Monday, April 13, 2015

In Love with the Past

By Lisabet Sarai

Ever since I began reading (which was not long after I got out of diapers), I've loved historical fiction. As a child, I couldn't get enough of ancient Egypt or imperial Rome. Give me a tale set in medieval France or colonial America, Moorish Spain or Druidic Britain, and I would disappear into that other world for hours or even days. My mother would despair of getting me to do my chores or persuading me to go outside and play. The historical realms that I visited seemed far more real than my family's three bedroom ranch house or our grassy back yard.

I still enjoy a well-crafted tale centered in another time and place. In fact, I think I appreciate historical fiction more deeply now that I understand how difficult it is to write it well. A successful historical novel should transport you back to the past. You should see the sights, smell the smells, experience the sensual delights and the painful inconveniences of the time in which it occurs. (No matter how romantic the Age of Chivalry might sound, I’d never want to live in those dark and uncomfortable times!)

Of course, you've also got to get the details right. However obscure the period that you've chosen, there's bound to be some reader who will be an expert on that time, that dreaded critic who will throw the book at you (literally!) when your characters in twelfth century England drink tea, or your Aztec prince wears robes of silk. I remember long rants on one list I belong to, because a well-known romance author mentioned a spinning wheel in a period before they'd been invented. (The ranter was an individual with extensive knowledge about textiles.)

Immersive description and obsessive accuracy are not enough, though. To write convincingly about another historical period, you need to have a sense of how people thought, what they believed, how they behaved—the unspoken rules and assumptions of their society. I've read some so-called Regency erotic romance set in eighteenth century Europe in which the characters acted, and interacted, in ways that were far too modern to be believable (particularly in the area of sexual expression). These books were entertaining, but they didn't really deliver on the promise of a genuine historical experience.

The best historicals that I've read also capture the cadences and vocabulary of speech in the period. The most engaging historical romance that I've read in a very long time is Erastes' homoerotic Regency novel, Standish. I could almost believe that the story really had been penned by an author of the period, rather than a modern writer. Another writer who excels at capturing the linguistic tone of a historical period is Louisa Burton. The stories in her Tales of the Hidden Grotto series range freely through history, from pre-Roman times to the modern day. Each segment does an exceptional job anchoring the reader in a particular time and place.

Most of my own work thus far is contemporary, though I have taken a few stabs at history — with great trepidation! Incognito has a subplot, revealed in a secret journal, that takes place in Victorian Boston. I had a wonderful time doing research for this, particularly in the area of costume. I had actually lived in the historic district of Beacon Hill for a year, so it was relatively easy to bring the setting to life. Walking the streets of Boston, I found the past was palpable.

Monsoon Fever is set on a tea plantation in British India just a few years after the first World War. This was much more difficult to pull off, even though the time period is more recent. I've never visited Assam and even if I could discover what was going on in Europe or America during the 'teens, extrapolating to a remote colonial outpost required considerable imagination to fill in the factual gaps.

(Fortunately, imagination is not something I’m usually lacking. My husband accuses me of routinely making things up when I don’t know the answer, and I have to admit, he has some reason for this claim.)

My bawdy story Shortest Night is set in Elizabethan London, during William Shakespeare's time, and indeed the plot is a riff on the cross-dressing comedies of errors Shakespeare did so well. In fact, the Bard himself has a bit part in that tale. London and the theater also figure in “Opening Night”, the alternative history story I wrote for Sacchi’s anthology Time Well Bent, in which I imagine what would have happened if William Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) had been seduced by his star actor during the debut of the infamous operetta “Ruddigore”.

My most recent attempt at historical erotic fiction takes place much closer to the present. Challenge to Him is set in Newport, Rhode Island during the Gilded Age, sometime before 1910. I’ll never forget visiting the Newport mansions (now museums) and marveling at their near-obscene opulence. My hero is one of the newly-wealthy industrialist class who built those mansions, while the heroine is an intellectual and labor activist from (yes, Sachi!) Amherst, Massachusetts.

Here’s an excerpt from that novella, which describes the first meeting between the hero Andrew MacIntyre and the heroine, Olivia Alcott, outside a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts.

We’d rather starve quick than starve slow. A living wage or we just say no.”

Olivia Alcott chanted along with the mill girls as they marched in a circle in front of the rambling brick factory buildings. A semicircle of police and spectators fanned out in front of the strikers, but no one made a move to hinder them. Behind her, the normally clattering machinery lay quiet. When the workers paused for breath, Olivia heard the muted rush of the falls.

Itchy sweat gathered under her arms and at the base of her neck, where random strands of her hair had come loose from the pins that secured it. It was several hours past noon, and the summer sun battered them all. Like the women with whom she marched, Olivia wore a drab, ankle-length shirtwaist and heavy, laced boots, though her clothing was of finer fabric and in better repair. A red scarf knotted at her throat added a spark of colour—and soaked up some of her perspiration. She was desperately thirsty, but they’d agreed not to take a break until three o’clock. She certainly wasn’t going to be the one who gave up early.

She glanced around at her companions. They ranged in age from fourteen to fifty-five, though most were younger than her twenty-six years. Their lean, wiry bodies showed the effects of their twelve hours of back-breaking labour per day, six days a week. Even the young women had lined faces and streaks of grey in their hair, and the older ones looked frail, almost skeletal.

In the cool of the morning, when they’d started the strike, there’d been a holiday atmosphere. Liberated from work, they’d laughed, joked with one another and sung old Québécois songs. Now each woman’s face was a grim, dusty mask. Each was determined not to surrender to fatigue or discomfort. They had made a commitment to one another. No one was willing to betray that commitment—certainly not Olivia.

Doubts assailed her, though, as her back ached and the blisters on her feet stung. Had she done the right thing, coming here and stirring up these women’s aspirations? Would it do any good? Greed ruled the modern world. Profit was all that mattered. Human beings were expendable, just cogs in the great industrial machine that was America. If one component failed, it could be replaced. Meanwhile, the masters of the new century grew ever richer.

She could have been at home, reading in her father’s shady garden with a glass of iced lemon at her side, or walking with her sister under the spreading elms of the Common. Indeed, if the strike failed, she could return to her safe and comfortable life in Amherst—become a teacher like her parents, or an author like her brother Will.

These women around her, though, didn’t have those options. For them, this was a matter of survival.

Mademoiselle Olivia!” A skinny girl raced up the street that led to the riverside mill, stirring clouds of dust. “Il vient! He is coming!”

The sputtering racket of an internal combustion engine drowned out the girls excited voice. The crowd parted like the Red Sea for a boxy vehicle of shiny black, with silvery headlamps like extruded eyes. The noisy Studebaker rolled to a stop in front of the strikers, who stopped in their tracks like everyone else to stare at it.

The door creaked open. A tall man unfolded himself from the somewhat cramped interior, snatched off his hat and goggles and tossed them into the vehicle. He strode towards the massed strikers, his fists clenched at his sides.

Where is she? Where’s your damned leader?”

The newspapers generally described Andrew MacIntyre as handsome. The epithet did not do him justice. As he stormed towards her, Olivia was struck with a sense of physical power and keen intelligence. He had wavy red-gold hair, a high forehead, a square chin, a determined mouth. His eyes were hazel, deep set under brows darker than his hair. Those eyes drilled into her, fierce and compelling. The women around her shrank backwards in alarm. Olivia steeled herself, holding her ground and fighting the urge to grovel at his feet. Instead of retreating, she took a step forward, holding out her hand.

Mr Andrew MacIntyre, I presume?” She marvelled at the steadiness of her voice, the cool neutral tone.

Damned right. And you are…?”

Olivia Alcott.” She pulled herself up to her full height and forced herself to meet his gaze. She saw anger simmering there, but behind his irritation there was something else, something that intrigued and thrilled her. Something that she might be able to use to further her goals. Olivia Alcott recognised lust when she saw it.

He towered over her by at least a head. Though his body was hidden by his loose touring coat, his decisive, economical movements suggested he was lean and athletic. For a moment he hesitated, staring at her proffered hand. When he finally accepted it, his firm grip confirmed her impression of strength. His palm felt warm and dry against hers. She suddenly wished that she were not so sticky and dishevelled. When he released her, a momentary lightness swept through her, as though she might float away.

And can I assume that you are the instigator and cause of this illegal strike, Miss Alcott?” He seemed flustered, less confident than she would have expected. Her spirits rose.

Instigator? Perhaps. But not the cause.” Sweat trickled from her hairline, down into her eyes. She wiped it away with the back of her hand.

Here.” He surprised her by offering a crisp handkerchief of fine linen, of a white so pure it almost seemed to shine with its own light. The initials ‘AM’ were embroidered in the corner, in golden thread. A faint scent of lavender reached her nostrils.

Why, thank you!” The square of cloth was far more effective than her hand. When she’d mopped the perspiration from her face, she held out the swatch of now-damp fabric. “Here you are.”

He waved dismissively. “Keep it. I’ve got dozens more. Let’s get back to the matter at hand.”

How much did this handkerchief cost, Mr MacIntyre?”

I have no idea. My secretary handles my personal expenses.”

It’s imported linen, I suspect. Belgian, perhaps?”

Maybe. I don’t know. Look, Miss Alcott…”

And the monogram looks like real gold. Is it?”

Honestly, what does that have to do with anything?”

Olivia tucked the handkerchief into her bodice, noting that MacIntyre’s eyes followed the movement. Indeed he didn’t try to hide his survey of her figure, rude as it was. Another tremor of strangeness fluttered in her belly.

I’m no expert—I don’t have anything so fine myself—but I’d estimate that each of the dozens of handkerchiefs like this that you possess costs at least ten dollars.”

Ah—really I don’t know—perhaps. Something in that vicinity.”

That’s about two weeks of salary for one of these women who work here in your factory.”

What? What are you talking about?”

The cause of the strike, Mr MacIntyre. You asked about the cause of the strike. These poor women—your employees, sir, to whom you have a certain responsibility—generally make five dollars a week. They’d have to work for two weeks—twelve days, twelve hours per day—to afford one of your handkerchiefs. Do you think this is just?”

Well, they should be grateful they have jobs.” MacIntyre leaned closer, his manner and his voice menacing. “And if you don’t stop your meddling, they won’t. I’ll fire every single one of them in a minute. There are plenty of people who’d be happy for steady work, for a reputable company that’s not about to go bust and put them out on the street.”

Won’t you consider raising their salaries, Mr MacIntyre?” Olivia countered, inserting a bit of sweetness into her own voice. She laid her hand on his upper arm and felt his muscles shift under her fingers. “An additional dollar a week would make a big difference to them.”

I’m running a business here, Miss Alcott, not a charity.” He pulled away from her grasp and shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts, then stepped past her to speak to the assembled workers.

Go back to your machines, ladies. Don’t listen to this—this rabble-rouser. She’s only here to make trouble. You know that MacIntyre Textiles has always taken good care of you…”

Oh, really, Monsieur?” Lisette Beauchamps pushed her way through the clot of ragged women to confront him. “Did you care when my daughter got the brown lung? Poor petite wheezing and coughing so hard that she couldn’t walk, let alone work? And no money for a doctor or medicine? Or when Maria Clermont’s hand got tangled in the spinning machine? After they cut it off at the wrist, the fever took her. Left her four children all alone, les pauvres. Now they work here too, in this hellhole that killed their mother.”


Cest vrai!

The women besieged Andrew MacIntyre, crowding around him, blurting out their sad stories in broken English. For a moment, Olivia almost felt sorry for him.

Silence!” His voice drowned out their pleas and complaints. The babble died away. He raised his fist as though to batter the closest of the supplicants. Then he let it fall to his side. “The next person who makes a sound will be arrested and thrown in jail.” Despite his rough words, though, he appeared uncertain.

* * * *

I should mention that this book includes quite a lot of BDSM. I have no idea how much of that is historically accurate!


  1. Shakespearean times are such fun to write in! They say he set the language of the times so firmly that our modern English is much closer to his than the English of his times was to Chaucer's Middle English from which it evolved, and the culture and customs of his times remain perfectly recognizable in our times. I wrote one Elizabethan short story, A Dance of Queens, which took advantage of both the theatrical tradition of boys in women's roles and the Queen's speech before the Spanish Armada about having the body of a woman, "but the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too..." Hmm, maybe I'd better save all that for my own post.

    Your labor activist novella does sound intriguing. Olivia Alcott from Amherst--perfect! Calling her Olivia Dickinson would have been over the top, unless she came from Concord, MA.

    1. I knew I was treading on thin ice with that name. But you know how characters are. Sometimes they tell US their names.

  2. Great excerpt, Lisabet! What an imposing look at the labor movement.

    This promises to be a cool topic.

    1. Thanks! Can't wait to read whatever you'll come up with.

  3. This excerpt looks very believable, Lisabet! It seems to bring my family history to life. I mentioned once to Lisabet that my great-aunt Mary Ainsley was a union leader in a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania during the "Gilded Age." (Gilded for some.) According to family legend, a local businessman with leftist leanings heard about her rabblerousing and offered to pay her way through law school so she could become a labor lawyer. (Before WW1!) Mary's family pressured her to refuse the offer because it would compromise her reputation. Such a wasted opportunity. This is part of the joy of fiction: it improves on real life. :)

    1. Is working at a chocolate factory sweat shop labor? ;^)

      Seriously, it's too bad your aunt turned him down. So many opportunities have been squandered because of so-called "reputation".

    2. Hi Lisabet!

      Gawd I forgot how hard those times were for everyone, especially women. I worry that those times may come back as full time jobs become more and more an instrument of power.

      I haven;t read your book yet, but I find myself hoping that she tames this guy or busts his balls one way or the other.


  4. This is awesome, and it gives me some kind of odd present nostalgia for my current location. I know Beacon Hill very well, and I, too, have been to the mansions of Newport. I lived in Amherst for a while, too. I'll have to check out this labor activist of yours!


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