Progress Is Not Straight Lines: On Happy Endings in Diverse Historical Romance

At RT, I was on a panel about historical romance set in America. One thing that came up from the authors who write romances with characters who aren’t white is that readers often react with, “I don’t believe these people could have a happy ending.” As someone who has written LGBT characters in historical romance, I’ve gotten this quite a bit, too.

I think we as Americans struggle with our own history, because we know the bad stuff (or think we do). I think that’s one of the reasons there are so few American-set romances right now. And while I do agree that one can’t set a book during the Civil War, say, and not address slavery, I don’t agree that it would be impossible for two African American people to find a happy ending during this era.

I think this idea that POC or LGBT people couldn’t have had happy endings comes from two misperceptions. The first is that, unless you were straight and white, everything has always been terrible. This contributes to the other misperception: that progress only ever moves forward, in straight lines.

The reality is that progress is circular, or it’s two steps forward and one step back. For example, African Americans made tremendous strides in the immediate wake of the Civil War that were undone by the abrupt end to Reconstruction and the creation of Jim Crow laws. But even before that, free men and women were activists and writers, held jobs from which they drew salaries, owned businesses.

Or, in the 1920s, women gained the right to vote. The invention of the bra meant they took off their corsets, which literally allowed more freedom of movement. They were allowed to patronize bars for the first time, to drink and smoke in public. Women got jobs they’d never had before. And a lot of that progress was undone by World War II and a return to traditional gender roles in the 1950s. The women’s movement didn’t begin in the 1960s, or even with Susan B. Anthony in the 1870s. Sojourner Truth, herself born a slave, gave her landmark “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in England 1792, and she drew from the same philosophical writings that Jefferson did when writing the Declaration of Independence.

Every time a group makes progress, there is always pushback. And how we think about history is colored by how we’re taught it and who wrote it. (American history was written by white men, mostly, and the textbooks we all read in school are manipulated to tell a certain narrative. See also Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.)

Our idea of romance is relatively modern; marriage for love rather than as a business or practical transaction is fairly new, although love as an emotion has existed for centuries, obviously. But I think if we can be moved by a story of love between, I dunno, a rakish veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and a shy bluestocking, in an era when most women married for financial security, we can also believe in a love story between two men or a man and a woman who aren’t white. And people have always defied the odds to find happiness. As humans, we thrive on hope, on the idea that everything will work out. Rebellions and political movements are built on the hope that we can change the world, are they not?

Newlywed couple, ca. 1900

So when a reader says, “I don’t believe two African Americans could have had a happy ending in antebellum America,” I find that problematic. For one thing, some states abolished slavery well before the Civil War. (Slavery was gradually emancipated in New York beginning in the 1790s and ultimately ended in 1827, for example.) This doesn’t mean African Americans didn’t face racism and adversity—they definitely did and still do—but there were places they could settle, make good marriages, have children. (“We’re all here, aren’t we?” is how Beverly Jenkins responded to this question on my RT panel.)

Or, take LGBT people. I had someone tell me once that LGBT people didn’t exist before the mid-20th century, which is of course completely false. LGBT people have existed as long as people have. To give a small example, performing in drag is hardly a new phenomenon. Female impersonators have been dancing on stages in New York City since at least the early 19th century, if not earlier. While it is true, even, that LGBT identities as we now think of them are relatively new—”homosexuality” was coined as a term in the 1880s around the same time scientists became interested in same-sex attraction—homosexual relationships are recorded in history going back millennia.

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle

I’ve had readers tell me, “I don’t like gay historicals because I don’t believe a gay couple could have had a happy ending in the past.” We assume that life for gay people was terrible and oppressive for all time. And, sure, it was not always easy. In London in the 1830s, for example, more men were hanged on sodomy charges than murder charges. Laws in New York City made it illegal to be gay and drink at a bar until the Stonewall riots. Sodomy laws remained on the books throughout the country into my lifetime.

But! From the late 19th century until about World War II, there were thriving gay communities in New York City, particularly in Greenwich Village, Times Square, and Harlem. (Other cities, too, but I’ve been primarily researching NYC.) The Hotel Astor in Times Square had a gay section of its famous bar during Prohibition, in fact, a little area that was roped off where men seeking men could find each other. (And drink “coffee,” because Prohibition.) There have been gay bars in New York for 200 years, even. By the 1880s, there were dance halls where men were encouraged to play around with gender, and patrons donned makeup and gowns. (And LGBT people were always creating art and new ways to express themselves. The companion book to the Museum of the City of New York’s Gay Gotham exhibit lays this out nicely.)

(I don’t mean to exclude the women, but society generally didn’t consider women to have sex drives, so it wouldn’t have occurred to many people in the 19th century that the two women sharing a house down the road were, in fact, carrying on a sexual relationship. Lesbians have also existed since the beginning of time, but flew under the radar to a certain extent. Men who had sex with men and anyone who was gender non-conforming were more frequently prosecuted.)

(And this is really all tip of the iceberg; I’m not being comprehensive here, just trying to make a point. For example, some Native American tribes had completely different ideas about gender. How amazing would it be to see an Own Voices narrative about that? And other groups have historically faced oppression in the US, everyone from the Irish to the Chinese to Eastern European Jews, and they should have happy endings in romance novels, too.)

But this is what I mean by circular history. George Chauncey, in his fantastic book Gay New York, argues that acceptance for LGBT people was more widespread prior to World War II than after, that what we think we know about how people have been treated historically is short-sighted or incorrect. The progress of LGBT people has not been a straight line, but rather a push-pull of circular progress over the last several centuries. Same for people of color.

The bottom line is that readers who struggle to accept happy endings in historicals for people of color or LGBT people could take a closer look at history, or could reexamine their own assumptions, particularly since so few readers think much of the proliferation of dukes in historical romance (particularly those who end up marrying governesses or maids). More to the point, if romance is the literature of hope, please believe that there was always hope.

(And none of this is to knock British historicals. My love of them is well-documented. But I’d love to see a lot of new American historicals, too, and I think it’s possible to write these well and still incorporate concerns about American history. I am a history buff who loves historical romance, and I’d like to see these integrated!)

But plausibility issues aside, if we can embrace stories about women owning businesses in Regency England or time-traveling Vikings or what have you, why can’t we believe all people could have happy endings in historical fiction? Is there an underlying belief that only some kinds of people could have (or are deserving of) happy endings? At the end of the day, a good story is a good story, so if we can buy werewolves and vampires, why not POC or LGBT people falling in love in the past?

Because I believe Hank and Nicky from Ten Days in August and Eddie and Lane from Such a Dance lived happily ever after—that Charles and Isaac from “Rebels at Heart” retired to their little farm in Pennsylvania to spend the rest of their days together—and I hope you do, too.

Masculine Women, Feminine Men

I ran across this article today: In the Early 20th Century, America Was Awash in Incredible Queer Nightlife (Subtitle: Then Prohibition ended, and the closet was born.) It’s an interesting read while also tying in very well to some of the themes I’ve explored in writing my historical romances.

When I started researching Such a Dance, one of the things that struck me was that history doesn’t move in a straight line. I mean, yes, there’s the linear march of time, but progress is more circular. This article outlines things like the drag balls of the 1920s—although drag performance had existed for long before that—and how they were part the mainstream to a degree.

Such A DanceI think we tend to think of gay rights as starting with Stonewall, but the truth is that, prior to World War II, it was possible to be openly LGBT to some extent (even if they wouldn’t have called it that at the time). But, of course, society always reacts to progress in a two steps forward, one step back fashion. So it went with women, too, incidentally; women in the 1920s had unprecedented freedom that was pulled back in the subsequent decades. What was called queer or pansy culture at the time followed a similar pattern. It thrived, and then sodomy laws were beefed up or enforced, pushing a lot of men (and women) into closets, shutting down the speakeasies and clubs where they had been allowed to flourish previously.

I find these patterns fascinating. I see a lot of reader reaction to LGBT historical fiction implying it’s hard for them to buy a happy ending, but happy endings were possible, even in America, prior to the 1930s. There were sham marriages, sure, but there were same-sex partnerships, too. (In Such a Dance, for example, I think the Mob is a greater threat to Lane and Eddie’s continued happiness than anything else. A gay couple in the 1920s could have built a good life for themselves in Greenwich Village or Times Square or Harlem.)

Also, unsubtle plug: Such a Dance is currently 99¢ if you haven’t read it yet but your interest is piqued.

Ten Days in August blog tour!

Ten Days In AugustHere is a complete list of stops on the blog tour, which includes posts with background information, history, excerpts, and more!

Joyfully Jay (post: drag queens in history)
Romantic Reads and Such (post: why I like the Gilded Age as a setting)
Fresh Fiction (post: real historical figures in romance novels
Mary Gramlich (post: on the summer of 1896 as a setting/historical background)
HEA USA Today (interview)
Ever After Romance (post: what it was like to be gay in the 1890s)
Novels Alive (post: American-set historical romance)
Karen’s Killer Book Bench (excerpt)
Manic Readers (post: brief historical info about the Bowery)
Shelley K. Wall (post: New York’s changing geography)
Romance Divas (post: what inspired me about the Gilded Age setting)
Readers Entertainment (excerpt)
Cynthia Woolf (interview)
RomCon (excerpt)

Also, in case you missed it, here are my blog posts on the book: Ten Days in August and real history and Photos of New York in the 1890s. I’ve also got a Gilded Age Pinterest board with lots more photos (mostly of New York and also fashion).

Get the book in any of these places:
Kensington
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
All Romance
Google
Kobo
Apple iBooks

Ten Days in August is now available!

Ten Days In AugustNeed a little heat in your historical romance? Join Hank and Nicky as they solve a murder during a heat wave in New York in 1896! Ten Days in August is out today everywhere!

From the Lower East Side to uptown Manhattan, a curious detective searches for clues on the sidewalks of New York—and finds a secret world of forbidden love that’s too hot to handle…

New York City, 1896. As the temperatures rise, so does the crime rate. At the peak of this sizzling heat wave, police inspector Hank Brandt is called to investigate the scandalous murder of a male prostitute. His colleagues think he should drop the case, but Hank’s interest is piqued, especially when he meets the intriguing key witness: a beautiful female impersonator named Nicholas Sharp.

As a nightclub performer living on the fringes of society, Nicky is reluctant to place his trust in a cop—even one as handsome as Hank. With Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt cracking down on vice in the city, Nicky’s afraid that getting involved could end his career. But when he realizes his life is in danger—and Hank is his strongest ally—the two men hit the streets together to solve the crime. From the tawdry tenements of the Lower East Side to the moneyed mansions of Fifth Avenue, Nicky and Hank are determined to uncover the truth. But when things start heating up between them, it’s not just their lives on the line. It’s their love…

Get it here:
Kensington
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
All Romance
Google
Kobo
Apple iBooks

Ten Days in August: NY in 1896

The Library of Congress website has a bonanza of images from the 1890s, which gives an interesting impression of how different New York City is now, 120 years later. Remember, New York in 1896 had no Empire State Building, no Times Square, no Rockefeller Center. Here are some of the photos I found (clicking on them will enlarge some of them):

Lower Broadway, 1892

Lower Broadway, 1892

Lower Broadway ca 1897

Lower Broadway, 1897

Broadway 1897

Broadway, 1897

Broadway runs adjacent to some of the neighborhoods that, in 1896, were full of immigrants packed into tenements. Some of these bustling photos are close to what that must have looked like. Only the real situation was worse. I bought an illustrated copy of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis while I was researching this book, and some of the photos are brutal. For more see some of Riis’s photos here.

Cart on the street, 1896

Cart on the street, 1896

1890

1890

This photo was just labeled “New York City 1890,” but I think it might be taken from Union Square? (Feel free to correct me.)

Elevated train at 110th St, 1896

Elevated train at 110th St, 1896

Chatham Square Elevated Train Station 1880

Chatham Square Elevated Train Station 1880

In the late 19th century, before the subway (opened in 1904), New Yorkers got around by horse-drawn street cars and hansom cabs and the elevated trains. There are still elevated trains in the outer boroughs, but not so much in Manhattan. I imagine them as kind of a blight; the tracks must have blocked out the sun on some of the streets they ran over.

Newspaper Row, 1890

Newspaper Row, 1890

In the 1890s, most of the city’s major newspapers had offices in these tall buildings on Park Row, along City Hall Park.

Tammany Hall, 1896

Tammany Hall, 1896

Politics in the late 19th century was dominated by Tammany Hall. By 1896, Tammany’s notorious Boss Tweed had been dead for nearly twenty years, but Tammany played a role in New York politics well into the 20th century.

The Tombs, 1890s

The Tombs, 1890s

There have been a series of prisons in lower Manhattan called the Tombs, which doesn’t really speak well to the conditions at any of them. This ominous building was what the prison looked like at the time of the novel.

Newsboy, 1896

Newsboy, 1896

Hansom Cab and Driver, 1896

Hansom Cab and Driver, 1896

Police Officer, 1896

Police Officer, 1896

The LOC website has a series of photos of people on the streets. I liked these particular examples. I can only imagine wearing that police uniform during a heat wave; my detective, Hank Brandt, basically refuses.

So there’s a little glimpse into the New York City of Ten Days in August.

Ten Days in August and Real History

First, a programming note of sorts: so far in March, my mother came for a long stay, I started a new job, and I sprained my ankle, all of which threw a wrench in my blogging plans for the lead-in to the Ten Days in August release. Or any blogging, really, as you may have noticed. I also spent this past weekend at the Liberty States Fiction Writers Create Something Magical Conference (say that three times fast!) which was fabulous, but again, didn’t leave me much time for blogging.

But I did want to provide some background information. I’m doing a blog tour for this book, too, and I’ll be sure to link to those posts, because I’ve written quite a bit already about how this story came to be. But here are a few factoids that haven’t made it into my blog-post-a-rama yet.

In New York in the 1890s, the modern NYPD was not yet a thing. Instead, the police department was run by a 4-man board. Police headquarters were on Mulberry Street, in a building that no longer exists. In 1896, Teddy Roosevelt presided over the Board, which was constantly deadlocked for petty political reasons, which stymied a lot of the reform Roosevelt wanted to implement. He was on a mission to eliminate corruption, to promote the best men, and to actually enforce the laws on the books. New York was, however, a city of vice, particularly drinking and prostitution.

I read Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist maybe a decade ago, and one of the things that hooked me about that book was the opening, in which a dead male prostitute is discovered on the Manhattan Bridge. Male prostitutes were often young and referred to as working boys. The one in The Alienist worked in a notorious club called Paresis Hall, a place men went to pick up working boys.

Paresis Hall was a real place. So was the Slide, considered by many to be the worst dive in the city. The club in Ten Days is called Club Bulgaria, and it is entirely fictional, but I intended it to be roughly between these two in terms of relative shadiness. Club Bulgaria features a shabby ballroom where men go to dance and meet each other, where performers sing or dance, and where men can retreat to the backroom for sex, roughly the model of similar clubs of the era. (And now, really.)

The thing with this era in New York history is that it was a period of both tremendous wealth and tremendous poverty. Robber barons ruled the city; old money families and captains of industry displayed their wealth conspicuously. Immigrants, meanwhile, were crowded into tenements without proper ventilation or running water. As a student of history, I find this juxtaposition really vital to understanding the era. So I wanted to explore both aspects of the city: Hank’s friend Amelia represents high society, and Nicky’s Irish immigrant family represents the other half. Nicky and Hank exist in a sort of limbo. Hank mostly aspires to live comfortably, and he’s essentially middle class, while Nicky has been clawing his way out of poverty and makes enough to afford his own apartment (and the gorgeous gowns he loves to wear).

The New York of this era is different from now in a lot of ways, some of which are detailed in this map. (A lot of places I name checked are shown here, actually, so you can follow along as you read, if that’s your thang.)

Ten Days ended up being kind of a tour of New York City in 1896. Hank works at a precinct in today’s East Village. There are scenes in the Lower East Side Tenements, uptown in a Fifth Avenue Mansion, at the clubs on the Bowery, at Hank’s house in the West Village, at City Hall in lower Manhattan. There were no subways at this time, no cars; the characters take the elevated trains or horse-driven cabs. But I still wanted this novel to feel essentially New York; I think I’ve accomplished that. I drew on a lot of research, books, transcripts, photos, and so on, to create a fictional story that I still hope feels like it could have happened.

Stay tuned for more info from the blog tour.

The book is out 3/29, but you can preorder it now from the bookstore of your choice. Here are some links:

Kensington
Amazon
B&N
All Romance
Google
Kobo
Apple iBooks

Coming Up in 2016

As we all come down from our holiday highs, I thought it might be fun to give a little sneak peek at what’s on tap for 2016:

Books:

CX0PPFfUkAEz8LzMy Gilded Age historical, Ten Days in August hits shelves in March. It’s one of Publisher’s Weekly’s top ten romances for the spring, and I gratuitously stole this photo from someone on Twitter because the article is behind the paywall now. (PS: There’s a Goodreads giveaway where you can enter to win a copy of the paperback. You have until the end of the month to enter!)

Then in July, my Dreamspun Desires book, called The Greek Tycoon’s Green Card Groom, will be available for you all to get your grabby hands on.

Also sometime in the summer, Dreamspinner is putting out a shiny new edition of The Boy Next Door.

I’ve got one other secret thing up my sleeve, too, but you will have to wait for news on that. 😛

Events:

Convention season gets going a little early for me this year.

I’ll be on a panel on diversity in romance for the Queens Library on October 19.

I’ll be a featured author at Coastal Magic in Daytona, FL, in February.

I’m teaching a workshop and doing some fun reader things at the Liberty State Fiction Writers Create Something Magical Conference in New Jersey in March.

And I’ll be at the RT Booklovers Convention in Las Vegas April. (More about my RT schedule when the date gets closer, but I’ll be easy to find there, let’s say.)

RWA in San Diego is currently in the Maybe column.

So that’s a quick glance at what’s on tap, at least for the next six months. Plus lots of writing, hopefully.

Cover: Ten Days in August

The cover hit the Internet this past weekend, so I can now show it off to you all. Here’s the cover for my March 2016 historical romance, Ten Days in August

Ten Days In August

From the Lower East Side to uptown Manhattan, a curious detective searches for clues on the sidewalks of New York—and finds a secret world of forbidden love that’s too hot to handle…

New York City, 1896. As the temperatures rise, so does the crime rate. At the peak of this sizzling heat wave, police inspector Hank Brandt is called to investigate the scandalous murder of a male prostitute. His colleagues think he should drop the case, but Hank’s interest is piqued, especially when he meets the intriguing key witness: a beautiful female impersonator named Nicholas Sharp.

As a nightclub performer living on the fringes of society, Nicky is reluctant to place his trust in a cop—even one as handsome as Hank. With Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt cracking down on vice in the city, Nicky’s afraid that getting involved could end his career. But when he realizes his life is in danger—and Hank is his strongest ally—the two men hit the streets together to solve the crime. From the tawdry tenements of the Lower East Side to the moneyed mansions of Fifth Avenue, Nicky and Hank are determined to uncover the truth. But when things start heating up between them, it’s not just their lives on the line. It’s their love…

Add it on Goodreads!

Pre-Order Info:

Kensington
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Kobo