Monday, April 20, 2015

At Play in the Fields of the Past

Sacchi Green

History has always fascinated me. The past is a different enough world from the present to be as interesting as any fictional story, and sometimes even more so, because the present grows out of the past and can’t be fully understood without knowing what came before. Of course written history can’t be relied on to be factual—it depends on who wrote what from which perspective, and with what agenda, and so many other variables—but that doesn’t prevent it from making an engrossing story, especially when presented in fictional form by really good writers.

As a kid, and on into my teens, I loved to read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (which took some further maturity to really understand, but still grabbed my imagination,) and Little Women, and all of Jane Austen’s novels, and the Sherlock Holmes stories (as much for the sense of the period and the atmosphere as for the mystery element) and so many other books that let me feel immersed in the world of the past without having to cope with the discomforts of really living then. Those were books written more or less during the eras they depicted—Mark Twain was already looking back at a past world, but one he’d inhabited—but I also loved books by authors writing of eras long before their own, like Scott’s Ivanhoe and stories about legendary figures such as Robin Hood, and novels about more recent periods like Gone with the Wind.

Maybe my longing for other times that seemed more interesting than my own had something to do with growing up in a small town in the truly boring 50s. When I discovered Kerouac, it was in the 60s or close enough, so by then the Beat Generation was well in the past, but still an active influence on “our” generation that produced hippiedom and sit-ins and rock-and-roll and even feminism. I said in a comment to a previous post here that history is what happened before a time you can remember, but I take that back—the 60s and 70s are history now to me, and so is pretty much everything before the 21st century. History never holds still.

When it comes to my own writing, I especially love to set stories in the ready-made world of the past, and I often enjoy the research more than the writing. Almost always, in fact. Writing is the hardest part. Whenever possible I try to read contemporary accounts of the period, to get a sense of the flow of the language and the perspectives of the people, although the farther back the time period the harder that gets.

I’ve written several erotica stories set during WWII, and found invaluable first-person accounts (although often through interviews by more recent writers) of what it was like to be a woman WASP pilot ferrying warplanes or the Russian “Night Witch” women pilots and bombardiers flying hundreds of missions against invading German troops. I’ve written Vietnam-era stories, too, with memoirs by WACs and nurses serving “in country” augmenting my own memories of what it was like stateside. In those cases, of course, language was no problem. Writing a story set during WWI was more of a stretch, but not much—dozens and dozens of British mystery novels set more or less in that period had been a large part of my youthful reading, and I still love the Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L. Sayers. Not to mention Wodehouse.

When I ventured into the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare was my obvious source, both of language and plot. What could inspire a transgender story better than a theatrical tradition of boys playing girls (and sometimes playing girls disguised as boys?) The language had to tread a line between the modern and the Elizabethan, of course, leaning much more toward the modern, and I don’t know how successful I was, but it was a lot of fun. So much so that I’ll indulge myself in an excerpt:
__________

A Dance of Queens

Midsummer’s Night, the play safely done, dusk sweet as a languorous touch on yearning flesh...and still I could not take my love into the greenwood and lay her on my cloak and be consumed in her fire.

I cursed my own impatience. We should have pressed on without pause, but Quenta had tormented me so, slipping a hand beneath my shirt and then down into my breeches until I could scarce walk, and must stop for a taste of the feast to come.

So the Queen’s messenger had caught us. And truly, by the shimmer in the air at the instant she appeared, I knew there had never been hope of escape. In the Welsh hills and valleys we have tales, more than tales, of such creatures, though I had thought the filth and disbelief of London must repel them. At another time I would have been glad that the green countryside along the Thames still held such folk. Glad or no, we had no choice now but to let the greenwood’s promise fade into shadow.

Frustration pounded in my veins. I jerked away from Quenta’s touch, the mere brush of her hand making me forget that I must not even think of “him” as “her” until we could be blessedly alone.

I focused on the wide skirt sailing just ahead. Though the farthingale was not devised with a lady dwarf in mind, its absurdity was more than countered by the messenger’s bearing and the Queen’s crest broidered on her sleeve. It scarcely needed Quenta’s nudge to put me on guard against those keen, merry eyes, though they looked up at me from about the level of my belt.

Such danger should have chilled my ardor. But surely the Queen would waste little time on us, might have forgotten already her whim. At most there could be a gracious word or two, perhaps a small purse. Why, then, command that we bring our play-garb? A jest among her ladies?

But in the great bedchamber we found Her Majesty alone, a slim, pale figure whose aura crackled through the paneled room like heat-lightning.

Our diminutive guide swept a curtsy. “The player boys, Madam. Quentin O’Connor and Kit Rhys.”

Bright tired eyes assessed us. “Well enough, Gwen. Now keep us private for a bit.” The attendant gave me a wicked sidelong glance as she went to sit between the great oak door and the carven screen before it.

Quenta elbowed me sharply. I joined her in an elegant stage bow, feeling the royal glance caress our snug-hosed calves. Her Majesty was said to have ever an eye for a well-turned leg; if it went farther than a look, or a leg... But I had never heard so much as rumor that it did.

Her voice was cool enough. “So, Titania and Hippolyta. You played the queen’s part well, each in your own way.”

“Never so well as you, Your Highness.” Quenta’s green eyes gleamed wickedly, and I suppressed a groan. This was no time for her sly wit!
__________

What follows is something of an erotic comedy of genders, with twists and turns, a snippet of history, and a bit of magic.


I’ve wanted for a long time to get a chance to edit an anthology of historical stories. I did, in fact, do an alternate history book a few years ago, Time Well Bent, under my alternate name, Connie Wilkins, for Lethe Press. It wasn’t erotica, per se, although some of the pieces were definitely erotic, including Lisabet’s rif on Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan) being seduced by a handsome young understudy, which I believe she mentioned in her post last week. Excellent stuff. But a gig editing an historical erotica book has eluded me until right now, when I have an actual Call for Submissions out for Thunder of War, Lightning of Desire: Lesbian Historical Literary Erotica, to be published by Lethe Press. The deadline is near, but extensions are possible. And I have another CFS for an historical lesbian romance anthology, Through the Hourglass, with The Liz McMullen Show as publisher. For these guidelines, you can check out my blog, http://sacchi-green.blogspot.com (just scroll down a few posts past my other current CFS, for Best Lesbian Erotica 2016.)

Such good timing! An historical theme for OGG right now, just when I actually have something to say on the subject!



6 comments:

  1. Serendipity indeed on the timing, huh? I must say that some of your rhythmic phrasing is to die for:
    'dusk sweet as a languorous touch on yearning flesh...'
    'by the shimmer in the air at the instant she appeared,'
    'But surely the Queen would waste little time on us, might have forgotten already her whim.'

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    1. Thanks for pointing out the rhythmic phrasing, Daddy X. I wasn't consciously thinking of it that way when I wrote it, or since, for that matter, although I did notice how nicely it could be read aloud.

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  2. Lovely excerpt, Sacchi! Though very different from my Shakespearean romp. You can find an excerpt to that here:

    http://www.lisabetsarai.com/shortestnightex.html

    My story features a boy actor dressed up as a girl (and attracting the attention of the star actor in Shakespeare's troupe) plus a tavern serving girl who dresses up as a boy. And mixed meetings in the greenwood!

    One thing I've noticed about historical fiction - it's far easier for me to imagine living in some periods than in others, and thus easier to write. I feel I know the Victorian period, as if I'd lived there. The period of WW1, not at all. The late 1700s feel much clearer to me than the early 1800's. Sometimes the difference almost makes me believe in reincarnation.

    Although it probably has more to do with what I've read from and about different periods...

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  3. Hmm, would reincarnation skip certain periods? I vaguely thought that a new life would begin right after the end of the new one, but I suppose you'd remember less about what was going on in the world while you were still very young than as an adult. Or there might well be a lapse in the incarnation cycle until the circumstances were right. I think I've read that in determining the reincarnation of aTibetan Buddhist holy leader, the child doesn't have to be born on just the right day, but within a certain period.

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  4. I love that you're getting a chance to indulge your love of historical fiction as an editor!

    And it's interesting that you've adjusted your thinking on what counts as history. I think that if I set a story in the 80s, it would be historical even though I did live through that time.

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  5. Sacchi, I remember your story, "A Dance of Queens." Beautifully written, magical and gender-bending, but historically convincing.

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