Today I am so pleased to welcome Owen Keehnen to the blog for Time Travel Week! Owen is here to talk to us more about writing historicals. He has also donated some books to our big Time Travel Week Giveaway, so be sure to stop by and check it out. Welcome Owen!
History has always been a passion of mine. As a kid I would pour over old photos and yellowed documents, and watch black and white movies by the hour. I used to imagine myself in other times, leading a different life. I was kind of weird and proud of it. Part of my interest had to do with the strangeness of mortality. Seeing people alive in photos or films and then discovering they were dead fascinated me. A knowledge of death transformed that photo or film or document into a piece of immortality.
Once I started to form an identity as a gay man, I began to consider what guys like me did in other eras. How did we meet one another? Where did we congregate? What were the signs? I found all that stuff intriguing. And living through the worst years of the epidemic only emphasized to me the importance of capturing an era, telling our stories, and leaving a record of our existence.
The importance of forming a link between our present and our past led to my work and connections with various LGBT history organizations and several books. Recently, my love of history has had a solid impact on my career as an M/M romance writer. For me sex and history is a match made in heaven! My urge to document and a desire to explore other times is still strong. Only now I’m transcribing those daydreams and turning them into stories and hopefully bringing the reader into the fantasy.
My first historical M/M romance is set in the recent past. Thunder Snow was a homage to early 1980s academia. In exploring this era closest to my own I wanted to convey the struggles gay men faced in the post-Stonewall and pre-HIV era, when the beginnings of gay liberation were well under way, but the benefits of the movement had not yet permeated beyond major urban areas.
Jim Franklin has gone away to college, eager to leave his days of gay experimentation behind. He wants to belong. Jim joins a fraternity and is dating a girl. When he meets Glenn in his Romantic Literature class, love blindsides him. Glenn is the kept lover of a wealthy town resident. When Jim asks for help with a paper, the sparks soon fly, but Jim is afraid that acting on his attraction will mean accepting the fact that he is gay. Things change over winter break when the two fall in love. But will this love be sustainable when school resumes? In Thunder Snow my aim was to capture not only the era, but that early stage of love and explore what happens when that magical idealism comes into conflict with everyday reality.
My next romance, Springtime 1962, takes place in a landmark of pre-Stonewall gay activity, The Lawson YMCA. I’d wanted to write a history about the gay doings at the Lawson for years, but most of the Lawson’s underground history was undocumented or lost to time. Instead, I opted to populate the Lawson with fictional characters. Springtime 1962 is written as entries in the intimate diary of Joseph. The journal reveals a passionate love story between two men living at the Lawson during the Kennedy years – Joseph, a middle aged department store employee, and a mysterious young man named Clint. The men begin spending time together and eventually fall in love. In time Joseph discovers that Clint’s harbors a grave secret which threatens their relationship and future.
I’m currently working on the further adventures of Joseph and Clint in a full length novel entitled Love Underground. The diary format offers a chance to incorporate my love of documents into my writing and makes it easier to access the era by offering a day by day glimpse into 1962 gay life from bar raids to hook ups to popular culture.
In December 1903, the Iroquois, a Love Story, I incorporated a specific historical event as a backdrop to the story. The Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago was another topic I’d wanted to explore for some time and December 1903 was a way to heighten the horror of this tragedy by putting my characters in close proximity to the disaster and make them eyewitnesses to the devastation.
Frankie is an actor working in the Iroquois Theater production Mr. Bluebeard. One day Frankie exchanges glances with a handsome stranger on the street. Moments later the two are heading to Frankie’s boarding house. Though Frankie knows nothing about Otto’s life outside of the room, the two meet again the next night, and the next. As the winter wind howls outside the boardinghouse window, the men fall in love and plan for a new life elsewhere. Frankie buys Otto a ticket to the the show and they agree to meet after the matinee. During that afternoon’s performance the deadly inferno consumes the theatre. With December 1903 I wanted to go epic and recreate this all but forgotten disaster, and use it as a backdrop to a compelling tragedy/romance.
I had a blast recreating 1933 Hollywood in my upcoming M/M romance, The Matinee Idol. Raymond Richmond is a popular actor whose sexual indiscretions and drunkenness have led to his being fired from the studio. As his drinking escalates, bad investments and carelessness bankrupt Raymond. He begins hustling. One night Raymond is hired as a birthday present for set designer Carlton Finn who worked with Raymond back in his heyday. Finn knows how great Raymond was and his heart goes out to the down and out actor. They become lovers. In the subsequent weeks, Raymond stops hustling, works at staying sober, and getting his career back on track. But is that enough? Is the redemptive power of love enough to escape the trappings of the past?
History and sex are the most potent fuels of my imagination, so historical M/M romance feels a lot like the creative jackpot. For me, setting a story in a different era is the result of the proper accumulation of details. And I love the process of meticulously forming an overall picture. Hopefully that vividness enhances my fiction.
The effective evocation of a specific period also emphasizes the eternal aspects of life, highlighting those things common to our experience. Time travel changes our circumstances, but not the essence of who we are. In the genre of M/M romance, love is the channel for understanding. The reader’s recognition of themselves, despite outward differences, is the key as to whether a story works or not. If my books result in that state of identification or understanding, I consider myself successful. If not, I try again. Either way, the effort itself is a labor of love.