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!
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 Seacole. Lily 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!
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!
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.
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.
I’m a planner of novels but not an event planner. The whole idea frightens me, in a flying-through-a-narrow-trench-on-the-Death-Star-to-find-its-only-vulnerable-point-while-there-are-TIE-fighters-everywhere kind of way.
But when friends in NECRWA, the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, came forward with great ideas for next year’s Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference, I wanted to be a part of their success. With a group like this, how can you go wrong?
An Inside Look at the Committee
The real leader of our charge is Kristen Strassel, one of the most innovative and prolific independent authors I know. We joined NECRWA the exact same month: January 2013. Since this time, she’s published at least 26 books by my last count, in both the paranormal and contemporary subgenres. (In contrast, I’ve published two books in one subgenre.) The woman gets shit done, so it is not surprise we asked her to take the reins. She’s also a talented makeup artist by day (and sometimes by night, too).
I’m the vice chair, which means I give encouragement on vice to the chair. Okay, I can do that.
Jen Doyle is the registration chair. Before you say, “I’ve read Calling It, and this is one funny woman. Why did you give her such a boring job?” please do know that she wanted it. She’s got day job skills, you see. And she’s organized. I mean, have you seen her Facebook parties? If not, join her and two other great authors this Monday, August 29th, here, for the release of her second novel by Carina Press. Jen writes sexy and clever sports romance with small-town feels.
Our workshop chair is Stephanie Kay, who just released her debut novel, Unmatched, to great acclaim: 4.9 out of 5.0 stars on Amazon! Holy reviews, Batman! Steph’s biting sense of humor comes through in her writing, but it also makes her a lot of fun to work with. She’s passionate about bringing together the most innovative and helpful workshops possible. If you’re interested in presenting at our great conference, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit an online form here.
Our agent and editor chair is Tamsen Parker, who writes emotionally intense BDSM erotic romance, or “elegant superfilth.” Believe me, it delivers on all those promises. Her experience as an agented hybrid author gives her great insight into all facets of our industry, which is why she was the natural choice for A&E. And if you could just see her desk calendar and washi tape, you would know that she has her act together. She puts the elegant in superfilth.
Kari Lemor is our book fair chair, when she’s not working as secretary of our chapter! She had her first novella published as a part of the Beautiful Disaster Anthology, and she has three novels coming out soon from Kensington. She’s one to watch, and she’s a super sweet person, too!
Finally, you’re not going to find this on our conference webpage, but here’s a scoop for you. We have two more committee members-at-large: Teresa Noelle Roberts and Alexa Rowan. Both have been incredible supportive to me over the last few years. Teresa is a veteran author of fantastic paranormal, science fiction, and erotic romance, yet she was kind enough to take newbies like me under her wing. I’ve beta-read her latest release, Buck, Naked, and it is a cheeky, suspenseful sci fi interracial romance with loads of sexy. Just dreamy.
Some newbies make a splash: Alexa won the 2015 RWA Golden Heart award (a big effin’ deal for unpublished romance writers) for Best Short Contemporary Romance. Check out the winning book, Winning Her Over, for yourself. She writes swoony romance for the professional woman featuring hot lawyers, sexy massages, and smart plots. She’s our resident perfectionist, too, so any typos in this post are mine and mine alone.
That’s the gang. We write different stuff. Some of us are cat people. Some are dog people. At least a few of us are bird people (including chickens). But you’ll have to trust me on this: we get on really well. It’s awesome how much we like each other, and this chemistry will infect every minute of the conference. You gotta come.
The Speaker Teaser
Did I mention that we have an amazing line up? First, there’s Joanna Bourne, our keynote speaker, who has no idea that she was a key influence in my own writer-origin story. Her Spymaster Series takes place in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars—and, as a professional historian, I have to tell you, these books are amazing. I have one name for you: Hawker. You’ll find out.
Joanna’s latest novella is in a delightful anthology called Gambled Away, and guess what? Our Master Class teacher, Molly O’Keefe, is in it with her! (And check out that cover below. It’s one of my favorites of all time. I wish it was mine.) Molly writes historical, erotic, contemporary, and category romance—all sizzling. She’s won two RITA awards (a big effin’ deal for published authors) and some Romantic Times kudos, too. You don’t want to miss this chance to pick her brain.
Last but not least, we will be wowing you at lunch with Zoe York. What a repertoire this woman has. Small town romance? SEALs? Vikings in Space? Yes, please. And, if you want something a little more naughty, check out her alter ego, Ainsley Booth. This woman has got you covered…um, literally. I mean, check out those covers!
Sign me up, you say? Stay tuned at our Facebook page for all the latest information on registration and the workshop program. See this and more links below. We look forward to seeing you in April.
It may be premature for thanks, but who cares? Thank you to all the great NECRWA committees that paved the way, and a special shout out to the Board of Directors for their guidance, support, and enthusiasm. The current board includes Myretta Robens (president), Patricia Grasso (vice president), Jackie Horne aka Bliss Bennet (treasurer), and Kari Lemor (secretary, as linked above).
I could go on and on, but those books in your pile are not going to read themselves. Or maybe you’ve got audio editions and they will. Just go do it!
They are probably fine entertainment, though I haven’t seen either. And not this Boondocks, either:
(Coincidentally, this tavern used to be in my hometown in New Hampshire of all places. It has changed name and ownership since, but what are the odds?)
But, no, I mean none of the above. I mean the boondocks behind me in this photo:
Bundok is the Tagalog word for mountain. When American soldiers arrived in the Philippines in 1898, they adopted the word and, of course, changed its meaning. Because ‘Merica. U.S. Marines, in particular, made “boondocks” a buzzword for everything from jungle to backwoods to, in fact, mountains. In their minds, whatever looked “wild.”
For the first half of the century, it remained specialized military slang. One source claims that boondocks appeared in the 1909 Webster’s New International Dictionary, but if so this was the first print usage by at least 30 years. The Online Etymology Dictionary also recognizes the word’s vernacular use as early as the 1910s, but it was otherwise not published until 1944 in the Marine Corps Reader—interestingly, describing Parris Island, South Carolina, a Marine Corps training station that looks pretty flat to me.
In World War II, the word was revived, not only among American fighting forces in the Pacific, but also among those soldiers’ and sailors’ families Stateside, too. The Vietnam War reinforced this usage, and now the word is ubiquitous: being out in the boondocks means being in an isolated or wild region. And, yes, my town in New Hampshire probably counts. I’m proud to live in the boondocks—but I just wish it were closer to the real mgabundok (Philippine mountains).
Featured photo by Jojo Nicdao in the Creative Commons, found here.