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When a story isn’t yours to tell

Every writer fails, and we all have story(ies) that go unfinished for any number of reasons. Sometimes they defeat us. Sometimes they aren’t our stories to tell.

I have been working on a ghost story since roughly 2002. A couple of years ago, I answered the question “What is your next book about” on Goodreads with this answer.

My novel, which I’m just calling “The Ghost Story” publicly, dates back to a Halloween contest on Literotica over a decade ago. I wrote a short story for the contest, but to my surprise the characters wouldn’t leave me alone.

I was inspired by several things–my deep love of New Orleans, my fascination with New Orlean’s unique history-especially placage relationships, and my desire to write a ghost story.

I’ve actually tried to write this story various times over the last decade, but I would inevitably get stuck and rather than keep writing I would just keep trying to make that part perfect. Things like having kids and moves also would break my momentum and I would pick up something else and put the book down again.

This is the first time I’ve tried to sit down and write it since becoming published, so hopefully this will be the time I succeed

It seems like wanting to turn my short stories into novels is a particular curse of mine (coughPlundercough).

But the point is that this story has defeated me time and time again.

Yeah, they’re vampires, but they’re hot men who “lived” in New Orleans, so it’s the best image I could find

The last iteration that I tried to write had dual timelines–one the events leading up to why there’s a ghost in the first place, and the second in modern times (2014 per my last drafts).

I think one of the problems that I keep running up against is that a key part in the historical chapters deals with plaçage, or the process by which a black girl would enter into a business relationship with an older, white man in New Orleans. There is a trope in literature called the “tragic mulatto” and I had been desperately trying to avoid falling into that trap.

As a regular person, I adore New Orleans. I almost moved there before meeting my husband–our relationship killed my plans, and New Orleans is like the lover who got away.

As someone with a degree in history, I am fascinated by the sexual history of New Orleans, because it is so unlike that of any other city. Plaçage relationships were usually arranged at or after the Quadroon Balls. Jazz came out of Storyville, the red-light district. The Black Creoles’ relationship to white Creoles, other free black citizens, “Americans,” and slaves is the subject of many historical texts, which I’ve read over the years since my first visit to New Orleans.

But there is the problem of me, a white woman, writing about a black woman’s life. In the end, I’ve decided that changing the ghost’s backstory entirely is for the best. Not because I think my original idea is bad, it’s that I’m not the right person to tell it. No amount of research will make this particular story work. I will fuck it up—with only the best intentions, but good intentions pave the road to hell for a reason.

Does this mean I’m never writing a romance with a character of color? No. I think I did Arjun justice in Capturing the Moment. I think I did the character of Saanvi justice in “Love is a Virus.” I think I can write the Lioness in the shifter novel, a black woman, with respect and sensitivity.

Plunder is set in the Caribbean, which means I can’t ignore the issue of slavery–especially given that William won Puerto Seguro (Safe Harbor) via a bet. In the current draft he doesn’t want to be a slave holder, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to deal with the slaves who are part of the sugar cane plantation. They distrust him, and with good reason. He must use an intermediary to do so–in this case the man who has been like a father to him, who is also black, and therefore more trustworthy. And because this is an incredibly sensitive part of the book, and one I have a lot of potential to fuck up, I am asking my betas to go over with a fine toothed comb. My research isn’t worth a damn if I can’t write it well. Depending on their verdict, the plantation could be deserted upon his arrival on Puerto Seguro, which is a cheap sidestep, but it may be better to do that. But I’ll still have to deal with the question of slave ships, and the role slavery played in that period of time.

I have a number of beta readers who aren’t white, and they know that I won’t push back if they tell me I’m fucking something up or being a Becky. An example is that in an early draft of Capturing the Moment, I used a food metaphor in relation to RJ–that his eyes were like liquid chocolate or something. One of my betas sent me an article discussing why that’s a bad thing, and I changed it.

I think my job as an author is to remember that the world isn’t white and to include POC characters, when I can do so with thoughtfulness and respect–and hopefully without fucking it up. But it is also my job to know when to stay in my lane and not tell a story.

Moreover, it is my job to elevate the voices of POC romance authors through the purchase of their books (because money talks) and reviews of their work/recommending their work to my romance-reading friends. Can I write a book with a black character/s? Yes, I can. But Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Talia Hibbert, and Shelly Ellis (among others) can do it immeasurably better.

Review: A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole

A Princess in Theory kicks off Alyssa Cole’s new series, Reluctant Royals.

I couldn’t put this book down. Ledi and Thabiso’s story is part modern fairy-tale (a prince in disguise) part secret identity exposed (prince? Or fuckboy?) and a hell of a lot of fun.

Ledi is a broke grad student working two jobs (in a lab and at a restaurant). She keeps getting these emails telling her she’s the betrothed of an African prince. Finally sick of deleting them, she finally responds FUCK OFF. Thabiso is the heir to the throne of Thesolo. His betrothed’s family disappeared when she was a little girl. When his assistant tracks Ledi down, he goes to the restaurant where she works to demand to know where she’s been, why her family left, and to see this woman who would dare tell him to FUCK OFF. When he arrives, she mistakes him for the new server she’s supposed to be training that night. So Thabiso becomes Jamal, and predictably fucks up, including accidentally starting a literal fire, which Naledi ends up putting out.

As Jamal, Thabiso rents the apartment opposite Ledi’s for the week that he’s in New York. She’s mistrustful at first, but things heat up between them. Thabiso knows he should tell Ledi the truth, but keeps putting it off. Ledi’s friend takes her to a fundraiser where the guest of honor is some prince from an African country–and Ledi is shocked and betrayed when she learns of “Jamal’s” deception.

That would be the end of the story, but a mysterious illness is affecting people in Thesolo, including Ledi’s grandparents. As a epidemiologist, Ledi has the qualifications to help diagnose and understand the illness. She agrees to pose as the future princess in order to help with the illness.

Will Ledi leave Thabiso? Can he persuade her to stay?

This is a great book. I love that the heroine is a scientist and completely dismissive of Thabiso, who has never been treated that way before. Thabiso is three dimensional, and his feelings and guilt evolve in a sympathetic way. The illness, and the lingering questions of why her family left Thesolo create great background for Ledi and Thabiso’s story.

Ledi’s best friend Portia is a hot mess. She has issues with alcoholism, and Ledi struggles to draw a line with her. She’s the star of the follow up book, A Duke by Default (out in 2018), having sworn to turn the page. She also has a twin (in a wheelchair–yay for inclusion) with whom there are as yet unexplored simmering tensions. She’s fleshed out enough to be intriguing, and I look forward to seeing more of her.

Thabiso’s assistant Likoti is great. She’s his one real close friend who gives no fucks that he’s her prince (and boss) and calls him on his shit. She has her own off-screen adventures in NYC that are alluded to, and her dynamic with Thabiso gives Thabiso depth. I wish we saw more of her.

The sex scenes are H-O-T. I definitely squirmed in the good way more than once.

The only real weaknesses is that the illness and the mystery of why Ledi’s parents left is dealt with a bit more quickly than I would’ve liked. Ledi’s mom was the queen’s best friend and her disappearance (and Ledi’s reappearance) are a big part of why the queen interacts with Ledi the way she does. But given that Ledi’s parents are dead (she grew up in foster care) without a flashback scene or more exposition I’m not sure how Cole could’ve given us more there.

I love Alyssa Cole’s style, and am looking forward to the second book. If you’re looking for fluffy romance with great sex scenes, you should read A Princess in Theory.

Buy A Princess in Theory on Amazon