Historical fiction: Queering the past


12 May 2023
Novelist Katie Daysh describes the choices she made to foreground the experience of LGBT+ characters in her new naval adventure

As a historical fiction author, I like to think of my responsibilities as twofold. On one hand, I have a duty to portray the world of the past as accurately as I can, investing time in research on the larger topics of society, politics and culture, as well as the smaller details such as clothing, food and, in Leeward’s case, ship design and onboard life. On the other hand, I am aware of the audience a story is going out to. I am not writing for a readership of the past; I am writing for the here and now.

Therefore, I try and always remain sensitive. My Age of Sail novel, Leeward, set onboard HMS Scylla, follows Captain Hiram Nightingale as he returns to the sea, after an extended leave of absence, to hunt down the mutinous ship, Ulysses. Along the way, he encounters many hurdles, both professionally and personally, while attempting to make peace with himself and his troubled past.

I wanted Leeward to explore themes and voices I felt were unheard in historical fiction, especially in the Age of Sail genre. Multiple lgbt+ characters form the heart of Leeward’s plot. I often use the term ‘queer’ to describe Leeward. It is a term that has been reclaimed by the lgbt+ community and a label I feel is non-restricting, inclusively covering all shades of orientation.  
Leeward’s main protagonist, Nightingale, is a man who, in more modern terms, would describe himself as homoromantic asexual, experiencing romantic attraction to men but no sexual attraction to any gender. I felt that asexual representation in fiction and film was particularly lacking and therefore, important to show. Discussing this diversity in non-anachronistic terminology was an engaging challenge.

The visibility of queer plotlines and characters in fiction has improved over the years, but I feel there is still some resistance to it, certainly in the realms of historical fiction where it is sometimes treated in the way of forcing ‘modern sensibilities’ on the past. I wanted to illustrate that these identities and stories have existed across time, while also counteracting some tropes and ways of writing queer characters that I find problematic. For instance, I wished to avoid the ‘bury your gays’ trope, where lgbt+ characters are denied a happy, fulfilling ending. Although Nightingale faces many troubles, I wished to add optimism to his adventure and ensure he was treated positively by the plot.

However, my approach to writing queer characters is also to make their sexual and/or romantic attraction almost incidental. Leeward is primarily a naval fiction, featuring battles on the high seas, conniving political intrigues and plots concerning the fascinating history of the late 18th and early 19th century. Nightingale, alongside his first lieutenant, Arthur Courtney, is not only a ‘queer character’; I think to describe lgbt+ characters in this way can feel reductive. Of course, that is a very important part of him and his story, but it is not the be-all and end-all.

My goal in writing Nightingale was to explore an alternative to a traditional stoic and aggressive masculine ‘hero’ character. I very much wanted to write about how the repression of feelings and experiences can lead to deep-seated issues. Nightingale’s journey – from a man broken by abusive figures and his own PTSD to someone who faces up to his trauma – encompasses this complex evolution. Throughout his voyage, I also wished to delve into themes of loyalty, found family and the notions of honour. Many forms of love – between a captain and his crew, between friends, between siblings, between romantic partners – are key components of Leeward’s story.

I find that the sea is one of the richest settings to handle these various themes in. It isolates characters so they are forced to confront themselves, and frequently puts them into situations of great danger, showing their true colours. I grew up, and still live, alongside the sea and one of my favourite places to visit is Portsmouth Historic Dockyards. This site definitely influenced Leeward and inspired its events. I wanted to bring that world to life through a lens which would perhaps give new insights and colours to it.

When I first began posting Leeward, back in 2021 on the story-sharing website, Wattpad, I never imagined it would reach publication in the wider world for a mass audience. I hope that everyone can find something to relate to in Leeward. Historical fiction, I believe, can unite past and present. The constant re-evaluation of history and its voices allows for varied and diverse stories to come to the fore.


Leeward by Katie Daysh is published by Canelo Adventure (p/b £9.99)



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Why queer love stories matter – read novelist Lauren John Joseph's thoughts in this excellent piece on keeping it fresh in fiction.