Filling Your Holes. In History.
D.M. Atkins and I were talking the other day, comparing notes on the various pieces we were editing at the time. One of the things that stood out for us was when authors writing historical, quasi-historical, or fantastic pieces would write scenes, using details from modern, daily life.
This is a common kind of mistake. You’re writing along, caught up in the story, and you don’t realize that what seems like a perfectly mundane detail is glaringly out of place in your setting. Sometimes, it’s because of some fact about your story that you didn’t know. Sometimes, you’re so busy writing to the next plot point, you don’t notice the error. Either way, it leaves something behind that will be a pothole in your readers’ experience of your story.
See, the real problem is tied up in the reason why we include apparently minor, plot-irrelevant details. They’re shorthand for large chunks of setting, allowing you to describe your world through implication rather than exposition. The difficulty is that, when you get the details wrong, you’re implying things about your setting that don’t ring true. This induces the reader to paint an incorrect picture of the setting as she reads, which then produces a jarring experience when you later describe something that doesn’t fit the picture in your reader’s head.
This sort of shorthand only works because your reader comes pre-loaded with a dictionary of relevant detail. You mention horses and revolvers, and every western the reader has ever seen or read jumps up to supply images and sounds for the reader to use in imagining the story. Mention knights in armor, and every medieval-esque fantasy does the same.
This also happens when you mention details from modern life. When a character thinks of his world in terms of DNA and bacteria, it calls up supporting details from modern life in your reader’s head. When you then have the same character strap on a cutlass and go up on the quarter-deck to prepare for a pirate raid on Kingsport, your reader’s first though isn’t “Oooh, pirate action! Bring on the wenches!” It’s “Hang on a minute, age of sail pirates didn’t know about DNA!”
The same principle holds true for cultural attitudes and knowledge. Talking about sensation in terms of stimulating nerve bundles is good for a society with modern medicine, but out of place in one where neurology is in its infancy, or not yet invented. The idea of civil rights is fairly recent, and thinking about people as individuals first, and members of a family second is positively modern. Sodomy (including oral sex) is seriously illegal – you will go to jail for it, possibly even be executed – in many places and times until the early 20th century. In some places, it is even now.
I shouldn’t need to mention that you won’t even have the term “sodomy” in a world without the Bible, should I?
It doesn’t matter if the world you’re writing is an alternate history or a secondary world. You’re still borrowing from your readers’ experiences to evoke your story, and those experiences are based in our world. Even if the world you’re writing is not our own, you’re still (whether you know it or not) adapting and extrapolating from a real-world time and place. Saying, “It’s like the middle ages, but with steam power” relies upon your reader has some idea of what the middle ages were like in order to work. Because it relies on that knowledge, any differences that aren’t covered by your stated exception (steam power) don’t fit, and bump the reader out of the story, at least a little.
So you want to write a male/male story in a time where in real history, the lovers would have been burned at the stake, but don’t want to deal with such depressing details? That’s fine, I’m not saying you can’t do that. But if you do, you have to realize that one change (such as a less hostile environment for male/male romance) implies a whole host of other changes.
Everything is interconnected. If two noblemen in your feudal society can get married and live happily ever after, who inherits their lands and titles? If your noble lovers are so infatuated that they aren’t thinking about that, every retainer whose livelihood depends on their lands will be worrying about it. The answer can be as simple as mentioning that they’ll be required to adopt an heir, but it has to be in there, or you’re leaving the reader with a nagging loose end.
Of course, there are a few things that come up in historical and quasi-historical erotica more often than in other historical stories.
Terms used for anatomy, physiology, and sex vary from era to era, depending on how much the people in the setting actually know about how a body works. The biology of things like the clitoris or the prostate was not well understood until recently. Pregnancy means something very different in a time or place where women regularly die giving birth, and you need to include the precautions your story’s culture would include. Things like DNA, bacteria, viruses, neurology, etc, are not going to be part of many less technologically complex cultures, and even if the scholars and doctors know about them, they may not be used by regular people in a society without Wikipedia, Google, and the Discovery Channel.
Laws about sex and sexuality vary quite a bit from place to place and time to time. Things like “age of consent” didn’t even exist until recently. Some places would punish even oral sex as “unnatural.” Some had institutionalized forms of homosexuality, while others would execute “sodomites.” If you are writing in another time and place, find out what the sexual rules were, what diseases were possible and if there were cures, and what was or was not used for things like contraception or lube. Don’t assume that you can just ignore the bits you don’t want to deal with in your story. Erotica can get away with ignoring condoms and sexually transmitted infections in the name of fantasy, but there are only so many changes you can make without some kind of in-story justification before your setting starts to feel hollow.
Find the descriptions and words for the clothing people wore at the time period (or one similar to your world). For example, you won’t find zippers or elastic on clothing before the 20th century, or Velcro before the 1960s. People in the actual English Renaissance didn’t dress like the folks at the Renaissance Faire, which I mention to remind you that you often can’t rely on modern re-enactments as research.
When describing what your characters are eating, remember that if it wasn’t grown locally, it was expensive and took time to import. Climate, technology, and money matter a lot in this. Victorian gardeners in England grew pineapples in greenhouses, but that doesn’t mean anybody but the rich and the elite got to eat them. If you’re going to the trouble to write a dinner scene, find out what was and what was not available. For instance, you won’t find fresh fruit in the winter before refrigeration or global air transport.
Hygiene is another one of those things modern people take for granted. Most of what’s in your bathroom, except for the soap, are modern inventions. Toothpaste was invented for horses in the 19th century, before humans started using it. Shampoo and conditioner are modern inventions; most societies used scented oils in the hair, or nothing more than regularly combing it out.
Soap, for that matter, isn’t a universal. The ancient Romans would cover themselves in olive oil and then scrape the oil off with a specially curved stick to remove dirt and sweat before climbing into the baths.
Honestly, most people for most of human history made do with an occasional dip in the stream or a bucket of cold water and a rag.
So do the research. You don’t need a History degree to write fiction (though it helps for historical fiction, of course). Read up a bit on the period you’re borrowing from in creating your story. The TV Tropes Wiki has a very useful series of articles on the way various historical periods have been represented and misrepresented in fiction. That, and mining the references at the end of Wikipedia’s article on your chosen era, should give you plenty of information on what fits and what doesn’t. History Undressed reviews historical romance and frequently has articles useful to historical writers, like this one on the history of hygiene. Random History has this one, including the invention of modern hair care.
And, who knows, maybe the reading will inspire even more stories. That’s not a bad thing at all.
 A secondary world is a setting that has no relation to Earth, despite the existence of things familiar from Earth, like Humans. Nearly all famous fantasy worlds (like Tolkien’s) are secondary worlds.