The Difficulties of Writing Really Old Erotic Historical Romances / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This post contains frank sexual language…it would have been impossible to write the post without such language. –t.

Ever wondered why there aren’t more erotic historical romances out there?

I’ve always written the odd historical romance, but my output has dropped considerably since the market bottomed out rather dramatically a few years ago. Since erotic romances bloomed in the early 2000’s I naturally switched my attention over to erotic historicals, and my very first erotic romance was an historical — Forbidden, under the Anastasia Black pen name, which I co-wrote with Julia Templeton in 2003.

As erotic historical romances go, that one wasn’t too bad. It was a regency and, well, Julia and I were wet behind the ears when it came to erotica. That was so mild an erotica it barely qualifies these days. Ellora’s Cave was just starting to hit its groove. So were the readers.

I’ve written far more erotica since then, including a few historicals. I’ve written sex scenes set in 5th century Britian, 11th century medieval Tuscany, feudal England, 5th century Norway (yes, Vikings!) and more. I’ve had editors contact me asking for advice on the writing of sex scenes set in the ancient world. And I think I know why there simply aren’t that many erotic historical romances out there: Because they’re so bloody impossible to write.

I’ll give you one tiny example to demonstrate, although I have to use graphic language to do this, so if you’re not used to erotic novels, then stop reading now. It gets anything but euphemistic from here-on in.

Let’s consider the man’s penis.

Most erotic novels use the word “cock”. We’re comfortable with it. We like it. We really, really like it, actually. It’s a good word for that lovely piece of a man’s anatomy. But if you’re writing an historical novel, you can only use that word for novels that stretch back to around 1300 A.D or so, and that’s really pushing the etymological dictionary and your editor’s patience.

There’s a couple of other ways of getting around not using the word, though. You could use a coy euphemism, although this isn’t a really good alternative for an erotic romance that is supposed to be direct and, well, erotic. But it would be at least historical accurate, and editors at houses like Ellora’s Cave won’t tear strips off your hide for turning in a shoddily-researched manuscript out of the gate. So let’s try for a euphemism. Something like…oh, let’s say “shaft.”

Actually, no, you can’t. If you’re writing a novel set in the ancient world, even the word “shaft” as a euphemism for a man’s penis wasn’t in common use until medieval times. (From The On-line Etymological Dictionary: “In M.E., the word also was a euphemism for “penis.”) So you’re out of luck there, too. Strike two.

Okay, your next alternative is to avoid a direct reference to his penis at all. Something like “he thrust into her” instead of saying “he thrust his cock into her.” It does describe the action correctly, it avoids any anachronism, but it’s incredibly coy, and it’s not what erotic romance should be. You can only write so much of this before your erotic sex scene isn’t erotic any more. Let’s say that’s another strike against you, although you could get away with this for a while.

And so far, we’ve just dealt with his cock. Then there’s every other sexual body part that comes into play during a sex scene that needs to be dealt with the same way: researched for the period you’re writing in, names and euphemisms decided upon, and alternatives found if there are none available.

But wait…we haven’t finished yet.

Then there’s the sex acts themselves. What did people actually do to each other back then? It’s not what we do now. In Sparta, for instance, older men having sex with younger boys was quite common, and male/male sex in general was part of the culture. In Rome, the most common sexual position was for the woman to be on her hands and knees. You can’t just have your hero throw the heroine on her back because maybe they didn’t do that back then.

And what about sex toys? Yes, they had them back then. But did the society you’re writing about use them? Some did, some didn’t. And some kept them hidden and secret while others used them openly. Victorian Britain was wildly hypocritical about its sex life — you’d have thought it didn’t have one at all, but behind closed and bolted doors it was one of the most hedonistic societies history has ever seen.

Then there’s birth control, a slippery subject at the best of times. In ancient periods, if it was given any thought at all, it was usually coitus interruptus, although the Romans did have a very basic condom, made out of sheep-gut. Some publishing houses, such as Ellora’s Cave, have a house policy that insists you, as the author, incorporate birth control issues into your sex scenes, so you will need to research and include details accurate to the period you’re writing in. And if it is appropriate for your period, you may also want to consider sexually transmitted disease issues, such as syphilis, which exploded across Europe from the 15th Century onwards.

For erotic romance novels set in very ancient eras there is a dearth of reference material available that tells us how people in those times spoke and thought of their genitalia and sexual activities. In order to be completely accurate, an author must conjecture and extrapolate from the few sources that are available. It is a real challenge.

If you’re writing in the medieval and later periods, you have more sources available, but then your decisions become more complex and bewildering. The number of euphamisms and nouns you can use explode…but do you really want to be rigidly accurate? Do you really want your heroine to look at her hero and think “He really has a fine set of bollocks”? Your readers will fall about laughing.

True, there are some readers who are so steeped in the culture of the period you are writing in, that they will absorb and accept the true and accurate terminology of the times. Regency readers in a good example of this. If you’re not using the exact terminology of the time, they’ll slaughter you.

But most erotic romance readers are reading because they want to be titillated, to be aroused, and if you’re using the exact terminology of the historical period, and it makes them laugh, not sigh, then you’ve failed as an erotic romance author.

I therefore make the hard choice and compromise between being as historically accurate as possible, and being anachronistic and using terminology that the reader will accept more easily and going for the effect I need. Especially in historical sex scenes set in very early periods, I will use Anglo-Saxon terminology for body parts where there is no chronologically accurate term available.

For all these reasons, authors don’t simply “dash off” erotic historical romances. They can’t. There’s too much agonizing and decision making involved. For the same reason, an author will tend to stick to the same era and write book after book in that era, straying a few hundred years to one side or another as they expand their research.

Research for erotic historical romances is an utter bitch, but the results is so worth it.

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