Hi everyone! Welcome back!
This month we are celebrating LGBTQ themes in YA lit. I’d like to welcome Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves, to YaReads today. She has a fabulous guest post on how to write LGBT Historical YA. I hope you all enjoy it! And make sure to keep an eye out for Lies We Tell Ourselves, available in stores October, 2014 by Harlequin Teen.
I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, and escaped to Washington, D.C., at the first opportunity. I now live with my fiancee, our antisocial cat, and our goofy hound dog on Capitol Hill and work for a progressive nonprofit organization. I spend my nights and weekends writing young adult fiction about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters; reading books; and fondly remembering the good seasons of Glee.
Some of my favorite recent young adult books are Ask the Passengers by A.S. King, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.
My first novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, will be released in Spring 2014 by Harlequin Teen.
How to Write LGBT Historical YA
I didn’t set out to write an LGBT historical novel. It was sort of an accident, I guess. Everything else I’d written before or since was set in the here-and-now. But I came across an idea I couldn’t shake. I’d been reading about the school desegregation movement in the American south in the 1950s, and I wondered what it would be like to be a teenager on the front lines of such an important event ― and to have to deal with knowing you were gay, too.
So, like any writer utterly besotted with her story idea, I set out to write a YA novel set in 1959 Virginia about a black girl who integrated an all-white school and found herself falling for a white girl.
I thought I knew what I was getting into.
I was majorly wrong.
The first thing I learned was that writing any kind of historical novel is really, really, really hard. Unless you happen to already be a scholar on your chosen time period ― and even then, really ― writing a historical novel means committing yourself to hours upon weeks upon months spent doing nothing but research.
It usually won’t all be online research, either. Google is wonderful, but when you want to thoroughly explore a time that predated the Internet age, you are going to wind up reading books. You are going to wind up looking for primary sources that aren’t digitized. You are going to wind up needing to ― gasp ― talk to actual human beings. Novelists aren’t usually academics ― we aren’t generally expected to produce detailed citations and bibliographies ― but I learned through the writing of Lies We Tell Ourselves that if you want to portray a time period accurately enough to get inside the head of a person who lived during that time, you will have to become a pseudo-expert on that era. Just as a side project in addition to the, you know, writing.
And when you’re writing about an LGBT character living during a historical era, you’re talking about a whole other layer of difficulty altogether.
Because the thing is, for LGBT people around the world and especially in the United States, life has changed a lot in the past few decades. People talk more openly today about sexual orientation and gender identity than they ever did before.
Which means that if you’re writing LGBT historical, you’re writing about people who most likely had to keep their sexual orientation or gender identity hidden. And that means there isn’t a lot of documentation around about what their lives were like. All those books you read about your historical era? The odds that they said anything about LGBT people are pretty close to nil. Your months of research were almost certainly spent learning about straight, cisgender people.
It’s not that there’s been nothing written at all about LGBT lives in historical eras. Nonfiction books like Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman are enormously useful in learning about what’s out there.
It’s just that your information is most likely limited ― and therefore you’re going to have to speculate a lot.
Even with the deepest research, it’s hard to get a sense of what a teenager would feel when they first realized they were attracted to someone of the same gender. In most eras, there weren’t even words for being LGBT ― and if there were, those words were slurs at best, curses at worst.
For most of history, it was unthinkable for a gay teenager to come out. Most LGBT people were closeted for their entire lives. Many of them married people of the opposite gender and never acknowledged their sexual orientation or gender identity to anyone, including their spouses.
There have been amazing historical LGBT novels. One of my favorites is Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, set in 1890s London, and one of the earliest well-known lesbian stories was 1969’s Patience and Sarah, set in 1816 Connecticut. But there are still only a handful of historical LGBT YA novels. (Of course, it doesn’t help that, as Malinda Lo documented, there are so few LGBT YA novels to begin with.)
When I was writing my debut historical YA, Lies We Tell Ourselves, most of my research focused on the history of school desegregation and the civil rights struggles in Virginia in the late 1950s. I also read fiction written in the 1950s, including the book that’s now considered an early lesbian classic, Spring Fire. (It involves two sorority girls who get up to some seriously scandalous behavior in their dorm room. Alas, it had a forced, and publisher-mandated, unhappy ending.)
But I also did a lot of speculating. A lot of deep-diving into my characters’ POV. A lot of painful thinking about what it might’ve been like to believe you were this thing you’d only ever heard spoken about in hushed tones, and often associated with the words “evil” or “Hell.”
Of course, though, that sort of speculation is what writing is all about. We’re all setting out to deeply explore the inner life of characters whose lives and circumstances are different from our own. So, as scary as it is when you’re first setting out to write something that seems really intimidating, like LGBT historical, it’s really no different from writing any other genre. It’s all about stretching ourselves.
And can’t we all use a little more stretching in our lives?