The Gay 90s

19thc_menWell, I had such grand plans to get a spiffy newletter out to my fans at the beginning of April, but some new Yahoo rules prevented that from happening.  I really, really wanted to share this bit of historical insight that I included in the ill-fated newsletter, though.  Here’s a piece of the research that has gone into Somebody to Love.  Enjoy!

On April 29th I’ll be releasing the final book of (the first half of) my Montana Romance series, Somebody to Love! I’ve been excited about this book for years. It was actually one of the original stories I imagined for this series. And yes, it’s an m/m romance. I know it might shock some people and I know I risk turning off a certain portion of my audience by writing a love story between two men in the middle of a conventional romance series, but the story had to be told. Phin had to find love too.

But let me tell you, it took a lot more research to write this story than it did to craft any of the other romance stories I’ve written. I don’t have any personal experience about being a man in love with another man, let alone one in the 19th century. I had a vague notion that homosexuality was viewed differently a hundred plus years ago than it’s viewed now, but I didn’t know what exactly that view looked like. So I set out to find out.

One of the most useful historical events for uncovering the opinion of the average person about homosexuality in the year 1900, the year that Somebody to Love takes place, was, of course, the Oscar Wilde trial. Oscar Wilde was arrested and put on trial in April of 1895 for “sodomy” and “gross indecency” under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. The trial stemmed from charges leveled at Wilde by the father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. To make a long and complicated story short, Wilde was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to hard labor. While in prison, he suffered a in injury from which he never healed and which ultimately killed him.

Of course, when you look beyond the surface of what happened to find out why, history begins to paint an entirely different picture. The charges brought against Wilde were scandalous, as much as for the fact that they were even brought as what those charges were. According to my other major source of research, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, by Graham Robb, the charge of sodomy was largely a joke by the 1895, and while the threat was made against some men to charge them with it, most people knew what went on behind closed doors and preferred that it stay there without mention.

Robb further mentions in his discussion of Wilde’s trial that one of the reasons he was able to be convicted was because he didn’t take the charge seriously and made jokes about it all in the courtroom. He didn’t believe anyone would really be so foolish as to go through with a charge that so many were indifferent to. He underestimated the hype that ultimately surrounded his case and the venom of his accusers.

StrangersThis was a revelation of sorts to me, as was Robb’s entire book. No, gay and lesbian people were not treated equally under the law or accepted and embraced in the 19th century. The attitude toward them was negative. The difference was that most people either didn’t even realize homosexuality was a thing or didn’t care to bring it out in the open where it could be examined or thought about. Remember, this was a time when even relations between men and women behind closed doors were viewed with a certain hushed mystique and when “those sorts of things” were absolutely not talked about.

The reality is that underneath the silence, a huge community existed. This community had its own rules, its own signs and signals, and its own code of conduct. Again, to say they were accepted by the mainstream wouldn’t be accurate, but neither would it be accurate to say they were horribly persecuted the way they were in the mid-twentieth century, or even the way Oscar Wilde did. In large part, men and women who were “different” kept things deeply under wraps, working with the rules of society to get along as best they could without being discovered. Ideal? No. But they were not being dragged to the gallows or castigated in front of the entire town every couple of minutes.

So as I wrote Somebody to Love, I tried very hard to stay true to the hushed but vibrant world that my gay characters would have encountered. Phin is widely known to be “different” by the people of Cold Springs, but few are willing to speak up about why or hold it against him as he plays an important role in society. Elliott has had a harder time of things, but he, like many gay men of his era, found a home in the army for a time before moving on, always trying to cover his tracks.

All in all, it was an interesting challenge to write this story. I hope you enjoy it and that you find the unique dilemma of these lovers interesting and enlightening.

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2014 Book #17 – Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose

Well, I kind of read Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose accidentally. How do you read a book accidentally, you ask? I wasn’t supposed to read it. I’m still deep in the middle of reading as a judge for various contests and scoring the entries. I need to get all of those books—you know, the ones I’m not allowed to write about here—read before strict deadlines. But then I watched the miniseries Band of Brothers a few weeks back, realized I could get the book second hand on Amazon for a penny, and, well, the rest is history.

band-of-brothers

And you might think I mean that literally. Band of Brothers is a history book, after all. It’s non-fiction, the story of Easy Company of the 506th regiment of the 101st airborne and their exploits in WWII. It follows the men from the day they signed up and went through basic training through Normandy and Holland and the Battle of the Bulge, on to Germany and beyond the end of the war to where their lives all were in 1990 when Ambrose originally wrote the book. So it’s a history book, right?

No, folks, this is a love story! It is perhaps the greatest love story I’ve read in a long, long time. The bonds that were formed between the men of Easy Company go far beyond the closeness of romance or what we think of as love in fiction. As Ambrose so eloquently explains, the connection that forms between soldiers in combat is something that can hardly be described to people who have never experienced it. It goes beyond just friendship, beyond the feeling of being brothers. It is deeper and more meaningful and soul-felt than the connection between lovers. This is love in its purest sense.

The thing is, even though Band of Brothers is a non-fiction account of three very specific years in our history, it actually unfolds like an epic novel. You have a glimpse of what normal is to start, then a call to action, then preparation for the hero’s journey followed by the journey itself. You have great triumphs and heartbreaking set-backs. The story contains suffering and unimaginable loss. Some of the best characters get killed off. Ultimately, though, our heroes triumph, not only in the war, but for almost all of them, in life after the war too.

As a novelist, there were so many things in this account of Easy Company that I can learn from to improve my craft. If nothing else, Ambrose has shown that amazing stories and epic events can and have happened to ordinary, real-life men. He shows that brilliance can be crafted from well-chosen sentences and that the words of the characters themselves (letters and diary entries by the men) can paint as vivid a picture as any narration.

But mostly, as when I watch the HBO series, I come away from this book with a profound sense of respect and awe for these men who gave so much to this country. I’m not at all patriotic, I’ll admit, but I do believe in GOOD and doing what’s right. These men exemplify everything that I esteem. And honestly, even though he served in the Pacific as a Sea-Bee, these men remind me of my beloved Granddad (who passed away far too soon when I was only 8). Reading about these guys brought home the sense of dignity and righteousness (the good kind) that I always felt when I was around my Granddad.

I would have loved to have met Dick Winters, who passed away I think two years ago January, and Bill Guarnere, who died just this past February and was the reason I started watching the series again. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there are only 18 Easy Company men still with us, all old men now. But, holding to the religious beliefs I have, I imagine that the guys are all slowly coming back together again in the Hereafter…and throwing one heck of a party each time another one joins up on the other side.

Read this book! You will not regret it!

 

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How Could They Even Think That???

manners for men and womenLast week, a couple of my friends shared an article on Facebook that has been making the rounds. It’s a series of extremely sexist ads from earlier in the 20th century. By 21st century standards, they’re incredibly misogynistic and damning. I mean, the best you can buy for your wife for Christmas is household appliances? You are actually suggesting that she should cry to get what she wants?

My initial scornful reaction quickly took a backseat to a whole different thought, though. One of the things that is debated over and over with those of us who write historical novels is the fact that you can’t interpret the actions and morals of any given era of history using nothing but modern sensibilities and viewpoints. In days gone by, people actually thought differently about things, hard as it is for us to grasp. Stuff that make modern women in particular rage wouldn’t have been a concern to women of, say, the 19th century or earlier.

The feminine ideal in the 19th century, for example, was vastly different from what women are taught to aspire to now. Not just superficially, either. Here in the 21st century we can look back at women in the 19th century and be appalled about their lack of legal rights (which 21st century pop-culture has exaggerated, btw), their inability to inherit or vote, and the appearance that they were the property of their husbands. Yes, those inequalities lit up a section of the female population, pushing them on to pass reforms and change the standard of living for women. For just as many or more women, though, what we in the 21st century see as egregious violations of human rights were non-issues.

I know, I know. I hear your heart and soul rebelling at the concept. I hear the sputtering and the whole “How can you possibly say that women were happy living like that?” But guess what? Many of them were! We can’t translate our 21st century ideals onto 19th century women across the board when their ideals were so different than our own. That’s not to say that 19th or early 20th century women laughed in the face of spousal abuse or smiled prettily at cruel treatment by some. The point is that for the vast majority of boring, uneventful, contented lives and relationships, what we balk at was what they strived to achieve.

Sewing Manual 1949I loved one of the comments that a woman posted on Facebook in response to these sewing manual instructions from 1949. The commenter noted that her mother and her friends followed this advice to the T and were proud to do it. They were proud of their lives as homemakers and delighted in achieving all of those things we are outraged by now. The commenter also noticed that her mother and her friends didn’t have a divorce among them and had happy marriages of 50+ years. Different attitudes, different times.

I just want to note one other thing about the shift in attitudes, ideals, and social standards that took place around the 1920s. It wasn’t just attitudes about how women should behave. I am always struck when I read advice books from the 19th century about how men should behave, both in their lives and business and with women. It was a very different kind of chivalry that produced a very different kind of man. In fact, when I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, the point was made that our modern preference for outgoing, aggressive, loud, macho men is a 20th century invention, and that in the 19th century, men were praised more for prudence, careful thought, and for not being overly outwardly aggressive or loud. How things have changed!

Anyhow, all this got me to thinking. We look back at women of the 19th and early 20th century with more censure than we should and with indignation about how they could put up with that kind of behavior. I wonder what those women would think about the lifestyles and ideals that women of the 21st century cling to.

Number one, I think 19th century women would be shocked and appalled at the way women in the 21st century dress. They would take one look at our fashion and shudder at how skimpy, revealing, and ugly it has become. I think they would see it as cheap and unfeminine, considering that clothing in the 19th century was tailored rather than off-the-rack and accentuated the feminine form (have you seen what a corset does to a woman’s shape?) rather than uncovering it.

victorian women riverI also think that 19th century woman would shudder at how many expectations are thrust on women of the 21st century without any sort of reassurances or reciprocations. You mean 21st century women are expected to work outside the home, supporting their families—if they even have one—and to maintain a household at the same time? Remember, the recession we just went through was hardest on men, and there are now a large number of households where the woman brings home the bacon while the men are still searching for jobs. I think a 19th century woman would find it horrible that so many women don’t have a husband to take care of them.

I especially think that 19th and early 20th century women would be outraged by sexual expectations. Women are expected to be sexually active outside of marriage? With no guarantee that a man would support the children that might come out of those kinds of activities? And women are okay with this? Where is the security in life? Where is the connection and the caring?

Now, do you find yourself getting angry over these assumptions I’m making about how 19th century women would see us? Are you ready to fight and argue that it is ridiculous to assume they would view our lives like that and, in fact, it was their 19th and early 20th century lives that had it all wrong? Well, that’s the point. You may be offended if the women of the past looked with utter distain on the values that we hold dear today, just as I believe they would be offended to see their great-great-granddaughters holding them in such contempt for the ideals they believed in.

Times have changed and attitudes have changed with them, but it is absolutely wrong of us to scorn what were genuinely the things that women who came before us wanted. Their lives were not ours and they were not suited to our ideals. So next time you see one of these memes or articles pop up that makes fun of how women were seen in a different time, stop to consider it from the viewpoint of that moment in history before denigrating generations who lived happily well before you were even born.

 

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Awards versus Sales

© Madmaxer | Dreamstime.com

© Madmaxer | Dreamstime.com

So last week the finalists for Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA awards (the top industry awards for romance novels) were announced. I had entered two of my books (Fool for Love and In Your Arms) in the competition. Well, I didn’t final. Big surprise! Okay, not really. I love my books, I am confident in my writing skills, but I am also well aware that my craft has a long way to go before I can honestly compete with the cream of the crop.

*cough* And I’m a little suspicious of the way finalists are chosen. I will immediately and instantly qualify that statement by saying it’s not that I think the judging is unfair in any way, shape, or form. It is fair. However, because the finalists are chosen by their peers, I think it’s just human nature to approach the whole thing with subconscious bias. There’s nothing wrong with that, however…unless you’re a lesser known writer with your heart set on winning awards.

That got me to thinking…. What do I have my heart set on doing? It would be super awesome to win a whole bunch of high profile awards. I’ve won some and I can tell you that it’s a great feeling. I can only imagine how awesome it would be to win the big one. But is it necessary?

I’m always suspicious of awards that are—albeit subconsciously—glorified popularity contests. Whether it’s writing, beauty contests, class president elections, or anything else along those lines, something about voting done by peers has always left me cold. I never received any kind of recognition in my younger years. Heck, I was that weird girl with her head in the clouds. But I knew I was smart and that I had value, and maybe it was wrong of me, but from time to time I was just disgusted that people who didn’t deserve the honors were winning them because they were more popular than I was.

Yep, that’s my baggage. So I think it’s safe to say that I do not hang my worth as a writer on whether I win contests. I enter them, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: I enter contests because it means that many more people will read my books. If I’m lucky, when they’re done reading the copy they’ve received for the contest, they’ll take it to their local library or used book store or some other place where someone else will pick it up. If I gain another fan through entering a contest, then life is good.

Because for me, what matters even more than winning contests is selling books.

© Ionutv91 | Dreamstime.com

© Ionutv91 | Dreamstime.com

And that brings me around to the other goal that writers aspire to: selling a ton of books. And you don’t necessarily need to win every contest out there to become a best-selling author. The public catches on to authors and series whether they’ve won all the accolades ever or not. Yes, you’re far more likely to achieve this best-seller status if you’ve written a damn good book, but we all know that there are some truly terrible books out there that have made their authors millionaires.

So should authors shoot for the goal of spectacular sales instead of critical recognition then? Should we choose money over love? Is it more important to score as many 5-star reviews as possible or should we put less weight on those stars as long as we’re collecting a nice paycheck at the end of the month.

For me, that’s a much stickier question. I like selling books. Not gonna lie. I dream of that book that hits the best-seller list for my category on Amazon and B&N and iBooks and everywhere else. Selling a lot of books brings me one step closer to being able to make a comfortable living entirely off of my writing. That’s my stated goal for this career of mine, and everything I do is working toward that point.

So in my writing world, sales are far, far more important than winning contests. But still, there’s that little part of me that feels that contest wins are an important means to my ends. Maybe a reader is more likely to take a chance on a book that has “Award-Winning Author” printed on the cover, maybe not. Either way, it feels good to have your name called out after the words “First prize goes to…”.

How about you, my writer friends? Do you do it for love or money? Would you rather have awards or sales? How do you feel about entering contests?

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Pride and Prejudice and the Joy of the Same Story Over and Over

Last weekend I went to see an all new stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. P&P must be the hardest work of fiction to adapt in any new way of any book that has been written. It’s a story so many people know so well, yes. More than that, the miniseries version that was made several years back with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth was just so iconic and definitive that I pity anyone who tries to play those characters now. Not just the characters of Darcy and Lizzy, but the portrayal of Mrs. Bennett in particular was so good that I can’t imagine anyone doing better.

A promotional still from People's Light and Theatre Company's production of Pride & Prejudice that I saw on Sunday.  And it was amazing!

A promotional still from People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of Pride & Prejudice that I saw on Sunday. And it was amazing!

So why would anyone attempt to revisit a story that has already been portrayed so masterfully?

I feel like we could all ask that same question of anyone who writes genre fiction. I mean, you hear the criticism all the time. All romance novels are the same plot rehashed again and again, and really, can anyone do it as well as Jane Austen? Or the Bronte sisters? Or Georgette Heyer? Every single romance novel follows the same pattern of boy meets girl, boy and girl are at odds, boy eventually wins girl. It’s been done before and it’s been done well, so why bother to do it again?

My answer to that all too common question is that it doesn’t matter what is being done again, it’s the how it’s done that matters. I can’t even count the number of romance novels I’ve read. Yes, each one ends up with the hero and heroine getting together at the end in spite of the odds and living happily ever after. That’s the genre. It has indeed been done before. But it isn’t the originality of the plot that keeps me and countless readers coming back. In fact, the very sameness of the outcome is what appeals to me about the romance genre.

On a technical level, romance novels are character-driven stories. They are not plot-driven, like mysteries or thrillers tend to be. The meat of the book revolves around the relationships between the main characters, and, at least in my opinion, between the main and secondary characters. No matter how similar plotlines for romance novels may be, every individual in a really good romance novel is its own unique character. I personally like watching how these individual characters navigate the common pathways of romance novel plots.

Girl-writing-brightIt’s a lot like this play, actually. Pride and Prejudice has been done before. It has been done brilliantly. The performance I went to was sold out. What made all those people pay money to sit through a story that they already knew inside and out? The comfort of watching a beloved story unfold is one thing, but for me the most fascinating part of the production was the staging. I’d never seen the same story with those same characters choreographed quite that way before. The director arranged the whole thing, the interplay between characters and shifts from one scene to another, like one big dance. It worked so well because the very nature of the story is one long dance.

Millions of women throughout the world pick up millions of romance novels every year not only because they take comfort in hearing the same story with its happy ending told over and over, but because they enjoy marking the steps of the dance. You may know the steps, but you never know how the dance will unfold or what kind of conversation you’ll have with your partner.

So there are reasons why it’s okay to tell the same sort of story, even if it’s been done before, just like there are reasons to mount another production of a show that has become iconic. It’s not just true for romance, by the way. I personally feel like Sci-Fi tells a similar story over and over—Man v. Nature on a galactic level—and even epic fantasy is a rehashing of the classic hero journey. We love hearing the same stories. They cement what we know of the universe and how we feel about it. That’s why there will always be a place for romance novels, just like there will always be a sell-out for a really well done adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

 

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