Some updates on History Ever After

For a moment there, I wondered if I was getting to Sydney for IASPR at all. One of the legs of my journey was canceled, and it took two international calls to clear up the mess. (I think I’ve done it…we’ll see if I actually board a plane). When I hung up the phone, I thought to myself: “Gee, I would rather put the finishing touches on my History Ever After talk than grade those thirty-six exam essays waiting for me.”

(I would have probably also opted to fold laundry, clean out the fridge, and even scour the shower if any of those would get me out of grading. I feel bad about this reluctance because I teach really great students, and I love to see them succeed. But staring at such a large pile is disheartening.)

In any case, I procrastinated a few hours and updated the data on my slides. The last time I posted about my research, I only had about three months worth of market data to crunch. Now I have six. The results have not changed so much, even as Twitter has been alight with criticism of the lack of diversity in romance in general and historical romance specifically. But I should not get ahead of myself.

The dynamic duo of Regency and Victorian romance still dominates the industry. Of the historical romances that make the New York TimesPublishers Weekly, USA Today, Amazon, and Barnes & Nobles bestseller lists, 63% are set in 19th century Britain. And among online retailers, dukes are like kings:

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With the royal wedding this past month, I understand the appeal of the royalty-slash-nobility happily ever after—though this wedding was far more inclusive and kick-ass than any Heyer book, I dare say. (While I am thinking of the wedding, let me give a shout out to my good friend Andres for bringing me a commemorative tin of shortbread. I may have been a little excited—ahem—when I received it. However, that “best by” date sticker has me confounded. I mean, really? The tin is what I want. That doesn’t expire. Who the heck cares about the shortbread?)

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Anyway, I get it. I really do. But that still does not explain why dukes/duchesses appear in the titles of a third of the Amazon Regency and Amazon Victorian Top 20! (See the above slide.) About the same number of historical romance novel finalists in the 2018 RITAs have duke or duchess in the title. Not in the book; in the title!

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

The New York Times Review of Books just put out a Summer Romance Reads list. The Review‘s new romance columnist (yes, they learned to ask someone who actually reads romance to write about romance) indicates a fresh trend: poking a stick at the genre’s “reliance on aristocracy.” I would have cheered this news loudly if it were not for the fact that 3 of 4 historical romance novels mentioned have peerage or peerage-adjacent heroes (2 duke offspring—one illegitimate—and a marquess).New-York-Times-Review-Books-Summer-Romance

I have no doubt these books are great, and I look forward to reading them. I love all four histrom authors featured, and I have even interviewed Joanna Shupe on this very blog! And a few of these books challenge the chronotope in different ways—for example, Cat Sebastian has written a bisexual marquess and a nonbinary love interest. Cool!

But I want commoner heroes and heroines who make things, heal diseases, and run businesses—and they did in history. Women did, too. The Times book reviewer writes: “In Regency England, the space [strong women] can eke is usually tiny, the size of a marriage and no more. Sure, there are outliers, but authors can only stretch historical constraints so far.” First of all, give me those outliers. Outliers make the best fiction! Second, this is true only as the Victorian era restricted women’s rights from what they had enjoyed before. So why do we love the 19th century so much?

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Despite all these facts above, there are still strong women who made history, no matter the odds against them. And we might expand our understanding of women’s work to include the many household management and childrearing tasks that women had extensive control over. And you did see women in professional fields, such as education and health care. There are interesting stories out there.

And I do want to read all four of the historicals on the Times‘s review. The problem is not them, or any individual book. Any book is great if it is a good story well told. The problem is the effect of the aggregate. The overreliance on two chronotopes—19th century Britain (especially peerage heroes) and medieval England/Scotland—may distort readers’ view of history and make the market less friendly to diverse books and authors. This is a theme I will expand upon late this month in my recap of my talk, History Ever After. Stay tuned.

#RomBkLove Dommes Day

[Edited to add: This whole post became somewhat irrelevant when the Day 30 changed from Dommes to Hidden Gems—which is another great topic, of course. I’ve been sorta busy with end of term stuff, so I missed the announcement on Twitter. But I am leaving this post up because why not? I hope you enjoy it, even if it is no longer tied to #RomBkLove.]

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The #RomBkLove prompts in 2018 have been delicious, thanks to the creator and moderator Ana Coqui, and thanks to all those who suggested the theme ideas. I noticed a little pattern in this list, one I happen to love. Look at #2 and #30. A nice pairing, perhaps? I for one am having fun writing a male-submissive, hero-in-peril who falls under the sway of an emerging domme. Meet Ben and Allegra in the upcoming Sugar Moon.

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I began writing Sugar Moon in August 2013, and it is still not out yet. Honestly, there is a lot about this book that makes it complicated—not least of which is the fact that Ben Potter has been a thoroughly unlikeable character so far in the series. No one wanted to see him redeemed, and yet I have spent five years trying to do exactly that. Yes, I may have some masochistic tendencies. There are also complications surrounding Ben’s history as an American soldier in Balangiga, Philippines. He tries to stop events from unfolding in a particularly disastrous way, but spoiler alert: he fails. Shit happens. And it turns him inside out. Enter Allegra.

Sugar Moon teaser for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Trauma does not cause Ben to seek domination by a woman. He needed it before. Maybe he was born this way. The way his story twists and turns does have a point, though: it leads him to Allegra Alazas. She is sophisticated, erudite, and petite—and you should know that none of those things matter. She wants you to see the giant within.

Sugar Moon latest in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Adding to the complications of this book is the fact that it is a historical, and my domme is a virgin who has been sheltered in a convent school, for goodness sake. Ben is barely more experienced than she is, and he has no idea what he needs or how to ask for it. These two are friends-to-lovers, and they must figure things out as they go—without a vocabulary and without anyone to direct them. In this way, it is really a subtle power exchange, with no full-fledged scenes. Elements of domination, maybe. Domination lite.

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Why write Ben this way? If he’s some virile soldier type, shouldn’t he be alpha? If you read Tamsen Parker’s Compass series—and I highly recommend you do!—you will see that sometimes the people who kick ass in daily life need to give up control in the bedroom. However, I should point out that Ben is not really alpha-in-the-streets and beta-in-the-sheets. He is a hodge-podge of both. He is complicated. But he seeks Allegra’s strength from the get-go. He loves her certainty, her intelligence, and her sass. He loves that only Allie would get sex advice from a human anatomy textbook:

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Look for Sugar Moon this fall 2018. I hope you love these two together as much as I do.

Sugar Sun series location #13: Catbalogan

Catbalogan means “an everlasting place of safety,” and for hundreds of years it was safe—for pirates. The sheltered bayside harbor lies just north of the San Juanico Strait between Samar and Leyte, a key access point to the Pacific Ocean and the primary shipping route for the Spanish galleons. Since these vessels were headed to Manila with silver and then back to Acapulco with a hold full of porcelain and spices, they were ripe targets for pirates, right? And by “pirates” I mean the English and the Dutch privateers, who were licensed by their sovereigns to interdict and steal the Spanish bounty. Catbalogan became a haven for pirates and privateers, their crews, and lost sailors.

Visayas Philippines map Pulahan war for Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The southern mouth of the San Juanico Strait is right near Tacloban. Start there and follow the curve north and west into the bay above Leyte. The strait is 38 kilometers long and, at its narrowest point, 2 kilometers wide.

The Americans would find the city no easier to manage in the early twentieth century. For the first year of the Philippine-American War, the Yanks mostly ignored Samar because they had their hands full in Luzon. But then, in January 1900, gunships arrived offshore Catbalogan and sent a messenger to General Vicente Lukban, the Philippine revolutionary in charge of Samar and Leyte. The Americans wanted to negotiate a surrender of the whole island by offering Lukban the governorship of Samar. But Lukban wanted more than a title; he wanted full local autonomy. The Americans refused, so Lukban forbade them from landing. In turn, the Americans began to bombard the town. In other words, things escalated fast. Unable to withstand the US Navy’s firepower, Lukban and many of the locals abandoned Catbalogan, burning it as they retreated.

What followed was a ruthless two-year war to subdue the revolutionary forces in Samar. Company C of the Ninth Infantry was stationed to Balangiga to prevent Lukban’s men from using the southern port to import arms and supplies. On its own accord, the town ambushed the garrison in September 1901, and the American military took revenge on all of Samar. General Jacob Smith (known in the press as “Hell-Roaring Jake”) vowed to make the island a “howling wilderness.” Dusting off a legal gem from the American Civil War known as General Order 100, the Americans aimed to starve, burn out, torture, and kill as many guerrillas as possible. Catbalogan and Tacloban (Leyte) were the centers of American authority in this period.

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USS Vicksburg sailors led by Lieutenant Henry V. Butler (later rear admiral) burning a village in Samar, October 1901. Photo courtesy of Arnaldo Dumindin and his excellent website on the Philippine-American War.

General Smith’s “short, severe war” was both. But one might argue that it prompted the April 1902 surrender of Lukban’s forces in a grand ceremony in Catbalogan. (Lukban himself had already been captured.)

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Those surrendering had to turn over their rifles captured from Balangiga the previous year and pledge loyalty to the United States, but then they were freed. Lukban himself would become mayor of the Tabayas province (now Quezon) within ten years. This begs the question of whether it was the severity of the fight or the quality of the peace that pacified the countryside? Amnesty is not used much in America’s modern war playbook, and I wonder if this is an oversight.

There is an interesting fashion note worth mentioning: the Americans did loan the revolutionaries a few Singer sewing machines so they could surrender in style with new (and complete) uniforms. Pride was salvaged all around.

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This is not the end of the story, though. This first war—including the destruction of half the municipalities in Samar and the burning of tens of thousands of tons of rice—caused a lingering famine and sparked another war two years later. Today, we call this phenomenon “blowback.” The Pulahan War was both a civil war (inland highlanders against lowland merchants and farmers) and an anti-American insurrection. On the American side, it was fought by the Philippine Constabulary, Third District—a civil police force organized, funded, equipped (not well), and trained by Americans (usually former soldiers). And by the 39th Philippine Scouts, trained and equipped (with better rifles) by the US Army. Both these units had significant troop presences in Catbalogan, along with the 6th, 12th, and 21st U.S. Infantries.

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The 39th Company, Philippine Scouts, stands at present arms outside their barracks in Catbalogan, Samar. Photo courtesy of Scott Slaten of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

Catbalogan was a highly fortified town, but it was still beautiful. The ring of mountains separating it from the suffering of the rest of Samar did make for a stunning backdrop.

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Colorized vintage postcard of a steamer coming into to dock at Catbalogan, Samar, Philippines. Scan courtesy of Scott Slaten of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

The city fared better than the rest of Samar through the lean times, too. Though the galleons no longer journeyed back and forth to Spain, Catbalogan was a center of the abaca trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the large buildings and church. Abaca, also called Manila hemp, was in high demand as naval cordage. Its trade was dominated by ethnic Chinese and British merchants, and once Samar was no longer in ashes, the fiber would revive and bring an influx of capital to Catbalogan.

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Filipinos making rope. This photograph shows the hemp as it comes from the leaves and is put on the spool for winding. Courtesy of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.

The busy port was a bit out of town and had to be reached via a causeway along the coast.

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Vintage postcard of Samar with a view of the wooden causeway connecting town to the port. Scanned image of the early 20th century card by Leo D. Cloma.

In the early twentieth century, Americans complained about the lack of poultry, eggs, and fruit in Catbalogan. (I find the fruit claim hard to believe.) They also complained about the lack of dedicated school buildings—not one in the whole town—and the lack of teachers. (Whose fault is that?) And they complained that there were only five miles of road on the whole island. (But how far were civilians likely to travel, anyway?) I traveled to Samar in 2005—and though I would not recommend December for your trip because of the rain, I loved it. The island is just as breathtaking as the postcards from 100 years ago.

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Another view of the coast and causeway from the Quarterly Bulletin of the Bureau of Public Works.

Happy Mother’s Day to the Sugar Sun Moms

It is interesting that all my heroines end up with babies in their arms (or their bellies) by the end of my books because I never chose to have children myself. My life may be an unfair comparison since I have had modern science to help me avoid parenthood. Women in the Gilded Age had limited access to contraception, even if they were married and had a sterling reputation. My heroes would have had some access to condoms—called male safes or preventatives in nineteenth-century America—but even these would be harder to order in the Philippines.

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But I may be missing the point here. All my heroines want babies. I feel their biological clocks ticking—tick, tick, TICK—even though my own is silent. Nor do I think babies are required for the HEA. Even marriage is not necessary. Nevertheless, the first thing I think about when writing an epilogue is: “What are the kids going to be named?” And I guess, when you get right down to it, this is part of the answer for me: I love names. I just love them. And I love naming future children and thinking about how that name will shape the kid as he or she grows up. I know, it’s weird. But here we are, with three heroines with (more than three) babies. And Happy Mother’s Day to them all, I say! And Happy Mother’s Day to you, even if like me your “child” has four legs and a tail. Or feathers. Or fins. Or whatever.

Let’s start with the latest novella, Tempting Hymn, which has a scene with a pet carrot…

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Here’s the epilogue from the opening novella in the series, Hotel Oriente:

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And since you’ve made it this far, I have a special treat for you: a snippet of Javier and Georgina’s daughter Pilar and son Jaime from the upcoming Sugar Moon. This is told from the point of view of Allegra Alazas, who visits her cousin-in-law Georgina after the birth of the second Altarejos child.

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You can find out all about Pilar’s “competitive” conception by reading Under the Sugar Sun. And doesn’t that sound like fun? Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

Inspiring Words from Beverly Jenkins

I don’t usually spring for the master class at conferences, but to hear Ms. Beverly Jenkins?! Yes, please! I was doubly excited when she said that this was the very first master class she had ever given. And triply excited—I know that’s not a thing—when she said her talk would be about world building. Perfect for a historical fiction author!

She talked about a book being like a painting: your hero and heroine are front and center, but the background is full of the details of your world. The beauty of the painting depends on these details, no matter what genre of fiction you write, from science fiction to historical. The geography of our stories should not just be what town or state or country they are in, but all the small details that add life to that image—from weather to topography to points of interest.

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Ms. Bev illustrated each point with examples from her own writing, especially two of my favorite books of hers: Indigo and Forbidden. But it was the Blessings series (a contemporary saga) that stole the show. I was completely smitten with the tales of Cletus, the 600-pound hog who wore human clothing, killed a man by sitting on him, and then went on the run from the law. (Yes, a hog went on the lamb. Awesome, right?) The whole audience very quickly felt like we knew the town of Blessings better than the one we were sitting in. Ms. Bev is a master world-builder.

We were treated to a long Q&A session next, and if you have heard Beverly Jenkins speak you know how clever and funny she is. There was a lot of nodding along with her insights on publishing, and also a lot of laughter. You bet I asked her about stuff relevant to my History Ever After talk at IASPR next month. When I asked if any editor or industry representative had ever asked her to change anything historical about her books, she said, “No, not a thing.” That is enormously refreshing, to be honest, given that Ms. Bev writes all kinds of underrepresented American history. She calls it “edutainment,” and there is not a duke in sight. What she did say, though, was that when Forbidden came out in France, they chose a white woman for the cover—and Eddy is not the one who passes, the hero Rhine is. “Oh, Jesus, is right,” Ms. Bev said.

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She ended with some inspiring advice for all us writers out there. I could not get it all down, but here are some of the pieces I did quote:

  • “The 38th book is just as hard to write as book one.” (Note: This is somewhat scary news since the fourth is hard enough for me right now!)
  • “It’s your book. Write it the way you want to write it.” (Yes!)
  • About writing the tough stuff from your own experiences: “Tell your story. [The readers] are not looking for you to sugar coat it.”

The woman is not a legend for nothing. Beverly Jenkins was such a wonderful person to talk to and to learn from—a highlight of #NECRWA18 for me. Thanks so much, Ms. Bev!