Birds do it, bees do it, and our ancestors most definitely did it, but should sex be included in the pages of historical novels?  Today at Peeking Between the Pages I discuss the expansion of sexual content from historical romance into straight historical fiction and my views on this trend.

Meanwhile, the latest review of The Sister Queens is in!  The Broke and the Bookish says:

an excellent slice of an extremely interesting period of time. We get the politics and social aspects of not one but two countries (always a bonus!) as well as in the latter part of the book, Louis’ crusade to theHoly Land. I felt very connected to them and their personalities were extremely opposite and varied. I enjoyed watching the sisters grow from young teenagers to mature mothers, queens, and friends. Recommended to all historical fiction lovers!

 

In honor of the arrival of 2012 I am taking a look back at my very first year of blogging—2011.  Here are the five blog posts—some written for “From the Write Angle” others for my personal blog—that I consider my best work.

The top of my list HAS to be “Voice, It’s Not Just for Manuscripts Anymore” discussing how essential it is for writers to infuse their query letters (the letters they use to try to attract a literary agent) with their unique voice.

I would posit that snagging an agent with a good query is NOT merely about what you say but is equally about HOW you say it. For those of you who have seen “The King’s Speech” (and if you haven’t, forget reading my post and get yourself that DVD) think of the moment at Westminster Abbey when Geoffrey Rush (playing speech therapist Lionel Logue) asks Colin Firth’s George VI of England, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?’ The King’s answer. . . “Because I have a voice.” If you want agents to listen to you, to pay attention to the punchy mini-synopsis of your oh-so-clever plot that you spent a gazillion drafts perfecting, then you’d better let the voice that imbues your manuscript sing out from your query letter as well. 

Number two is “Give me A Little Kiss — Sex and the Historical Novelist,” in which I discuss and defend the place of sex in straight historical novels (not just historical romances).

The inclusion of sex in historical novels is neither good nor bad in a vacuum.  It’s not the sexual content that determines whether a particular scene works—it’s whether that scene (sex or otherwise) has a REASON for being in the novel.  Tossing in an orgy (or even a kiss) into your work of historical fiction without a solid reason is a bad idea.  The scene will feel “added on,” and gratuitous sex is no more acceptable in a novel than gratuitous dialogue.

At number three I have selected my reflection on the very act of blogging itself and how it can become a digital distraction from the author’s most important task—writing books:

Blogging takes an enormous amount of time compared to most on-line community participation. A tweet is a quip; a facebook post can be a couple of sentences or a useful link. A blog requires topic selection, thoughtful analysis and a couple of hundred solid words in support of your argument.

So if blogging is such a huge time-suck, why do we do it?

 Blog number four tackles the question of why our sisters (or more broadly our siblings) are NOT very much like us.

I’ve certainly had moments when I’ve thought how can my sister and I have had such a different experience of the same childhood or how could we have played the same games (together), walked to the same school (together) and heard the same family stories and yet turned out so very differently? If you have a sibling chances are you’ve had such thoughts as well.  At the heart of my questions lay the idea that nurture shapes people, and since my sister and I were raised in the same environment that should have made us similar.

Turns out that’s just dead wrong when it comes to siblings.  Being raised in the same environment helps to make us different.

And finally, sitting at number five, is the first blog I ever wrote—“Not THAT Sophie.”  This one is all about the marketing lessons I learned from a teething toy.  Half-a-year after I wrote it, as I struggle to build my author brand, I still marvel at the power of Sophie the Giraffe.  And yes, she STILL comes up before I do in an Amazon search and she continues to top the ranks of baby items.

Coming behind a rubber toy in a “suggested search” list is a humbling experience. But when I looked more closely at Sophie G, I realized I could learn a thing or two. Sophie is NUMBER ONE in the Amazon “Baby” bestseller rankings (we will not discuss how far from number one I am on any list presently). She gets an average of 4.5 stars from reviewers. And she is able to command some serious cash for a figure only 7” tall. In fact, a single giraffe teether costs $7.00 more than a copy of my novel. Wow (hint to readers, buy the book – I don’t care if you chew on it).

Sophie G is obviously doing something right. Here’s what I think. . .

 Happy New Year all!!!

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There is nothing new about sex.  Birds do it, bees do it, and our ancestors most certainly did it (to butcher Cole Porter’s lyrics inexcusably).

What IS relatively new is the amount of sex appearing in “straight” historical fiction (I use this term to distinguish historical fiction from historical romance, not to imply that only heterosexual hanky-panky is included).  If memory serves, the historical novels of my youth did a lot of fading-to-black.  But somewhere between my decision to become a writer and my first book deal a shift occurred.  Today there are plenty of sex scenes in straight historicals—some of them quite explicit.  And sex seems to be a popular addition.  For example, a video recorded at this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference during a popular event called “Late-Night Sex Scene Readings” (the reading of a scene from Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet) has received over 6,000 hits on youtube since June.

Opinions on this trend vary.  Here is mine: the inclusion of sex in historical novels is neither good nor bad in a vacuum.  It’s not the sexual content that determines whether a particular scene works—it’s whether that scene (sex or otherwise) has a REASON for being in the novel.  Tossing in an orgy (or even a kiss) into your work of historical fiction without a solid reason is a bad idea.  The scene will feel “added on,” and gratuitous sex is no more acceptable in a novel than gratuitous dialogue.

So what can intimate scenes sometimes do well?

Forward the plot.  Yep, just like any other sort of action a sex scene can move a novel’s plot forward.  For example, one of my manuscripts includes the seduction of a royal courier for the purpose of getting a letter into his satchel.  This letter is an important step on the path to the book’s central climax.  So the sex scene (in a stable and pretty exciting in its own right, I might add) is vital to the forward motion of the novel.

Flesh out (sorry, I just HAD to) relationships between characters and/or give us emotional insights into characters.  Sex, as we know from real life (or at least some of us know – no pressure on or disrespect to celibates reading this), is seldom merely a physical act.  It has emotional ramifications, and can be a language all its own.  So, a sex scene in a novel (whether vague or graphic) can be effectively used to give readers a sense of how characters relate to each other.  For example, in my debut novel, The Sister Queens, readers learn a tremendous amount about one of my female characters and her relationships with two separate men simply by the contrast between her sexual experiences with each.

Help set the story firmly in its historical period.  Sexual politics, mores, and practices change over time.  For example, in certain periods, a man’s dominion over his wife’s body was complete – there was no such thing as rape between a man and his wife.  Likewise, for hundreds of years sex (seduction, withholding of, etc) was one of the few tools available to a woman seeking power or influence.  While today we would surely condemn a man for taking his wife by force and likely censure a woman for using sex to get ahead, seeing either such event a depicted in a historical novel reminds readers of the realities of the past and of our characters’ lives.

Beyond raising large issues of this sort, the inclusion of period details pertaining to sex—the acceptable positions for intercourse, its prohibition on certain days, the forms of birth control that were or were not available—can help build the “historical world” of the novel just as the inclusion of other period details can.  In my novel frequent reference is made to payment of the “marriage debt,” and one of my female protagonists feels wronged when her husband spurns intercourse with her.  As a matter of history she was entitled to feel gypped because, under the doctrine of the medieval Church, a married man was obliged, under penalty of mortal sin, to give his wife sex as a preventative measure against temptation to sins like fornication and adultery.

Give the reader a thrill.  Yep, this one is legitimate too.  But wait, Sophie, you are thinking, “you wrote five paragraphs ago that gratuitous sex is not acceptable.”  Since when, dear writer, is giving the reader a bit of fun gratuitous?  Meeting the needs of the reader is our business.  We meet needs for escape.  We meet emotional needs.  We help readers wrestle with difficult questions in their lives.  For heaven’s sake why should meeting readers’ needs for a bit of titillation be off the table?  And why should meeting that need be solely the province of historical romance?  Plenty of contemporary novels—from thrillers to literary fiction—include sex.  I believe that writers working anywhere along the historical genre continuum should feel free to include intimate moments as well.

What do you think?  Would you prefer to see explicit sex kept for historical romances alone?  Can the inclusion of sex in a straight historical novels can be a positive addition?