Thursday, August 12, 2010

Oh Behave!

I quote Austin Powers. Yes, Austin ‘Danger’ Powers who is known to have said this occasionally when an erotic comment escaped some vixen’s lips on the silver screen. You’re right, absolutely nothing to do with ancient and medieval history or historical fiction. However, those two words not only denote Austin’s curious interest in the lewd but taken together they can also bring about a question:

When writing historical fiction, how much detail should one put into scenes that contain sex and nudity, be it a loving scene, a highly charged moment or in some cases, a scene of sexual violence? Opinion is divided, certainly in my own writers’ group. But really, where does one draw the line in historical fiction before it becomes more of an historical romance or an erotica moment?

I read an article the other day in one of the writing magazines that talked about the dos and don’ts of writing fiction. One of the don’ts included not underestimating one’s readership, not explaining everything in detail but rather leaving things up to the reader’s imagination. Makes sense but I am sometimes surprised, and not in a good way, by some of the things I read in historical novels; things like detailed rape scenes just don’t do it for me. They feel like the only use is for shock value. We know that rapine was a fact of the ancient and medieval worlds but such a heinous act, and the psychological effects upon the victim, can be related to a reader without going into the minute details of the whole thing. People know what it is and for most, the mere implication of such a thing happening is enough to convey the message.

One time, when I was looking for some new historical fiction, I picked up a novel set in the dark ages and began to read the first page. I had read one good review about this particular author so I thought I would check it out. To my horror, the very first scene was of a young woman being impaled upon a stake and it described in gory, perverted detail how here clothes were lifted and the stake inserted into genitalia as a large group of men looked on. I put the book down and will not pick up anything by that author again.

I may sound a bit preachy here but that does an injustice to historical fiction. I am certainly not a prude by any stretch of the imagination but I do feel that with all the suffering in the world authors have a responsibility to convey messages that will encourage humanity to goodness. Yes, evil is present, bad things happen but spare us the details at times.

On the other hand, someone, a reader or writer, with Mr. Powers’ cheeky view on life might enjoy a bit of randy detail in a scene and why not? They did know how to party it up in the ancient world. A bit of skin shown by flute girls at a banquet could be a bit of all right. Or you could add to the intrigue by having pairs of folks coupling in the wings while the Emperor is distracted. Sexy and dangerous. A bit of fun is good, but do we need to go so far as to see up close and personal things going in and out of other things? Probably not, this is historical fiction, not Penthouse Letters.

What about if two characters are deeply in love and you want to portray that to the reader? Remember the ‘show don’t tell’ rule but also remember not to show it all. The true love between characters will be apparent in how they interact, how they treat each other at all times, how they are when they are apart. If your two love birds are in an intimate moment, set the scene and give them a bit of privacy. The reader’s imagination will do the rest.

Basically, there are many ways to look at it, and many genres in which sexuality and violence are expressed in different ways. Historical fiction has recently garnered the respect it deserves and that momentum should be maintained – we are not writing true crime or erotica, we’re writing and reading well-researched and hopefully well-written historical fiction.

To finish off, I would like to relate an incident that occurred in one of my writing classes several years back. This was an evening class at a community centre. Everyone in the class had writing aspirations and many had short stories or first drafts of novels. The class had about ten to thirteen people in it, mostly women (old and young) apart from myself, twenty at the time, and an older English gentleman, a veteran working on a memoir. Once a week, the teacher would ask one of us to read another person’s work out loud and then everyone would provide input. My work of short fantasy had been read out the previous week so I was off the hook, content to sit back and bask in the positive vibes and constructive comments everyone had given me.

That week the teacher had selected several pages from one of the ladies’ romance novels, something set in the Wild West, complete with cowboys, banditos, covered wagons and women with names like Clementine and Annabelle.

“Adam”, the teacher swivelled her chair to face me, all the heads around the table following suite. “Would you like to read for us today?”

“Sure…” The lady sitting directly across from me was the author. As she sat there, apprehensive, wide-eyed, anticipatory, the teacher slid the sample pages to me. The teacher, I should say, did not like to read the samples ahead of time, preferring to rely on first impressions and initial impact. I accepted the pages, cleared my throat. Everyone except the author was staring at the table or ceiling, waiting for the blank canvas of their minds to be filled.

“Where the Sun Sets,” I read the title and pressed on. The setting was fantastic, romantic. The purples, golds and greens of the plains came alive and we were all drawn in. The characters were likeable, heroic, flawed, human. I tried to read well, to do it justice and glanced up occasionally to see the author brimming with pride and everyone else smiling at some far off place and time of happy memory. People gripped the table edges and chairs when the banditos rode in, grimy and destructive as in a Clint Eastwood movie. The hero, a cowboy, a cool dude with feelings, saved Ms. Annabelle from certain shame and a life of hardship when he rode after her and her captors for two days, tracking them like a wolf.

Ms. Annabelle was in danger, no doubt and we weren’t sure if the hero would reach her in time. But he pressed on. Oh yes, this author had her audience hooked. Even I forgot that I was reading in front of an audience. They didn’t care about me or my voice, they cared about the words, their rhythm, the images they conjured so magically. To make a long story short, the hero dispatched all ten banditos with stealth, skill and shear cohones. Ms. Annabelle was weeping but ever so grateful. The pair were taken care of by a doctor at the closest town. The hero insisted on sleeping outside Ms. Annabelle’s door because he wanted to make sure she was safe from any more suffering. Ms. Annabelle, unable to sleep because of the heat, the sweat and the man outside who had saved her, tossed and turned and finally went to the door.

As I read the words it started to feel warm. Something in the back of my mind said, Should I stop now? Why isn’t the teacher stopping me? I’ve read so much already! I could feel my neck getting warm. The Englishman beside me started to cough. Then, different words started to appear: sweaty, longingly, caresses, kisses and even licking. Intimate parts were being explored in the sweaty sheets of this bed on the south-western frontier. The hero stood above Ms. Annabelle who could not take her eyes off him and scanned his beautiful face, shoulders, torso and hips until her eyes fell upon… Oh, shit, do I have to read this? Really? The author stared at me and, my face red as a Roma tomato, I forced myself to finish, to get it over with.

…until her eyes fell upon his…swollen member.

“Ok Adam. That’s enough. Good reading.” The teacher sat back in her chair and I sank as far as I could go into my turtleneck, the Englishman beside going through a full-on coughing fit now. I wondered if anyone would loosen his ascot for him because was so utterly red, choked by embarrassment. “Well,” the teacher continued, “it sure is hot in here!” Everyone allowed themselves an uncomfortable chuckle. “Feedback?”

Some folks pointed out the beautiful descriptions of the landscape. Others highlighted the build-up between the characters, how they eyed each other along the wagon train but always within the bounds of propriety. The teacher nodded. I said nothing. I’d done my part. When the input from students was done, the teacher leaned on the table and smiled, looked at the author.

“This is a great romance novel, fits the genre archetypes very well but had your own unique style. Very good.” The author relaxed visibly but the rest of us knew it was coming. “However, an author should never, EVER, use the phrase swollen member.” Thank god she said it. “Leave that kind of detail to the reader’s imagination.”