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Historical Fiction  
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Glbtq historical fictions creatively interweave fiction with facts in ways that have not only won them a large readership but also have offered that readership insightful illuminations of glbtq histories.

Broadly defined, historical fictions are stories set in a historical period prior to the writer's own time period. These stories mix fact with fiction in ways that often challenge readers to determine the line between historically documented events and a writer's imagination.

Critics sometimes accuse historical fiction of blurring this line; they claim such stories corrupt facts with fiction. These criticisms generally misunderstand the uses of fiction, especially the ways in which historical fiction can help illuminate the borders between what we know and what we do not know about history.

Sexual and Historical Mysteries

When it comes to glbtq histories, there is much we do not know for certain. We are faced with an unusually extensive lack of trustworthy evidence not only because sex has been viewed by so many people throughout history as intensely private (and therefore not documented in detail for posterity) but also because the kinds of non-normative expressions of sex and gender that are the focus of glbtq histories have been subjected to oppression and suppression. Thus, most of the surviving historical evidence attests directly only to oppression.

We know very little about how people who engaged in non-normative sex and gender expressions thought of themselves and their experiences. In addition to these historical mysteries, current research today demonstrates that sex and gender remain mysterious even when the "facts" about our sexual and gender behaviors are relatively clear: these are some of the murkiest aspects of human experience. Historical fictions can help us explore this murky mysteriousness in both the present and the past.

Consider the most common form of criticism leveled against glbtq historical fiction: some people claim such fictions tend to invite readers to identify anachronistically with figures from the past--to identify such figures as gay, lesbian, bisexual, , or , despite the fact that these terms (according to the critics) connote modern psychoanalytic understandings of sex and gender that did not exist in the distant past.

In many instances, such criticisms pretend to know more than they actually do. Sex and gender conventions evince significant change and variability not only across different historical periods and settings but also within single periods and settings. As glbtq historical fictions tend to remind us, sex and gender are mysterious; even today the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer are used in a wide variety of ways that do not all imply psychoanalytic understandings of the self.

Narrative Understandings of Sex and Gender

Historical fictions generally do not place much emphasis on these or other categorical terms for sex and gender. Instead, they tend to rely less on single words than on their narratives as a whole to characterize their protagonists' experiences of sex and gender. They thereby suggest that categorical terms for sex and gender, while useful to some extent, constitute a form of shorthand marking the place of previously told, yet-to-be-told, or even missing narratives.

Put differently, they suggest that categorical terms for sexual desires constitute merely one point of entry for exploring questions they help define but cannot definitely confine.

Historians such as Carolyn Dinshaw acknowledge this insight offered by glbtq historical fictions. In her work on medieval sexuality, for example, she draws on Robert Glück's Margery Kempe (1994), a novel about the medieval English mystic that emphasizes not neat, rigid categories to describe Kempe but rather an experiential narrative.

Dinshaw values this narrative precisely for the "disorganizing" understanding it offers of Kempe: it presents Kempe as it were from a multiplicity of angles--as narratives typically do--whereas categorical terms tend to present a falsely organized, simplified view of people by defining just one set of traits, characteristics, and experiences as dominant while relegating all others to a secondary status.

The types of narrative conventions used by contemporary glbtq historical fictions to describe sex and gender experiences have roots far older than modern psychoanalytic concepts and terminology: they echo ancient Christian narrative conventions.

This historical lineage is evident not only in historical fiction but in many kinds of contemporary glbtq narratives--especially in coming-out stories and stories about glbtq people forming non-biological kinship groups. These stories have strong parallels with Christian narrative conventions of conversion and community-formation. By focusing on history, many glbtq historical fictions tend to emphasize the ancient historical roots of these narrative conventions more clearly than other kinds of glbtq narratives do.

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Sarah Waters is one of the most widely read glbtq historical fiction writers working today.
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