Sugar Sun series glossary term #26: aswang

Sugar was such a greedy crop, drinking the lifeblood of the soil like the aswang demons that peasants feared.

Under the Sugar Sun

With the popularity of the Twilight series—or, let’s get old school with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles—I am surprised that more writers have not widened their paranormal worlds to include the macabre supernatural folk traditions of the Philippines.

Aswangs are lady vampires…on steroids. Though legends vary, the Aswang Project website has come up with three common characteristics in them all:

  1. The aswang’s diet consists mainly of human liver and blood;
  2. It has an unholy preference for unborn children; and
  3. It is also known to prey upon children and sick people.

Um, did you notice number two? Aswangs have been blamed for miscarriages and stillborn babies all over the islands. As this website describes:

When they know of a pregnancy…they would land on the roof of the pregnant woman’s home, and, trying to remain undiscovered, dig a hole to get inside. Once close, they use their razor-sharp teeth and their tongue that can stretch out as a thin wire to drink the blood and eat the fetus through the mother’s belly button…

Even worse, there is a related creature called a manananggal, who is a beautiful woman by day, but at night she detaches the upper half of her torso, sprouts bat-like wings, and flies around with her guts hanging out, looking for victims. This is serious stuff.

A manananggal as pictured at Florente Aguilar’s guitar project site, Aswang: Tagalog Song Cycle.

The aswang legends are particularly popular in the Western Visayas region, near where the Sugar Sun series is set. In fact, when Silliman University in Dumaguete opened their first dormitory in 1903, people thought it was haunted with these very creatures. That would be enough to keep me home, thank you very much.

Why the Visayas? I do not think that it has anything to do with infant mortality rates, which historically were high everywhere. One theory is that Spanish Catholics spread the legends to vilify female folk healers, especially those in the interior of the southern islands. These pagan women were far away from the friars on the coasts and the Crown in Manila—and, therefore, they were not to be trusted.

You may be wondering, how are aswangs created in the first place? Getting bitten, like by a European-style vampire, is not going to do it. (You would just be dead, I think.) In the Filipino version, the dying aswang vomits up a small black chick—as illustrated below—which the aswang-to-be must swallow. Waiter, check please.

Image from Erik Matti’s “Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles,” found at the AswangProject.

In European folktales, like those of the Brothers Grimm, the big bad wolf is eventually punished for eating children. But the victims of aswangs get no such justice. (Maybe because carrying a child to term and then actually delivering it has been the most dangerous thing a woman could do for most of history.)

This is very dark stuff. I don’t write novels this dark, but someone should. Maybe a new paranormal venture from #romanceclass? I cannot imagine an aswang hero, but maybe you can convince me. Or maybe not.

Featured image from sweet00th at


Yvette Tan of CNN Philippines wrote a nice article on aswangs, pre- and post-Spanish, even including the demons of World War II. The only thing she left out was the American CIA’s use of aswang fears to intimidate the Huks (communists) in 1950s Luzon. Interesting stuff.

Find Jen at the Edwardian Promenade

I am thrilled to announce that I will be posting biweekly on Evangeline Holland’s magnificent website, the Edwardian Promenade. Established in 2007, this site is the #1 resource for readers, writers, and students alike for everything Edwardian. As years have passed, the site’s focus has widened beyond 1900-1914 Britain to include global society between 1880-1930. While you are there, take a look through this fantastic, rich site, and check out what Evangeline has been up to, both scholastically and artistically (including her own novels).

I will be cross-posting here, too, so you will not lose any content from this site. To see my introductory post, click here. Since I cut my hand unloading the dishwasher last night, now have eight stitches in my left hand, and am typing this post one-handed—only me!—I will keep it short. Happy reading, everybody!

Hingham Public Library this Monday!

Hotly contested stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and Muslim separatists aren’t new to American political discourse. Join historian, teacher, and author Jennifer Hallock to learn how our first experiment in overseas empire in the Philippines (1898-1946) still shapes our country now.

 What has brought the Americans full circle back to the Philippines, and why do some Filipinos want them to turn right around again? If you are in the Boston area, please come to the Hingham Public Library this coming Monday, September 19th, at 7pm.

Apparently, there will be community cable television there, so I need all the friendly faces I can get!

The History Games: Micro-History Models

What is micro-history, you ask? It is the investigation of small units in history—an individual, a small village, a family, or a school, for example. Why is this important? Because large trends, the kind of history you get in encyclopedias, smooth out history to give you only the most average experience. And who likes to read about average? No one!

You want to know about the heroes and heroines—the outliers, the dangerous, the obscure, and the interesting people! Part of what authors are selling is the chance to live someone else’s life for a little while. Maybe your character is Marianne, a half-Jamaican hotelier seduced by a spy during the Crimean War; or Lily, a diplomat’s daughter who rescues a wounded American Marine in the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Either way, flat descriptions from encyclopedias won’t cut it. You need to mine primary sources for the convincing details of everyday life. Where else would you learn how Marianne chased off a thief with her rusty horse pistol, primed only with coffee? Or how Lily saved her favorite white pony from becoming dinner for starving Americans in Beijing?

Marianne and Lily are not typical, but they are believable because they are based upon real people—real outliers. My inspiration for Marianne came from The Wonderful Adventures of Mary SeacoleLily is based on Laura Conger in Sarah Pike Conger’s Letters from China. Where did I find these cool books, you ask? At the end of this post, you will find a handout detailing many wonderful places to find free primary sources on the internet: books, articles, artifacts, photographs and videos (if available), illustrations, newspapers, and more, all from the time period itself.

But how do you use this information to create realistic characters and believable conflict? And how do you know what facts to use and what to make up? I came up with five models to help you figure it out:

The Ice Cube Tray Model

My fake characters Marianne and Lily are based upon the broad outlines of real people, but if I actually wrote books for them I would make up individual personalities, hopes, dreams, senses of humor, and more. We are writing fiction, after all, not a biography. Let’s use a book I did write as an example: Della Berget, the heroine of Hotel Oriente, was inspired by a real-life outlier, Annabelle Kent, author of the memoir, Round the World in Silence. This middle-aged, deaf world traveler gave me the raw material to write a young, deaf aspiring journalist. To suit my own purposes, I gave Della a US congressman for a grandfather—loosely based on a real one, Senator Albert Beveridge—and plopped her in the middle of 1901 Manila, where carpetbaggers like her could make a name for themselves. Elements of Della come from Annabelle’s story, but the real person provides only an incomplete mold, like an ice cube tray. I filled in the tray with other ideas, making my character an original.

The Straitjacket Model

What if you don’t focus on a specific person? In fact, quite the opposite. What if you highlight the social constraints of a chosen era—the rules that pen in the people? Guess what? You have the formula for a clever foil, or even villain, to represent “society” as a whole—without being average. I did this for Archie Blaxton, the hated fiancé in Under the Sugar Sun. I took the horrible things that came out of Americans’ mouths (or memoirs) about the Philippines, and I gave it all to Archie. He became an amalgam of all the worst Americans I could find. (People suck, by the way.) I call this model the straitjacket.

The Open Flame Model

Real history can also provide conflict, too. I needed a scandal for Hotel Oriente, something to put a little pressure on my hero, Moss North. (Moss, by the way, was originally based on the real manager of the real Hotel Oriente, West Smith. Get it? West Smith became Moss North?) By searching American newspapers, I found a real scandal that almost brought down the Oriente, gutted the Manila quartermaster’s office, and sent a handful of men to prison. Good conflict adds heat underneath your character’s feet, prompting them to make pivotal decisions—and sometimes declarations of love! I call this the open flame.

The Millstone Model

For my upcoming book, Sugar Moon, I gave my hero a troubled past. Ben Potter was traumatized by a real event: the 1901 attack at Balangiga in which 48 American soldiers were killed by angry villagers. Ben’s memories will be shared in flashback form because they shaped Ben into the man he is, for better or worse. (Most of you would say worse, but give him a chance. Or second chance. Well, okay, third.) Ground down by the millstone of war, he is someone new because of this real event. This is his internal conflict.

The Fridge Magnet Model

Finally, I use real vignettes and anecdotes throughout my books. A lot of people remember the snake scene in Under the Sugar Sun, and I wish I could take full credit for it. But it really happened to a real American on one of his first nights in the Philippines in the early 1900s. He even had to buy a replacement snake, too! There’s some stuff you cannot make up, and you shouldn’t have to. But you do need those little details that make your book convincing.

Consider this: when you walk into a house, where do you find the small details important to that family’s daily life? On their fridge. (Or their medicine cabinet, but that’s an invasion of privacy. Shame on you.) Therefore, I call this the fridge magnet model. These little snippets can tell your reader more about a character or setting than Mr. Exposition ever could. For example, the snake story told me how clever rural Filipinos were to use one pest to control another; and it told me that Georgie, for all her pluck, wasn’t going to get anything right on her first night in Bais. Her “fish out of water” anxieties will be essential to her later conflict with Javier.


Whenever I approach a primary source, I think: how can this event advance my story or my character development? And you need to be thinking this, too. No matter how much fun it is to research—no matter how many rabbit holes you want to fall down—everything should move your book forward. Stay focused on these five models. I hope they help!

By the way, here is the handout of websites that I cover in the workshop’s “how to” portion, along with some Google shortcut tips: Hallock Micro-History Researching Tips. Happy researching!

The Year of Living Writer-ly

Today was the first day of the rest of my year.

Sure, I’ve been on summer break already, and it’s been excellent. It’s always excellent. Speaking of which, have you heard this one?

Question: Name three reasons to become a teacher.
Answer: June, July, and August.

Funny, right? But today, September 1st, I would have normally returned to school for professional development meetings. And guess what? I didn’t go.

Instead, I have the next twelve months to live the dream as a full-time writer. It’s called sabbatical. Awesome, I know. But before you imagine me lying around the house in my pajamas—though odds are good on that—I should mention that I have plans. Big plans. Big.

First, I will be continuing to write, edit, and publish the Sugar Sun series, and you can’t stop me. Rosa’s novella, Tempting Hymn, will be out this fall. The two other main books in the series, Sugar Moon and Sugar Communion, will follow. I may not be fast, but I want to get the books right, which means a lot of rewrites and even more editing. If you would like to find out when I actually publish them, please sign up for my Sugar Sun newsletter. Thank you!

Long Thin Banner

Second, I will be giving my Researching Micro-History workshop this fall at Fiction Fest 2016 (September 9-11) and at the Rhode Island Romance Writers’ meeting on October 1st. The workshop is one third Ted-Talk-ish explanation about making true history write the best fiction, and two-thirds research tips, sites, and how-tos. It’s not just for historical writers, either.



Third, I will be giving my “America in the Philippines: Our First Empire” talk at local libraries—and anywhere that anyone with a projector wants to hear it. Here’s the pitch: “Hotly contested stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and Muslim separatists aren’t new to American political discourse. Join historian, teacher, and author Jennifer Hallock to learn how our first experiment in overseas empire in the Philippines (1898-1946) still shapes our country now.” You want to hear more? I will be at Hingham Public Library on September 19th, so come check it out.

Fourth, I’m on the planning committee for the 2017 NECRWA Let Your Imagination Take Flight conference (check out our Facebook page!). It’s already been fun to plan, and I hope to see everyone there. Look at those featured authors! And that’s just the beginning, trust me. There will be a book signing on Friday, April 7th—so readers, put that on your calendar.

For the other conferences I’ll be attending, see the updated schedule below:


Finally, Mr. H and I are going to travel. I especially look forward to the Philippines in February—because February in Manila is soooo much better than February in New Hampshire. And it’s going to be awesome to finally meet some of the people I talk to daily on the interwebs—as well as seeing all my old friends again.

Also on the docket is a trip to Scotland, maybe returning on a trans-Atlantic cruise—very old school. Until then, I will be here on the farm, playing Pied Piper to a flock of chickens. Seriously, they follow me around. And I have three baby chicks right now, too. Adorable.

Here’s to a great year! Let’s get writing…