Monday, June 18, 2018

Virtual Vs Real Life

The topic of virtual vs. real life in historical mysteries is fun. Let’s start with the question often asked: do I change the facts of history? There are many answers, some of which are:

1.      Adding fictional characters is changing history;
2.      No matter how I may try to “think” 13th century, I was still born in the mid-20th  and cannot successfully escape this fact entirely;
3.      When it comes to human nature, there is nothing new under the sun;
4.      The survival of primary sources is accidental.     

That may suggest I play fast and loose with history. I do not. Why write historical fiction if the emphasis is on fiction? This is where I get to my definition of real vs. virtual reality.  

I don’t want to change dates and events because they must have an impact on my characters to give a sense of the era. That is the real life in my books. That I write about fictional characters is part of the virtual reality of the stories.

As for the way my characters behave or think, Answer # 3 is significant. This is not the 21th century speaking. Ecclesiastes, my favorite grump, said the same thing almost 3000 years ago. And so I let people do things many might think modern because there were medieval people who did or thought some surprising things. What I won’t ignore is that they will express themselves and rationalize their actions within the logic of their time just as people always have and always will. Neither we nor they invented hate, compassion, willful ignorance, analytical curiosity, acceptance of diversity or rejection of same. Each era may mix elements like these differently, but they are all to be found anywhere in human history. To me, this is as real as the date William the Bastard conquered England. How I portray it in books with my characters is the virtual part.

Documentation from older eras often lacks variety of opinion which leads reasonable people to say that it is proof certain attitudes could not have existed. In reply, I offer this observation. As a child I was told that “everyone did that (or thought that way) then”, when referring to the opinions like: African-Americans were inferior; it was reasonable to send Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during WW II; a woman must marry because she was incapable of protecting or adequately providing for herself. Even if many did have these points of view, we still live in a time when there is ample proof that many did not. But wars happen, natural catastrophes occur, evidence crumbles into dust. (See Answer #4) In some future time, many will again say: “there is no proof that people thought that way then.” Which viewpoint survives as predominant is up to chance.

So with care and a respectful bow to the preponderance of documentation, I choose to have my fictional characters exhibiting age-old human behavior. This may be virtual reality, but it has elements of the real as well. In showing the variance of opinion and experience in any era, we learn that history has more dimension and relevance to our problems today. It also gives less comfort to those who want justification for bigotry.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Writing Gay Characters

A gay character is, in western fiction, inevitably the “other”, the minority, and often the “outcast”.

Including this kind of character in mysteries is good because “the other” sees what the mainstream does not. Even in general fiction, “the other” provides insights and perspective that majority culture characters cannot because they are trained to see what they are expected to see. It requires “the other” to see the discrepancies.

Creating the gay character requires understanding the dominant culture in any era because the majority always defines society’s rules, expectations and practices.

As the outcast or minority, the gay character must learn to hide within those rules and practices to both survive and flourish. When they do not, they are viewed as criminals, either morally or legally. When they do, they become invisible or at least deceptively “untainted”.

When my character, Brother Thomas, told me he was a gay man in the 13th century, I knew I had a lot of research to do if I was not going to make him into the usual limp-wristed modern stereotype. In some respects, I had it easy.

Medieval England was a male-dominant, warrior culture. As such, male bonding was a useful practice, as the ancient Spartans (just one example) found out in battle. Medieval men hugged, kissed, and wept with abandon. They had rituals where unrelated men formed bonds of brotherhood. All this allowed men to show affection, emotion, and build long-term, committed relationships. In battle, a man fought harder with his “brother” by his side, and, if the pair was well-liked and good warriors, any sexual relationship was simply ignored. As has always been true, we see what we want to see in the way we find it most useful to see.

The danger was that these practical habits could lead to homosexual sex. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th century prior, dealt with this by allowing open affection amongst his monks with clear rules. One example was that elderly monks, impotent though they might be, could not sleep in the same bed. But until the 14th century, when sodomy became equated with heresy, the Church often viewed same gender sex as a forgivable sin. The greater sin was being the “passive” male because he was behaving like a woman and in opposition to his god-given gender. The lesser male sinner was the “active” partner. Same logic, and Ruth Karras has written some excellent books on the subject.

With this environment in mind, I have developed Brother Thomas as a man who can fit within his culture as long as he hides within common and acceptable practices. He suffers due to the tragedy of his past, but, as he grows, he learns how to survive positively and eventually I think he may well find some solace.