gets to do something mysterious in the modern world, and the other girl, Miss Price, gets to live in Pride and Prejudice. Me, I’m curious to know what Lizzie is getting up to in modern London, but so far this hasn’t been addressed.

So, cue Modern girl blundering around in P&P, simultaneously knowing too much about the plot of the book, and too little about the rest of the society to be able to fit in. Naturally everyone is very curious about her, and her presence begins to disrupt the story in significant ways.

For example, Mr. Bingley appears smitten by her charms. I really hope that the ‘look, I’m wearing no stays’ boob shot isn’t meant to be the whole cause of his infatuation! Perhaps he starts off with ‘OMG boobs!’ and works up to being intrigued by a woman who’s so different from everyone else – as per the rules of most Regencies, except Jane Austen’s.

Cue lots of guilt and scheming on her part to try to get the story back on track. Meanwhile Jane is being lovely to her, Charlotte Lucas is proving to be as on the ball as she is in the original, Mrs. Bennett is see-sawing between far too sharp and her normal dim self, and Modern Girl is getting rapidly out of her depth.

I enjoyed it more than I expected, to be honest. There were some cringeable moments at the start, when it looks as thought the P&P characters are going to turn into caricatures of themselves. But then I thought it settled down and occasionally showed some real insight into the characters. In fact, Darcy’s dancing with Miss Price when he wouldn’t have danced with Lizzie was a stroke of genius, and showed him in a better light – as a friend of Bingley’s – than the original. Mr.Darcy does ride rather roughshod over Mr.Bingley in the original, and I liked very much that this gave him an opportunity to show that Bingley might get something out of the friendship too.

Is Modern Miss Price a bit of a Sue? I think that will depend on whether Darcy falls for her too. A modern girl who fell into P&P and ended up with Bingley would at least be original. Then Jane can marry Darcy and Elizabeth can become a high profile barrister in modern London… Or not. I haven’t read the book on which this is based, so, if you know, don’t tell me how it ends! I’m hooked enough want to tune in and giggle with nervous but thorough enjoyment next week.

Oh, being the dunce that I am, I hadn’t realized that it was adapted from this book

http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Austen-Create-Your-Adventure/dp/1594482586

which I do own and have read! I still don’t know how it ends, of course, because it could end in numerous different ways depending on how the reader plays it. And the TV programme could come up with something new anyway. Good stuff! Now I’m looking forward to next week even more.

I can recommend the book too, btw. I enjoyed it a lot.

The past. From my (admittedly not very extensive) experience of reading historicals and watching historical movies, I get the impression that for many people the past is conveniently grouped into four or five basic blobs which serve as settings for the majority of historical fiction:

You’ve got ‘prehistoric’, inhabited by cavemen who may or may not hunt dinosaurs, live in caves, wear furs and go ‘ug’.

Then – passing over most of the Bronze Age – you have ‘the Romans’. The Romans generally have an Emperor, wear togas and/or armour and wear red-crested helmets. Often they fall in love with slaves/native princes from far flung corners of the empire such as Britannia.

‘Arthurian times’ come somewhere between the Romans and the Medievals. But where exactly – whether it’s one extreme or the other or somewhere in the middle – is up to the writer. This movable era also tends to house most of the ‘Celtic’ period and – passing over the Saxons and early Normans – segues gently into ‘medieval times’.

We can tell when something is set in medieval times because it has downtrodden peasants, evil barons in castles, maidens forced into marriage despite their chastity belts, trailing sleeves, pointy shoes and possibly noble outlaws based on Robin Hood. If a ‘medieval’ story deals with ‘Highlanders’ they will naturally wear kilts and possibly woad too. (‘Braveheart’, I’m looking at you.)

After medieval times comes ‘the Regency’ or possibly ‘the 18th Century’ – these terms are often taken to be synonymous. During the Regency everyone was aristocratic, lived in big houses, dressed like Mr.Darcy, were obsessed with manners and the marriage market and had no visible means of support. Politics were unimportant and the rest of the world (outside Britain) did not exist.

There are also specialized little space/time bubbles for things like ‘the Caribbean pirates’, ‘the Arabian nights’ etc, each of which comes with its variety of things which are ‘known’ to happen in that setting.

To a certain extent this is all a convenient shorthand, and in a reader it does no harm if you have no idea which year the Pope banned shoes with extravagant toes, or which half of the century Catholics were burning Protestants rather than the other way around. But I can’t help feeling that writers should be held to a higher standard.

Why do I feel that? Am I just an anal killjoy who can’t get into the spirit of things? Well… maybe. Maybe it doesn’t matter if your Scotsmen have stolen the Picts’ woad and are wearing kilts that won’t be invented for another two hundred years. Maybe it doesn’t matter that your heroes are blithely saying and thinking things that their society would suppose to be unthinkable. Maybe it doesn’t even matter if their society itself is unaccountably modern in its attitudes. But where does it stop? When the account of the fall of Rome features Visigoths in tanks and Napoleonic horsemen with rocket launchers? When they’re all thwarted because the Romans send out a cute little puppy and they realize that they can’t bear the cruelty of war any more and they want to go grow Afalfa in the Pyrenees?

Actually I might quite like that, particularly when the Saxons turn up in their helicopters, only to be thwarted when the platoon of highly trained attack dinosaurs rally to the defence of the Parthenon. At least it wouldn’t be fooling anyone that it was supposed to be true, like the majority of pseudo-historicals out there.

What we tend to find when we look into the past is that our original picture of, say ‘the 18th Century’ proves to be sometimes accurate in part, for certain circumstances, for certain years and for characters of certain backgrounds. But within this big picture there are innumerable exceptions, changes and details which you didn’t see at first, but which tie you down to a specific date.

Are you before the French revolution – in which case the clothing fashions will be x and not y, your characters will probably believe in the divine right of kings, society will be certain about what can be expected from different classes of men – and therefore relatively relaxed about it? Are you just after the French revolution – in which case fashions will be y and not x, all the young folk and the workers will be filled with a feeling that liberty and a brave new world are just round the corner – and the government will be clamping down hard to stop the same thing happening in Britain? Are you pre or post American Independence – with all the psychological and cultural changes that that entails? Are you early in the century, when boozing, fighting and whoring were seen as normal, healthy activities for gentlemen, or late in the century when people were looking back on their parents’ unrestrained behaviour with moral horror?

Attitudes, clothes and technology can change from year to year, whatever time period you’re writing. Some Romans for example didn’t have an emperor at all – some had the Senate, some had a military dictator, some had a triumvirate and some had an Emperor, and all that change occurred within one lifetime!

So it’s worthwhile for a writer to pick the year first and then research the society in that year rather than saying ‘oh it’s Georgian’ and throwing in facts from the reigns of all three Georges. Not only does it narrow down your research, but it also has the benefit of making your ‘Regency’ (or whatever) that much more real, authentic and therefore unique.

And you can still bring out the Saxons in helicopters for that Fantasy novel you were planning!

Underwear in the 18th Century.

As The Costumer’s Manifesto say:

Many authors of modern historical Romances have a way of meticulously costuming their 18th Century heroines for their activities in the ballroom and drawing rooms, but conveniently forgetting the awkwardness of such attire in the bedroom. In order to live up their racy titles and covers, Romantic fiction portrays 18th Century passion as occurring as rapidly as if every dress seam was merely closed with Velcro, and corsets were fastened with zippers.

This is obviously not a good thing, so here is a short run down of what 18th Century ladies and gentlemen would be wearing underneath their gorgeous outer clothes, and what that means in terms of bedroom activity.

Ladies first, naturally:

The basic undergarment is a shift (aka a ‘chemise’ if you’re French, or a ‘sark’ if you’re Scottish.) A woman in her shift is ‘undressed’ for the purposes of the 18th Century. Though covered, she would no more walk about in it than a modern woman would walk to town in bra and pants.

The shift comes to somewhere just below the knee – short enough so that it does not show under any of the petticoats. Nothing is worn underneath except for stockings. Knickers did begin to come in towards the end of the century, but were regarded as being for prostitutes and women of loose morals only.

Stockings are not the sheer, lacy-topped things we are accustomed to in the 21st Century. They are knitted like hiker’s socks. In the best cases, however, when they are knitted of fine silk, they can be fine as a thick pair of modern tights. They are put on like modern stockings, but there is no suspender belt to keep them up. Instead, garters are tied around the leg just below the knee, and the top of the stockings can be folded down to sit comfortably on top of it. This means that in practice ladies’ stockings look like knee-socks.

Once she’s got her stockings on, the next thing a lady would put on would be her shoes. It’s much easier to do it at this point, while she can still bend in the middle!

Next comes the first of her petticoats (pleated skirts)

Then on top of the first petticoat comes the stays (corset)

(These stays by http://www.TheStaymaker.co.uk).

These are laced up the back, ideally by someone else. If the laces are long enough, you can put the stays over your head while loosely laced and then tighten them up yourself, but it’s much harder to make sure the lacing is evenly tight throughout. An upper class woman will have a lady’s maid to do this for her, a lower class woman will either have to do it herself or have a mother/sister/daughter do it for her.

A woman wearing a single petticoat and stays over her shift is regarded as being dressed. That is, a working class woman who had no outer garments would not be chastised for being indecently dressed if that was all she wore. It would be a mark of extreme poverty, though, not to have at least one outer layer.

If the lady is upper class, she may now put on hoops or panniers, to give her that fashionable galleon in full sail look:

If she wears panniers, she’ll tie her pockets underneath them. If not, the pockets tie on directly over the stays. The pockets are little bags tied onto a ribbon which ties around the waist. The lady will be able to reach them through slits made in the sides of her upper petticoat.

They are very capacious. She could easily carry a little dagger in one of them without disturbing the line of her dress at all.

On top of that goes a second petticoat, with the slits lined up above the slits in the pockets.

On top of that goes a fichu – a large square neckerchief folded into a triangle with the point down the back, which protects the gown above it from the unwashed skin beneath. It also conceals the cleavage, for modesty, and protects the lady’s assets from the vulgar tanning effect of the sun.

On top of that goes either a gown or a short jacket

In this case the gown is being worn on top of a petticoat made of the same material as the gown. The ruffles are sewn onto the sleeves of the gown and are not part of the underclothes.

The gown will be pinned shut, possibly over an embroidered stomacher

The whole dressing process takes at least three quarters of an hour – more, if the lady is wearing higher status clothes. So it goes without saying that she will not be willing to undress lightly.

The Gentlemen

The gentlemen get off fairly easily. Their basic undergarment is the shirt

This – like the woman’s shift – comes down to roughly knee-height.

Unlike women, a man may wear drawers under his breeches – cut and shaped like the breeches, but made of thin linen. (Still trying to find a picture of these. I know I’ve seen one somewhere!) Gentleman’s stockings are rolled as far up the leg as they will go (mid thigh) and secured with a garter around the knee, just as women’s are, but their breeches will stop the top part of the stockings from rolling down.

The gentleman then tucks his shirt between his legs and puts on a pair of breeches:

Breeches can be fly fronted (as these are) or drop fronted. In both cases the front of the breeches can be undone without undoing the waistband. In addition to being buttoned at the waistband and fly, they are also buttoned or buckled at the knee, often tight enough to pinch and restrict movement.

A gentleman wearing shirt and breeches is considered to be undressed. Though modestly covered by modern standards, by 18th Century standards he is considered to be in his ‘small clothes’ – his underwear. If he wants to take off his tight, movement-restricting coat anywhere where he might be seen, even in his own house, he will replace it with some other piece of outerwear such as a banyan (kimono-style dressing gown).

With his breeches and shirt on, he then ties a neck-cloth such as a cravat around the neck. On top of his breeches goes a waistcoat (with numerous buttons, all done up) and then a frock coat. The frock coat is cut in such a way as to pull the shoulders back and give an upright posture.

This young man has rolled his stockings over the cuffs of his breeches rather than wearing them underneath – that’s a fashion from early in the century.

But though restrictive, the gentlemen’s clothes are easier to get on and off than the ladies’. They probably could strip off with relative ease if they wanted to. Evidence suggests, however, that generally they didn’t care to:

Pornographic prints from the 18th Century almost always depict the people who are having sex as at least partially clothed. But 18th Century porn is a whole new post. I can recommend

if you want to delve into that a bit deeper. If not, there is an interesting sample, very much not safe for work, here:

Naval Naughtiness

I haven’t gone onto wigs and powder, cosmetics, or hats, because that seems like a subject for another post too, but here is a gorgeous snippet from ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ which demonstrates the process of getting dressed in such a way as to show that the clothes themselves have a slightly pornographic appeal.

This seems to be a perennial question. Answer it once and it dies down like a dandelion only to spring up in three new places in a week’s time. People seem terribly concerned that women should do anything so strange, and they offer explanations which to me seem stranger than the fact itself.

The latest of these concerned commentators surfaced recently on the ERWA ‘Smutters’ column here: http://www.erotica-readers.com/ERA/SL/JR-Turn-ons_and_Squicks.htm

If I’m reading this correctly it seems to conclude (it’s hard to say, because the reasoning is not exactly coherent throughout) that in this author’s opinion women write m/m because they dislike women. If they did not dislike women, she seems to think, then they would naturally want to write about women. They would not want to write a genre which by its very nature excludes the possibility of a woman being one of the two main characters.

This explanation sounds quite convincing until you start asking actual m/m writers why they write what they write. Once you do that, it rapidly becomes clear that the picture is more complicated and that one size very much does not fit all.

So, here is a quick summary of the reasons I personally write m/m, and the reasons I have heard other people give for why they write it.

First of all – why shouldn’t we write m/m?

Why do some people decide to write crime when others decide to write romance? Why do some desperately want to write science fiction, and some can’t imagine doing anything other than horror? What is it that draws some authors to chick lit and some to historicals? I venture to suggest that the same mechanism is in play with the m/m genre. This is simply what some people are wired up to write.

For my part, the stories which have come into my head have been m/m stories from the moment I started writing at age 11. I didn’t choose it – it’s just been the way my mind has always worked.

Surely the question ‘but why do you write m/m of all things?’ indicates more about the questioner’s attitude than the writer’s. Is there something wrong with m/m? Something more peculiar about it than other genres? Something that needs more justification than other genres? I don’t think so.

No one asks a crime writer to become a murderer in order to write about psychopaths, or insists that science fiction writers ought to be alien lifeforms before they can write about other species. Why should a woman not be perfectly capable of, and entitled to write about men?

But still, some reasons:

There are several different reasons I’m aware of for women to want to write m/m, and I’m sure there are other reasons I’m not aware of. This is a short list off the top of my head:

1. One man is sexy, two men doubly so.

Just as many men enjoy the thought of two women together, many women enjoy the thought of two men together. Why not? Men are sexy. If you’re reading a story in which they are both viewpoint characters you have the treat of being able to identify with whichever hero you find it easiest to empathise with and still be able to admire the other one through his eyes.

Rationalizing the appeal of two men together can probably be done, but why should we have to? Too many people have tried to tell women in the past what their sexuality should be. To them I say ‘tough’. I find this sexy. Whatever guilt trip you try to impose on me to try and ‘correct’ this kink, I’m not buying it. Why shouldn’t I write stories celebrating and enjoying something that I find very lovely?

2. M/M relationships are not plagued by the same gender stereotypes as m/f.

If we want to examine what a truly equal relationship feels like – a relationship without any of the inbuilt prejudices and assumptions which have dogged us as women for millennia – m/m is a good place to do that. We don’t have to struggle with or against the reader’s expectations. We don’t have the baggage of centuries to deal with. We can just put that all down and start off at a position of equality that in real life we still haven’t necessarily reached. It’s a refreshing imaginative break from a society that still at times treats us as second class citizens.

3. M/M fiction is edgy and transgressive and it makes the writer feel as though they’re doing something cool.

4. M/M fiction is an attempt to correct an overwhelming preponderance of heterosexual messages in the rest of the media, whether that’s movies, books or TV, and make sure that another segment of the population has romance novels which are relevant to them. The desire to examine and celebrate love is the same whether the love is m/m, f/f or m/f.

5. M/M fiction is a way to write about GBLT relationships without having to fit the story into the more constrained, domestic sphere which history has traditionally allotted to women. In other words, particularly if you’re writing historical fiction, it’s easier to believably add a mixture of action/adventure to m/m fiction than f/f fiction, simply because society made it all but impossible for women to be involved with the ‘outer’ world of politics, war, the professions etc.

6. M/M fiction is selling well, and to market-savvy writers it looks like the up and coming place to be.

I’m sure there are more reasons than this. If you have a different one, why not add it in the comments? J

To the question ‘can m/m fiction ever be motivated by misogyny?’ I’m sure the answer is ‘yes, at times it can’. I would be surprised if there was any genre of fiction where none of the writers were tainted by misogyny, if only because it’s such a staple of our culture that – like other sins – if we say we are without it, we deceive ourselves. But to tar the whole genre with the same brush is both unhelpful and unscholarly. It smacks of having come to the conclusion beforehand and bent the data to fit it.

In my experience, most people write not because they have an agenda but because they have stories to tell. If you have an explanation for why some stories turn up in your head and others don’t – why some are impossible to write and some can’t be stopped – you’re doing a great deal better than I can. Do comment! I’d love to hear it.

I’ve recently had the great pleasure to talk with Alex Beecroft, author of “Captain’s Surrender”, about her work, her plans, fanfiction and God, and I’m very happy to share this interview with you. Special thanks to Alex for putting up with me!

Emma Collingwood: Do you remember when you first had the wish to write? Did it start in your childhood, or later?
Alex Beecroft: I think it started when I was about 11. That was the time that I started writing things down in little booklets, and hiding them!

EC: What did you write about?
AB: I think I wrote typical bad fic. I was a big fan of “Emerson, Lake and Palmer”, and I wrote about them being in an intergalactic band, having adventures in sleazy space stations and saving the universe with the power of music. It was a sort of crossover between my love for progressive rock music and my love for Star Wars. I have to say though that I never inserted myself into the stories. No Mary sues for me!

EC: What a pity. Mary Sues are fun! One could say your first stories were SF then… being into Star Wars, have you ever considered heading for SF with your writing?
AB: I did. For a long time science fiction was what I wanted to write, but as I got older I realised that my scientific knowledge was not really up to scratch. The kind of science fiction I enjoyed was the hard science fiction, but after I failed physics at school I rather lost my confidence in being able to cope with the science. So I switched to being into fantasy and writing fantasy. Although that is simplifying matters really, because if think about it now I loved fantasy too in parallel.

EC: From Asimov to Tolkien…?
AB: Tolkien and Asimov together. I think what I really liked was the experience of being in another world – a world that wasn’t like the one I lived in.

EC: Has your environment been supportive of your writing ambitions?
AB: In general I’d have to say – no. I was always too busy, and I’ve never had a lot of energy, so when I came home from work I would be too exhausted to do anything. I honestly don’t know how people cope working and writing at the same time. When I had my children, I left work, and then I immediately took up writing, even though my first novel had to be written during the one hour a day that the first baby was asleep. I think it was the only way I stayed sane!

EC: I can well imagine! Things are different now?
AB: Yes, they are. Both of my children are at school now, so I have from ten o’clock in the morning to three o’clock in the afternoon to write. Naturally, this has led to a drastic reduction in the amount I actually get done – procrastination is my worst enemy!

EC: You can treat your writing like “a real job” now, then. Have you settled into this routine?
AB: Yes, I have. I do in general sit down and write or edit from 11-3. The rest of the time I am answering e-mails or doing self-promotion or writing blog posts. I don’t count writing blogs as part of my writing time! But I’m a very slow writer. Today for example it did take me the full four hours to do just under 800 words.

EC: Does blogging count as “promotion time”?
AB: I think writing for something like the Macaroni’s Blog counts as promotion, but fiddling about on Livejournal counts as relaxing and enjoying myself )

EC: When did you first share your writing, and where/who with?
AB: I first allowed another person to read my writing about seven years ago. I had discovered fanfiction on the internet, and I started writing a Star Wars novel based on the new film “The Phantom Menace”. It was somehow easier to share fanfiction because I already knew that other people were using the same characters and settings. It wasn’t quite the same level of exposure as showing somebody my original work.

EC: Fanfiction as a “training ground”?
AB: Not really. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to writing, and while I could look at my own writing and say ‘that’s not as good as anything you’d see published’ I did not want anyone else to see it at all. Not even in fanfiction. Only when I got to the stage that I could pick up published books and think ‘I have done better than that’ was I ready to allow people to see it. But fan fiction got me used to the idea that I was writing for an audience – that my writing was not some kind of elite art form that didn’t have to mean anything to anyone apart from me. It got me used to the idea that I was writing to entertain people. And also it got me accustomed to the idea that there were people out there who would enjoy what I wrote, and therefore there was some point in my continuing to share it. It was a great easing in to the idea that my writing wasn’t just self therapy, it could sometimes be entertainment as well.

EC: One could say then that the way your work was received (with enthusiasm and admiration, as far as I can tell!) moved you from the audience to the stage?
AB: *g* Yes. It gave me the confidence to know I was doing something right.

EC: You did!
AB: Thank you!

EC: After Star Wars, there came LOTR…?
AB: Yes, I don’t quite know how that happened. I’d grown up on Tolkien, reading and reading “The Lord of the Rings” over and over. And then the first film came along, and I still felt no desire to write anything in that universe. I think what sparked me off was finding the Henneth Annun site and seeing what other people were doing with the material. And then of course I found out that nobody liked my favourite character – and after that I had a crusade!

EC: Tell me more…
AB: LOL! In my multiple readings of Tolkien, I had become very fond of Celeborn, Galadriel’s husband. He was rude and acerbic, and he had his own agenda, and he dared to criticise Gandalf, and he was like no Elf I’d seen before in Tolkien. I thought he was really cool. Unfortunately, everybody else seemed to think that he was a henpecked husband who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. He tended to get ignored, or at the very best he was written as a character with no personality of his own, who existed merely to worship Galadriel. I wanted to put some of the aggression and lordliness back into the character.

EC: Fully agree with your perception of Celeborn. How were your stories received?
AB: Surprisingly well, really! Considering that they were mostly dialogue pieces where I examined politics and prejudice in Elven life!

EC: Tolkien’s language is a very formal, even archaic form of English, especially the way Elves communicated. Did you find it difficult to adapt to this style?
AB: I was quite at home with Tolkien’s language, as I studied the Anglo-Saxons at university, and had read a lot of Saxon and later medieval poetry. I did manage to do two novel-length stories where something other than dialogue happened though. ‘Oak and Willow’ was the tale of the courtship of Celeborn and Galadriel, which contained lots of First Age history.

EC: Lots of research for those ones, I suppose…?
AB: There was actually very little research in ‘Battle of the Golden Wood’, because the whole thing was based on two paragraphs in one of the Appendices of LotR. But ‘Oak and Willow’ and some of my later stories which revolved around the issue of Calaquendi/Moriquendi politics and racism took a lot of hunting through the 12 volumes of the History of Middle-earth. I admire Tolkien’s ability to make a history for his world which feels just like real history – all the same gaps and lacunae and differences of interpretation. The man really was extremely clever! And ‘Battle of the Golden Wood’ was the first really large scale story with battles, siege warfare etc. that I’d ever tried. In that respects it was almost like writing historical fiction.

EC: Which is what you are doing now. “Captain’s Surrender” has been published and received lots of praise – how does one get from the Golden Woods aboard a ship of the Royal Navy in the 18th century?
AB: *g* I got into the Royal Navy via another film. Ironically enough it was ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. I say ironically because it seems to have made the majority of the world fall in love with pirates, but it made me fall in love with the clean cut boys of the Royal Navy. They were so sarcastic, and so fine in their wigs and stockings, and so totally impervious to danger. I had to find out whether any of it was really like that. And to my amazement, a lot of it really was! (Except possibly for the sarcasm.)

EC: So you started researching and writing as a reaction on the movie?
AB: Yes. I made the very good impulse decision to buy Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander’ – the first novel in the series. And that was so fantastic that I was hooked. I settled in for about two years of massive Royal Navy joy. I moved on from Patrick O’Brian to Forrester’s ‘Hornblower’ (which I didn’t like as much) and textbooks like ‘The Wooden World’ by N.A.M Rodgers. And I made friends with a wonderful group of fellow enthusiasts on LJ – one of whom is of course the estimable Emma Collingwood. I think we spurred each other on with our enthusiasm.

EC: That’s definitely true! You’re certainly not a writer who exists in a vacuum. And shared love is better love. All the discussions and research shows in your work. Having read “Captain’s Surrender”, I can only compliment you on your ability to write a three-dimensional setting. Reading about it is really like actually being there. So you have not created a new world (to go back to your Star Wars days), but successfully resurrected an old one. Do you write from a “watcher’s” pov or rather as somebody who feels she’s right in the middle of the action?
AB: Thank you! One of the advantages of writing as slowly as I do is that you do have plenty of time to think between words. ) I do often find myself thinking ‘hold on, three paragraphs have gone past without mentioning the setting. Do something descriptive now!’ I tend as a writer to ride along inside my characters’ heads, and sometimes I get so immersed in what they’re thinking that I have to stop and remember what’s going on outside them. So yes, very tight third person view. I don’t ever see both characters at once. I wish I could, sometimes! )

EC: As far as “Captain’s Surrender” is concerned – in whose head did you spend the most time?
AB: Without going back and adding up the pages, I think it’s about equal between Josh and Peter. Possibly slightly weighted towards Josh, because Peter is so oblivious that he’s hard to use to observe things with!

EC: Josh and Peter – that brings us to one of the core points of your book, which is the relationship between the two men. Homosexual love in the Royal Navy of the 18th century – how did that come to happen for you?
AB: I think I’m just hardwired to tell m/m stories. The first one I remember writing was a little vignette about Khan and Joachim from the movie ‘The Wrath of Khan’. I was in my teens then. For a long time, in fact, I tried not to write m/m because I’m a Christian, and I thought then that it was a wrong thing to do. My fascination with the Royal Navy coincided with the point where I really worked out my issues and prejudices and came to realize that God is love – and that therefore if I wanted to celebrate the love that I clearly was born wanting to celebrate, then I should do it. Apologies for talking religion!

EC: No need to apologise. Has your religion influenced your writing?
AB: Oh lots! Or not at all! ;) It influences what I think about things, and that influences what I write. I hate the revenge plot, for example. You know, where the hero’s family is killed and he sets out to murder all the people who did it? I firmly believe that forgiveness is the right way to go, so I could not approve of a hero of mine behaving like that. I also am interested in engaging with questions about how ones belief in God affects ones’ life. Both Peter and Josh, in Captain’s Surrender, have to work through what their religion is telling them about them, and come to self acceptance at the end. I suppose I’m aware of it being a big influence on people’s characters and the way they behave, for good or ill. So it enters the work like that. But I wouldn’t dream of attempting to preach. That puts me off a book!

EC: “Captain’s Surrender” has been published by Linden Bay Romance – how did you find that publisher?
AB: Oh, I found out about Linden Bay by a wonderful coincidence. A friend of mine in the RN appreciation society on LJ reviewed Lee Rowan’s ‘Ransom’, which she loved. Lee replied to her to say thank you for the review. We all ended up chatting and I mentioned that I had been thinking of doing something like ‘Ransom’ myself. Whereupon Lee said ‘well, my publisher’s running their annual competition at the moment to see who they will publish next – why don’t you submit it to them?’ I thought ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ and spent a month turning the series of short stories I had into a novel. I submitted it to Linden Bay, and it won the competition and here I am! )

EC: That’s fantastic! Not only for you, but also for us readers! What was your first reaction when you got the big news?
AB: Hee! I clapped both hands over my mouth and squeaked. Then I said ‘no way!’ and got up and walked ’round the house – bubbling over with joy – then I came back, read the email again and did it all over again about five more times. I wanted to tell someone but I didn’t really believe it, and I was afraid to jinx it. In fact apart from telling my husband, I sat on the news until I’d signed the contract – just in case it all fell through somehow.

EC: As I’m having the book in front of me now, it all worked out well! Was a lot of editing involved?
AB: There was a lot less editing than I expected. I was very impressed with the editor, whose comments made me feel that she was a safe pair of hands. I could see why she was saying everything she said, and it gave me such confidence in her that it was a really positive experience making the changes I did have to do. She was a bit worried about Emily thinking Walker was an ass! Would a well bred lady think such a thing? That was a bit of a poser, as I couldn’t explain in the book that Emily meant donkey, not arse.

EC: Anything you’d change about the book if you could? Or are you completely happy with the way it turned out?
AB: If I could I would have spent more time on Josh’s sojourn with the Anishinabe couple. I think the development of his relationship with them happened too fast, and it would benefit from happening slower and in more detail. But I was limited to a word count of 60,000 words and I couldn’t fit anything more in.

EC: I’ve really learned something new there, btw. The Anishinabe might make a good book as well.
AB: Yes, having spent several weeks immersed in the inter-tribal wars and politics of the era (not to mention what the French and British were up to with their allies) it is obviously a period that needs *way* more time to do it justice. I had to have Opichi and Giniw be Anishinabe because they were the closest tribe which had the two-spirit tradition; which is what Josh was there to learn from them. The Iroquois, who were the natural candidates to rescue a stranded Brit did, according to my hurried research, not approve of same sex relations, so they wouldn’t have done for this story. But I’d love to go into the different cultures and politics for a different one.

EC: Your book – beside the obvious entertainment value – really does encourage readers to do some further research, which is something I appreciate a lot in a book. Now that your first “baby” is on the market, what’s next? You’ve published another book in the meantime, haven’t you?
AB: I published ‘The Witch’s Boy’ which is a dark fantasy. It’s sort of closet m/m, as I wrote it before I worked through my issues. So there are lots of m/m platonic relationships, visibly straining at the seams. ;)

EC: But you haven’t abandoned the navy, have you…?
AB: At the moment I’m working on another Age of Sail novel, provisionally called ‘False Colors’. It has different heroes from ‘Captain’s Surrender’ and is more action packed, I think. Lots of pirates in this one, but none of the pirates are particularly nice people! I’ve also got a short story coming out in an anthology by Freya’s Bower. The anthology is called ‘Inherently Sexual’ and the story is called ‘90% Proof’, which is a sort of AoS love triangle.

EC: Most pirates *weren’t* particularly nice people (I just like to mention here the recent capture of a French ship and the subsequent violence), yet people love them. It’s refreshing to see a different approach.
AB: Thank you! I feel exactly the same. It is a mystery to me why people love armed robbers on the sea when they wouldn’t like them on land.

EC: You used to be a member of fandom – now you might have your own. Has anybody written fanfic about Captain’s Surrender yet?
AB: Not that I’m aware of! That would make me so proud, if it ever did happen, though. I’d really feel that I’d arrived, then )

EC: Thanks a lot for your time, Alex.
AB: Thank you!

(c) 2008 Emma Collingwood

Brutes, Wimps and Heroes.

The alpha male, the beta male and the chivalric ideal.

“Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”*

I’ve been wondering about the ‘alpha male’ recently and why I find him such an inadequate ideal for a hero. Several things have come together to spark off this post, one of which was finding the essay by CS Lewis on ‘The Necessity of Chivalry’ from which the Mallory quote above was taken. Another was watching an interesting TV programme on the BBC recently called ‘Last Man Standing’. Both of which seemed, to me, to contrast the alpha male with the chivalric ideal.

My understanding of the ‘alpha male’ is that an alpha male is a man who is completely without doubt as to his ability to handle a situation. He’s arrogant. He knows best – or at least, he believes he does. He is physically strong and doesn’t hesitate to use that physical strength to get what he wants. He is prepared to over-rule anyone who opposes him. He does not feel, let alone express, fear or weakness or admiration for others. He gets what he wants, and if he wants a heroine or beta male, that person had better learn to like it, because they are not going to get away.

The alpha male is ruthless. He is not riddled with guilt or doubt, and weakness in others attracts his contempt. He doesn’t give quarter. If you bank on his pity, you’ll be in for a nasty surprise.

In short, the alpha male is a barbarian. He’s like a Viking hero who, having captured a bishop and being unable to understand what the educated man is talking about, beats him to death and thinks he has won the argument. He’s like Achilles in The Iliad, for whom nothing matters but his own glory. Snubbed, he’s willing to sit by and watch his friends die because someone took away the captive he was going to rape and thereby proclaimed that they were more powerful than he was.

This is not the sort of man I want to have to deal with, either in writing or in real life.

But what does that leave me with in terms of my own heroes? Must my heroes be ‘beta males’?

Well, I have to say I don’t really understand what a beta male is. I presume, from the fact that you typically have an alpha/beta pairing, that the beta male is a man who doesn’t mind being constantly overruled, controlled and dominated by his alpha partner. As he fulfils the role of a heroine, perhaps he’s meant to be more emotional, less self-assured, maybe a little passive? Is he a bit of a pushover? Maybe inclined to cry and hope for someone to come along and solve all his problems? Is he, in short, something of a wimp?

I’m sorry, but are these really my only choices? Brute or wimp? I don’t want either. I’m – to quote the song – holding out for a hero.

So what exactly do I mean by that?

Well, what I’m looking for in a hero is the chivalric ideal. It’s not my own invention – it came into Western culture in the Middle Ages – and it is epitomised by the quote by Mallory up there. My hero is a man who is ferocious at need, who can be an alpha male if the situation requires it. A man who is the fiercest and most deadly warrior on the battlefield, accustomed to death and hardship, sure of himself, strong. A man who wins.

But – and this is the clincher – he’s also a man who can then come home, get cleaned up, and discuss the curtains with his maiden aunt. Who can weep over a sentimental film and be trusted to look after a child. A man who listens to others, respects the rights of the weak and is gentle with those who need help. He doesn’t boast or dominate. He is meek, and by his restraint he allows others to exercise their own power. He is both alpha and beta at once, depending on what the occasion requires.

But, you may say, Launcelot wasn’t real. No real man could fulfil such an ideal. It would be completely unbelievable.

At which point I drag out my copy of ‘Men of Honour’ by Adam Nicolson and direct your attention to the battle of Trafalgar. This is of particular relevance to me because the naval officers who fought at Trafalgar are the role-models, the real life examples from whom I’ve taken Peter and Josh in ‘Captain’s Surrender’ or John and Alfie from ‘False Colours’.

Nicolson describes Admiral Nelson thus:

Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would not have occurred unless he had allowed and encouraged free rein to the less conscious forces of devastating aggression, the desire to excel, the desire for prizes, the desire to kill and the desire to win.

But this is what Admiral Collingwood, who was second-in-command of the British fleet says of Nelson:

There is nothing like him left for gallantry and conduct in battle. It was not a foolish passion for fighting for he was the most gentle of all human creatures and often lamented the cruel necessity of it, but it was a principle of duty which all men owed their country in defence of her laws and liberty.

Collingwood himself, who was at war most of his life, wrote long gossipy letters home to his sisters and was devastated at the death of his dog, Bounce.

The violence and overwhelming bloodshed of Trafalgar are well known, but what is less well known is that immediately following the battle, the British fleet did everything humanly possible to save the lives of the French, during the three day storm that broke over them all.

Violence and gentleness coexisting, switching from one to the other when needed. Proving, if you like, that the chivalric ideal is something which is very far from being unobtainable.

Indeed, it’s not even a phenomenon of the dim and vanished past. ‘Last Man Standing’, which takes six modern young men out to compete against the warriors of various different tribes at their own particular forms of sport/ritual combat, showed that the ideal was alive and well. I’m thinking particularly of Richard and Rajko, who – when forced to kill animals for food – mourned. They were self-effacing, they spoke of their doubts and hesitation rather than boasting about how inevitable it was that they would win, and they attacked the challenges with every bit as much aggression as the ‘alpha males’ on the show. Rajko’s stepping up to the mark in Trobriand, despite a half-severed toe, and taking his team to victory against all the odds was a ‘Chariots of Fire’ moment I’ll not soon forget. All the better for being real and not fiction.

So I have no hesitation in making John Cavendish from ‘False Colours’ the sort of person who would blush in real discomfort on hearing a dirty joke, and take on a dozen men with an axe in the next breath, nor in letting Alfie Donwell beat up the boatswain of a rival crew and weep inconsolably over a dead bird.

If this means that both of my heroes are alpha and beta males at the same time I can’t help but feel that not only is that historically accurate, but that it makes for an interesting dynamic. There should be a back and forth – and a potential for conflict – there that just doesn’t exist in a less equal relationship.

Plus, of course, they both get to be awesome, and they both get to be tender. Twice the value! They know, as Captain Anselm Jon Griffiths says in his ‘Observation on some Points of Seamanship’ published in 1809

The man who endeavours to carry all before him by mere dint of his authority and power would appear to me to know little indeed of human nature.

You tell it how it is, Captain! No one likes a smart-arse or a bully ;)

~

The Accolade by Edmund Leighton

*Thomas Mallory; ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’. Sir Ector is describing Sir Launcelot.


Muse n.1 (Muse) Gk& Rom. Mythol.any of the goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences. They were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, traditionally nine in number (Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Terpsichore, Erato, Melpomene, Thalia, Polyhymnia, and Urania), though their functions and names vary considerably between different sources. 2 (usu. prec. by the) a a poet’s inspiring goddess or woman. b a poet’s genius or characteristic style.

I was – heh- musing on the subject of muses the other day. On a long drive down to the longhall my re-enactment society is building in Kent, I switched on the radio to discover a presenter interviewing a famous soprano.

My knowledge of opera is such that I had never heard of her and immediately forgot her name. However, the programme went on to explain that she had a composer whose music was written specifically for her to sing. This composer was invariably inspired by her voice – inspired to the extent that in a long career almost every piece of his work had been written specially with her voice in mind.

The presenter was evidently slightly awestruck and charmed by the idea that he was meeting a living muse. The soprano on the other hand did not like to think of herself that way, and preferred to think of it as a partnership in which the work of each of them inspired the other.

I come from a writing tradition where ‘the muses’ is used to mean the voices of the characters – usually the one character from whose POV the story is told. We speak of ‘our muses’ wanting us to tell one story or another, wanting us to illustrate their good points or their bad. Sometimes demanding that they be given more of a starring role, at other times stopping us in our tracks while they force us to write down a story it feels as though they’re dictating to us.

Although this doesn’t initially fit with either of the above dictionary definitions, I wonder if this is the modern interpretation of the voice of the goddess or the muse in sense 1.

We get to know our characters so much that they begin to lead a shadowy sort of independent life in our heads. I have, once or twice, had the experience of a character telling me ‘I am going to do this…’ and me going ‘no! No way! There’s no way you can get away with that!’ I have actually been shocked with what they come up with.

It’s a strange experience, to have characters you know you have created yourself suddenly start answering you back and refusing to obey you. When it happens, most writers rejoice. Like Dr. Frankenstein, watching the lightning crawl over his creation stitched together from a thousand corpses – watching it stir, begin to breathe, open its eyes – we cry ‘it’s alive!’ Possibly with the addition of a slightly manic laugh that makes the rest of the world sidle away, doubting our sanity.

In fact it’s an apt metaphor. We have stitched together this character from scraps – a model’s fine eyes, the nice things our husbands do on a good day, the annoying-but-funny habit from that woman we speak to on the train in the morning – and at some point the breath of life has mysteriously entered into this motley collection, fusing it into a real person.

Nowadays, post Freud and psychoanalysis, it is easy to accept that this almost miraculous coming to life is a product of our own subconscious. Having got enough dead details, our 90% unused hindbrain steps in, fits the pieces together, extrapolates what a person like this would behave like in other situations, and presents it – live and argumentative – to the surface of our minds. A wonderful feeling, but not in any way supernatural.

But now imagine what that would feel like if you had no concept of the subconscious. Pre-Freud. You’re a writer, an artist, a lyric poet, and you struggle with the words just as modern writers do. But every so often something – a breath of something mystical, unexplainable – brings your characters to life, whispers into your head thoughts higher and more complex than your own thoughts, presents fully made solutions to problems you had thought were insuperable.

No wonder they thought it was divine!

We are lucky – modern writers – when our words dry up and writer’s block comes on us, at least we have the comfort of knowing that everything we need for writing is within us and is unlikely to have suddenly left us. It must have been a thousand times worse for the writers of the past who believed they really were writers merely at the whim of a sometimes capricious goddess. We can do exercises to stimulate our minds, with the hope of dragging out our creativity from where it has gone to ground. They could not count on the goddess to stay, nor coax her back if she had decided to go. And every time she did abandon them, they must have felt ‘this could be the time she never returns.’

The thought of being at the mercy of genuinely supernatural forces for your creative inspiration reminds me of the debate I’ve been having with Ann Herendeen, over how much self-reflection/self knowledge the people of the past could have achieved without the apparatus of psychology. Imagine that you do not have a concept of the subconscious, and now picture those occasional berserker rages you can get when you feel lifted out of yourself or – if you’re not as violent as me – those moments where fear or joy seemed to come on you from the outside and overwhelm you.

Surely for the ancient pagan these must have been the voices of the gods – Woden, the god of rage and poetry, Hermes, the messenger, telling them something, acting through them. To a certain extent for them the more inspired they were, the less they themselves were acting. Something else worked through them, taking them up into the supernatural world, absolving them of personal responsibility. No wonder Homer’s battlefield was full of gods and goddesses. There too, in the exhaustion and stress of the battle, the warrior’s mental state would have been exalted, open to possession and inspiration.

As for the muse in sense 2: a poet’s inspiring goddess or woman, I will admit that it amuses me no end that yet again our language assumes that men are the only people in the world.

I say this because I have had several muses in sense two over the years, and they have been, without fail, men. Presumably the dictionary writer did not suspect that poets (or writers) could be women? Or that a woman could be inspired, by the mere existence of a particular man, to create art or literature.

Or perhaps it’s just that I’m weird?

Before I realized that my muse was in fact a muse, I would have had every sympathy with the soprano I was talking about earlier. I would have thought there was something slightly sordid about it. After all, so many of the great painters’ muses were also their mistresses, and there’s something so… incestuous about that.

And here I am, a straight woman, being inspired by young men? It doesn’t seem unlikely that there’s a sexual component in that. But what I can say is that that’s not what it feels like from the inside.

My current muse is an actor who is pleasant looking, but would never find his way onto the cover of a romance novel. What makes him a muse, for me, is the fact that he does not seem to be able to act a role that doesn’t light the ‘must tell a story!’ blue touch paper in my head. There are undoubtedly better looking men out there. There are possibly better actors. But I don’t know of anyone else who can act a minor role in a soap opera in such a way that I suddenly need to write a book.

I have no desire to get to know this bloke at all. On a personal level I would prefer him to remain a complete stranger, but something about him triggers my creativity. And this is – to me – much more of a mystery than the way the characters come alive, or the plots shake themselves and suddenly make sense. That’s all inside my head, but this, this free gift of inspiration, or dependency, depending on how you look at it, isn’t. I am as enthralled – literally in thrall – as Dante to his Beatrice, and I don’t know whether to accept it gratefully or resent the fact that I’m not complete unto myself. (Not that I’m comparing the quality of my output to Dante! If only!)

Of course, there is always the possibility that I am simply weird. This article in the New York Times certainly seems to proceed from the idea that muses are always female:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DEEDC143FF933A0575BC0A9649C8B63

But although I write about a time when that might have been true, I’m also a modern, feminist, female writer of gay love stories. I believe in equality between the sexes. Surely it’s entirely appropriate in that case to stand the tradition on its head and to have a male muse? Can inspiration really only come in one gender? Am I honestly the only one?

The perils of a historical novelist, part two: Romance versus Research

Parker hanged

This struck me as a necessary follow on to my post about research (The perils of a historical novelist, part one). I’d like to think that we’re agreed that research is good; that it’s always preferable that an author pays attention to real history and doesn’t just make things up, and that real history is more interesting than fake history any time.

As writers of historical fiction, we don’t want our characters to be modern people playing dress up, let alone modern people playing dress up in badly made polyester capes and sneakers. No doubt there are readers with such powerful imaginations that they can conjure up a dazzling scene of elegance and glory from a selection of cliché characters wearing bad live-role-playing costumes but, alas, for the rest of us something more is needed. And that leads right back to the importance of researching both the big trends and the small details of your setting.

However, after you’ve done your research and accumulated these details, that, unfortunately, is not the end of it. Once your head is stuffed with facts and your computer is bristling with bookmarked sites about the correct boning of a corset and the height of that season’s shoes, and your bookshelves are groaning with scholarly tomes on social mores and miscellanea, that’s only where you start.

Can you ever have too much research?

The short answer to this is ‘yes and no.’ I’m not sure that you as an author can ever do too much research, but not all of your research needs to find its way into your book.

And he who strives the tempest to disarm
Will never first embrail the lee yardarm.

For example, you may have spent hours pouring over sailing instructions, figuring out exactly how your ailing, scurvy-wrecked crew would take in the sails in a storm. But now that you know, you also need to consider the enjoyment of your readers.

How many readers are likely to be engrossed in a storm scene—to feel the howling of the wind, the surging of the seas that sweep across the deck in unbroken sheets of freezing water, while the men cling with all their strength to the rigging and the sails whip-crack through the air—if your characters are spending pages and pages of dialogue in an argument over whether to take in the lee or weather clew first, or let go the tack and risk the sails blowing through the buntlines?*

You may want to get this information into the book because dammit, you did all this work! You can’t help feeling that it would be nice if everyone knew the kind of lengths to which you had gone to get your facts right. In the same vein you may be tempted to stop the action every so often to explain the history behind the Boxer Revolution, Harold Godwinson’s trouble with his brothers, the careful fashioning of the staves in the barrels used for the Gunpowder plot etc etc. But this is a temptation you have to rein in hard.

Heavy handedly shoehorning in your research, where it isn’t necessary for the story, is almost as bad as not doing the research in the first place. Firstly because you will bore the socks off your poor readers, and secondly because—paradoxically enough—drawing attention to your historical facts will actually make your book seem less authentic.

What? It’s sort of like homeopathy – the research isn’t there any more but you can still reap the benefits?

Well, in a way, yes. I know I’ve said ‘study everything; nothing is too small to be just the right detail to establish the background’, and that’s true. The art here is to introduce enough small details to convince your reader that you know loads, without randomly spraying around information which isn’t relevant to the story. We want enough history to firmly set the story and reader in a different time, without making the novel read like a textbook.

There are all kinds of tricks as to how to do this, but probably the easiest is to remember that none of these little details are unusual for your characters. Their surroundings are normal life to them. Explanations of things, drawing attention to things because they’re historically accurate, are actually going to give less of an impression of verisimilitude than merely treating them as unremarkable facts.

For example, rather than saying ‘when cut steel buckles were introduced in (whenever) they had proved very popular with officers who couldn’t afford silver,’ which is an awkward info-dump and tosses you straight out of your immersion in the story, just say ‘the cut steel buckle glittered as he hurled his shoe across the room.’ It doesn’t get in all the facts, but it adds just that tiny pinch of historical detail to keep the reader rooted in the era, and it does it without slowing up the action.

bread beetle

Weevils are a good example of this. I was watching both the Hornblower TV movies and the film of ‘Master and Commander’ over the past month, and their treatment of weevils (a kind of flour grub/beetle which regularly infested the bread aboard ship) seemed to me a very clear lesson in how to do it well, and how to do it very badly indeed.

The Hornblower series had Pellew sitting at his desk eating a piece of hard tack which was covered in white maggots. The camera zoomed in on the maggots and you saw him tapping them off onto the table while he and Hornblower grimaced in a sort of ‘ew, the things we have to put up with!’ way.

The equivalent scene in Master and Commander; everyone’s eating, chatting, Jack indicates a couple of weevils that have fallen out of the hard tack on Stephen’s plate and sets him up so that Jack can make a joke about ‘the lesser of two weevils.’ Stephen rolls his eyes at Jack’s attempt at witticism and everyone laughs.

The Hornblower one is bad because Pellew and Hornblower have grown up in the Navy. It’s out of character and out of period for either of them to even notice the weevils unless the biscuit is so infested that it’s fallen to dust. This ‘OMG! Disgusting creepy crawlies on the food! Ew! That’s horrible!’ scene is entirely set up for the modern viewer, not for the benefit of the characters themselves. It’s the movie equivalent of an author writing ‘because of the poor methods of preservation in the 18th Century, even the dried bread on board ship was attacked by a variety of pests such as weevils and bargemen. My hero, because he is really far more sensitive and advanced than anyone else in his century, thought that this was disgusting.’

(It’s also bad because those are obviously bargemen, not weevils – but that’s another story: http://www.hms.org.uk/nelsonsnavymaggot.htm )

The Master and Commander one is good because it achieves the same thing – informs the watcher that ships biscuit often came with added weevils – but it does so without fanfares. It does so without a neon sign going ‘oh, look, fascinating historical fact here!’ It gets the information across without making the characters act out of character. Not one of them, for example, is surprised or disgusted to find a weevil on the plate. That in itself is a glimpse into a different world, a different attitude than our own.

But it also combines this with a bit of deft characterization of Jack as a man who is overwhelmed with joy at his own cleverness in being able to make a rather simple joke. And it does this inside a scene which is also making a point about conviviality, the irrepressibility of the human spirit, the tendency of the navy to be drunk in charge of large warships and the fact that this would be a life it would be possible for a person to live and love not merely to endure.

One rather lengthy diversion later, and I try to sum up by saying that part of writing historicals is maintaining that balance whereby you can manage to tell the modern reader what they need to know without info-dumping or violating the characterization or historical integrity of your characters. If your research is visible, calling attention to itself, it’s probably doing more harm than good.

In this way we can also solve the perennial problem of ‘oh, but they must have had terrible hygiene/smelled/been infested with parasites etc. Do I say so, or do I pretend otherwise?’

In fact there is no need to talk about whether your characters smell or not, because everyone would have smelled. It would have been normal for them and they would not, therefore, have even noticed it. A man who washed every week, changed his shirt every day and wore pomade and cologne would have been, by the standards of his day, a paragon of cleanliness. It’s more authentic, then, to treat him as such.

Just as most people nowadays don’t notice their bed-mites until they cause a problem, why would your historical characters need to notice their parasites unless they caused a problem? By all means if you’re going to have an outbreak of the Black Death in chapter 9, mention the troublesomeness of the characters’ fleas in chapter 3, but otherwise, if they’re not pertinent to the plot, your characters are probably not going to be noticing them. You can put them in if you want, or leave them out if you want, depending on what you are trying to achieve.

I personally like to include a bit of filth where it’s appropriate – walk on parts for people with visible syphilis, people who have lost limbs, people who have lost teeth to scurvy or bad dentistry, etc – because it is part of the flavor of my setting. I like the great big, lively, unwashed, squalid sprawl of Hogarth’s gin lane, through which gentlemen in lace and peacock silk hurry with one hand on their sword hilt and the other on their purse. But if you really can’t bear the thought of a hero who doesn’t wash every day, you can always either make his mania for cleanliness a character trait, or set your story in a setting where they were big on bathing – like the Romans.

What if it’s not just washing, though? What if it’s something worse?

To me, the cleanliness problem seems quite a minor example of a more far reaching problem caused by trying to be realistic in your romance. It isn’t only in matters of washing that the past sometimes causes a modern reader to go ‘oh, that’s just wrong!’ Sometimes it’s a more moral issue.

Suppose we’re writing a book set in the Viking age, in which a Viking warrior falls in love with the Irish warrior he captured in a raid on the town that will at some point in the future become Dublin. It sounds great, until research indicates that the standard Viking tactic for dealing with defeated warriors was to rape them in order to humiliate them and break their spirit. Do we allow our hero to be authentic – and a rapist – which, in my opinion, and I believe that of many modern readers, is not a good start for a happy ever after? Or do we somehow fudge the issue?

And once we have fudged that issue, how do we deal with the problem that the Vikings (like the Ancient Greeks and Romans) considered it shameful to be the bottom in a m/m relationship? It’s probably not a problem if you’re writing yaoi or d/s, but if you’re attempting to show a reciprocal relationship of equals then I’m sorry, sir, but he really won’t respect you in the morning.

What about slavery? I’m sure that in the 18th Century there were people who honestly and sincerely believed that slavery was ordained by God, as a method of civilizing savages, saving them from damnation and introducing them to the possibility of education. Allowing them to better themselves. Why it was practically an act of generosity!

But will any modern reader be able to accept a hero who believes such a thing?

As a writer there is a big temptation to say ‘well, I’m going to go with what was historically realistic at the time.’ After all, you’ve done the research and you understand how all these attitudes looked to the people of the time. And you care about being authentic. It’s important to your professional pride.

However, I do personally think that this is another place where a balancing act is required. Ignoring the historical attitude and making everyone behave like moderns in frock coats results in plastic history and a story that is just not believable. But lobbing in the historical attitude wholesale results in a story where everyone hates your hero and wants him to die. Neither of these are good things ;)

For example, in Captain’s Surrender, when Peter was finally forced into a position where he couldn’t avoid thinking about what he and Josh were up to, his reaction was to seriously consider turning his lover in to be hanged. He hadn’t had time to think through the implications – he went with the reaction society had instilled in him. And this example of him being a morally upstanding citizen (by the standards of his time) rightly made many people dislike him. Equally, Adam Robinson’s refusal to allow Emily to support them both with her money made him seem – to a modern reader – pig headed, chauvinistic, stupid, whereas at the time it would have been proof of his good character and honorable intentions.

This is where you have to perform a delicate high wire act of getting enough of the historical attitude in to make your characters realistic by the standard of the times, but not so much that your modern readers will hate them.

Fortunately there are at least two good workarounds for this problem.

1. Make your character peculiar by the standards of the time. Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin is a good example of this. He’s a natural philosopher, and he has the most outrageously liberal opinions about just about everything. He can get away with this without appearing to be blatantly anachronistic, because the other characters make it quite clear that they are merely humoring the Doctor’s peculiar little ways. They like him, and they consider him a harmless weirdo.

Without the support system of all the other characters making it plain that Maturin’s attitudes are odd, (not to mention the places where he really is odd by anyone’s standards) he would come across as anachronistic. As it is, he comes across as charmingly eccentric and believable.

The disadvantage of this method is that you can’t use it for more than one or (at a pinch) two characters without undermining the believability of your whole world.

2. Make your character think through the issue. You want your Viking warrior to decide against raping his captive? Give him a father who was killed in his sleep by a vengeful slave-girl, years after he thought all the resistance was kicked out of her. Help him to connect the dots. It may be that getting him to the point where he realizes that he can’t force his captive to love him takes up half of the plot. That’s great! It means you’ve got a plot that arises out of an authentic historic situation and character. And then you can tackle the whole ‘well I’m not going on the bottom’ thing for the second half!

Both 1 and 2 are very plot and characterization intensive. But that’s OK because the issue of the characters’ historical attitudes is not one you can sweep under the carpet without sweeping away much of your realism as well.

So there you go. In the Realism v Romance stakes, my position is that you need to thoroughly know what would be realistic. You need to have done the research and faced the occasional place where history is just plain nasty. And then you have to somehow take that history and make it entertaining and romantic. There are things you can fudge, things you can overlook because the characters themselves would not notice them, and things you have to work through to come to a compromise which will appeal to your historical purist and your romantic softie equally. But that’s half the fun of the thing!

Alex

*(Example frivolously borrowed from Falconer’s poem ‘The Shipwreck’ via ‘Seamanship in the Age of Sail’ by John Harland.)

More from Alex on her website

Why research?

I could wish that it wasn’t necessary to ask this question; that all historical novelists naturally came with an inbuilt desire to learn all about their setting before they tried to publish a book about it. However, experience of reading historical romance proves that there are some writers who think that—for example—if they want to write about Highlanders all they have to do is watch Braveheart a couple of times.

I choked on my tea one day on reading the blurb for a book the hero of which was a handsome Scottish Highlander by the name of Seamus O’Hennessy. Possibly there was a reason for the fact that he had such a very Irish name, but the blurb did not hint at it, so I felt free to point and laugh. Seriously, that’s bad! Getting the nationality of the hero’s name wrong means that almost any reader will know, just from the blurb, that the author knows nothing about what they’re writing about, and the book is not worth reading.

There is one reason to research right there. It may be that you have a scorching tale to tell; your characters are fascinating and your plot is breathtaking. But if you get your historical facts wrong there are readers who will throw your book across the room nevertheless. Then they will ridicule it to their friends. There are readers who will pick it up in the bookshop and mock it aloud. You can guarantee that every review you get will pick up at least one mistake and shake its metaphorical head with disappointment over it.

Or to put it in a more positive way, if you do research and get things right you will garner critical acclaim. The Powers that Be will gush over your details and praise you for your erudition, and you can justifiably feel proud.

A second – and IMO better reason – is that research is (a) interesting and (b) a fantastic source of ideas.

If you’re not finding a historical period interesting – if you’re not going ‘ooh, that’s cool!’ or ‘oh, fantastic, they made false teeth out of wood!’ or ‘hee! ‘jonquil’, what a great word, I wonder what colour it is?’ – you may be better off not writing in that setting at all. It’s hard enough writing a book when you enjoy the world it’s set in. It must be purgatory writing in one you don’t.

If you’re enjoying yourself with your research, looking up more stuff than you actually need to just soak in the culture of the age, you may find inspiration hits you from the most unexpected places. Need to get Edward to Bath in time for his worthless beau to dump him in favour of a rich widow, but can’t think of a believable excuse he can tell his guardian? While you’re idly reading up on 18th Century Opera it may come to you in a flash that Edward is a big fanboy of the castrato Farinelli, and that him asking to go to Bath to see his musical idol would seem perfectly innocent. And now you also know that Edward is musical. And you can wring some extra angst out of him being dumped in front of his hero.

If I was asked that perennial question; ‘where do you get your ideas’? ‘Historical research’ would come close to the top. Researching Native American tribes for ‘Captain’s Surrender’, for example, made me aware of the massive complexity of the situation in 18th Century America. I wasn’t able to get any of it into ‘Captain’s Surrender’, but boy do I now know that there’s a fascinating setting there that I would love to explore for a future book.

When should you research?

Because research gives me inspiration I prefer to do a lot of it before I even start a book. If I don’t know what the inside of a Roman house looks like, or whether they eat breakfast in the morning or how many hills Rome is built on, I don’t feel equipped to start. I like to soak up enough for a broad brush picture before I set pen to paper. Often at this stage I will discover things which are too cool to be left out, and figuring out a way to get them into the book will influence the development of the plot.

I do know people who start writing and research as they go along, stopping to check that everything is correct as they proceed. This probably cuts down on the amount of irrelevant stuff you have to read and makes the writing process faster.

But I don’t recommend writing the book first and researching afterwards! While this approach would certainly cut down the amount of research you need to do, it will inevitably lead to big re-writes when you realize that nope, plot points x, y and z couldn’t have happened like that, characters a and b are unbelievable, and settings i-xii all have to be thrown out.

Where should you research?

Places you can go to find out more about your era of choice:

1. The Internet.

A Google search will usually turn up something of use. Sometimes it may even be exactly what you were looking for.

Advantage – it’s quick and easy.

Disadvantage – except when it isn’t.

There is a lot of information out there on the internet, but not all of it is accurate, sometimes it’s downright wrong. Sometimes it’s misguiding – without being wrong itself, it leads you to a wrong conclusion. If you need something specific, like the date when something was first invented or built, check it in at least three places before you start to believe in it.

If you’re looking for more general information, then scrutinize the facts carefully – don’t be tempted to use the cool thing you’ve just discovered until you’ve checked that it was actually known in your time, in your area of the world, and by more than the one person who invented it. Just because a thing was technically available doesn’t necessarily mean that it was actually used. (For example, 18th Century doctors could have used laudanum to anaesthetise their patients during operations, but they didn’t use it because they thought it was better that the patient be awake.)

Sometimes it’s also frustratingly impossible to find something specific on the internet – you’ll get hundreds of sites telling you hundreds of versions of the same thing, and never actually the thing you want. This is often the case when looking up information about facts specific to gay or lesbian subcultures, because sex as a whole is an area of embarrassment to the essay writing segment of the internet. If you try looking up ‘the gay subculture in medieval England’ the chances are that you’ll get porn – and it won’t even be medieval porn.

2. Google Image Search

Advantage – they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I find that’s often true, particularly for describing scenery or costume. Image search also often turns up more interesting articles than just searching on text.

Disadvantage – all the same disadvantages as plain Google search; make sure your image is of what you think it is!

3. Books

Advantage – generally what goes into history books has been checked for factual accuracy by at least a couple of people. (Don’t believe anything that doesn’t cite its sources.)

Books are also short on the ‘white noise’ factor which you find on the internet. The information they contain tends to be more condensed, more in depth, and more relevant to your needs as a historical writer than an internet article. Obviously there are exceptions, but this is what I find in general.

If you have other history mad friends it’s always a good idea to compare the books you’ve got on hand and see if you can lend or borrow anything.

Disadvantage – books are not cheap. They may not be available from your local library, or if they are, you may have to wait months for them to arrive. And of course they still may not contain the answer to that question you’re trying to get answered. There may not even be a book in print that deals with the specific thing you are interested in.

4. Contemporary Sources

Pictures, books, plays, poetry, paintings, artefacts, even film from the era in question.

Advantage – nothing can more accurately give you an insight into the mindset of the people than reading a book, play or poetry written at the time. Want to know the kind of thing an educated Roman might have thought during Augustus’ time – read Horace or Virgil. Want to know whether your 18th Century hero can get away with an assignation at an inn – read Fielding’s Tom Jones. You cannot get more authentic than that.

I would say that it’s essential to at least look up the pictures, paintings, chairs, furniture, dress styles, tableware and general paraphernalia of living for whatever era you’re writing in. Visit the stately homes and the museums, look at the flea traps and the tassels on the swords. Nothing is too small or obscure to ignore because any of it might be useful for just adding that touch that convinces your reader they’re in a different time.

Disadvantage – this may take some effort and time. Possibly expense too. But if you love the period enough to want to write in it, it will also be good fun.

5. Find an expert

Many of the larger public libraries in the US have people who will do searches on request–some of them are very helpful.

If you have a museum or university near you (or even somewhere you can look up on the internet) it may be worth emailing and seeing if there is a postgrad student or friendly professor who would be willing to answer questions for a mention in the dedication and a free book.

Other places to look

Writer’s groups – someone may have already looked this up for their book.

Local History Groups

Churches/church wardens/college secretaries (for details on Oxfordcolleges for example)

Local Libraries (ie local to the place you need)

Historic houses

Tourist information offices

Your friends-list – someone may have already looked it up, know where to look, or have local knowledge.

Yahoo groups – somewhere out there is probably a group of enthusiasts already discussing the problem. Need to know whether the Great Western Railway carried a post van? – ask a group of trainspotters.

Re-enactors – these are people who live and breathe the period they re-enact. They will often know more about the nitty-gritty of day to day life in that period than anyone in a museum, and they can give you hands on experience of what a musket/corset/hangarok/longbow etc felt like to use or wear. Chances are there is a group somewhere out there re-enacting your period of interest. You can start by looking up your local SCA on the internet, or if you’re in the UK by going to a re-enactor’s market: http://www.reenactorsmarket.co.uk/

Again, the only real disadvantage to all of this is that it takes time and effort.

6. Ask the Macaronis,

We’re not guaranteeing we’ll know, but we can always just have a good grumble together. But check on this list first, because there are an awful lot of useful sites available here: http://erastes.com/historical-research-links/

To conclude: Research is your friend, and sometimes it’s also a wonderful form of cheap entertainment, and inspiration. Good luck!

~*~*~*~

Thanks to Erastes for the wonderful resource list, and to all the Macaronis for the suggestions on how and where to research, which I’ve incorporated above.

It seems strange to introduce myself as a veteran writer of m/m historical romance when the fact is that my first book was only released on the first of January this year (2008). However, ‘Captain’s Surrender’ certainly is a gay historical romance. Set in 1779, just before the end of the War of Independence, it’s a sea-faring adventure in the tradition of Patrick O’Brian. If PoB had given greater prominence to his gay characters, that is.

Captain's Surrender

Unlike many more professional writers, it never occurred to me to find out what the market was like; what was hot, what was not. If I had, I might have been discouraged by the fact that there seemed to be fifty contemporary novels and ten paranormals for every historical. This was an instance in which my own lack of savvy came to my rescue, because I just wrote what I wanted to read.

I’ve been in love with the 18th Century Royal Navy since watching ‘Master and Commander’. I wanted all that military glamor, all the excitement of battles, storms, shipwrecks, combat and life-or-death peril, combined with a strong focus on characterization, star-crossed, forbidden romance, true love conquering all, and a happy ending. In short, I wanted a book that would satisfy both the masculine and the feminine side of myself. I have to say that – for me at least – I managed to succeed in that.

My other published novel is called ‘The Witch’s Boy’, but as a pseudo-early-Norman fantasy, which is neither historical nor particularly gay (though hero and villain are ex-lovers), it’s probably not appropriate for this blog.

I do however have an Age of Sail short story called ’90% Proof’ coming out soon in an anthology (called ‘Inherently Sexual’) from Freya’s Bower.

Inherently Sexual

And at the moment I’m working on a second Age of Sail novel, under a working title of ‘Secrets’, examining how society’s condemnation of same sex love harms not only GBLT people but society itself. Which sounds very pretentious, I know, but which also involves battles with pirates, the white slave trade, cannibals, threesomes, family angst, and recurring appearances by famous castratos, so it can’t be all bad.

I run the ‘In Their Own Words‘ blog, which is a promotional resource for GBLT novels, where authors can put up interviews with their own characters. I also moderate the Gay and Lesbian Excerpts blog on both WP and Myspace. I occasionally review on ‘Speak Its Name‘ and I blather on incessantly about anything that takes my fancy on my own blog: HMS Gruntleship.

I’m really hoping that The Macaronis becomes a great place for anyone who loves gay historic fiction, and if you have any great ideas for how to make it better, do get in touch.

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