Historical Fiction Factions

I have spent a lot of time (and essay space) thinking about our responsibility to history: what parts we should keep, what parts we should not repeat, what parts we should unerase. This is far from uncommon — plenty of novelists get their material from real-life historical fact.

But where many authors of historical fiction — your Philippa Gregories and your Hilaries Mantel — stick as close as possible to the facts while still crafting an engaging narrative, historical romance often does something else. The facts become a jumping-off point. There’s a little sidestep that happens between the research and the writing: you find an interesting person or tidbit in an archive or a letter, and you imagine it being the foundation of a story, and then you set it up and change the names and let it all play out until you arrive at the HEA.

Historical fiction is making a claim of authority: this is what this person/place/event was like (probably, or possibly, or insofar as we know). Historical romance is making a claim of imagination: what if you were a person like so and so, in such and such a time and place? HF aims to make the past come to life as itself; HR wants to connect the past with the present in a way that amplifies resonances and promises a satisfying amount of resolution.

This means that sometimes it seems like historical romance creates a world where its most central subjects almost kind of … don’t exist?

Much of the time we readers don’t think about it in these terms, especially in cases when the inspiration is obscure or small-scale. A poignant ad in the back of a newspaper becomes a full-fledged epic love story in the hands of a talented author. Just because something is domestic or personal doesn’t mean it is unimportant; you could fill an entire career by exploring the seams and niches of history, and find plenty of things worth exploring.

But sometimes you want to write about characters doing something big. Something history does remember. Like translating a groundbreaking astronomy text. Or taking down a Confederate spy ring. Or going to the moon.

Because reading about characters doing big, world-changing things is fun — especially when you add sexual and romantic fulfillment to the mix. (However you might define fulfillment; a Pride Month shout-out to all the ace and aro folks in Romancelandia!) Different authors play this game to different degrees; sometimes a writer will split the difference by throwing in a wink to the hero or heroine’s inspiration: Heroine was one of the greatest swordswomen in France, second only to Julie d’Aubigny. I always find these moments a little awkward, as though the author has pulled back the curtain to whisper into my ear when I just want to watch these made-up people make out. I’m happy to look up the real history later.

The thing about queer history specifically is that we don’t have nearly as much of it as we should. Diaries and letters were burned, libraries full of research were destroyed, and these gaps were used as arguments against queer people’s value and worth. To write happy queer people back into history already involves resisting and revising the accepted historical narrative. We have to allow ourselves to imagine things we cannot and will never definitively prove.

And sometimes we want to write about queer people doing big, world-changing things while finding love and happiness.

I refuse to allow happy queer people to only appear in historical romance so long as they’re keeping themselves quietly at home.

When I was plotting Lady’s Guide, I knew my queer lady astronomer would occupy roughly the same space as Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville (Lucy pretty much splits the difference, chronologically and scientifically). I looked forward to making references to scientific men like Joseph Banks, Pierre Laplace, and Humphry Davy. But the more I thought about it, the less happy I was with erasing the two women scientists and leaving all the men in place. That was pretty much the opposite of what I was going for.

So I destroyed the entire Royal Society, too. Also William Herschel, J. M. W. Turner, and Charles Babbage while I was at it. (My Ada Lovelace analogue hasn’t appeared on the page … yet.)

I kept the order of scientific discoveries in place, but the characters and the relationships are inventions. Because the truth is, no matter how closely we hew to known facts, we’ll never be able to perfectly capture the reality of even the most well-documented historical eras. The map is not the territory.

Perfection is unattainable — so what else can you shoot for?

Ultimately, the modern reader is my priority. I am not writing for people in the 19th century; I am writing for people in the present moment, who have a lot on their minds and who are looking for a way through. Sometimes we have to practice imagining a better world than the one we’ve inherited. Sometimes we need somewhere safe to practice hope, before we try something world-changing in our own lives.

Fulfillment we can give you. Happy queer people, making choices that matter to them, even if those choices are sometimes constrained. Happiness, in spite of anything. In spite of everything.

A short bibliography for The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics:

Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Mechanism of the Heavens by Mary Somerville

Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd