A bit of insight and wisdom from one of this sites best.
...writing good "period" or "historical" fiction - whether or not it's erotica - is one of the hardest challenges for an author. I've often been irritated by crass anachronisms (whether of fact, language or attitudes). But we need perhaps to think carefully about what we mean by historical fiction, and make our meaning clear at the outset. For example, if I write a story set in Victorian England, am I writing a truly historical story - i.e. one that sets out to give a realistic view of what life was like in that era - or perhaps a pastiche of Victorian erotica/pornography - in which case the constraints may be less rigid (sorry, that sounds like a BDSM reference!). Both require, as you say, careful research, but the nature of the research and of the final product will be different in each case. Again, I might be writing about an "alternative history" Victorian scenario (Americans call this "alternate history" which doesn't make sense in the English we speak in England) - but I still need to do research to come up with a credible scenario - to take an extreme example, if I wanted to write an erotic story set in the context of H G Wells's "The War of the Worlds", I shouldn't just read the novel but also research what life was like in England in 1899/1900.
You have made many excellent points. These principles are often overlooked by published authors, let alone amateurs who post stories here. I get very annoyed when I come across examples of the writer's ignorance, especially when it concerns something that could be looked up in five minutes online.
But how far should you go without offending the reader. I'm working on a story who's main character is a black woman working in the Justice Dept she's assigned to investigate a Texas oil company executive and his company for gas gauging. The white exec resents her authority and feels she is to proud. He uses an artifact to send her back in time, 1800's, to his great, great, great grandfather's plantation. I don't know how graphic I want to get in her mistreatment. Unfortunetly there aren't many stories on this subject matter so I don't have anything to use as a template. I don't want it to become a BDSM story because there will be a romance involving the plantation owner's wife and the heroine. Should I assume that anyone reading the story will now there will be violence, bad language, etc in a piece written about slavery or should I feel obligated to tread softly on such a sensitive matter?
Colleen, very well said.
Very many years ago, I had a teacher who preached "write about what you know and if you don't know, research it until you do know."
Your article makes this point nicely.
Could you write a "How to" for women writing lesbian erotica. I know you've done one for men but recent submission to literotica seem to prove that women need some help too. Many of the stories are about butch women walking around with strap on dildos looking for submissive, fems, to screw or to suck their fake cocks. Are there really women who walk around with strap on dildos all day? Cause that just screams penis envy. The stories don't even have scenes of mouth to vagina sex there just stories of women being screwed by other women in every hole possible. It seems as if women have fallen prey to the male dominated porn industry that seems to think even lesbians need a male phallus in order to achive an orgasm. When in fact many women don't orgasm from simple penetration they need additional stimulation i.e. rubbing their clits. If I wanted to read about women who look like men, talk like men, fuck like men, then I might as well go back to reading hetero stories.
Very well-written advice. I'm surprised that your editor found your use of the phrase "hated Japanese" to be racist. Racist would have been the use of some vulgar expression such as "slant-eyed yellow monkey."
"Hated Japanese" is more like unbiased reporting of the attitudes of the day. Editors...what can you do?
....period pieces have to make sense to both lay readers and history buffs alike. And they have to be exciting and suspenseful, despite the fact that you know what is going to happen in the long run. The readers have to be kept guessing what will happen to the protagonists in the short term and later.
For instance, it's all well and good that people know that the Continental Army defeated the British. However, that doesn't decide whether a Loyalist character ends up in Canada or England, or if he or she is stuck at home and punished for their treason.
So, once again, you have shown a lot of sense. Just thought that I would add 2 of mine. It's very useful essay, indeed. Some of my older stories were period ones, and they taught me a thing or two about that.
Well thought-out and sorely needed advice to oh so many writers -- none of whom, I very much fear, will ever read or heed it. They just like the sound of their Lord Troy Dashingley-Haddon, the Viscount of Hardonia, close friend of gypsies and black people, unsung Regency inventor of the aeroplane, and aren't going to be stopped by dull detail.
All research is good and should not be restricted to "period pieces."
I tend to check facts, for most things, just to be sure of authenticity.
Thank you for your how to...may there be more.
As always a well written and very useful piece of work.
I'll find this especially useful as I'm starting a period piece of my own soon.
Thanks. Well done/
It was basically an okay how to. There was nothing really in it that just isn't common sense.
This is great work. You identify the really hardened offenders of the genre and offer gentle rehabilitation for them, with lucid examples that illustrate your points nicely. How I long for the day when every author of historical ficiton has read this how-to first!
"Hated Japanese" is not only not particularly racist in historical context, but also was much less common than the contraction "Japs," which everybody used at the time. Even the members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in WWII, which was made up largely of nisei soldiers from Hawaii, used the term to refer to the Japanese. A perusal of a few of the better novels written about the Pacific War would reveal how extensively the term was used. "Hated Japanese" is anodyne. I would probably have edited it out for historical timidity.
What would happen if a professionial historian started reading a steampunk novel without knowing the first thing about the genre?
So far I've steered completely clear of anything period or historical in my writing, possibly just because it is such a huge challenge on top of just writing well in the first place! I was a history major in uni, but perhaps more because I was reasonable at the coursework and not so much because it thrilled me. I'll have to think about a particular period that I do find interesting and give it a try - I'll be sure to be back and reread your piece - thank you!
I happen to devour any good Regency romance I can get my hands on, but there are few authors who come anywhere near to Georgette Heyer, who obviously meticulously researched her subject and balanced that research with masterful storytelling and compelling, diverse characters. Modern writers are frankly easier to read than writers of the actual period, (of course, Austen will always have a special place in my heart, and it is a pity she did not live to write many more books) but I see the same problems you point out in this article, and I couldn't agree with you more. When a writer betrays obvious ignorance of period culture, and writes what is really a modern story set in a cheap bastardized historical setting, it takes away the entire point of writing historical fiction. And all of my enjoyment in reading it!
I find "The Writer's Guides" (such as the one on "Everyday Life from Prohibition Through World War II") to be invaluable.
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