Meghan Markle and the American Royal Fantasy

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.

Perfection times two.

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.

My friend Mandy had posters of Harry and William in her bedroom. She said she was going to marry one of them. I guess that didn’t work out for her.

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.

In a clever move, part of the interview showed Meghan and Harry after casting off their royal ways: in rubber boots feeding chickens. Meghan likened her experience in the royal family to Ariel in The Little Mermaid and noted that, in the end, Ariel gets her voice back.

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.

Royal Matchmaker is one of my favorites. You can guess what happens from the title.

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.

Why I Hired a Sensitivity Reader

Being one letter in LGBTIQA doesn’t make me qualified to talk about the other letters

The royal romance, which will be titled The Queen Has a Cold, is slated for publication in 2021. I’m currently in revisions to the manuscript, and I’ve hired a “sensitivity reader” who will offer feedback on my portrayal of one of the two main characters. Remy, the heir to the throne, harbors a secret: they’re intersex, and they identify as nonbinary. The palace has forced Remy to perform as a princess until puberty, when body changes meant sending Remy out of the public eye. Remy’s match in this book is Sam, a self-identified lesbian who studies gender and sexuality and understands Remy better than their own family does.

I’m a self-identified lesbian and have been since I was 19. (I briefly identified as bisexual for a few months, which I think were my way of slowly wading into the waters, just as I abandoned all meat except chicken for a year before going full-on vegetarian when I was 16.) I am currently married to someone whose pronouns are flexible and who alternately has labeled themselves as trans, nonbinary, and nonconforming. I can write Sam. I get what Sam is going through, what it feels like to be interested in someone whose identity is outside what you expect yourself to find attractive. I know what it’s like to wonder if this changes your own identity. (It doesn’t! You get to decide how you label yourself, and everyone else has to respect it!)

I am not, however, intersex, and I have not grown up with any sort of secrets about my body the way Remy has. Despite extensive research I have done on intersex, despite friends and colleagues in my life who are intersex, I simply cannot fully fathom that lived experience. It doesn’t matter that intersex people, like trans people, are often lumped into the same community with cis lesbians, cis gay men, and cis bisexuals as if gender and sexuality are the same thing. I welcome that grouping because I think that our community is for everyone and that we are stronger when we are a rainbow of diverse experiences. While I respect the arguments of people who do not see “LGBTIQA” as one community, I would be invoking cis privilege to believe that I was in any way qualified to write about the lived experiences of intersex or trans people.

For this reason, I’ve hired what is popularly referred to as a “sensitivity reader,” someone from within the marginalized group who can tell me if I am unintentionally doing harm by repeating stereotypes, mislabeling or using jargon incorrectly, or misrepresenting experience. The label “sensitivity reader” undervalues the work. It sounds as if it’s someone whose job is to say “wah, you’re making me feel sensitive,” someone whose role in society is to make sure we all coddle each other. Actually, the work these readers do is consulting at a very specialized, careful level. They are reading consultants. And they deserve to be hired and paid as such.

I may actually end up losing money on this book, if sales are dim, because I have hired this consultant. Given the horrors that intersex people have experienced in the past, which you can expect plenty of writing about in the months to come, the last thing I want to do is contribute to the hurt the community has experienced. And I definitely don’t want to earn a profit off a manuscript that has failed to bear any resemblance to real experiences of intersex people.

My consultant has only just gotten the manuscript, so we haven’t yet had a chance to discuss any feedback. I anticipate it will be rewarding to talk to someone about my work, and I equally anticipate that it’ll be painful to hear what I’ve done wrong and where I can improve. But I would negligent not to do this, when the very point of the novel is to raise awareness for intersex and to celebrate intersex and nonbinary identities. When I say “romance for everyone,” I meant it, and that means recognizing when my own marginalization doesn’t allow me to understand the marginalization of someone else.

Update: The Queen Has a Cold

Readers, I’m delighted to announce that the royal romance, entitled The Queen Has a Cold, is officially under contract with Bold Strokes Books. BSB publishes LGBTQ fiction of all sexualities and genres, though they are probably most well known for their lesfic. Like The Holiday Detour, The Queen Has a Cold isn’t exactly lesfic. It’s fictional romance about a self-identified lesbian who falls in love with someone nonbinary, her world coming upside down as she rediscovers who she is and what attracts her. BSB’s track record as quality publishers of LGBTQ fiction make me feel assured that they can handle the marketing and sale of this book, which is so precious to me.

The title was inspired by a really aggressive cold I picked up in South Africa last year. It lasted more than a month and caused an inner ear infection that left me temporarily deaf in one ear and unable to maintain my balance. It made every other cold I’ve ever had seem wimpy by comparison, and my wife forced me to see a doctor to make sure I wasn’t dying.

This experience was turned into the inciting incident for The Queen Has a Cold. I was already in the process of writing a royal romance between an American lesbian graduate student and the heir to the throne of a made-up European country. The cold gave the story a sense of urgency. The heir is summoned home to fulfill royal duties when the queen gets a cold and can’t perform them. At the last minute, the heir asks the American to tag along, and their whirlwind romance begins.

I isolated a location for the made-up country, Montamant, to ensure consistency while writing.

This book has more serious themes than The Holiday Detour. The heir, Remy, is intersex and has led a life of secrecy about it. There are political machinations in the made-up country that Remy must try to stop. There’s a giant class and pedigree divide that the lovers must overcome. But I think you’ll find it to be just as sweet, and (no spoilers – this is romance, after all) I think you’ll be pumping your fist in the air in celebration when they overcome all the barriers that stand in the way of their relationship.

The Queen Has a Cold is scheduled for publication in summer 2021.

Royal Romance Update!

If you’ve followed this blog or my tweets, you know I’ve been working on a royal romance for about a year. It came to its feverish full draft state during NaNoWriMo, and after that I sat on it for a while, so I could approach revisions with fresh eyes.

I’ve been writing up a storm lately, so I figured it was time to give an update on the book.

This isn’t major news, but I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve finished revisions and sent my publisher a proposal on it. With any luck, in a few weeks, it’ll be under contract, and I’ll have an even better announcement.

The Coronavirus Plot

My Current WIP Is Actually about People Getting Sick…Oh, Crap

Prince Charles has tested positive for covid-19. I’m freaking out. It’s not that I especially like Prince Charles. I find the British monarchy incredibly problematic. But I admire Queen Elizabeth as a woman who ascended the throne in a conservative period in history when women didn’t often have much political or social power, and as the longest serving female head of state ever, she’s kind of a treasure. Even if she’s mostly a figurehead.

When I heard Charles was sick, my first thought was, “What if he dies and the line of succession skips right to William?” This is what the tabloids always report. “Queen names Kate as successor, effective immediately!” is a headline I’ve seen more than once at the checkout. And that’s not…that’s not how it works. Unless Charles dies. Which we hope he won’t.

My second thought was, “Are they keeping him away from the Queen?!” Like Betty White, we’ve got to make sure the queen is insulated from things that might kill her. I have faith in the people in charge of these things, though, so I’m hoping Her Majesty will be okay.

My third thought, the one that has the most consequence on my life personally, was, “Now I’ve got to rewrite the book.” My current work in progress is a royal romance. The wayward heir apparent is summoned home to fulfill royal duties when the queen gets a cold and can’t perform them. This…sounds tone-deaf at a moment in time when people are dying from a respiratory illness.

I’m sure there will be a time when writers start to incorporate covid-19 into their stories. I don’t think I will, other than as a reference to a truthful past, since I’m guessing that we’ll all be so scarred that we won’t want to relive it. As for stories that might come out now, we don’t need them. We’re living it. And some of us are dying from it.

Because I write cute, fun romances, the parallels between the queen’s head cold and covid-19 are concerning. There’s also the concern that folks will think this book was inspired by the current moment. (In fact, it was inspired by a really pernicious cold I got in South Africa last summer.)

So, what will I do? Rewrite? Wait to publish until this passes? I’m not sure yet, but I will keep watching for updates on the Prince of Wales while I try to decide.

The Glorious Awfulness of Sequels

Now that we’ve gotten my attention-catching headline out of the way, let’s acknowledge that some sequels rock. Some are even better than the original. The films The Godfather II and Toy Story 3 and the novel Rainbow High all stand out to me as stronger than the original from which they were drawn, as the story world became richer and the creators knew the material more deeply.

But it’s not that hard to come up with a list of sequels that were terrible and leave us wondering why they were made in the first place. You probably have five in mind already. Instead of breaking down the economics of the film industry and guesswork of audience interest or the craft of writing, I’d like to reposition the conversation about terrible sequels away from craft, art, technique, whatever you want to call it and toward what they’re really created for: emotion.

By the time a sequel rolls around, whether it’s a book or a film, we have spent time with the characters and fallen in love with them. Their world is interesting to us, and we know it better. Sequels give us a chance to reenter that space again, to imagine briefly that we are part of the characters’ lives. They give us a chance to fall in love again.

Case Study: Netflix’s A Christmas Prince

A Christmas Prince is part of Netflix’s new strategy to create original rom-coms in competition with Hallmark. Like Hallmark, many of Netflix’s movies are focused on Christmas. They are short in duration, quick-paced, light in conflict, and heavy on tropes. Unlike Hallmark, Netflix movies feature LGBTQ characters, people of color, and sometimes dirty jokes.

A Christmas Prince was released in 2017. Its narrative is the same as most royal romances, with a few pieces slightly tweaked for the sake of originality. An American journalist named Amber is assigned to interview the prince of a made-up country, and when she can’t interview him, she infiltrates the palace, is mistaken for the kid sister’s tutor, and begins working for the family. She and the prince, Richard, fall in love, and she has to come clean about who she is. Because this is a romance, he doesn’t care, and they live happily for now.

Last winter, Netflix released a sequel. You can already guess the plot. Now that our happy couple have been established, they need to wed. A Christmas Prince 2: The Royal Wedding depicted their struggles leading up to matrimony. Amber isn’t sure what her place in the made-up country is, and she has to leave her dad and New York behind to move to the made-up country. This is much less developed than sight gags about the ugly wedding dresses the horrible wedding planner makes Amber try on. You can guess the ending. It all works out: she gets a pretty dress, they marry, and she becomes queen. Now the story is really wrapped up. They live happily ever after.

Except not. Because these films garnered so many streams and so much buzz on social media, today Netflix released the third installment. With Amber and Richard happily wed, there’s only one real option for this second sequel: they have to have a baby. Where A Christmas Prince was charming in its adaptation of popular romance tropes, A Royal Wedding offered us the chance to see Amber and Richard’s more mature relationship. What does A Royal Baby offer? Pretty much nothing. The movie is cheesier than a Midwestern casserole, with really bad dialogue that’s supposed to feel heart-warming. There is some conflict and plot. An important historical document is lost in the middle of a blizzard, and it has to be found by Christmas Eve. But the search for the document is laughably slow and unsuccessful – to the point that you’d fire all the palace staff if you were the monarch – in order to prolong the movie and give us more scenes of Amber twisting her belly bump counter-clockwise like Meghan Markle.

In other words, it’s bad.

Except not. Because the ideal viewer isn’t watching for the plot. We’re watching because we love Amber and Richard together. We love the supportive cast of secondary characters. The foolish nature of the drawn-out plot gives us more screen time to watch these characters interact with each other. We get to glimpse their private world and see how they’ve formed a community after we saw them meet as strangers. And that is the real beauty of a sequel.

For authors, the question of whether a sequel can be commercially successful is a little trickier. Fifty Shades of Grey managed to do it, banking on fans’ continued desire to see Ana and Christian marry and have a child. But commercial success aside, you only need to do a cursory scan of Amazon reviews to see that fans respond positively to sequels because they tap into our emotional connection with the story and characters, plot be damned.

I’ve got 11 minutes left in A Christmas Prince 3: A Royal Baby. I’ve put aside my wish that the writers hadn’t given Amber and Richard a baby so soon into their marriage, my distaste for Amber’s old lady hair, and my skepticism at her choice to wear pantyhose under her silk pajamas. I’m not thinking consciously about how we’re repeatedly told the roads and airports are closed, yet the characters saunter into town, where the ground is completely bare. Forget the terrible search for the missing document, which doesn’t have any real stakes because it’s not why I’m really watching. I’m really watching because I’ve been with these characters for a long time, and getting another chance to look inside their relationship – even when it’s saccharine – is a pleasurable distraction from reality.

New book preview: one scene, two ways

This week instead of analyzing some aspect of romance as I usually do, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at my current royal romance work-in-progress. The narrative is “broken” (as they say in the screenwriting biz), meaning all the beats have been plotted, and now I’m just putting the story into prose. But sometimes, even when a narrative is fully outlined in advance, the characters can take me in unexpected directions.

As I was writing a scene in which our two eventual lovers are on a private jet heading to the royal one’s micro-country, the characters started getting a lot more passionate than I had anticipated. (Honestly, for a second, I began writing erotica instead of the sweet romance I have dedicated myself to!) They flew out of Boston, where they were both regular old graduate students. In our fictional country, Remy, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them/their pronouns, is heir to the throne and bound by traditions like marrying to protect the royal line. The other, Sam, is an unknown American commoner. Time on the airplane is precious; one the plane lands, they know their lives will change. But they haven’t yet admitted their feelings for each other. They’re still figuring out what their antagonistic meeting says about their friendship or any possible romance.

Now here’s the question of the scene: as they begin to grow more passionate, should it be Sam who admits she’s in love or Remy? Currently, Remy’s made the first move, putting them in the position of vulnerability and giving Sam the power to reject or accept their advances. But if Sam tells Remy her feelings, she leaves herself exposed because, really, their feelings are immaterial to the reality that Remy is expected to marry someone else. (Don’t worry, gentle reader. This is a romance novel, and it’ll get sorted out, and they will end up together. We know that. But they don’t!)

Let’s look at the scene as I first wrote it:

After an eternity, Remy pulled away from her mouth and put their foreheads together. They were still holding hands. “I want you so badly,” they whispered, their breath hot on Sam’s face. “I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you.”

Sam didn’t know how to respond. It was the declaration she had been waiting for. Confirmation that she hadn’t imagined all the tension between them and that Remy wasn’t just using her and didn’t just see her as a source of unconditional support. As a lower class plaything. And although their first meeting had been a mess, their dinner together had been a dream. Breakfast together – was it only yesterday? – had felt so intimate, like they were old friends and lovers catching up on secrets they wouldn’t share with anyone else.

“I want you too.” Her words came out in a breath, and she clutched tighter to Remy.

“You can have me,” they said, but their voice was tinged with sadness. “Whenever you want, you can have me.”

Sam pulled back enough to get a good look at them and gave her own wistful smile back.

“But I can’t,” she admitted. “Because you have to marry Genevieve.”

She shook her head. Was it better to know that Remy shared her feelings? Had something changed between them now? Or was knowing worse because she couldn’t have them, and this just another one of the disappointments she’d experienced since she’d met them? No, not another disappointment. The worst one imaginable.

“Oh, Remy,” she said, feeling tears spill over. “You have just ruined me. Every time I think I can trust you, there’s always one really big hitch.”

Although Remy puts Sam in the position of power by pledging that she can be the one who decides when they will kiss, have sex, date, whatever “have me” means, Sam realizes their words may be emotionally true, but they aren’t going to be a physical reality. Sam might get to sleep with Remy on the flight if she wants to, but she’s never going to “have” Remy. Someone else will. Although she’s hurt at the end of the scene, she at least has the power to not sleep with Remy, to not allow herself to be hurt, because she knows Remy’s going to marry someone else in the long run.

Now let’s look at the second version of this scene:

After an eternity, Remy pulled away from her mouth and put their foreheads together. They were still holding hands. “I want you so badly,” they whispered, their breath hot on Sam’s face. “I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you.”

Sam didn’t know how to respond. It was the declaration she had been waiting for. Confirmation that she hadn’t imagined all the tension between them and that Remy wasn’t just using her and didn’t just see her as unconditional support for their gender. As a lower class plaything. And although their first meeting was a mess, their dinner together had been a dream. Breakfast together – was it only yesterday? – had felt so intimate, like they were old friends and lovers catching up on secrets they wouldn’t share with anyone else.

She wanted to their kiss to carry them away. To tumble to the couch together before the plane landed and everything changed. She wanted to see and touch their body. To show them it was beautiful, however it was made. She wanted to let them watch her come undone in the most private way. And she wanted to be responsible for making them come undone, to see, finally, behind their shields.

“You can have me.” Her words came out in a breath, and she clutched tighter to Remy. “Whenever you want, you can have me.”

“But I can’t,” Remy admitted. “Because I have to marry Genevieve.”

Sam jerked away from them. Since they’d met, she’d kept her cool and protected herself from their nonchalance. Had something changed between them now that she’d admitted she desired Remy too? Or was it worse because now she’d made herself vulnerable and felt the sting of rejection? Was she this just another one of the disappointments she’d experienced since she’d met them? No, not another disappointment. The worst one imaginable.

“Oh, Remy,” she said, feeling tears spill over. “You have just ruined me. Every time I think I can trust you, there’s always one really big hitch.”

As in the previous scene, Remy tries to give Sam power by admitting their desire for her and letting Sam decide if she wants to admit hers back. In this version, she does. She pledges herself to Remy, and it’s Remy who shatters her hope with the reality that they can’t really be together. This version has more emotional sting, but it also has the uncomfortable reiteration of their power dynamic: Remy/royal/wealthy/powerful vs. Sam/commoner/poor/vulnerable.

Which version will make it into the final manuscript, and how will they get out of the mess of Remy’s forced marriage to Genevieve? You’ll have to wait and see!

If I don’t love the character, neither will the reader

Since finishing a novel I absolutely love, with two characters I adore who are perfect for each other (though they don’t know it at first, naturally), I’ve started on the next project, a royal romance with a royal who is petulant and trapped. And I’ve written myself into a miserable corner with this one.

My nonbinary hero, Remy, is trying to figure out how to manage their identity with the duties of the monarchy. But instead of this struggle coming off as painful, Remy is leaping off the page as a total brat. I don’t like them. And that’s a big problem. If I don’t like them, neither will readers.

As a romance novelist, my job is to sell readers on the fantasy world I create. My characters should be desirable – flawed, yes, but in ways that heighten the reader’s attraction and empathy. I’ve seen bratty characters in other romance and erotic stories, and presumably the writers found them adorably terrible. I really didn’t. I couldn’t buy in.

I think you can tell as a reader when a writer is in love with the idea of a character and not the character as a whole person. When I was in a playwriting class in college, one of our assignments was to create a character. I made this perfect, handsome, smart, sensitive, wonderful guy who wore black turtlenecks (chic at the time, okay) and whose family had embraced his coming out wholeheartedly. My professor scoffed. “There’s nowhere for this to go,” she told me. “It’s not interesting if he’s perfect.” I was in love with the idea of who that character, whom I had appropriately named Adam, was. He wasn’t a real person. He was an archetype of Gay Man. No one else would ever care about him, but he wasn’t beautifully flawed the way real humans are.

My professor was right, and of course, the inverse can be true, too. It’s not interesting if the character’s “charming” flaw becomes their entire personality. I once read a m/m romance novel in which one of the protagonists was constantly described as “blushing,” “giggly,” and “little.” His entire personality became bound up in his demureness. I could tell the writer was enamored with this highly nonthreatening man she’d created. I hated him. In Remy’s case, their frustration and outspokenness have killed any charm or vulnerability they should and could have. Instead of creating a character I’m so in love with, I’ve gone too far in other direction, and no one will ever care about them. They aren’t beautifully vulnerable and sometimes weak the way real people are. Real people don’t have a sassy response to every single thing. Real people still get excited about things. Real people – especially romance characters – still fall in love. Remy’s become such an enfant terrible that I can’t imagine them ever giving into their emotions to fall in love. And that is a huge problem for a romance novel.

For now, Remy is going to take a much-needed timeout while I figure out how to retool them into a smart-mouthed but charming royal, someone you simultaneously envy and desire. Someone you want to be and want to be with. Stay tuned.