Manila Tour 2017

I spent the last two weeks of February on an amazing trip to the Philippines. Packing everyone I wanted to see into 14 days—plus romance events!—was a little insane, but I made the most of every minute.

Steamy panel at Romance Writers of the Philippines convention at Ayala Alabang mall with Bianca Mori Mina V. Esguerra and Georgette Gonzales
The #PHRomCon2017 Steamy Panel of Awesomeness: Bianca Mori, Georgette S. Gonzales, me, and Mina V. Esguerra. (I’m only awesome because of the company I’m keeping.)

I started the business end of things with an appearance at the Philippine Romance Convention 2017, hosted by the Romance Writers of the Philippines at Alabang Town Center—a mall that happens to be my old stomping grounds. I was honored to sit on the Steamy Romance Panel with Mina V. Esguerra, Georgette S. Gonzales, and Bianca Mori. These are three outstanding authors. Mina’s Iris After the Incident is such an important, sex-positive, feminist contemporary romance that I wrote a whole blog post about it. Georgette writes intense romantic suspense that tackles politics, corruption, and more. And Bianca’s globe-trotting romantic suspense Takedown trilogy is like a cocktail of Ocean’s 11 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but with more sex. It goes without saying that this was an amazing evening.

While I was there, author Ana Valenzuela and I grabbed a coffee at Starbuck’s so we could chat. That chat eventually turned into this hugely flattering article in the Manila Bulletin, the leading broadsheet newspaper in the Philippines.

Manila Philippines Bulletin newspaper article on steamy historical romance Sugar Sun series
A lovely article introducing the Sugar Sun series to the Philippine general reader. You can find a digital copy of the article at the Manila Bulletin.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before that came out, I was able to do some awesome traveling that provided me inspiration for both my current Sugar Sun series and my anticipated second generation series, which will be set during World War II. I headed to Corregidor with three great friends: my amazing hostess and great friend, Regine; my former student and now accomplished Osprey pilot, Ginger; and Ginger’s husband, Tread, also an Osprey pilot.

History tourism at Corregidor studying World War II and Japanese occupation of American colony of Philippines
Left: Ginger and me on the ferry to Corregidor. Right: the “tail” of the island, which is shaped like a tadpole.

Even though I have been to the island several times, even staying the night before, I find each return trip gives me new ideas. I pick up different tidbits on the tour every time. This time, in the Malinta Tunnel, I heard about the crazy parties the Americans threw at the very end, when they expected to be defeated any day. They needed to consume their supplies before the Japanese arrived, and they really needed to get out of that tunnel at night. What happened under the stars, on the beach, when no one was watching? Yep, that is romance material, if I’ve ever heard it. A celebration of life in the midst of death.

History tourism at Corregidor studying World War II and Japanese occupation of American colony of Philippines
Left: Regine and I on the ferry to Corregidor. Right: The Statue of MacArthur exclaiming, “I shall return!” (He did. It was a whole thing.)

Only a few days later, I was on the other side of the channel, on the Bataan Peninsula. This, of course, is the site of the infamous Bataan Death March, where 76,000 Filipino and American soldiers were force marched over 100km without food or water. Tens of thousands died. This is not good romance novel material. But each marker we passed was a reminder of the sacrifice of others who came before.

Bataan Death March marker in Philippines and Battle of Manila memorial both from World War II era history research trip
Left: Bataan Death March markers at every kilometer along the road. They really make you aware of what happened here over seventy years ago. Right: A memorial to the Battle of Manila, which ended in February 1945.

Regine and I had gone to Bataan to see some even older history—particularly the heritage homes being preserved at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. On the one hand, I loved this place. It is a resort made up of bahay na batos, bought and moved from all over the Philippines. And, with no other cities or villages in sight, you can almost imagine that this is what Manila looked like during the time of the Sugar Sun series—if you squint your eyes to avoid seeing the ATM machine hidden in the bottom floor of one of the houses. The guides are informative, and the location by the sea is breathtaking. And, if given the choice between having a house moved here and letting it deteriorate or be bulldozed, then the choice seems obvious. With all these homes in one place, a person can truly appreciate the proud architectural tradition of the islands.

However, there are down sides, too. First, these homes are not in their original context, to be appreciated by those who have some claim over their heritage. They are also glorified hotel rooms, rented out for exorbitant prices by the park’s creator. Unlike a national museum, this park is for profit, and it is not cheap to get to, nor stay at. Therefore, the history of the Philippines cannot be equally shared among all Filipinos. Also, the location by the sea is questionable because the salty air will accelerate deterioration. Finally, there are a dozen building projects going on at a time, and meanwhile those already built or moved are degrading. It feels a little like a resort built by someone with ADHD—once one thing is halfway done, it gets pushed aside for a shiny new toy.

Reproduction of Hotel Oriente the center of Binondo business life in old Manila the Pearl of the Orient before World War II
Left: The Hotel de Oriente and me! Right: The view out our hotel window to the heritage bahay na bato across the square. Parts of Heneral Luna were filmed here.

But, it is beautiful. And I got to see a recreation of the Hotel de Oriente! I felt like I should be giving out copies of my novella at the door—but, alas, I did not have any with me. The building looked accurate on the outside, but there are no surviving photos of the inside, so they have improvised. And while I applaud them hiring all local craftsmen to do the ornate inlaid woodwork, this interior makes the a Baroque palace look minimalist. Still, I was thrilled to be there. It was a huge rush.

These amazing trips led up to the big event: the combined lecture of “History Ever After” at the Ayala Museum and the release of Tempting Hymn! It was such an amazing day. I talked for an hour about the history of the American colonial period, the Philippine-American War, and the Balangiga Incident. I wove in information about all my characters, even showing character boards with the casting of famous movie stars in the roles of each hero and heroine. (Piolo Pascual as Padre Andrés Gabiana was a special favorite.) I gave some special attention to the new novella, and then I signed and sold all the books I had brought with me. (One whole piece of checked baggage was just books!)

History Ever After talk at the Ayala Museum in Makati Manila Philippines with authors discussing steamy romance in difficult times
Left: The #romanceclass community comes out to see me at History Ever After. Thank you! Center: Me talking. Look how huge that projector screen was! Right: At the signing with Nash and Carole Tysmans.

What a fantastic day, and I have to thank the whole #romanceclass crowd for coming out. You guys were amazing! Thanks to Mina Esguerra and Marjorie de Asis-Villaflores organizing the event. It would not have been possible without you. And thank you to my wonderful friend Regine, my advisor, therapist, and accountant—as well as the best hostess ever.

Memorial for Battle of Manila World War II at festival run by Carlos Celdran at Intramuros Manila Philippines
The Transitio commemoration: burning prayers on the walls of Intramuros (left) and the arts festival on the grounds (right).

Regine and I spent my last evening in Manila at Intramuros at the 8th Annual Manila Transitio Festival commemorating the 100,000 dead in the Battle of Manila, 1945. Under the leadership of performer and popular historian extraordinaire, Carlos Celdran, we made wishes on the walls of Intramuros, listened to great music, ate great food, and even drank some buko (young coconut) vodka. Yum.

Visiting friends at Oarhouse Ermita Manila and Fred's Revolucíon Binondo Escolta Manila Philippines
Left: Ben and I at the Oarhouse. Right: Ben, Gina, Paul, Derek, me, and Regine at Fred’s Revolución in Escolta.

While much of this trip was devoted to writing, one of the truly best parts of being back was seeing my wonderful friends again, including people who have known my husband and me for over 20 years. The Philippines are beautiful, but it is the people who make this place so unforgettable. The fact that two of these people, Ben and Derek, now own three of the best bars in Manila doesn’t hurt, either!

Amazingly, I survived this whirlwind trip, but it only made me anxious for more. I cannot wait to go back. I need to write more books to justify the next trip, so off I go to write, write, write…!

Let Your Imagination Take Flight 2016 NECRWA Conference

Do you notice how sometimes there are events that pull all the random brush strokes of your life into one cohesive painting? I felt like that this weekend. Thread number one: my historical romance novels were available for purchase in person for the first time at the Book Signing for Massachusetts Literacy Foundation, a part of the Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference of the New England Chapter of RWA. (Edited to add: I sold out of my copies of Under the Sugar Sun! Hooray!) With me were two of my very first NECRWA friends, Kristen Strassel (@KristenStrassel) and Teresa Noelle Roberts (@TeresNoeRoberts) (see photo above: Kristen is in the middle and Teresa on the left).

Kristen and I joined NECRWA the same exact month, and though she has out-published me by a factor of at least thirteen, she has always been the most supportive, most helpful friend-slash-mentor a gal could have. While I hemmed and hawed, she ventured into the indie publishing world with gusto, starting with a delightful rock star vampire romance called Because the Night. Now she also writes about shifters, reality tv stars, country music stars, and more. She’s unstoppable. And Teresa won’t toot her own horn, but she is one of the best at characterization I’ve read, especially with her science fiction (kinky) romances. Despite whole new worlds, strange-looking creatures, and some odd names, the reader is never in doubt about who is who because everyone is just SO THEM. Try Thrill Kinky (Chronicles of the Malcolm, Book 1) to see what I mean.

Thread number two: my novels are set in the Philippines, my home for over four years and the second home of my heart forever. To showcase the great #romanceclass authors from the Philippines who have all been so good to me, I assembled a #MabuhayLove basket of books donated by the likes of Mina V. Esguerra (@minavesguerra), Ines Bautista-Yao (@Inesbyao), Bianca Mori (@thebiancamori) a.k.a. Katrina Ramos Atienza (@iggyatienza), Carla de Guzman (@somemidnights), Marla Miniano (@marlamini), and Chinggay Labrador. The basket was won by contemporary romance author Claire Casewell (@ClaireCasewell). I was sitting next to Claire when her name was called, and I could not have chosen a better winner if I tried. Claire spent part of her childhood in India, which means she loves mangoes—good, because she won almost two pounds of them—and was thrilled to add some Asian-themed reading to her list. She came up to me at the end of the conference specifically to say how much she was looking forward to the books. Woot, woot!

If these authors are new to you, take a look through their booklists and pick the first thing that grabs you. It will not disappoint. Their work is fresh and full of great characterizations—and feels!—but they are not as beholden to the same formulaic pattern seen in so many American romances. Some play with story structure, like the parallel universes in Carla de Guzman’s Cities or the flashback structure of Mina V. Esguerra’s My Imaginary Ex. Or they toy with global settings, like Bianca Mori’s One Night at the Palace Hotel or (again) Cities. Yet no matter how innovative, they get you in the gut every time.

The girls of Ohio take on NECRWA 2016. Photo by Joanna Shupe.

Thread number three: here with me at this NECRWA conference was my high school classmate Joanna Shupe (@JoannaShupe)! I even got to moderate her workshop on “Dirty Deeds Done Right: Take Your Sex Scenes to the Next Level,” which was fabulous. She is funny as all get out. How two suburban girls from Ohio ended up on the East Coast writing historical romance set around the same time, I’ll never know. Maybe it was fate. Joanna’s new Knickerbocker Club series starts in 1888, only a decade before Americans arrived in Manila Bay. (And if you think the rise of New York’s Gilded Age elite is unrelated to America’s grab for empire, you would be wrong. It’s the economy, stupid.) The first full-length novel of her series is out this week: Magnate. Get it! I love a man who rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. Or takes his whole shirt off. That works, too.

Thread number four: I like sports. You might know that. I coach football in the day job, I run marathons (well, half-marathons these days), and I have a weakness for sports heroes after dating a baseball player in high school. It just so happens that my other great NECRWA friend Jen Doyle (@jendoyleink) has just written a wonderful, fun, and sexy contemporary baseball romance: Calling It. It’s smart and snappy, so pick it up! And we’re going to the Red Sox game tomorrow night—my first time at Fenway! We had seats close enough to oogle the catcher’s butt, which you will understand when you read Calling It. And, as Jen said, say what you want about ARod, but the man has some nice thighs. Oh, and I enjoyed the game, too. Yep, the game. That was what it was all about…

Thanks to the NECRWA folks who made this weekend possible, and thank you to the great workshop leaders I saw in action, especially the always informative and entertaining Penny Watson (@PennyRomance), the master of the novella. [Holding wine glass.] This one’s for you!

In short, it’s been an awesome weekend. This is living. #MabuhayLove!

*Mabuhay means “long live” and “welcome” in Filipino.

Mabuhay Love, Mabuhay #romanceclass

(“Mabuhay” means “long live!” and “welcome.”)

The best thing to come out of writing my Sugar Sun series—other than getting these characters out of my head and onto the page—has been connecting with the #romanceclass community. This is a group of Filipino contemporary, new adult, and young adult authors brought together by the indie publishing pioneerMina V. Esguerra (@minavesguerra).

When I first picked up the December 2015 issue of Romance Writers Report, it hit me right in the face: “Romancing the Globe: Filipino Romance,” by Alyssa Cole (@AlyssaColeLit). Cole profiled four authors: Esguerra, Marian Tee (@authormariantee), Ines Bautista-Yao (@Inesbyao), and Bianca Mori (@thebiancamori). I cold-called all of them (or “cold-Facebooked”…whatever), and they were soooo nice. They spread the word in their very well-connected web of writers and readers and, all of a sudden, I had a network of people who understood why I was so obsessed with a Filipino sugar baron and an American schoolmarm. (And a priest, too, but he’s book three. That apple will take some time to fall from the tree.) I also developed a very long TBR pile, at which I am still chipping away.

Just because these writers are nice, though, don’t underestimate their ability to get things done. Just as five women founded RWA in 1979, so Esguerra created #romanceclass in 2013. Eleven of her first 100 students published full-length novels. Soon #romanceclass grew into a lifestyle. The group now puts together classes, publishing support, podcasts and videos, book fairs, book launches, live performances, a stock photo service, meet-ups (last Sunday was April Feels Day), book signings, poetry readings, and so much more. Mina has even organized a full scholarship for 12 students at the Philippine Normal University! (She meant to sponsor two, but generosity from the larger #romanceclass community rounded that number up to a full dozen.) In the midst of organizing all this, Mina manages to write, as well. I’m not sure how, but here’s a Dear Author review to prove it.

The May 3, 2014, Manila Bulletin article by Ronald S. Lim (@tristantrakand) on Mina’s scholarships at the Philippine Normal University. By the way, PNU was started in 1901 by the Thomasites, American teachers like Georgina of Under the Sugar Sun—and do you see how we’re coming full circle here?

With American readers clamoring for more diverse reads, I wanted to spread the reach of these talented writers. For some, their primary market is already in the United States, but you may have missed a few of the others. And, if so, you are missing out. To prove that, with the generosity of #romanceclass authors, I’ve assembled a Mabuhay Love basket giveaway at the New England Chapter of RWA’s Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference next week! That’s April 29-30, 2016, at the Boston Marriott, in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Conference Logo

Here is what it includes (so far):