Loosening Up in 1910

Though not the height of fashion, a white cotton shirtwaist was the unofficial uniform of schoolteachers in the Edwardian Philippines. Having used a chalkboard for a good part of my own teaching career, I can attest that having your sleeves already be white is extremely practical. Two of my previous heroines, Georgina and Allegra, thought so too.

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Miss Laura Reed, an American schoolteacher, or Thomasite, in her shirtwaist and skirt at Calasiao, Pangasinan, north of Manila. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

According to the Indianapolis Journal on January 1, 1900: “The shirtwaist will be with us more than ever this summer. Women are wearing shirtwaists because they are comfortable, because they can be made to fit any form, and because they are mannish.” Fashion historian Catherine Gourley explains that “it was similar to a man’s shirt. It had a stiff, high-necked collar and buttons down the front. Women often wore one with a floppy bow or tie. Some pinned a brooch to the collar.”

In contrast, high fashion in the first decade of the 1900s was a structured Gibson Girl silhouette that looked a lot like that of the previous century, particularly the painfully small waist. The badly named “health” corset “pushed the bust forward and the hips back in an attempt to avoid pressure on the abdomen,” according to the timeline of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) of the State University of New York. The shape was top-heavy with dramatic sleeves, “enhanced with petticoats that had full backs and smooth fronts” (FIT).

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Sugar Communion’s heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, as inspired by an 1896 fashion plate at the Met. (She will borrow the dress.)

Dresses did not loosen until around 1910 or so, but fortunately Sugar Communion is quite epic in scope so I can explore new fashion templates that look far more comfortable. I was surprised by how 1920s-esque they looked, and then I found that FIT agreed with me: “While changes in women’s fashion that manifested in the 1920s are often attributed to changes due to World War I, many of the popular styles of the twenties actually evolved from styles popular before the war and as early as the beginning of the decade.”

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Costume Institute Fashion Plate 105, 1910-1913, at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I paged through only a few of the plates at the Costume Institute Collections at The Met to get an idea of what I would like to see Liddy wear, when she gets the chance—when she is not tending to patients in a practical shirtwaist, that is.

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Costume Institute Fashion Plate 118, 1910-1913, at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I think the geometric patterns on the above skirt would appeal, though Liddy is not likely to be seen at entertainments like horse races, nor would she approve, probably.

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Costume Institute Fashion Plates 119 and 127, 1910-1913, at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

See what I mean by the roaring twenties vibe? Ignore the hat on the right, which seems to be an inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s cat. Both of these dresses seem so elegant. The one on the left I can see Miss Fisher wearing while she solves a murder mystery.

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Costume Institute Fashion Plate 113, 1910-1913, at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I do not understand the knotted kerchief hanging off the belt on the right illustration above, but that blouse and skirt is otherwise very modern. Also, women began to dare to show some ankle—racy, I know!—though not bare skin. My heroine Liddy does not have the time nor inclination for hose, so socks and boots are her daily wear.

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Costume Institute Fashion Plate 137, 1910-1913, at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I think that back in the 1980s I had a blouse like the one above on the left. No feathered hats for me or Liddy, though.

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Costume Institute Fashion Plate 133, 1910-1913, at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These plates tell me that clothing was starting to become more comfortable, and even high fashion followers did not want to be dependent on a maid to dress them all the time.

Can you imagine having a ladies’ valet in 2020? “The yoga pants again, ma’am?”

Ripped Bodice’s Summer Reading Bingo with the Sugar Sun Series

Right now the world needs happily-ever-afters more than ever. The Ripped Bodice has brought back its 2020 summer reading bingo game, just in time.

ripped-bodice-2020-bingoThe rules are pretty straightforward: you read the books this summer (on your honor) and record them. Once you have won five-across BINGO—horizontally, vertically, or diagonally—you can go to their site to enter a drawing for a prize!

What to read, what to read…? It’s a world of choices, literally. For a whole slew of possibilities from the #RomanceClass authors, check out Mina V. Esguerra‘s tweet here.

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How does the Sugar Sun series help? Here’s some ideas, though keep in mind you can only use any given book once:

Under the Sugar Sun: I’m on a Boat / Their nose was broken once but it only makes them more handsome / Debut Novel / A Midsummer Ball / Set on an Island

Tempting HymnTitle is a Pun (I’m especially excited about this one!) / Healthcare Professional / Protagonist smells “uniquely like themselves” / Villain’s Love Story / Protagonist plays an instrument that’s not the guitar or piano (voice) / Set on an Island

Sugar Moon: I’m on a Boat / Accidentally in the Wilderness / Villain’s Love Story / Set on an Island

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Happy reading, everyone.

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

Sugar-Moon-cover-Jennifer-Hallock

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!

Introducing Allegra Alazas

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.

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The Fifth Avenue of old Manila, a place to buy harness and hardware, dry goods and diamonds, and more.

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.

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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.]

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

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.

[Edited to add: Sugar Moon is here! It was released in April 2019 to much acclaim.]

Sugar Sun series glossary term #34: piña

Javier knows perfectly well that his piña fiber is uniquely delicate, transparent, well-ventilated, yet strong. This combination is why piña is the traditional choice for a man’s barong tagalog or a woman’s wedding dress or fancy blouse.

piña glossary for Sugar Sun series by Jennifer Hallock
From left to right: 19th-century piña shawl from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Philippine-German mestiza wearing a baro’t saya from the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive; and a piña blouse, also from the Met.

But fine piña is not cheap, with good reason. Every part of its production is time-consuming, starting with the 18 months it takes a pineapple plant to reach maturity. Starting at about a year of growth, the plant’s leaves can start to be cut and processed for their fibers. According to the Philippine Folklife Museum:

The green epidermal layer is scraped off the leaf with tools made from coconut shells, coconut husks or pottery shards. Extraction from the long, stiff leaves is time-consuming and labor-intensive. These fibers are then spun into soft, shimmering fabrics by hand. Because the fiber is fine and breaks easily, working with it is slow and tedious. Workers are constantly knotting broken threads.

That is not the end of the process, either. It takes weeks more to prepare the yarn and then weave it together into patterns like flowers, fruits, coconut trees, and nipa huts—whatever the artist wants. According to the Folklife Museum, it can take eight hours to finish one meter of plain cloth or just half a meter of patterned cloth.

piña making for Sugar Sun glossary
Turn-of-the-century photo of girls weaving piña from the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

All to make ladies look gorgeous and men look handsome? Yeah, it’s worth it.

[Featured public domain image of an early 19th-century piña scarf was a gift of Miss Mary Cheney Platt to the Met.]