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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 190 – So You’re Writing a Sapphic Historical Romance: Questions to Consider

Saturday, December 26, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 190 - So You’re Writing a Sapphic Historical Romance: Questions to Consider - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/12/26 - listen here)


When I first got the idea that ended up becoming the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I envisioned putting together a simple sourcebook of background information for authors of lesbian historical fiction. How hard could it be, after all? It’s not like there was that much information available on lesbians in history. Silly me. I was so delightfully wrong. But as I began realizing the scope of the historic information available, and as I began thinking about the fuzzy edges of what a resource of that type should cover, I set aside the idea of a sourcebook and focused on a more granular approach to familiarize myself with the field.

That dream has never entirely left me. When I interview authors on this podcast, one of the questions I always ask is, “how did you approach researching how your characters would have understood and experienced their sexuality?” And time and again I get responses that focus on the difficulty of finding information and the need to extrapolate from modern experiences and to rely on imagination. I keep returning to that idea: just as there is a market for reference books that tell you about everyday life in historic settings like Jane Austen’s England, I think there’s a market for a reference book that tells you about the experience of women who loved women in historic settings. Not in all the academic ambiguity, but laid out in a practical way for authors who just want to get on with writing a story. And I think, just maybe, I’m ready to start working on it for certain times and places.

Any guide to writing sapphic characters needs to examine two different topics. What do we know about the specific experiences of women who loved women? And what was the range of experiences for all women in the chosen setting? So my outline falls into the following categories. For women’s experiences in general, we start with demographics and the sociology of family life. Then we look at the legal, religious, and economic context of people’s lives. Next we examine the range of women’s interpersonal relationships outside the family. This is followed by a gradual look at the norms of women’s physical relationships and displays of affection, starting from the very public, through more private contexts, and finally addressing the specific question of erotic behavior. Having broached the topic of erotic same-sex relationships, we look at the available social models for gender and sexuality, and how same-sex relations were viewed in popular culture. Finally, we step back a little to consider a slightly broader context in space and time.

What I’m discussing today is not the answers, but the questions. It may not be possible to answer all these questions for any given fictional setting. But thinking about them can get you started down useful pathways.

Demographics and Family Relations

Before we start thinking about the presence of same-sex love, consider simply the absence of heterosexual marriage. While it’s true that many women in history negotiated the complexities of both, in historical romance we tend to expect our protagonists to be free of other ties. So what proportion of women in our chosen culture were never married? What proportion were previously married but are now single, whether widowed or separated? What was the typical age at which women married? At what age would an unmarried status be seen to be outside the norm, or at least the ideal? What were cultural attitudes toward non-married women? Do we actually need to come up with extraordinary pleading for our heroines to be unmarried or is it something unremarkable?

To what extent do women feel able to make choices with regard to marriage? How much influence can they have over timing or the choice of a spouse? What are the reasons (other than lack of heterosexual desire) that a woman might put off or avoid marriage? How is the social context different for a widow as opposed to a never-married woman?

Looking at the lives of singlewomen as models for our characters goes beyond the simple question of marriage. Until very recently, a woman in a same-sex partnership would be treated by society as if she were single. So what were the circumstances in which a non-married woman might live outside the parental home? What were the plausible household arrangements? We often forget how the simple logistics of everyday life made living completely alone impractical. How common was it, and under what circumstances, for two or more non-married women to share a household? What circumstances might make that unremarkable?

For that matter, what were the typical or possible dynamics for relationships with her extended family? How did a non-married woman relate to her siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or more distant kin? What were the range of attitudes toward her?

Another very important question is how the answers to these questions differ based on family class and/or income. It’s popular to focus historic romance on the lives of the privileged, but might the story we’re telling work better in a middle class or working class setting? This question will come up time and again because differences in lives and attitudes by class or income can entirely change relationship dynamics.

Economics, Law, and Religion

The next set of considerations are related in that they are external forces that have both a strict, formal aspect, and a more variable practical aspect. These are economics, law, and religion.

What is the range of possible economic situations for a non-married woman? And how do these options affect her interpersonal relations? How do class and family wealth affect these options? Are certain economic possibilities closed to her due to class expectations? How does all this affect her possible living situations? This is one of several contexts where it’s important not to rely on popular culture to limit our expectations. I can think of lots of stories that started with a premise of “women couldn’t do X” – couldn’t work outside the home, couldn’t run a business, couldn’t have an independent income – when counterexamples can be found in history. Be aware of what is typical, but also of what is possible. Is your character being truly transgressive or only unconventional? Or can she do what the plot requires without even flouting convention? Conversely, we need to know what the constraints were. What ways of making a living would need careful justification as opposed to being ordinary? What options are so implausible you’ve used up your readers’ suspension of disbelief all on that one thing?

Narrowing the focus down to setting up a romance plot, what economic circumstances could enable or prevent two women from co-habiting? How do the economic possibilities shape our possible happily ever afters? This is a context where looking at the demographics of everyday life for all social classes can be an eye-opener. How did actual women make an independent household together and how did they come to that place?

The law is another context where we need to examine not only the letter but the practical application. And keep in mind that laws were not the same everywhere, or in all eras. Furthermore, application of the laws could change depending either on public mood or private whim.

The first question to ask is, were there any laws addressing women engaging in same-sex relations? The answer isn’t necessarily “yes”. But if so, what specific aspects of those relations was the law concerned with? When we look at historic cases when lesbian-like women ran afoul of the law, it’s rarely the case that the simple fact of being a lesbian was on trial. The law might concern itself with specific sex acts. Or with gender transgression.

Even when there were laws against certain acts, we need to know who was actually at risk of having those laws enforced against them. Was class a protection from either the suspicion or the accusation of those acts? Were women in certain professions either automatically suspect, or silently given a pass with regard to transgressions? If women got in trouble with respect to the law, were the authorities specifically looking for transgressions or did the matter only arise incidentally? Was homosexuality only brought in as an issue when there was some other complaint to begin with? What were the hypothetical and the actual penalties? Were legal penalties only enforced for very specific offences within the larger sphere of same-sex relations?

The legal questions are a major framework for how our heroines view their lives. For example, unusually in the European context, England never had laws addressing female homosexuality, very much in contrast to the legal position of male homosexuals, or the situation of women in some continental cultures. So a gay male historic romance set in England will involve some critical concerns that a sapphic romance in the same setting won’t deal with. Similarly, when you look at trials in France or Germany or other places in central Europe, the cases that were pursued and that involved the rare extreme punishments most often involved gender-crossing or penetrative sex using an instrument. Two women who presented as feminine and whose sexual activities did not mimic penetrative sex rarely seem to have been at serious risk under the law. So if we don’t want the fear of legal reprisals to be a part of our story, what are the ways that our characters could be functionally invisible to the law, within our chosen setting?

Religion is another context where it’s important to consider not simply what the official opinions were, but how they were applied in context, and how women’s same-sex relationships were interpreted within that context. (And remember that not all religions have had similar opinions about same-sex relations, and that attitudes have changed at times.)

How does our characters’ religion (whether their personal beliefs, or those of the culture they live in) view same-sex relationships? Do those attitudes focus on the sexual aspect or more broadly on romantic relationships? What is the range of attitudes our characters might have about how their lives fit into their religious beliefs?

Does the religion have formal positions on same-sex activity? Does it have informal positions? What aspects of same-sex relations are central to those positions? How do attitudes toward same-sex relations differ from those on similar opposite-sex relations? What is the range of opinions?

This is yet another context where it’s important not to look only at formal, learned positions, but on the interactions of everyday life. Even when the formal religious position is that homosexual relations are unacceptable, they may be viewed simply as a human weakness. Conversely, there have been eras in Christian culture when same-sex relations were considered one of the worst possible sins. At those same times, intensely romantic same-sex relationships could be treated as praiseworthy, as long as there was no suspicion of sexual activity. And individual people have regularly found their own philosophical accommodation between their romantic and sexual desires and the teachings of their religion. It’s rarely a clear black-and-white situation.

Emotional and Romantic Relationships in their Social Context

When plotting the problems and opportunities for your romantic couple, keep in mind how their experiences will differ from the courtship of a heterosexual couple. In many historic societies there is a presumption that male-female interactions will always carry a sexual overtone, but the same assumption is rarely made about same-sex interactions. It is usual for every society to have established patterns of intimate friendships – of close and enduring emotional bonds taken on by choice, rather than the chance of birth. These can provide fertile ground for how our characters might “try on” their romantic leanings.

Within our chosen society, what is the degree of mixing or separation of the genders in everyday life? In what context do women socialize in mixed-gender groups versus all-women groups? Is there any special meaning placed on a woman who primarily socializes only with women or is this typical?

Does the society have models for close emotional relationships between women who are not immediate family members? What is the range of possible relationships of this type? How are women expected to behave in them? What are their benefits and consequences? What is the vocabulary used to talk about them?

At what age, and in what context do women typically establish lasting emotional bonds with other women? How long are such bonds expected to endure? How are these bonds expressed? How are they described and characterized by others? What other models do people compare them to? What are the similarities and differences between relationships within the family and those with someone outside the family?

Just because a society has some established models for intimate same-sex bonds doesn’t mean those models are value-free. How are women’s intimate friendships viewed within the context of society? How are they viewed in comparison to marriage? How does class or income affect this? Are close friendships praised or viewed with suspicion? Are they expected to be fleeting or life-long? Are they expected to be exclusive or are women expected to have many close relationships?

What do people think about the erotic potential of close same-sex emotional relationships? Is it even considered a possibility? Is eroticism expected to be a normal part of intimate friendships? Or is it unimaginable—that is, to those not involved in them!

Whether erotic or not, how did women approach each other with regard to establishing a close relationship or increasing the intimacy of a relationship? Were there conventional rituals? Was there a vocabulary for the process? Were there rites of passage in establishing an enduring intimate friendship? How did women indicate the desire for an erotic relationship? How did they react to being solicited for an erotic relationship by another woman? Were there particular signals they might use?

In this section we’re presuming that the romance will involve some sort of romantic bond and not only a sexual relationship—which seems a reasonable presumption for writing historic romance—but we could ask some of the same questions about purely sexual relations. And not all romantic friendships had sex as a component or a goal. But in general, knowing how our target society feels about close friendships between women gives us a lot of useful information on what our characters will experience and what their options are.

Public Displays of Affection

You know that stage where you like someone and you want to give them a hug but suddenly you’re all self-conscious about how they’ll take it? Or you thought you were talking casually and you put your hand on their arm as you’re talking…and you realize that you’re feeling more than just the enthusiasm of making a point. Or you’re walking with your girlfriend in an unfamiliar place and you wonder how the people around you will interpret it if you two hold hands? How about if you hear someone address another person as “sweetheart” or “darling” or “beloved” and you’re trying to guess what their relationship is?

The societal norms of physical and verbal affection can vary enormously and shift subtly in meaning. What are the gestures and words that would be unremarkable between strangers who have just been introduced? Between casual friends? Between bosom buddies? What are the gestures and words that would unmistakably signal an intimate or erotic relationship? And who can use those in a general public setting without comment? And do any of these vary according to the apparent genders of the participants?

These questions are significant for three aspects of story development. Firstly, what is the “background noise” of affectionate interactions between women in our historic setting? What is the range of behavior that would be ordinary and unremarkable between two women with no erotic or romantic relationship? For that matter, what is the range of behavior that would be remarkable in its absence? Secondly, what are the subtle shifts in behavior that our characters can use to either initiate or recognize the developing intimacy in a relationship? Which of these would their society find unremarkable (and I use this word in the sense of “no one would think to comment on it”) and which might be considered significant to others? Thirdly, what are the behaviors that might be considered suspect or transgressive if done out in the public eye, regardless of who does them?

Are there differences between the gestures and language of affection used within a family versus those used with outsiders? In what contexts and with what meaning are these extended to non-family members? Are there differences between displays of affection that are assumed to be purely conventional and those that are always assumed to carry personal meaning? Are there systematic differences in the norms of how a woman displays affection to an unrelated man as opposed to an unrelated woman? This particular question can be useful not only in the sense of what two women can “get away with”, but also if one character is using masculine-coded behavior to signal romantic interests as opposed to platonic interests.

What is the catalog of specific actions used in our setting? Keep in mind that certain gestures may have fallen out of use, or may have only arisen recently, or the assigned meaning may have changed over time. As a specific example of what I mean, in Europe from classical times well into the early modern era, there was a conventional gesture known as “chin chucking” in which one person gently holds the other person’s chin in one hand. This was strongly associated with erotic love. If you see two figures in historic art using this gesture, you can assume the two people are either getting it on or are about to. It faded in more recent centuries to being more a signal of power or age differentiated invasion of personal space. And today it has largely faded from the social repertoire entirely. So we need to consider not only how our characters might have used or interpreted the displays of affection that we are familiar with, but whether they had ones we don’t use.

That said, consider the following types of physical gestures and what meaning they have for our characters and in our setting: embracing, holding hands, touching the hand, arms, face, etc., kissing the cheek, kissing a hand, kissing the mouth, sitting in close contact, sitting or walking together with arms around the shoulders or waist, sitting on someone’s lap. Does our setting have special terminology for any of these gestures? How would they describe them?

Similarly for verbal endearments: what is the range of use that is considered ordinary or typical between people who aren’t married to each other? Are there terms that one would only expect married people to use or that would signal a marriage-like relationship? How do people address each other directly (either face to face or in correspondence) and how do they refer to the other person when speaking to a third party? Are there clear differences between conventional social language and language that indicates an intimate emotional relationship?

All of these details can give us a context for showing the development of a romantic relationship within the conventions of the setting. Which is our couple likely to do first: address each other by the first name or kiss? The answers can be surprising.

Private Displays of Affection & Bedroom Behavior

Every culture has degrees of privacy in how affection is displayed, regardless of whether that affection is romantic in nature, or is within an approved relationship. The previous considerations were about how our characters might act out in public: on the street, at a social event, while traveling. But it’s also useful to know the accepted range of affectionate behavior in more restricted settings, while still considering both actions that would be unremarkable between platonic friends and those that would be understood as signaling a more intimate relationship. How do people behave within the family home? At a small party limited to close friends? How do women behave when socializing with each other in private, whether in small groups or in pairs? And which of those behaviors might provide an opportunity either to make or to respond to a suggestion of an even more intimate encounter?

The specific possible behaviors and language are similar to those considered for the public sphere, but we might find them carrying a different meaning in different contexts. The length of a kiss, the language used for flirtatious teasing. Are there affectionate gestures that are acceptable and “neutral” in private that are not considered appropriate in public? Are there gestures or forms of address that are considered merely conventional in public that become more personal in private? For example, a man who kisses a female acquaintance in public as a neutral greeting might find the same action taken differently if the two are alone together. Would the dynamic be the same between women?

Before we even get into the question of erotic activities, what meaning is placed on others entering one’s private space within the home? How does our culture define and manage privacy? What are the spaces in which one might interact with strangers? With mere acquaintances as opposed to close friends? Are there spaces reserved for only those most intimate friends? As an example, the French salonnières of the 17th century would often preside over their gatherings from their bed, when the bedchamber was a more public location that it would become in later centuries. How does the domestic geography of privacy intersect with the domestic geography of erotic activity? How much privacy do people expect or get? As always, how is this affected by class and status? For the wealthy and privileged, what is the place of servants in one’s expectations of privacy? For the lower classes, in what contexts might one expect to have privacy at all?

Is it normal or common for women of equal status, who aren’t immediate family members, to help each other dress and undress? Or to be present when another woman is dressing or undressing? So many opportunities!

Is it normal or common for women friends to share a bed without this having an erotic implication? “There was only one bed” is a trope that doesn’t carry the same significance if there is an assumption that people will share beds as an ordinary thing. But conversely, in our target culture, does bed-sharing have a symbolic importance within intimate friendships? What is the range of interactions that people have in bed together other than sleeping? Is it a place for conversation? For reading? Is it normal or common for people who share a bed, but do not have a sexual relationship, to cuddle together?

For that matter, do people typically share a bedroom whether or not they share a bed? If our characters employ servants, would a servant typically sleep in the same room? What is the expectation for privacy in the bedroom? For comparison purposes, do heterosexual married couples of an equivalent class to our characters typically sleep in the same room and bed? Or is it common for them to have separate rooms? To what extent is sexual activity closely associated with bedtime and sleeping?

Sexual Practices

And that brings us to the consideration of sex. In considering the sex lives of our characters within their cultural setting, it’s important to keep in mind that women in same-sex romantic relationships exist within a continuum of erotic and sexual expression. This is true for the present day and it’s true within history. The point of having a special section to talk about sex is not to say that all sapphic historical romances should include activities that we would today classify as sex, but rather to explore how sex was understood within that historic setting and to consider how our characters would engage with it if sex is part of their relationship.

A key question that should not be overlooked is how our target culture defines and classifies “sexual activity.” It can be possible for our characters to engage in a variety of sensual and erotic activities without thinking of what they’re doing as “having sex” within the understanding of their times. This can have a big effect on how they think about their lives!

Cultures can give us clues to how they define sex by what types of activities they talk about in conjunction with the central case of heterosexual procreative sex. Some cultures may define “sex” exclusively as male-female activity, and while that can be maddening on a philosophical basis, it can mean that our female couple don’t consider that any rules or taboos on sex apply to them. Similarly, some cultures focus very specifically on penetration as defining “sex” regardless of the genders involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that activities not classified as “sex” have no social significance attached to them. For example, masturbation may be categorized as “not sex” but still have social stigma attached. The idea here is to shake up our modern assumptions about how people think about sex and see what we can discover about what our characters would think. Or at least what some of their contemporaries would think.

The worm in the apple here is that it’s extremely rare in Western culture before very recent times for women to write candidly about their own sexual knowledge and sexual experiences. Given the double standards around gender and sex, it has often been common for women to hedge this information about with metaphor, coded language, or simple omission. On top of that, women’s writing was often prevented, suppressed, self-censored, or erased after the fact. This can mean that for some eras and cultures, the only recorded information about women’s same-sex practices that have come down to us has been filtered through men. And in some eras it has specifically been filtered through a male pornographic gaze. So when we’re exploring the information about women’s sexual practices, it can be very useful to sort things out into “what men thought or fantasized about lesbian sex,” “what women were willing to admit in public about their sex lives,” and “what women recorded about their sex lives in records that weren’t intended to be public.” All of this still leaves vast gaps where we must muddle though as best we can.

So having covered basic kissing and embracing and cuddling in previous sections, and having delved into the philosophical question of “what counts as sex?” let’s move on to thinking about some specific sexual practices women enjoy together. Are there specific practices that are associated with female couples? Is there evidence in this culture for “tribadism”, that is rubbing the vulvas together? Is there evidence for performing manual stimulation? What about digital penetration?

Is there evidence for using a dildo for penetration? If so, do we know what it might have been made out of? Would it be held in the hand or attached to the body? If a dildo is used, would it be associated with particular types of gender expression? Is there any specific social meaning attached to using one? Are they also used for solitary stimulation?

Is there evidence for open-mouthed kissing or tongue-kissing? Is this considered to fall under the category of sex? Is there evidence for oral sex generally regardless of the genders involved? How about between women? Is any special social significance attached to oral sex?

How does the culture understand female orgasm? Is it generally expected to happen during sex regardless of the genders involved? Was sex between women expected to result in orgasm? How did popular culture view sex between women, assuming it acknowledged the existence of such a thing? What did people think about it compared to heterosexual sex? What sort of social meaning was placed on the idea of sex between women? Why did people think women might engage in it?

What was the vocabulary of sexual anatomy, acts, and accessories involved in sex between women? Were there words specific to lesbian sex? Were there different levels of politeness available in talking about lesbian sex? What sorts of euphemisms were used? To what extent was there a common, shared vocabulary, or to what extent do women seem to be putting together their own language, based on borrowings from heterosexual practice and individual invention?

How did women negotiate the initiation of a sexual relationship? Did the culture have specific customs or rituals that might be used in this context? Is it something that women felt able to talk directly about before an encounter? How did they talk about it after a sexual encounter? Does there seem to have been a shared progression of how a sexual relationship developed?

What is the degree of general awareness of erotic potential between women? How is that awareness communicated within the society? Does it show up in literature or popular culture? Is there a general awareness of specific women in the culture known (or believed) to be engaging in same-sex erotics? How are they viewed? What sort of popular culture representations (if any) of women’s same-sex erotics are in circulation within the culture? Who has access to them? Do pop culture depictions of sex between women vary depending on the class or status of the participants, or of the audience?

Cultural Understandings of Gender and Sexuality

Having focused in on the specifics of sexual activity, let’s step back to consider the context of how relations between women were understood in our target culture. This takes the phrase “same-sex” and looks individually at the “sex” part and the “same” part. How does the culture (and our characters) understand gender and understand sexuality? How do our characters categorize male and female? How does the culture understand and deal with people who don’t fit neatly into those two categories? Is gender considered to be innate or performative – that is, is it something you are or something you do? Are there categories other than gender that are relevant for romantic or sexual relationships? How do class or social status interact with gender?

How does the culture view the dynamics of romantic or sexual desire? Are there default expectations of who will desire whom? To what extent is desire prioritized as a basis for formal relationships? What about for informal ones? Are people thought to have an innate tendency to desire a particular type of person? Are certain objects of desire more acceptable than others? Does the culture have a theory that explains individual preferences in desire? Do different groups in the culture have different models or understandings of desire?

Looking at some of the possibilities more specifically, does the culture include understandings of same-sex or same-gender desire that consider it to be “normal” or at least ordinary? Is same-sex or same-gender desire viewed neutrally, or is it given a positive or negative judgement?

Is there a model of desire based on gender difference? If so, are there understandings that view same-sex desire as caused by variant gender identity? (For example, that desire for a woman is “inherently masculine” and implies some degree of masculine identity in the experiencer?) Does this relate to other cultural understandings of gender, or of gender-appropriate behavior?

Is there a model of desire based on similarity? That is, is there an assumption that people will be drawn to those most similar to them? If so, what does this mean for same-sex relationships? Does the model cover sexual relationships or are they treated differently from non-sexual relationships?

If the culture has both difference and similarity models for desire, how do they interact? Are they applied in different circumstances or coexist as equal alternatives? Are there differences in how couples are perceived based on whether they involve gender-similarity or gender-difference? To be more specific, does the culture view the equivalent of butch-femme couples differently from femme-femme couples?

Does the culture have concepts equivalent to transgender identity? Is there a perceived relationship or continuum between female homoeroticism and transmasculine identity? If so, are there characteristics that distinguish within this continuum? Do we have evidence for how people understood their own identities within this context?

Does the culture expect couples to experience symmetry of desire or is there an expectation that one member will experience a more active desire and the other will accept that desire? If this model exists, how does it play out in courtship and in erotic activity? Does the culture expect an active/passive contrast or does it expect both parties to actively pursue the relationship? Are female couples different in this regard than heterosexual couples? If there is an active-passive difference, are people viewed differently depending on which role they take?

What is the vocabulary for women with same-sex desires? Is there a range of terminology that covers everything from platonic friendship to sexual partners? What sorts of nuance can be expressed with different words? Does the culture have explicit words that only apply to same-sex desire, as well as more euphemistic expressions? Are there cultural differences in who these words are applied to or who uses them?

Is there a belief or perception that certain physiological, behavioral, or sartorial traits are signs of lesbian desire? Are certain habits or actions perceived as communicating same-sex interest? Are they used deliberately to communicate interest or identity?

Women Loving Women in Popular Culture

That question merges seamlessly into the question of representations in popular culture, which we’ve touched on in several categories already. But it makes sense to gather some of the topics together.

What is the range of representations of women’s close emotional relationships in popular culture? How do those representations vary with class? How does access to those representations vary with class or other demographics? What sort of models do women encounter in their culture that help them put their own feelings and experiences into context?

More specifically, what is the range of representations in popular culture of romantic relationships between women, that is, relationships expressed using the same language and symbolism that would be used for a heterosexual couple? Similarly, what is the range of representations of erotic activity between women in popular culture? Who has access to those representations? What purposes do they have?

What are the boundaries between positive and negative depictions of all these categories? What types of relationships are depicted as praiseworthy and which as bad examples? Is there a social purpose to pop culture representations of female couples? Are they intended to shape behavior? To satirize? To entertain? To express the author’s experience?

Outside of fictional representations, were there women who had a reputation of being in romantic or sexual relationships with women? How was this reputation communicated? What language was used? And how were these women viewed?

General Historical Trends

No era or culture is an island. In every generation, there will be older people who remember when Things Were Different. Change around gender and sexuality may happen gradually or rapidly enough to create a generational clash. It can help to understand what attitudes or practices around gender and sexuality have changed leading up to the setting for our characters. What lingering ideas will they be exposed to? What stories about the goings on of the previous generation will they hear about? In what direction are things changing?

If one looks at only the last century or so, it can be easy to assume that attitudes around sexuality and gender have always evolved in the same direction, from more repressed to more open and accepting, but that’s far from the case. It seems like every couple of centuries attitudes revolve in a cycle. And those older attitudes will definitely affect our characters’ lives and experiences. For that matter, with hindsight, we can know how the culture will change after the period of our story. How will those changes affect their happy ending?

In addition to the larger context of time, consider the larger context of space. Cultures aren’t isolated from one another. What do our characters know about same-sex relationships in the countries they might visit? Or the ones that visitors come from? Might our characters be more or less comfortable if they traveled abroad? Might there be hazards in another land due to different laws and customs? Or might there be more freedom away from one’s own culture? Might our characters “get ideas” about the possibilities available to them from the people or popular culture of other places? What does our target culture think about their neighbors with respect to same-sex relationships? What do their neighbors think about them? Are those cultural beliefs true or are they embedded in stereotypes?


I realize that this discussion may feel daunting! Do you really have to know the answers to all these questions before embarking on a sapphic historical romance? Absolutely not! As I pointed out at the beginning, for many cultures, a lot of the answers are unknowable. But there are more answers out there than you may think. And sometimes it helps to know what the questions are.

I want to read all manner of historical romances that are deeply rooted in the settings they’re depicting. I want to read about relationships that are both positive and true to their times—stories that have happy endings that work for the culture they’re set in. I want to read stories that aren’t modern characters in fancy dress. And I will do my best to continue providing authors with help finding the information they need to write them.

Show Notes


Major category: