Historical Novels with Gay Characters by Elin Gregory

I was very surprised and flattered to be asked to write a post for UK Gay Romance. Mostly because I’ve never really viewed myself as a romance author. Yes, I do have romances as part of my historical stories but usually my heroes are busy trying to fight off pirates, or Saxons, or bomb-hurling anarchists, or the Macedonian phalanx, and fit in tender moments when they can safely do so. What I do write are historical novels, with gay heroes, and I’m spectacularly bad at doing the sensible thing and keeping to just one time period. My two published works are a novella set in Ancient Greece and a novel set in the golden age of piracy. My WIPs include stories set in Dark Ages Northumbria, 1920s London, spoof high-mediaeval knights in armour, some Roman fun and games, more Greeks and WW2 agriculture. Naturally this means a load of reading and research, but that’s great fun, isn’t it?

Or maybe not.

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum whose names can translate as “joined in life and joined in death” rubbing noses in the most intimate portrayal of closeness allowed in Egyptian art, usually applied to married couples.

Several people have said to me “I would love to write an historical romance, but I’m too scared of the research”. Well, I think that’s why I’m here – to say that it’s nothing to be scared of. Details change over the centuries but human nature doesn’t. We all want the same things now that the guys who built the pyramids wanted; there are just different ways of expressing our needs, and different levels of risk in achieving them.

There are different kinds of research materials which can be broken down into primary and secondary sources. A secondary source is usually a book or academic paper where someone has interpreted historical facts, the primary sources are the facts themselves, whether archaeology or artefacts or contemporary records of events. A Wikipedia page is a secondary source but may contain references to primary sources. For instance, written by a man in 1844:

“I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone, and [I] should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

So – “wooing several gentleman” – would you say that is good evidence for the writer of the letter being gay? The hope that his old maid won’t expect much bedroom action seems telling too.

William Rufus Devane King, 13th VP of the United States

Actually the author was James Buchanan, later President of the USA, writing while his live-in ‘companion’ William Rufus King was away on ambassadorial duties in France. Buchanan and King lived together for 13 years, until King’s death.
It’s very rare to find something that is as easily interpreted as this and it probably only survived because the letter was sent to Cornelia Roosevelt, an important woman who kept her files in good order. After Buchanan’s death his niece and King’s niece got together and carefully destroyed all the two men’s correspondence. This happened often. Families were scared that it might come out that a loved one had not toed the line where it came to who he or she loved. Letters, diaries, photographs – all have fed the bonfires of propriety. This has led to an erasure of the lives of LGBTTQ people as more puritanical ages redacted the history of previous eras by destroying evidence that they found unacceptable. I work in a museum with over 100,000 artefacts in the collections. It stands to reason that at least some of the thousands of letters, photographs, coins, pieces of clothing were written by, show, were spent by, were worn by people who would now identify themselves as LGBTTQ but we don’t know. We have to guess from what little evidence remains.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton

Secondary sources are easier to come by but have to be approached with caution. I have several books on my shelves detailing aspects of life in Ancient Greece, none of which make mention of the well documented erastes/eromenos relationship and one of which writes off the entire subject by saying “It is not thought that homosexuality was any more prevalent that it is today, nor that it was considered with approval”. Thus writing off Alexander and Hephaistion, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Epaminondas and Caphisodorus, and , godammit, the whole of the Sacred Band. By all means use secondary sources but bear in mind that the author may have an agenda and be cherry-picking amongst the available facts to find the ones that best suit his purposes. Base your book on just one historian’s interpretation and you’ll lay yourself open to challenge from people who have looked at a different reading list.

From chatting to other writers, I know that many authors start writing character first and then develop a plot. This is possible with historicals, but I would say that you need to know a bit about the period before you can decide what characters are possible. If you wanted to write a story set against the backdrop of 18th century coaching it would be handy to know what a postillion and an ostler where, how they might meet and what opportunities they might have to get to know each other. What people ate, how they dressed, whether they could do things that we take for granted, all go to provide a solid scene against which the drama can play out. Money, weights and measures are important too.

There are books on all these subjects and websites galore where enthusiasts have posted invaluable information – I’ll list some of those below. Knowing a bit about what is possible offers all kinds of opportunities for plot and conflict. For instance, if you are writing Age of Sail fiction, knowing a bit about the layout of the ship, how the watches changed and the command structure is pretty essential if you want your sailor lovers to have any quality time alone.

Another thing that we take for granted is our mindset – the way we look at life, our expectations, our prejudices, our privilege. I’ve often seen historical novels where the heroes’ attitudes are indistinguishable from those of the modern day. These may be more comfortable to read from a political correctness point of view but always strike me as being unrealistic. I don’t buy into the idea that romance writers are just writing fantasies. Ignoring the ugly realities of the past does nobody any service. Past attitudes to the poor, to women, to people of colour, to people who speak a different language, wear different clothing, all impact on the mindset of your heroes and it’s a challenge to make a man likeable while still having him realistically patronising to those he ‘knows’ to be his inferiors. It would be possible to write a story set in Rome with no mention of slavery, and that would probably be more palatable to readers unless they were really into master/slave erotica, but I’d prefer to write a man who hates the idea of slavery yet finds himself in possession of a slave [that’s another WIP by the way – I’m my own worst enemy].

Many thanks to UK Gay Romance for giving space to ramble.

Shire Books – a publisher specialising in slim booklets on specific subjects. Very handy for tight focus research and each book has a useful bibliography.
Old House Books – a subsidiary of Shire who specialise in reprints.
Osprey Books – mostly military history, these picture books provide brilliant visual resources for arms armour, weapons and accessories plus potted histories and decent bibliographies.
Genmaps – reproductions of old maps of England, Scotland and Wales. Searchable by period and by county.
The Grub Street Project – maps of 18th century London. I can lose myself in this site, clicking down and down closer to street level until I can see individual buildings.
The National Archives – click on Menu to get options for searching. I have found pure gold on this site, often accidentally while looking for something else. There’s a bit of everything – governmental records, reports from ambassadors, accountancy, details of changes of staff in far flung provinces. Masses of material, though, so approach with caution unless you want to be plot bunnied.
Financial Resources – a variety of tools for getting the financial details right in your stories.
Trade Directories – these travellers guides were produced from the 18th century until the phone book made them unnecessary. They are treasure troves of information – period appropriate names, local surnames, businesses, pub names, times of stage coaches and carriers – again use with caution because it’s possible to get lost in them.

Elin writes mostly historical fiction, mostly action adventure romps with gay heroes, and does it very slowly. She’s chuffed to bits that her novel On a Lee Shore, about pirates, is a finalist in the LGBT Historical section of the Rainbow Awards.

On A Lee Shore

“Give me a reason to let you live…”

Beached after losing his ship and crew, and with England finally at peace, Lt Christopher Penrose will take whatever work he can get. A valet? Why not? Escorting an elderly diplomat to the Leeward Islands seems like an easy job, but when their ship is boarded by pirates, Kit’s world is turned upside down. Forced aboard the pirate ship, Kit finds himself juggling his honor with his desire to stay alive, not to mention his desire for the alarming–yet enticing–captain, known as La Griffe.

Kit has always obeyed the rules, but as the pirates plunder their way across the Caribbean, he finds much to admire in their freedom. He deplores their lawlessness but is drawn to their way of life, and begins to think he might just have found a purpose. Dare he dream of finding love too? Or would loving a pirate take him too far down the road to ruin?

15 thoughts on “Historical Novels with Gay Characters by Elin Gregory

  1. This is fascinating stuff (though I’m resisting the urge to follow any of those links, because the last thing I need right now is more research). When considering mindset, I find the poetry and literature of the era helpful, as it can be a route in to understanding how people see the world, in terms of the metaphors and analogies they use as well as their philosophical and cultural blinders.

    As a related question, and one which is causing me problems at the moment, how do you decide when you’ve done enough research? I’m writing secondary world fantasy, but using historical analogies to help me refine my setting. Having decided to unleash a plague on what’s effectively a late medieval/early Renaissance setting, I could easily spend the next few years on background reading. When do you decide enough is enough?

  2. That’s a very good question. My rule of thumb is to stop researching when doing it, or anxiety about it, threatens to stop you from writing. You can check basic facts – yes, there were plagues, they devastated communities, certain professions were more prone to catching them than others – then write the bones of the story and check the things you NEED to check. If it turns out that you’ve got something wrong you can usually tweak the action or the plot a little to give you a workaround. 🙂 Please don’t do what I’ve done and get so anxious about getting it ‘right’ than you lose impetus with the story and abandon it.

    • Thank you. That makes a lot of sense. It’s easy to get bogged down in the detail of the research and lose sight of which bits you need. I suspect that I may well be procrastinating with research because part of me doesn’t want to unleash something quite so nasty on my characters, but that’s a very different problem.

      Ironically enough, just after I posted that question, I hit a mass of relevant information and have a much better sense of how to build my plot around the development of an epidemic. It’s funny how things suddenly click into place when you’re ready to give up, isn’t it?

      • Very glad to hear that. There’s nothing sadder than good characters and a good plot languishing for want of a little extra info. In my case I’d have had to learn Ukrainian to read the archaeology reports so my magnum opus about the Scythian empire is going to have to wait until they are translated into English.

        Good luck with the WIP. I’ll look forward to reading it. 🙂

  3. I think the fun of research is when it’s a subject you really love. I’ve written a WW2 story, set in the RAF, and I adored the research. My trouble was not putting it all in. There’s only so much a romance reader wants to know about Mosquito planes!

    Please, go finish your WW2 wip, I’d love to read it.

  4. This was really fascinating, even if i don’t write historical novels :). But I think the discoveries and investigations must spark the imagination for all genres of fiction.

    • Thanks, Clare. I think one can get some terrific ideas for contemporary plots from the past especially if you add a bit of paranormal. 🙂 But I find writing about the present day a bit scary – comes of living in a 1970s time warp.

  5. Fascinating, thank you. Especially on the prejudices, which is something I’ve been struggling with. I’ve just written an Edwardian m/m romance and one of the things that was really hard to tackle was the antisemitism (one of the heroes is Jewish). The Edwardian era was grossly antisemitic, to the point where even a really decent, thoroughly good man like GK Chesterton would casually make what we would consider the most disgusting remarks, and realistically, my solidly English hero probably would too – not in a spirit of particular nastiness, but because it was such a pervasive, unremarkable thing to do. It is *very hard* to have a hero think or say things like that without revolting the modern reader. But it would be ludicrous and dishonest to pretend that he’s got an anachronistic sensitivity.

    • I hope you don’t mind me butting in here but I couldn’t agree more with you, KJ. Trying to make a character true to their time and place without alienating a modern day reader is really difficult. The temptation to layer on modern day attitudes and sensibilities is a hard one to resist but, if you do, you’re not being true and making things too easy. Then, I find, I have a habit of hitting the reader over the head with an explanation of what and why I’ve included attitudes of the time.

      It’s a really hard tightrope to walk!

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