#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

#78: How Much Should Your Research Show?

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning phases of a time travel short story, and I find myself wondering how much research is too much. What’s a good way to find the line between authenticity and overdoing it?

—ASB (he/him)

Dear ASB,

There are two people for whom research might be “too much”: you, and your reader. For you, it’s too much if it prevents you from writing, or if your investment in research outweighs its return. For your reader, it’s too much if it it prevents them from enjoying the story.

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#62: How to Organize Research Material

Dear Story Nurse,

I have many writing problems, but I have finally have isolated one that may respond to advice!

Here is the question: how do you organize a large body of research for a novel?

The book project I’m concerned with is set in a different country from my own, during a couple of years of significant historical events. I have about 45,000 words of a rough draft, though mostly I plan to completely rewrite it.

I have an idea of the basic point-in-time facts I need to acquire—”who did what when” stuff—and the beginnings of what I want to know about the setting—what a cheap flat in [blah decade] in [blah city] smelled like and what sort of kitchen appliances people had in that neighborhood (though I have issues with something like ADHD so it’s very hard for me to organize even that).

But a big part of the story is more psychological and emotional, and trying to figure out how personal and national history shapes a person, and what things come to the surface when you put people under pressure at a moment that is clearly historic: and this is proving very hard to research indeed. I’ve purchased twelve books of history about this country covering periods and topics I thought could be relevant to how a modern person might view themselves (I realize this was a bad idea, please don’t yell at me). I’ve read a couple of these, but I’m struggling to process them into what’s relevant and what’s not.

To be clear, it’s not that I think that there is exactly such a thing as “national character”—but I do think that the stories that we are told about our histories, our countries, our cities, our families, and ourselves over and over and over again do matter to how we think about life and how we see ourselves and others. So I’m looking for facts about what happened and where, but I’m also looking for historical events that have national and personal emotional resonance.

How do you suggest organizing all these layers of research for my story—the purely factual, the experiential, and the spiritual/emotional stuff?

Best regards,

Disorganized Potato (they/them)

Dear Disorganized Potato,

This is a wonderful question. Fortunately you have a lot of flexibility, because any organizational system you come up with will be solely for your use, so you can fine-tune it to suit your needs. And turning those nebulous concepts into organizable chunks of data isn’t as hard as you might think.

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#5: Academic Overwhelm

Dear Story Nurse,

My question is regarding writing peer reviewed journal articles. I really struggle with the theory section of the paper—as two panels of reviewers on two separate papers have been pretty blunt about. (I mean, my advisor had told me before more politely, but it hadn’t sunk in.) I’m still a graduate student, so I feel like I just don’t know the literature well enough to even know where to start with strengthening the theory section. On one paper the reviewers were nice enough to mention a few authors to look at, and sometimes my advisor does that, but more often they don’t and they all just say “you need to say why this is important,” or “you need to reference Theory X” (which is so broad there’s hundreds of papers on it).

The thing is, even if I were a full-time graduate student, I wouldn’t have enough time to read all of those hundreds of papers. But I’m also working on another really important project for my PhD, and preparing to teach a class in the Fall that I haven’t taught in more than 5 years, plus other classes I teach every year but need to revise, plus struggling with motivation due to some jerky stuff an ex-advisor did to me. Even when people suggest “well, just read a few random papers and see who they all cite,” even “just” seems like an insurmountable hurdle, when each individual paper can take me more than a day to understand. And even if I don’t read each one all the way through but jump straight to their references section, it still takes time to decide on which papers to even look at in the first place, and it’s also time consuming to get ahold of the papers.

Help! It’s just so overwhelming. This feels like something that in 10 years will be a non-issue, but how do I get from here to there?

—Writing Grad (they/them)

Dear Writing Grad,

The key word in your letter is “overwhelming.” The straw of needing to read up on theory in your field has sent the proverbial camel to the proverbial chiropractor. I do have some suggestions on that front, but first, take a few slow deep breaths and sit with your feelings of overwhelmedness. You are doing a lot right now, and anticipating a lot more to do in the fall semester, which may be starting in just a week or two. All of those obligations and responsibilities feel even bigger than they are when you look at them collectively, and thinking of one just leads to the next—look at how a letter asking for help with a relatively specific writing concern turned into a litany of everything that’s on your plate. I am very glad to be someone you can recite that litany to, but there’s more going on in your life than an advice columnist can help you with, and it sounds like you’re really struggling. So please seek support from what Captain Awkward calls “Team You”: friends, family, partners, your advisor (who is hopefully less of a jerk than the ex-advisor was), mentors in your field, a counselor or therapist, whoever will be kind and useful when you ask for help. Your school may be able to help you access counseling resources. As far as I can tell, anyone doing a PhD should be getting significant professional mental health support; my first attempt at undergrad study sent me into a massive depressive tailspin to the point where I had to drop out, and I can only imagine how much more emotionally and psychologically challenging graduate-level work is. So please do reach out for what you need.

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#2: Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself

Hi Story Nurse,

So, I’ve been “working” on a novel for a couple years now. Which is to say, I’ve written around ten pages and haven’t been able to force myself to do any more, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success writing short stories, but this novel just intimidates me. I’m not sure why, but it does—plotting and keeping track of all the details and characters at such length is kind of intimidating.

I think that part of the reason is that this novel is set during and around the Holocaust, and I’m terrified of the research I’ll have to do. I have plenty of books, I know where to find more, but the prospect of reading about all that suffering and horror… well, I haven’t been able to sit down and make myself do it. But nor do I want to start writing when I am ill-informed, because it’s important to me to get this right and not mess it up.

Do you have any tips on how to get myself to work on this novel, write and do the research? I can go into more detail about the plot if that would help. And I’ve researched terrible things before, I’m not sure why I have a block on doing this.

—EG (she/her)

Dear EG,

This sounds really hard. Really, really hard. I think just about any novelist would find it intimidating and difficult to embark on a book-length project and have to do a ton of research and spend both the research and the writing immersed in a time of horrors and feel tremendous moral responsibility for conveying history accurately in a work of fiction. All the more so if you have a personal connection to the Holocaust or reason for writing about it. You don’t say whether this is your first novel, but if it is, that’s going to add to the feeling of intimidation; just about every debut novelist feels that way when starting out.

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