Real history writes the best fiction in any genre. The unusual, precocious, and even dangerous heroes and heroines of real life are the ones who inspire us to start typing. But how do you write happily ever after when your audience knows the next war is just around the corner? How do you walk the line between romancing history and romanticizing it?
As historian and author Camille Hadley Jones posted on Facebook: “I’m finding [writing] difficult because I don’t want to ‘escape’ into the past, I want to confront it—with a HEA of course—yet I know that’s not what’s many readers seek from [historical romance].” Maybe not, but I am right there with her on “confronting history.” That is why I write my books set in the American colonial Philippines. It is why I put Javier and Georgie in the midst of the 1902 cholera epidemic in chapter one ofUnder the Sugar Sun.
Advice often given to authors is: “Don’t underestimate your reader.” Don’t gloss over the inconvenient, gritty truth just because you think your readers cannot handle it. Use it to create real characters and real conflict—but make sure that no matter how dark the dark moment, love will overcome all.
This is the subject of my talk “History Ever After” at the Ayala Museum, Makati City, on February 24, 2017, from 2-5pm. With the help of Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass, I will answer questions about how I balance courtship and calamity in my Sugar Sun romance series, set in the Philippine-American War. Hope to see you there!
My novella Tempting Hymn is the second in my series to mention the 1902 cholera epidemic in the Philippines. The book’s hero, Jonas Vanderburg, volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the same outbreak that Georgina Potter dodged when she arrived in Manila in Under the Sugar Sun. Both books give a glimpse into what people feared most in the Edwardian era. Before the mechanical death of the Great War, disease was the worst of the bogeymen. [Edited to add in March 2020: It still is a bogeyman, obviously, even though cholera is a very different type of disease than #COVID19. For starters, cholera is caused by a bacterium not a virus. Nevertheless, it matters how society approaches containment and treatment of both diseases.]
My books may be historical romance, but this post will not romanticize the history. Census figures put the total death toll from Asiatic cholera in the Philippines (1902-1904) between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Even that number might be low. This strain of the disease was particularly virulent, killing 80 to 90 percent in the hospitals. The disease progressed rapidly and painfully:
Often the disease appears to start suddenly in the night with a violent diarrhea, the matter discharged being whey-like, ‘rice-water’ stools…Copious vomiting follows, accompanied by severe pain in the pit of the stomach, and agonizing cramps of the feet, legs, and abdominal muscles. The loss of liquid is so great that the blood thickens, the body becomes cold and blue or purple in color…Death often occurs in less than a day, and the disease may prove fatal in less than two hours. (A.V.H. Hartendorp, editor of Philippine Magazine)
The Yanks saw cholera as a personal challenge to their colonial ideology. They had come to the Philippines to “Fill full the mouth of famine and bid the sickness cease,” in the words of Rudyard Kipling. What was the point of bringing the “blessings of good and stable government upon the people of the Philippine Islands” if they could not prove the value of their civilization with some modern medicine?
Cholera was not a new killer in the islands, nor did the Americans bring the disease with them. Though the Eighth and Ninth Infantries were initially blamed, the epidemic probably had its roots in China in this case. As Ken de Bevoise said in his outstanding work, Agents of Apocalypse: “The volume of traffic…between Hong Kong and Manila in 1902 was so high that it is pointless to try to pinpoint the exact source.” However, just because Americans did not bring cholera does not mean that we will let them off the hook. American policies, both military and civil, may have made the course of the disease worse.
War weakens and disperses a population, leaving it more vulnerable to disease. In 1901-1902 General J. Frederick Bell set up “protection zones” in Batangas, south of Manila, where all civilians were forced to live in close quarters without access to their homes, farms, and wells. Once cholera hit these zones, there was no escape: 11,000 people died. Even worse, mass starvation forced the general public to ignore the food quarantine, meant to keep tainted vegetables from being sold on the market. The Americans blamed Chinese cabbages for bringing cholera spirilla to the Philippines, but the war gave the people no other choice but to eat (possibly contaminated) contraband to survive.
Inside Manila people were also quarantined—a good idea, actually. The traditional Filipino home quarantine had worked well in the past: infected homes were marked with a red flag to signal people to stay away while loved ones were cared for. [Edited to add in March 2020: This may be the equivalent of social distancing and self-isolation of those sick. In the current #coronavirus crisis, health professionals like the CDC and WHO ask that only those who need advanced care—those with a fever or difficulty breathing—go to a hospital.]
But the Americans thought bigger. They collected the infected and brought them all to centralized hospitals outside of the city—buildings that also housed a morgue and crematorium, the public noticed. According to De Bevoise, eighty percent of the time, this was the last time the family saw the patient. Despite the Manila Times portraying the Santiago Cholera Hospital as a “little haven of rest, rather than a place to be shunned,” and bragging that it was staffed by the “gentle…indefatigable, ever cheerful” Sisters of Mercy, readers were not convinced. They would do anything to keep their family members from being taken there. They fled. They hid their sick. Because cremation was forbidden for Catholics at this time, the Filipinos hid their dead.
And the disease spread.
My book Under the Sugar Sun began with a dramatic house burning scene, where public health officials destroyed an entire neighborhood in the name of sanitation. The road to hell was not just paved with good intentions. It was also littered with the corpses of industrious, exuberant, and dogmatic government officials. Any houses found to be infected were burned, “because the nipa hut cannot be properly disinfected,” in the words of one American commissioner’s wife. People were forced to find refuge elsewhere in the city, carrying the disease with them. Because it was such a counterproductive policy, Filipinos thought the American officials must have an ulterior motive in the burnings: to drive the poor out of their homes, clear the land, and build their own palaces. The commissioner’s wife, Edith Moses, herself said: “Sometimes, when I think of our rough ways of doing things, I feel an intense pity for these poor people, who are being what we call ‘civilized’ by main force….it seems an act of tyranny worse than that of the Spaniards.”
American instructions to the sick were also confusing—and sometimes bizarre. Clean water was a necessity, but this was not something the poor had access to. Commissioner Dean C. Worcester claimed: “Distilled water was furnished gratis to all who would drink it, stations for its distribution being established through the city, supplemented by large water wagons driven through the streets.” But no other source mentions such bounty. In fact, as author Gilda Cordero-Fernando pointed out in her article, “The War on Germs,” in Filipino Heritage, most people treated distilled water like a magic tonic, it was so rare: “Asked whether a certain family was drinking boiled water, as prescribed, one’s reply was ‘Yes, regularly—one teaspoon, three times a day.’” Even worse, though, was this advice by Major Charles Lynch, Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers, which was reprinted in the Manila Times:
Chlorodyne, or chlorodyne and brandy, have been found especially useful; lead and opium pills, chalk, catechu, dilute sulphuric acid, etc., have all been used. With marked abdominal pain and little diarrhea, morphine should be given…Ice and brandy, or hot coffee, may be given in small quantities, and water, in small sips, may be drunk when they do not appear to increase the vomiting…cocaine and calomel in minute doses—one-third grains—every two hours, having been used with benefit in some cases.
Lead pills. Opium. Chalk. Cocaine. And “calomel”? Mercurous chloride. If the cholera doesn’t kill you, Dr. Lynch’s treatment will! Though the coffee and brandy sounds nice…
When the Americans could not control the spread of the disease, they reverted to racism and blamed the epidemic on the victims. As public health historians Roy M. MacLeod and Milton James Lewis wrote:
American cleanliness was being undermined by Philippine filth.The Manila Times lamented the cholera deaths of “clean-lived Americans.”It identified the “native boy” as “the probable means of infection” since in hotels and houses he prepared and served food and drinks to unwitting Americans.The newspaper reminded its American readers that “cholera germs exude with the sweat through the pores of the [Filipino servant’s] skin”and that “his hands may be teeming with the germs.”
According to the Manila Times, the Americans organized their cholera hospitals by race: the tent line marked street A was “Chinatown,” street B was for the Spanish, street C for white Americans, street D for African Americans, and E through G for Filipinos. Though trade with China had been the cholera vector, Chinese-Filipinos actually had the lowest death rate of any group, including Americans. A Yankee health official ascribed this to the fact that they “eat only long-cooked and very hot food, in individual bowls and with individual chopsticks, and that they drink only hot tea.”
The epidemic reached its peak in Manila in July 1902, and in the provinces in September 1902, before running its course. Its decline was probably due to the heavy rains cleansing the city, increased immunity among the remaining population, and a strategic call by the Archbishop of Manila to encourage Filipinos to bury their dead quickly—but Americans still congratulated themselves on their efforts. And they had worked hard, it is true: Dr. Franklin A. Meacham, the chief health inspector, and J. L. Judge, superintendent of sanitation in Manila, died from exhaustion. The Commissioner of Public Health, Lt. Col. L. M. Maus, suffered a nervous breakdown. Even the American teachers on summer vacation were encouraged to moonlight as health inspectors—for free, in the end. The wages paid to them by the Police Department were deducted from their vacation salaries because no civil employee was allowed to receive two salaries at once. (The relevant Manila Times article explaining this policy is not online, but its title, “Teachers are Losers” is worth mentioning.)
All their hard work might have been for nought, though. Filipino policies of individual house-by-house quarantine would have probably been more effective, had they been given the chance to work. Whipping up the population into a panic was exactly what the Americans should not have done. In the name of containing the disease, they caused the real carriers—people—to disperse wider and faster throughout the country. We all need to be on guard against such hubris. [Edited to add in March 2020: Please practice social distancing and self-isolation to #flattenthecurve. If you are not in a high-risk group by age or pre-existing conditions, please take these precautionary measures in order to protect those in your family or community who are most at risk. And stop hoarding the toilet paper. What are you going to do, eat it? Also, check out my full history of Gilded Age medicine and my favorite medical history podcasts for more information.]
I write my love stories in the middle of challenging settings like cholera fires and wars because I believe that love will find a way to grow even during the darkest of times. In the Sugar Sun series, American and Filipino characters untangle international and interpersonal conflicts to create their happily-ever-afters, even if they cannot change the larger course of history that envelops them. Along the way, they show that today’s debates over global economic integration, nation-building, military force, religious extremism—and epidemic disease—echo the scrutiny over American policy that started in the Philippines.
Featured image is of the cholera squad hired by the Americans in the Philippine outbreak of 1902. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Christmas in New Hampshire feels surprisingly quiet this year. The holiday season traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving on “Black Friday”—marking the start of the shopping season, which will bring stores out of the red and into the black with holiday sales. Recently Black Friday has become Black-Thursday-the-hour-after-you-load-the-dirty-plates-in-the-dishwasher. And then this year I noticed advertisements for Christmas-themed books, movies, and products on or before Halloween.
The Philippines celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world, starting on September 1st—when you’ve officially entered the “Ber” months—and lasting through the beginning of January. (Or Easter, according to how long some of my neighbors had their decorations up.) Once September arrives, stores break out the holiday albums, parols are offered for sale alongside highways, and malls get so crowded that you literally cannot drive by them. Seriously, don’t plan on it. And if you do, don’t fight the standstill. Just put on some good tunes, sit back, and relax. You’re going nowhere quick.
But here’s the secret: if you want to drive anywhere in Manila during Christmas season, do so on Christmas Eve. The roads are deserted. The toll booths are unmanned. Skyway is free for everybody!
This “good night,” Noche Buena, is the real holiday. The day begins with a midnight (or pre-dawn) mass called the Misa de Gallo, or mass of the rooster. (Because by the time you leave church, the roosters are crowing.) The evening is for family dinners, and by midnight on Christmas Day the faithful head back to mass.
There is one tradition that may have gotten lost in big city life in Manila and elsewhere: pastores, or shepherds. This pageant-carol of the Nativity drama came from Mexico, thanks to sailors on the Spanish galleons. Its details, though, soon varied by region. The villains could be anyone from the devil (in half-man, half-monkey form) to King Herod to snooty homeowners.
Today, in many places, the daigon has become a set piece dancing and singing performance. But in the early 1900s Visayas, the daigon (or daygon, from “starting a fire” or “lighting up”) was more like what I described in Under the Sugar Sun:
Javier guided Georgina to a house with a pronounced balcony, the perfect place to start the daigon. Mary, Joseph, and a chorus of shepherds and angels were already assembled. Mary was dressed in a blue and white gown, her “pregnant” belly stuffed full of pillows. The band fell silent as the holy couple sang a plea for shelter to the owners of the house. One did not have to know Visayan to understand the girl’s predicament.
The owners of the house responded in turn, and Javier translated in a whisper. “They are saying that the house is already bursting with people.”
Then Mary sang again. “She is promising them heavenly rewards,” he explained. “I think a literal translation is that ‘their names will be written in the book of the chosen few.’”
“It is beautiful,” the maestra whispered. “What did the people in the house just say?”
“They have turned her down. They said their house is not for the poor.”
He found Georgina’s innocence endearing. No doubt she knew the story of the Nativity as well as he did—probably better since she actually went to all the novenas—but her rapt expression made it seem like she was hearing the story for the first time.
They trailed the crowd to the next house, where Joseph begged for a place for his wife, “even in the kitchen,” but was told that the mansion was “only for nobles.” When Mary insisted, the doña threatened to let loose her dogs on them.
Georgina looked around, noticing that they were almost at the school building. “They will not sing to us, will they? More importantly, I do not have to sing back?” She looked truly alarmed.
“Do not worry. They will finish before that, at the ‘stable’—by which I mean the town church, San Nicolás. The crowd and the band will amble on, though, begging for refreshments, so we should prepare.”
Georgina’s eyes lit up. “Your aguinaldos!”
He laughed and squeezed her hand on his arm. “Exactly—including your favorite: chocolate.”
There is a fair amount of seduction over food in that book, even at fiesta. Maybe especially at fiesta!
For a young woman, landing the role of Mary was like being crowned the homecoming queen, though she had better be able to sing, too. Fortunately, my character Rosa Ramos was both pretty and talented:
Singing had pulled Rosa through her childhood. Instead of being just the daughter of a disciplined maid and an undisciplined field hand, her voice had made her the best known fifteen-year-old in Bais. Out of all the girls on all the haciendas, she had been cast as the Virgin Mary in the local Christmas pageant. It said something about her life back then that she could not have imagined anything so grand anywhere in the world. She could have been crowned queen of Spain and still not been as happy as she had been that night.
That was a little holiday gift for you—a taste of Tempting Hymn. Here is another gift: the lighting of the huge Christmas tree at Bais.
I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas (Maligayang Pasko!), Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year.
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 read about the outliers, the dangerous, the obscure, the interesting! 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 pony from becoming dinner for starving Americans in Beijing?
Marianne and Lily are intriguing because they are based upon real people—real outliers. My inspiration for Marianne came from The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole, while Lily is based on Laura Conger in Sarah Pike Conger’s Letters from China. Cool books! Where did I find them, 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—one or two sides of a mold—but if I actually wrote books for them I would fictionalize them by mixing in other elements. Pour in all the individual hopes, dreams, and quirks that you need to make each character three-dimensional.
Here is an example from my writing: I found the original inspiration for my character Allegra Alazas of Sugar Moon from a single lantern slide found at the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive. Why did this image speak to me? Because the half-scowl on the woman’s face seems to say, “Mr. Photographer, you and I both know that you are an idiot, but I am just polite enough not to say it out loud.” Based on what I could discern from the photo, I thought that maybe this woman would have been educated in Manila at a fancy convent school. So I found a few of those in another primary source, a Commercial Directory of Manila in 1901. And what would the woman in the photo say to Sister Elenteria in their Artificial Flowers class? Well, if you know Allegra, you know that she told the sister where exactly she could put her artificial flowers in a country with bountiful natural ones. And Allegra was born.
The Straitjacket Model
What if you find outliers you don’t like? There always will be archival sources that represent the worst of a chosen era, and these constraints can give you what you need for a foil or villain. I did this for Archie Blaxton and the Stinnetts, the ugly Americans from Under the Sugar Sun and Tempting Hymn. These characters were partly modeled after the Coles, teachers in Leyte (see photo of Mary Cole below).
The Open Flame Model
Real history can also provide conflict, too. Why did Georgina Potter head to the Philippines in Under the Sugar Sun? I found a newspaper article in the Manila Times archive about an undelivered letter that fell into the hands of the wrong person. It was written by a very-worried sister who did not know what had become of her brother. And I thought to myself, “Where was this brother? What was the sister going to do next? What would happen when she actually finds him?” Good conflict adds heat underneath your character’s feet. I call this the open flame.
The Millstone Model
For Sugar Moon, I gave my hero a troubled past. Ground down by the millstone of war, he is someone new because of this real event. It is a big part of 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 that really happened to a real clueless American on one of his first nights in the Philippines in the early 1900s. 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 shame on you!) Therefore, I call this the fridge magnet model. These little snippets tell your reader more about a character or setting than Mr. Exposition ever could. For example, the snake story told me how clever people 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 her 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!
Pressed against Javier’s arm as they waited for the band to begin, Georgie studied his barong tagalog. It was simple ivory with a plain collar—elegant and traditional—not dyed or striped or ruffled. He had also chosen geometric embroidery over floral. Still, it was not a modest garment. Though the piña felt sturdy and substantial where it brushed her skin, it was so sheer that it displayed his snug undershirt with remarkable definition.
“Why wear a shirt so thin that you need a second layer?” she asked, eyes fixed where his short sleeve revealed some bicep. “Isn’t that hot?”
One eyebrow shot up. “It depends with whom I am dancing.”
But he’s not entirely wrong. There is a rare intersection of sexy and convenient going on here. The barong tagalog (the “Tagalog shirt”), or just barong, is the formal garment for men in the Philippines. No tie. No tucking the darn thing in. What’s not to like? At least, that’s my husband’s attitude. He actually went to fancy dress parties and weddings in Manila, as a result. He’s even worn his here in the States.
He doesn’t look this good in his—shhh, don’t tell him—but he looks pretty good:
If you do a little research on the barong, you’ll run into an urban myth—at least, from what I could find, it is an urban myth. I’ll let Javier tell it:
He flicked the loose tail of his shirt. “I’ve always been told that the Spanish required the indios to wear these so we couldn’t hide our daggers underneath.”
Georgie wondered if these islands had ever known peace. “Is that true?”
“It’s certainly the kind of thing the Crown would have done, but there’s no specific law anyone can point to.” Javier paused, his brown eyes studying her. “It makes a good story—and at Spanish expense, too, which makes it even better—but in truth the barong is probably all Filipino. Do you like it?”
Georgie looked up the shirt line and across his chest. “I do.”
He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “I would wear anything to catch your attention, Ina. Or nothing.”
You can find some historic examples of barongs at my Pinterest site on traditional Philippine dress. And if you keep digging, you’ll find there’s lots of variety: ruffles, fabrics, cuffs, length, and more. Some have floral designs, and others geometric. Some are dyed, others are natural piña. All look pretty terrific on a handsome man, though, and isn’t that all we want in the end?
EPILOGUE: My husband thought that I left out the most famous non-Filipino to wear a barong, Quentin Tarantino. But there is a problem with Tarantino’s high-profile debut of the garment at the 65th Annual Golden Globes Nomination ceremony in December 2007: he forgot the undershirt. And he left it unbuttoned at the collar, which made the lack of undershirt even worse. His general look of dishevelment did not help matters. As a result, many Filipinos felt he did not present the Tesorobarong at its best. (It was a gift by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, by the way, and Tesoro’s made it in a day. The source is quick to add that Tarantino was, in fact, given an XXL undershirt.) At least the filmmaker wore it with genuine affection, and isn’t that the most important thing?