I’ve been reading quite a few historical gay romances lately. I love the genre (and really appreciate those authors who write it.) It’s a challenge. If an author’s not going to just stick with what are effectively “codpiece-rippers” of hot, Regency-style fluff (which can be fun too), then how do they keep the story real, and yet find a satisfying, romantic ending for their two gay men?
It can be done, of course. Throughout history, some real-life gay couples have managed to carve out a loving, shared life. And in fiction, where there’s a will, there’s a way. (Or a Matthew, or a Steven…) Anyhow, for Will to get his plausible HEA takes both research and inventiveness from the author.
Research comes first. The author must track down so many details, not just of the era, but of being LGBTQ within it. What did people of the era call a gay man, as either friend or as an insult? What were the chances of being caught, and what happened to gay men who fell foul of the law or the church? What clothes were worn and how did they fasten (or unfasten)? Heck, what did they use for lube back then? Finding resources that give a trustworthy picture can be hard.
When I wrote my WWII stories (Into Deep Waters and Unfair in Love and War) I was lucky enough to come across Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by Allan Bérubé. Along with other references, and contemporaneous accounts, that fascinating book helped give me a portrait of what life was like for gay servicemen in the period I wanted to write. For earlier eras, it may be hard to find information about what was a hidden part of society.
As we do research, it’s also easy to get pulled into the fascination of just reading the history. I get caught up in details that I never knew existed. Like Polari – a slang/invented language perhaps first used in London in the fishmarkets, theatre, and fairgrounds. It became adopted by the gay subculture by the 1900s, and was still in popular use as recently as the 1960s – one man could talk to another about forbidden subjects in Polari without worrying about being overheard by a nosy bigot or a cop. I hadn’t known that gay men had their own dialect, with which they could share conversation in greater safety. And which also served to bond them in a community. There are subtitled recordings… Fascinating stuff. Historical research on the Internet is hard to walk away from.
Listening to Polari also brings up another issue with historicals. They have to be authentic, but also accessible to modern readers, to succeed as entertainment. So if I write about a gay man in the 1950s in London, I can throw in a word or two of Polari to add flavor and period detail. But, even if it would be most authentic to have a whole conversation in it, I’ll avoid doing that, to not bore or confuse readers.
It’s also not enough to just avoid true anachronisms. What will “feel” real to readers? I’ve seen authors called out for using “too modern” a word… in a book set in Ancient Greece, when English did not yet exist. The whole story is effectively a foreign language translation, in which case… can you have a guy say, “okay” as a translation of a colloquial Greek mutter of agreement? Or is that somehow inappropriate? A book written in the true English of centuries ago would be formal, confusing and hard to follow, so some modernization is necessary. Historical romance must meet all three language requirements – comprehension, authenticity, and “feel” for general readers.
And only after that can you tackle that challenging happy ending. We’re writing romance, damn it. Love must win. (Unless you write a bittersweet like Lavender in Bloom, and lovingly and deeply break your readers’ hearts. Thanks, Lily Velez.)
It’s not a simple task. My favorite historical M/M writers become inventive in finding a way for their two guys to have a life together— an isolated country home, crowded city “roommates”, a female friend or relative posing as the wife of one of them, an accepting enclave in a theater district, a professional relationship like a musical duo, or a household one like master and valet, perhaps protected by wealth or position or leverage. (If you haven’t read K.J. Charles’ Society of Gentlemen, I highly recommend them for a variety of relationships within the framework of 19th century England.) I’ve read many creative options, including cross-dressing. (Try Eleventh Hour by Elin Gregory.) Whatever the author chooses, at the end of the book, we want to feel that our two guys have a shot at happiness. Threatened, perhaps. Precarious, due to the realities of the time. But possible.
The choices vary with the era, and I love the range now represented in M/M. While it’s hard to beat the elaborate dance of manners and society in Regency stories, I love that we have books appearing from less-known times and places. We see Vikings and monks in Brothers of the Wild North Sea, while Kayla Jameth goes back to Sparta, in very detail-filled stories with a hint of mythology. Michael Jensen tells me he will be going even further into pre-history in A Broken Land. We have the middle ages in The Lion and the Crow, the matelotage of the Caribbean pirates of 1667 in Brethren: Raised by Wolves. (With more than a touch of melodrama, but fascinating nonetheless.) I’ve enjoyed books set in the Age of Sail like Blessed Isle, and the Great Game of spies in 1842 in Tournament of Shadows. We see the dawn of the twentieth century and post WWI in many of Tamara Allen’s wonderful stories. Or romance between two different cultures in the Vietnam War era, in Palace Dog.
Which raises a technical question – at what point moving forward in time does a book stop being historical?
Perhaps when all those who lived in that era have passed away? Or when there’s a whole generation that knows that time only from textbooks? My 1980’s coming of age story, Like the Taste of Summer, often lists as historical. And I’m fine with that, although I was in college in the 80’s. I think, if it’s recognizably different from your own life experience in customs, opportunities, and expectations, then feel free to call it historical.
So many good books. I’d love to keep recommending more of the best, but I’d be here all day. I have a favorites list on Goodreads you can check out. And if you have historical M/M stories or authors you love, and want to put it in a comment, please do. My own To Be Read list can always get longer.
I want to leave you with a quote from Alex Beecroft’s introduction to the anthology Another Place in Time – “History is forever teaching us that we are all linked. That I, who walk the maze set in the floor of Ely cathedral, am part of a continuity of people who have walked it before me. I am part of the curve in the waterfall that existed before I did and will endure long after my particular little droplet has passed.
I think this is why Queer historical fiction is so important.”
M/M historical romance, when done well, places the evolution of gay lives and rights in a broader context, and at the same time personalizes the history. It helps us become more aware of the risks, sacrifices, and hard-won victories of the generations before us. As well as being great fun to read, and write.
Books by other authors mentioned in this article:
Another Place in Time by Aleksandr Voinov, Joanna Chambers, et al (disclaimer- I have a short story)
Blessed Isle by Alex Beecroft
Brethren: Raised by Wolves book 1 by W.A. Hoffman
A Broken Land: The Drowning World Book One by Michael Jensen (not yet released)
Brothers of the Wild North Sea by Harper Fox
Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by Allan Bérubé
Eleventh Hour by Elin Gregory
Lavender in Bloom by Lily Velez
The Lion and the Crow by Eli Easton
Palace Dog by R.E. Nelson
Society of Gentlemen series by K.J. Charles
A Spartan Love by Kayla Jameth
Tournament of Shadows by S.A. Meade
Whistling in the Dark, and other stories, by Tamara Allen