Back in April, Jeff moderated a panel at Interlude Press’s Tiny Book Festival. In this episode, we’re presenting that discussion, which focused on historical novels from many time periods. The panel features Alysia Constantine, Suzey Ingold, Carrie Pack, Amy Stilgenbauer and Laura Stone. The group not only discusses the books they’ve written but also what they did to research the time period and accurately represent it, why they’re inspired to write historicals and they’ve got book recommendations too.
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Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.
- Troubled Waters by HJ Welch on Amazon
- Turn Back the Clock Panel Discussion
- Interlude Press website
- Alysia Constantine: webiste
- Suzey Ingold: website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
- Carrie Pack: website | Facebook | Twitter
- Amy Stilgenbauer: website | Facebook | Twitter
- Laura Stone: website | Twitter
- Sweet by Alysia Constantine on Amazon
- Olympia Knife by Alysia Constantine on Amazon
- Short Stuff anthology by various authors on Amazon
- Luckmonkey by Alysia Constantine on Amazon (pre-order until March 9, 2021)
- Speakeasy by Suzey Ingold on Amazon
- Summer Love anthology by various authors on Amazon
- Designs on You by Carrie Pack on Amazon
- In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack on Amazon
- Past Imperfect by Carrie Pack on Amazon
- Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack on Amazon
- Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer on Amazon
- The Legend of League Park by Amy Stilgenbauer on Amazon
- The Bones of You by Laura Stone on Amazon
- Bitter Springs by Laura Stone on Amazon
- Herculine Barbin by Michel Foucault on Amazon
- Emily Dickinson on Amazon
- Tales of the City on Netflix
- Zami by Audre Lorde on Amazon
- The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde on Amazon
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie on Amazon
- The Riot Grrrl Collection edited by Lisa Darms on Amazon
- Laura Ingalls Wilder on Amazon
- No Other World by Rahul Mehta on Amazon
- The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig on Amazon
- The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilg on Amazon
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson on Amazon
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy on Amazon
- The Long Season by Michael Vance Gurley on Amazon
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Patreon.com
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast patrons on BGFP website
- Libro.fm website (use this link to receive your Big Gay Fiction Podcast special offer)
- Frolic Podcast Network website
Panel Discussion Transcript
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Thanks, everybody, for being here today. I want to introduce this amazing panel that we’ve got here. We’re gonna start off with Alysia Constantine. Alysia is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning author, whose novels blur the line between reality and fantasy, feature luscious prose, and explore complex themes with otherness. Her novels “Sweet” and “Olympia Knife” received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Foreword Reviews respectively. She’s also the editor of the 2020 young adult anthology “Short Stuff” from Duet Books. She lives in the lower Hudson Valley with her wife, two dogs, and a cat, and is a former professor at a New York arts college. Her novel “Luckmonkey” will be published by Interlude in January 2021. Welcome.
Alysia: Thank you. That’s all true. So, “Olympia Knife” takes place at the turn of the century and it follows the members of a traveling circus…at the turn of the last century, and it follows the members of a traveling circus around the south, of the U.S., and one by one, all the members are disappearing through sort of magic realist means, and the only two left at the end are these two women that are just sort of clinging to each other. It’s real happy. And then “Luckmonkey,” the one I’m working on right now, is the story of a bunch of queer and straight young adults, young 20-somethings, who are squatting in Pittsburgh where they take one thing from one house and then they leave it in the next house, take one thing from that house, leave it in the next house, and how that all sort of falls apart and how they deal with being together, but trying to be together while they’re trying to manage their politics. The end.
Jeff: The end. All right. Next up we’ve got Suzey Ingold. Suzey is a writer, linguist, and coffee addict currently based in Toronto, brought up in a household where children’s books are quoted over the dinner table, which I have to say I just love that idea. Literature has always been a strong influence on her life. She enjoys traveling, scented candles, and brunch. And she has published the novel “Speakeasy” with Interlude Press and a short story, “The Willow Weeps for Us,” which is in the “Summer Love” LGBTQ collection anthology from Duet. Welcome, Suzey. Tell us a little bit about the book that you have that are historical.
Suzey: Hi. Yeah. So, “Speakeasy” is set in New York in the summer of 1927, which is the height of the Prohibition era. And it follows Heath, who is a recent Yale graduate, who’s returned to the city for the summer. He’s taken by a friend to a Speakeasy, but it is not your usual underground bar, but it’s a space where men are free to explore their sexuality. And there he meets Art who is the owner of the Speakeasy. Heath is really struggling with the high expectations of his parents at that time in his life and Art is struggling with the threat of exposure for his club and the people in it. But the two find sanctuary and comfort in one another.
Jeff: Then we have Carrie Pack. Carrie is an author of books in multiple genres, including “Designs on You,” “In the Present Tense,” and “Past Imperfect,” and “Grrrls on the Side.” She is a recipient of a Foreword Reviews Indie book of the year bronze award for “In the Present Tense” and has been named a finalist for an Indie’s award and a bisexual book award for “Grrrls on the Side.” She lives in Florida or, as she likes to call it, “America’s Wang.” Welcome, Carrie.
Carrie: So, “Grrrls on the Side” takes place in 1994, which, if you’re an adult, doesn’t sound very historical, but since it’s a young adult title, that is historical to a teenager. And it takes place during the Riot grrrl movement, which, again, if you’re an adult, you’re probably familiar with that. And it’s just an early third wave feminist movement that was largely pioneered by teenagers and college-age young women. And it was centered around zine culture and punk music. And all of those things kind of appear in the novel, especially the zines. If you get the print edition or the PDF from Interlude, it has, like, actual zines in it, which is really cool. And it really is kind of a love story. I kind of allowed myself to reimagine if I had known I was bisexual long before I ever realized it, what my high school experience might have been like. I took a few liberties with that. I think my main character, Tabitha, is a lot cooler than me. But, yeah. So, I kind of rewrote history a little bit with that one.
Jeff: Amy Stilgenbauer. Amy is a writer and an archivist currently based in Southeast Michigan. She is the author of “Sideshow” from Interlude Press and the young adult novel, “The Legend of League Park.” Her short story, “The Fire-Eater’s Daughter,” was included in “Summer of Love,” an LGBTQ collection from Duet. When not working, she stays busy gardening, playing trivia, and keeping her cats away from her knitting. Welcome, Amy.
Amy: All of that. “Sideshow” is set in the 1950s. It follows the story of a young first generation Italian-American woman who runs away from a set of circumstances and joins a traveling carnival. And it follows her through her journey of self-discovery in the 1950s and her quest to find a found family of her own.
Jeff: And then we’ve got Laura Stone. Laura is an author, ghostwriter, and master gardener. She published her first novel, “The Bones of You,” with Interlude Press in 2014. Two more novels followed both with Interlude. She’s currently working on her next book, “A Twist on the Gothic” novel set in the East Texas swamp. She continues to live in Texas because it’s where the good tamales are.
Laura: This is a true statement. So, I’m here today to talk about my second novel with Interlude, “Bitter Springs,” which is set in the 1870s in Texas. And it started out as a queer and person of color reboot of “Pride and Prejudice” actually, and with the dynamic of all of the siblings and the parents and needing everyone to get out. And then it ended up becoming kind of a love letter to honest cowboy culture and Texas because I clearly am very happy to live where I live. But I wanted to write something that was authentic about what… What we have always believed to be cowboy culture is completely wrong because almost certainly a cowboy in the old Wild West was a person of color and most likely gay or bi or trans. And I wanted something that would honestly reflect what the reality was.
Jeff: I’m excited now that we’ve heard a little bit about all these books to really dive in here because everybody, I think, we heard from is writing in a different time period as well. So, the first question I kind of wanna jump in with is, what inspired you to write about a historical period?
Laura: I actually was in a conversation with my dad. Now, my family is… I have, honest to God, cowboys and ranchers and that sort of thing in my family. And listening to the machismo of these guys talking about, you know, it’s like the white guy with a big 10-gallon hat sweeping the schoolmarm off on their feet, and I had to say that’s actually not true, and then I showed them some cowboy poetry. Because when you’re out in the range, you’ve got plenty of time to think and compose, and they did. And I read a passage of a poem to my dad and I looked at him and I said, “You know he’s writing that to another cowboy. That’s not a woman that he’s writing to.” And they all just kind of stopped like a needle on the record and went, “Is that what that means?” So, I went, “I have got to set a book in this time period and explore this because I can’t believe that that’s not understood.” So, that was my MO.
Alysia: Very much like Laura, I was… With “Olympia Knife,” I was moved to write because the history is so unfamiliar to most people, of queer people and particularly non-white queer people, but queer in the margins of culture, especially. And so I decided to delve into writing a historical novel. I didn’t really think of it as historical, although, obviously it is. But I wanted to excavate history that usually gets paved over in service of other things. And having been a professor, I saw that a lot with students who didn’t…you know, thought of the 1970s when I was a kid as way back, and anything before that just didn’t even exist. And I think, you know, when you grow up as a straight white cis person in the U.S., you have history, you have access to a history that is everywhere. And when you grow up not that, for whatever reason, you don’t have access to the same kind of history, and particularly for queer people, because we tend not to live in families or communities of queer people until we’re older. We grow up. We’re often the only queer person in our family, sometimes the only queer person in our neighborhood. I certainly, in the ’70s, was the only queer I knew at all until I got, you know, well past college, actually. So, having a history, having an understanding that there are other people out there that have come before you, done other things before you, that they have stories that are valuable too was immensely important to me.
Carrie: I kind of already talked about with mine why I chose to delve into “Grrrls on the Side,” but another part of it was that the Riot grrrl movement was particularly important for a lot of bisexual and lesbian women. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always kind to trans folk or people of color. I tried to… I didn’t wanna tackle that because it’s not my lane, but I did want to kind of touch on that a little bit because there were a lot of women who were first exposed to intersectionality through Riot grrrl. And so that was a really important moment for me to include because, prior to the internet, there just wasn’t a lot of information out there unless you were kind of aware enough to go seek it out yourself. And zines and riot girl meetups and punk music that were female bands was a way for a lot of young girls to really understand that. The band Heavens to Betsy had a single called “White Girl,” I believe, that just literally was a few seconds long, but really talked about, you know, white privilege. And we’re talking…that was in 1994 when my book is set. So, it was just becoming kind of a thing for young women and, of course, anyone who was a teenager or a young adult in 1994 is an adult now, they’re middle-aged adult. And that’s where our background in queer culture comes from because there were a lot of lesbians and a lot of bisexuals in the Riot grrrl movement.
Suzey: I think, for me, there is something incredibly encompassing about writing in general, but as soon as you are pulled into something like a historical time period, almost in the same way as though you were writing fantasy, is you’re really immersed into a world, and there’s something incredibly enjoyable about that from an author’s perspective, I think also from a readers perspective when they come into it. And that has always been very…had a very big draw for me as a writer, and then being able to approach it and think about the stories that haven’t been told and trying to delve into that opens up a whole new avenue of things to just completely throw yourself into, and that’s a really enjoyable task to take on, I think.
Amy: To kind of add on to what everybody else has been saying, one of my main motives when I write history, I like to think about how people have always been people. And so we think about kind of, like, the ’50s, which “Sideshow” is set in, is this buttoned-up, conservative decade. And so we have this very specific idea of what the ’50s looked like. And I like to take a little bit of a hammer and crack at that and be like, “What’s underneath the surface with people doing their people things?”
Jeff: Of course, with possibly the exception of Carrie because she’s writing in a time frame that she lived in, everybody else is writing about a time frame they did not live in. And I’m curious from a research standpoint here how you deal with getting information about what LGBTQ life was like. We all have an idea, the further back you go in time, the worse it gets. But certainly, there are also pockets that we can see from history where they may do and lived as best they could in the time that they lived in. How do you do that research? Where do you go to find this material that may not be easily accessible on Google?
Laura: I struggled. I’ll be frank. I really, really struggled to find. And there were very specific things that I, still to this day, have not been able to get a clear answer on. And I reached out to Howard University, and I’m trying to think, another HBCU, trying to get some accurate information about… Because one of my main characters is a black man in 1870, and I wanted to know what the day-to-day life for a free black man in 1870, like, just simple things like grooming. How often would he shave? That kind of thing. And there is no written record of it. There is tons of written records about how black men were barbers, but nothing about how they would care for themselves. So, there were all of these random little details that ultimately maybe weren’t important to the story, but I wanted to know so I could immerse myself, as Suzey said, it’s a very immersive experience, that I couldn’t get the information on. Then I had the absolute luck of connecting with somebody at the Gene Autry Cowboy Museum. And they have digitized their entire library. So, I was… And it’s in California. So, I was able to, at 3:00 in the morning, look up, you know, a very specific type of, you know, saddle or read letters that cowboys had written to each other and super-duper not straight, and it’s awesome, and it’s all catalogued, and it’s all online, and that made me so happy. So, I spent about eight months just poring over their archives and a few other places’ archives, old newspapers. I mean, I had to go back. I mean, this is gonna date me. I had to use, like, microfiche.
Alysia: That’s her.
Laura: Right? Right?
Jeff: I love that.
Laura: I mean, that’s some old school business right there. So, thank you, Gene Autry Museum, for digitizing it so I didn’t have to go to the card catalog and pull out all that stuff. But it’s fascinating how some things just…people just didn’t think to record. And now, you know, 100… Oh, my gosh. Almost 150 years later. 1870 was 150 years ago. Wow. We don’t have certain little, like, slice of life for certain people because people didn’t consider it important enough to record. So, I find that really interesting. So, that’s the long answer to the short one, which is, thank God for archivists. Amy, bless you.
Carrie: You know what’s funny, Laura, is I have a work in progress I’ve never quite finished, but it takes place in 1895. And I was actually talking to a friend today about the very thing you were just saying, which is, there’s just not a lot in historical archives from a black perspective. Because we were talking about the cakewalk, which originated during slavery and continued on into the early part of the 20th century as far as I know. And it was something that happened in the location that I was covering because we have photos of it. But that, you know, from a white perspective, “Oh, they were really happy and it was an honor to win,” but it’s a very much a minstrel kind of stereotype. Right? And so I was like, “I wish there was more from…” Because it may have been that because it was expected that, yes, it would have been an honor maybe, or was it they were all kind of going, “This is some racist bullcrap,” which wasn’t, but we have so little evidence of that, but there’s gotta be some out there. I just haven’t delved deep enough because it’s still a work in progress. And also, maybe I don’t wanna get into that for mine. But, yeah, I totally hear what you’re saying because I was literally talking to someone about this thing.
Laura: And I highly recommend, if there are any people of color that are watching or watching the replay, there are archivists everywhere that are desperate to get these anecdotal stories. I listened to recordings from a museum in North Carolina that had… And these were, like, recordings from 1930, so it’s scratchy and poppy and, you know, horrible, but you can actually hear the voice of people who lived through slavery and reformation and talked about their day-to-day life. And I mean, what a godsend to have that record. So, please, capture…save those journals, save those letters, save those pictures because, particularly in queer communities, those were destroyed for safety. So, anything that can be done to reclaim that space, I just think, is absolutely crucial.
Jeff: I was gonna ask Amy for her archivist kind of point of view. And does this kind of research get easier for you because you are an archivist for one? And then what kind of steps do you go through to find the materials?
Amy: Well, in the profession, we do refer to that as an archival silence, like a gap of important information about something that we have identified that, like, we don’t have this information. But in many ways, I do have some of the, like, tips and tricks. I can get kind of a little bit more in because I’ve been trained, I guess. But, I mean, those gaps, they really are still there. And honestly, the only way that I’ve really learned to deal with it is you’ve got to get into the real nitty-gritty stuff, like Laura was saying, with the old newspapers. And what I’m working on right now, I’ve got this, like, giant handbook of New York City businesses.
Jeff: That was giant. That’s like a brick you’ve got there.
Amy: Yeah. And you just gotta, like, sift through. It’s a sifting. The sifting is the big skill that you’ve gotta develop and learn to synthesize all the material because it’s not written there for you.
Alysia: I got trained as an academic, so I had access to research materials that a lot of people in the public sadly do not, which is stupid and ridiculous. But I looked at a lot, a lot of photographs of… For “Olympian Knife” I looked at a lot, a lot of photographs of early 20th century circuses and costumes from there and things like that. Sometimes it wasn’t the actual performers, but, like, just the archived costume, you know, like they’ve taken a picture of it 20 years later or something or 50 years later and archive that. So, there was a lot of backtracking that one had to do from, like, a lot of assumptions you had to make from looking at a photograph or reading a diary entry.
And, of course, with our history as queer people, that often goes completely not only unwritten but erased. Not only do people not put it down in the first place, but if anyone does put it down, it gets, you know, wiped over, which is why something like the memoirs of Herculine Barbin, which was edited by Foucault, like, he dug it up and edited it. And Herculine Barbin was this, like, young trans kid, like, at the turn of the century. I mean, it’s amazing. That’s just now starting to be, you know, reopened and made accessible to people. So, sometimes you have to go the route of just, like, circuitously. You have to come at it from the side and make assumptions and read into things that were unspoken. Luckily for a lot of us queer people, especially those of us that, you know, grew up early in the ’70s and ’80s, we’re used to reading innuendo. That’s what gaydar is. Right? It’s just we all looked for, like, the subtle cues that everybody gave each other or the little things, like, “Oh, I live alone. I’m not married. I have a roommate.” We learned all those cues to understand the language, and that was even a bigger deal before I came out as a young person. So, there has long been the sort of semaphore, this queer semaphore that we’ve learned to read. And anyone can read it, obviously, but not everyone has been tuned into it. And I feel like that’s what you have to do as a researcher who’s trying to write anything historical about queer folks, you have to learn to read semaphore.
Suzey: I think also to that point, there’s an element of subjectivity that you have to be careful of when you’re reading sources because a lot of what exists is written by the white straight mass population. So, there may be details in there, but how much can you trust them? How much has been altered? And trying to sift through that information to figure out what is trustworthy and what sounds a little off and what can you trust when you weren’t in the time period yourself, and you don’t know for sure, and just trying to trust your instincts and trust what feels true and what feels authentic to the time.
Jeff: How do you make that choice, or is it just something that you just take a gut-level reaction on and hope for the best, essentially?
Suzey: I mean, personally, I would say, yeah, it’s a little bit gut level and, to some extent, also going with the information based on what you are trying to create and what you’re trying to write, and how would it apply in a way that is authentic to the characters that you’re writing as well because you are still writing characters, you’re not writing an exact figure from history. So, what is authentic and true to your characters while still keeping the authenticity of the time.
Carrie: Well, I think, too, like, an important thing to remember is queer people have always existed. So, the universality of that hasn’t changed much. It just kind of had to do with how visible you could be or what ways you had to code or to hide. But the coding, surprisingly, hasn’t changed a whole lot, like, at least in my experience. The way that people would talk about their roommate or their best friend or, you know, people would talk about, “Oh, I think there’s a documentary coming out on Netflix about a lesbian couple that kind of kept everything in the dark.” And one of the things that I’ve noticed in that trailer is somebody says, “Oh, that was just aunt so-and-so and aunt so-and-so.” Like, we just knew that they were best friends. That has been a trend. The book that I was researching takes place in 1895. And that was a time socially where men and women were segregated from each other. And because of that, a lot of queer people were able to set up relationships. And this is probably true of what Laura wrote as well, it’d be very easy because culturally that was acceptable and expected. So, it would have been harder, actually, to be queer after that when it became more intermingled, but during that time period, you know, they were just best friends that happened to live together.
Laura: Boston wives.
Alysia: Oh, sorry, Laura.
Laura: I was saying Boston wives. I mean…
Alysia: I was just thinking of that. Yeah. Boston marriages. It also depends on what you mean by harder because it’s real hard to find each other. I mean, I discovered that, like, once I left college, it was real hard to find other queer people unless you were a drinker and you went to bars. If you lived in a time where there weren’t queer bars, which is most of our history, where do you go to find other queers? Where do they congregate? Sometimes down by the river, and that’s the only option you have, and that’s generally not, like, my scene, anyway. I’m a nerdy, little knitting, cat-loving lesbian. I’m not gonna go down by the river to find my friends. So, it really does depend. I think that in some ways and for some of us it has always been extremely difficult and it’s actually gotten easier. Now we can be online talking openly about being queer. We do get bombed a little bit, but, like, you know, that’s easier to ignore than a bottle to the head.
Alysia: Arrest where they take your… They check to make sure you’re wearing three pieces of the gender-appropriate clothing, which happened within my lifetime, maybe not yours, but, like, my lifetime, like, in the ’70s. Yeah. Some of us older crotchety people.
Carrie: Yeah. Well, I think what I meant by easier, too, was just it would have been easier to cover it up as a normal social circumstance, certainly, not easier to be gay. I know during the late 1800s, gay men, in particular, had a lot of coded things that they would do, such as wearing like a green carnation or they would talk openly about Walt Whitman or Oscar Wilde as ways of kind of hinting. And those in the know would know, but, again, how do you find that out if you weren’t already exposed to it? So, a lot of it was difficult because it would be you’d test out the waters and hope you didn’t get, you know, killed for it, for coming on to another person of the same gender or so. Yeah.
Laura: Can I throw something in here? Because I think it’s really important, especially for anyone who is a young person who doesn’t know much about the LGBTQ history. Something that is really important to know is that there was a straight washing that happened in the 1900s, where morality was slapped on that because, to be quite frank, people were too busy in the 1800s, and pardon my French, to really give a shit about what people did behind closed doors. And there is an incredibly beloved and very famous Zuni…I say woman because that is what we say in contemporary terms. But in a lot of native and first nation communities, there’s multiple terms that are used, like a two-spirit, five-spirit. There’s lots of different terms.
But in our modern vernacular, we would say that they were trans-female. And that was We’wha. And We’wha was a six-foot-tall warrior who dressed in traditional Zuni female garb and was absolutely the belle of the ball in Congress. Senators, congressmen, they invited We’wha to every party, to every event, and she, for lack of a better…those were terms that she used, showed up just as she was, just as she wanted to be, sometimes coded male, sometimes coded female, and nobody batted an eye at it. No one cared because it was an interesting person who had interesting things to say and nobody cared. And it was very, very common for male couples, female couples, all kinds of mixes, it just happened. You just were quiet about it because straight people were also not talking about what they got onto behind closed doors. It just wasn’t done. And so as long as you paid your bills on time, you didn’t let your crop go fallow, nobody cared. And then at the turn of the century, we kind of slapped this morality on it and endangered, truly endangered people’s lives. Now, that’s not to say that it was, you know, cake and roses up until 1920 or something, not in any way, shape or form, but it wasn’t this, you know, gay bar raids and putting people to death and the horrific crimes that happened in the 1900s, in particular. So, I really wanted to honor the fact that there were people who lived their lives and lived their truth, particularly in the 1800s, particularly in North America, and people just kind of didn’t care, and it’s weird that people do.
Carrie: It was really the big movement after World War II to reinstate traditional gender roles, which erased a lot of queer culture too at the latter half of the 20th century because there’s a great article that’s still online in GQ that was talking to a bunch of military servicemen and women after “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed a few years ago. And it is a great article because they talked to World War II veterans that talked about, like, everybody knew they were gay men on the boat, we just didn’t… What? They were doing their thing. Nobody cared. And that was the 1940s. So, again, the way that…after World War II when they wanted to remove women from the workplace and go back to traditional gender roles, they did a lot for both, you know, for gender issues and for queer issues to just kind of delete all of that and make it shameful, unfortunately.
Jeff: When we look at history and you’re writing these historic novels, where do you feel your responsibility is, first of all, to insert your characters into history correctly, you know, especially if they might be interacting with historical figures in some cases? And how much responsibility do you have to get the history right within a fictional setting?
Laura: It was crucial to me. Absolutely crucial. I wanted to be… That’s just kind of the former researcher brain. I want to be as accurate as possible because I don’t wanna hear it from somebody going, “actually…” I don’t want that at all. So, for me, it was crucial. And I set out with a mission statement of, you know, “We’re queer. We’re here. We’ve been here.” So, for me, that would be my short answer.
Alysia: I keep thinking of the Emily Dickinson “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” And I think there’s a difference between sort of nitty-gritty fact and the truth. In the absence of nitty-gritty facts, it was always more important to me to get to truth. What was it like to live this way? If I had to invent because there was an absence of actual fact available to me, so be it. I try to do it as accurately as possible, but sometimes to get at what it was like or what the reality was, I had to invent a little bit, which is why I put “Olympia Knife” as a queer fabulous novel and not necessa… Well, it’s one of the reasons. And not necessarily as, like, a historical fiction because it doesn’t adhere to the same kind of standard that, Laura, you were just talking about.
Carrie: I think, for me, because I was dealing with the 1990s, so, the majority of the people are still kicking around, that I felt a responsibility, especially because I was writing a young adult title, right? So, I’m targeting a teen audience. So, the people that are reading my book don’t know as much about that era. So, there’s that. But also, you know, with any historical I feel like you wanna remember that you’re writing for contemporary audience, right? So, there’s a balance between telling the story historically accurate and not doing harm to modern people and not… I don’t wanna write about gay-bashing and I don’t wanna write about, you know, violence against queer people. Even, though, yes, historically did that happen? Yes. But for me, that’s not what I wanna talk about in my book. And also changing slang and terminology. Like, if something is now considered offensive, using it in a historical book just because it’s historically accurate is kind of… I don’t know. I think it’s kind of irresponsible sometimes. Unless there’s a really strong reason to use it, I just don’t see the point. It’s so easy to kind of just take that out, especially if you’re dealing with something that maybe people aren’t even really aware of, that terminology.
Jeff: It’s an interesting question on slang, too, because not only might you wanna remove some for the offensive quality, as you just mentioned, Carrie, but also you gotta make sure people will know what it is when you put it in the first place, because there could be words that have just fallen out of use. I mean, do any of you have experience with having to, like, “I could make my character say that, but nobody will get it”?
Laura: I don’t ever want to hear old boy. What is it? Green Light. Daisy. Gatsby. I don’t ever, ever, ever need to hear Leonardo DiCaprio call somebody old boy because it was grating and accurate, but I don’t need to hear it. Wore me out.
Suzey: I mean, definitely, to that note, like, the ’20s was full of slang. Absolutely, chockablock with it. And it was very fun to get into, and I did have to hold myself back because there are some real beauties in the language that would not be understood anymore. There are things that just are so far from our norm now that just wouldn’t make any sense. But I definitely want to get some of that in there, and I use as much as I could in a way where, from the context, it should be clear what they were talking about. And if it wasn’t, I did also put a glossary at the back just in case anyone was really struggling. I had a whole list, including some that I think I didn’t use in the actual text in the end, but just because they were too beautiful to not have in there somewhere.
Amy: I ended up with a lot. I was using a lot of slang as well because the ’50s slang is very iconic. But one of the things that I found particularly important was making sure that the slang usage was true to your character because your slang dictionaries, you’re gonna have, like, stuff that a beat poet would say, mixed in with a high schooler. And so you kind of gotta make sure they’re using the right personality in the right subculture.
Alysia: We have the internet now, and so anything anyone doesn’t know as long, as it’s recognizable that it’s a piece of slang and not natural language, they can look up.
Jeff: Yeah. And it’s not a bad thing to make people go look something up and learn a little something.
Alysia: When I was a child we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to the library, go to the card catalog, boop, boop, boop. Now you do is doo, doo, doo on your phone.
Carrie: Yeah. I didn’t have to look anything up. I feel like a lot of ’90s slang is still in use, and the stuff that isn’t, I think, there’s enough pop culture evidence. And, man, kids today they watch a lot of ’80s and ’90s movies and stuff. They’re probably, you know, more up on that than I am at this point.
Jeff: Along the same lines of getting history right in the books in general and the responsibility to it, do you ever think that you’re also maybe helping to encapsulate history for people who may not wanna go read an academic text for something? I came up with this question because I was thinking a little bit back to the recent “Tales of the City” reboot on Netflix, where they had an entire episode that went back to look at the Compton riots, which was something somehow that was left out of my queer history at some point. I’m like, “Wow. I just learned a whole bunch in the middle of this entertainment.” Do you approach from that kind of same angle? Laura is just like, “Mm-hmm.”
Laura: Pretty much. Yeah. Well, as I said, I was so frustrated by the lack of just general knowledge about certain things that it was crucial to me just in writing the book to have that just for my own, you know, satisfaction of adding a drop to the bucket. So, for me, I would say yeah.
Alysia: It can act as kind of a teaser too. It doesn’t have to be an either-or, where either they’ll read history or they won’t. Sometimes, to discover something you have to know what you’re looking for, you have to know what you’re looking at. And so if you pique somebody’s interest enough that, “Oh, hey, I didn’t know there were lesbians at the time,” maybe they’ll go read a book or look it up online or whatever the kids today do.
Carrie: Yeah. I found that to be true. I have… Well, at least anecdotally, I have one reader that I met at a con and she’s, you know, a young teenager and really got into, you know, that Riot grrrl feminist movement and kind of went into reading more about it and that sort of thing. And they’re… I mean, there’s no bigger compliment than that, than when someone is inspired by your writing to kind of dig deeper into queer history.
Suzey: Yeah. It’s definitely nice to be thought of as a jumping off point for someone wanting to learn more about something. I’m not gonna sit here and say that I’m a historian, would be able to say completely accurately that everything in here is, “Yeah, this is the ’20s. There you go. You’re done. You don’t need anything else.” But to be a jumping off point would be fantastic or even just have people think about the ’20s in a way that isn’t just Gatsby because Gatsby is fantastic and I love Fitzgerald, but Gatsby is not a real-life representation of anything, really.
Jeff: Yeah. One of my most unexpected historicals that I ever loved was a historical about two pro-hockey players who fell in love in the ’20s. And I was like, “This is amazing. And how did you research that?” It was an amazing book because it was a…
Laura: Who did they ask for those stories? I wanna know.
Jeff: Right? And it was a fun look at the ’20s which, as you noted, is often just Gatsby, but it was very different. And at the time, you know, the NHL was brand new. And I think it’s interesting to take that point of view in literature, to have a meshing together of things that, in that case, I like to read. Do each of you read historicals when you’re not writing them too?
Amy: Oh, yeah.
Jeff: Any particular, like, eras of history that you like, that maybe you didn’t just write about too?
Laura: I mean, I’m always gonna want Jane Austen. I’m always gonna want Regency.
Carrie: I was just saying I love all of it. I love retellings. I love anytime someone fictionalizes a historical figure, you know. I would love to see more of that, especially historical figures that we, you know, look at and go, “I’m pretty sure they were queer,” that we could get more about that, you know, because I think they deserve to have their histories romanticized. And I don’t know. But, yeah, anytime that we’re dealing with… If there’s a historical, an actual historical figure and a historical fiction, even if it’s a secondary character, I’m like, “Sign me up. I wanna read about it.”
Jeff: I love that.
Alysia: I love reading Salman Rushdie or some Audre Lorde. Both of them have written, like, contemporary historical or whatever you would call it, like, within our lifetime, certainly, but not current and maybe not within everyone’s lifetime. Audre Lorde wrote this really beautiful memoir called “Zami,” which is about her growing up as the daughter of Caribbean immigrants. And she also wrote a really beautiful collection of essays called “The Cancer Journals,” which is really about sort of the ’80s, like, a lot of the stuff that was going on in the ’80s. And then Salman Rushdie, I love “Midnight’s Children” despite everything. I just adore that book. And those are what might fall into the category of contemporary historical. They’re certainly not of the present moment.
Jeff: We haven’t really touched on this yet, when you’re writing the contemporary historical, so, like in the ’50s and in the ’80s and ’90s, it certainly, I think, makes the research easier, but then you’re also working in history that more of your audience is gonna know, even in the YA instance because so many adults read YA. You could easily have a huge audience who was alive in that era reading it.
Carrie: So, I had a funny thing that I had to look up because while I knew they existed in the ’90s, I didn’t know exactly when wings got added to maxi pads. And so I had to look that up because I was, like, “Someone’s gonna call me out if I get this wrong,” and they didn’t exist in 1994. But I knew that they did because I knew that I had used them, but I was like, “Okay. I have to look this up.” It was in the ’80s, by the way, but it was one of those things that was like, “This is an area where I’m gonna take the task over something so silly.” But that kind of stuff, to me, is what makes or breaks historical fiction, right? If you can get the details right, people are gonna absolutely eat up what you’re writing because anyone who’s a history buff on whatever era you’re writing or who lived through the era that you’re writing is immediately going to pick up on all those little things, right? Especially, like with me, I was dealing with a high school experience. And so people are gonna be like, “I know that song didn’t come out until 1996 because that’s the year I graduated high school and they played it at my graduation and it was brand new.” So, I spent a lot of time getting dates right and getting little details like that right, because while I remember it from my perspective, making sure that I’m remembering it correctly and it’s not a Mandela effect is really important.
Alysia: When I was working on “Luckmonkey,” which is the one I have coming out in January, and it takes place in the early 2000s, what I found was… So, I was done with college by then. I was a young adult living in Pittsburgh and working. And I set this in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, so I go, “This is gonna be so easy.” And, oh, my God. First of all, there’s a lot I forgot and a lot that sort of runs together. But also I was writing about people that didn’t have my experience, and so I still had to research a lot of stuff and look back and try to see exactly what was the experience. For instance, one of my characters is genderqueer, is trans, non-binary. And I had to look up, like, how people refer to themselves, where they got their hormones if they were microdosing hormones, where there are facilities for people to get medical care or to stay or, you know, what the scene was like, because that history didn’t involve me at the time. So, even if it’s, like, within your lifetime, if it’s not within your personal experience, and sometimes with Swiss cheese brains, even if it is within your personal experience, it kinda doesn’t matter.
Carrie: It was very lucky for me. Right before I started working on “Grrrls on the Side,” a book called “The Riot Grrrl Collection” was released, and I was actually looking on my shelf and see if I could find it really quickly, of a whole bunch of different zines from the ’90s. And that was a really great reference for me because while I had some experience with zines, it was, like, two of my guy friends who had, like, weird, potty humor zines. Like it was just, you know, little, like, comic books they would draw and that kind of stuff. So, my experience was pretty limited because I really lived kind of, like, a very privileged, sheltered teenage existence. So, for me, I didn’t have a big exposure to that. Even though I was aware of the culture, I didn’t have direct experience with it. So, like Alysia was saying, it wasn’t my lived experience, even though I lived through that time period. So, yeah, for sure.
Jeff: Would you write historical again given all of the research and everything that goes into it? Would you do it again? And why would you take that leap?
Suzey: Absolutely. I love writing… So, like I said, it’s so immersive. I love the research process of starting a new project and sort of just diving into a whole new world of things to start off with. It can be hard, but I think writing anything can be hard. There’s no difference to that whatever you wanna challenge yourself with. So, absolutely, I am and I will continue to do it, I think.
Amy: Agreed. Agreed. Historical fiction is my heart, my soul. It’s what I read when I was younger. It’s what I read now. I love it. I’ll keep doing it.
Laura: I’m currently working on a manuscript that flips back. It’s not a true historical because it’s not set in history. It flashes back to history, but some of the principles about research and so forth are the same. So, it’s just… I’m gonna echo Amy and Suzey. It’s fun to immerse yourself in these worlds and to pick up all these little details. And it’s a lot of fun.
Carrie: Yeah. I mean, I would definitely do it again. And I like it so much that I was working on a time travel novel that only takes place over, I think, like a 20-year time period. But yeah, I mean, I had to look into the past for that even a little bit. And I had to do a lot of math, which I don’t really enjoy, trying to figure out how old someone… Like, if someone is this age in 2020, how old were they… Yeah. I hate that. I hate that.
Carrie: But it’s funny because, you know, when I wrote it, “In the Present Tense” and “Past Imperfect” take place in 2020. And it was in the future when I wrote it. So, now, you know, most of that book takes place in the past now. So, here we are.
Alysia: I would probably do it again, but not consciously. I didn’t consciously set out to write historical novels for either “Olympia Knife” or “Luckmonkey.” That just happened to be when the stories seemed to need to take place. I didn’t think like, “Oh, we need a story that takes place at the turn of the century about lesbians.” So, I would do it again by accident. Sure.
Candy: Well, we have a question from Dolorianne. “How do you determine how historical your book will get, meaning, history as a backdrop and influence but okay to take some liberties or staying strict to the time period?”
Laura: I’m strict. I’m no fun. I wanna be strict. I don’t want to get deemed. I don’t want people emailing me.
Carrie: I think it depends. Like for me, like I said, culturally, I don’t…there are things I don’t necessarily wanna touch on, even though that might have been historically accurate, right? So, for the most part, I’m gonna agree with Laura, like, strict. I’m gonna make sure I get it right, but I might leave out some details that maybe aren’t important, really, or relevant to a contemporary audience.
Suzey: Yeah. I think I would… So, I start with almost like a background wash of everything I need to build the world. And the strict details that I get are to do with how relevant it is to have those details in there, how much they work with the story you’re telling and just making sure that you’re maintaining a good balance between accuracy but without overloading it, too, because you can have way too much research and not always a way to fit absolutely everything in, anyway, it wouldn’t all fit.
Alysia: I found it to be a can of worms where, when I was reading the “Olympian Knife,” I thought I knew… It had been the early 20th century, late 19th had been my area in academia and I thought I knew things. I thought I had done the research I needed to know. And then as I wrote, I was like, “Do they have tight ropes then? When did they start shooting people out of cannons?” I had to figure out all this stuff that was tiny, tiny, tiny, and not integral to the story in a big way, like, in terms of turning the plot, but it was in there and I wanted it to be right. So, total can of worms. And some of it was information I could get. When you can get the information, you do it. When you can’t, you gotta work with what you can get your hands on.
Amy: Sounds like we’re all history nerds.
Alysia: Yeah, you’re right.
Candy: So, the next question is, “Would you, as your current self, be able to live in the time period you’re writing about? What would be the hardest or fun thing to get used to living with or living without?”
Suzey: I mean…
Carrie: More than anything, yes.
Alysia: I lived through my time period. The hardest part was puberty.
Suzey: I would say, personally, I mean, I’m such a romantic about the past two. I would love to live in the ’20s. I pictured myself there many a time while writing “Speakeasy.” And I think the hardest thing would be… I mean, if I was going in with the knowledge of the world I have at this moment in my life, I think I would severely struggle to be a woman in that time and go back 100 years. And Prohibition could be quite difficult, quite dangerous at the time, actually, if you weren’t careful about it, but I would go in a heartbeat.
Amy: If I could live with my characters, like, in their carnival world that they have created with their family, then, yeah, I probably could handle it. But just as a regular person like Abby at the beginning of the novel, no. No, definitely not.
Alysia: Being isolated by COVID and not having things like toilet paper and fresh food and having to, like, rely on getting my garden planted as fast as I can so that we can actually have cucumbers and squash and things, I’m gonna say I could not live at the time of “Olympia Knife.” I did live during Luckmonkey’s time, so, fine, but, like, “Olympia Knife” so dang hard. I mean, just real hard. Hmm-mm.
Laura: Well, I grew up romanticizing a best friendship with Laura Ingalls Wilder and knew in my heart of hearts that if I was dropped back into the Big Woods that we would be the best of friends. And growing up the way that I did, I could absolutely cut it in 1870. However, I would really miss modern medicine. Vaccines are cool. And I would really, really miss like modern cuisine because sometimes you want a flaming hot Cheetos and they did not have flaming hot Cheetos. So, I could do it, but there would be things that I would miss.
Jeff: Most of you read historicals. Do you wanna give a historical book recommendation to those folks in the audience?
Laura: I was gonna say “Olympia Knife.” I bought extra copies and give it to everybody.
Alysia: There’s a great book that’s set in the ’80s and ’90s, which, again, within my lifetime, but for many people historical, called “No Other World” by Rahul Mehta. And I would recommend that one. And plus, it’s a contemporary writer who’s underread. It’s about immigrants from India to the U.S. and a family and how they sort of struggled to adjust to U.S. culture from Indian culture. I recommend that one.
Carrie: Yeah. I would recommend any of the books of the authors on this panel. However, I would also recommend… And it’s kind of… Okay. This is a stretch if it’s historical or not because it’s fantasy. But Heidi Heilig’s “The Girl from Everywhere” because it was so…it felt so historical to me, but it also had those fantasy elements, and I love some historical fantasy. So, yeah. And it just was really good. And the sequel is “The Ship Beyond Time.” It’s right behind me on the…
Amy: A recent read of mine that was a historical kind of fantasy that I really liked was Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life.” So, that would probably be my recommendation. She lives her life over and over again. So, good stuff.
Laura: “Groundhog Day.”
Amy: Oh, no.
Suzey: I’ve actually been deep in classic, so I guess it depends whether you count classics now as historical or whether they’re contemporary for the time or how you fit those in. But I have been deep in a hole of catching up on classics that I’ve never had time to read. So, yeah. I’ve been greatly enjoying “Anna Karenina” right now. About halfway through. We’re getting there. So, I feel like I’m reading historical even if the genres are a little blurred around there.
Jeff: Yeah. I didn’t actually give the title to the hockey one that I mentioned, but that was “The Long Season” by Michael Vance Gurley, if you want some 19…
Suzey: I see Laura write it down.
Jeff: …1920s, two guys falling in love on their hockey team. So, yeah. Good book.