by Jess Faraday
When I was asked to write about why my upcoming novel, The Affair of the Porcelain Dog (June 2011), features a gay protagonist, I felt a bit as if I were being invited to whack a hornet’s nest. For anyone who hasn’t had their whiskers singed by the debate over women (lesbian, bisexual, hetero–different people take different exceptions) writing gay men, let me assure you that for many, it’s a hot-button issue. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
I’m not here to annoy hornets, after all. I’m here to gloat. I write historical mystery and suspense, which is one of the best jobs in the world. I get paid to read about sewage recycling in Victorian London, occult revolutionary movements in 19th century Paris, and medieval Central Asian warrior women. A large chunk of my yearly book budget is deductible. And that stack of J.M. Redmann novels on the nightstand? Research. I need to surround myself with examples of well-written mysteries to make sure I’m doing the job right, you know.
But back to the original question.
I love reading history almost as much as reading mysteries. History inspires me. It makes me think not only about what happened in the past, but also what’s happening in this present world, and where we might be headed as a species. It inspires me to look for threads of human continuity across time and across cultures, as well as to appreciate the differences, which can be shocking in their vastness. And when I come across some fact or idea or person that absolutely flattens me with its awesomeness, awfulness, irony, originality, or daring, it inspires me to write about it.
started as a 750-word exercise for my writing group, in which we were invited to put a character from our WIP into a different setting. I took a magician’s apprentice from a swords-and-sorcery story and plunked him down in Victorian London.
The desire to get the setting right for even this little piece (yes, I really am that tightly wound) led me eventually to the Labouchere Amendment, that is, section 11 of England’s Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. For those not familiar, the amendment criminalized public and private acts of undefined “gross indecency” between men. Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under section 11. Because no evidence was required other than the word of the accuser, section 11 was often referred to as a blackmailer’s charter.
What I found interesting was the fact that the criminalization of real, attempted, and imagined acts between consenting adults was part of a larger law aimed at protecting women and children from sexual exploitation. Plus ça change! I wonder how many modern-day bigots think that they invented the false equation of homosexuality with child molestation. I wonder how far the idea goes back. I wonder how long it will persist despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.
Eventually, my 750-word mystery became a story about blackmail, and my magician’s apprentice became an amateur sleuth with a blackmailer to find. While setting himself to the task, my protagonist turns up–and busts up–a child prostitution ring, ironically at the same time he is facing prosecution under the same set of laws for his consensual acts with a fellow adult.
Could the hero of this story be anyone other than a gay man? Certainly, but I argue that his peril wouldn’t be nearly so perilous, and the resolution wouldn’t pack the same punch. Considering that lesbianism (though punished in other ways) was not illegal under Victorian law, neither a straight hero nor a lesbian heroine would have had the same, highly personal stake in the story’s outcome. What’s more, after reading Nene Adams’s spectacular Gaslight books, I realized that it was futile to try to top the adventures of the formidable and much-loved Evangeline St. Claire and Rhiannon Moore.
But that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up my heroine addiction.
The protagonist of my current work-in-progress has been showing up in different forms for years. She has been the chief of police in a village beset by mischievous magicians, a drug-runner in a post-apocalyptic Sonoran desert, and a grad student who learns that the odious head of department is keeping Something Untoward in the basement. Finally, though, she has found a setting that fits her–and me–like a good pair of boots. And her present incarnation is as much a function of plot and setting as the protagonist of Porcelain Dog.
The thing about research is that it’s never really done. One fact slides into another, and pretty soon, even before the first book has been submitted, the second one has started to write itself. Research into the history of Scotland Yard led me, inevitably, to the origins of the Sûreté, that is, the Paris police. Did you know that the grandfather of the world’s organized police forces was comprised almost entirely of reformed criminals, male and female? Pretty interesting, considering that it was 1812–though it must be said that at that time, England and France were more like different planets than different countries, from waste disposal to attitudes about sexuality.
Even more interesting from a plot-building perspective (though drearily inevitable from a course-of-human-affairs perspective) is the end of this highly effective though unorthodox force. Following the resignation of its founder, Eugène Vidocq, the Sûreté collapsed and was born again. Only this time, the women, former criminals, and other undesirables were purged and replaced by an unseasoned group of squeaky-clean, all-male “professionals.”
Imagine that, in this time of transition, there was a single holdout: one agent whose particular expertise made them an invaluable asset, no matter how much the new, less-experienced Chief of Police wanted them gone?
For one million dollars, what kind of protagonist would provide the most interesting plot complications, a man of any stripe, or a Lesbian Superhero?
I thought so =)
It sounds strange and possibly cold-blooded to admit that the specific characteristics of my protagonists generally arise as a function of setting and story than the other way around. It makes me feel like less of the benevolent, interested, personal god that I like to pretend to be. But every writer approaches her topic from a different angle. And how much duller reading would be if we did not.