Friday, May 2, 2008

How do you solve a problem like smegma?

Ok – that’s not a particularly sexy title. I admit it. But it is a valid point when one writes historical fiction. Writing bed-scenes when your writhing couple didn’t own a bath or shower and wouldn't do for several hundred years could be a turn-off for the reader.

These days we are all Germ Free Adolescents, washing our hair every day and brushing our teeth whilst wearing scented panty liners but history, in general, is not famous for its hygiene. We all know the stories of people carrying posies around so they couldn’t smell the world around them, or scattering rue and rosemary on the rushes to keep down the fleas. I believe the rumour is that Elizabeth I took a bath twice a year, whether she needed it or not.

Once the Romans left England, plumbing because a lost art, and wasn’t really rediscovered for about two thousand years. In the interim times, well, let’s say that the natives were sometimes a little revolting.

There weren’t a lot of cosmetic dentists around in earlier times, and although the toothbrush had been invented in the 15th century, it didn’t really catch on that well (just as well we STILL don’t have to brush using badger or pig’s bristles…), and flossing? Forget it, that’s not caught on in England even today... (joke… joke…).

The Romans definitely had it right, and I don’t know why there’s not a huge slew of authors writing in this era because it’s very easy to get your men naked ("Fancy a trip to the Baths, Lividius?" "Don’t mind if I do, Maximus, old Beanus.") and nice and clean and ready for action.

The Greeks too, were sticklers for cleanliness, and not only that, they were accepting of male love, so no problems there.

It’s when you push ahead a few centuries that you begin to have problems, particularly in more northerly locations where people are covering themselves in skins and bear fat and not peeling off until Spring. Cowboys - out on the range for months on end in a dust bowl, Shakespearian Luvvies sharing their beds with lice and bed-bugs, naval commanders rogering the cabin boy who hasn't seen warm water or fresh fruit for an Atlantic crossing.

So how do get your hero’s todger out of his breeches and into the willing hand of his boyfriend or girlfriend without worrying whether their bed holds more life than just the humans? Ha ha! It’s possible, and with a little bit of suspension of belief without being totally anachronistic, too.

Say for example, you have a couple of lusty young shepherds who have been working on the farm all day in an 18th century small-holding and they look at each other over the sheep dip and they are sweating, the curls sticking to their foreheads, both covered in sheep-muck – and….Hmmm. Problem.

So – here are your basic guidelines for smexxing it up in days gone by:

1. Remember your characters come from a time when hygiene wasn’t a great issue. They were used to smells; they aren’t going to be put off when it comes down to it. Concentrate on manly sweat, and accurate scents that might be there, rosemary, juniper and cinnamon. Celery and cardamom (often chewed to freshen the breath)

2. Ignore teeth. It’s better not to keep referring to everyone’s perfect teeth because that’s going to be pretty damned unlikely before modern times and National Health dentistry. Assume that your hero and heroine are savvy enough to eat well and haven’t been stuck on long ship voyages. Snogging someone with bleeding gums or a jaw full of wooden dentures ain’t never going to be sexy.

3. Make them a little unusual for their time; remember Horatio Hornblower? . He used to shower daily on deck to the general amusement of all (which included his fellow lieutenants who were probably a little more fragrant than he was.) Horatio’s skin would have tasted deliciously of salt, and not of rancid sweat. What a damned shame that Lieutenant Bush never took advantage of this, canonically. I’m pleased to say, though, that there are now a few Age of Sail novels (Lee Rowan’s Ransom, Alex Beecroft’s Captain’s Surrender) that are exploring the love of 17th Century sailors - for other sailors.

4. Have a sex scene after swimming, that’s always an ideal time to avoid problems like fleas….

5. Bedbaths! An Erastes staple! I have had a bed-bath in both my novels so far. Not only are they a great way to get rid of any revolting smells, smeg and other things wot shouldn’t be on skin when a tongue is going to be stuck in any orifice handy, but they are sexy as hell and get the juices flowing, and the blood surging to places where it should be surging. Natural sponges=teh sexy.

6. Don’t forget the times when hygiene WAS important. Even in Britain, before the Romans buggered off and us English reverted to smelly painted savages, there was underfloor heating, hot water, communal baths, massages, showers and hot and cold running slaves. Egypt, China, Japan too - all had higher civilisation than northern Europe.

7. And yes! There were showers in Regency England! Here’s proof. Of course it meant that one’s man had to stand on a step-ladder and pour water into the top – but perhaps one’s man enjoyed this task – and he’d certainly enjoy drying sir off afterwards. But not with a soft thick towel please!!!

I hope the following scene from Transgressions (due out Spring 09 from Perseus Books) illustrates and illuminates.

Our heroes have been on the road for several days, deserting their brigade after Naseby, the battle that just about finished the English Civil Wars. They are muddy, and smelly, and when the finally reach shelter a bit of how’s your father is just what the Cavalier ordered, but I was all too appreciative of just how dirty they would be.

“Patience,” Tobias murmured again "Close your eyes, keep them closed." David did as he was told, and he was rewarded with a brief caress feathering over his scrotum. Tobias' weight lifted, there was a noise David didn't at first recognise, then a delicious feeling of warm wetness sweeping up each leg and ending with a soft massage of the skin between his thighs. He squirmed in abandoned pleasure, spreading his legs wider and wider to allow Tobias more access, with what he now realised was a sponge.

"Don't stop..." David arched from the bed, hoping the sponge would be moving up further still.

"I have no intention of it. You appear to have got mud everywhere." Tobias' voice was wryly amused. "Your face, Master Caverly, is filthy. The sponge was rinsed again and David felt his face being wiped gently, and wherever the sponge touched, so did Tobias' lips. As the lips passed David's mouth, David attempted to capture the teasing tongue but Tobias was moving onwards and would not be stopped. As sponge, fingers and hands explored his chest, swept over aching erect nipples and dragged slowly and blissfully downwards, David stopped thinking completely. All he could concentrate on, with his eyes closed tight, was where that tongue would go next. It teased into a newly washed navel, then tickled its way down the trail of every hair till he felt the sponge rest lightly on the base of his cock.

"How you got mud here, I can't imagine." David gasped as the sponge slid across the head, then arched as gentle fingers pulled back the foreskin and once again the cool sponge slid across the tip, which felt like it was on fire, and ten times bigger than usual. He gasped again as water dripped down upon it, running in rivulets down the shaft and pooling around his balls before sliding deliciously between his arse cheeks. With his sight removed, every touch was a delight his skin felt alight with sensation and the anticipation of where the next touch would come from. It was hard not to pull Tobias down and to forget his orders but he did it; for love of the man and for love of the sensations he was causing him.

When he felt his cock pulled in the sweet warmth of Tobias' mouth he had to bite his lip to stop himself from spending immediately. He pushed his hips up, just a little, to stop that teasing tongue from wasting time around the crown and Tobias let him enter him more fully. Tobias' kept his head still, and encouraged, David began a series of slow, self-indulgent and wonderful thrusts into his friend's welcoming mouth. It was like nothing he'd experienced before and although he'd never taken a man in passion, he wondered if it could possibly be as beautiful as this. Was this the pleasure that Tobias took from him? That Hal had - that Jon had? Gradually he had to increase his speed, he wanted release and his thrusts became faster and deeper. When he felt Tobias' hand between his legs, he spread his knees as wide as he could, thinking the man would enter him, but Tobias kept his head in place and slid a wet finger into David's entrance, sending David spiralling out of control as he felt him climax ripping through him. He shouted Tobias' name, pushing the man's head down even further onto his cock and emptying himself into Tobias' mouth.


Finally to paraphrase Bing Crosby:

You've gotta accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative.
Latch on to the affirmative.
Don't mess with Mister not-so-clean

Have good clean fun!


Jade Taylor said...

Love how your post has gone from something dirty in bad way to something dirty in such a delicious way!

Erastes said...

*laughs* - Thanks Jade. I have succeeded then!

Janine Ashbless said...

I shall be singing your ditty all the way to the video store to catch up on Hornblower - I never realised till now how vital it was I watch that series...

Erastes said...

Thanks Janine,

and yes! Hornblower the series is delightfully slashy - especially the parts where Archie & Horny are banged up in prison. The books don't really do it justice!

Madelynne Ellis said...

Ver-ry nice!

Hornblower the series was definitely more engaging than the books.

I've had people take baths in both my historicals, but for the most part I just conveniently omit to mention the fact that they're not scrupulously spotless. Actually, this is something that really annoys me in contemporary novels. What is it with characters who rush off to the shower the second after orgasm, or who even take shower breaks in the middle! Cleanliness is great, but so is hot, sticky, dirty sex! Maybe I'm in a minority on that one.

Interesting titbit. Oral sex wasn't particularly well practised during Georgian times, even between gay men. It was considered dirty. They were far more likely to engage in mutual masturbation or sodomy. And they took turns too.

Erastes said...

Thanks Madelynne!

Yes, I'd read that about oral sex, but I tend to discount it - It makes sense for prostitution - but I've read letters that hint at it, at least. I know the romans and greeks disliked it for hygiene and for power-play reasons but I'm quite sure that two loving partners experimented!

Madelynne Ellis said...

I tend to discount it too, but I thought it was interesting.

Olivia Knight said...

Maybe I'm a filthy filly, but I don't know that I've ever made any of my characters bath or shower, certainly not for hygiene reasons. In contemporary novels, that smacks of doorknob-syndrome - being unable to get your character into the next room without navigating the doorknob - ie. you don't have to describe everything for it to have happened. Likewise meals; you don't assume characters are ill-nourished just because you didn't read about their breakfast.

With historicals, conversely, we're more interested in the details - that's half the fascination of historical novels, finding out how people did live in the nitty-grittiness of their lives, and so we look forward to some explanation of how they managed. Which makes eliding their dirtiness more difficult, because we want the full texture and smell of the past. Your tips sound right-on, Erastes - especially that the characters are used to it. We describe the smells of spring blossoms and fresh-mown grass and omit to mention the overwhelming stench of carbon monoxide, concrete and tar; B.O., I guess, would just be their background noise.

Erastes said...

Olivia, I'm quite sure that your characters aren't quite as filthy as mine are, and I don't mean in a sexual way! I never had much problem with Standish (I used the bed-bath scene simply to instigate the sex, rather than cleaning up) but with Transgressions there were battle fields, men on the march for months, lice, mud, blood, bad rations... It really wasn't appealing!

You've got it bang on, though - it's my interest in getting the facts right that send me into a tizzy. I want the books to be historical first and romances second. I've read so many that have it the other way around.


M Barnette said...

And people wonder why I write Japanese Historicals, okay they tend to be alternate universe or have paranormal elements, but still.... LOL

They were a lot cleaner, plus you can have your heroes run into one another while one of them is bathing in a stream which my partner and I did in Sakura Blades: Destiny's Road. Great fun!

Erastes said...

Hi Michael

Absolutely. The Japanese were scrupulously clean! And all those hot springs!


Portia Da Costa said...

Wonderful post, Erastes! I love it and it's so useful.

Have toyed with the idea of historicals, but probably couldn't ever write one of any length because I'm phobic about making sure my characters are clean, take care of their teeth... and adequately fed and watered too, Olivia!

[I even describe doorknobs now and again too... LOL]

Also, being a lady of a certain age, I like to be sure that my female characters take care of their complexions for the future ie. moisturiser and whatnot.

Nah, I'm not sure I'm cut out for historicals.

But again, a marvellous post!

Erastes said...

Thanks Portia! I find it hard to blog on "informative" subjects but give me men getting naked and soapy? No problem. :)

I'm with you on doorknobs specially if they are crystal, or porcelain! - and good point, about the moisturiser. Of course ladies in earlier times would look old quick. Another reason to pick men who can age without people worrying about tanning and wrinkles!!

Janine Ashbless said...

Oddly, I was wondering about exactly that subject the other day - skin moisturiser in a historical context. If you don't soap regularly, would you even need it, or would your face be naturally greasy enough?

Anonymous said...

You really know how to write an attention-getting headline!

I think washing-as-foreplay is one of the best ways to keep myself in the mood for writing historical sex. And sailors would wash the salt off themselves, when they had the chance--it would feel good. Likewise anyone covered in mud and/or blood.

Teeth... I tend to avoid them, but some folks do have better genes for it, and -- I guess that's where the 'romance' comes in, in the old sense. There are limits to accuracy--I'm not going to afflict my characters with scurvy.

Smells in general, though... I remember reading a snippet of something about a gentleman being in transports of bliss because his lady carried an item (handkerchief or something) in her armpit for a few days, then mailed it to him. Humans are mammals. Response to pheremones is hard-wired, odorarm deunderant is a newfangled invention.

Skin-care isn't, though. Isn't there a letter from Sir Edward Pellew that recommends a particular brand of face-cream to his son?

Lee Rowan (can't find password...)

Madeline Moore said...

I love these historical posts. Great stuff, E, love the excerpt. It's interesting to read about the problems that are presented and how to get around them in a practical way, or deal with them in an erotic way. Sponge bath as foreplay - good thinking, and I bet we see more of 'em in future historicals.

'Wild Card' presented me with a few problems due to the fact that it took place over a weekend and one man was doing the majority of the screwing. He was forty and horny...but many orgasms can he have over one weekend and when does he sleep? I made sure he got a good night's sleep, a nap, and another good night's sleep so I handled that. He had six orgasms, I believe, that's not pushing credulity, I don't think. Maybe it was eight...He took a shower too, which was one of my favourite scenes because I was right inside his head and I worked hard to make his thoughts GUY THOUGHTS.

Something you are obviously very talented at E.

Thanks for this post!

Anonymous said...

*g* I think there's a lot to be said for having your characters just not notice the things they would not normally notice. If they're dirty by their standards - covered in blood, mud and ordure - then they would wash. If they're not dirty by their standards, then they're not dirty at all. (If you see what I mean?)

Though I tend to go with the 'no oral sex we're Georgian' thing - which does rather eliminate a lot of the problem.

Erastes said...

Hi Lee!

Thank you! I'm wasted really. I should be writing for the Tabloids. Wot a Stunnah! Heather Mills - you hop off! and the like... :)

I agree with you, if I know my boys are clean I feel a lot happier letting them lick each other all over. I don't care if THEY aren't so fussy, but I am!

*giggling about Pellew*

Erastes said...

Aw, thanks Madeline, that's nice of you.

I think that's believable, even with an older guy - especially if it was a new exciting relationship, and if you were letting him rest, eat and sleep. The *cough* emission rate would reduce but he'd still enjoy himself - lucky guy!

Erastes said...

Alex, I agree with you - they don't generally worry about it unless they are COVERED in stuff that they wouldn't be covered in, like blood and muck.

I love that phrase - will repay your kindness and send you an icon.


Kate Pearce said...

Very interesting Erastes! I think that most of the stench etc would be so familiar to the people I'm writing about that I don't need to mention it most of the time.

I suspect most readers are quite happy not to think about the yucky parts and drawing attention to the state of someone's gums, unless he's the villain of course (:)) makes everything a bit too realistic.

And I like the smell of sex, the mingling of sweat and perfume etc which can hang around to remind everyone of what they've been up to. I like writing about all that glorious sticky mess too.

Erastes said...

Thanks! and yes, Kate, you have a valid point - you can use the negative aspects of the hygiene scale to describe people you don't like - I believe that my villian in Standish (or one of them!) has land thin greasy hair and bad teeth, and another is smelly even for Newgate standards.

But yes, most people would be innured to a lot of smells, but not all, or they wouldn't need posies. They would be used to the smell of their loved ones and their own houses, but it would change when they moved around, and that's always handy to add a bit of atmosphere. The bed my boys are shagging on hasn't been used for many months and the house has been empty, so I added in a slight case of must and damp.

Erastes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madeline Moore said...

after reading your post I think I have a slight case of moist and damp, too...

Erastes said...


Oh thanks Madeline!

Craig Sorensen said...

Magnificent Post, Erastes.

I grew up in a rural area where the odor of manure was very common. Nowadays, when we drive by a dairy farm and the smell wafts through the car, it doesn't bother me at all, but it gets to everyone else in the car.

That doesn't mean I'm going to go out and find "Ode de dung" for my Glade Plug-in, mind you. Well, maybe if they have one of those two in one things, "Dung & Posies..."

Maybe not.

Erastes said...

Thanks Craig!

I love the smells of the Countryside (just as well considering I'm buried in it) too.

Deanna Ashford said...

Fascinating post, it really got me thinking. So far in my historicals I've been fortunate,. My first was set in Roman times and as you say that's easy because they were all fanatical about cleanliness.

Second time I picked the Crusades because most of the Christians in Outremer(as they called the Holy Land)had picked up the cleanliness habits of the Moors and some Crusaders even took those ideas of cleanliness back to Europe.

At other times I think you've just got to consider that the people of those times wouldn't have been bothered about the unpleasant odors ,that today would turn us right off ,because it was perfectly normal to them.

Erastes said...

Thanks Deanna, and yes, that's exactly it. Finding ways around it, without making it anachronistic.

jessewave said...

Sorry to be joining the discussion on this topic a bit late but I only saw this post this morning and couldn't resist posting a comment.

As an avid reader and reviewer of mostly M/M romances I try not to think about the whole cleanliness thing, and smegma in particular, except when Bobby Michaels' enthuses about it in his novels.

However I went from being totally turned off and grossed out by this article to waiting with bated breath for the release of Transgressions (which I guess was the main objective all along.) Good strategy if it was LOL

Erastes said...

hee- Thanks Jessewave,

I think a certain level of uncleanliness is a masculine turn on - from the gay erotica I've read.

And thanks - I'll certainly be shouting about Transgressions when it comes out!

Better late than never, hun!

Darragha! said...

Norsemen bathed, buggered and bellowed. Baked-clay (ceramic?) lined wooden troughs for Norway, and in Iceland, where hot water is everywhere, for free, they just stripped and hopped on in. Still do today, I might add :)

Erastes said...

Very good point! Lots of nice hot springs! Similarly some native americans, ancient Japanese and Maoris (and anywhere else with hot springs) could take advantage of this