#85: Trans Characters Coming Out in Historical Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

How would you go about a character revealing their trans identity in a time period piece? I was writing an urban fantasy set in 1927 about a diverse group of vampires, and I’ve been doing a lot of research on LGBT+ rights during the late 1920s, but I don’t know how to make the trans character reveal it about himself.

Currently I have three scenarios:

1. Character tells his love interest after a heated argument about the love interest’s sudden engagement to a woman overseas. I don’t really like this one as it seems too sudden.

2. Character reveals his identity as a trans male as the other characters reveal their own identities. I’m iffy about this one because I don’t want to make it seem like he was pressured to by everyone else sharing theirs, but on the other hand, it could be that he finally feels comfortable being himself around his fellow vampires. (At first none of them really trusted each other, but in this world, bad things happen to a vampire’s psyche if they just surround themselves with mortals for thousands of years, as watching the people they care about die time and time again messes with their ability to connect to people, and by extension, their ability to control their appetites.)

3. The character lets it slip while he’s drunkenly reminiscing about his past on a balcony with his best friend. Even though I know he can trust his friend not to tell anybody, I don’t like this version because he’s doing while not in full control of his actions and he’ll probably be anxious when he sobers up.

So, how would you go about revealing a character’s orientation during a period piece set in 1927?

—animalpetcel (she/her)

Dear animalpetcel,

There’s a lot going on in this question! It’s actually two questions:

  1. How do I write a trans coming-out scene in a respectful way?
  2. What changes if the scene takes place in a historical period?

All the concerns you have about the scenarios you list would be no different if the book took place in the present day. They’re concerns about the scenario being respectful of the trans character (and, by extension, your trans readers). So let’s address that first. Continue reading

#75: Guest Post: Writing Inclusive Erotica

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve started a project that’s purely for fun and low pressure. It’s a collection of short erotica stories with genre flavor. Fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, maybe a dip into some public domain stuff like Arthurian legend.

I want to make my collection diverse and not just feature people like me. It would get boring and unrealistic if only white, bi, depressed cis women were featured! But since I’m writing erotica I’m worried I’ll fetishize people and include harmful tropes. I know about some tropes to avoid like the plague, but I’m not an expert. I don’t want to hurt people with my writing! How do I avoid this stuff?

Yours,

Social Justice Pornographer (she/her)

Dear Social Justice Pornographer,

What a great question! Since this is outside my area of expertise, I invited guest contributor Cecilia Tan (she/her) to write a response.

After over 20 years publishing erotic science fiction with Circlet Press and writing erotic fiction herself whenever she could get the time, Cecilia made a career pivot into erotic romance. She’s now an award-winning romance writer, but her heart remains in erotic SF/F, she’s still the editorial director of Circlet Press, and she’s launching an erotic urban fantasy series with Tor Books in September with the book Initiates of the Blood.

Many thanks to the Patreon patrons and others (including you, letter writer!) whose support enabled me to pay Cecilia an honorarium for her work. (You can also support Circlet on Patreon.) I’m very pleased to be able to bring her words to you.

Cheers,

Story Nurse


Cecilia Tan writes:

Dear Social Justice Pornographer,

I’m honored to be asked to address your question and must confess right off the bat that your collection sounds like the kind of thing I’d love to read. Given that I’ve been reading Circlet’s slush pile and submissions for 26 years, I can assure you your concerns are valid, but by being aware of the issues you’ve already taken the major first step toward being able to address them in your work.

I feel every writer may benefit from the understanding that their work does not exist in a vacuum, and that there is a relationship between writer and reader. Sometimes it’s important to temporarily “forget” that while in the act of creation—if your muse is prone to clam up when you think too much about the reader, for example, or if considering the reader empowers your internal censor to the point that you don’t write anything at all—but ultimately, after the story is written, if you’re thinking about publishing it, you are thinking about sharing it with other human beings who may be affected by it. Fiction has a special ability to slip past internal defenses, which is why it can hurt so deeply if we feel betrayed by a story.

The fact that you are concerned about fetishizing people likely means you already understand that fiction can perpetuate harm. Stereotypes can be a vehicle to perpetuate bias, racism, or misogyny. Fetishization is erotic fiction’s special catch-22, in which stereotypes are not only present in the story, they’re exploited for sexual gratification. And yet… isn’t sexual gratification the point of an erotic story?

Let me say first that I don’t believe exploitation for sexual gratification to be “worse” than exploitation or harmful representation of other kinds. Sex is not a crime, and liking sex or writing erotica is not inherently morally reprehensible, even though some segments of society would like us to think so. However, if fiction already has the power to slip past our defenses and cut deeply, erotic fiction in particular cuts right at the core of many people’s most closely guarded private selves. As an Asian-American woman, I might find some racist caricatures of Asians laughable and ignore them, while Asian fetishization in an erotic story, though equally dehumanizing, might feel much more personal and difficult to ignore.

Likewise, erotic stories often feel especially personal to the author, which can make accepting criticism of them much more difficult, too. When we write down erotic fantasies, it can be a very empowering act, very freeing to the self and the psyche, but it can also make us very vulnerable by exposing such privately held thoughts to the world. But that is also why erotica is crucial writing, and especially important in the midst of our largely sex-negative, sex-judgmental culture. Erotica truly can be social justice work.

That’s all preamble to my actual advice which is, first of all, write. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist, so don’t let the fear that you might do wrong paralyze you into not writing in the first place, nor stop you from trying to do good in the world by writing diversely.

The second step is to examine the stance of your story toward the characters in it who are not like you. “Othering” is a verb that encompasses many possible things, all of them bad. Have you set them on a pedestal as an example of all that is noble? While that might seem laudable on the surface, it’s still dehumanizing and othering. Are you using your trans character as a metaphor for your own desire to remake yourself as a new person? People aren’t metaphors, but it can be argued that all fiction is. If the only reason a trans character is there is to be a metaphorical stand-in, then once again they’ve been dehumanized. Have you portrayed a character as a three-dimensional, realistic human? Then you’re doing well and it’s win-win, because fully three-dimensional characters aren’t just less likely to be harmful representations, they’re also good writing.

The third step, after you’ve examined your perspective, is the hardest part, which is to have others examine your perspective as well. From within we can only expand our vision so much, and it takes the help of others to extend that view. When writing erotica it’s important to find beta readers and sensitivity readers who aren’t of the opinion that all porn is inherently exploitative. (There are still some people who think that.) And ideally, if you’re writing about a member of a certain group, you’ll want feedback from members of that group. Only the people you are writing about can tell you whether they feel respected or disrespected by your representation.

Finally, it’s good to bear in mind that the more marginalized the group or identity of the person, the more likely they are to have been subjected to harmful representation, and so the more likely they are to be critical. When people see the same mistakes again and again, they may get less patient about correcting them. Rather than being defensive if you are called out on a common mistake, try to realize why you made that mistake (from your more privileged position, did you imagine the experience of a marginalized person inaccurately? Did you put yourself in the position of “savior” in a way that dehumanized those you were supposedly aiding? etc.) and don’t just pledge to do better, but examine whether you can improve your perspective to avoid that pitfall in the future.

I truly believe in erotica writing as a form of social justice. Our society heaps so much guilt and shame onto sex and sexuality, but a writer who breaks past that to celebrate and empower their own sexuality can empower their readers to do the same. Imagining and inhabiting spaces free of that shame via fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have toward creating those spaces in real life, and it’s laudable to want that freedom for all.


This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#74: A Sympathetic Character Who Resembles a Real-World Villain

Dear Story Nurse,

I know this probably looks like a troll letter, but I swear it’s a real problem I’ve got with one of my characters! Even I had trouble believing it at first. Long story short, I spent ten years working on a manuscript and just now accidentally realized that one of my secondary protagonists sounds a lot like Hitler.

This fellow is an elected monarch who is doing a terrible job of running his kingdom. He’s cut off his citizens from having very much direct contact with him, and he has an art hobby that has taken precedence over his actual duties. Amazingly, over several decades, he barely improves. It’s not the kind of art hobby that can be quickly changed to something else, either.

He was once a refugee from an aggressor continent that frowned upon the arts in general, and his poor artistic abilities directly trigger the driving conflict of the story. I know, this sounds like a neutral character at best, but the main protagonist ropes him into their quest in the third act, when his kingdom’s been taken over and he’s in hiding, because they’re the only person in the kingdom who genuinely likes looking at his art. He’s practically the visual artistic equivalent of Florence Foster Jenkins here. Eventually, the exile, coming clean about his part in accidentally creating the antagonist, and reconciling with some friends he’d abandoned over the years convince him that the townspeople don’t all hate him as much as he thinks they do, and he’s still redeemable as both a monarch and an artist. It doesn’t happen as neatly and easily as it seems to for the purpose of this letter.

I seriously considered turning him into a woman, because that’s solved a lot of quandaries in the past for me, but that would affect another plot point involving (independently of each other) a plot-relevant shirtless scene and a small handful of one-sided romances. I’d really like to keep this as PG as possible, so topless lady NotHitler is out for now. I figured the best way to attack this problem from here was to research Hitler and Nazi Germany and make sure this guy isn’t doing anything else that runs suspect. My browsing history has probably reached full-on “IT’S FOR A BOOK I SWEAR!” saturation.

NotHitler never commits a genocide or any unprovoked acts of aggression towards other world powers or groups of people. If I make him even more of an introvert and significantly more often taking a defensive stance than an offensive one, would that be enough, or would I have to seriously uproot a good chunk of this story’s foundation to make it work? I may not be a troll, but I know a lot of trolls would probably be quick to jump the gun if they see anything even remotely Hitlery. The last thing I’d want in my life is a bunch of readers accusing me of being a Nazi sympathizer because I redeemed a character that reminded them of Hitler.

If you’ve made it this far, I cannot thank you enough for staying with me. I can barely believe this is a real problem I’ve run into. But hey, better to go down as the guy who realized he accidentally wrote Hitler before publication than the guy who had to be told he accidentally wrote Hitler by the readers, right?

—Not a Nazi (he/him)

Dear Not a Nazi,

You are vastly, vastly overthinking this. Leave the character as he is and don’t worry about it. If you really want to be careful, run it past a targeted beta reader who’s an expert on WWII, or show the character enjoying a steak dinner and talking about how much he hates facial hair. But nothing in your description makes me think “whoa, totally Hitler!”, even with the context that you think this character is Hitleresque. I think you’re safe.

This excessive concern over a minor matter sounds like the product of an anxious aversion to declaring the book finished. If you’ve spent ten years on your manuscript and you’re starting to fuss over non-problems, I recommend submitting or self-publishing it as quickly as possible so you can move on. When you’ve worked on one project for that long, it can be hard to imagine your life without it, but both you and the book need some closure. Empty your browser cache with a clean conscience and keep moving toward The End. You’ll be glad you did.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#71: You Are Allowed to Write Outside Your Own Experience

Dear Story Nurse,

What do I do when my ‘own voice’ is traumatized and I don’t like it?

I write mostly fantasy (what people consider ‘high’ fantasy or ‘swords and sorcery’) and fairy tale variations, and have dabbled in romances; usually those are modern polyamory and/or demisexual/grey-ace focused. I don’t have anything published, but I’m not averse to the idea, I’m just slow and that’s not what pushes me to write.

There has been a lot of talk recently online about ‘own voices’ and how people (especially white people, which I am) should be cognizant of the pitfalls of writing outside our own culture or experiences, especially in nasty tropey stereotypical and demeaning or second-class sorts of ways. I am ALL IN FAVOR of this, and I try to support own voices writing in as many ways as I can, to try and counteract the amazingly sucky continued bias in publishing (and tbh, in life in general).

My question is this: as a corollary, the general view seems to be that as a white writer, my non-colonial, non-appropriative options are to… write only about my own experiences or culture? But my background is unpleasant and traumatic (and unusual: I was essentially raised in a cult until I was 16). My adult life has been boring and pretty white-het-cis-married-privileged (I’m not heterosexual, I’m polyam, and I don’t think I’m cisgender either but I’m still working thru that with myself, but I need to ‘pass’ because of where I live and what my job is.)

I write to escape my history and my current state of having to hide my authentic self, and to create alternatives for myself and for the child I didn’t get to be. Writing about my own childhood is traumatic—sometimes helpful, but it’s a therapy assignment, not me writing for love of writing where the story and characters just flow out of me in a happy relaxing zen. And writing about my own adult life is frustrating because it reminds me how much I have to hide all the time. And writing about ‘white culture’ seems fake to me—I didn’t grow up in it, and it still feels like I’m behind the curve and missing things there too.

So how do I honor own voices and still write when I don’t feel like I have a voice of my own that I can use?

—Rowan (they/them)

Dear Rowan,

I’m honored that you wrote to me with such a personal and painful question. I’m so sorry that people have treated you badly, especially when you were a child, and that your current circumstances force you to hide who you are.

I want to be very clear on this, up front: You are never required to write things that harm youYour writing must be for you first and last. And there is always a way to find stories to write that don’t harm you or anyone else.

Continue reading

#70: Excavating Internalized Biases, Part Two: Catching Bigotry Mid-Draft

Content note: This letter and the response discuss the fictional depiction of violent deaths of black women.

Hello Story Nurse!

You actually answered one of my questions in late 2016, and it helped me hugely, so now that I’m stuck again, I thought I would come back and solicit more advice. I started writing a small science fiction novella set in the future, and the main plotline is a dysfunctional duo trying to solve a murder. My book is #ownvoices for its mentally ill queer lady characters, and I feel really happy with the representation in it. But as I was writing today, I realised that both my murder victims were black women (they are a mother and her daughter), and suddenly I got really freaked out that I was engaging in some damaging tropes. How should I proceed? Should I finish what I have, and then do a close reading, probably with some sensitivity readers? Or should I stop what I’m doing and reevaluate? I know how hurt I get every time I read a story with a dead or dying queer lady, and I’m really worried I’m perpetrating an equally damaging trope for a community to which I have no personal access.

Thank you for all your good work!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

It’s lovely to hear from you again! I’m so glad the earlier piece was useful to you. Thanks for writing in with an issue that a lot of writers run into. Our cultural consciousness is being raised very rapidly, and that can collide hard with internalized bigotry. Most of us have spent our lives consuming media that was partly or entirely created to perpetuate a skewed status quo. It’s challenging to have the desire to create works that cause minimal harm, paired with the certain knowledge that our writing incorporates our ignorance and erroneous beliefs.

Continue reading

#56: Showing, Telling, and Tension in Romance

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m doing Camp NaNo this month with a goal of 30K words which translate to about a thousand words a day. I’m writing a romance novel, but the problem is I’m having a hard time developing romantic tension. I’ve thrown my heroes in a perilous situation, so right now I’m filling the word count with them planning on their next move, and worrying about the situation back home. How do I develop the romantic angle when they have moments to breathe and aren’t running from danger?

To add a layer of complexity, Hero B has been badly burned in the past and is in denial about his growing feelings for Hero A because he doesn’t want to get hurt. How do I show rather than tell that?

Finally, do you know of any good examples of this romantic tension building that I can be inspired by?

Thank you for all you do!

—Hopefully Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopefully Romantic,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to this letter during Camp NaNo, and I hope you found your way through and made your goal! But romantic tension is one of those things that’s often better managed during revisions, because it’s all about pacing, so I think this advice will still be relevant to you.

Continue reading

#51: Writing Polyamorous Relationships, Part Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’d love to see a follow up post to the last polyam one, one that was more in depth about the craft of writing individuals and meet cutes with non-monogamy in a way that doesn’t put the reader off or have them assuming there is cheating involved, aimed more towards people who didn’t need the poly101 as well.

—nicolefieldwrites (they/them)

Dear nicolefieldwrites,

What a lovely request! I’m happy to oblige. You’re right that my last post was very 101, and there’s much more to writing polyamorous relationships and people than merely avoiding clichés.

Continue reading

#49: When Settings Are Fun and Stories Are Hard

Dear Story Nurse,

I love developing settings, but once I have my stage set, I find I have no idea what to do with the characters. Unless I force myself with NaNoWriMo or a similar challenge—and even then, I don’t often like what I came up with—my inclination is to circle the worldbuilding stages forever. For example, my current project is geography-focused, because I’ve been having a lot of fun researching historical cartography. I have kind of a unifying myth for my island nation, and now I want to explore this space through the lives of the people living in it, but I can’t seem to make a story happen. How can I come up with ideas when that’s not the part of the process that interests me?

Thanks!

—Masamage (she/her)

Dear Masamage,

When I first read your letter, I thought I’d answered it before, or one very like it. I looked through my archives and realized I was thinking of these letters from writers who find world-building easy and character development hard. You’re in a similar position, but facing a different challenge (though my response to them may still be of some use to you).

Continue reading

#48: Writing Characters Who Share Your Identities

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently stalled out on both short stories I am writing. While they are both fantasy stories, each one deals with a theme that is important to me. One is a romance with a genderqueer shifter and the other features a character embracing her chronic pain. While both of these topics are important to me, I’ve not been writing them because it’s stirring up unresolved feelings in me on both of these issues.

My question is this: Writing #ownvoices is important, but how do I support myself in exploring hard topics that stir up unresolved feelings in me, and relatedly, how do I manage the fear that I’m not doing #ownvoices stories well enough, sensitively enough, or with enough compassion and good representation?

Thanks for your time, and I understand if you want to split the questions up!

With admiration,

Psygeek (she/her)

 

Dear Psygeek,

I sympathize a lot with this letter. I’ve run into this problem with my own novels in progress. We are surrounded by wonderful conversations about representation, but that can come with an increased feeling of pressure to get it right. That can then get tangled up with internal anxieties around identity, such as the feeling of being not [identity] enough or doing [identity] wrong. So I definitely think these two questions go together.

Continue reading