This week, I met up with some of the wonderful members of the Greater Detroit Romance Writers group for dinner and a write-in session. While we worked hard, we also chatted a bit here and there. (And laughed a lot.) One of the ideas that came up in our discussions was that characters sometimes take a writer to places the writer doesn’t expect. We all agreed; we’d all been there. You plan a book, you create a character, and so seemingly you’re the god of this manuscript – yet sometimes the characters tell you that they need to do something you hadn’t expected.
I’m eagerly working on three projects right now, which is not my habit. Typically I work on one book at a time, from start to finish, because I like to walk around with the characters talking in my head and let them really sink in as I get to know them and their story. But this new year has been an inspired one so far. A new idea for a hot story set in New Orleans jumped out at me, and before I knew it, I’d written four chapters without even an outline. (Also unusual for me.) I’m also revisiting a YA I wrote years ago that I think might be worthy of sharing with the world, once it’s polished. And, thanks to the GDRW crew, I mustered the courage to open the file on the celebrity romance I started last August and abandoned after some bad news.
Here are things these characters are doing that I had not expected:
The celebrity romance pair wants to have a very sexual relationship long before their declarations of love kick in and long before they overcome the obstacles to being a real couple. I typically write one sex scene, most of which is off the page, after the couple acknowledges they want to be together, so writing a narrative where the sex comes first is huge. It’s a big deal for a romance writer. Readers typically stick with one heat level, so it can be off-putting when an author whose books they normally read switches heat. For now, I’m writing as the plot as the characters want it to happen, but we’ll have to wait and see in the end if they get their way in the final version.
In the New Orleans story – and this is the biggest shocker – the woman protagonist seems to be on a course to fall in love with a cis straight man. Since I write LGBTQ romance, this is huge. I probably cannot finish, sell, and market this book as Jane Kolven. Beyond sales concerns, though, this was just plain weird to me to realize. I’m not sure I fully know this character yet, since her experiences are so different from my own. But I’ll go along with her for now to see where she takes me.
There are many different ways to write. Some people create outlines and character sketches and know before they put their hands on the keyboard what’s going to happen. Others just start typing and see what happens. I’m usually a plotter, but I’ve always been a plotter open to where the story might lead. This January, I did not expect to be led to writing multiple books at the same time, and I definitely didn’t expect these characters to take their sexuality in these directions. Right now, since the stories are all in the nascent stages, my job is to just to listen and observe before making any conclusions about what will and won’t stay in the book.
This December is the first in four years that I haven’t been on a frantic deadline. For the past few years, December 31 has not been an enjoyable holiday or time to reflect on the past year. Rather, I’ve spent it finishing a manuscript draft (The Haunted Heart, 2021), copyedits (a non-Jane project, 2020; The Queen Has a Cold, 2019). This is usually after I spend November doing NaNoWriMo and frantically drafting all month. (The Holiday Detour, Queen, and Haunted Heart all started as NaNo projects.) This year was different.
This year, I took some time off. I didn’t participate in NaNo because I’d had a non-Jane project due October 31 and needed a break, and because my current work in progress isn’t yet under contract and doesn’t yet have a publication date, there was no frantic December 31 deadline this year. I’ve spent the last two weeks hanging out with people I love, putting together a murder mystery jigsaw puzzle, watching a lot of TV, and making my house look nice. It’s been lazy and glorious.
When you’re a writer, though, downtime can feel creatively stifling – much like a professional athlete might feel more depleted than rested after taking several weeks off training. I find myself itchy to open up Scrivener and get back into it.
I went to college in Lake Forest, which is two towns north of Highland Park. They’re both incredibly affluent communities, with Highwood, the town where the people who serve and clean up after LF and HP live, in between. My college days were marked by going to restaurants and coffee shops in HP. (The bars were all in Highwood.)
Immediately after college I moved from the Chicagoland area but returned a year or so later. I lived in the city, but I had a job in Highland Park. I made the one-hour commute up 94/41 every day in the dark to get to work on time and sat in traffic endlessly on my way home every afternoon.
When I wrote The Holiday Detour, I decided my main character Dana’s family should live in Highland Park for a couple of reasons. First, Dana comes from wealth, and Highland Park has plenty. Dana’s also Jewish, and unlike Lake Forest, a predominantly Christian town, Highland Park has a large, thriving Jewish population. (There’s a much longer story about why I wrote Dana to be Jewish and how HP came to have such a large Jewish population, but that’s not important right now.) HP was also a place I knew really well, so I felt I could give authentic details to the story.
I tell you all this to explain my relationship to HP and how much it shocked me to hear the news about the shooting on the 4th of July. Mass shootings are always abhorrent. They are violations of our social trust, making us afraid of the very places that are supposed to bring us together as community. This one hit me extra hard, since it happened in a place that was so important to my formative early adult years.
For the immediate future, until the campaign is closed, I will be donating 25% of any royalties earned from The Holiday Detour to VictimsFirst’s fund for survivors and families of the shooting. VictimsFirst is a national network that mobilizes in the wake of mass shooting to support survivors financially, physically, and emotionally with trauma and grief counseling. They’ve done campaigns for Buffalo and Uvalde. (Fuck the reality that they have to launch a campaign every day. Fuck the reality that this organization has to exist. But thank them for existing.) While their Highland Park campaign continues, I’ll be giving to that. After it closes, I’ll take stock of what the best options are and update everyone on how I’ll proceed from there.
This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be writing about coming out, from historical, political, and personal perspectives. This week I’m focusing on National Coming Out Day and some of the criticisms of it.
In the past few weeks, two of my friends who don’t know each other came out in very different ways. One is a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community who has questioned their own sexuality for years. They told me via text they had finally introduced themselves as queer in public, and my friends and I celebrated this news with joy. The other friend has struggled to reconcile their religion, which is homophobic, with the growing revelation that they might be gay. For this friend, the slow process of coming out was painful. It was a surprise to them. And although they have “come out” to me, they’re still very much in the closet around family, their church community, and colleagues.
I’ve been thinking about both of them this week as we celebrated National Coming Out Day. This – one of few queer-designated holidays – was first celebrated in 1988 at a time when HIV/AIDS was still ravaging the community. Coming out and living as an openly gay person was seen as a way to combat the stigmas against the AIDS epidemic and the gay and lesbian community. Today, its spirit is to be more inclusive of all sexualities and also trans and nonbinary people.
There’s been a lot of pushback against NCOD in my world, where folks overeducated on history and politics like to find everything “problematic” for the pleasure of cynicism. One of the critiques is that NCOD puts pressure on people to come out or be seen as hiding, cowardly, or ashamed of themselves. When I was in college, the straight allies in the LGBTQ group on campus borrowed a freestanding door and threshold from the theater department. They set it up in front of the student union, so queer people could walk through it on their way to lunch. If you walked through it, you “came out” of the closet, and everyone cheered. Everyone knew I identified as a lesbian. (Or maybe that was when I still called myself bisexual, which I did for a year as a way of easing into the community, but either way, I was out.) I was never closeted at school or anywhere. So when my ally friends saw me walking to lunch, they urged me to walk through the door to “come out.” I remember finding the whole thing dismissive of how painful the process of coming out can be and very pressuring. I was out. I didn’t need to walk through a stupid door to be recognized. And for others I knew on campus, a door in the middle of the sidewalk wasn’t going to solve the problem of their inability to come out safely and happily. I glared at my friends, refused, and went inside to eat lunch by myself.
Another criticism of NCOD is that it flattens coming out to a one-time event. Everyone who identifies as queer or trans or nonbinary knows this isn’t how it works. Every time you meet a new person, start a new job, go on a date, find a new therapist, sign your spouse up for your health insurance policy, do pretty much anything…you have to come out. Over and over and over again. As someone who is straight-passing in appearance (whatever that means), this is something I’ve grown accustomed to. I have to constant tell not only straight people that I’m gay but even my own community – who often look at me and see “ally” instead of “sister.” Coming out is a lifelong experience, so having one day in which we’re all supposed to come out, critics say, is reductive.
I understand these criticisms and share some of the concerns. The idea that if we were all out, we’d all be safe and better understood neglects the reality that for some people, announcing their sexuality or gender identity puts an actual target on their back. Hate crimes still exist. Violence against trans people is still a very real danger. Queer teens still get kicked out of their parents’ homes. It may be true that with greater numbers of us floating around the population, there would be more acceptance, but to get there means some people would be sacrificed along the way. And it’s not up to us to decide who we’re willing to martyr for the greater good. Everyone has to choose their own levels of comfort and safety based on their own experiences.
As for the flattening of the day into a one-time deal, well, sure. But Christians say things like “it’s Christmas every day” while still celebrating the actual holiday on December 25. My mother appreciates the flowers I send her on Mother’s Day, but if I never called or texted or showed any gratitude for her the rest of the year, I’d be a shitty daughter. There are lots of experiences in life we celebrate one day a year – a special day to honor those experiences. Having a National Coming Out Day doesn’t take away from a lifelong, daily coming out process. It just gives us a day to reflect more intentionally on it and for non-queers to be forced to think about it, too.
To everyone who has bravely come out at any point in their lives, congratulations! To everyone who isn’t there yet or can’t for safety reasons or isn’t yet sure what to come out as, that’s okay. There’s no rush. There’s no pressure. I hope you’re one day able to celebrate National Coming Out Day, but only in your own time. And to everyone who has come out once and had to come out again and again and again, I’m sorry this is the reality of our world, but I’m proud of your stamina.
It’s time to come clean about my own ignorance. I didn’t know much about Afghanistan and its history until I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. I should have. I was teaching, and students expected me to know things about the world. I had lived through September 11, and understood the concepts of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and regularly heard updates on those groups and the American military intervention through my listening to NPR. But I didn’t fully understand how the Soviet invasion or the Mujahideen had shaped Afghanistan of the 2000s, and I certainly didn’t know much about the culture of the people who lived there. I’m ashamed, but after I read The Kite Runner, I was inspired. I started doing research on Afghan history, food, culture, languages, ways Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran were all connected. Ways the United States had been politically entangled with what seemed like a very faraway and very culturally different place long before our post-September 11 invasion and search for Osama bin Laden. I read more of Hosseini’s books. I began teaching English as a foreign language classes to students, some of whom were from neighboring places, and we talked about everything from global politics to clothing differences to how soccer/football transcends national borders. (Another read: Outcasts United, about a soccer team made up of refugee kids from around the world and coached by a Jordanian woman immigrant.)
While I wish I had known more about this part of the world sooner, I’m not embarrassed that literature led me down a path of exploration. That’s the beauty of good literature. It’s not that we read a book and think we know everything about the world it depicts. It’s that it inspires us to think about, care about, and go learn more about new things.
I logged onto my computer this morning to see that, as of yesterday, the Taliban have taken the presidential palace and President Ghani has fled to Tajikistan. My heart is breaking for the people of Afghanistan, especially the women who have worked so hard for equal rights, education, and respect. While I’m thinking about them today, I thought I’d share some of my recommendations for reading – and eating! – for anyone else who wants to become inspired to learn more and care more.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Some of my literature colleagues criticized this book as being “a clear example of a debut novel,” a criticism that means the book has tidy parallels and a pretty clear chain of cause and effect. (Calling that emblematic of a “debut novel” seems like a kind of snide way of saying you prefer to read things that are chaotic with unresolved conflict, no?) But it’s hard not to fall in love with Amir, the protagonist, even as he makes some terrible choices that lead to horrifying consequences for the people around him. He is such a richly drawn flawed character that you understand him, and you understand how he’s just a dumb kid trying to find his way at a time when the world is actually being turned completely upside down. (Much of the book’s action takes place during the civil war in 1989 as the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan and the Mujahideen try to assume power in a crumbling nation.) The book’s final line will fill your heart and haunt you. There’s no perfect happy ending to be found here for a boy who flees Afghanistan, only to be forced to return years later as an adult when the nation is under the Taliban’s influence as he searches for long-lost family. But there is hope, and sometimes that’s more important and more authentic an ending to a story.
The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg
The Kite Runner is my fiction recommendation, and this is my nonfiction recommendation. Reporter Jenny Nordberg spent years interviewing girls and families who practice bacha posh, in which daughters in families without sons may be raised as “boys” and enjoy greater freedom to dress in pants, play sports, move about more freely than a girl is able to. We hear so much in the US about the treatment of girls and women under Islamic fundamentalist or extremist groups in places like Afghanistan that the restrictions can seem absolute and terrifying. And while they are, it’s important to remember that societies are messy, and there are always exceptions. Bacha posh is one. As girls are raised as “boys,” there’s an interesting amount of flipping what seems like a very prescribed gender script. Nordberg’s research finds that some bacha posh girls continue the practice as adults even, though this may result in their marginalization from society. It’s such an interesting look at how parents and daughters work around misogynist restrictions. Is it feminist to be bacha posh, or is actually limiting to women and girls because freedoms can only be enjoyed by co-opting male roles? There are no clear or easy answers here, but there is a much deeper understanding of how Afghan society can sometimes be organized around fixed binary gender.
Pulao (spelled pilau, palaw, and other ways) is a rice dish that features savory and sweet ingredients mixed together with cooked rice. Heaping serving bowls of this dish are often a feature at weddings and other family gatherings. It’s food for celebration. I’ve recently fallen in love with trying various combinations of dried fruits, nuts, spices, vegetables, and legumes (curried chickpeas, lentils, etc.) in this highly customizable global dish that’s eaten everywhere in central Asia, the Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean regions. Because of its wide appeal, you’ll find a ton of different recipes and techniques for preparing it. My attitude toward global cuisine is one of total flexibility, since I’m a vegetarian and since certain ingredients can be hard to find in other parts of the world. But I want you to at least try mixing fruit and rice and spices, and however you create your combination, you’ll be rewarded. And you don’t have to wait for a special occasion to make it at home.
New Delhi TV’s food website has another vegetarian version that includes chickpeas for protein. This one uses ghee, cardamom, and pomegranate. These are things you can find in the US at upscale grocery stores – though I’d argue that, if you live in a place that has a Middle Eastern or Indian market, you should make the trip there to pick up your supplies! We are fortunate to live in reasonable proximity to an H mart, Indo-Pakistan specialty market, and Middle Eastern halal market. We can get imported food and ingredients from pretty much everywhere. If you can’t, you can always swap. Ghee is just clarified butter, and you can always substitute cardamom with something like allspice or nutmeg.
I don’t think reading a few books or eating some food is going to solve the world’s problems, and it’s certainly not going to spare the lives of artists, writers, filmmakers, and feminists who are definitely facing persecution and possibly execution at the hands of the Taliban at any moment. But I do think that literature and food have the power to awaken our senses and take us on journeys to new places, and in doing so, they spark our interest to learn more and engage more. And that, maybe, one day, will help us find peace.
In the meantime, all my love and thoughts to the people of Afghanistan.
Years ago, I was at a talk by someone who worked for Bravo, and he was talking about the Real Housewives franchise. The network knew its stars were ridiculous. More importantly, he revealed, the stars themselves knew they would be portrayed in a way that was ridiculous. The executive explained that they tried to ensure every ridiculous, affluent-and-whiny-beyond-reason moment was followed by a “Bravo wink”: someone looking at the camera to acknowledge the madness or the editing pausing or otherwise alerting the viewer that, “Hey, we know this is nuts. That’s the fun of it.”
I’ve thought a lot about the Bravo wink over the years. As a novelist, there are similar ways I can acknowledge moments in which readers might want to make sure I know what I’m doing. Similarly, novelists can give readers a quick meta-moment – a reference to something outside the book, a hidden message for readers of their previous books, an “Easter egg” that only savvy readers will find.
For the Bold Strokes Books blog, I wrote about this phenomenon and how I used it in The Queen Has a Cold. Check it out and let me know what you think!
I’m not sure there’s much more to say than that title. Since my last blog post, about three weeks ago, it’s been a whirlwind. The Queen Has a Cold had its soft launch, then its book release party, then its full launch (now available everywhere books are sold). I got my first vaccine dose, watched Prince Philip’s funeral and the verdict on the Derek Chauvin case, both in real time, and finished three massive projects, all of which were due on April 15.
It feels so good when I finish massive projects. Suddenly I don’t feel as if every minute of the day must be productive or else time is wasted. It felts like a treat to watch some enjoyable television instead of research or to read a book of choice instead of research or to just take a break from writing after the massive projects have zapped all the fun out of it.
But I’m one of those people who always needs to feel productive and constantly overbooks myself, so this good feeling only lasts a day or two. Then the lingering sense of, “What do I do now?” kicks in. There’s a million things I could do – cleaning the house at the top of the list – but I just don’t wanna. What I want is to, once again, have a lengthy to-do list and start chipping away at it.
I’ll be tearing my hair out with work soon enough again. My May is already getting booked up. In the meantime, though, I’m trying to tell myself to fight the urge to do anything other just exist in this peaceful moment.
Thanks to everyone who attended the Royal Ball, the launch party for The Queen Has a Cold. A recording was downloaded but needs editing, so bits and pieces of that event may be posted soon if you missed it. In the meantime, you can catch me this weekend at the Bold Strokes Books Spring Bookathon. There is a whole weekend of programming, but I’ll be on a panel about global settings for romance at 4pm Eastern. The panel will be moderated by Aurora Rey and features Ali Vali, Lyn Hemphill, and Shelley Thrasher, along with me. Then on Sunday, I’ll be doing a reading from The Queen Has a Cold at 6pm on a panel with Fiona Riley, Genevieve McCluer, and Jesse J. Thoma. Registration is free and open to all, but you have to sign up for each session individually.
Either way, you’re invited to a royal celebration on April 10!
I’m so excited to announce that we’re having a book release party for The Queen Has a Cold on Saturday, April 10 at 7pm EDT, and you are invited!
This event will feature several special guests, including fellow Bold Strokes Books author Jane Walsh in the role of beloved Queen Flore; a reading from the book; and a Q&A session with me. Attendees do not need to appear on camera, and all who attend will receive a special thank-you promotion.
This weekend, my publisher, Bold Strokes Books, will be hosting another preview weekend, featuring two panels of authors reading from their upcoming releases. Please join me on Saturday at 6pm EDT when I give the first public reading of The Queen Has a Cold. I’ll be joined by some giant names – Georgia Beers, anyone? – and another fellow non-lesfic BSB authors.
The timing of this event is admittedly tricky. Passover officially begins at sundown on Saturday. I live in Michigan, where we thankfully have light until 8pm currently, so we’ll have our mini-Seder after the event is over (which will be 7pm). If you live closer to the Equator, this might not be possible for you. Those of you in time zones further West, you should be okay.
Be sure to register for the event at the BSB website, and the Zoom link will be emailed to you.
We all wanted to be Meghan Markle. Until she told us we didn’t. But we can still fantasize about royal life.
I admit that I was a skeptic at first. To me, Meghan Markle was Wallis Simpson 2.0, the American divorcee whose romantic entanglement with a member of the British royal family was going to lead to disaster. (That part was right.) She was Not Kate, and the media frenzy surrounding her engagement to Prince Harry, their wedding, and her pregnancy with Archie all meant pushing my beloved fantasy princess off the front page and into the margins when my imaginary version of the Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, was too perfect to be spoiled by an interloper.
And quickly that turned. As an American, Meghan Markle lived out the Cinderella fantasy that so many young women idealize. Her story was hardly the rags to riches of Disney’s floor-washing Cinderella; she was estimated by some sources to be worth $5 million at the time of her engagement. She was an actor who traveled in elite circles with plenty of privilege. But she was also one of us: ordinary American women without noble titles and with a past that our culture forgets in five minutes because in American society vision is always toward the future. Plain, regular folks. And she was joining a 1,200 year old institution, gaining if not power, then at least more privilege and more fame. The glamour of the formal events, the posh perfection that is every carefully stage managed royal family event. And, for women around my age (which is around Harry’s), she was also publicly claiming someone many had drooled over since his mother’s funeral thrust him into the spotlight.
A few weeks ago, in her interview with Oprah, Meghan-turned-HRH-turned-duchess-now Meg openly talked about how difficult that picture perfect fantasy was, how trapped she felt. (We see some of this in The Crown season four when a young Diana is literally stuck inside Buckingham Palace alone all day, a situation Meghan said she’d also experienced.) She was candid about the effects the publicity and death threats had on her mental health, and in ninety minutes, she shattered every illusion we had about royal life.
But that doesn’t mean we have to quit fantasizing.
Royal romance is incredibly popular. From Cinderella to a dozen Hallmark movies, the story is usually the same: a prince falls in love with an ordinary woman, and love ultimately triumphs over history and protocol. It’s a wonderful fantasy for folks stuck in a world with a shrinking middle class, where we know we’re not the 1% and probably never will be. And if there’s something a little distasteful about the American elite – how, after all, did they get so wealthy while the rest of us suffer so much? – then surely the old money wealth of a European royal is fine. It’s not their fault they’re rich, after all, and in most of these stories, the princes are busy shirking their royal traditions and denouncing all that money. They’re rich and privileged, but they’re the good kind, they assure us.
This feels like a timely moment to have my next book, The Queen Has a Cold, ready for release. It’s currently being sent to reviewers, and readers can preorder it at the Bold Strokes Books website. In many ways, my heroine Sam is the anti-2018 Markle. Yes, she falls in love with royalty, but she sure hates everything the monarchy represents…until she and Remy, the royal heir, are able to change it into something more socially progressive.
Some days, writing this book was hard. I knew Sam and Remy weren’t going to dismantle the monarchy. That does happen in some royal romances: in Hallmark’s Royal Hearts, the American who accedes to the throne forces the country to strip him of his crown in favor of democracy. In most, however, the American enters the royal family and drags them kicking and screaming into the 21st century while preserving the tradition of things like patrilineal inheritance. In The Queen Has a Cold, part of Remy’s emotional journey is learning to fall back in love with the nation. It was important that they accept their place in the monarchy at the end, even as they changed it, rather than destroying it for a new form of government. As someone who thinks trickle-down economics is bullshit (which is supported by data, thanks) and who values equality, that was a challenging ending.
But what brings me back, time and again, to the joy of royal romance is the glitzy fantasy and our choice to overlook these kinds of realities. I don’t think romance readers are naive or neglectful. We know that giving up personal freedom for fortune and fame might be a terrible idea, and we recognize that “old money” was made on the backs of Black and indigenous people and people of color just as money as new money is made on the backs of all of us. It’s just that it looks so appealing. The balls (for there is always a royal ball at the end), the fancy dinners, the learning to curtsy and learning when and to whom and all that other etiquette — it’s just such fun pageantry.
Readers will delight in knowing that The Queen Has a Cold takes all of this to heart. There’s glitz and glamour, but there’s also social critique. There’s tradition, but there’s also social progress. I have mad respect for Meghan Markle for letting us peek behind the curtain and sharing her mental health struggles so candidly, but it’s still okay to indulge knowingly in the glossy fantasy of what royalty might mean.