Reprising the History Games at #RWA19

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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.

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I will also join Gilded Age romance superstars Maya Rodale and Joanna Shupe for Researching and Writing the Gilded Age Romance:

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.

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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:

#RWA19-literacy-signing-romance-writers-new-yorkI hope to see you there!

Covering the Sugar Sun series

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

Sugar-Sun-cover-Jennifer-HallockWhen 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

Tempting-Hymn-cover-Jennifer-HallockTempting 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.

Sugar Moon

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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.

Thank you, Mr. Hallock!

Sugar Moon acknowledgments

Sugar Moon is a work of fiction, but the attack in Balangiga, the American counterattack on Samar, and the Pulahan War were all true events that happened between the years of 1901 and 1907. I relied heavily upon the outstanding scholarship of Rolando O. Borrinaga, George Emmanuel R. Borrinaga, Bob Couttie, Brian McAllister Linn, and Daniel C. Talde. I am also grateful to Scott Slaten and the whole Philippine-American War Facebook Group for their photographs, stories, and shared knowledge about this period.

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Two outstanding scholars on the Balangiga Incident, Rolando O. Borrinaga and Bob Couttie. Bottom right is my photo of the monument to the attackers in Balangiga town.

Some characters in this novel are based on real people but they have been renamed, conflated, and woven into a simplified account that serves my story. Ben Potter is loosely based upon Sergeant Frank Betron. This American soldier studied arnis from the real police chief in Balangiga, Valeriano Abanador. He also may have had a brief romance with the church caretaker, Casiana Nacionales. Betron remained in the Philippines after his escape from Balangiga, possibly to look for Casiana. He failed to find her, married a woman from Cebu, and settled elsewhere in the islands. Casiana, also known as Geronima or Susana, is one half of the model for Valentina. Accounts place her in Balangiga during the attack, but it is not known whether she stayed to cover the departure of the other women or to help coordinate the ambush by sneaking weapons into the church. The other model for Valentina is a real Pulahan priestess, resistance fighter, and healer, Bruna Fabrigar.

It is no accident that my hero, Ben Potter, is drawn to smart, passionate women—but only Allegra wins this soldier’s heart. Actually, this phrase is doubly appropriate: “soldier’s heart” was the contemporary term for combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Ben’s struggle is inspired by first-hand accounts from three of my best friends: two U.S. Army veterans of the Vietnam War, Jim (MACV-SOG, I Corps) and Rudy (11th Armored Cavalry, III Corps); as well as Rich, a Marine survivor of the 1984 terror attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. I have taken Ben’s story in directions that none of these men would have imagined, but I could not have imagined any of it without their help.

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Allegra Alazas was a scene-stealer in Under the Sugar Sun, and I always knew the next novel would be hers. Her iconoclastic character was sparked by the sly half-smile of a Filipino woman in a lantern slide taken by E. W. Goodrich, Tremont Temple, Boston, and housed at the University of Michigan Philippine Photographs Digital Archive. Allegra is not based on any single person—she has always had a voice of her own, right from the beginning—but she would be honored by any resemblance shown to the brilliant Regina Abuyuan. Gina was a writer, editor, school founder, teacher, pub owner, mother, wife, advocate, and friend. We love and miss you, Gina.

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Gina and I with friends Ben, Paul, Derek, and Regine at the Fred’s Revolución in Escolta.

Allegra’s attitudes toward colonial education policy came from the many questions that arose during my research, especially about the thoroughly inappropriate children’s readers imported from the United States. In 1907 the first Philippine primers were published by the World Book Company—though unlike Allegra’s series, these were written entirely by Americans. Sometimes history needs a shove in the right direction. See scholars Roland Sintos Coloma, Kimberly A. Alidio, and A. J. Angulo to learn more.

Also essential to creating Sugar Moon were my language gurus: Liana Smith Bautista (Cebuano); Stephen Fernandez and Adriana Sanchez (Spanish); Scott Giampetruzzi and Andres Reyes (Latin); and Suzette de Borja (Waray). I cannot thank my beta readers enough: Teresa Noelle Roberts; Priscilla and Jim Lockney; and the members of the Weare Area Writers Guild. Also, a big thanks to the authors at NECRWA and #romanceclass for being mentors and friends.

This book would not have been possible without the editing, advice, design, technical expertise, and support of my husband, Stephen. He is the hero who makes my dreams possible—at the cost of many hundreds of hours he would have otherwise set aside to play guitar. If he does not become the next Richard Thompson, you have just read why.

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People are talking about Sugar Moon!

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The live tweeting has begun! Thank you to author Mina V. Esguerra and book blogger/podcaster Kat from BookThingo for sharing their reactions to Sugar Moon:

Mina’s Live tweet thread on Sugar Moon

Kat’s Live tweet thread on Sugar Moon

And thank you to all those reading and talking about Ben and Allegra:

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A special thank you to those who have taken time to write an honest review on Amazon or Goodreads. This helps readers find my books, and I cannot thank you enough for helping spread the word.

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