Sunday, December 1, 2013

Making the Past Come Alive

I'm reviving some of Other Me's ERWA posts, beginning with this one.

            Looking for new ideas? History is filled with opportunity for the creative erotica writer - courtesans, court intrigue, forbidden loves - you name it, you can find an example of almost any kind of erotic situation you can imagine in the past.  Writing historical erotica can also offer a fun way to improve your writing. You can work with integrating historical details into your story and have fun playing with dialogue. If you are good at it, the historical settings and details may even give you an edge in getting your work published by giving it a unique voice.

            Using historical settings and/or people effectively in your fiction means doing some research. While historical settings for erotica generally do not need to be as detailed as a PBS miniseries, you’ve still got to know enough about the time period you’re writing about to make it work for your reader. Otherwise glaring anachronisms will take your reader out of the story and probably lead them to avoid your work in the future.

Depending on which time period you want to write about, the Internet and the library are usually the best places to start. Some historical periods are considerably easier to research than others because much more has been written about them. In addition, you can often get primary resources (works written during the time period) as well as secondary resources (works written after the fact) for time periods which are popular with historians and writers. Examples of the latter include medieval Europe, Regency England, the American Revolution and Civil War, the Roman Empire and Victorian England. You can find primary sources for most of these eras as well as numerous books analyzing and compiling the events of the time.

To get going on your research, start out with a good basic history book or two or several websites (see resources below). Take notes as you read; if it’s your book, flag worthwhile passages with post it notes. Or copy and paste notes onto your computer if you’re doing the online research method. At this stage, you want the big picture: events, important figures, geography. It’s a really good idea to read a couple of resources to get different takes on events as well as to make sure that the authors got their basic facts right.

After you’ve got a handle on the big picture, it’s time to drill down to greater detail. Now you want an idea of what people wore and where they lived. Being able to use historically accurate expressions and slang, for instance, also helps make the setting real for your reader. Writing your best guess on how your characters might have spoken can misfire badly however and is best avoided. You can achieve the same effect by using historical slang or making references to the character’s accent or dialect as experienced by your viewpoint character.

For the purposes of writing erotic fiction, it’s very helpful to know something of the sexual mores of the time you want to write about. Researching sexual activities and attitudes toward sex can be done via fiction of the time period as well as through reading nonfiction. Again, it will be much easier (relatively) to find erotica literature from some time frames than others. There was a great flowering of erotic writing during the Victorian era, for example, some of which has been reprinted. Sex manuals, books that were banned when they were first published and letters from controversial figures can all provide information about how some people thought about sex and how they did it. Just bear in mind that this kind of literature was often only available to subcultures and/or the well to do and write your story accordingly.

Secondary sources are easier to obtain, of course. They may lack the immediacy of the primary sources but they can help with the analysis of the available material and give you a broad general idea of what was going on. In addition, you can comb through the authors’ bibliographies to find primary sources that are worth investigating.

Finding good historical resources on sexuality at your public library can be a little tricky, needless to say. Much of what you can find there is likely to be coded rather than explicit sexual writing but this may be enough for what you need. On the other hand, the library is always a good starting place, especially for the aforementioned history and reference books.  But if you require more explicit information, the Internet is generally the way to go. Here are some good resource websites -

Writers Write resources - -another good page of reference links

Victorian Research Web - - links, articles and information on the Victorian era.

Romancing the Past - a writer's blog from Carina Press

The Romance Authors Research Index 

          Resources used by historical romance writers are terrific for erotica writers too. Romance readers expect a reasonable amount of accurate historic detail in the novels they read so historical romance writers spend a fair amount of time doing research. Many of these authors are kind enough to share. Some useful romance resources include: Romance and Historical Fiction page at Good resource list.

            Once you’ve got some good information about the time period you want to write about, you still need to integrate that detail into your story. How much detail is too much? It’s pretty subjective but in general you don’t want so much detail that it overtakes the story. Erotica readers are looking for a different experience than traditional historical romance readers, after all. You don’t want to disappoint them.

            With that in mind, try to avoid “info dumping”: whole paragraphs of information that do nothing to move the story along or to set the scene. Every bit of research that you did to prepare for writing this story should not actually appear in it (unless you did very little). You want your details to be relatively seamless to the reader. If your story is set in a castle in France during the Middle Ages for instance, it’s pretty safe to assume that your reader has some idea of what a castle looks like. You don’t need to describe each flagstone and rush on the floor to convey the setting.

On the other hand, if you’re writing historical erotica, you also don’t want the details of the setting and time period to be so minimal that your  characters could be your next door neighbors having a fun night. Try to establish the erotic elements of your story in some aspect of the time period that makes it special. Is the basis of the story the powerplay between a concubine and her master who’s really a bottom? You can convey some of what a relationship like that would have required two hundred years ago: the sexual tensions, the need to conceal their love. Possibilities abound.

            There are a number of good examples of historical erotica out there for your reading pleasure. Most recently, The Mammoth Book of Historical Erotica edited by Maxim Jakubowski (Carroll and Graf) and Wicked: Sexy Tales of Legendary Lovers by Mitzi Szereto (Cleis Press) are two collections which offer contemporary writers’ takes on historical erotica. In addition, there are numerous novels by individual authors such as the Celia novels by M.S. Valentine (Blue Moon) and Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Books) that explore sexual relationships in the past.

            Publishers such as Renaissance E-books and even the University of Hawaii Press have reprinted various works of historical erotica. These include The Pearl, a noted Victorian era erotic magazine as well as several novels from the same time period, and The Carnal Prayer Mat by Li Yu, a classic work of Chinese erotica. Take a look around and read some of what’s out there; it should really spice up the historical research too.

Here are some additional resources:

Bald-headed Hermit and the Artichoke: An Erotic Thesaurus by A. D. Peterkin (Arsenal Pulp, 1999) - contemporary and historical erotic words and phrases.

The Literary Companion to Sex collected by Fiona Pitt-Kethley (Random house, 1992) - a compilation of literary writing on sex both past and present.

Sexuality and erotica collections and bibliographies: - bibliography on the history of western sexuality. - the Kinsey Institute Library.

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