Easter Eggs, Allusions, Hidden Messages – How Authors Wink at Their Readers

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!

Queerly Royal or Royally Queer?

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.

The royal ball is free and open to all, but you must register in advance.

Join Me at the Next BSB Preview This Weekend!

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.

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.

Coming Up for Air

It’s been close to two months since I’ve written anything here, and I’ve been busy with a lot of things writing-related and not writing-related. It’s early to mid February now, and in Michigan the sky is staying lit until after 6pm. There’s a new president in the White House, vaccine rollout has started, I finished some giant writing projects, and I feel as if I can finally come up for air.

In late December, a massive (non-Jane) writing and editing project took up most of my time. It was due on the 31st. I don’t really celebrate Christmas, but my wife does, and after I had worked a confusing amount of unclear hours all fall, we agreed that I would take a few days off for Christmas. I managed four – two of which were the weekend anyway, but that’s how I roll these days. Even Saturdays and Sundays have to be planned as days off in advance. It was good to focus on my family and clear my head, but soon it was the 26th, and I was staring down five days to format and proofread a 350-page manuscript.

I believe in sticking to deadlines. I always have. There’s a culture in writing that deadlines are malleable or that it’s noble to miss them for the sake of perfecting your art, but in reality missing deadlines ruins publishing schedules that have been set nearly a year in advance. So my co-editor and I made that December 31st deadline. We pressed send on the email and celebrated.

But not for long because I was facing another major writing project and deadline in just two weeks. In the middle of working on that manuscript, my editor at Bold Strokes had returned edits on The Queen Has a Cold. We also had reports from two sensitivity readers. Feedback from all three of them had to be wrangled into the book revisions, and at that point I only had two weeks to get it all done. Thankfully, the changes had been fomenting in the back of my mind for some time, so I didn’t need to ruminate a lot. But I did need to spend hours and hours each day frantically making those changes in Word.

You won’t know what the first version of The Queen Has a Cold looked like, the version I sent to Hans Lindahl back in June before turning the manuscript in to my editor and publisher. And you won’t know the second version, the one my editor and sensitivity readers had. But trust me when I say the changes were massive and greatly improved the story. I think readers will find Remy to be a complex person, torn between their desire for independence and their sense of duty, attracted to Sam and bound by the knowledge that nothing serious can ever come of the relationship because of Remy’s royal status. Sam has changed, too. She’s still a spitfire, wonderfully sensitive to Remy’s sex and gender but sometimes unable to tamper her sense of social justice for the sake of diplomacy. She’ll always say what’s morally right, even when it would be better in the moment if she didn’t. But in the final version of the book, she has a little more power in her relationship with Remy. That’s hard to achieve when one person has more money, is royalty, and speaks the native language she doesn’t speak. There’s a great moment between the two of them when she reminds herself and Remy that she’s in equal control of their relationship. It’s sexy and fun, and I hope you like that scene when you read it.

The Queen Has a Cold required a week of near all-nighters to get done on time, but I managed to send it back to my editor at 2am one night, just two hours after it was due. I technically missed the deadline, but under the circumstances, I was proud of how much I did in such a short time.

And, once again, had little time for celebration because I had a 6,000-word essay (another non-Jane project) due in three days. Another week of frantic writing and all-nighters, and that was sent off.

Finally, it was late January, and I was left wondering where the time had gone. 2021 had come, and I had watched riots, impeachment, and an inauguration, I had put myself on the covid-19 vaccine waitlist, and I had completed these giant writing and editing projects. I felt as if the axes hanging over my head had finally been taken down.

I don’t think I’ve fully processed the end of the Trump era. Sometimes I wake up and still forget President Biden is already in office. (Didn’t it feel like the transition period was especially long this year?) But slowly, I am realizing I can exhale. I’ve finished 2020 and started 2021 with a lot of good work, and the sun is slowly rising on what promises to be a productive and healthier year.

Cover Reveal: The Queen Has a Cold

I’m now able to officially reveal the royally magnificent cover design for the The Queen Has a Cold, which will be published by Bold Strokes Books in 2021.

The throne and crown are empty, awaiting the next heir to take them, and that’s the flag of Montamant draped over the throne. I really like this clean, beautiful image and am excited to share it with you. I hope you’ll all enjoy the book once it’s out!

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.