I’m continuing my discussion with historical fiction authors about how they’ve incorporated romance into their work.
Today, it’s my pleasure to welcome Charlene Newcomb, author of the Battle Scars series: Men of the Cross and For King and Country. Charlene writes historical fiction with a m/m romance set during the Crusades. Both novels have page turning action, rich historical detail, with a well-developed romance. I appreciate how Charlene has thrown her lovers, Henry and Stephan, in the middle of conflict. Not only do they need to survive battles and a grueling campaign, they also need to come to terms with their feelings for one another at a time when love is a luxury.
Let’s charge into the Crusades!
What made you decide to include a m/m romance in your story?
Charlene: Stories must have conflict – as if fighting a war isn’t enough, right? Writers are told to challenge themselves, to be bold, and write from the heart. The journey to war and the war itself made an excellent backdrop for a story about knights who served King Richard, the Lionheart. The story could just have been about their friendship, but adding the m/m romantic element quadrupled the conflict.
I could have had a more typical “forbidden” romance. Henry is, after all, a knight, the son of a baron, and expected to marry – an arranged marriage, of course, a business arrangement. He is betrothed to a 14 year-old girl back in Lincolnshire, but she doesn’t stir any passion in him. He could be tempted by women beneath his class – camp whores accompany the army, at least until the march towards Jerusalem begins. There are Sicilian beauties, Muslim servants, even laundresses. But any of those options sounded too cliche to me. And it never crossed my mind that Queen Joanna, the Lionheart’s sister, might fall in love with the hero of story. Readers knowledgeable of the era would have thrown the book across the room if I’d gone that route. [CB: I would have been one of them. So very glad you didn’t!]
Men of the Cross is about a friendship between soldiers, men who have already have a special bond as they struggle to survive against brutal enemies and harsh conditions. It is unfathomable to me, given human nature, in an army of 15,000 or more men, that some men would not have fallen in love.
The challenge was making the developing relationship between Henry and Stephan feel real. Honestly, I wasn’t even certain I could write a believable story of any relationship. Could I find the emotion, the passion, between two men? Apparently I have, and I am thrilled when I hear from gay readers who tell me the relationship feels authentic. I also love to hear from readers who only read war stories or only want a romance, but tell me they gave Men a chance.
Can you tell us about some of the challenges Henry and Stephen faced in their relationship?
Charlene: On the war front, the challenge is staying alive. Death at the hands of the Saracens isn’t the only obstacle – raging rivers, illness, starvation, the weather, other Christian enemies – too many give their lives in service for God and country. But I think you’re looking for the love angle. 🙂
The relationship is borne of the friendship between two knights who meet in Southampton prior to sailing across the sea to join up with King Richard’s crusader army. And though they both answered the call and took the Cross for slightly different reasons – Stephan for his loyalty to the king; Henry for God, king, and country and a desire to prove himself to his father – they find mutual respect and admiration.
The challenge for these two men is accepting they can love each other. Stephan, who had been filling his lustful desires for men since he was a mid-teen, is certain there will never be love in his life. He has no intention of marrying and no compulsion to as the third (and poor and landless) son of baron. He is completely satisfied bed-hopping with other handsome knights. Henry, on the other hand, has been steeped in Church teachings – sex outside marriage, whether with a man or a woman, is a sin. And not just a sin, but a mortal sin. Henry is extremely torn by the feelings he develops for Stephan, and his inner turmoil drives the conflict and could be a rift between the men that cannot be healed.
At times it makes it difficult for them to be around each other – and because the knights tend to march and camp with their divisions, it isn’t easy to escape from each other. Their closest friends, who know the two men should be together, finagle ways to make that happen and encourage the relationship.
In the second book of the series, For King and Country, Henry returns home knowing he must keep his love for Stephan secret from his family. His father expects that he will marry and produce an heir and is in matchmaking mode. The pressure is on, including from Henry’s sister, and the question is how will Henry avoid marriage when his heart belongs to Stephan. The knights face months of separation when Stephan’s orders from the queen mother send him on missions that Henry isn’t privy. There are darker forces at work, too, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers! [CB: No spoilers from me, but you could say that what awaits them at home may be more challenging than the Crusades!]
How does Henry and Stephan’s same-sex relationship reflect the historical times?
Charlene: The Church considered same-sex relationships unnatural. Priests had penitentials – guidelines – on what penance to dole out for a variety of sexual sins. If these penitentials were needed, then obviously there was some sinning going on. (See a broader discussion of this in a post on my blog.) Henry and Stephan weren’t alone. But this isn’t something one flaunts. Enemies might use it against you. The knights’ relationship is not overt – no public displays of affection, beyond what would have been normal at the time. From Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others:
“…medieval society celebrated a type of deep, passionate friendship between men that modern society does not. Men today who expressed their feelings for each other in the same way medieval men did would be universally believed to be sexually involved with each other. Medieval people either did not believe that they were, or did not think it noteworthy if they were, because there is no comment about it.” (Mazo Karras, 2017.)
While there might not have been specific accusations, medieval chroniclers did write about the rich and famous. One noted the “immodest love” between Edward II (14th century) and his favorite Piers Gaveston; and it is suspected that William II (aka William Rufus, 11th century) may have been “gay.” (I use gay in quotes because that term and the concept of homosexuality as a sexual identity don’t appear until the second half of the 19th century.)
Perhaps there were loving, long-term relationships between men that went deeper than friendship, but like the examples above we don’t have definitive proof. As an incurable romantic, I want to believe there were some Henrys and Stephans out there.
How have you kept Stephan and Henry’s relationship central across multiple books without it getting stale for the reader.
Charlene: Battle Scars doesn’t fit a typical category. Is it a romance, historical fiction, a military adventure, a gay romance? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Purists may have a hard time with it. I like to say it’s historical fiction with a romance element that features gay characters. The romance may be central, but the story is much larger, with the historical aspects driving it through bloody battles, tedious army life, and the politics and intrigue of the reign of Richard the Lionheart. It is based in a fascinating time and place with real people and actual events that my two fictional characters witness. You know the adage: “truth is stranger than fiction.” It really is true. I think all those elements plus the adventure keeps the knights’ story fresh and believable. Henry and Stephan are two young men shaped by their times and I place them in interesting situations hoping to keep the reader emotionally involved. Sure there is sexual tension – that romance element, remember – but there are many obstacles in their path. Their lives and the lives of those they care about, including each other, are at risk. I hope this makes the reader worry about them, root for them. How will the knights get out of this mess? Take a breath, turn the page…
I know I’ve done my job when a reader tells me they didn’t want the story to end.
I can attest that I didn’t want either story to end. After devouring Men of the Cross, I immediately dove into For King and Country. Now I’m eagerly awaiting Book 3! I know I’m not alone.
As a final note, we should all applaud blended genres. They can bring the best of both genres into one exciting read. Also, read outside your genre as often as you can, no matter where that takes you. Stories, after all, are universal.
Your turn. I want to hear from you. Do finish this sentence: if I was not reading historical fiction [substitute any genre], I would be reading….
Charlene Newcomb, aka Char, is currently working on Book III of her Battle Scars series. Men of the Cross and For King and Country, Books I & II, are B.R.A.G Medallion honorees that vividly portray the impact of love and war on a young knight serving Richard the Lionheart. Book II is an Editor’s Choice of the Historical Novel Society and a finalist in the Chaucer Awards for pre-1750 Historical Fiction.
Char is a contributor and blog editor for English Historical Fiction Authors and a member of the Historical Novel Society. She lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian by trade, a U.S. Navy veteran, and has three grown children, one grand kitty and three grandpuppies.
** Time sensitive** Kindle Countdown for U.S and U.K readers: For King and Country will be on sale beginning June 19th at a special price of $1.99/£1.99, rising incrementally through June 22, 2017. Be sure to grab your copy early!