Hello and welcome to Part 1 of my guide to writing historical gay romance. As I stated during the introduction, this isn’t a definitive guide, just merely how this author goes about writing m/m historicals. Getting your characters right is vital, because no matter how amazing and accurate a world you build for them, if your character doesn’t fit in with that world, your believability will suffer, and your readers will have trouble staying immersed.
When creating a historical character, there are many things I take into consideration before I start piecing him together. Before you can start giving him quirks and personality traits, a job or secret crush, there are some very important details you have to work out first.
1. Manner of speech – Where a character was born, where he grew up, and where he ends up will have a profound effect on what he sounds like. If your book is set in Europe, especially Great Britain, your character’s speech will be determined by what region and social class he grew up in, unless he moves from one class into another or is self-taught. It is possible a character born and raised in a certain area can teach himself to speak with a posh accent. I know a few folks who’ve done this. In Britain, there has always been a very profound separation of class, and depending on what part your character is from, there’s dialect to consider.
Each region carries its own accent, and believe me, each one is very distinct. The slang is different, the phrases they use, names for things, swear words, even the speed at which they talk. If your character is from Manchester, he’s not going to talk the same way as a fella from London’s East End. And I know it may seem silly, especially to my lovely Brit friends, but not a lot of American folks know that England and Great Britain are not interchangeable. Great Britain (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) includes Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and many smaller islands, whereas England is part of the United Kingdom, bordering Scotland and Wales. Then there’s the British Empire. It wasn’t that far back that the British Empire held sway over a huge chunk of the world’s population, with colonies and territories from Fiji to Canada. You don’t have to research every country and who was under whose administration, but at least be aware, especially so if your character is going to move about.
If your book is set in America, again, there are still social classes to consider, back then even more so than now, and this, along with the region will influence how your character talks. In The Auspicious Troubles of Chance, both Chance and Jacky were raised in New York, though Chance being an orphan and growing up on the streets has a much rougher way of talking than Jacky. He uses a lot of slang, talks faster, swears a hell of a lot more (though that’s more part of his charm than anything), and his accent is stronger, whereas Jacky is the opposite. Also because of the time Jacky spent in England, his accent isn’t fully American. English phrases, slang, and words occasionally slip into his speech. In A Rose By Any Other Name, the erotes: Julius, Lawry, and Terry, speak properly, but it’s something they were taught. Before they began work at The Pantheon, they were prostitutes in the Bowery. They’re orphans and grew up on the streets in the worst parts of town. Underneath the high-society primness, there’s a completely different layer of speech, which can slip out during certain circumstances. Hawk, from The Amethyst Cat Caper is self-taught. He came from a humble family, but studied for a while at Harvard. To fit in, he taught himself to speak properly. Despite his time working as a Pinkerton, he maintained his manner of speaking though he mixes it up with some street slang. When he gets in a lather, or drunk, he reverts to his old way of talking. Back then, not all children and adults received a school education, so keep that in mind as well.
Once you’ve decided how you want your character to talk, find a video or sound file of someone from whatever region you’ve chosen so you get an idea of the accent. If your book is set during a time that has documentaries available, even better. Granted, some of my characters, like P.I. Bruce Shannon, have a somewhat exaggerated way of talking. I doubt most fellas really talked like James Cagney, but my goal was to emulate that slightly over the top, Classic Hollywood movie feel. Depending on the effect I want, I’ll watch old movies, documentaries, read books by authors of that time, or memoirs in order to get an idea how folks talked. The point is, research real people. Don’t just refer to something you saw in a movie, because let’s face it, history through the eyes of Hollywood isn’t the most reliable source.
Also, don’t forget that slang words and phrases have dates of origin and expiration, and they can also take on different meanings over the years. For instance the word ‘queer’ in reference to homosexuality wasn’t used until the 1920’s. Before then, it meant odd. Online Etymology Dictionary is a great place to start if you’re unsure whether a certain word was used during a specific period and if it meant the same thing.
2. Mindset – Now this is extremely important. This can make or break your character. Say you’ve done loads of research. You’ve gone cross-eyed from the amount of articles and books you’ve read through to create the perfect setting, and suddenly it all falls apart because your character thinks and acts like today’s modern man. Obviously, if you’re writing a sort of costume drama, and you want your fellas to hold hands while walking down the street, that’s up to you and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s room in the genre for all types of historical romances, but if you want a story with historical accuracy, even if there’s elements of paranormal, fantasy or sci-fi in it, you MUST research homosexuality in that period AND in that region.
How society viewed homosexuality will have a profound effect on your characters, how they see themselves, how they behave, think, and interact with other characters. It’s surprising how drastically things change in the span of a few years. You don’t have to know every detail of every era, but you need to research your era and probably the eras surrounding it. I write in the 20’s and 30’s, mainly in New York. In that one city, in a span of ten years, there was a drastic change in society and how folks viewed homosexuality. Although homophobia and danger was rife in 1920’s New York, the 1930’s brought new laws and new levels of intolerance. During the 1920’s, in Paris and Berlin, gay culture was even more visual and prominent than in places like New York City. The closer we get to WWII, the more frightening things become.
If you plan on writing a gay historical, I highly recommend you read George Chauncey’s Gay New York, Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. I know it says New York, but it’s a great place to start, because you’re aware of how certain things did or didn’t happen, which you can then research to find out whether the same went for whatever city you’re writing about. Don’t make it the only book you read, but certainly pick it up. It’s written in an engaging way, lists a great many sources, and refers to actual letters written by gay men of that time. Most importantly, it helps you understand where and when the concept and labeling of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ came from, and it’ll surprise most folks to find that these terms, this division of men is a relatively new one. Depending on when your story takes place, is the label society uses for gay men. Behavior that would be deemed ‘queer’ in the 1930’s, may not have been deemed as such in the 1800’s.
Even if you have characters who have come to accept their homosexuality, they’re still very aware of what that means to the outside world, and it will reflect in what they do. Depending on the period of history, how they view themselves and their homosexuality will differ. So the first thing you have to ask yourself is, does your character accept what he is? If he does, it’s not something that happens overnight. No matter his age, he can’t just realize suddenly he’s gay and then go out to find true love. The truth is, many gay men throughout history led double lives. At home with their families, at their jobs, with their friends, they were heterosexual, and it was all kept separate from their life in ‘gay society’. Many gay men couldn’t accept it. They loathed themselves, some believed they were mentally ill, because there was a time when it was considered a mental illness. Some sought to ‘cure’ themselves, others were sent to be ‘cured’ by family. Who is your character and how does he feel about being gay? How long did it take him to understand? What did he go through in order to accept it if he did?
The complexity of gay men throughout history is something you’ll have to read up on, because even if I only covered the 1920’s and 30’s, I’d need several posts just for those ten years, and as I mentioned, it will depend on the era you’re writing. No matter how ‘open-minded’ your character may be, he can’t kiss another man out in the open. He can’t hold hands with another fella, can’t have eye sex, brazenly flirt, and the list goes on. Not without consequences, or if your guy is in a specific environment, like a gay club, and even then it may have to be discreet. In A Rose By Any Other Name, The Pantheon is a secret cabaret for gay men from high-society. Each member has something to lose if they expose another, and as they’re all men of wealth with high social standing, they’ll do what’s necessary to maintain their secret. Inside The Pantheon, men kiss, grope, and do all sorts of naughty things out in the open and in darkened booth because it’s a safe environment. There’s no danger of being raided, and members are considered through recommendation only, with members being accepted only by the hostess herself. What they do in there, none of them would ever so much as hint to out in the open.
Again, depending on the era, you also have to consider how these gay men view other gay men, because yes, it does differ throughout history. I know this is an overwhelming amount of information, but once you choose your time frame, it narrows things down a lot and makes research so much easier. I chose specifically to write in 1920’s and 30’s America– because they’re the eras I’m most passionate about, so I only had to go as far back as the late 1800’s and as forward as the 1940’s to get a clear understanding of things. Sure, I didn’t have to, but I wanted to know what led to folks thinking the way they did in the periods I write in, what came before and after. You might ask what the point of all this is. Why go through such lengths? Because aside accuracy, you know what else this does? Minimizes info dump. If your characters think, act, talk, and breath an era long gone, you don’t have to write out pages and pages of historical facts. This is where ‘show, don’t tell’ can make a big difference.
3. Fashion – Who your character is, his age, and what social class he’s from will reflect in his outward appearance. Hats were a staple pretty much up until the 1950’s and early 60’s, and gentlemen rarely left the house without one. If your fella is from a humble background, he isn’t going to walk around wearing tailored three-piece suits and silk shirts, unless he’s getting his money from somewhere else. How much detail you go into is up to you. Personally, I don’t go into a great amount of detail unless it’s pertinent to the story. In The Amethyst Cat Caper, I pretty much describe everything Remi is wearing because it says a lot about his character and his style. For him, I sought out a signature suit, because of all my fellas, Remi is the most conscious of his appearance. He’s the owner of a high-society tea house with swanky patrons, so he must always look his best, whereas with Hawk, it’s a black overcoat, black three-piece suit, white shirt, black tie, black shoes, and dark gray felt hat with black ribbon around the crown.
If there isn’t a cause for it, like with Remi, I tend to loosely describe a fellas attire. If he’s wearing a suit, I tend to mention color, any notable pattern such as pinstripe, color of his tie, and shirt. I might mention various states of undress, if he’s sans his suit jacket, maybe just in a vest, sleeves rolled up, depending on what’s going on. I assume folks know when I mention a hat–what with a story being in the 1920’s or 30’s, that I don’t mean a baseball cap. If I describe a hat, it’ll be either as a felt hat–maybe the color and ribbon color, or flat cap. The point is, you don’t need to mention by name every single cross-stitch or item of clothing, especially when you go way back in history and have numerous layers to deal with–unless it’s important to the scene or the character. Shoes: brogues, leather, maybe spats or boots. It is, however, important to know what was worn and what wasn’t. If you’re going to go through a great deal of trouble describing the cut of a character’s waistcoat, make sure that cut was actually worn at the time. Gangsters in the 1920’s dressed far more flamboyantly than regular folks. Take hairstyles into consideration. Fashion changed drastically after WWI, bringing about the birth of the teenager. It gave us flappers and dapper daddies. Society faced a different kind of war, old world traditions versus new.
Conclusion to Part 1: After you know the type of story you want to tell, what era it takes place in, and your setting, start developing how your character thinks, talks, and behaves. In order to do that, you must be aware of the world around him, what society thinks of him, and what he thinks of himself. Remember society has come a long way, and you can’t judge your fellas by today’s standards. There have always been bigots, but what is politically incorrect today, may not have been then, what words are taboo today may not have offended then. Words take on different meanings, slang changes. You shouldn’t sacrifice authenticity, but certain situations can be handled with care, if you’re worried about political correctness.
I hope you enjoyed Part 1. Stay tuned next week for Part 2: Atmosphere. If there’s anything I didn’t address here that you would like me to discuss, feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email. If you want to read about how I develop my characters’ personalities, love interests, pasts and such, you can check out this series of posts here.