Are you looking for your next historical fantasy read that also features people of color? This was something I found myself seeking last summer (2020) as I began working on my own historical fantasy projects. I was surprised at how difficult it was to even find good search results, let alone books I wanted to read.
So if you’re also on the hunt, let me help you out with some options I found.
This list is defined by historical low fantasy or alternate reality with magical elements set on Earth circa 1803 – 1914 with main characters of color, specifically Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color including Asians (BIPOC).
The BIPOC persons cannot be supporting characters, they must be active and key to the plot. BIPOC characters should be human rather than a magical creature e.g. angel, demon, vampire, werewolf.
I’ve been a busy bird over on Etsy (and Amazon, but we’ll get to that another day), creating reader and writer shirt, mug, and bag/tote gifts as well as restocking my fiction writer and reader journals! I’m super excited to partner with Printful for the shirts, bags, and mugs that are now available at Bright Bird Press. When you make an order, it’s created and shipped directly to you. As always, my newsletter subscribers get 15% off store purchases.
I’ll remind you in October about the writer gifts in particular. It’s my busiest Etsy month of the year as everyone prepares for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). In fact, people have started referring to October as Preptober! Quick reminder that the novel planner notebooks come in a range of prices based on the journal variations. Some have monthly trackers, some have spiral binding, and some are saddlestitch binding.
Let me know how things are going by tagging me on Instagram @worderella!
I’m so excited to share that I was interviewed by Pat Rullo with Speak Up Talk Radio back in November. Speak Up Talk Radio is such a great, unique offering. Their mantra has always been this:
Speak Up–your words can change the world. Your words and your books are a rare treasure and they act as a powerful source of light for readers. You never know whom you touch or how your words affect those you may never meet.
Speak Up Talk Radio
I’ve uploaded the 30-minute interview for your convenience below, but you can also listen to my interview by subscribing to Speak Up Talk Radio and looking in the November 2020 archives. I also typed a transcript, which you can read below.
We covered topics including what is user experience design (my day job), how and why I picked a pen name for my historical fiction publications, how Haunting Miss Trentwood (2010) came to life, explored the behind the scenes of The Last April (2017) and how we came up with the cover, and a teaser for my upcoming gaslamp fantasy, slated for release sometime in 2024.
Listen to the Interview
Pat: Welcome to the Speak Up talk radio network. I am your host is Pat Rullo. We bring you hand selected hosts, podcasts, and talk radio programming with listening options 24/7 streaming or listen on demand. We also feature one-on-one segments with important guests. People who have something to say that you need to hear and if you have something to say and would like to be featured on the network, please visit speakuptalkradio.com for all of the details or contact us at pr at speakuptalkradio.com.
Well today, I have a fellow Ohio author with me, she is Belinda Kroll. Belinda is the author of three historical novels and in addition to being an author, she is a user experience design professional, a hobbyist photographer, and an unapologetic Ohio State Buckeye fan. She enjoys dancing lindy hop, finding inspiration from cooking shows, and petting every dog that allows her to do so and I love that. I’m excited to bring her on so welcome to the network, Belinda.
Belinda: Thank you very much, I’m glad to be here.
Pat: I am glad to have you here too. Now before we begin, I just want to know, what is a user experience design specialist?
Belinda: Yeah, so user experience design is essentially someone who is… I like to call it as someone who likes to make software and websites intuitive for people; meeting the needs of why they came to that particular software or website. So, anyone who is trying to, you know, make the navigation make sense. Trying to make sure that if you went to Amazon, is that buy button right there where you need it or are you hunting around the screen for it? I’m the person that tries to make sure you’re never hunting for something, that everything is where you expect it to be.
Pat: Yes, everybody needs that, I mean I know what it’s like to try to try to do that yourself, there is quite a learning curve to that, so to have somebody like yourself—and I guess during these times it’s… well, any time actually—it’s easy for you to work at home. Remote is not such a problem, right?
Belinda: Yeah, you know, it certainly helps to be in the office with the developer teams and other stakeholders to make sure we’re communicating clearly and all understanding the problem we’re trying to solve, but certainly working remote, we have, I think, we’ve been able to transition pretty well.
Pat: Good, good. All right now, Belinda. You use a pen name sometimes and sometimes not. I think that’s interesting. I know a lot of authors kind of toy with that idea. Before we get into your books, talk about that for a bit. Why did you decide to use it? When do you use it? how does that work for you?
Belinda: That’s a great question. My given name is Binaebi and when I first started publishing, I knew I wanted to start publishing historical fiction. And you know, I wanted… I was thinking I wanted a name that really sort of implied the genre. And so what I did is I took the first letter of my first name, and I picked my middle name and that’s basically “Belinda.” And then I picked my mother’s maiden name. When I put those two together, that just felt like a nice, solid, easy to remember and spell author name. Whereas my given name, especially at the time when I started back in 2003, I just wasn’t sure whether my given name was really going to “speak” historical fiction to readers. Especially given that I wasn’t necessarily writing historical fiction about persons of color at the time. So, this separates my different genres.
With Belinda Kroll, that’s all historical anything, historical fiction. I’m currently working on and brainstorming a historical fantasy, and then my other titles, like Beatrice Learns to Dance, which is a children’s story book, and then some of my nonfiction—I was invited to do some cameo work for the sketchnotes field guide, er, the Sketchnotes Handbook, actually—and then I did a small pamphlet with Sketchnotes Field Guide and those are under my given name of Binaebi Akah.
Pat: Got it. I love that. B-Linda, right? Your middle name’s linda?
Sidenote: It’s actually “Lynn,” but my audio cut out.
It’s good to understand how and why you decided to do that. Now, you’ve written novels, short fiction as you mentioned, non-fiction… but historical fiction seems to be your main interest. Why is that?
Belinda: You know, historical fiction… well, first off, I grew up reading, you know Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery, Jane Austen… I picked up Elizabeth Gaskell in college, and at the time there was something that was really sort of escapist for me. You know, people wearing these sort of grand outfits from my perspective, but a lot of the thoughts and fiction was about interpersonal relationships, and I felt I was learning so much about people even while I was reading fiction.
You know, you read Pride & Prejudice and you learn, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s not good to run away with someone without talking to your family about it’ when you’re thinking of Wickham and Lydia. Or how Jane and Bingley, if their family members hadn’t told them to talk to each other, they may not have gotten together. So there’s a lesson there, and there’s just something really interesting to me about looking at historical eras as a way to learn about what’s happening today. And I think that is also partially why I like to read historical fiction. And I’m also considering moving from kind of the more genre to even now trying to jump into persons of color in historical fiction since I am also a person of color. That is something I’ve been nervous to do, but I think this is a good time for me to embrace that and try it out.
Pat: Oh, absolutely, now is the time for that. Absolutely. Yeah, I look forward to that, and maybe we’ll maybe talk about what your upcoming fantasy that’s going to take place in Columbus, Ohio. We’ll talk about that in a bit. Let’s go backward. Let’s see, in 2003 you wrote Catching the Rose, an 1861 novel in Washington DC, in 2010, Haunting Miss Trentwood, that takes place in the UK. Let’s start with one. We’ll pick a couple today and highlight those. So tell us about that.
Belinda: So Haunting Miss Trentwood is a fun fiction. It starts out a little, well, very much in the gothic realm. The first chapter really sets up this gothic feel of this woman in her mid-to-late 20s, so think of the main character’s situation. She feels like she’s lost her opportunity for living her own life or finding love. She’s been taking care of her father who has been ill the last X number of years, and her mother died previous to the story. So the opening chapter starts with the funeral of her father. It’s a blustery day out, it’s just cold and wet and she’s sort of in shock that it even happened… and then she actually sees her father crawling out of the grave and no one else can see it. No one else sees him. And then she wakes up in bed, her aunt is taking care of her, saying she’s been out of it for three days and then Mary thinks, “Gosh, it’s been a rough time and I’ve had a lot to go through, maybe I imagined the whole thing.” Then the chapter ends with her father standing at the foot of her bed, saying, “Really, you think you imagined me?”
And it goes from there. Mr. Trenwood is hilarious, he’s a very funny ghost. So the story quickly pivots and becomes more of where you’re starting to see me blend historical fantasy a little bit, because you have this funny ghost who’s basically trying to parent his daughter as she is moving through her grief and also figure out, “What is my place in this world? Who do I want to be and who do I want to be with… who do I want to invest my time in?” And will she find love?
Pat: Oh my gosh I would love to be in your head. There’s so much going on. Don’t you wonder where all this comes from?
Belinda: Yeah, I do! You know, at the time, because I was thinking about this the other day… what in the world made me think about that. At the time, I was watching a lot of shows like Dead Like Me, and the pie maker show, what was it called… Pushing Daisies… and you know there were just something about these quirky shows about death and how death isn’t necessarily the end if your story. I think there’s something about that I wanted to explore. I also was, at the time, growing up. I was in college when I was first writing the first draft of that story. I published it while I was in grad school and that was my coming of age era.
You know, I would say I led a really fun childhood. My parents let me remain a child without a lot of responsibility through high school, you know my job was to be a student. I helped work for the family business but I wasn’t necessarily out working in retail or restaurants picking up those sort of life skills where you’re dealing with the general public and trying to figure out how do I interact with people? So college was really that for me. I had this theme of I was having my coming-of-age story a little later than maybe other people would have, and that was also something interesting I wanted to explore. What if your coming-of-age story happened when you were 22 instead of 15, 16, like most fiction?
Pat: Right, isn’t that fascinating how most writers are kind of writing themselves and writing about their lives and learning about themselves, and growing and becoming through their writing. And it’s almost a secondary thing, putting it out there and publishing it for others to read. It’s almost more important the fact that you were able to participate in that and write it down and do that for yourself.
Belinda: Yeah, you know I think to me, I feel like that’s how I interpret the ‘write what you know.’ It’s not necessarily write what you know from a factual perspective, but write what you know from your life experience. What rings true for you as an individual and a human being, someone else in the world has probably had a similar experience or similar emotion or reaction. Maybe their exact details of their situation was different, but that sort of visceral reaction, that’s probably a very human thing that many people can relate to.
Pat: Yes, it’s a double gift, one to yourself and one to your readers. Now, your most recent was in 2017, The Last April, and by the way I love the cover of that, I want to talk about that in a minute. So that’s an Ohio Civil War drama. Give us a little peek into that.
Belinda: Yeah, so this is a fun story, basically what ended up happening is the war is over… it’s set in April 1865 and the war has literally just ended days before. And we’re in Columbus, Ohio, and there’s a girl, her name is Gretchen. She lives on a farm just south of Columbus proper, so with today’s map you could probably think someone close to Grove City, which is part of Greater Columbus. So she’s on her farm, in her garden, and then she looks up and see this guy collapse right in the middle of her garden. She’s like, well, who’s this guy, and what’s going on? He has his head bandaged, and he’s dressed like he’s a confederate, and she’s wondering what’s a confederate doing in my garden in Columbus, Ohio? It goes from there, because then her mother comes back from the market saying, “Hey the news just came out and they’re saying President Lincoln has been shot.” They think he’s dying or dead, and now there’s a nationwide manhunt happening. So now Gretchen is asking the question of whether this guy was part of the conspiracy, what is he doing up here? So it’s a little mystery.
Clearly, if you know history, you know no one in Columbus had an particular activity with President Lincoln, but for the audience that this story was, really it’s more middle grade and adults reading escapist fiction, it’s still an interpersonal story that’s really more navigating the politics and emotional response of a nationwide tragedy that happens. How does that effect individuals?
Pat: All right, that’s called The Last April. Tell us about your covers, that one in particular, I don’t really know, I can’t explain it to you, but there’s just something about that cover that just calls me. It really strikes me. I love that cover.
Belinda: I commissioned that cover from a local Columbus, Ohio cover artist. She does hand lettering, illustrations, and book covers. I gave her my specs—my specifications—I wanted to make sure that I had Gretchen with her braid over her shoulder because that’s how she wears her hair, and I wanted a confederate soldier with his head bandaged. I wanted to appeal to the fact that the majority of the story is happening on this tiny little farm in Ohio, so that’s where we got some of the corn stalks, and then the implications of the American and Confederate flags with the stars behind the characters. So it’s a very patriotic-looking book. The red, white, and blue does speak to us in general as Americans. And then you know, when you have the book in your hand, the book has a really soft, matte cover. It’s not a glossy cover, so it’s something very soft in your hand and it just feels good to hold. I mean, everything about the production of this book is just great.
Pat: Oh I love that. Well, like I said, when I saw that cover I was just so taken by it, so congratulations to you and your illustrator on that cover, it’s perfection.
Belinda: Yeah, the cover artist is Seedlings Design Studio, I think that’s what she goes by, she’s fantastic to work with.
Pat: You found a good one. Now forthcoming in a couple years, you say 2023, it’s an untitled gaslamp fantasy taking place in Columbus, Ohio in 1873. Where’s that coming from and where are you in the process?
Belinda: In true Belinda fashion, I started this book a year ago for NaNoWriMo, which anyone who doesn’t know stands for National Novel Writing Month, you try to write about 1600 – 1700 words a day so that by the end of the month you get 50,000 words. Now, I tried to do this because I had just had my first child the previous April and I was really missing my creative outlet, which was writing at the time and has always been my primary outlet. So I thought, NaNoWriMo it is. I’m gonna try to write something and you know November a year ago, I was really curious about writing about someone who looks like me, someone who is a person of colors. And I wanted to write again about my hometown here in Columbus, because this town is a hidden gem. On the surface it’s a nice midwestern town, maybe not a lot to talk about except the Buckeyes and our food scene has really explored in the last couple of years, but then I started reading more about the history of Columbus.
In particular, 1873 started to stick out to me. It was the year The Ohio State University was founded off the land grant from President Lincoln’s announcement during the war, and then it was the year of our first public library and reading room… so there was something going on about 1873 in Columbus having to do with education and literacy that I just thought was so interesting. And then I started reading about the first graduating classes, of which at the time I think it was called the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, I don’t think it was quite The Ohio State University yet, that’s what it would become. The first graduating classes… I think the first class had a woman in it, and within the first 10 graduating classes, there were people of color in those graduating classes. That’s not necessarily what you think of when you think of the 1870s and 1880s, really, anyway in the United States it’s not entirely what we’re taught in our public schools so I thought that was so interesting… what was it really like back then that our history books maybe either don’t pay attention to or don’t have the space for because you have to get through so much in your curriculum.
And you know, the more I lived with the story over this last year, magic just kept popping in. A year ago, the magic was very library focused, I was playing up the literacy aspect that I was trying to explore, but over time, I started learning more about the educational opportunities for persons of color back in the 1870s. a lot of those educational opportunities were centered around artisanship and craftsmanship. Today we might call them technical colleges where you’re getting a degree, you might be an associates degree, but you’re using your hands and you’re problem solving. You’re making things for people so I think my magic system has shifted from being library and literacy focused to now being more about crafting and then seeing how you can push the bounds of reality through your crafting.
Pat: So you’re kind of growing with this book, or its growing with you as its morphing through different phases.
Belinda: Oh yeah, none of my stories come out fully flushed. I think that’s why it takes me about seven years to write these stories. Because I’m… I’m doing historical research, I’m letting the characters tell me what actually rings true to them or not, and it also takes a while for me to even understand who the characters are. I mean, my main character, her name has changed four times and I think finally, we’ve hit on the right name because now she’s talking to me, and I’m seeing her interact with these other characters, and she’s got her attitude figured out. So yes, it’s a very organic sort of process for me. I’d say I’m a plantser. I mostly a pantser but at some point you do have to plan and think out what’s going to happen next.
Pat: Oh, you’re a hybrid, oh that’s funny. You know, also because your genre requires so much research. I know myself, what I’m doing research I get lost in the research and then that takes you down one rabbit hole and then you go somewhere else and you could research forever, so I imagine that writing a novel, that requires so much research obviously takes a lot of time.
Belinda: Definitely and you do have to have a threshold for yourself. Do I have enough information to at least get a first draft down? And then there are times where I will have enough to get a chapter but then maybe I have a placeholder within square brackets, like [look up street name] or [look up guy who did thing] like I know he did a thing, I can’t remember what his name was or I can’t remember the details of it, so go back and look it up so that way I don’t necessarily lose momentum of writing fiction.
Pat: Right, yeah, there’s a fine line with how much research you do and then how much you present to your reader. I know for me, I want to give everyone all the information I can, and then you’ve got to go back and pull back and say, well that’s just too much.
Belinda: For sure, and I think that’s definitely something I learned while writing Catching the Rose. I wrote that one in high school, so it definitely feels like a first attempt at a book. Certainly, there are readers who like it, but really that is my learning book, did I go too far in one direction with the research, do they go too far in another direction with character development or describing what they were wearing. Do we really need to know what the character is wearing… if it’s not pushing the plot forward, things like that I think… I consider, well, I love Catching the Rose and it has a special place in my heart, but it definitely was my learning book. Haunting Miss Trentwood I consider my debut as an adult writer, you know, someone who has lived a little bit of life and understands how to pick and choose what is actually going to help move that story along.
And then of course with The Last April, that is certainly my tightest writing so far. And I do love that book because it has some epistolary influences. I actually pulled newspaper snippet from the newspapers of the era. I spent a lot of time at the Ohio History Connection going over their archives and finding excerpts so that way you got a real feel of what it was like to live in Columbus in the days after President Lincoln was shot. No one really knew what was happening. The fastest communication you could get was the telegram, which is pretty fast, but when you’re literally playing the telephone game, things will get distorted the farther you are from the event. And so I just wanted to make sure to include… well, the war itself was huge, and then President Lincoln… this was like the 9/11 event of that era. On top of the war we’ve all just tried to close, or at least we all just said ok we think we’ve come to an impasse. General Lee has surrendered, so we think we’re done… so there’s an authenticity I try to go for, but again, it’s finding that fine line. I don’t need the entire article, but I do need maybe that one paragraph that would really speak to the emotional response.
Pat: Lots of work involved in your books, for sure. And speaking of work, something extra, you’ve got an Etsy shop called Bright Bird Press and I was impressed with that! Maybe share that with our listeners as well.
Belinda: Yes, Bright Bird Press is my umbrella company. I use it for my books, I also use it for creating journals and trackers for those who are creatives and caregivers. My shop is split between two categories: those who are trying to write fiction, and I have novel planners in the form of spiral notebooks and saddlestitch notebooks, and I have a couple printables you can print out for yourself and have as many copies as you need for that particular planner. And then I have a category of products for caregivers, and that’s because I’m a relatively new mother, I have a young one. And then I have newborn trackers that will cover roughly the first three months of your child’s life so that way when you go to the doctor, you don’t have to worry about how many diapers is this kid soiling in a day. You know, those little stats you don’t want to have to keep track of. My first child, I used a mobile app and I think that was helpful, but you know, especially in this remote situation, if I can avoid being in front of a screen, I want to. So I created these newborn tracker logs to help with that. I have a journal I can reference instead.
Pat: Thank you, I love that. So that’s called Bright Bird Press on Etsy. All right, well we’ve kind of danced around many of your books and your work. I know there’s a lot more we could chat about today, but I want to make sure that we haven’t missed anything that you want to talk about.
Belinda: This has been a great conversation. This is the sort of thing that, over time, I know you mentioned in my biography at the beginning that I’m a lindy hopper and I swing dance, that I have a hobby photography business, but you know… ultimately, all of my creative pursuits are being funneled back into my writing. So when you purchase something from Bright Bird Press, you’re really supporting my next fiction so I can afford my cover artist, afford my editor, so everything is just trying to be self-supporting. Creative outlets supporting creative outlets is really how I look at it. So I really appreciate getting to talk about it.
Pat: Oh thank you, I appreciate it too. I was looking forward to this very much today and I want to be sure folks know where they can purchase your books and find everything that they need from you, so why don’t you share any and all of that?
Belinda: Sure, my website is worderella.com, it’s a play on Cinderella. That is also my Instagram handle, so if you want to follow me on Instagram, I’m at Worderella there. As you mentioned, my Etsy shop is Bright Bird Press, and otherwise you can even send me an email at worderella at gmail.com. In terms of my books, you can find my print books on Amazon, I have ebooks across the internet. So if you go to my website, that’s probably the easiest way.
Pat: Excellent, it’s worderella.com, a play on Cinderella, I love that. Worderella. That’s so cool, you’re so cool! I’m so glad we had this opportunity to talk. Any final words before we say goodbye?
Belinda: You know, thanks again so much and I hope to release this next historical fantasy sooner than later, but you know, I can read the math and see it taking about seven years between each book, so… just trying to set myself up for success there.
Pat: So hang on readers, read all the past books and by that time maybe we’ll have the next one out. Head over to worderella.com. Belinda Kroll, thank you so much for sharing you today.
A couple months ago, a friend shared on social media one of those memes where you search your name and use the first search results to make a fantasy name, etc. This meme caught my interest because you had to search:
[Your name] fantasy gown
[Your name] fantasy crown
[Your name] fantasy weapon
For fun, I started with my given (legal) name and came up with this collage, which I love because I’m obsessed with white lace dresses with low backs and curve-hugging forms. I’m a huge fan (otaku) of Sailor Moon so the crown of moonstones and moon-shaped filigree is just to die for, and that sword is nothing to sniff at!
Then I got curious and searched against my writing name, Belinda Kroll, which was interesting because it feels like a darker personality to me. While the dress is reminiscent of a Victorian interpretation of a medieval dress with ruffles and embroidery, the crown, with its sea shells and obsidian gems, speaks to some sort of dark sea goddess. Throw in the emerald sword hilt and again, you’ve got a persona no one should think about messing with!
And finally, I searched my heroine’s name for my gaslamp fantasy and squealed because it’s just so perfect. I love the gold military-inspired detailing in the bodice, the simple elegance of the gold diadem, and the angular shape of the sword spun up so many ideas!
All of which made me think, I should be using internet memes for inspiration more often! One reason I usually don’t do memes is because sometimes I worry this is a method for internet scammers to get information (especially the ones that ask for your middle name or birthdate). But for a character who only exists in my mind? I mean, why not?
Unrelated, I wanted to share that I’m currently cuddling my second child! Wish me luck with recovery and regaining my writing energy after everything settles into place at home. See y’all soon!
Have you ever been in the situation where all you can remember about a book is pieces of the plot, parts of what the cover looked like, maybe a word or two of the title? That’s been me a lot recently as I regress to re-reading books I enjoyed during my formative fiction years (ages 12 – 17). Don’t get me wrong, I’m still reading new-to-me books, but there is something comforting about reading books you know you enjoyed so much that they haunt you later in life.
Now, I consider myself a pretty good hunter when it comes to information seeking on the internet, but this one really stumped me. Here is what I could remember about this book:
It was young adult fantasy when I read it between 1997 – 2003
The cover featured a brunette with a braid, and there was a lot of green
Or maybe the title had “Emerald Moon” in it
It was about a magical girl who was matched with a male magical partner who was older and of higher socioeconomic status
At some point, this man gets turned into a talking dog, and it’s hilarious
In this book, all magical pairs are male-female, but romance between them is highly discouraged due to lessons learned in the past
The ruling class are all magic users and grouped by jewels like emerald, diamond, ruby
Clearly, the more I wracked my brain, the more details I was able to remember… except the title or the author. I tried searching “emerald moon green cover YA fantasy” and various combinations into Google, Goodreads, Amazon, and eBay to no avail.
But then I found this amazing group on Goodreads called What’s the Name of that Book??? I was careful to follow the rules, and tried searching my combination of words, but again, I couldn’t find the book. So I created my own posting with many of the details I listed above.
Then on a whim, I searched the group with just “emerald” and found the thread below… where it turns out someone was actually looking for a different book, but one of the respondents suggested the book I was seeking!
So it turns out the book I was looking for is called Emerald House Rising by Peg Kerr. It was published in 1997, and I did in fact remember many of the details correctly. I’m a sucker for nostalgia so I found the edition from my childhood on eBay. But after more internet searching, I also found out Ms. Kerr only ever wrote another book after Emerald before stopping to raise a family.
I learned through Wikipedia that unfortunately her husband died of cancer in 2018, and that she had a LiveJournal account until 2017 when they switched the servers to Russia. She now blogs on Dreamwidth, and it has been fascinating for me to revisit an author like this. Back in 2000, it never would have occurred to me to seek out an author’s website or journal, I just wandered the library stacks and picked up books based on what the cover looked like.
I’m happy to share that Ms. Kerr has the rights for both her books now, and is republishing them for eBook and print. I’m interested to follow her work, much like M. Louisa Locke, I think Ms. Kerr has an opportunity for a second career creating the fiction she loves.
Have you hunted for a childhood favorite book? To what lengths did you search, and what did you discover?
As a mixed BIPOC (Black Indigenous Person of Color) myself, I appreciate seeing representation in my media. I enjoyed the 1990’s Brandy version of Cinderella, for instance, because I saw it for what it was… a modern retelling of a fairy tale, which you can’t say was ever a true story, and therefore who are we to say that casting couldn’t have happened (excluding the historical context of the Brothers Grimm, of course)?
I looked forward to watching Bridgerton on Netflix because I had read a couple of the original books by Julia Quinn, mostly the later books about the younger siblings. Eloise comes to mind, being a step-mom story with two fun kiddos. I’m not familiar with the earlier books, but was aware they followed some of the more unsavory historical romance tropes (power struggles, non-consensual sexual activities, etc) since that was popular reading at the time.
And I mean, I thought it was interesting they were going to play with these historical romances by diverging from the all-white characters in the books. Black people existed in many of the socio-economic levels in Regency England, though Duke is definitely a fictional stretch (or maybe not, check out this article from Marie Claire about what Bridgerton got right about Queen Charlotte), so why not play around with the idea in a Netflix series inspired by historical romance?
However. However. Facebook threads exploded in my news feed about the quality of including these non-white characters, confirming my fears from the commercials. If you’re going to go through the trouble of a diverse cast (in any media), the least you can do is avoid the following. I’ll do my best to give reasons behind why you should avoid these things.
DISCLAIMER: Since this is my personal blog, I will be liberal in blocking or deleting unhelpful comments that focus on “unnecessary political correctness” and the like, given the topic.
Do Not Hyper-Sexualize Black People
Keep in mind there is a harmful history in the United States, at least, of titillating the white population with the “threat” of the dangerous Black Man ravaging the innocent White Woman. Related is the Black Woman who is so inherently sexual that the White Man cannot help but be seduced by her (usually physical) sensual wickedness. The idea is that Black people are such savages that they just ooze sexual energy and therefore corrupt anyone else associating with them.
I encourage you to read more about this, especially some recent research that suggests during the centuries of enslavement in the United States, both white men and women compelled non-consensual sexual activity on the Black population, dispelling some of these harmful myths.
Do not suggest Black Women are romantically unavailable
This is sort of the reverse of the previous point. Often you’ll find in media that there is a Black woman in the character list, but she is relegated to a series of stereotypes, including the “mammy” who exists solely to comfort in a mothering way, the best friend who only exists to give advice, the “jezebel” or slut who will say yes to anything sexual, the “sapphire” or angry black woman who is defined only by her inherent aggressiveness, or the “tragic mulatto” i.e. a mixed (bi- or multi-racial) character solely defined and depressed by the fact they “don’t fit in anywhere.”
Romance and sex are two different things. One can have romance with little or no sex (sweet romances are the genre), but it is rare to see a Black woman get the romance treatment in media. If you’re looking for a unique offering, that would be a great area to explore.
Do not make skin tone an indication of… Anything
Have you heard of the “brown paper bag” test? Its history is rooted in racism and colorism. The basic idea is privileges may be determined by whether a person’s skin tone matches a brown paper bag or lighter, leading to acceptance. Whereas anyone darker will be disregarded. For the most part, this happens within the Black community and likely why, when racism comes up as a topic, you might hear “but Black people are racist against Black people, too!” When we’re discussing privilege in terms of amount of melatonin in one’s skin, that’s actually colorism.
If your character is dark as night, don’t also make that character corrupt and villainous. It’s just lazy writing. If your character is a lighter-toned Black person, don’t imply they are less corrupt than a person darker than them, or imply a white person spending time with them will become “less pure” by association. Again, it’s just lazy.
OK I get it, what am I supposed to take away from this?
Historical fiction is fiction for a reason. It’s inspired by historical fact, but in actuality, exists in the shallow end of speculative fiction. We all know a Regency Duke would never have married a governess. It would have been below his “station.” Heck, even Mr. Rochester, a landed, untitled man in England, shocked everyone by marrying his governess Jane Eyre.
If your Black characters are defined by one thing and that one thing only, and I’d say this for any marginalized population, then consider rewriting or removing that character. If your Black characters lack their own narrative arcs or are written with the assumption that they exist to be a threat or to serve white people, consider rewriting or removing that character. What are you trying to say, really?
Give your characters, all your characters, some sort of emotional depth. And if you can’t do that because you feel you have to rely on stereotypes that make characters feel Other Than White, then you might want to avoid it altogether or hire a Sensitivity Reader/Editor. If you’re going to be progressive with your fiction and/or fantasy, then be progressive, friend!
Something that struck me while reading Stephen King’s On Writing is that he emphasizes life supports the art of writing, the art of writing doesn’t support life. His anecdotal story talks about how he had a room saved for writing with a T-Rex sized mahogany desk in the center, but over time, with the family and kids, he got rid of the desk, bought a family set of furniture, and shoved smaller desk under the eaves in the corner of the room.
Now, even when I had my own two-bedroom apartment, where I could save an entire room for my writing and guests, I realized… I hated it. I felt cut off from my space, the room didn’t have the best light, the reasons were endless. I moved my desk to my living room behind my sofa and felt much happier.
We’ve been going through a similar transformation that Stephen King described at my house. We spend most of our time upstairs, whereas downstairs my husband has his hobby room, I have my hobby nook, and then there’s a second living space. My hobby nook faces the living space, which I like because it gives me the best light, I can watch the little ones (furry and human), and I can feel the energy of the house.
With lock down, however, I’ve completely let the space become a wasteland of papers, books, taxes, Etsy inventory, my violin, my camera equipment, etc. It’s a location of stress, not concentration. I’ve turned my attention to tidying because of the impending winter months… we need a second space we can all retreat to recharge without having to leave the house.
Next, I hope to consolidate all my photography and music content in an area, finally leaving the remaining space for writing. It’s a shame that I have an 1860s writing desk and never use it! My goal is to clear the space so I can get back to it by the new year.
Are you making a space for your hobbies? How has your home changed since the pandemic?
Summary: First book in the Clandestine Magic trilogy, this book follows Beatrix as she supports her sister Lydia, financially and emotionally, as she attempts to win the presidency of the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic. All magic users (wizards) and politicians are men in this alternate history, and the way wizards create spells is by transferring the energy from leaves with a combination of magical commands.
We join Beatrix the day Peter Blackwell, childhood rival and sole wizard to come from their hometown, arrives and compels her to become his assistant. While Beatrix fears Peter was sent on behalf of the government to sabotage her sister’s future, what she discovers is far more dangerous than she could have ever imagined.
Thoughts: I really enjoyed this story! It has an inventive magic system that lays the groundwork for political intrigue and women’s equality in this alternate reality. There were some troubling use of compulsion against the heroine, but since the characters also struggled with the unintended compulsion, I didn’t see it as a reason to put the book down. The romance was a struggle for me due to the compulsion… but I enjoyed the way Cowley flipped the script by having the unrequited person be male rather than female.
For writers, read this book to learn about how to write a fantasy where magic is not the primary plot driver. This book reads like a political thriller where magic is the weapon rather than machinery. The main characters feel emotionally real by the end of the story, but the true driver the consequences of transferring leaf energy into magic, and just who has access to that sort of magic.
I also really appreciated the Cowley included a note to readers to visit her website if they wanted to avoid any triggering content. She doesn’t give away spoilers, but she does let you know about the compulsion I noted above, and other possibly traumatic events. I wish the cover art was a little more impressive, though… I feel like it distracts from the fine writing hidden between the covers.
I’ve never gotten into audio books because even with the best narrator, I lose interest or feel sleepy about 15 minutes into a listening session. This is a big reason why I never picked up podcasts, I assumed the same thing would happen.
Part of the problem was friends were suggesting podcasts that they cared about… I don’t need more politics, or reasons to get frustrated about the inequalities experienced by women and minorities, or the incomplete or biased snippets we get from audiovisual news media. I have plenty of sources for that, thanks, but I appreciate the suggestions.
However, in the last month I’ve craved a way to consume media that doesn’t require using my eyes. I sit in front of a computer for work, and ultimately for writing as well. I stumbled onto Stitcher, a free podcast streaming service, I can’t even remember how, and now realize what I’ve been missing. Many of these episodes are only 15 – 20 minutes long, which is my sweet spot, but I’ve found I can even listen to 45 minute episode because it gets my brain into a writing mode.
Between Stitcher and adopting Notion.so to plan and write my latest book, I’ve never been more mobile and nimble with my writing. The other day I went on a walk with the kid and was able to listen to a full episode and write a little over 150 words into the Notion app on my phone, then later go into my tablet and rearrange scenes, and still later go into my computer to do additional plot tidying and some deeper research.
I don’t think I would have sought out podcasts had it not been for the pandemic. We’ve been one of the families to stay at home since March since I’m a high risk individual. This means we’ve worked full time from home and provided child care as well. We’re not accepting help in order to protect me, basically. This means we’ve been catching an hour or even just 30 minutes each day to ourselves. That’s not enough time to plan and write a book, or so I thought.
I’ve felt burned out and frustrated because I wanted to write, but didn’t know how to start. The lock down started right as I was about to rejoin my writer’s group, which didn’t move to a virtual platform and I probably wouldn’t have dialed in anyway because I’m in so many video conferences for my day job. On top of the whole pandemic reality, I’ve felt insecure about the book I want to write because of the way certain media outlets have twisted the purpose and meaning behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve blogged about my insecurities about writing about someone who looks like me but living in a historical context… mostly because so many people don’t understand that the Black experience in America was more nuanced than “all people from Africa were slaves and no one was allowed to marry them.”
If you want to read another author’s perspective on the matter, check out G.S. Carr’s “Wielding Historical Inaccuracy Against Authors of Color.” It really made me think! Why do I not question when a book suggests a duke could marry a family-less, penniless governess? We clearly know that wouldn’t happen, just look at any of Jane Austen’s works to know that’s too much of a leap. Why do I pause when I read about an interracial relationship in the 1800s? I know they occurred whether in secret or not, and at least here in the United States, not all states had laws against interracial relationships. In fact, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia never had laws preventing interracial relationships!
But I digress. These are the podcasts that I’m following these days: Writing Excuses and DIY MFAare both great for different reasons, but I credit both of them for strengthening my creative backbone to just try something. I just picked up but have yet to listen to The Self-Publishing Show,Writing Roots, and the Alli Self-Publishing Advice podcasts.
Tell me, is there something you’ve tried that you wouldn’t have if there were no pandemic? How is it going?