Writing history, aka getting it wrong

There’s a famous quote by L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Every time I try to write in a historic period, even a very recent one, I take that to heart. I also get it wrong, no matter how careful I am.

The longer ago the setting, the harder it is to make it reasonably accurate, although there is more license. No-one alive remembers what the weather was like in the English midlands  on January 8th, 1818. Mess up Halloween in Las Vegas in 1968 and someone might call you on it.

It doesn’t actually matter, because it’s fiction. It’s a made-up story.

Still. I’d like to think my made-up story could actually happen the way I wrote it. I feel particularly responsible because I’m writing a history, that of queer people, that’s largely invisible.

That invisibility can make it easy to pretend that we showed up out of the blue about fifty years ago, rather than always having been here. So I chase tiny clues out of the historical record, and try not to be tempted to buy very expensive books that are mostly conjecture, because they are also based on a paucity of evidence, no matter how diligent the researcher.

In the end, I do my best. I try to recreate how people thought two hundred, or even forty, years ago, and write a story that is true to that understanding.

What I try not to do, is pull my punches. I may get details wrong. I may even get broad attitudes wrong, although I try very hard not to. What I never, ever want to do, is gloss over historic realities. I can give my Regency-era gentlemen an HFN, or try for an HEA, but I can’t let my readers not realize that our heroes could be hung by the neck until dead for the “crime” of physically expressing their love for one another. Because if I even approach veracity, if this is a story that could have really happened, our heroes never forgot that, not for one moment. My mid-twentieth century guys knew that a less than accepting family and an unfriendly judge could keep lifetime companions away from each other in sickness and death.

I need to remind my readers, and myself, that the past, that foreign country, interesting as it might be, was not always a gentle or friendly place. That it could, at various times, be dangerous for women, for queer people, or for those of color. Or sometimes, for everybody.


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