Saturday, October 17, 2009

Obsessing about History

By Erastes

Thank you so much Getagrippers for inviting me. This wasn't a blog I'd known of before but now it's firmly bookmarked.

I'm Erastes – I write gay historical fiction and I'm rather obsessive about it. There's so much to love about ordinary historical fiction, and I've been reading it since I could read, starting with books like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Someone once said that the past was a foreign country, but it's never seems like that to me, it always felt like home. They do do things differently there, but that's why I love it.

People have said that my books have a sense of being written "in the era" rather than "about the era" which is hugely flattering. It is something I aim for, even though I know that my style isn't for everyone.

But why do I write Gay historical fiction? Well, part of the fascination is that we know very little about how gay men lived, and managed their affections in times less recent than our own. For very good reasons—men faced imprisonment or worse right up until the 1970's, after all—men learned to hide their activities and affections from the world. When gay men died, they told their trusted friends to burn their diaries, or their precious love letters depriving us of so much written records through history. There have been gay men since Ig saw Ug from the other side of the cave and realised why he didn't fancy Ugina, but other than a few books published here and there no-one seemed to be publishing it, and therefore, no-one seemed to be writing it!

Because of this, I started Speak Its Name ( in 2007 – to list all the gay historical fiction I could track down, and to do reviews of the genre. It's gathered quite a few followers since its birth, has around 1000 visitors a day and is still the only place on the planet to review, list, and concentrate on gay historicals. I've more recently started up Bosom Friends ( to concentrate on lesbian historicals as there is a woeful lack of those.

Six years on from when I started writing it, things are much better—there are hundreds of books on the subject and more and more people are taking up the challenge.

Do I think research is important? EMPHATICALLY YES. I've been accused of being over critical of books that have poor research or where the author simply wants to write about pretty men in fancy dress, but I stick to my guns. It's called historical fiction, and your reader will assume you know what you are talking about so making blunders like having men getting married in the Regency era (in church!) or kissing in the street – or having tea in medieval England or having your characters bicycle 100 miles in a few hours in 1919 is never going to impress me.

Everyone makes mistakes – don't get me wrong. I've done it myself – there are a couple of glaring mistakes in Standish which readers are gleeful to point out to me, but by and large, it's pretty obvious when an author has tried his or her damnedest and when they simply haven't bothered. In these days when we can find out facts in seconds rather than having to tromp to the library to find out your facts, there's simply no excuse.

The trick is—and it's not an easy thing to do—is not to dump that research on your reader. When you walk into a room do you describe every single thing? No, and unless the micro-details are important—it might be vital to describe that Spanish Chest in the corner for example – then you don't need to. "Mason walked into the room and sat in a chair by the fireside" is quite sufficient rather than "Mason entered the room with the coffered ceiling, sat in the chippendale chair by the Adams fireplace" is just going to annoy your reader after a few pages. Don't be afraid to use words of the time, but if they are likely to be a word your reader might not know, explain them in context. Here's a snippet from Frost Fair ( which I hope illustrates this.

"You are a bloody cheeky cub, a veritable Corinthian," Simeon laughed. "I have always said as much. You may not take after your father in a lot of ways but you have a brass neck. Fair enough. I'll deal round with you, lad."

Gideon bit his tongue. Personally he did not consider threatening his livelihood with disaster was round dealing, but this was not the time to discuss it.

There's tons more I could say, but I don't want to go on and on. Pop over to The Macaronis ( because there are loads of articles there on the subject!

Thanks again for having me – and please, if you were thinking of trying out a gay historical, don't be scared—give it a go, it's hard work, but hugely rewarding.


Erastes has been writing since 2003, and has had two novels, three novellas and over 20 short stories published, which have appeared in anthologies by Alyson Books, Cleis Press, Starbooks and many others.. Her second novel, "Transgressions," was one of the flagship releases by Running Press in their M/M Historical Romance line which is being marketed directly at the existing romance market. She's also the Director of the Erotic Authors Association, and lives on the Norfolk Broads in England.


  1. Hi Erastes!

    I confess I had no idea you were a woman. All this time on ERWA I think you were a guy. I find it interesting that many of the M/M gay romances are written by women instead of men, even the ones I thought were written by men. Women are still the champs of erotic romance.

    I also thought it was interesting and important the remark you have about historical details fitting naturally into the description, and not something the author is doing self consciously. I think that's one of the keys to good historical writing, the limited amount I've read.

    Good post!


  2. Welcome to the Grip, Erastas! I enjoyed your post and think you're spot on about the author needing to do quite a bit of research to sound authentic. A reader will overlook (or gleefully tease you!) about a few small things, but it is annoying to read something that you can tell the author didn't know squat about.

    I've taken a bit of chuff this week for my lack of interest in historicals. I think it boils down to the old adage 'write what you know' or in my case, 'write what you want to learn about'. I don't have a great interest in reading or writing about stories set in the past. I've been accused of not being well-schooled or well-read because of it. That's stung me more than a little.

    I'm content to write the kind of contemporary stories I love, and am glad there are talented authors like you who love to write the historical stuff. It provides a nice balance, IMO.

    Have a great weekend!

    ~ Jenna

  3. Hi Erastes,

    Fascinating insight into historicals - especially in regards to the silenced voices of the gay/lesbian community.

    I've already said this week that I have too much trouble trying to research all the necessary details to make a contemporary story sound convincing - so I'd be stuffed when it came to doing a full-length historical story.

    Nevertheless, it's been an absolute pleasure to have this insight into how historicals are crafted by those who have the patience, ability and enthusiasm.



  4. Hi Erastes,

    Welcome to the Grip!

    You're actually on my list of resources for historical info on the gay variety of humans. It's lovely to read a little of how you came to be where you are.

    Hmm I kinda like the idea of writing about Ig and Ug to be honest. Very little dialogue, but a great action story.

    Thanks for sharing your insightful look into what makes Erastes tick!


  5. Erastes,

    This was wonderful. I've been reading some books lately where the info dump has been painful to deal with, and it's very important as you said to use the right details at the right time. Also important, not to be scared off by the idea of trying to do that research. Making the effort counts! Thank you for the wonderful post and welcome to OGG ;)

  6. Hello, Erastes,

    Actually, I thought that you were male also when I reviewed STANDISH for ERWA.

    One problem with doing historicals, especially for earlier periods, is that it can be difficult to actually discover the details. Especially the aspects of everyday life that make an historical story live and breathe. I started work on a book set in Cambodia during the time of Angkor Wat but I eventually put the project aside because, despite wide reading and actually visiting the ancient sites, I couldn't visualize or get a sense of what life would have been like in that period.

    Thanks for joining us.


  7. Hi Garceus!

    Sorry to take so long to reply, but - well things got a little stressy in the real world...

    I admit that when I started to write I did have my bio as a man because I simply think it mattered - in the true blue tradition of George Sand, George Eliot, Currer Bell and others. But suddenly it DID matter and I had to come clean.
    Thank you for your comment!

  8. Hi Jenna, and thank you (apologies for taking so long to reply)

    Absolutely - I agree, I don't mind a reader gleefully pointing out the things I've got wrong, but they can tell if I've tried or simply not bothered. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

  9. Hi Ashley (sorry for delay!)

    It's good to hear that you do research for contemps - I do too, I find I do just as much research. Hell, I used to do just as much for FANFIC. I think i'm just research mad.

  10. Hi Jude and thank you for the comment!

    Perhaps one day I'll write the gay Cave Bear.


  11. Hi Helen, it's good to be here.

    Thank you!

    And yes, it's a balance between info-dump and wallpaper historical. It's not easy. I've been accused of info dumping myself.

  12. Hi Lisabet, thank you for inviting me.

    I think back then my bio still said male, because I innocently thought it didn't matter. That's why many many gay historical writers have gender neutral names.

    I agree with you, and sometimes I've simply had to extemporise. It's very easy - for example to learn anything about the english civil WAR but try and find out about the life of ordinary folk and even the living history buffs will admit it's damn difficult.


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