One of the greatest things about being a writer today is that there is a market for every flavor of story in any genre. This is even true of genres-within-genres, those special gems of writing that pursue one strand of writing within another context. For example, LGBTQ+ stories can now be found in any and every genre imaginable, from science-fiction and fantasy to contemporary adult realism, to murder mystery, poetry, and the creative essay. But if there’s one genre that seems best suited to LGBTQ+ stories, I think it’s got to be historical fiction.
My students probably get tired of hearing me say that the best stories achieve “The Three Es.” That is, they are entertaining, elevating, and edifying. What I mean is, they’re equal parts amusing reading (a good way to spend one’s time!), inspiring in some way, and informative. We learn something about ourselves, about our own interests, our writing strengths or weaknesses, and even our goals, by reading a story that ticks all these boxes.
Stories—successful stories—within the historical fiction genre are especially effective at meeting these thresholds, because a good historical fiction novel will teach us about important but often overlooked or forgotten parts of our shared past. They will weave into that educational history a creative, entertaining plot piloted by memorable, complex characters. These works instruct us in the art and science of sound research married to creative storytelling.
Here are some of the best examples of LGBTQ+ Historical Fiction that an aspiring writer can look to for instruction in how to achieve the Three Es (or tick all the boxes).
Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
Like A Love Story (2019) is not only a beautifully written young adult novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protections, and to fight for their lives during the AIDS crisis.
The author includes several important historical lessons—on immigration and other topics—weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives. Readers will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story.
At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses and the reality of mourning. These very human themes are so universal that the reader, while connecting with the fiction of it all, might find themselves relating to a story well beyond their own lived experience. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna!
At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
Jamie O’Neill’s 2001 masterpiece, if I can go so far as to name it such, takes place in Ireland just before and during the Easter uprising of 1916. It’s written in stream-of-consciousness style, an appropriate homage to James Joyce.
O’Neill juxtaposes the violence and confusions of wartime with a tender love story between two young men who are coming-of-age during a revolution. Not unsurprisingly, the plot includes a diverse range of influential historical investigations ranging from religion and politics to social change and economics. This one is a master class in presenting the rich and complicated history of a people and place through the lens of a small cast of characters, of their daily lives and experiences.
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
The Salt Roads (2003) is one of those novels that exists across a spectrum of genres. It has been classified diversely as historical fiction, science fiction, magical realism, and speculative fiction.
While it doesn’t focus exclusively on same-sex romantic stories—indeed, there are several plotlines in this novel—it does include a lesbian protagonist and same-sex love prominently. The inventiveness of the novel, its treatment of LGBTQ+ and other characters across time and place, particularly the intertwined stories of three women living in the fourth, the eighteenth, and the nineteenth centuries, and its strength as a science-fiction novel featuring Black characters, all led to its being nominated for a Nebula award in 2004 (where it became a finalist) and winning the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for LGBTQ+ science-fiction in 2005.
One of its great successes is its ability to travel across time and space, including to Egypt, Haiti, and Saint Domingue in different centuries, while weaving together the important stories of strong female and LGBTQ+ characters.
Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski
Swimming in the Dark (2020) is a rich and daring tale set in 1980s Poland. Its backdrop is the decline of communism in the nation and the rise of something new.
Wading through that transition are two young men on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. One, the narrator Ludwik, cannot abide the communist state and its restrictions, prejudices, and invasiveness. He loses his first close friend, Beniek, to bigotry against Jewish people in Poland at this time, a loss that will change and haunt him forever. The other, Janusz, having come from extreme poverty and worked his way up, through education, into a stable and rewarding position in the communist party, cannot imagine defying it. The two fall in love and, just as the country is torn apart politically, Ludwik and Janusz are bombarded by the many obstacles of being gay in the 1980s, in a country where it is not explicitly outlawed but where any deviation from the norm is an affront to the party.
Jedrowski’s prose is lyrical and emotive, matching brilliantly the narrative’s tone and atmosphere at every point.
Hild by Nicola Griffith
Like The Salt Roads, Nicola Griffith’s Hild (2013), takes us way back in time, in this case to seventh-century Britain. Unlike The Salt Roads and other historical fiction examples mentioned here, this one is based on an actual historical figure, Hilda of Whitby, who was the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby and later became a saint.
The novel is set during a time of great upheaval, when Britain was beginning to consolidate from its many disparate and small kingdoms (kind of like the ancient city-states of Italy), into what would become the unified monarchy of England. Hilda of Whitby lived during this time as an important religious figure and the leader of an important monastery. In fact, it was at her monastery that the Synod of Whitby was called to resolve the date of Easter for celebration by both Roman and Celtic Christians, who had been observing the holiday on different dates.
This exciting and inventive novel takes place before her rise, however, when the younger Hild, brilliant and clever, becomes a seer for her uncle, King Edwin. Griffith uses historical records to breathe life into an otherwise mysterious and lesser treated historical period. She accomplishes this so well that the book became a finalist for the 2014 Bisexual Book Award.
Thinking About It
Have you looked at a particular genre as a “how to” do what you hope to do in your own writing? Do you read and analyze favorite stories in the genre you want to write in? If not, it’s time to start! The best writers are readers, and reading is a conversation. It’s best to show up to the discussion well-informed.
Adam W. Burgess is an English Professor at College of Southern Nevada. He has a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University and is pursuing a post-doc writing certificate at the University of California, Berkeley. He loves engaging in all topics related to LGBTQ literature and craft. You can find him on his website, or follow him on Twitter.