Field Research: Unexpected Outcomes

I decided to write about my experience with the smartphone hookup apps to bring my readers up to speed on something I suspected they — you — knew little or nothing about. Most of you, including more than a few published authors of gay romance novels, are straight women. Reporting on my field research was a public service — an altruistic token of my appreciation for all the advice and support.

That’s right. I spent hours and hours researching the subject — all for you — with no thought to any cost or benefit to yours truly. I didn’t expect to end up with a better idea of what I want (and don’t want) in my next husband and who I am as a writer. But I did. Yeah, I’m just as surprised as you.

In previous posts, I’ve explained about online hookups, how the apps work, and a little bit about my experience with them. But I’m not sure the essence of the experience has come through. Let me see if I can explain in terms my female readers will perhaps better understand.

Using the apps is like walking into your favorite store — for the very first time — with an unlimited budget. You check out the merchandise and the more you look, the more you see that you like. You want to try on a few things, maybe take a new outfit or two home with you. What the heck, why not a whole new wardrobe?

Screw the age-appropriate selections. Nobody can see what you’re looking at. Old and rich-looking has its appeal. Or maybe something younger would be just the trick to put a little spring in your step. Just because you’d never wear something like that in public doesn’t mean you can’t check it out in the privacy of your own home. You can’t know until you try. If, after sleeping on it, you don’t want to keep it, you can always take it back.

Sooner or later, no matter the size of the store, you run out of stuff to try on. Maybe what’s left doesn’t fit, looks too old, or just isn’t your style. Yeah, it’s still your favorite store. But now you’re watching for new arrivals as you dig through clearance racks to make sure you haven’t missed anything too good to pass up.

When I reached this point, I added “ask about my novels” to all my profiles. A surprising number of men have done just that, and of course, I had to answer. Quite a few claim to have purchased a copy of Until Thanksgiving, and several chatted with me in realtime as they read the book. How cool is that?

Aside from friends of mine and one critic, until I heard from these guys, the only comments I’d seen about my first novel came from women. While lots of gay men I know are voracious readers, to date, only one has confessed to reading m/m romance novels. The rest of my gay pals would have read Until Thanksgiving, no matter what the genre, because I wrote it. And of course, they told me they loved it. That’s what friends do.

Before joining the Athens Writers Workshop, I’d never heard of m/m romance. The paperbacks I’ve read over the years came from grocery stores, hotel gift shops, and airport news stands. When I ventured into a real bookstore, I’d check out the gay section for novels written by gay men. None of those books were romances — just stories about life with gay characters — Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, for example.

That experience guided my thinking when I wrote what would become Until Thanksgiving. When pressed about my genre, I’d say contemporary fiction. After she read the first few chapters, a member of the writers group told me m/m romance was my genre. And she should know, having published a couple of m/m romance novels.

To tell you the truth, I don’t have a romantic bone in my body. Nope. Just ask any of my exes. No speaky romance here. I’m more of a let’s get this show on the road kind of guy. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when fans of the genre bemoaned the lack of romance in my story.

Gay men who read my book — especially those old enough to have come out when gay bars were the center of the universe — have no such complaints. They know Josh, Thad, Philip, and even Adam. No matter how big the city, the gay world was, and in many places remains, a place unto itself — where everybody knows everybody else, if not by name, then by sight. Gay men give me high marks for capturing that sense of community and creating believable characters.

The positive feedback from my gay brothers came when I was trying to figure out how to become something I’m not. They did the same thing more than 35 years ago, when I was trying to live the straight life. The same advice they gave me then holds true today.

I don’t need to change who I am for anyone. That’s not to say I can’t learn to do a better job with romantic relationships in my novels or that I’ll never write romance again. But it’s not who I am as a writer. I write gay fiction — thrillers so far — inspired by people and places in my life. Trying to cram my square peg into that round hole was stressing me out. In my rush to fame and glory, I’d forgotten rule number one: write what you know.

I have the same issue with Mom. She’s proud of me, but often says she wishes I’d write about something besides that gay stuff. She’ll even suggest story ideas, and is especially fond of historical fiction. I’m sure she’s thinking they didn’t have the gays back then.

Figuring out what I’m not is progress. But there are still lots of options. One of these days, I might even figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up.