Over the years, I’ve been asked two interesting questions about writing historical fiction, and specifically gay historical fiction. The first question on everyone’s mind is, why I chose to write this form of fiction, and secondly, what exactly constitutes historical fiction? Is it a time-period with a fictional story, or is it simply telling real stories in a different way?
As far as the first question is concerned, I didn’t choose to write historical fiction. As odd as it sounds, it picked me. My fascination with eighteenth century London started with one book, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700 – 1830, by Rictor Norton. By the time I had finished the last page I was hooked and had found my place to set up shop. I became obsessed with finding historical documents and other books that would give me a further glimpse into daily life in London and the little-known life of characters such as Thomas Newton.
As for the second question, my bet is that you would get different answers depending on who you asked. For me, historical fiction came from two different angles. It was a way to explore life in 18th century London. I wanted to be there, to walk the sludge and sewage filled streets, to take in the excitement that was London in an age of growing population and expanding city limits. So, yes, part of it was in fact the simple pleasure of writing about a specific period in time.
The other side of my historical novels, is the personal side. Telling the real story of Thomas Newton. Let me explain. Thomas Newton was a hustler (A catamite in those times), who lived with Margaret Clapton (a straight, married woman who ran a male brothel known as Mother Clap’s). When the brothel was raided, Mother Clap was arrested, but Thomas escaped. When the sodomy trials started, Thomas Newton was the witness testifying against all the men he slept with. Speculation has it that he turned “state’s evidence” against the men in exchange for saving Mother Clap’s life. Very little is known about Thomas Newton. There isn’t a birth record or a death record. There aren’t any documents about his life other than the court records. Secret Societies, and its sequel The Thief Taker, was my way to tell Thomas’ story. Except for the trials that I used in the novels, the life of Thomas Newton was created by me, and being that Thomas was a hustler, I of course throw in lots of sex throughout the novel.
During this time, I was working as a Librarian, which allowed me access to historical texts. It was here I found the court proceedings and trial transcripts of nearly thirty-five sodomy trials dating back to 1725. This of course is the backdrop for my first gay erotic historical novel, Secret Societies. Those trials led me to others about; murder, faking a pregnancy, treason, stealing wigs, and yes, even trials for stealing a silver spoon or a bolt of silk fabric, both of which if found guilty, came with the death penalty. For those interested in reading any of the court transcripts, session papers, and legal history of the courts system in London, check out, Old Bailey Online, which has digitized most of the criminal court records in London between 1674 and 1913.
Writing gay historical fiction is a way for me to explore gay life in other time periods. It’s a vehicle to remember events and lives of other gay men, and to think about and deal with the homophobia, hate, and violence against people who are perceived as “different.”
Visit my website www.williamholdenwrites.com to find out more about me and where to buy my books.