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(This is a revised version of an essay I wrote several years ago, updated to discuss how the topic relates to my own writing.)

This is not an essay about ice cream; it’s an essay about stories. But if you want to go get a dish of ice cream first, I can wait. Ready?

I want to start by talking about historic mysteries. I love reading historic mysteries. I’ve been reading them since the era when the pickings were thin indeed. We’d hang on every new release from Ellis Peters even though the mysteries themselves weren't very mysterious. But she seemed to be the only game in town, so that’s what we read. Then, gradually, there seem to be a slow explosion of historic mysteries: medieval mysteries, ancient Roman mysteries, Victorian mysteries.

And gradually I was able to give myself permission to dislike some of them. Ian Morson's Falconer series never hooked me. Paul Harding always struck me as simply not really liking his subject very much. Miriam Grace Monfredo's Glynnis Tryon started out delightfully but eventually became...trying. Alys Clare's Hawkenlye series had me throwing the books across the room in short order for crimes against medieval history. Anne Perry's clever plots and good writing kept me hanging on long past the point when her characters become tedious and repetitive. And Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma, well what can one say? Let's just say that the dearth of good writing set in early medieval Celtic lands makes one willing to put up with a great deal of dreck.


But I permitted myself to dislike these authors because there were so many more excellent ones: Stephanie Barron, P.F. Chisholm, Lindsey Davis, Margaret Frazer, Lauren Haney, Edward Marston, Sharan Newman, Candace Robb, Caroline Roe, Steven Sayler, Kate Sedley, Leonard Tourney. And those are just the highlights.

Some authors felt they had to make excuses for placing a detective (or detective-equivalent) in a historic period. They gave their protagonist an occupation that, by some stretching and distortion, might put them in the way of solving crimes. Others took the Miss Marple path and simply had an interesting character who enjoyed solving puzzles. The intrusion of an essentially modern literary genre into a historic era that it didn't quite fit could be jarring or completely invisible depending on the skill of the writer. And when it comes to that, I don't read medieval mysteries for the pleasure of seeing how a medieval mind would solve puzzles (which, for the most part, the authors didn't try to work out), but rather because the books blend multiple interests in a single experience. I like well-written historic settings, I like well-constructed puzzles, and I enjoy interesting and individual characters. For that, I'm willing to forgive a weakness in one of the three legs of the tripod.

But, above all else, I enjoy reading about characters I can identify with in some way. I like solving puzzles--I do it for a living. I love stories with historic settings (or SF settings) that are realized in loving and exquisite detail and transport me to another world while making me feel at home in it, however alien it may be. I like reading about characters who feel a bit out of sync with their surroundings. All other things being equal, I prefer reading about female main characters to male ones. I like characters with sense and intelligence. And now we get closer to the topic of this essay: I love when I get a chance to combine some of my other interests with a lesbian character.

Alas, while there's a booming market in lesbian novels with contemporary settings, there's a much smaller one for historic novels, historic romances, or SF. Now every time I say something like that, people start bombarding me with lists of all the novels they can think of with lesbian characters in all those categories. Well, novels with gay or lesbian characters anyway. (And in my experience when you ask for GLBT fantasy and science fiction, most of the suggestions involve gay male characters, not lesbians.) And people think that the fact that they can list off half a dozen novels having those characteristics invalidates my complaint. At this point, I feel like I'm standing in the mall surrounded by a Baskin Robbins, a Dreyer's, a Ben & Jerry's, and a Cold Stone Creamery and I've been handed a dish of Neapolitan artificially flavored ice milk and told that I shouldn't complain because I get three whole flavors. Well, I'm complaining.

It’s painful to read the genres that I love and be bombarded by the message that I’m not part of that world. That I don’t belong, don’t exist, or don’t matter. Or that I exist only to Teach A Lesson or to Demonstrate Diversity. I want hundreds of exciting, well-written stores that intersect with my favorite genres (ideally, more than one at a time) and that have a lesbian protagonist or at least a prominent female same-sex relationship, and it's no big deal. You see, part of that whole Neapolitan ice milk thing is that well over half of the novels people suggest to me are, in essence, coming out novels. And while the coming-out genre has its place, I don't want it in every single dish of ice cream. Me, I came out over 30 years ago and it really hasn't been a big deal in my life since then. I don't identify with it. I can identify with the protagonist who's horribly shy, or who feels out of place even in the midst of the out of place, or who spent most of her life without ever finding The One, but I can't really identify with the protagonist who spends an entire book angsting over her sexual preference.

So being a writer, I put my money where my mouth is. When I got serious about writing, I made myself a commitment that I would always write within that subset of exciting, entertaining, engaging stories that are focused on the lives of women who are emotionally and romantically drawn to other women. Or, put another way: I am writing that subset of the possible stories about woman-focused women that fall within the genres of historic fiction and historic fantasy.

That might sound as if I’m limiting myself. Or--given that many of my stories have historic or semi-historic settings--it might sound as if I’ll be distorting history to accomplish my goal. But that isn’t the case at all. I can only write a finite number of stories in my life, and the number of possible stories that could be written within my criteria is orders of magnitude larger. And so what if there are vastly more stories that could be written about women in history with more conventional relationships? How many novels have you read lately whose protagonists were statistically typical?

There are far more plausible historic lesbians than anyone could write in a lifetime, should they be inclined. If I wanted to keep strictly to documentable historic stories, I could spend my life writing nothing but novelizations of the women cited in my survey article “Sex Between Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance”. I actually have a very high standard of factual plausibility for historic fiction, whether as a writer or a reader. But it’s a mistake to think that historic accuracy necessarily means that lesbians don’t exist, don’t have adventures, or can’t have happy and positive lives. And I say this realizing that there are a lot of people who can read a historic fantasy involving lesbians and magic and choke on the lesbians but not the magic.

When I wrote Daughter of Mystery, I wanted to write the sort of story I craved while standing in that metaphoric ice cream store mall: a fun, entertaining, exciting historic-fantasy adventure where the protagonists are two women who fall in love with each other in the process. And where that fact neither dominates nor distorts the story as a whole, it’s just a non-negotiable given from the start. I wanted Georgette Heyer...with lesbians! Alexandre Dumas...with lesbians! King Arthur...with lesbians! The Mabinogi...with lesbians! I want all 31 flavors and every single topping to boot. And I’ll get them if I have to write them all myself.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
rymrytr
Feb. 3rd, 2014 06:39 am (UTC)


I agree on Steven Saylor, and therefore, I'm copying the rest of the names listed with his. I've been reading (actually, "listening") to that type, for 30 years and had given up on finding new, but you have given me hope. :o)

I didn't see you mention Brother Cadfael (Ellis Peters (real name Edith Pargeter)).

I recently picked up her "The Knocker on Death's Door", but find the first two chapters, very slow and without action. I've just looked at her on Wiki and see much more written by her, so I'll be checking on those also.

Going back to SS and his "Gordianus the Finder", I enjoyed those because Gordianus was not always paid well - things didn't always fall into place for him - he seemed to be as if he were in the here-and-now.

Anyway, thanks for the seeds; I hope something grows.

:o)

hrj
Feb. 3rd, 2014 10:30 pm (UTC)
You may have missed my listing of Ellis Peters because she was the start of my discussion (the "basic vanilla", as it were). I don't count her historic mysteries as among the best largely because the mystery/puzzle aspects are fairly thin. (By the time you've read half a dozen, you can predict who the murderer is and who the innocent-party-who-will-be-the-love-interest will be.) The historic aspects are generally quite good but the mystery is weak.
rymrytr
Feb. 3rd, 2014 10:44 pm (UTC)


By the time you've read half a dozen, you can
predict who the murderer is and who the
innocent-party-who-will-be-the-love-interest will be


That is true, now that you cause me to recall them. It's been many years since I listened to Brother C; they were all on Tape, which will tell you how long ago.

I used to drive my Mom and my Aunt C, over to see their sister. This was from Seattle, to the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington and then a hard right-hand turn, into Oregon. :o) Four hours one way, so I burned up a lot of tape back then. Three or four trips every summer, but it is what a family does. They are all gone now, and I miss them ALL!

Now, I'm 69 years old and have gone through most of the Audio CD's in the King County Library system, as well as Overdrive dot com (which is accessed through many library systems), and am down to gleaning Audible dot com and eBay.

:o)
hrj
Feb. 4th, 2014 12:29 am (UTC)
If you like "classic" literature at all (as in, out of copyright) you might try librivox.org. Volunteer readers (of variable quality) and public domain texts, but the recordings are all legitimately free.
green_knight
Feb. 3rd, 2014 07:00 am (UTC)
The people I hate most (to use the icecream analogy) are the ones who insist that in creating new flavours, one needs to stick to the ones using popular ingredients: toffee *and* chocolate pieces, or maybe toffee *and* marshmallows. Whereas I want cucumber icecream, even just to say that I've tried it.

(This analogy, and the 'give me the same old' was used by an agent who promptly fell off my list of 'people I want to work with'. At that point, my example was, I think, parsley, but the cucumber icecream was real; was fantastic, and three years after the fact a friend and I who had tasted it independently were still raving about it. Diversity win.)

Even though it doesn't hurt me personally to not find the whole range of QUILTBAG characters (and ages, disabilities, etc etc) in a novel, narrowing texts to straight cis white middleclass men and women means that my _world_ is erased: my friends and family are told they 'shouldn't be here'. And this policing of who I spend time with is something I object to.

(I won't have time to read DoM for a bit, but it's sitting on my iPhone now. Shiny.)
hrj
Feb. 4th, 2014 12:31 am (UTC)
I can hardly complain, given the size of my "to be read" pile, but I'm told it's a suck-you-in sort of read, so best to wait until you have at least one entire unscheduled day.
green_knight
Feb. 4th, 2014 06:20 am (UTC)
May is not an option.
aryanhwy
Feb. 3rd, 2014 07:04 am (UTC)
I count myself very lucky to have discovered the SCA in high school. I grew up in a relatively conservative setting, and it made a world of difference to my potential homophobia that I was firm friends with Rand before I discovered he was...*gasp*...gay. So my first encounter was close and personal, and I knew I had the option of keeping my friend or not, and opted for the former.

Now that I have my own kid, I'm realizing the need to raise her in a way with benefits I perhaps did not have, and one of the biggest ones is in a setting where natural ways that people can be are simple that -- natural, ordinary, expected. Reading DoM was pretty influential to me, actually, in realizing that I need to have books like this available for Gwen while she's growing up. So, if you write them, I'll buy them. And probably a few others that I read announcements of on the Bella books blog that looked like grand fun!
klwilliams
Feb. 4th, 2014 06:39 pm (UTC)
This is a good plan and I applaud you. And I haven't read your novel yet, though I lent it to Morgan and she devoured it happily in a day. She's going to get my copy signed and buy her own at your party. Then I get to read it.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )