Guest Post: Writing the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name in Historical Fiction

Here’s author Laurel Deedrick-Mayne talking about her new novel, A Wake For The Dreamland, and her experiences writing historical fiction about a gay character during World War II.
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cover imageHow do we write the love that ‘dare not speak its name’ within the genre of historical fiction? I confess that even writing the love that can be ‘shouted from the rooftops’ has thrown me into flushed-faced fits of laughter… and since this is historical and not hysterical fiction, I have to take a deep breath; maybe recline amidst the mass of rumpled sheets…not those kinds of sheets… (picture me tearing page after page of bad sex writing out of an old underwood) and try, try again. It’s not all ripping corsets and popping buttons.

Writing historical fiction is tricky to begin with— dodging the deadly slings and arrows of ridiculously overly researched, smarty-pants narrative history dumps, often at the expense of our beloved characters. Trickier still: How does a middle-aged-heterosexual woman in 2015 write about sexual awakening of a male soldier in WWII? One can’t even fall back on cliché because…back to my opening sentence: it was love unspoken and unwritten. Homosexuality was a criminal offence under civil law and convicted service personnel risked court martial and dishonorable discharge. See what I mean? There was an accidental history dump.

In my book, A Wake For The Dreamland, the world is on the brink of war and friends William, Robert and Annie are on the cusp of adulthood. Haunted by memories of a boyhood dalliance with a lad and more than platonic feelings for Robert, William feels shame and longing to be ‘normal’. But these are not normal times. Every arena of their young lives is infiltrated by the war, from the home front to the underground of queer London to the battlefields of Italy.

The moment I knew I was writing a love triangle, I also knew that William would be gay. It seems strange to say this but I knew he was gay before he did. That is to say, I understood that the emotional stakes were very high and that it was up to me, to write his experience in the most authentic and honourable way possible. When I began writing in 2003 there was scant information available on homosexuality in WWII. But there were a couple new documentary films and a few excellent books. I had the benefit of a thoughtful archivist who remembered cataloguing a collection of love letters between two men from the 1940’s. And then, there was mustering the courage to come right out and ask the veterans who were helping me with the military aspect of my research. It wasn’t always easy and I experienced some kick-back along the way. There was the retired Major who, upon listening to my ‘Reader’s Digest Condensed’ version of the novel, declared, “Not in this Regiment!” That nearly sent me scurrying into re-write mode but another veteran friend, 90 years old at the time, reassured me that of course there were gay men in the unit. It didn’t bother anyone so long as they were a good soldier and did their job. I guess if you’re a good killer it doesn’t matter what kind of lover you are. There was the indignant participant at a workshop where I read an excerpt. She demanded to know, “Does your veteran friend know you’ve turned him into a homosexual?” I admit I had some fun with that one.

Where the truth lies, is the no man’s land where historical fiction writers tread. Writing the love that dare not speak its name during WWII and the aftermath was like crossing a minefield that could end in disaster. Confinement to a particular time and place in history: truth; gave me a scaffold upon which my imaginary friends could play out their infinite and intimate struggles and triumphs: lies. It was the ‘story’ in history that mattered to me. Nothing else. I kept reminding myself not to be afraid to be afraid, that this was not a story about war as much as it was a story about love. Those rushes of adrenalin were there to remind me I was on the right track.

Those of us writing historical fiction are excused from that old prescriptive chestnut: write what you know. But if we know something about friendship and love, fear and longing, grief and loss— that understanding will allow our characters to rise from the page and into the very hearts of our readers. The rest, as they say, is history. And my closing advice to anyone is simply this: Soldier on.

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Excerpt from A Wake For The Dreamland

It was London where he felt most alive. Where he could walk the line between civilian and serviceman, where he could connect with other Allied soldiers for whom the city held the same degree of safety and danger, possibility and peril, sociability and sex. At the Buckingham Gate Urinal or alongside the Albert Tavern, behind two telephone booths, he could steal a kiss or more…gratify his longing. There, or Charing Cross Station, or the gardens in Trafalgar Square.

But it was at Cyril and Lou’s apartment, in an enclave of others like himself, that he first slept in the arms of a man, a lover. There, for three days and nights, the sport he endured and enjoyed came as close to killing him as the war ever would— and it was heaven. Spending each waking moment in the pursuit, the act, or recovery from every conceivable means of lovemaking. To sleep: however briefly, only to be awakened by hunger in the belly, mouth, or groin. And listening: to music, to poetry – reading and writing it, too— and eating and drinking and tumbling, tumbling willy-nilly into bed again.

In the city her learned the language of his type: invisible to passersby, visibly to each other. He learned to go from being hunted to being the hunter. He learned to find his way in the dark, to seek an encounter, to be less afraid, less alone, seduced by the allure of safety and privacy where he could be himself without fear of discovery. And yet. While the other fellows were sleeping it off and the mantle clock in the parlour squeezed out the minutes until dawn, a sickening sadness would sneak through his limbs and curl up in a ball at the foot of his heart.

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IMG_9171_Web1_CLaurel Deedrick-Mayne was born and raised in Lacombe, Alberta but has spent her adult life as a city dweller and now makes Edmonton her home. Once an arts administrator (dance publicist, concert promoter and ad copywriter) Laurel has become a juggler: raising a family, managing her private massage therapy practice, serving on multiple arts boards … and writing. This book is a tribute to the generation of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who took the time to hang on to family letters, clippings, stories, and poetry — all those treasures that inspired this story. A Wake For The Dreamland is Laurel’s first novel.

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Dare To Do Nothing: Replenishing the Creative Well

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas.

To say I had been having a busy time of it would be an understatement. Suddenly, I was a university student for the first time in 20 years, I was still a full time teacher, and I was working on the first draft of my new historical novel. I was looking forward to summer vacation from both work and school as a time to focus on my novel full time. I think this is why I’ve never been worried about having a day job—even with my day job I still get summers off to write full time. Then a funny thing happened—nothing.

The novel was stalled. Where my last three novels were written fairly quickly in less than a year (that’s quickly for me, mind you), my current novel was stubborn and not coming as easily as I would have liked. I didn’t understand the characters as well as I thought I did. I felt the plot was lacking, though I couldn’t tell you why. I wondered and worried myself crazy, and while I tried to work on the book I realized I was getting nowhere fast. That’s when I came up with the radical idea of putting my writing aside for a while and leaving it alone. Normally, I allow the story some baking time after the first draft, which I had done, but then when I went to write the second draft there wasn’t much more than there had been for the first draft. The second draft is a little better than the first, but it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s definitely not publishable. For my last three novels, once I made it past the “shitty first draft” stage and had a complete second draft I was, except for revising and editing, home free. This one not so much. I was getting so frustrated I was ready to throw in the towel and forget the novel altogether.

I hadn’t suffered from writer’s block in this form since I first began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009. What if I never have another good idea? What if being a doc student has sucked away all my brain power and I simply can’t write fiction until I’m finished with my degree? What if this is it and my creativity is gone, finished, kaput? You know how writers panic when the ideas aren’t flowing. Then I started thinking about how I’ve been writing novels constantly for the last six years without a break. Since 2009, I’ve published seven novels. And the scholarly writing I do for school is creative in its own way since it takes creativity to figure out how to take information from various sources and construct a well-organized, persuasive narrative. Maybe, I thought, just maybe my creativity isn’t kaput as much as just tired.

I’ve suffered, like many of you, from what they call the Do Something Syndrome at Farnam Street blog. Even on my days off I feel like I have to constantly be working at something—whether it’s writing, editing, schoolwork, marketing, social media, whatever. I started reading a lot about stillness and how doing nothing can help to fill your creative well. Here’s a great post from one of my favorite websites, Zen Habits, called The Number 1 Habit of Highly Creative People where the artists talk about stillness and doing nothing as a way to stay creative. There are a number of other articles out there on the same topic. Doing nothing? I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I was willing to try since my creative well definitely needed replenishing. This hiatus was going to be different from the baking time since baking time is where, though I’m not actively writing, I’m still working on the novel because I’m reading, researching, and finding other ways to immerse myself in the story. This time I was going to leave the story completely alone and give myself a rest from even thinking about the novel.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

How have I been spending my days? Well, I haven’t been working on the novel, which is how I thought I would be spending this summer. I haven’t even felt guilty about not working on it—most of the time. Writers are great at laying the guilt trip on themselves, aren’t they? Whenever I see a book I’ve read for research laying around my desk, I remind myself that I’m filling my creative well and look the other way. Instead, I’ve been sitting on my little patio with my cat Ellie as we watch the Las Vegas desert sky turn from pale blue to slate gray as the thunder-filled clouds move in. I’ve gone to the park down the street with its fake lake (the water is real even if the lake is man made) and looked at the ducks, the boats, the pretty houses, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve been exercising and doing yoga after a bout of laziness. I’ve discovered the charms of adult colorng books (they’re just regular coloring books with more intricate details, folks. I know what you were thinking…). I used to love to color when I was a kid, and it turns out I still do. I’ve always considered myself a wannabe artsty-craftsy kind of person. I love watching the how-to-paint-flowers shows they have on PBS, and I even dabbled in painting with acrylics a few years ago. While coloring isn’t exactly an original piece of art, I enjoy the chance to play with colors and I’ve rediscovered the fun of crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors. I’ve been reading a lot, finishing two or three books a week. I’ve been watching some good TV shows, movies, and documentaries (yes, I watch documentaries for fun). Saying that I’ve been doing nothing isn’t quite accurate, but I haven’t been writing fiction, thinking about writing fiction, or, most importantly, worrying about writing ficiton. I’ve just been enjoying my days and filling them however I want to rather than stressing myself out about what I thought I should be doing.

Then, a couple of months into my self-imposed exile from writing fiction, I read a couple of novels that gave me some ideas for my own story. I still have things to figure out, but at least I have a few ideas now where before I had nothing. I refuse to start worrying again about when or how the book will be written. If it takes me two years instead of one to write, then so be it. I’d rather spend two years writing the story I meant to write than publish whatever just to get something out. Everything happens in its own time. I’ve always known that, but I find I need a reminder every now and again.

Hello, Good-bye: Changes Are Good for the Soul

One of the benefits of living in the 112 degrees of Las Vegas is the conservatory at the Bellagio Hotel. At least it’s cool in the hotels!

I recently finished my first year as a doctoral student in the Teacher Education program at UNLV. I even ended up with a B+ in my Statistics class, which for me is like an A+ for anyone else. For someone who has had to retake every math class she’s ever taken in her life, finishing the first time with a B+ was a definite personal best.

Recently, I made another change as well, which was resigning my full-time teaching position. Where at first I was going to apply for a leave of absence which would allow me to return to my position after a year, I realized that, when all is said and done, I’m not going back to traditional K-12 classroom teaching. Was it hard to leave behind the career that paid my rent and other assorted bills for the last 20 years? Well, it was a hard decision from the standpoint that I’ve made my living as a classroom teacher since 1994, and yet it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. It was time to move on. I just knew it. I had felt it in my gut for several years now. I knew I had gone as far as I could as a K-12 classroom teacher, and I needed some new challenge. It took me a few years to figure out what my next line of action would be, but I figured it out, and when it was time to go I knew it. Where normally leaving behind the job where I made my living would cause me no end of stress or worries, I found myself surprisingly calm as I made the decision to resign, which only further proved to me that I was making the right choice. I am still all in praise of day jobs, but I also believe that the day job should be one that makes your heart sing. There’s no worse feeling dragging yourself somewhere every day where you don’t want to go, and no better feeling than giving yourself a chance to do something different.

I thought I would feel more nostalgic than I did as I packed up my classroom. I had materials from all grade levels to weed through since in 20 years I’ve taught everything from kindergarten through high school, as well as a number of writing workshops for adults. And while some of the files I went through brought back a lot of good memories from some amazing years teaching great kids, mainly I felt relief that I was finally getting the change I craved. I gave away my reading books, posters, and teacher guides to a friend who is switching grade levels, and I recycled my paper files. It was like that feeling you get when you finally clean out the clutter from your closet—as though I felt physically lighter without the unnecessary baggage. I wasn’t particularly emotional when I handed in my keys for the last time. For the first time in a long time, I was looking forward to the changes and the challenges in the future. To me, that was yet another sign that I was headed in the right direction. For years, I had held onto that teaching job as though it was the only thing between me and financial oblivion. It’s amazing what a little faith can do to your outlook.

Waterfall at the BellagioIf you’re not familiar with Sarah Rudell Beach’s website Left-Brain Buddha, I highly recommend it. She talks about living with mindfulness, which is something I’m struggling to do every day—some days with more success than others, but it’s the intention that counts, right? In her post “Leaving the Classroom,” Sarah talks about her own journey leaving the classroom after 17 years of teaching. And like Sarah, it’s not that I’m no longer teaching, but simply that I’ll be teaching differently. Instead of one full-time job I’ll be working as a Graduate Assistant at UNLV, where one of my duties will be teaching a class called Teaching Writing Secondary School, which is right up my alley since that’s what I’m studying for my degree. I’ll also be teaching over the Internet, which is very interesting to me since I think, based on what I’ve seen as a public school teacher, that technology is the way we have to go if we’re going to capture the attention and curiosity of our 21st century students. I read in Stratosphere, Michael Fullan’s book about technology in schools, that we’re trying to teach 21st century students using a 20th century model. I couldn’t agree more. Through my studies at UNLV, I hope to find a way to prepare preservice teachers (fancy-speak for university students studying education) to become effective writing teachers. So, no, I’m not leaving teaching at all. I’m simply hoping to reach a larger audience now. My goal is to help others realize how strong writing skills can help us, all of us, not just those of us who want to write for a living.

I know the power of writing, as many of you do. I count myself among those who believe that writing helped to keep me sane at various points of my life. Writing is more than any essay (though no one could deny the importance of being able to write a well-argued, well-organized essay). Writing is big, and it should be treated, and taught, as such. I’m excited at the prospect of being part of that conversation. The freedom I’ll have due to my change in jobs will only give me more time to pursue my studies.

An another note, for you Loving Husband Trilogy fans out there, never fear. “Down Salem Way” is not forgotten. For those of you who have been contacting me with questions about the story’s publication, thank you so much for your messages, and I do apologize. I had optimistically said Spring 2015 for the release date, but the time came and went and the story isn’t ready to be published. “Down Salem Way” is high on my priority list, and it will be out early 2016. See, even with all these career changes, writing fiction is too much a part of who I am to be left aside. I think that goes back to the old writers’ adage that if you want to write badly enough you’ll make time to do it no matter what. I firmly believe that.