Calling all Granite Staters! I will be answering questions and selling signed books all over the southern New Hampshire area this holiday season with my partners-in-print, the Weare Area Writers Group:
What I love best about working these fairs is the chance to talk to readers about what stories they love the best. Check out my fellow authors’ books as well on our group’s website. We have something for everyone’s holiday gift list!
I drove two hours to attend Latin Mass and, predictably, understood not a word. The church was not struck by lightning, though, so I am counting it a win.
Let’s start at the beginning. People say write what you know, and it is good advice…that I do not follow very often. Okay, well sometimes I do: I’ve written two teacher characters so far. My heroines in past and future books hail from Boston (near where I currently live); Fairmont, West Virginia, where my mother moved in high school and the home of my favorite pepperoni rolls; and Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. I love inserting sports into my historical novels because I am a football and volleyball coach who grew up playing softball and dated a baseball player in high school. Even the hymns used in my novella are favorites from daily singing at the Episcopal school where I teach.
But I have nothing in common with a Roman Catholic priest in 1900. I have written men before, though not celibate men who spent their entire young adult life in the seminary listening to lectures in Latin. When trying something completely different, research matters. I want to write Andres Gabiana as authentically, respectfully, and convincingly as possible.
Where to start? I read. And I read. And I read. You can follow my progress on Goodreads, if you like. What follows is not going to give you any spoilers about the upcoming novel, Sugar Communion. It is more like a stream-of-consciousness book report (which I would admittedly never accept from my own students). Here goes:
I’ve read twenty-two priest and nun memoirs so far. I’ve read three written by priests who, after struggling with celibacy, rededicated themselves to their vows and remained active priests. I have read three written by children of priests and nuns. I have read one by a man who came close to entering the seminary—he lived with religious orders and went on retreats—but ultimately decided against it. Mostly, though, I have targeted memoirs (fifteen of them) written by Roman Catholic priests who left the Church. And, like most of the other hundred thousand American priests who have left, they did so in order to take part in consensual, adult relationships. I really cannot emphasize these last three words enough: Consensual. Adult. Relationships. If marriage is a sacrament and a human right, and the Church says it is, then these priests left to exercise that right.
Sadly, consensual adult relationships with priests are not the average Bostonian’s first thought, but here’s the problem: the priests who sexually abused children in this diocese hid inside the Church. They did not leave it. And that has cost the bishops: nineteen American dioceses have been bankrupted by $3 billion dollars in court judgments, according to the National Catholic Reporter, and all because the Church refused to listen to victims and victims’ families, and instead reassigned these criminals to new parishes instead of turning them into the authorities. Pedophile priests are a small—and incredibly destructive—fraction of those who have broken their celibacy vows. Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. Institutionally, though, it can create the conditions that allow it to thrive, if the seed is already planted: a flawed selection process for priests, sexually immature men in positions of power, a culture of secrecy and shame around sex, and possibly a celibate’s lack of a parental impulse to protect children.
In order to separate my story as far as I can from this pattern, my heroine is a few years older than my priest (both are in their 30s); she is a professional (medical doctor) in her own right; and she is not a member of his parish. Andres is also a good man and a good priest.
He is a good priest, I swear, even by the teachings of the Church itself. Did you know that throughout the first eleven hundred years of Christian history, the leadership—including popes, bishops, and parish priests—could legally wed and celebrate the faith as married men? (I did not know this, either, not until I read two academic treatments from experts A. W. Richard Sipe and William E. Phipps, which are the basis of most of the historical information to follow.) The Jewish tradition celebrated married love and required it of priests and rabbis. Not only was Jesus a Galilean Jew, but his role could be best described as an early rabbi (teacher and scholar). There is evidence that Jesus himself may have been married (and maybe widowed) by the time of his ministry. We know Peter was married. Paul was widowed. Moreover, in the early Jesus Movement, women played significant roles in ministry, church leadership, and funding.
So where did Catholic clerical celibacy and patriarchy come from? Pre-Christian Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. If you didn’t know, these guys were pretty big misogynists, as were most Athenian men. It is from their teachings that early Christian saints decided that male genitals and the whole of women were created by Satan. A female was a defective male, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, quoting Aristotle.
Even worse, once clerical celibacy was required—not until 1139, mind—it inaugurated the most corrupt period in the Church’s history. Marriage was eschewed as foul, while concubinage, pedophilia, and rape were only given mild cautions that were often ignored. Everyday churchgoers needed protection from ravenous clergy that hunted their wives and daughters. Those few priests who wanted to live moral lives by marrying their spouses found themselves excommunicated and their wives enslaved. Schisms and war erupted. It was a nasty time of division and violence, and it was overseen by the men who brought the Church celibacy.
Today Catholic clergy do not even agree upon the definition of celibacy, let alone practice it consistently. At any one time, Sipe says, only about half the clergy in the United States is celibate. What I have learned from the memoirs I have read is that most priests were not given any training at how to be celibate while they were in seminary, other than a few lectures on Eve’s temptations and the corruption of the earthly sphere. They might also be taught the official Catholic teaching on homosexuality as a “disordered” behavior, despite recent studies that have estimated over half of American priests today would identify themselves as gay or bisexual if they were free to do so. The person who first encouraged me to try a Latin Mass is a practicing Catholic who currently lives with his common-law husband, the love of his life, in Arizona. Had this friend been free to be a married gay priest, he would have been one of the very best. Good people of all genders are lost to the priesthood because, for reasons that have nothing to do with their morals and leadership qualities, they are not allowed to apply.
Sexual liaisons are not the only relationships that seminaries restricted, I have learned. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seminaries did not want their charges to even have close friendships. The instructors monitored who walked with whom between buildings like they were overseeing cotillion dance cards. Nor was a seminarian allowed to remain in close contact with his own family. Trips home—even for weddings and funerals—were very limited. The future priest was the property of the Church and not the other way around. Even after ordination, the vow of celibacy allows this control to continue for a lifetime. Bachelor priests are easier to move without notice, and they have no widows or heirs to claim Church property. Not surprisingly, then, the theme that came out strongest in all the memoirs is loneliness.
By immersing myself in these memoirs, I have been able to live, albeit briefly, in the culture that will shape Andres Gabiana. I took extensive notes, and I even bought a scanner to enter them! Most of what I learned will never make it to the fiction page, but it still helps to set the scene in my head.
Most of the memoirs on my reading list took place during the 1940s-1980s, mostly in the United States and Ireland but also one in rural Brazil. I do not read Spanish or Filipino, which limits my Philippines-based sources. However, many of the orders operating in the Philippines were European-based, and their rules applied internationally. The Church is also a hierarchical organization following its own canons (code of law) applied throughout every diocese.
The Brazilian account exposed one flawed assumption from my previous books. In the provinces of predominantly Catholic countries in the early twentieth century, priests would have been in short supply. No curate would have had the luxury of ministering at one tiny chapel at Hacienda Altarejos full-time. Poor Andres. His job just got a lot harder. You’ll see.
Research itself will only take you so far, though. Some things you have to witness. For example, even if you are Catholic, forget (almost) everything you know about mass. The Latin Rite (pre-1962) is not just in Latin, a language that most laypeople do not understand, but also the priest keeps his back to the congregation the vast majority of the time. Half the time he whispers. The only chance for participation is at communion, which is still not a verbal exchange. I had to see the whole thing in person to understand it, so this Monday morning I went to Latin Mass.
On the face of it, the ritual seems designed to be incomprehensible. I barely saw the Host and never saw the priest consume the sacramental bread and wine. It was like watching a cashier make change from across the room. In a court of law, I could not testify that he actually did it. And, to be honest, that confused me more than the silence. It’s not great showmanship—or is it? Maybe what appeals to people in the service is the mystery: “a religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation.” Awe and enigma have fueled religions from the beginning.
I was most impressed by the server, or altar boy. (It does not have to be a boy, by the way. It can be a layman, a subdeacon, deacon, or another priest. Needless to say, he does have to be a male.) I would say the boy was about the age of my students, going into ninth grade. He had to know more than just when to ring the bell: he had to answer for the congregation since we never spoke. This meant he had to know a lot of Latin, and he had to say it clearly. In fact, I found it easier to understand his elocution than the priest’s because, proudly, he sorta shouted. He did not go to school for eight or twelve years to learn how to manage this mass; he learned his part on his own time. He probably takes Latin at the local Catholic school, but still.
I do not think Roman Catholicism would not have survived as the largest denomination of Christianity these past fifty years if it had stayed so inscrutable, but the Latin Rite does have its attractions—especially for the priest, I imagine. He is also more remote, powerful, and enigmatic. This had to be, at least partly, the draw of a vocation. As all the memoirs made clear, the whole family took on an elevated status in the parish once they had a son in the seminary. (I do not know if this last part is still true because traditional geographic parishes are breaking down in favor of “personal parishes,” or parishes based on nationality, language, or other specializations. The church I went to was a personal parish centered around the Latin Rite, for example.)
I never spoke to the priest about any of my reactions. I never spoke to him at all. He did not seem particularly stern or unapproachable—he was younger than me, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, and he sported a well-trimmed beard. I did not talk to him because he wasn’t standing at the back of the Church shaking hands as people left. Maybe he greets the parish after High Mass on Sundays? I will go sometime to find out, but I am still not sure what I would ask him. I could ask why he chose to be a part of a religious order dedicated to the Latin Rite, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, but that seems like more than a two-minute conversation.
There’s one place for sure that the mass-goer can talk to the priest: in confession before the service begins. In the memoirs I read, though, most priests disliked confession. It is not the voyeuristic extravaganza you might expect. It’s everyday stuff at best (cursing, gossip, impure thoughts); and it’s troubling at worst (domestic violence) without clear ways to intercede and provide help without violating the seal. Crime dramas centered around confessed murders rarely happen, despite each priest hearing dozens if not hundreds of confessions a week for their entire careers. (Not that anyone wants a murderer confessing to them, of course.) Still, I have a lot of ideas for interesting conversations in the confessional.
Actually, one theme that came from both the academic books and the memoirs is that confession can mire a priest in the muddy sludge of the material world—lust, greed, corruption—for which the seminary’s tight rules do not prepare him. Often he is ordained before he truly understands what he is agreeing to. He goes from not talking about sex at all to parishioners asking questions about sex (e.g. “Is oral sex with my husband a sin?”). At the time that celibacy became a discipline in the Roman Catholic Church, most priests would have lived about ten to fifteen years total after their ordination. Now they live fifty or more. Statistically, the hardest year for priests is the thirteenth anniversary of their ordination, and by this point many priests have reached a crisis.
In the time that Andres will be a priest, it was almost impossible to leave the clerical office. Though it is easier now to be laicized, or “reduced” to the non-clerical state, it can still take years, or even decades, because the Church is very good at burying paperwork. Meanwhile, they are told to stay far, far away from their old dioceses and all their old friends, some of whom have cut them off anyway. Loneliness can beget more loneliness. And despite what you read in the press, there is no such thing as an ex-priest in the Roman Catholic Church. A priest is a priest forever, even if no longer able to receive confessions, which is done on behalf of the bishop. A laicized priest can still administer some sacraments, like the Eucharist and Extreme Unction, but he can no longer serve as deacon (the position he had before ordination). In other words, their status is…complicated.
Let me thank all the priests (and children of priests) who wrote their memoirs. They have been willing to share their most personal thoughts with me, a stranger. It has been a summer of learning. If you have comments on this book report, please join my Facebook group, History Ever After, and post them there. The real test, dear reader, will be writing Sugar Communion, and there my work is just beginning.
It is appropriate to the history of this real hotel that the prequel novella centered in it, Hotel Oriente, be shuttered for a spell. In 1904 the Insular government bought the Hotel de Oriente and turned it into the headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary, the American Circulating Library, the Official Gazette, and the Commercial Museum. It would remain closed to voyagers until the building was destroyed in World War Two.
Unlike the real hotel, though, I will re-open my fictional doors in the near future—maybe after a brief renovation. Moss and Della’s story will not be lost to the world. Until then, you should begin the series where it is meant to be begun: with Under the Sugar Sun. Thank you for your patience!
P.S. Currently paperback copies of Hotel Oriente are selling on Amazon for $869.56, which has to be a money-laundering operation. If you want to spend that much money on a copy, I could hand-copy it like a medieval scribe for you. (No, just kidding. I won’t. But still, that’s ridiculous.)
If you are attending the Romance Writers of America’s national conference in New York next week, come see me reprise my researching workshop. It incorporates all I have learned from a quarter-century of guiding high school history students through the research process:
True stories inspire the best fiction. Let history help you find the usual, precocious, and maybe even dangerous heroes and heroines you need! A veteran teacher and researcher will show you how to exploit free sources online: memoirs, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, maps, photographs, clothing, artifacts, videos, and more. This workshop’s emphasis will be on historical research, especially the Regency through the Roaring Twenties, but it will include practical tips and tricks for all authors.
I will also join Gilded Age romance superstars Maya Rodale and Joanna Shupe for Researching and Writing the GildedAgeRomance:
All that glitters isn’t gold, but the Gilded Age can make your manuscript shine! Join three experts who will share what to read/watch/listen to in order to start discovering the Gilded Age world. Take advantage of the Big Apple to explore historical New York City and brainstorm Gilded-Age romance novel plots after learning more about the history and how popular romance tropes fit in this historical time period.
Finally, on Saturday from 3-5, I will be signing and selling Sugar Moon and Under the Sugar Sun at the book fair to benefit literacy:
One of the themes of this May’s #RomBkLove series on Twitter was covers. Whether I am at an author event live or just chatting online, the feedback I hear most often about my books is how much people like the covers. If that sounds like a brag, you should know that I do not design my covers. I have some input—more than a traditionally-published author has, probably—but the real credit goes to the unsung hero of Little Brick Books Publishing, Mr. Hallock. (A former professional photojournalist and now a ghostwriter for a consulting firm, Mr. H is also one of my editors, as well as my marketing advisor, business manager, and accountant. We are still happily married, a modern day miracle.)
But we’re here to talk about covers, so let’s get started. I’m going to be giving the inside scoop here, which I hope doesn’t detract from the magic of the final product. Given how many people are choosing to self-publish these days, I thought a little transparency might be helpful. All images were purchased from Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: Always defer to your designer’s technical and professional judgments, as this post is not a step-by-step how-to. Even Mr. H knows not to bow the author’s every whim. The cover is not totally about the book, remember: it needs to project the genre, mood, and theme. For me that meant:
Genre: cross between historical romance and historical fiction
Mood: politically and emotionally charged, with explicit sex
Theme: heavy themes (e.g. war, colonial policy, PTSD, and more)
I am not qualified to instruct you comprehensively on design elements, but here’s another piece of advice: the cover must scan well and read clearly as a thumbnail. Okay, so here goes a short tale of three covers:
Under the Sugar Sun
When we first started this venture, we had some ideas of creating virtual three-dimensional images of dresses, but the technology in 2015 just wasn’t there yet—nor was our expertise. So we started looking at stock images. Since the heroine of Under the Sugar Sun has red hair, I built a collection of redheaded women in vintage (or retro) dress styles. We were paging through them together when Mr. H stopped on the image above. “Easy,” he said.
Easy, I wondered? I loved her hair and the corset, but nothing about the original surroundings of the model was what I wanted. (What kind of bedspread is that, by the way?) But the very next day, Mr. H showed me the crop that would become the cover, including the blacked out background. Instantly, I was excited. Yes, the hooks in the corset are not really true to period, even if you keep in mind that my period is 1902 not 1814. Moreover, my character never wears a corset in the book . . . but never mind! You cannot be too literal, remember.
“So,” you ask, “what did you do to make this cover happen, Jen?” Not much. I did choose the title font, which has become the signature of the Sugar Sun series (which is why I am not naming it here). I searched through font after font, typing in “Under the Sugar Sun” in generators to see what (a) looked turn-of-the-century and (b) struck the right balance of stylistic elements and readability. Mr. H was not sold at first, but he ultimately agreed. A cover was born.
Tempting Hymn had to be a little sultry, though not because Rosa is the temptress she is accused of being. With a title like this one—and a story centered on two people of faith who sing in a choir together, complete with chapter titles from those hymns—this book needs a little sex upfront to warn readers of inspirational romance that this isn’t one. I have no problem with closed-door romance; I just do not write it. This book is open-door. Wide. Open. Door. (I am not afraid of bad reviews on this score. A review saying there is too much sex in a book is pretty much the best kind of negative review to get. However, I do not wish to make people unnecessarily uncomfortable.) Mr. Hallock had to do a lot of work to make this a cover—see the above note about nail polish—but I love it.
It took a really long time to find this photo. A really long time. Not quite as long as it took to write Sugar Moon, but honestly almost. I did not want to compromise this time by cutting off the face of a non-Asian model. In fact, I wanted a Southeast Asian model in (potential) period dress, which was as picky as I thought that I could be. Mr. H and I both loved the image right from the start, but it took my husband’s expertise to make it the cover you see above. I’m all heart eyes. It is my favorite so far, and that is saying something because I do love them all.