Throughout April I’m celebrating aro and/or ace-spec writers on Jessticules with AroAce April!
Today I’m joined by yet another asexual writer I came across on Twitter, and I hit that follow button unbelievably fast when I realised I’d stumbled across another history nerd—and a northerner, too! Sarah Bell is the author of The Murder Next Door, a queer historical murder mystery that’s out now.
Read on for our chat about asexuality, researching queer history and writing whodunits…
Welcome to Jessticulates, Sarah, and thanks so much for taking part in AroAce April! Please introduce yourself:
Hi, I’m Sarah, an author and history nerd from Leeds, Yorkshire.
Can you remember the first time you came across the term asexual? How did it make you feel?
The first time I remember was seeing it online on some LGBT+ website when I was 20. I clicked for more info out of curiosity, then read the description and was like ‘oh, no’ and slammed the laptop lid down. It resonated just a little too hard when I wasn’t in the right head space for it yet (I’d only come out / recognised my own queerness fairly recently at the time.)
I’m happy to say I’m a lot more comfortable with being being asexual now and having that label available to me has helped immensely with understanding myself and my sexuality.
As a huge historical fiction fan, I was so excited when I discovered one half of the sapphic couple in The Murder Next Door is asexual! How important was it for you to include an ace character in the novel?
Very! I’d read my first books with asexual characters maybe a year prior, and that had been such an amazing affirming experience for me, so I wanted to contribute to the growing number of books with ace rep.
At the time I started writing The Murder Next Door, I didn’t even know of any historical fiction with ace characters (we are starting to get more now, which I am very excited about, and there may, of course, be some I wasn’t aware of at the time) and I really wanted to explore the challenges and realities of being ace in a historical setting.
It also gave me an excellent excuse to research asexual history!
Were there any challenges to writing an asexual heroine in a time when asexuality as we know it wasn’t really acknowledged?
Yes, definitely. One of the main challenges was trying to envisage how much about her asexuality Louisa herself would understand. Even in this day and age, a lot of people don’t realise they are ace until later in life because it’s simply never presented as an option, so how well could a woman in 1912 understand that about herself?
I chose to make her aware she experiences attraction differently, and, as she’s a very scientific minded character, searching for answers, some of which she finds in sexology texts.
(Is it entirely historical accurate she would have found the exact text she needed? shrugs but I really wanted to reflect the modern day experience of finding the label with the 1912 equivalent, which for Louisa was finding out about Hirschfield’s scale for sexual desire, that included an option for 0.)
The other issue was choosing what language to use. When I was researching, I did find a claim that the word asexual may have first been used to mean a sexual identity in the early 20th century in America, but I chose not to include it in the book as it felt unlikely that Louisa would have known it. (Especially since I was already pushing what information it was historically likely she would have had access to!) She also describes herself as not experiencing sexual desire, rather than no sexual attraction, as it fits with how she would have understood herself.
What drew you to historical fiction, and to the early 20th century in particular?
I’ve always loved and been a big reader of historical fiction. The main thing that’s alway fascinated me about history have been learning and understanding the stories and experiences of people throughout time, and historical fiction gives us a way of exploring and sharing this.
The 20th Century came as a little bit of a surprise. It’s not a period of history I’ve really focused on before and I wouldn’t really consider it my go-to era if I was choosing a histfic book to read, so, when I stop and think about it, it’s a little odd I chose to set my debut novel then.
I think I simply had the idea and ran with it, and I can’t say really why. It was a really interesting era to learn more about though, and I got lost down quite a few research rabbit holes!
Which other eras – if any! – would you love to write about in future?
Oh, all of them!
However, I don’t think I’ll manage that somehow, but I’d love to go further back – to the medieval or early modern period – and explore what life was like for queer and ace people long before the emergence of our modern day labels and understandings.
The Murder Next Door gets an extra point from me for being set in the north of England, particularly when so many historical fiction novels have London as a backdrop. How important was it to you for the book to have a northern soul?
Yes, very! Once I’d decided to set the story here in Leeds, I wanted to make sure my Yorkshire roots shined through and that I did justice to my city and its history.
It was also a lot of fun getting to write a story set in my hometown and made research more interesting – I lost hours to exploring through old photos and maps.
Let’s just not talk about how many times I sat there repeating lines of dialogues to myself trying to make sure I got the accent right! (And then edited it anyway because there was too many apostrophes…)
What were some of the most fun and most challenging parts of writing a murder mystery?
The most fun is writing the clues and hints the characters find along the way, and leaving the odd red herring and occasional curveball for both the characters and the readers. Also, getting to add those little moments of foreshadowing – those small details that seem unimportant at the time, but, as the all-powerful, all-knowing author (ha! who am I kidding…) I know will be important later.
The most challenging is trying to figure out for myself exactly how my characters are going to figure out whodunit. The issue of knowing the answer they need to get to, but not knowing quite how they’re going to get there.
There has certainly been a rise in historical fiction that includes queer characters over the years, but do you think historical fiction writers could be doing more to include asexual and aromantic identities in their work?
Firstly, this queer history nerd definitely appreciates the increase in queer historical fiction, and as I mentioned earlier, I do think we are starting to see more ace rep in historical fiction. However, I definitely think more could still be done, and especially in regards to aro rep, as I can’t think of a single example off the top of my head.
I also think it would be great to see more from earlier time periods as well – exploring how people may have experienced asexuality or aromanticism back when people viewed both sex and romance from different perspectives to us.
What are some of your favourite books with ace rep?
Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire will always have a special place in my heart as the first ace book I read.
Another favourite is Loveless by Alice Oseman – a book that resonated with me so much I had to keep putting it down because I was having sixth form/ uni flashbacks.
An indie favourite is The Fable of Wren by Rue Sparks which is a beautiful story about grief and family and human connection.
Another excellent exploration of grief, family and identity is Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman.
On a lighter note, Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann is a cute ace romance.
As is The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz, which brilliantly subverts the asexual robot stereotype by making both the robot and human characters ace.
(Ok, I should probably stop now!)
Thank you so much for taking part in AroAce April, Sarah! If you’d like to learn more about Sarah and her work, check out her website here.
A man is found dead on his study floor and his now-missing wife is the obvious suspect. To their neighbour, Louisa Knight, it’s a shocking piece of news but nothing more. However, when she tells her ‘companion’ over breakfast, Ada Chapman nearly breaks their teapot and looks ready to run out the door.
For Ada watched Mrs Pearce leave from the window of her painting studio. A moment’s glance of a fearful face brings back old memories and gives her doubts.
As far as the more pragmatic Louisa is concerned, Ada’s determination to investigate is bound to lead them into trouble. Again. Yet Louisa’s curiosity cannot be denied, and as the pair delve deeper into their neighbour’s life what they uncover only clouds the issue further. The question soon becomes not just ‘Who killed Mr Pearce?’ but also ‘Does that person deserve to hang for it?’
Even if the couple can find the guilty party, will they be able to agree what should become of them?