The Past is a Foreign Country

by | June 12, 2013 | General | 12 comments

“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.

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Wonderful post! Every time we decide to write a story set in the historical past, we're faced with a million decisions. I think Justine has captured the dilemma nicely. Do we write what we believe to be the truth? Or what readers will find comfortable?

  2. Jill Hughey

    Great post! First of all, I think historical fiction with a heavy slant to romance or erotica probably requires a softer touch than straight historical fiction. Most readers of historical romance (including me) want the history to be "true" and believable, yet palatable. I will omit concepts (like menstrual blood on ballroom floors, ickkk!!!!) that don't serve the story, but I will not make crap up that has no basis in reality. That is my strategy, anyway.

    As fiction writers we are lucky enough to be able to tip-toe through the past and avoid some of the quagmires that will bog a story down while still taking a journey through really interesting places.

    Thanks for sharing your view!

  3. Shelley Munro

    What an excellent post! It's difficult to strike the right balance where both the historian/writer and the reader are happy. All we can do is remember that our books are entertainment and do our best to showcase our stories.

  4. Margaret Tanner

    Great blog, I really enjoyed reading it. I write historical romance, and we do have to walk a tightrope of what actually happened in those days and what people can stomach in these modern times. I have to say, nothing annoys me more, than to find blatant historical errors in books, that really turns me off the book and the author.



  5. Kathy Otten

    Loved this post. I write historical romance and will often spend hours trying to find one detail. Skybound sounds like a book I would enjoy. All that detail will be fascinating. My dad was German too, and always hated the Hollywood myth that all German's are evil. In historicals the setting is as important as the characters and if there aren't enough layers it won't be believable.

  6. Donna

    So fascinating to read about Alexandr and Justine's research processes–and both sound like wonderful novels. Also I totally agree that History of Sexuality is a must read. Not a beach read, mind you, but for me it was not only interesting as history/sociology, but as a writer dealing with sexuality and the ways culture shapes our imagination, which we think of as "private."

  7. A.M. Westerling

    Excellent post! I also write historical romance and yes, it's always tricky to know how to shape the characters so they're sympathetic to the modern reader yet true to the times. Hopefully readers can accept it's our interpretation of the past. 🙂

  8. Jean Roberta

    Great, multi-author post. Both Skybound and Fallen sound like intriguing stories. One challenge of researching historical fiction that all of you have hinted at is that sometimes, looking into the past really does involve a foreign country. (I live in a part of Canada that wasn't occupied by white folks until the late 19th century, and the nomadic First Nations people who stayed here left no trace except their descendants.) In this case, travel helps.

  9. Vijaya Schartz, author

    Great post! I tend to make my medieval fantasy romance as true as I can, but some readers criticized the amount of violence. In Seducing Sigefroi, the hero cuts off a horse thief's hand in the first chapter. While his action was compassionate (he gave the thief several choices), some readers couldn't stand such a ruthless hero. Other readers lauded the accuracy of my depiction of the times. You can never please everyone, but we certainly try.

  10. Patricia Green

    Sometimes it comes down to the bottom line: making each reader a fan. I think doing that truly depends on what audience you're trying to reach. In the case of Regency romances, the audience is primarily women who were not history majors. Making the characters sympathetic necessarily becomes more important than the minute, accurate details. It's a shame we can't take our research and enthusiasm into every book we write, but unless you're writing for history majors, you have to think about where your accuracy is going to take you.

    By the way, another great book on sex in history is Sex in History, by Reay Tannahill. It's comprehensive, easy to read and assimilate, and interesting for its social history perspective.

  11. mjs

    Firstly, I concur on the book "Sex in History" by Tannahill. Excellent.

    I can appreciate what both authors are expressing regarding capturing the essence or the sense of the essence of the place/time.

    I have been working on this in a slightly different format in the last few months working on my erotica novel that is almost done (final edit happening now). I have taken the King James Bible's version of Genesis written in that Elizabethan/Jacobean style and added text in that same poetic, terse and chaste style to fill in the erotic gaps in the book.

    So I am thinking about a mythologized place that is also a real place where there is lots of emotion embedded into the space. So trying to both meet my artistic vision and have it line up with the history and balance out with really trying to capture that highly stylized way of writing has been exciting.

  12. Victoria Chatham

    A thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking post. One thing that always comes to me when I am either reading or writing a historical tale, is what would the smell of the time be like? We know personal bathing was almost non-existent, we know chamber pots were emptied out of second floor windows and the wealthy fled London in the summer months because of the stench. Nothing lovely or romantic about any of that. A passing reference to it is the most that the majority of modern readers want to know about, so finding that balance between what was real and what is now palatable is crucial for a good story. The books on sexuality may well get added to my library and Skybound and Fallen will be in my TBR list.

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