My mind wanders many curious byways while I’m writing, or procrastinating, as the case usually is. I might be writing about a hero attempting to deal with a recalcitrant mule and wondering what kind of foul language he might use during the 1790’s, or what he’d edit himself into saying if the heroine is around, and my mind will stray to another character who happens to be of a different race or religious persuasion and how he would speak to the mule. And then all these other intricate byways open up, maybe related to current events like the Imus foofaraw and suddenly, there’s a giant unexplored cave before me.
The cave to explore today is race and religion in historicals. Once upon a long time ago, I used to write books about the American south and had to deal with the language that would have been used at that time. I perused newspapers of the period and headlines would read “Escaped Nigger—Reward Offered,” so I know perfectly well what was acceptable then. And I equally know it’s not acceptable now—if only because of those dreadful historical headlines and their connotations.
So what is a historical author supposed to do? Ignore the facts of history to be politically correct ? That’s a loaded question, you realize, because a lot of people despise the theory of political correctness. They want to call a spade a spade and to heck with the fact that it was once an offensive reference to color. But I write books for people to enjoy and find it offensive to offend. At the same time, I want to present the issues and their historical foundations. That leaves me right in the middle of the road, waiting for a semi to knock me flying.
Race is the most obvious stalactite in this cave, but religion is far more pervasive, if not as obtrusive. The original colonies were founded on religion because people in Europe couldn’t agree on it. Religion has driven wars and brought down kingdoms. Religion has divided Ireland for centuries and driven Jews to wander. But if we try writing about any of this, the reading public runs, horrified, in the other direction.
It’s no wonder we can only write Regencies these days! If we stick to a ten year time period and a homogeneous class of people, when the wars were political and not religious or racial, we don’t have to trouble ourselves with nasty little “issues” unless we deliberately choose to do so.
I’m beginning to understand why fantasies about monsters have become so popular. They give us a chance to explore discrimination without offense. We can see the darker side of human nature without applying it to ourselves.
Does this mean we may be willing to explore real “issues” someday soon? Or that we’re still sitting around with our heads in the sand and big bullseyes on our rears? Or do issues have no place in genre fiction?
And how do I get out of this cave before I bang my head against the stalactites and knock myself out?