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One of the challenges of writing a historical novel is to make the characters realistic to their era while still keeping in mind the modern mores of readers. Of course realism can be a challenge in writing contemporary books as well. For example, many Swartzentruber Amish have dentures by the time they’re in their twenties due to a lack of dental care, but that’s one detail I decided to fudge for the sake of romance in A Forbidden Rumspringa. (Dentures just aren’t sexy!)
When I read The Merchant of Venice in grade nine, I was shocked to discover that the villain Shylock simply wanted to be repaid the loan he’d given, along with interest. Seemed perfectly reasonable to me (and of course it was perfectly reasonable!). We discussed the play’s rampant anti-Semitism in class, and I’m glad we didn’t read a sanitized version. This was the way of the world in that time period. If we erase the past, as some have tried to do with books such as Huck Finn, how can we learn from it? But maybe it’s easy for me to say that coming from my place of white privilege.
Historical accuracy and realism meet romance
In my new WWII-era novel Semper Fi, one of the historical elements that made me wince was the way Marines talked about the Japanese. Anti-Japanese racial slurs were the norm in America during WWII, and I only debated briefly about whether or not I should include them in the flashbacks to Cal and Jim’s experiences in the war.
Marines fighting in the Pacific were in a life and death struggle with their enemy, and they didn’t pull their punches when it came to their language. For me to do so simply didn’t feel right. I wanted to depict the reality of war as best I could, and racism was sadly part of that. Slurs are used sparingly, but to eliminate them wouldn’t have been authentic.
Another challenge I faced was how to give my Marines who go from friends to lovers after the war their happy ending. For me, an HEA is a necessity as a reader and a writer. What does happily ever after look like in 1948? Can two men have a life together and raise a family?
The war is over. The battle for love has just begun.
As Marines, Cal and Jim depended on each other to survive bloodshed and despair in the Pacific. Relieved to put the horrors of war behind him, Jim went home to his apple orchard and a quiet life with his wife and children. Knowing Jim could never return his forbidden feelings, Cal hoped time and an ocean between them would dull the yearning for his best friend.
But when Jim’s wife dies, Cal returns to help. He doesn’t know a thing about apple farming—or children—but he’s determined to be there for Jim, even as the painful torch he carries blazes back to life. Jim is grateful for his friend’s support as he struggles with buried emotions and dark wartime memories. Then Jim begins to see Cal in a new light, and their relationship deepens in ways neither expected. Can they build a life together as a family and find happiness in a world that would condemn them?
Discover how love finds a way in Semper Fi:
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“I’m beginning to think they’re out of boats.”
Jim kept his gaze forward and whispered, “What?”
As they marched on in close order drill in the gray afternoon, backs ramrod straight, legs striding in unison to the DI’s cadence, Cal didn’t turn his head either. “The only reason they could possibly have for marching us around this much is that we’re walking to Japan.”
Lips twitching, Jim fought a smile. “Right through the ocean, huh?”
“Yep. This rain is just a warm-up for the real thing.”
“Plaatooon, halt!” Tyrell bellowed.
The men staggered to a stop, their rifles clattering together. Jim blinked the rain out of his eyes and waited to find out why Tyrell had stopped them. It could be safely assumed that the recruits had done something wrong. As always.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Tyrell slowly stride down the column of men, eyes sharp like a predator stalking its prey. Jim prayed he would pass Cal by just this once and pick on one of the other recruits. Not that Jim wished them any harm, but he hadn’t gotten to know them. Everyone knew that once their six weeks of training was through, their platoon would be scattered throughout the Corps. No sense in getting attached.
But it was different with Cal. As much as Jim wanted the time to go quickly so he could officially be a Marine—and not stuck in this purgatory—he dreaded the day he would no longer have Cal at his side to raise a sardonic eyebrow or give him a hand, strong and sure, when he struggled at the top of the climbing wall during PT.
As they set out again, it happened so quickly that Jim wasn’t sure if Tyrell tripped him or if Cal had unluckily stumbled. Jim could only catch the edge of Cal’s rain poncho for a moment before Cal sprawled forward in the mud, crashing into the man in front of him, who staggered but remained upright.
Shouldering his rifle, Jim sank to his knees beside Cal, who sputtered, wiping mud from his face as he glared up at Tyrell looming over them.
Tyrell narrowed his gaze on Jim. “Recruit! On your feet!”
The words were out before Jim could stop them. “He could be hurt, sir.”
Jim had grasped Cal’s shoulder, but Cal shook him off. “I’m fine.” He hissed under his breath as he moved to his feet, “Get up!”
Clambering up as well, Jim stood at attention once more, eyes on the helmet of the man in front of him. They waited with bated breath for Tyrell’s next move. The freezing rain pelted down, and all else was silent. Jim tensed from head to toe, wondering if Cal was hurt. Cal seemed to be standing fine beside him.
Finally Tyrell spoke. Instead of his usual red-faced roar, he addressed Cal with an eerie calm. “This is what happens when you don’t stay in step, recruit.”
“Yes, sir.” Cal’s voice was flat.
“You’re filthy, recruit.”
“Get out of that disgusting uniform.”
Cal hesitated. “Sir?”
With a swift intake of air, Tyrell unleashed at full volume. “Did I stutter? You’re a disgrace to this platoon! You’re not fit to wear that uniform, so get it off! On the double! Down to your skivvies!”
From the corner of his eye, Jim watched as Cal stripped, awkwardly shifting his rifle from arm to arm since he couldn’t dare put it down in the mud. He hopped on one foot as he struggled to yank off his trousers over his boots. Jim clenched his fists, pressing his arms to his sides.
Once Cal stood at attention again, Tyrell inspected him. He barked, “Pick up those revolting pieces of clothing. You think I’m gonna carry them back to the barracks for you?”
Cal did as he was told, balling up his uniform and tucking it under his arm. “No, sir!”
They were off again. Jim caught glimpses of Cal’s chest, the dark hair scattered across it matted down by the relentless, icy rain. As they marched on interminably, Cal began to noticeably shiver. Jim wanted to give him his own poncho and tell Tyrell to go to the devil, but knew it would only make things worse.
When they finally returned to the hub of the base, Marines laughed and hollered at Cal, whistling and breaking into a ribald song. Jim could see the stony set of Cal’s jaw as he ignored them. They were finally dismissed for an hour to write letters, but Cal headed straight to the head.
Although he was eager to write home, Jim followed. The empty shower room was large and open. Still in his muddy boots, Cal dropped his gear and clomped over to one of the showers and turned on the water. His soaked white briefs clung to his buttocks.
For some reason, group showers always made Jim strangely bashful and uncomfortable, even back in high school phys ed. He’d seen Cal and all the other recruits naked by this point, and didn’t want to be labeled a prude. Yet there was something about the sight of Cal in his boots and see-through skivvies that made Jim flush and turn away.
He realized Cal needed dry clothes, and hurried back to the barracks to retrieve Cal’s spare khakis and towel. When he returned, Cal still stood beneath the spray of water, his legs parted and arms braced against the wall.
Jim croaked, “Cal?” He cleared his throat. “You’d better get dressed. Tyrell’s likely to call off the personal time any minute and get us marching again.”
With a nod, Cal turned off the water. A crooked smile lifted his lips when he saw Jim holding his spare clothes. “Thanks.”
As Cal bent to unlace his boots, Jim made himself busy at the sink, scrubbing his hands even though they didn’t need it. In the chipped mirror, he glanced at Cal toweling dry and dressing. When Cal swore under his breath, Jim turned around. “Okay?”
“Damn buttons.” Cal had on his undershirt, but struggled with his uniform.
Jim stepped closer and realized Cal’s hands were shaking. He reached out and covered Cal’s fingers with his own, wincing when he felt how cold they were even after the shower. “Here. Let me.”
Although clearly wanting to argue, Cal lowered his arms to his sides. Jim inched closer, but found his own hands clumsy as he tried to fasten Cal’s shirt in the opposite way he was used to. “Wait, this’ll be easier.”
He moved behind Cal and reached around him, pressing against his back as he pushed each button through its hole. Cal seemed to be holding his breath, and didn’t move a muscle. When the last button was through, Jim stepped away and slapped Cal lightly on the back. “There you go. Ready for action.”
Cal mumbled a reply, his face flushed. Jim was relieved the shower and dry clothes had done the trick, and that Cal was warming up again.
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After writing for years yet never really finding the right inspiration, Keira discovered her voice in gay romance, which has become a passion. She writes contemporary, historical, paranormal and fantasy fiction, and—although she loves delicious angst along the way—Keira firmly believes in happy endings. For as Oscar Wilde once said, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” You can find out more about Keira and her books at her website, and on Facebook and Twitter.