Saturday, March 11, 2017

On Writing Diverse Characters (+Broken Things Cover Reveal)

Hey everybody!

It's been awhile since I have posted an update, but I wanted to wait until I had something exciting to share. I've been working 60+ hour weeks for the last four months (Where am I? What is time?) between my day job and doing freelance work, so progress on the series has been slow-going. But finally--finally!--I can announce that Broken Things, the next installment of The Southwark Saga, is complete and will be released on May 1st, 2017.

So why did this one take such a long time? Well, apart from everything else that has come up this year, I wanted to get it right. Broken Things is not like anything I have written before. Depending on what you like about my books, you might even like it better.

This book picks up with Meg's story a year after The Long Way Home ends. You don't have to read the whole series for it to make sense, but it would definitely be helpful for context given Meg's difficult relationship with Mark and Jane Virtue is a feature. This one is more of a traditional romance in the respect that the focus is firmly on the love story (and there's way more sex--you've been warned), and it's less traditional in a few other ways:

  • Meg is a thirty-five year old mother of three, and an ex-prostitute running an inn with her sisters (The Rose and Crown from the previous three books). She has a filthy mouth and enough emotional baggage for a trip around the world. She's constantly angry and with good reason. She's promiscuous, vain, and frequently unpleasant. She's tall and very curvaceous (some might say BBW), but her weight is not an issue and she doesn't have to lose it to be happy. She is the heaviest of my heroines and also the most beautiful and confident. I am in love with her. 
  • Jake Cohen is a thirty-eight year old retired boxer and he's Jewish. He's not wealthy, titled, or classically good-looking--he has a face with a lot of character, if that character had been beaten weekly for twelve years. He's educated, thoughtful, and tired of fighting to prove himself. He speaks five languages and I think he's the sexiest hero I have ever written. 
  • Meg and Jake are poor and they work constantly. That's not to say it's boring. This book has plenty of bar fights, smexy times, broken glass, and (literal) fire. It's violent, a little (or a lot) vulgar, and I really like the way it turned out. If you're offended by profanity, sex, violence, or don't like poor characters, you might not like this, FYI. 

There has been a lot of debate lately about diversity in romance. I think most people would agree that it should exist, but who gets to write it? In a genre still dominated by young, wealthy, heterosexual Christian characters, it still feels like authors have to explain themselves if they write characters who are anything else. I think the world is getting better that way, but let me go ahead and jump in front of that one and explain where I'm coming from. 

I write books about the working class in 17th century London. Sure, there are a few aristocrats here and there, but most of my characters are not well off. They are prostitutes, highwaymen, barmaids, carpenters, boxers, and soldiers. They are real people with real problems. I try to be as accurate as possible with regards to the history* and also representation: my characters are white, black, mixed race, Christian, Jewish, middle class, poor, straight, gay, bisexual, and trans. Historians have whitewashed these people out of the past, but I won't. Including the marginalized is my small way of putting them back. If you follow my history blog, Dirty, Sexy History, this won't surprise you at all. 

In my novella, Artemis, the hero Apollo is trans. It's not pushing an agenda to point out that there were trans people before the 20th century (just ask the Chevalier d'Eon and Dr. James Barry). In The Long Way Home, Achille Archambault is a black marquis, not unlike Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (and yes, he's getting his own book). In Broken Things, hero Jake Cohen is a Jewish boxer, a sort of 17th century Daniel Mendoza. Bettie is gay and trans, Bess is a lesbian, and Carys and Charlotte are bisexual. They are not stereotypes or there for brownie points--I have tried to write them as real people who happen to be black, Jewish, or LGBT, because they did exist and they were a crucial part of British history. 

This isn't being cynical or "political," I just don't think good love stories should be limited to the young and the wealthy. Don't get me wrong, I like stories about the aristocracy as much as the next person, but I have trouble relating to them. I have more in common with the marginalized than with royalty. I get impatient with limitations of class, race, and religion because I personally find them ridiculous. It's difficult for me to write class issues with a straight face because I don't take them seriously. Of course people absolutely did and that is accurate, but I don't believe people are inherently different and I think I would struggle writing characters who do. Who could fall in love with a hero without empathy? 

So why write historicals? I love history--passionately, obsessively--I just don't think my genre needs more dukes. Someone has to write the other stories, don't they? That's what I'm doing. Not everyone likes that (and that's your right), but there it is. 

That's not to say I'm alone. There are more and more fantastic authors out there carrying the banner for the marginalized and non-traditional characters. If you like The Southwark Saga, you might also enjoy Erica Monroe's Rookery Rogues series. I can also whole-heartedly recommend Jude Knight, Caroline Warfield, Julie Anne Long, and Beverly Jenkins. Who are your favorites? Leave your recommendations in the comments below. 

That was longer than I had anticipated! I don't post often, but when I do, you get your money's worth, amirite? 

If any of you are still awake, here it is--the official cover reveal of Broken Things



Broken Things
The Southwark Saga, Book 4
Release date: May 1st, 2017

Rival. Sister. Barmaid. Whore.

Meg Henshawe has been a lot of things in her life, and few of them good. As proprietress of The Rose and Crown in Restoration Southwark, she has squandered her life catering to the comfort of workmen and thieves. Famous for her beauty as much as her reputation for rage, Meg has been coveted, abused, and discarded more than once. She is resigned to fighting alone until a passing boxer offers a helping hand.

Jake Cohen needs a job. When an injury forces him out of the ring for good, all he’s left with is a pair of smashed hands and a bad leg. Keeping the peace at The Rose is easy, especially with a boss as beautiful—and wickedly funny—as Meg Henshawe. In her way, she’s as much of an outcast as Jake, and she offers him three things he thought he’d never see again: a home, family, and love.

After Meg’s estranged cousin turns up and seizes the inn, Meg and Jake must work together to protect their jobs and keep The Rose running. The future is uncertain at best, and their pasts won’t stay buried. Faced with one setback after another, they must decide if what they have is worth the fight to keep it. Can broken things ever really be fixed?

Excerpt 

[Extra Credit: For the full experience of being inside my brain, listen to this song** while you're reading it.]

Four candles still flickered on the windowsill when Jake returned to his room. Curtains fluttered as though tickled by a ghostly hand, the smell of ice riding the rain through the crack in the glass. The room was cold as a larder and nearly as dark; when he caught his reflection in the mirror, he was little more than a shadow in the shape of a man. Perhaps that was the truth of it, after all. Twelve winters had come and gone since the Fire, each one freezing another piece of him until he no longer felt the snow.

His leg felt it, though. Hours on his feet had taken their toll on the frayed sinews and crooked break. He’d done a good job of hiding it, he knew. As much as it had pained him to do so, it would have pained him worse to see pity in their eyes.

Squaring his hips, he lowered himself to a seated position and rose again, the muscle stiffening in protest. He bit his lip and did it again. Sweat beading his forehead, he worked through his daily rigors slowly, deliberately strengthening his legs through the pain.
 
By the time he’d finished with his legs, a slow burn had spread beneath his skin and the draft was almost welcome. He tugged off his shirt and stretched out on his belly on the floor like a snake. Drawing his hands beneath his shoulders, he pushed himself away from the floor. After the struggle with his legs, this was such a relief that he moved through several dozen effortlessly and only stopped when a bead of sweat dripped off his nose and struck his hand. 

Hovering above them in half light, his hands looked like someone else’s. They had always been cumbersome, but hundreds of fights had rendered them monstrous. Gnarled with countless breaks and covered in a patchwork of ugly scar tissue, calluses, and fresh, bloody cuts, it looked as though they’d been torn apart and sewn back together again, over and over until there was not an inch of flesh he recognized as his own.

Ugly as they were, they were twice as useless. The precision he had honed through his trade was a thing of the past; these days he could barely sign his name. All they were good for was inflicting pain in a job he’d neither asked for nor wanted. Now that was gone, what use was he to anyone?
 
He lowered himself to the floor, his heart slowing. Beneath the bed, he could see the rolled up portrait of Meg Henshawe he’d taken from Larry’s office. It was too good to keep stashed away with his shoes, but he reasoned Meg might take exception to him putting it on his wall. 

The floor was cold beneath his cheek. A rustle from the next door drew his attention and he sat up. The crack in the wall glowed with an inviting warmth. Meg was in her room. He caught a glimpse of something white as she took off her dress. Not wanting to intrude on her privacy, he leaned against the bed and closed his eyes. 

It was quiet; she was alone. The floorboards creaked under her feet. As she sat down, the bed sighed as though it had been waiting for her return all day. A comb whispered through her hair, only interrupted by a muttered curse as she attacked a knot. He smiled to himself, imagining what her hair must look like when it was down. It was long, he knew. Would it touch the curve of her waist, the impossible flare of her hips? 

Distracting as the thoughts were, there was something comforting about hearing her so close. With his eyes closed, he could hear her so clearly she might have been in the same room. 

Had things gone as planned, he’d be long since married and listening to another woman comb her hair tonight. He chased her features in his memory, not as clear as they once were. Her chestnut-colored hair shone by the light of a long-extinguished fire, her cinnamon-colored eyes filled with regret after all these years. 

I’m sorry, Jakob.

He tried to remember the dress she had been wearing when she left him but this last remaining image of her in his mind fractured at the sound of a sneeze from next door. 

It was a funny little sound, Meg’s sneeze. She stifled it as if she was afraid of being heard, so it came out like a quack, caught in her throat. He smiled to himself. He might have said something, but he didn’t want her to know he’d been listening. He had been alone for so long he hadn’t realized he’d missed the company until he heard her through the wall. The idea of being alone again in the silence made him sadder than he could say. 

She had flirted with him shamelessly that night and he’d fallen for it like a fool. Just as he’d been about to pledge fealty to her, her words to that boy she’d chucked out rang in his head. 
Don’t mistake my boredom for favor.
He wouldn’t.
The sweat cooled on his skin and he shivered. 
***

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Notes:

*My one exception to historical accuracy is language. While I try to avoid anything glaringly modern or American-sounding, I prioritize keeping the language clear. if I wrote in 100% accurate 17th century prose, it would take me five times as long and no one would be able to understand it. The language I use is a kind of compromise between authenticity and accessibility. When you take away major differences in language, it's easier to see how much we have in common with the people of the past. 
**This is Nick Cave's cover of Leonard Cohen's Avalanche. Nick Cave is my Elvis, and Leonard Cohen is my Leonard Cohen. However, hero Jake Cohen is not named after him. Cohen was the most common Jewish surname in Amsterdam in the 17th century. Jake is from Amsterdam, and that's why I chose it.

10 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Why, thank you! I made this one myself! ;)

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  2. Erica Monroe is one fantabulous author. Love her to bits!

    Best of luck and congrats on the upcoming release, Jessica.

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  3. I adore your writing and your passion for history is a beautiful thing! I can Not wait for this release.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Kimberlie! I hope you love it! <3

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  4. Great post! And congratulations on your upcoming book!

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