history

Deal Breakers

By Jean Roberta

I love historical drama, but as someone once said, the past is a foreign country. They did things differently there.

In a recent television spectacle featuring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I, the never-married queen is courted by the Duc D’Anjou, a brother of the King of France. Their marriage would make a good diplomatic alliance to help England resist a threatened Spanish invasion. Apparently to her surprise, Queen Bess finds that she has feelings for the Duc, beyond her desire to secure her nation and possibly give birth to an heir. The Duc is in his twenties while the Queen is in her forties, but the age gap doesn’t seem to bother either of them. He praises her beauty in charmingly-accented English. He tells her that he likes “pro-TEST-ants,” and that his Catholic faith is a private matter that wouldn’t have to be an issue in their relationship.

However, religion is a serious matter to the English Parliament, and no one in the Queen’s government wants her to marry a Catholic. The Queen could simply overrule all her advisors, including her long-term admirer, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who wanted to marry her for years, but who was repeatedly turned down. In the film version, Queen Bess claims that “Robin’s” status isn’t high enough to match hers, although the sudden death of his first wife (found dead at the foot of a staircase) and the rumours of murder that circulated afterward would have made it reckless for Bess and “Robin” to rush into marriage. For better or worse, she rejects the Duc d’Anjou as well.

So what were the real deal-breakers that prevented Queen Bess from marrying any of her suitors? The age gap between the Queen and the French Duc (especially if she hoped to produce an heir) isn’t shown as a problem for anyone, including the concerned bystanders. The traditional explanation for her persistently single state was that the Queen was “married to her people.”

The theme of “forbidden love,” expressed in secret trysts, is still a compelling subject in erotic romance. It’s hard to imagine an official barrier between two people who are attracted to each other that could really keep them from sneaking some time together. It’s also hard to imagine any difference which couldn’t be seen as a barrier.

Religious differences, formerly a deal-breaker, don’t seem to keep people apart the way they used to. Does this mean that human society has evolved to be more inclusive than in the past? Probably not. Marriages between cousins were considered desirable in some cultures in the past, especially if there was a fortune that could thereby be kept in the family. On the other hand, marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister was considered so incestuous (or squicky for some other reason) that it was outlawed in England in the Victorian Age. Huge age gaps (mostly older men with younger women, but sometimes the reverse) were accepted, but gaps in social class were not. (At least upper-class men didn’t marry the servants, although they were certainly welcome to, ahem, enjoy their company.)

Before the “Gay Rights” movement of the twentieth century, sexual relations between members of the same gender were considered “crimes against nature,” and punished in drastic ways if not kept secret. (Some secrets were really facts that everyone knew and no one mentioned aloud.)

We are all products of our time, whether we want to admit it or not. For Americans in my parents’ generation (born just after the First World War), racial separation was enforced both by “Jim Crow” laws, and by social traditions that generally kept racially-defined groups apart. A mixed-race relationship was a very big deal in that era, although there were a few exceptional couples who managed to stay together.

I doubt if anyone can honestly claim to be free of prejudice in all forms when it comes to sexual attraction. What are the deal-breakers that have made some people in your life seem attractive but inaccessible, or not attractive at all? I’m tempted to do a survey.

Ten Years in Bed with the Best: The History of ERWA

By Adrienne Benedicks (ERWA founder)

It’s
difficult to write good erotica. Authors in any fictional genre have
to master the elements of the craft: plot, characterization,
dialogue, and so on. Erotica authors need to go further. They need to
depict sexual acts, situations, and emotions that are believable and
arousing. To do this, they draw on their personal insights and
images. They delve into their imaginations, lay bare their sensual
fantasies, and share those visions with their readers. Authors who
dare expose themselves via erotica are brave souls, indeed.

To
my delight, I find myself today surrounded by these fascinating
people: the writers of sexually explicit fiction. These are the
people who populate the virtual world of ERWA, the world we have
built together over the past ten years.

In
1996, when I first plugged into the Internet, I admit that the first
thing I looked for was porn. I craved sexy stories. Much to my
disappointment all I found were boring, mechanical sex scenes, and a
lot of “Oh my Gawd, I’m cumming” nonsense. It didn’t take me
long to realize that much of the adult web was simply a digital form
of male-oriented one-dimensional smut, a cyber circle-jerk. I was
disappointed. As a woman I felt left out of the dirty stuff.

I
thought that surely I wasn’t unique in my desire for well-written,
hot erotic stories – real stories, not just bits and pieces of fuck
scenes. So I hit the chat rooms and asked, “Where’s the quality
sexy stuff?” That was like plastering a blinking “Who wants to
screw me?” tag on my emails. Live and learn!

For
my next attempt, I joined the Romance Readers Anonymous (RRA) email
list. I thought that surely romance readers would be comfortable
discussing erotic stories. In those days, though, we couldn’t talk
about sex in our public posts, even though many romances were highly
erotic.

A
few of us listers took to chatting off-list about the erotic parts of
romance. I suggested that we live on the edge and start our own list.
Great excitement greeted my suggestion, and on June 5th, 1996, the
Erotica Readers Association was born. ERA, an affectionate play on
the Equal Rights Amendment, was a sister list to RRA, and the
foundation of the current Erotica Readers & Writers Association.

At
that time my children were in high school, and I had the opportunity
to finish my degree in Anthropology. As a student, I had access to
various online options and with the endorsement of my professor, the
University agreed to host the ERA email list. My goal was to provide
a private, secure online space where women could comfortably discuss
erotic fiction and sexuality, away from the “hey baby, whatcha
wearing” crowd.

Subscription
was by request or invitation. Publicity worked via word of mouth.
Within two months we had sixty women onboard – fabulous, fun,
curious women who were eager to talk about sexy writings, and to
discuss the joys, problems, or disappointments of their own
sexuality.

It
didn’t take long before these readers decided to try their own
hands at writing sexy fiction. “I bet even I can write a sex scene
better that!” was a typical inspiration. We quickly learned that
writing good erotica wasn’t as easy as it seemed. The general
assumption was that if you were capable of having sex, then surely
you could about write it. Not necessarily true, but that didn’t
stop us from trying. We were having a lot of fun, even when our
fictional efforts fell flat.

Before
long, a few brave men who were friends of ERA subscribers were asking
to join. They liked reading erotic stories, and they liked the idea
of smart discussions about sex. So I opened the door; ERA became
inclusive rather then exclusive. Most women were pleased with the
change. A few stomped off the list, sure ERA would crumble into a
“hey baby” chat room atmosphere.

That
didn’t happen. Men brought their unique sexual insight into ERA,
and our horizons grew even more as people of all sexual persuasions
requested subscription. ERA became a dynamic robust community of
people interested in sexuality in the written word, and in their
lives.

Of
course, we had our fair share of narrow-minded confrontational types,
rigid view points, and egos too big even for the World Wide Web.
Overall, though, ERA-ers were non-judgmental, mutually respectful and
more then willing to get along.

ERA
grew quickly that first year. Subscribers suggested I started a web
site to house all the material we were accumulating: book
recommendations, hints about popular authors, discussions on where to
buy erotica (at that time erotica wasn’t sitting on book shop
shelves). A subscriber volunteered to build a site, and the domain
“www.erotica-readers.local” became an on-line reality.

We
decided to be really daring, and started putting subscribers’
original stories behind a password protected “Green Door” on the
ERA web site. We felt so very sophisticated, and risqué, with our
personal secret stash of erotica sitting right out there on the Web!

ERA
continued to grow, and so did subscribers’ interest in writing
erotica. Writers were taking a serious interest in helping each other
improve. Stories were shared on the list, and critiques and
suggestions on how to improve the works were cheerfully and willingly
given. ERA was evolving, moving from its readers’ base to a
writers’ base. More and more focus was on writers helping writers.

Around
this time, erotica anthologies were becoming very popular. The
Herotica series (Down There Press) had made a big splash, leading the
way to The Best Women’s Erotica (Cleis Press), Best American
Erotica (Simon & Schuster), The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica
(Carroll & Graf), Best Lesbian Erotica (Cleis Press), and
Ultimate Gay Erotica (Alyson Press).

Web
site magazines were springing up like grass (and weeds). There was a
growing market for erotic short stories, and many ERA subscribers
were ready to try publishing their work. They exposed themselves, so
to speak, behind ERA’s Green Door; the experience gave them
confidence. With support and encouragement from their peers, ERA
subscribers started to submit stories to various calls for
submissions.

ERA
already had a solid community feel. Subscribers really did care about
each other. We were a virtual family. Even so, I was pleasantly
surprised at how generous writers were in sharing calls for
submissions. Rather than concealing the information to reduce the
competition, ERA-ers said: “Hey everybody, look what I found! Let’s
give it a try.”

At
that time, the ERA web site was still a small dot in the adult web,
but there was no doubt our growing resources and stash of sexy
stories was drawing in a smart crowd. I took the plunge, and with a
lot of help and suggestions from the community, gave the ERA site a
new look that was sensual and classy, as well as easy to navigate.

I
didn’t realize the obvious: being out in the Web made my private
email list, nicely hidden and hosted by the University computer
center, suddenly quite visible. Subscription was still by request or
invitation, but now inquiries came pouring in. People landing on ERA
web site liked the resources they found there, and wanted to know
more. Subscriptions grew, the site grew, and soon ERA was pulling in
more then 13% of the university web traffic. ERA had to go, they told
me, and gave me two weeks to find another host.

Ah,
the price of success! Fortunately, an Australian subscriber
volunteered the help of her husband, who ran his own ISP service.
Kevin hosted ERA for free for several years until we once again grew
too big and had to move on to our present home, a major adult web
hosting company.

By
2000 ERA had grown so large and had such a varied focus that things
were getting out of hand. The sheer number of emails on the list
caused confusion and havoc. Writers were frustrated in their efforts
to have their stories critiqued because their works were lost in the
deluge of chit-chat emails. Questions and concerns about publishing
and marketing went unanswered because busy subscribers didn’t have
time or patience to dig through hundreds of emails, and were simply
deleting it all.

Meanwhile
the amount of information on the site was overwhelming. The
organization was on the verge of losing itself in too much of
everything. It would have been an ironic death by popularity.

At
this point I understood that ERA was no longer a simple hobby. Good
erotica had become a worthy pursuit. Erotica readers were hungry for
the good stuff, and publishers were geared up to provide it. I wanted
the ERA web site to be the place where erotica readers and
writers would come for the information they needed and where editors
and publishers would come when looking for talented writers. I wanted
ERA to be the premier web site for quality erotica. Finally, I wanted
to continue to provide an email list where erotica readers and
writers could network, and where people could comfortably discuss
sexuality.

The
first step was to change the Erotica Readers Association name to
better reflect what we had become: the Erotica Readers & Writers
Association (ERWA). The second step was to create a flexible
infrastructure for the site and for the email list, a foundation with
enough latitude for future changes. Here’s where ERWA subscribers
came to the rescue, once again. Suggestions poured in, and I followed
through. The evolution of ERWA was, and I suspect always will be, a
community affair.

ERWA
became three distinct parts that made up the whole: ERWA email
discussion list, ERWA web site, and the humorous and informative ERWA
monthly newsletter, Erotic Lure, currently written by the editor of
this anthology, Lisabet Sarai.

The
ERWA web site retained its basic design. The richness and utility of
the site grew as publishers and editors recognized ERWA’s
potential. No longer did I spend hours searching for viable markets.
Calls for submissions now came to me.

ERWA’s
story galleries became a source of quality erotic fiction. Editors
routinely mined the galleries’ content for their “Best Of”
erotic anthologies. Renowned erotic authors came on board as
columnists, providing advice in our Authors Resources section. The
luminaries of the adult literary world offered provocative articles
on hot sexual topics in the Smutter’s Lounge pages.

I
divided ERWA email discussion list into four opt-in sections; Admin
(for news related to ERWA, calls for submissions, events, and other
items of interest); Parlor (an open forum with a social ambiance);
Writers (dedicated to authorship and related issues); and Storytime
(an informal writers’ workshop where authors share their stories
for comments and critiques). The very best of Storytime works are
placed in ERWA Erotica Galleries, and many of them are showcased
right here in this volume.

Currently,
the Erotica Readers & Writers Association hosts an email
discussion list of over 1200 subscribers. Our newsletter goes out to
more then 5000 readers, writers, editors and publishers. The web site
is accessed over six million times each month.

ERWA
has been favorably reviewed by Playboy, Elle magazine,
AVN online magazine, Writer’s Digest, and recommended in a
host of books and articles as the premier resource for erotica
readers and writers. Every month, we entertain, educate and inform
millions people from all over the globe who are interested in
erotica.

Although
we’ve grown tremendously, ERWA’s strength is still in community.
We are diverse and far-flung, but tightly connected. The result is an
ongoing effort to understand and accept all persuasions, lifestyles,
and expressions of sexuality. We want to bring the very best of
erotica to readers, partly by helping writers excel in a genre that
is making headlines and causing the entire publishing industry to sit
up and take notice.

Personally,
I’m amazed at what we’ve built together, and extremely proud. Now
I can say to those frustrated folk who are searching, like I was, for
sex writing that is simultaneously intelligent and arousing: here we
are. Search no further. Welcome to ERWA. You’re home.

[This article is an afterword from the erotica anthology Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association (Running Press, 2006, edited by Lisabet Sarai). Of course this written was almost a decade ago, and a great deal has happened since then. Still, the spirit of ERWA remains vital and – dare I say it? – lusty as ever. ~ Lisabet Sarai, blog coordinator]

 

 

Writing in the Red-Light District

I’ve been considering the genre of erotica in historical context as a way to understand where it came from and what it has become. From a European perspective, it seems fair to begin with the Greco-Roman poetry of Sappho, Ovid, Juvenal and the Dionysian spectacle of the Satyr Plays (of which we no longer have any clear records). But we have a problem: it is almost impossible for us today to truly grasp what kind of a relationship the ancient Greeks and Romans had with sex. Judeo-Christianity and, later, the Enlightenment and rise of rationalism have had profound effects on the way we contextualize desire and sex both in relation to ourselves and to our society. We often represent the Greeks and the Romans as being a lawless bunch of reprobates, but this isn’t true. There were very strong prohibitions and social rules about how one conducted oneself as a sexual being and how that reflected on the overall character of a person. They were just very different from ours.

Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the 12th Century –  a collection of tales which borrowed mostly from earlier erotic folk stories as well as westernized oriental narratives. The Tale of Two Lovers, an epistolary novel of the 15th Century, was penned by a man who later became a pope. The Heptameron was written by Marguerite de Navarre in the 16th Century. All these writings are bawdy and explicit in their exploration of human sexual adventure. But it is also fair to say that they are not simply detailed descriptions of sex. To one extent or another, they all contain a good deal of humour and there is a considerable focus on the licentious behaviour of characters whose social status demanded they be modest. They were often about the secret sex lives of the rich and celibate. Eroticism, politics, and social satire it seems, went hand in hand.

The libertine movement of the 15th and 16th centuries was an interesting evolution. Written by aristocrats for aristocrats, it represented the pursuit of pleasure as a radical philosophy in itself. Its comparison with earlier writings is interesting. For all its sexual excess, its humour is more curdled and jaded and, for all its explicitness, seems more aimed at offending sensibilities than representing the pleasures of the flesh. (It always reminds me of people desperately trying to fuck on way too much cocaine at four in the morning. Take my word for it, it’s not all that much fun.)  Then we get to Sade,with his lists of debaucheries and his blatant attack on Catholic mores. These books are pornographic in the sense that they are explicit, but as Angela Carter pointed out, they are also aimed at honestly representing the almost unlimited power of the wealthy and the violent and dehumanizing use of the poor. Sadean writing may be erotica, but it is also heavy handed social critique.

The Victorian era saw a new age of confessional erotic writing. For the most part, there isn’t much obvious attempt at social commentary, other than the adolescent glee of writing explicitly about sex acts in a society that had developed an almost psychotic fear of discussing it in public. Certainly there was pleasure taken in writing and reading about what was socially forbidden. But it lacks the confrontational nature of earlier erotic writing.

Although I would include Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs,  it was not really until the 20th century that we see the use of erotic writing as a tool for exploring or defining the self in relation to society.  In the works of Miller, Nin, Nabokov, and Duras, you begin to see erotic stories that have deeply psychoanalytical dimensions. They all, to some extent or another, pit the individual’s pursuit of erotic desire against the prevailing environment. As conscious, revolutionary acts of disobedience in pleasure. And yes, the sex matters and the sex is erotic, but it is also a private struggle for inner structure in the face of a confusing world.

I’d like to stop here and say that there has always been pornography, both visual and written, whose sole purpose was as an aide to sexual arousal. Certainly most of the Victorian works could not really be viewed as having other uses. And the sexually explicit pulp erotica of the 50s and 60s served the same purpose. But the literary and financial success of novels like Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, and Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor put pressure on writers in the 70s to add more explicit sex to their work in order to sell more books. It was no longer a revolutionary act to describe a sex scene in detail, it made monetary sense. 

It is ironic that the genre we now call erotica hasn’t really been around that long. Until the early 70s, writers either considered they were writing pornography as a sex aid (and usually for the money) or they felt they were writing literature which, as a function of exploring the human condition, explored the characters erotic lives as well. 

The post-modern literary world has, with the exception of some outstanding Queer writers, mostly portrayed graphic sex in their writing as a site of alienation. From Michel Houllebecq to Ian McEwan, it seems that authentic characters shouldn’t ever have good sex, or sex that informs them of anything other than the emptiness of the act. Intelligent people, it seems, have uniformly awful sex, according to the literary world.

So erotica, as we know it, is a genre that has tried to serve many interests. There are still writers and readers who see the job of erotica to simply provide stimulating imagery for masturbation or spicing up a couple’s sex life, but are uncomfortable with consuming what is clearly labeled pornography.  There are also writers and readers who see erotica – particularly erotic romance – as a way of narrating romantic stories more realistically, including the sexual aspect of the evolving romantic relationship. And then there are those of us who feel that exploring the complex erotic desires and actions of characters continues to offer a landscape in which to reflect on the human condition as a whole.

It’s hardly a wonder that readers get disappointed when they pick up an erotica book and falls short of their expectations. As a society, we still feel the need to shove our written explorations of eroticism into a single, literary red-light district. It is a crowded little enclave, with many agendas.

A Community of Spirit

By Lisabet Sarai

I discovered the Erotica Readers &
Writers Association in the year 2000. Google was barely a gleam in
the eyes of venture capitalists. Social networking meant going to the
local singles bar. The word “blog” had not yet been coined. I was
living in rural New England and accessing the Internet via a 36
kilobaud dial-up line.

I wasn’t looking for a critique forum.
Although I enjoyed reading erotica, I wasn’t seeking a source for
sexy stories or reviews of the same. No, I was searching in clueless
newbie fashion for ways to get the word out about my first novel, Raw
Silk
, which Black Lace had published a few months earlier.
Somehow I happened on a page of erotica-related links on the ERWA
website (which at that point had been around for about four years,
and was known as the “Erotica Readers Association”). So I
emailed the webmistress and asked if she’d be willing to include a
link to my brand new venture, www.lisabetsarai.com.

Adrienne sent me a kind reply in which
she explained that ERWA wasn’t really about advertising. However,
they did have email lists for authors and others interested in sexy
stories, including a list for discussing craft (Writers), a list for
sharing stories and critiques (Storytime) and a list for chitchat,
often about sexual topics (Parlor). Isolated in my remote, somewhat
conservative town of 1500 people, half a world away from my British
publisher, I eagerly accepted her invitation to join all three lists.

I canceled my subscription to Parlor in
a matter of days, after being swamped with posts about returning
versus not returning your supermarket cart to the designated areas.
(What was sexy about that?) However, Storytime provide new thrills. I
read more, and more varied, erotic stories in the first month or two
on Storytime than in my whole previous existence – and found some
of them both wildly imaginative and truly arousing. Furthermore, I
was able to apply my excessive education to the useful task of
writing crits and providing comments to some of the authors –
though I read many more stories that I could critique. Participating
in Storytime turned out to be a highly intimate experience, as
writers tended to share pieces that revealed their own desires and
fantasies.

Storytime inspired me. I wrote and
posted my first flashers (only 100 words back then), painfully
cutting out words to get below the limit. Targeting a short story
contest announced on ERA, I wrote my first erotic short story, “Glass
House” and received both warm praise (what we authors all live for)
and useful suggestions for improvement. A few of my stories were
selected for the Gallery. I began to read and respond to the calls
for submissions on the Author Resources page. I wrote the first three
chapters of my second novel, Incognito, and sent a proposal to
Black Lace, only to have it roundly rejected (with the comment that
Miranda wasn’t the sort “kick-ass heroine” they preferred). I
might have given up writing at that point if it had not been for the
support of folks on the Writers list. Instead, I girded my loins and
started looking for a new publisher.

Over time, I became more and more
involved with ERA (which added “Writers” to become ERWA at some
point, as the management recognized how important authors were to its
well-being). I wrote reviews for the Smutter’s Lounge, plus an
occasional article for Authors Resources. In 2004 (God, has it
really been that long?), Adrienne convinced me to take on the role of
writing the monthly Erotic Lure newsletter. In 2006 I edited and
arranged the publication of Cream: The Best of The Erotica Readersand Writers Association, which
is still (in my humble opinion) one of the most satisfying and
diverse erotic anthologies around (and which incidentally includes a
great forward by Adrienne, covering the early history of ERWA). Last
year I produced a year-long series of articles (“Naughty Bits”)
covering various technology topics relevant to authors. Controlling
and bossy as I am (yes, I know that’s kind of odd for a submissive),
I also agreed to serve as ERWA blog coordinator. 

 

Looking
back now, after thirteen years, I’m astonished at how much this place
means to me. I’ve come to know individuals here whom I’d place in the
circle of my dearest friends – even though in some cases, we’ve
never met in person. When I have had the chance for face-to-face time
with folks I first encountered at ERWA, it often feels as though
we’ve known one another forever. In the real world, there are very
few people to whom I can reveal my identity as an author of erotica.
At ERWA I’m free to be myself.

For
me, ERWA is a community of spirit. Someone who just learned about the
place might think that the biggest draw was the ability to speak and
write frankly about sexual matters, in an environment where such
topics are welcome rather than taboo. Sure, that’s a great feature,
but today there are many adult-oriented on-line communities. ERWA is
special because of its literary focus. The people who end up on the
Writers list, at least, are passionate about reading and writing –
and not just in the erotica genre. They care deeply about words. They
recognize that storytelling is a definitively human activity. And
many have a profound understanding of both the mystery and the craft
involved in spinning an effective tale.

We
tend to whine about how hard it is to succeed as an author these
days. In fact, I’ve watched many of my colleagues here move from
amateurs to professionals with dozens of books to their credit. Pick
up any recently published erotica anthology and you’ll see familiar
names from the Gallery and Writers. Search Amazon and our members
come up as editors of award-winning collections. Several members have
even gone on to establish their own independent publishing ventures.
As far as I know E.L. James has never been a member of ERWA, but
considering the difficulties involved in getting anyone to take
erotica seriously, I’d say we’re doing pretty well.

And of
course, ERWA has been instrumental in my own career, such as it is.
I’m an old-timer now, but when I first joined, I knew nothing about
publishing or marketing. I barely knew that the genre of erotica
existed, and I’d never read an erotic romance. I had lots of arousing
fantasies, but my dialogue was wooden and my convoluted sentence
structure like something from the nineteenth century. Now I have a
back list that’s pages long – I’ve stopped counting since it’s hard
to know exactly what criteria to apply, but certainly nobody could claim I was a one-book wonder.

I
suspect that without ERWA, I’d never have gotten this far. Without
the support (moral and immoral) of my fellow authors, I might not
have wanted to.

If
you’ve been around this community for anywhere near as long as I
have, I think you know what I am talking about. If you’re new – if
you’ve been trying to get your erotic visions out of your head and
into a manuscript, if you feel ostracized because of your fascination
with things sexual, if you’ve always loved to read and write but
haven’t dared to think about publication – all I can say is welcome.
You probably belong here.

The Past is a Foreign Country

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
J.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

Setting stories in the past is an interesting and sometimes strangely satisfying exercise in futility.  The past, like memory, is always partly fiction. We can do all the research we want, but because we are viewing the past from here and now, we will never see, never ‘read’ it like the people who lived in it when it was the present for them.  We can never unknow the fact that the earth goes around the sun, or that the world is four and a half billion years old.  We can never unlearn what it is like to experience communication that’s instant over great distances.  We will never be as brave as those who knew that a simple infection could kill them, or that losing a baby in childbirth was a regular occurrence, or that being unmarried and pregnant made you a social outcast. We can know those facts intellectually, but because we can’t unknow our current reality, our emotional understanding of the harsh reality of the past is always wrapped in the cotton wool of time’s comfortable distance.

Moreover, there are simply facts that are not at our disposal at all, because they didn’t seem important enough to record. Those things are lost in the sea of time. We have to make them up if we want to write into the past. We have to use our best guess, based on a belief that human nature doesn’t seem to change as fast as other things, like technology.

No matter how many facts you can accumulate, and no matter how sensitive you try to be to other points of view, and other ways of experiencing the world, if you want to write a story set in the past, you need to be brave, do the best research you can, and then just make some stuff up.

One scholar who is worth reading about how to interpret the past, and especially regarding sexuality, is Michel Foucault. Honestly, any erotic writer who writes stories set in the past and hasn’t read his masterful work The History of Sexuality, needs to get off their butts and read it. Particularly of interest is the part power has played in our understanding of sexuality in a cultural context through the ages. It has changed radically. Get all three volumes. Used. But read them.

On the bright side, the people reading your work are also not in the past. And, so although they too might be fascinated by it, presenting a reality that is too alien to them might very well make your story unreadable.

There are periods I like to think of as fictional pasts. So many romances have been set in the Regency period that there are now two of them: the one that actually took place, and the one that exists in most Regency romances and is familiar to their faithful readers. Most Regency heroines own more dresses than the female members of the monarchy did at the time. Those ball gowns were exorbitant. And no one bothers to mention the menstrual blood staining the floor of Elizabethan dancing galleries.  Readers often have limits to the amount of authenticity they’re willing to tolerate.

Most challenging of all is the writing of social attitudes of the time when then clash wildly with ours. When I wrote a story set during the Cowpore Uprising in India, a number of my readers commented on how racist the character Calum  and other members of his regiment were.  But the reality was that they were, by our standards, very racist. Not consciously, not maliciously but they were acculturated to believe that white Christians were superior to all other races.  And yes, there were extraordinary individuals who rejected that sort of prejudice, but those people were few and far between. I was torn between a need to write the characters in a way I felt would be historically accurate, and knowledge that my readers might not make allowances for the realities of historic racism and find him completely unlikable.  I’ll never know if I made the right decision. I just did my best.

This month, I’ve invited two other authors, both of whom write stories set in the past to discuss their process and their thinking. I felt we probably all went about it in different ways, for different projects and I thought having three people’s take on the task was more informative than having mine alone.

 * * *

My first guest is Aleksandr Voinov, who writes mainly m/m erotica, much of which is historical.  Here he reflects on his novel Skybound, published by Riptide Press.

On Skybound

When I had the idea for Skybound, I was in trouble. I had no idea about any of the things I was going to write about. Telling a WWII story from the German side, too, was a bit of a leap. Even Germans like me are used to seeing and reading about the other side, thanks to Hollywood, and what stories there are on the German side, they tend to be told from the heterosexual viewpoint. But the sources are all there, and even though I specialised in Medieval History at uni and gave Modern History a wide berth, I still had the “historical method” at my disposal. So I did what I loved to do at uni and started digging and accumulating material.

Above all, I wanted to get it “right”. I wanted to do justice to all sides and be as accurate as possible. Some of the people who lived through it are still alive, and their children and grandchildren, too, which I think adds an extra burden to be accurate and respectful.

I started by reading a history of the Luftwaffe (German air force), but that provided just the backdrop. I dug deeper, looking at fighter planes. My characters, a fighter ace and a mechanic (one of the so-called “Black Men”, thanks to his black coveralls) would care deeply about the planes, so I learned about the Messerschmitt Bf 109, how and why it was developed and how it was used. I spent time staring at the cockpit layout in one of the technical books, trying to transpose my mind into it. I dug deeper still and read a biography by a fighter ace; while lacking in grace in terms of prose, it did have the telling details that I needed, and a couple anecdotes that I took for my own use (I attributed the things I didn’t change). I’m blessed that there’s a the Imperial War Museum in London and there I exposed my Muse to the WWII fighter planes suspended from the ceiling there in the great hall–physical manifestations of memory, half warning, half forgotten nightmare. While they don’t have a Messerschmitt, the Focke-Wulf fighter-bomber still helped. I’m a total immersion kind of writer (I guess the equivalent of a method actor), I just gorge myself on impressions and details and generally soaked up the energy, filtering that one and all the WWII air warfare exhibits all through my rational mind as well as my emotions. What kind of man would fly those? And how would he be seen? How would propaganda make him look?

Now, German fighter pilots were heroes–as problematic as that term is–a very special breed, and while their record is distorted by years of easy victories against technically and tactically inferior forces, German fighter pilots had hundreds of kills and were the very top performers of WWII. Most came to grief, were lost, but some survived and entered German civilian aviation after the war. Knowing all this, my decorated fighter ace was easy, but I’m telling the story from the point of view of a mechanic. I couldn’t find any autobiographies of mechanics (nobody really cares about the small people, maybe?), though I did find something about the high regard of pilots for their ground crews in the pilot’s biography. All I had to do was “flip” that inside my head.

Felix is a romantic, a failed pilot (I researched how fighter pilots were trained and hence knew why he wouldn’t qualify), he’s even a bit of a poet. As a child of his time, in what terms would he express himself? What is his voice and what is it influenced by? The obvious choice is Karl May, a prolific German pulp adventure writer of the late 19th century who is still being read by children and adults. His work is overwrought, passionate, romantic, heart-felt, definitely kitschy, but it has a sense of adventure and honour and “for thee, brother, I shall die” homoeroticism that presses lots of buttons. Hitler loved May. Felix would have loved him, too, and I imbued some of his voice with a dash of May–a romantic hyper-reality that clashes with his job and the war situation in 1944/45, but it also clearly an escape from the drudgery and the hopelessness of the late war.

For his actual job, I watched lots of YouTube clips. There’s lots of German propaganda newsreels on there, and I got a few DVDs too that were using German footage of the time. The interesting thing about those was that while it was definitely propaganda and “rah-rah-rah, we’ll smash them!” and “look how awesome we are!” I also saw the actual work being done, which was a lot more useful–no source is just a source, often reading it against the grain opens up treasures a writer can use. I watched ground crews pushing planes into line, refuelling, loading the bombs and machine guns. It was hard physical work, for one, but watching them helped me understand Felix. Then I watched modern footage of air shows to get the sound of the historical engines right for the scene when my airfield is being attacked by the Allies–no plane sounds alike, and my characters would be able to tell the difference. I spent a happy half hour talking to a British plane geek to work out which planes would be attacking and in what strategy and how these would perform against the German planes.

All in all, the story doesn’t have one sentence that’s not deliberate and researched to the best of my ability. Lots of writers might find these weeks and months of research for a mere 13,000-word story excessive. In that time, I could have written a novel quite easily.

But what the research did was allow me to write with authority and confidence about a world I knew nothing about. I feel like I’ve done the actual historical people justice, and I learned a great deal–I ended up completely fascinated, true to what my professor said when I challenged him on a boring assignment. He said, “Drill down deep enough into anything, and it becomes its own amazing little world.” It’s a small little world I learned to move freely in, building my story around and inside that framework. It was a fun challenge, and I can’t wait to go back.

* * *

My second guest author is Justine Elyot, who has recently finished her novel Fallen, which will be published by Black Lace in early 2014.

On Fallen

History is a strange thing. It has happened – it is fact. And yet it’s also highly open to interpretation. It seems paradoxical, but how many times have we opened a newspaper to find that something we had long held to be true has been found to be false? One of the lessons of history is that lots of it is a pack of lies, or at least, a jolly old London pea-souper of misconceptions and misapprehensions.

Writing historical fiction opens up yet another hall of distorting mirrors. What I am really writing about is my perception of that time. It’s been sewn together, piecemeal, through years of absorbing material, both fictional and non-fictional, about that period. I am viewing the past through a lens, and that lens is unlikely to be clear.

A fear of getting it wrong put me off writing anything historical for years until one day I grew tired of all the Victorian-set stories taking up houseroom in my head with no signs of buggering off and decided to do something about it.

Ever since I walked through Madame Tussaud’s ‘Jack the Ripper’ street at the age of ten, I’d wanted to replicate that feeling of being there in the past – without the waxwork corpses, but with the sense of immersion. Historical fiction offered me that opportunity. My favourite books took me to another world where people spoke, dressed, acted, thought differently and made me feel that I was there. This was what I wanted to give the reader in my neo-Victorian erotic novel, Fallen.

In a way, the preparation for it began at Madame Tussaud’s. From there, I went on to read everything I could relating to the 19th century (I remember the librarian raising an eyebrow at my borrowing Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor at the age of 12). I’m still doing it now.

But in Fallen, I am not only writing a historical novel. I’m also writing an erotic romance, so I have to try and be as true as I can to the Victorian erotic sensibility as well. This isn’t always easy – my protagonist writes pornography and it’s of a standard Victorian type, full of flagellomania and characters with names like Lady Whippingham. Much of what I’d read, in The Pearl, or elsewhere, was so far from anything most of my contemporaries would find sexy that I had to tone it down.

It’s a balancing act as much as anything. Be convincing, but be sympathetic to a modern ear. Write in a style appropriate to the period, but don’t go overboard with the multi-clause sentences and lose your audience. I don’t know if I’ve got it right – but if you want to find out, Fallen is published by Black Lace in early 2014.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica

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