Gay Historical Panel at GLBT UK MEET

On 23rd July, the 2nd annual GLBT UK MEETUP was held and it was a resounding success. In a year we went from 12 attendees to over 40 and we are planning even better next year.  Here’s the panel hosted by Alex Beecroft, Charlie Cochrane and Erastes. Hope you find it useful.

Alex Beecroft: Characters in your Historical Novel

1. What makes a historical feel like a historical? Characters.

If you were to ask me “what is the most important part of establishing your book as a historical?” I would have to say “it’s the characters.” I really don’t think that any amount of scene setting, even if it’s done in the most exquisite detail and with scrupulous historical accuracy, can convince the reader that they are in another era the way you can by having a character whose attitudes are historical and firmly embedded in their time.

I have read books where the setting certainly appeared to be 100% authentic and full of detail, and yet the characters who moved through that setting were so modern in their thoughts and actions that the overall experience of reading the book was similar to going to a mediaeval theme party. Where the character doesn’t match the setting you get a sort of cognitive dissonance that just screams fake fake fake, and it’s almost worse – imo – when the author has clearly got all the other stuff right. If they’ve gone to all that trouble and researched their physical world so well, it makes it even more jarring and unpleasant to see it populated by characters who would fit right at home in a contemporary if they only changed their clothes.

Some historicals I’ve read go as far as having aggressively modern main characters – characters whose role appears to me to walk through their world criticizing the way everyone else behaves and holding them up to 21st Century standards. These are the characters who are horrified at the barbaric practices of the doctors of their era (forgetting that these practices are the pinnacle of modern knowledge to the rest of their society,) who are unaccountably squeamish about standard forms of discipline (such as giving a child a thrashing, clipping a disobedient wife about the ear, or flogging a criminal) and who, for some reason, know better than everyone else in their society about matters of hygiene and diet, and are not ashamed to look down on their ignorant compatriots with all the smugness of a different century.

I mean, yes, if you really hate a particular era so much that you’d enjoy writing a book about how rubbish it was, by all means do so. But don’t create a character who could not have existed in that time to do it with. It would be far better to use a modern main character, who came by his attitudes honestly, being sent back into the past by freak wormhole incident or TARDIS.

2. So how do you write characters who don’t think like modern people?

This is tricky of course because you as an author think as a modern person does, and – as a modern person – you abhor many of the attitudes of the past (such as gay people are rubbish, women are rubbish, slavery is necessary, leeches are good for you etc.)

The first thing you have to do is to parcel all that up and leave it aside for a while, while you read as many of the original sources as you can get hold of. If the original sources exist, then listen to the voices of people from that century. You usually find that in some things they are indistinguishable from the voices of modern people – they still worry about their appearance and their income and what their families are up to. They have the same needs for love and wealth and respect that we have. But if you listen harder you can start to pick out the framework of assumptions that governs the way they go about fulfilling those needs.

For example, I read a journal of an 18th Century woman bewailing the sexual double standard between men and women – so far so modern – but she concluded that men ought to behave with more chastity rather than women with less. So far so unusual, so strange – so much an attitude that if you read it in a book you would be instantly convinced that you were in a different time. Just a little throwaway thought, and it’s different enough from what we take as written nowadays to make you feel like you’re in a different time.

Or, for a different example, it’s become quite fashionable to claim that Ancient Greece or Rome was a sin-free happy time for gay people. But that’s because we’re modern and we’re not paying attention to the nuances. Suppose you’re an Ancient Roman senator, and you fall in love with a barbarian gladiator – you’re fine if you want to be a top, but shame, shame upon your name and your ancestors if you don’t. There’s another attitude that makes no sense today, but if you based your characters internal or external conflict on it then the book could only be a historical, because it’s a conflict specific to that time.

3. Modern attitudes in historical characters.

This doesn’t mean that your characters have to have some kind of standard set of era-specific beliefs. In no age has everyone all believed exactly the same thing. For example, in the same century, there were people who loathed slavery enough to dedicate their lives to fighting it, people who dedicated their lives to fighting for it tooth and nail, people who might not have campaigned but who bought slavery-free sugar when they could, and a large set of people who were too busy with their own lives to have a position either way.

You can give your characters almost any attitude you wish, so long as you can show how they came by it given the conceptual framework within which they have to work. For example, gay people in the past had to come to some kind of reconciliation or rejection of their society’s views that allowed them to accept themselves, but how they achieved that will be specific to their time and society. They can’t – eg – say “God is love, therefore my love is holy,” before Christianity. They can’t say “this persecution is against my human rights,” before the invention of the concept of human rights.

On a less serious note, your characters probably shouldn’t say “ew, this cheese is full of mites, take it away!” in the 18th Century. In fact they should probably say “ooh, lovely, I do like to see a cheese with a bit of life to it. Bring me a spoon!” If they did, you’d certainly know you weren’t in 21st Century Kansas any more. And that is my whole point.

Erastes on Striking a Balance

I’m going to talk about balance, because sometimes I think writers have difficulty striking a balance when writing. not just historical either. It’s a Fine Line between THIS IS MY RESEARCH LET ME SHOW YOU IT  – and just getting the details right.

Don’t get e wrong—you got to do the research. You’ve got to try your very best to get those details right. Readers are forgiving if they can see you’ve worked like stink, but have made one or two silly errors. In Muffled Drum I made a big thing of the Red Light District in Berlin – and too late too late two people pointed out that the street I mentioned was actually in Hamburg and not Berlin.

But readers will be less forgiving if it’s patently obvious that you haven’t even bothered to use Google to check the most basic of facts.

But you shouldn’t over do relating that research to the reader and it’s this that is a little unfair to the writer, because you are going to learn a LOT more than you’ll ever put in the book.

I have to reference Dan Brown here, who does—and i have to grit my teeth to say this—write a damned good page turner. I actually own all of his books, because they are like crack. But whereas he writes a racketing good read and I for one can’t wait to turn the page and find out what’s happening next, he lets himself down with his signature move of telling us everything about everything.  I remember reading one of them, don’t know which…and it told you about the engine of the car he was driving and the type of plane he was on, down to –it seemed, every grommet and washer. I found myself flipping over pages of STUFF HE HAD TO TELL YOU BECAUSE BY GOD HE’D DONE THE RESEARCH AND YOU SHALL SHARE IT rather than simply absorbing some of the facts as the flavour of the book.

I got the impression that he was saying to the reader “Look, i slaved over this book. i did research about Russia and China and every conspiracy theory known to man. Look, I seriously worked hard. I spent hours in libraries. you need to see my research or you’ll think i just made it up!!!! It will all be wasted if I don’t write it all down!” and that’s not good, that’s not the message you want to give. I don’t want the author to intrude at all.

I can relate to this, and I felt much the same when I first started to write, but luckily my mother was around when I first started and she pointed out that we didn’t need to know every single detail and she went through and deleted many descriptive words and passages. After that I found it much easier. The trick to it for me was to walk across my own room and described how I did it. I left the sofa, walked past the tv and the dining table to the kitchen. What I didn’t do was to leave the Gillows sofa, walk across the Wilton carpet designed by XXXX in 1792 and the flat screen 32” plasma screen Sony TV (I wish) and into the bespoke B&Q kitchen stencilled with green and yellow flowers.

Modern books don’t do this (or at least they shouldn’t!) and so neither should historicals. Whether the chair is made my Chippendale or whoever doesn’t really matter. Unless it does, of course. If the story revolves around Chippendale and perhaps the theft of a chair made by him, or whether the provenance of the chair is IMPORTANT then that’s fine. But if the detail doesn’t add anything to the story — and in fact, as often happens (Dan, I’m looking at you) intrudes and distracts from the story — then leave it out.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t make the description lush and tangible. Alex, for example, particularly in her 18th century paranormal “Wages of Sin” WORKS magic with her details. How cloth feels, how candle light looks and smells (never forget the smells) what happens to wig powder when it rains. But none of it is infordumping. She is simply creating a real and entirely believeable and visual world that the 21st century reader isn’t familiar with. The details immerse the reader, so they are actually there, and they are participating in historical events rather than distancing the reader, and makingit more clear that they are simply reading a book.

A good beta is worth their weight in gold. A good beta (and not just one who will tell you how great you are!) will tell you if you’ve turned into Dan Brown and you are oversharing that research.

The depressing fact of life is, that 99 percent of the research you will do for your book will (should!!) never appear on the pages of your book, but you can’t skip that research because it will make your book and more 3-dimensional, and in response to that, more enjoyable to read.

 

Charlie Cochrane on Setting the Scene.

Erastes and Alex Beecroft had proper, typed up notes. I had scribbles, which I’ve just rescued from the recycling bin, and lots of busking, Gist of what I said was:

My heart sank at the start of Downton Abbey, when almost the first scene involved discussion of the Titanic sinking. Wouldn’t have been so bad if that had happened later, when we’d got to know the characters, and why it mattered to them, but as it was it just felt clichéd and lazy. Please, writers, if you can’t create a sense of era/place subtly, just put London, 1912 or what/wherever it is and get on with the story.

 

Also, can we have some less clichéd images/descriptions for setting place? Big Ben + Routemaster bus + cockney newspaper seller shouting “King Edward abdicates” = London, 1936 has been done to death. Anyway, using such obvious symbols risks making huge mistakes; I’ve read stuff set in the time of Queen Anne where the hero hears Big Ben striking (he must be psychic as it wasn’t even built then). Check everything, even the “obvious”.

The past can surprise us, though. I’d love to write a book full of seeming anachronisms (like watching a floodlit rugby match in 1880) so people could shout me down and I could prove them wrong.

It’s the people and how they think/act which best depicts an era. Go to contemporary sources for the best way of getting your head around this. For example, if you want to write about a late Victorian bank clerk, you could do worse than use Three Men in a Boat as your source.

There was more. There were jokes. Can’t remember a word of them.

Review: Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe

“For centuries throughout America, both before and after the arrival of the Europeans, gay and lesbian Indians were recognized as valued members of tribal communities. Combining make and female roles, gay Indians worked as mediators, artists, healers, and providers for their tribes.” (from the back of the book)

Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe, Coordinating Editor, St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Review by Tedy Ward

Rather by accident, several years ago, I found myself studying Native American cultures and writing about them. I did my graduate work focusing on European history, particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, and while I took the requisite courses in American history, it wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the darkly complex European periods. But when I started writing fiction, I found myself drawn to the period of American expansion referred to as ‘the American West’, a period from about 1830 to 1930 in which American ‘white’ culture spread itself economically, politically, and culturally across the wide plains and deserts of the heart of continental America.

Of greatest interest to me is the cultural clash between the indigenous peoples who lived there and the ‘American culture’ that moved in and took then over. The study of these Native American cultures – and there were far more than ‘one’ – is ongoing and probably always will be. Most of these cultures did not leave behind written documents, and the more they were exposed to ‘white’ culture, the more they changed, even when they didn’t want to.

Most of the records we have of the various cultures were left by Europeans and Americans who encountered them. It is from the French trappers who wandered through many of the Native American settlements that we get the word ‘berdache’, a term they used “to describe Indians who specialized in the work of women and formed emotional and sexual relationships with other men” (Preface, page 1). This concept, of the Native American acceptance of alternate gender and sexual roles, is the focus of the book Living the Spirit, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe, Coordinating Editor, published by St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

The book is an interesting collection of modern writings from gay and lesbian Native Americans – poetry, short stories, essays – and historical studies of alternate sexuality in some of the tribes. “Tinselled Bucks: a Historical Study of Indian Homosexuality” by Maurice Kenny discusses the problems of lack of primary source material, and also the differences between the berdaches – men who lived as women and women how lived as men – and men and women living their gender roles who preferred to be sexually and emotionally involved with others of their gender and gender roles. He discusses the different terms and customs of berdaches in various tribes, as well as the levels of importance that many berdaches held in certain cultures, where they were often respected as people of great magic.

“Toleration of the berdache varied from tribe to tribe. Some tribes, such as the Illinois, actually trained young men to become homosexuals and concubines of men. The Cheyenne and the Sioux of the plains may not have purposely trained young men to become berdaches but certainly accepted homosexuals more readily than perhaps other tribes.” (“Tinselled Warriors”, page 26).

The thesis of “Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America” by Midnight Sun is as follows:

“Social, and specifically sexual, life is embedded in the economic organization of society – an organization that gives rise to a variety of cultural forms.” (page 32). This article discusses Native American sexuality as a function of the roles that men and women played in the survival of the various tribes. The author uses three specific case studies, of the Mojave, the Navajo, and the Peigan. All three tribes acknowledged cross-gender identities. “The Mojave believed that cross-gender individuals, especially hwames [female cross-dressers] were lucky in gambling and could become powerful shamans, while shamans and chiefs often married alyhas [male cross-dressers].” (pp. 37-38).

In Navajo culture, cross-gender people were called nadle:

“Because they were believed to have been given charge of wealth since the beginning of time, a family with a nadle was considered fortunate and assured of wealth and success.” (p. 41).

The Peigans, whose culture placed more importance on the role of men and the masculine-warrior ideal, had the ‘manly-hearted woman’, who was, unlike with the Navahos and Mojaves, not a sexual identity but an economic one. The ‘manly-hearted woman’ was a woman who dominated her husband but who was respected by the tribe because she was able to win and control property in traditionally masculine ways – inheritance, ingeniousness, and gifts of respect. The discussion of this article centers mostly on the roles that sexuality played in the respective tribes, and how equal the respect for women and men were, which seems to be dependent on whether the tribe supported itself through farming and agriculture (Mojave and Navaho), where women were often seen as equals to men, or hunters (Peigan) where men were more important and allocated more power and control.

“Strange Country This: Images of Berdaches and Warrior Women” by Will Roscoe, the contributing editor for the book, is a collection of short essays about cross-gender people in specific tribes, as seen in primary sources from European and American explorers during their early exposures to these tribes. Most of these essays are accompanied by pictures, either drawings or photographs taken at the time of these encounters or soon thereafter. There are twelve different Native American tribes represented in these essays and illustrations, covering all regions of North America. “Ever Since the World Began” is a collection of myths and tales from ten different tribes involving their cross-gender members or icons.

The second half of the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, short stories, and poems written by contemporary gay Native Americans; while many of them are modern, they often include family histories that discuss life on the reservations in the mid-1900s if not before, and the struggles that gay Native Americans faced then and now as their tribal culture has changed, taking on the values of the European and American culture.

This anthology isn’t technically an academic study; while some of the essays have internal notes, they don’t have individual bibliographies which makes it difficult to find the primary sources. That said, the history is fascinating, especially the individual views into various tribes and how tolerant and receptive they were to the ideas of homosexuality and cross-gender roles. To be clear, not all tribes were tolerant; the respect and tolerance varied depending on the tribe and how balanced the roles of women and men were in the tribe’s survival.

Overall, it is an interesting read, and a good resource for Native American concepts of sexuality and gender roles. It’s a little dated, politically as well as historically, and I’d very much like to see an new anthology from the Gay American Indians Organization, especially with the more recent interdisciplinary studies between anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. It’s appeal may be a little more specific than other books studying gay history, as it’s focus is on gay Native Americans, a very select group historically and currently, but it’s also an interesting look at how a dominant culture – in this case, European/American ‘white’ culture – interprets and eventually changes and redefines other cultural values.

I’d rate this at a 4; it’s informative and engaging and in many ways, a view into an alien world.

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Review: Queer Cowboys by Chris Packard

“Brokeback Mountain” exploded the myth of the American cowboy as a tough, gruff, and grizzled loner. “Queer Cowboys” exposes, through books by legendary Western writers such as Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Owen Wister, how same-sex intimacy and homoerotic admiration were key aspects of Westerns well before “Brokeback’s” 1960’s West, and well before the word “homosexual” was even invented. Chris Packard introduces readers to the males-only clubs of journalists, cowboys, miners, Indians, and vaqueros who defined themselves by excluding women and the cloying ills of domesticity and recovers a forgotten culture of exclusively masculine, sometimes erotic, and often intimate camaraderie in the fiction, photographs, and theatrical performances of the 1800’s Wild West.

Review by Gerry Burnie

While my usual genre is historical fiction, I am always on the lookout for research of a historical variety. Therefore, although it has been around for a while, “Queer Cowboys: And other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature” by Chris Packard (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is one such work.

The stated objective of this thesis is to explore the “bonds that hold … [same-sex partners, i.e. ‘sidekicks’] together, particularly the erotic affection that undergirds their friendship.” To do this it painstakingly explores the “originary” texts of seminal, nineteenth-century writers who, individually and collectively, created the prevailing stereotype of the devoted same-sex partners. Moreover, the author undertakes to “teach readers how to recognize homoerotic affection in a historical discourse that was free from the derogatory meanings associated with post-1900 evaluations of male-male erotic friendships”—a not overly presumptuous ambition, given that Packard teaches literature and writing at New York University and New School University.

Okay, I am one such hypothetical reader, so let’s see how well Professor Packard achieved his objectives.

At the risk of oversimplifying Packard’s thesis, it starts with an underlying premise that before 1900—i.e. before “the modern invention of the ‘homosexual’ as a social pariah”—cowboy relationships were freely represented as quite a bit more affectionate than they are after that date. Moreover, although the stereotypes generally depicted ethnic warfare; citing the threat of “savagery” as justification for ethnic slaughter, and the freeing-up of territory to make way for European homesteaders, writers like James Fennimore Cooper wrote about friendships, “even marriage rituals,” between members of warring groups based on shared values. In addition friendships between young whites and natives were quite common. These mixed friendships usually had the natives tutoring the boys in the primitive ways of the wilderness, and included rituals of brotherhood, i.e. exchanging blood, and other physical, nuptial-like rites.

Notably absent from this literary same-sex scenario is any role for femininity, which is described by one quoted authority, Walter Benn Michaels, as “…the problem of heterosexuality.”  The ‘problem’ being the threat of reproduction in a period when fear of mixed-ethnicity through sex or marriage was keen in American culture. Moreover, femininity and reproduction ran contrary to the strong, independent, and particularly ‘free’ nature of the cowboy characters.

“Within canonical as well as ignored literature, high culture as well as low, homoerotic intimacy is not only present, but it is thematic in works produced before the modern want him to be queer. America’s official emblem of masculinity is not one who settles down after he conquests … rather, he moves on, perpetually conquering, and repeatedly affirming his ties to the wilderness and his male partner.”

Having thus stated his hypotheses, Packard then goes on to support these with an anthology of mostly “canonical” writings—i.e. Cooper’s “The Leatherstocking Tales,” Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” and Walt Whitman’s poetry.  He also introduces some lesser known examples, such as Claude Hartland’s “The Story of a Life,” Frank Harris’s “My Reminiscences as a Cowboy,” and Frederick Loring’s “Two College Friends.”

While circumstantial, when read from a homoerotic perspective Packard makes a very compelling case, over all.  There are no ‘smoking-gun’ examples, of course, because such blatancies would have been considered excessive by Eastern readers—meaning east of the Mississippi, but it is evident that the implication was there just below the surface. Consequently, he has also taught us how to recognize homoerotic affection in “historic discourse.”

To get to that level of edification, however, the reader has had to wade through an Introduction that I found to be a jumble of complex ideas, confusingly presented and fraught with academic jargon—i.e. “nexus,” “praxis,” “lingua franca,” and so forth. A case on point:

Given the instant and undying popularity of cowboys in U.S. popular culture during a period of rapid national expansion, to identify a homoerotic core in its myth about the supremacy of white American masculinity is to imply that American audiences want their frontiersmen to practice nonnormative desires as part of their roles in nation building. In other words, if there is something national about the cowboy (and other frontier heroes of his ilk), and if there is something homoerotic about American national identity as it is conceived in the American West.

Perhaps I am a bit slow on the uptake, but I didn’t find the “In other words” any more elucidating than the original statement.

Happily, once he launches into the body of the argument his tone becomes somewhat less esoteric, and apart from belabouring some points—giving a new dimension to the term ‘moot point’—he presents a very interesting and informative perspective on nineteenth-century thought.

Those looking for titillating erotica, however, are bound to be disappointed but well-informed after reading this work.

This review was originally posted on the reviewer’s blog here

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Writing What you (don’t) know

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Delivering Bad News: Western Union

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