Ben Potter is not your typical hero. I don’t say this because of his checkered past, which he has. No, I mean his unusual talent for a male lead in a historical romance: Ben sews.
Ben is the grandson of a self-made tailor and the son of an industrious seamstress. He grew up working in his family’s shop. He was supposed to inherit it—before the Spanish-American War broke out, that is. (Before Ben, like so many other young men, were persuaded by the sensationalist press to “liberate” the Cuban people from Spanish tyranny. That’s not how it turned out, by the way.)
Ben has opinions about the fit of suits. He sizes a man up by his “well-molded shoulders” and “perfect trouser break.” He is the one who visits the tailor several times to make his suit fit. “Even so, the collar did not feel right,” he thinks to himself, and after that he makes his own work shirts. Fashioning a doll for his niece is no sweat, and a sewing machine makes dresses for the doll even easier and faster.
Could there really be a Singer on a hacienda in Bais? Yes! The Singer Sewing Machine company had actually been selling their products in the Philippines since 1882, predating the American colonial period. According to Pinoy Kollektor, over a quarter-million units were sold by 300 Singer outlets in the Philippines by 1912, adding 1500 jobs to the economy.
The Singer showroom on the Escolta was one of the most photographed landmarks on the street, probably because the Americans who saw it assumed it arrived with Dewey’s navy. (Of course they did.)
Ironically, one of the reasons that Americans desired an empire was to sell their goods in Asia—particularly in China, but in the Philippines too. Did they need military conquest to do so? No. As Private First Class Reginald “Malik” Edwards, a Vietnam vet, said of that subsequent war, “Sometimes I think we would have done a lot better to by getting [the Vietnamese] hooked on our life-style than by trying to do it with guns….Blue jeans works better than bombs.” In this case, Singer sewing machines would have worked better than Colts and Krags. Ben certainly would have preferred them.
Final note: for more beautiful, historic Singer photographs, check out the website of Pinoy Kollektor.
I began writing SugarMoon in 2013. I began writing this blog in 2016. In both cases, that’s a long time ago. It includes years of writing about the Philippine-American War, and in particular the Balangiga incident—a central event shaping the character of my redemption-seeking, whistleblower character, Ben Potter.
Let’s say you know nothing about what happened in Balangiga—or even nothing about the Philippine-American War. Don’t worry, you won’t need to in order to read Sugar Moon. But let’s say you’re a history geek like me? Well, I’ve written a lot of content just for you!
I have tried to organize this by the most logical questions. Read the captions, and if you want to know more just click on the link below the image. Geek out!
Question 1: Where is this book set?
Question 2: Why were Americans in the Philippines?
Question 3: What happened in Samar?
Question 4: WHAT WAS THE US ARMY LIKE IN 1901?
Question 5: What else should I know about the world of Ben Potter?
Question 6: What should I know about the world of Allegra Alazas?
And you can find out more about Allegra, her home, her family, and her background by reading through these annotated glossary posts:
You might think mixing romance and history would be a highly-marketable combination, but there are a few landmines. Fans of historical fiction (who often know little about romance) want you to take out the happily-ever-after to make your book more “realistic” and “serious.” Fortunately for me, Olivia Waite came along and explained the problem with taking away my heroines’ HEAs:
Jeannie Lin added that the Asian women in her family have suffered through “regime change, through executions, through so many personal tragedies—and still found a way to find happiness. That story is just as real.” As I’ve heard Beverly Jenkins say several times at conferences: even in the toughest of times, people still have picnics, birthday parties, and fall in love.
Of course, some of the worst bits are history are not going to make it to the page in a romance. (Hello, syphilis? Around ten percent of the general American population had the disease by 1900, and I choose to entirely ignore that fact.) I have written and discussed in interviews why I chose to set my books in the Philippine-American War. (They are not the typical Regency duke books, for sure.) I used my own scholarship on American colonial rule in the Philippines to fabricate my own fictional chronotope: I choose when to be constrained by real history and when to hold onto a more modern sensibility.
Writers have been fabricating chronotopes in historical fiction for centuries. Antony and Cleopatra—while not a romance—is proof that Shakespeare made this same choice. The play is based partly off the history he had at his disposal, Plutarch’s Lives, but he also added scenes and changed historical facts to suit the story. Some scholars even say that Shakespeare was really writing a political commentary of his times, using Elizabeth I as his model for Cleopatra. While Shakespeare is the platinum standard of literature now, keep in mind that he wrote popular fiction back then. He was a storyteller.
That’s what romance is: good story-telling that makes you feel. Tess Sharpe came up with a pretty exhaustive list of what I mean by this:
But let’s not ignore sexual chemistry. One of the reasons that romance makes a person feel so intensely—and that is a big part of its appeal—is that the reader is so heavily invested in the two main characters and their relationship. How does that happen? How does the reader become so intimately involved? By being present at the most intimate of scenes, when the armor of clothing is shed and the characters become figuratively and literally naked. The sex scenes advance the plot because they are about navigating the relationship in its most raw state.
A week ago, I re-introduced you to Allegra Alazas, the heroine of the upcoming Sugar Moon. She already has a fan club because she stole every scene she could in Under the Sugar Sun.
Her hero (or anti-hero?) is a different kettle of fish. Ben Potter is not someone you were supposed to like in the past book—and yet I always intended to give you his story because it needs to be told.
Ben is loosely based on the real men who served in Company C of the Ninth U.S. Infantry. These men fought at San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Just as soon as they returned to their home barracks in upstate New York, they were shipped out again to the Philippines.
What had been meant as a sideshow the war against Spain became the first American imperial war overseas. In March 1899, only one month after tensions between Filipinos and Americans erupted in open combat, the Ninth was sent to reinforce the area around Manila. But they did not stay there long, either. After fighting in several battles that year, they were shipped to China to rescue to the American legation in Beijing (known back then as “Pekin”) during the Boxer War. They scaled the walls of the Forbidden City and camped in the palace grounds.
One might question what the heck America was doing. A war against Spain fought in Cuba had blossomed into a new war in the Philippines that lent soldiers to fight yet another campaign in China. Talk about mission creep. Yikes. Progressives in the Republican Club of Massachusetts claimed in a 1900 leaflet that the end justified the means: “Isn’t Every American proud of the part that American soldiers bore in the relief of Pekin? But that would have been impossible if our flag had not been in the Philippines.”
Once the foreign powers—Europe, Japan, and America—consolidated their hold on mainland China, the Ninth was sent back to the Philippine-American War. Their vacation was the steamer trip to Manila. There, the battle-weary group was given the privilege (and bother) of serving as honor guard for newly-named civilian governor (and future president of the United States), William Howard Taft.
Two years into their overseas rotation, this company of grizzly veterans was sent to one of the roughest outposts in the islands: Balangiga, Samar. Tasked with closing the port to trade—thereby preventing weapon smuggling to the Philippine revolutionaries—Company C settled down to village garrison life.
These men may have been the worst possible choice for this task. By this point, they were unlikely to trust anyone. In addition, some soldiers were likely suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Finally, they were cut off from the rest of the world, without even mail call since they were not on the main steamer line. Private Patrick J. Dobbins wrote to his family:
One man in my company went crazy a week ago and escaped to the hills, probably to be killed and eaten by the natives. Another, who was sick unto death, committed suicide this morning at 6 o’clock. His name is Schechterle and he enlisted at the same time I did in Boston. . . . A grave has been dug near our quarters, and a guard of eight men are over the grave. The body is being lowered into the earth. The flag is at half mast. Three volleys are fired, taps is sounded. It is his last call, ‘absent, but accounted for.’ He is better off. Many of us watch him as he is gently lowered with envious eyes.
Though the commanding officer of Company C, Captain Thomas Connell, was a West Point graduate (1894), he did not manage his garrison well. At first too permissive, he became stringent when he realized that his next promotion was on the line. He felt that the villagers were not obeying his commands to “clean up” the streets, so he ordered Company C to round up all the men and keep them prisoner in two tents on the square.
Yes, my character Ben will try to stop all of this from happening, but history is history. He will not be successful. A week later, the town—with help from guerrillas in the jungle—would ambush the company, killing 48 out of 74 Americans. This was real war with real consequences.
Obviously, my imaginary Ben Potter lived—or did he? For families like his in America, it would have been hard to know. Names in the real reports were spelled wrong. Numbers changed. It felt like even the Army did not know who had survived. When I found a real article in the Manila Times about a sister writing to a missing brother, I rewrote it in my mind to fit fiction:
This is a lot of backstory, to be sure. And it is only backstory, not the plot of my book. But I think it is critical history that Americans have forgotten and been doomed to repeat: the Philippines was the Vietnam or Iraq (or Syria?) of the Gilded Age.
Ben lives through these events as a very young man, and they will haunt him for years. Love may not be a cure for combat trauma, but it can encourage Ben to face his past—especially when that past threatens his future with an amazing woman.
Do you ever make imaginary friends with a character from a book? I do all the time. These are often characters I have made up in my own mind—and yet I still need to get to get acquainted with them from scratch like they’re strangers. If I have done my job right, by the time the book is ready to print, the hero and heroine are my family. I love them.
Sometimes a character does not wait for her own book. She steals the show from the first moment she is introduced. Such a character is Allegra Alazas, the fiercely loyal cousin of Javier Altarejos, and the woman who plays his matchmaker in Under the Sugar Sun.
Sugar Sun’s heroine Georgina Potter first meets Allegra in a store on the Escolta, in Manila. As she tells it:
Señorita Allegra was perfectly happy to keep the conversation going all on her own, just as she had done for the past half hour. They had met by chance at a dry goods store, and Georgie had not been able to shake the woman since. Allegra could not believe that any American would walk the Escolta without shopping, so Georgie now found herself unfolding a delicate slip of lace, pretending to consider it despite its prohibitive price. Even though Georgie was supposed to be getting married soon, she did not feel sentimental enough about the occasion to plunge into debt over it. This treasure was not for her.
Allegra kept talking. “I have to sew my flowers on dresses now, though Hermana Teresa will jump off the Puente de España before she believes it. Yesterday she says I will fail domestic labors class. Fail! So I say it is okay—one day I will hire her as my costurera. Do you hear nuns curse before? Very quiet, but they do.”
No doubt nuns cursed around this young woman a lot, Georgie thought. Allegra looked demure but was really quite untamed. Black, roguish eyes set off her fair, delicate skin. Her pink lips were small but curvy, as exaggerated as the outlandish words that came from them.
She sounds like fun, doesn’t she? Allegra—or Allie, as she will soon be known—was inspired by the lantern slide photo above. True story. It was the look on this woman’s face that won me over. I thought her story had to be written.
If I had to cast a movie version of Sugar Moon (and I am open to offers), I would love to see Maine Mendoza in the role:
You see the resemblance, don’t you? It is all about the attitude.
[Edited to add: 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.]
Well, I’d better get back to it, or else you will never get to read Allie’s story. I had to do a massive rewrite this past winter, and I’m about 40% through the Big Edit now. There are some complicating factors that make this book tough. The history is real, and I do not want to skim over that fact. (As author Elizabeth Kingston pointed out recently, colonialism needs to be critically examined, even in romance. Actually, especially in romance. I have tried to do this, and I will keep trying—which to me means not ignoring the difficult stuff.) Also, Ben Potter has to be carefully transformed into hero material; he was not likable in the previous book. But he will be, I promise. Barring major problems, I am gunning for a September release. Fingers crossed.