When I started my post yesterday, I had pretensions of including the views of m/m historical romance authors as well, and so I interviewed Alex Beecroft, Charlie Cochrane, Josh Lanyon, Erastes, Lee Rowan, and Kate Rothwell and Bonnie Dee (Kate writing as Summer Devon, and Bonnie write m/m historicals that I have very much enjoyed). Then my opinion piece got very long. So Jane said I could take up two days on this topic and post the interviews separately.
But then, these seven people are WRITERS. And I asked them SEVEN questions. And they wrote HUGE answers. o_0 So, if you’re interested in reading everyone’s complete answers to my questions, please download the document here: M-M interviews. It’s 12 pages (Arial, 10pt, single-spaced). It’s just under 8400 words. It’s color-coded and very pretty. Enjoy!
Otherwise, here’s a MUCH reduced version of their answers. I hope I didn’t misconstrue anything any of the writers said.
1. Why do you write HISTORICAL m/m romance as opposed to contemporary m/m romance?
Lee Rowan: I like writing about an era where honor and integrity were more than just buzzwords honored only in the breach.
Alex Beecroft: I read and write largely for escapism.
Josh Lanyon: From a human standpoint, citizen of the world standpoint, I think it’s only through accurate understanding of the past that we can avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
Erastes: I’ve never considered writing anything contemporary.
Kate Rothwell: I love reading them and I enjoy doing research using both primary materials and book or essays by historians.
1a. If you write both, what draws you to historical m/m romance as well as contemporary? Why bother with historical if you’re already writing contemporary? (SSGF: I admit that this as a very badly written question. I'm still working on being a good interviewer. Sorry!)
Lee Rowan: Why bother with contemporary, since so many other people are already writing it?
Alex Beecroft: For me the question is ‘why bother with contemporary if you’re already writing historical?’
Josh Lanyon: Your phrasing seems to imply that there might only be certain kinds of stories to tell in this genre, and that they could be told just as easily from a contemporary view point. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that history is cyclical. Our attitudes and beliefs change from century and through culture.
Charlie Cochrane: Why bother with fillet steak when you already have sea bass? Just as I love both of those foods, I love writing – and reading – both periods. They have distinct "flavours'; writing historical letting you step back into another era for a little while, shining a light on the differences and the similarities to our own period.
Bonnie Dee: As a reader, I prefer stories set in other time periods so it's natural for me to want to write what I like to read. But contemporaries are easier in that we live in these times so have a better understanding of them-‘less chance of getting details wrong. Perhaps easiest of all are fantasy worlds where all you have to worry about is staying true to the world you build.
2. What historical period do you write in?
Lee Rowan: So far, Napoleonic War and Regency, a little bit in US Revolutionary War.
Alex Beecroft: So far it’s been the middle of the 18th Century, but I’m interested in all sorts of eras, so I can’t see myself /only/ writing 18th Century from now on.
Josh Lanyon: Early 20th Century. 1900s – 1940s.
Charlie Cochrane: Predominantly the early part of the twentieth century. The past feels very close to us in England – I live in a converted Edwardian house so when I open my sash windows they're the same ones as would have been opened in 1906 and I like that continuity of place and action. I could take you around our "village' and show you where the Roman road runs and where the WWII bomb crater is from planes dumping their loads before returning home after bombing the docks. We could go five miles up the road and put our fingers in the holes left in walls by English civil war musket balls, then have tea in a genuine Tudor cottage. It makes it easier to imagine oneself back in another era.
Erastes: I’ve written: Regency, 17th Century England, 19th Century Italy, 20th Century Italy, Victorian England, 1960’s England, 19th Century Prussia and I’m currently writing 1920’s England. (as well as many different periods in short story form).My next project will probably be 19th century America or Roman gladiators.
Bonnie Dee: pretty much Regency through Victorian
Kate Rothwell: The same, though my favorite period is 1880s (I particularly like New York City, though I haven't managed to sell many books set there/then)
3. Why do you write in that particular period?
Lee Rowan: Because educated people were able to speak in complete grammatical sentences, and the sound bite was an abomination not even on the horizon. It’s interesting in other ways, too–rife with injustice to pretty much all minorities, but the rigid social structure was starting to loosen up a bit.
Alex Beecroft: The 18th Century in England is a fascinating time. From their POV the world is being mapped and explored and discovered for the first time. There are still areas of the globe which have “here be dragons” written on them, but for the first time Western Man has the technology to go and see them and find out. He’s going where no [Western] Man has gone before. It’s like Star Trek, but with much, much nicer clothes.
Josh Lanyon: The 30s and 40s are an obvious choice for me as I’m a great fan of film noir and the early detective fiction of Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, etc. World War I haunts me. It epitomizes everything both good and evil in mankind. It’s the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. It’s dramatic and tragic and heroic all in one.
Charlie Cochrane: Subjective answer? I just adore it.
Bonnie Dee: I write whatever time period seems necessary for the story. If Kate tells me we should have the hero be suffering the aftermath of the Battle of Bajadoz, I say okay.
Kate Rothwell: I've done a lot of reading about that period. Might as well use the research.
4. How does that period view being gay? Not just how gay men and women were treated by society and the laws, but how they would have seen themselves? Was it a practice or an identity?
Lee Rowan: I’d say it was considered more a practice than an identity. I’m sure that some people felt unclean, sinful, and totally wretched, while others recognized the disconnect between what the law and the Bible said and what people actually did. One quote from a transcript of a sodomy trial: “I should think I can make what use I choose of my own body.” That doesn’t sound like someone consumed with self-loathing, it sounds like someone annoyed that his privacy has been invaded.
Alex Beecroft: It’s the first period (as far as I know) where the idea that what we would now call a homosexual orientation could be a part of your nature as opposed to something you just did. Again, as far as I know, it was the first time a distinctive gay subculture had emerged in Britain, with Molly Houses and cruising grounds and even a hanky code. More to the point of why I like the period, it was also (with the usual caveat) the first period where homosexual relationships could be couched in terms of a love between equals, the first point where a relationship can be drawn that doesn’t buy into the very ancient and poisonous idea that sticking your penis into someone automatically makes you the boss of them.
Josh Lanyon: What’s really fascinating is how drastically attitudes toward homosexuality changed during the early 20th Century. At the start of the century, attitudes were relatively liberal. In the States, attitudes toward sexuality in general were more liberal (I’m not talking about small mid-western towns, granted). Then we hit the 30s and things begin to really tighten up. There are pockets of tolerance, enlightenment, along the way, but basically things get progressively worse until the Stonewall Riots.
Charlie Cochrane: One of the prevalent concepts at the time was that of the Uranian, originally defined as a sort of third sex, a female psyche in a male body. Edward Carpenter championed that notion, the ideal of a comradely love between men, and he influenced writers like E M Forster. Some gay men would have seen themselves as Uranians, but I'm not sure that held true for all of them, as I'm not sure we can or should put any sort of label on gay men and women now.
Erastes: As I don’t write in any particular period, I do the research to find out what the laws where at the time. And it’s not just the laws that are important, it’s the attitude of the populace. Look at Hollywood, someone like Cole Porter, or the queers in English Show Business. Homosexuals were often protected fiercely by the studios, to the extent that the gossip columnists were in on it, and false marriages were arranged and the public were none the wiser (this is probably happening in the lucrative world of sport right now, of course).
Kate Rothwell: It depended on your class and ethnic background. If you had enough money and were generally discreet (no kissing on the street for God's sake) and no one was out to blackmail you, you could actually get away with *not* living a lie. It's interesting how historical figures are being reexamined by historians trying to discover their sexuality. Lots of long-dead people dragged out of the closet (now there's a nasty image) like Lincoln and Joshua Speed. But no matter how successful a gay person was, there had to be a cost. As Kate Cotoner pointed out here, it took a lot of time and effort to hide.
5. How important is it to you to get #4 historically accurate? That is, do you use contemporary terms about homosexuality in your historical settings because it helps the audience to understand what you’re talking about? Or not?
Lee Rowan: It’s very important, but again, I don’t think every individual in every era has an identical point of view. Readers generally have intelligence enough to figure out that ‘sodomy or buggery’ is the same as ‘buttsecks.’ I think it’s next to impossible to write something entirely in period language.
Alex Beecroft: For me it’s very important to try as hard as you can. I don’t think it’s possible to be 100% accurate, because different scholars say different things depending on their own ways of looking at the evidence. For example, almost every hanging for sodomy in the Navy occurred when a man in authority was found guilty of abusing someone lower than him in rank, usually one of the ship’s boys. One scholar I’ve read claims that this proves that homosexuality in the Navy always took the form of man/boy relationships. Another suggests that those are the prosecutions we see because the Navy took a more lenient view of relationships where there was an equality of rank and therefore no abuse of power. If you don’t have a word for something, it’s hard to think it. I tend to feel that if you introduce modern words, you introduce modern concepts, and that automatically falsifies the way your characters think as people of their times.
Josh Lanyon: I do my best to get everything, every historical detail correct. I’m chagrined when I slip up, which occasionally I do. I’m more chagrined when a publisher forces me to slip up — for example insisting on condom usage when it’s really unlikely to have occurred. If I can chime in here as a reader for a sec, my personal preference is that the history feel seamless and natural. I’d prefer to be slightly confused about what an item is or a particular event rather than have an intrusive-explanation-for-the-modern-reader popped in. I don’t want the spell broken. I want to be in the moment of the story.
Charlie Cochrane: Primarily I try hard not to be anachronistic in terms of behaviour or language. I often refer to the fact that my characters can't do what any heterosexual couple could do at that time and the injustice they feel. But then, there's a lot of things we take for granted that wouldn't have been possible then, not least Jonty's mother not being able to vote.
Erastes: I attempt-‘as far as it is possible–to get the feel right. If you know the attitudes of the day, such as the early part of 19th century, where more men were hanged for sodomy than for murder, it’s easier to get inside the head of someone who has to hide his very essence every single moment of the day. Personally, I think that to soften the realism of what homosexual men had to suffer lessens and cheapens what these men had to go through for their so-called unnatural desires.
Kate Rothwell: No. It pulls me out of a story when I see a modern word used, even in the narrative. People complain about characters with modern sensibilities but that is less easy to condemn. The more diaries and biographies I've read, the more I've come to believe people in private haven't changed nearly as much as I once thought. The culture was very different though and that has to be taken into account.
Bonnie Dee: For the sake of a story set in historical times but written for a modern audience, I don't mind using not only contemporary terms but heroes with a more forward thinking mindset. If I was writing strictly historical I'd feel differently, but for romance I think it's more important to reach the audience than to worry about absolute accuracy of detail.
Kate Rothwell: Okay, yeah. What Bonnie said about the heroes. But I'd want to couch any possibly modern sensibilities in words or phrases that fit the era.
6. For you, how does writing about the historical experiences of gay people comment on the situation of gay people today? What thematic benefit does that time period give to your writing about gay people, if any?
Lee Rowan: l think the time period is a good illustration of why society needs to stand up and face down the right-wing religionists who think the law should retrograde and take away those civil rights we have won since Stonewall. One of the best reviews I got for Ransom–from someone who hadn’t even read m/m before–contained the innocent comment that it was terrible and unfair that Will and Davy could be executed for loving one another, since, as naval officers, they were continually risking their lives for their country. She’d never read gay romance before… but she got the message. “Don’t ask, don’t tell…” two hundred years, and it’s still just not fair.
Alex Beecroft: I don’t know that I am writing about gay people as such. I don’t think I can claim any kind of expertise on the gay experience, given that I’m not gay myself. I see myself in more general terms as writing fiction, with gay characters, which is about human beings and how hard – how unfair, how unjust, what a godawful waste of human lives, happiness and talent – it is to live in a society that fucks us up by trying to make us something that we’re not, and punishing us when we can’t comply. I think that love is the same for all of us, and that therefore we can all claim as heroes and role models anyone who chose love and truth even in the face of the death penalty. That’s a heroism that everyone ought to admire, regardless of their own orientation or circumstances.
Josh Lanyon: I find it comforting as a human to know how universal my personal experiences are, that I’m not alone, and that for all the world changes, many things — often the best things — stay the same. The costumes may change, but the hearts beating beneath? Not so much. Which is why I think it’s important to accurately depict how things were, not a wishful or whitewashed version where the protagonists hold 21st century attitudes.
Charlie Cochrane: The law can't change people's attitudes; only education and dialogue can achieve that.
Erastes: I think it can do. Probably mostly with tragedies, though. I remember feeling heartbroken over Brokeback Mountain because if it had been in more modern times, perhaps the main characters would have taken the chance and run away together.
Bonnie Dee: Honestly, I don't think of it that deeply. In Jungle Heat I was interested in presenting two men who were outsiders to their society and therefore understood each other on an elemental basis. That's as far as my thinking went.
7. Anything else you feel I’ve missed or thoughts inspired by this discussion not covered by these questions?
Lee Rowan: I think that romances really are “teaching stories.” The best of them let a young person (usually female) test-drive the idea of falling in love without necessarily making all the mistakes on her own. I’d love to see young men–straight as well as gay–reading romances because men don’t generally get much in the way of training for romantic relationships. Sex, yes, but not how to cultivate the warmth that can keep two people warm for a lifetime. And I think romances aimed at GLBT youth are particularly important, because until very recently, we didn’t get the chance to see any positive future. The most renowned gay stories even today are Brokeback Mountain and Front Runner–what we tend to call the “Dead Queer Tragedies.” The message we’ve been fed is: "If you reach out for this love, you or the one you love will die.” That is not right. I think the diehard “one-man-one-woman” brigade who are determined to protect the so-called “purity” of Traditional Romance know exactly what they’re doing. They would like to see gays and lesbians disappear altogether, or at best remain invisible and let them pretend we do not exist. This ties into historical because…we have always been here, and those stories, even though we may have to make them up from scraps, deserve to be told.
Alex Beecroft: What I don’t want to do is give the impression that just because I like to do things one way, that is the only right way. For example, take Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s set in a fantasy 18th century. And yet it’s a wonderful film which made me go away and read up on the real facts. While I wouldn’t really call PotC “a historical”, I think the world would be a poorer place if we demanded it should be Master and Commander instead (another superb film – but of a very different sort.) As Josh Lanyon says, I think there’s a place for Fantasy History, or possibly “Romantic History” as well as “Historical Romance.” Much angst between the two camps could be avoided by accurate labeling, so that those who like their romance to be historical could go for one sort, and those who like their history to be romantic could go the other. (And those who like both could have both.)
Josh Lanyon: One thing I’ve felt for a long time is that there seem to be two schools of thought on historical romance. One is a kind of costume drama or pulp fiction approach — like those old bodice rippers of the 1970s. It’s largely fantasy, but it’s good fun. The other is the more academic approach of writers, also good fun, but grounded in realism. As odd as this may sound, I don’t really have a problem with the costume drama approach to historical romance provided they’re labeled as such. If they were labeled something like Romantic History versus Historical Romance, I think we all might be a little more tolerant of the liberties taken.
Erastes: If this means “is your theme/message helped by writing in that era?” then I had no idea one was supposed to write themes or messages! If there are any, then I’ll let other people search for ’em – but I tend to just tell stories. There are themes that I tend to pick at again and again: religion, parental issues, because I’m "writing what I know" but to misquote Samuel Goldwyn: Messages ‘I’ll leave to the Post Office.’