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Day 1 ~ Countdown to SINFUL SURRENDER

January 4, 2010

Tomorrow SINFUL SURRENDER will be officially released into the wild. It’s still hard to believe. It’s a day I never thought would ever come and then seemed to be coming too quickly, and I wish I were more prepared. Regardless, it’s a great feeling, all the excitement and anticipation of Missy and James’s story finally meeting the reading public. Of course I’m nervous to hear what readers and reviewers alike have to say about SINFUL SURRENDER. I’m terrified that no one will buy it. But I’m also so proud of this story and so happy I wrote it, and that it will forever be my first. 😉

I’ve included my picture once again not because I love it so much. No I included it because of the subject matter of today’s post: Writing Outside Your Race.  The picture punctuates the point that I am a black woman and my characters are white.

No one had every asked me about the race of my characters until this summer at the RWA National Conference in DC. Who asked? A very lovely woman who used to work for Publisher’s Weekly. She was the first. Then I kid you not, an hour later a reviewer from a very popular blog asked the same question. Then just recently, one of my chapter members (who I might add is black) emailed me and posed the question to me this way, “What’s up with your cover?” Now I can only surmise that people who see me and discover that am a romance writer assume that I write about black protagonists. The cover of SINFUL SURRENDER tells the real story. But is that a problem that I chose to write outside my race?

For me, this wasn’t even a decision. I never once sat and debated when I decided to write a historical, should I make the hero and heroine black? Why? Well, I think a large part has to do with the genre: historical. As a black person, I know the history of my people. I understand what we suffered and our struggles, however, I don’t want to write about it. That isn’t the material I would go to when I sit down and want to escape into a good romance. Writing about blacks in the 19th century makes escaping the reality and cruelty of slavery, prejudice and discrimination unavoidable. When I write romances about black protagonists, I want them to have all the freedoms I enjoy now. I want them to be able to wealthy, respected, free, and capable of achieving everything the next man can.  Now if I were writing a fantasy or something like that, I could conceivably invent a new history for blacks and exclude everything I don’t like (ie. slavery). But I write historical romance and our history is indelibly etched in the annals of time. It’s not pretty and it’s painful for me to think about, much less read or write about.  I don’t think I’m burying my head in the sand, I just want the time I set aside to escape and enjoy a good romance to be just that for me. A pleasant escape.

I grew up in the fairly small city of Barrie, Ontario in Canada. I was usually the only black in my classes, my family one of only two black families in the entire school. I grew up reading everything from Henry & Beezus (Beverly Cleary), Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie, Anne Mather and Janet Dailey. Where I grew up, I can’t remember seeing one book that featured a young black protagonist. But even at a young age, I never questioned that. I could see the way things were. For a mostly white population, why would there be stories about black children, black people? Don’t your write about what you know? Write about people like yourself?

Well I continued to read and when I branched out to historical romance, I read Johanna Lindsey, Catherine Coulter, Virginia Henley, and Karen Robards. These authors’ stories were my influences. And from these stories I sorted out what I liked and didn’t like. I discovered that I liked–loved–reading about stories where the relationship was the biggest issue. Their struggles weren’t about where they could live, who would burn down their house because of racial prejudices, be they black or Native American. I didn’t want to read about a couple struggling financially and that being the cause of most of their strife–I’ve seen that enough in real life. I know there are people who like the Oprah-type books, where protagonists must overcome insurmountable odds to finally triumph in the end. That’s not why I pick  up romances. Their triumph needs to be about love. (I’m like that, romances need to be about ROMANCE, mysteries should be about MYSTERY–I don’t need romance in my mystery–and suspense, same thing).

Will I make an effort in the future to have a mixture of nationalities, races, and differing social classes within my stories? Yes, I will. They may not be the leading characters, but to exclude them completely, to me, would be wrong. I do feel a responsibility as a black woman to write about my own race. It should be my first inclination, shouldn’t it? I feel a sense of guilt that I have not. But I am also conscious that in the genre that I write, it would be a difficult book to sell. Beverly Jenkins is one of the few black historical romance authors that I know, who has successfully managed this, and I completely respect her for that–she’s also a very lovely woman personally. However, for now, while I will try to test the boundaries of the historical genre, I will continue to write the kind of stories I want to read, and in time should I be fortunate to branch out into contemporaries, I hope to write about the protagonists I never read as a child, and the world as I  want it to be.

Wow, even that felt way weighty to me, but it’s a topic  I needed to post. 🙂

So what do you think, is it acceptable to write outside of your race? And would you or have your ever read books where the protagonists are of a different race?

Since Lisa Kleypas is currently the  historical author who influences me the most, I’m giving away the  entire set of her WALLFLOWER Series. Comment to win.


68 Comments

  1. I don’t think race should matter at all.

    I remember doing a . . . I guess it was a study, but anyway, in my english class in college. The teacher gave us all a packet of papers that had different parts of different stories, and we had write down what race we thought the author had cast the main characters as.
    Most of the class was white, but a few were not. Amazingly almost everyone cast the main characters in the stories as white. It turned out that out of the 5 stories she gave us only one had the main characters as white. One was hispanic orgin, one was indian (from India, not native american), one was black/african american, and one was Native american.

    Speaking of race though, I found out at a fairly young age that it is a touchy subject for most people. I remember in 6th grade I had a friend that was black, well she said she was black, and I said she was a nice chocolate brown. Which is how I found out that race is a touchy subject.

    We were in science class, and something happened (escapes me at the moment what it was) but anyway, she stood up and said “I’m black and proud of it” I looked at her and said “Dude”, yes that is how I spoke, “Dude, you are so not black, your more of a chocolatey brown. Black is that burnt toast over there.”

    WORST thing I could have ever said….only at the time I didn’t realize this. Anyway; she got all upset, and said some things and I said “Woah!, I’m sorry but I thought comparing my friend to a nice chocolate, like a hershey kiss which everyone loves instead of burnt toast which everyone hates and normally thows out, was a good thing. My mistake!”
    Which she replied “That’s right noone likes black people we all just get thrown away.”

    And then we both ended up in the principles office. Yep, race can be a touchy subject. . .

  2. I think it’s perfectly fine to write outside your race. ^^ I’ve read a few books that stared hero or heroines that were outside of mine. I have two African American adopted brothers and my family is Caucasian so things such as race sort of passes right over my head.

  3. I’m so happy that you guys feel the way I do. 🙂 And yes Dorthy, race has been, is, and probably will continue to be a touchy subject for some time to come. But I’m praying for a time and world when it isn’t.

  4. I read romance novels for the simple fact that I enjoy them. When I buy a book, it is because it gains my interest to read it, and the race of the author or the characters doesn’t matter to me one bit. Bev, I am looking forward to reading Sinful Surrender and I wish you complete success with it!

  5. Beverly, what an interesting post – and though I write, I never really analyzed in depth how I assign ethnicity to my characters. I think it might be because of where I live – north of Toronto (half an hour from Barrie!), which at various points has been listed as the most multicultural city in the world. Meaning it is utterly commonplace for people of every sort of background to live on the same street, send their kids to the same school, and marry across cultural boundaries. In my son’s first year at preschool, in a class of 18 kids 9 were of mixed background.

    What this meant for my manuscripts is that I throw people of different backgrounds together, but in an incidental way rather than making the different backgrounds be part of the external conflict.

    I’ve also never quite understood the online discussions about placing African American authors in a separate section in the bookstore. I’ve never encountered this practice in a Canadian bookstore.

    I don’t really know what this all means, but I’m glad you raised these points for discussion.

  6. I think it is perfectly practical that you have written outside your race, because you’re absolutely right that for a fun, romantic read set in a historical setting, the people will generally need to be caucasian. It would be much better if history were different and slavery didn’t happen (then or now to blacks, jews, Chinamen, or any one). If it makes you feel better or at least smile, think of all the paranormal writers and let’s hope/assume that they are writing outside their species. 😉

  7. I don’t pay any attention to race in a book. I don’t think it’s that big of deal to write outside of your race. After all, you are writing about people and we are all people.

  8. To one of your last questions first: Yes, I have read a number of books written by black authors and one by a Chinese authors. I have also read books by authors of quite a few different nationalities. I also enjoy traveling. In fact, I love learning or seeing how other people live and think.

    I can see nothing wrong with your writing a historical novel as a black writer. Your view of that period can be just as good as that of white authors, and I think that is the main question. The author has to have researched that period.

    Tomorrow you will see the results of your work on the shelf. I’ve heard that it’s a magical moment for any author. Enjoy it and many more seeing other of your books appear.

  9. Beverly,
    Glad you posted this today. I was surprised when I saw your picture and the book. Not because I didn’t think you could write the story, but because it is so rare. If you are writing English Regency stories and keeping the book accurate, you really don’t have a choice to write outside your race. A white school teacher in Kansas has as much in common with the characters as you do, but no one would think twice if she wrote an English Regency. You both have to do the research to get the information to write about any historical time period. As far as contemporary fiction is concerned, it would be more expected for you to write within your race siting your background and your growing up “black”. In reality you had more of a white childhood.
    I find it interesting hearing all the hype about the new Disney movie The Princess and the Frog. I had seen the adds on TV for a little while and was surprised when they were making a big deal about this being the first black princess movie. Up until that point, it hadn’t really registered. It is a princess story and that is what counts.
    You don’t have to be a vampire or werewolf to write a story about them. What counts is the writer’s abilities as a WRITER, not a black writer or white writer.
    Best of luck with the release of SINFUL SURRENDER.

  10. Wow – fabulous post, Beverley! I don’t think as a black author, you should feel obligated to write black protags. As an author, period, you should write about what moves you, what you feel, and what you choose to write about. And nobody should have to apologize for that. I think your reasoning is sound and valid. I do find it interesting when authors can include characters of different race into historicals and not have them be horrendously mistreated. It’s a fine line between making it believable and making it total fantasy.

    To answer your question about reading black authors and characters: One of my favorite category authors is Brenda Jackson, whose characters are black. She writes what you said: characters who are wealthy, respected, free, and capable of achieving everything the next man can. To me, as long as I can find some way to identify with the characters, I don’t care what color they are. Her characters, for the most part, share my lifestyle (or my wannabe lifestyle, LOL)There’s always something to relate to in her books – whether it’s circumstances or feelings.

    On the recommendation of other bloggers, I also have in my TBR books by Dorothy Koomson and Francis Ray.

    Go you!

  11. Hi Bev – congratulations and I can’t wait to read SINFUL SURRENDER. I totally agree about not wanting all the misery of real life to get in the way of my romance – that’s one of the major appeals of dukes and billionaires.

  12. Beverly, I agree with your reasons for writing outside of your race. As an African American woman who loves historical romance, and reads nothing else, I totally understand. I read to escape reality for a while. That’s why I love to read about Dukes and Earls and heiresses who live in lovely mansions with teams of servants at their beck and call. I love to read about beautiful gowns, and fancy balls and town homes and country estates and people who bowed and curtsied and behaved with decorum. I have never been tempted to read any of Oprah’s book club picks! Too much harsh reality for me!
    So keep writing books like Sinful Surrender! I can’t wait to read it!

  13. An author writing outside her/his race is not an issue with me. Race of the H/H needs to be true to the story theme and it doesn’t matter the race of the author.

  14. I think there should be no barriers to writing. I have read books several books where the protagonist was a different race and loved them.

  15. I loved reading your post… what great insight in to you and you as a writer!

  16. I agree with everyone that this was a very interesting post. Best of luck on your new release.

  17. Hi Beverley,
    I do think it’s ok to write outside of your race because love knows no color. The historical romance authors who write today didn’t live in the times they write, they rely on research, so why should it make a difference if the writer of a regency romance is black or white. At least it doesn’t to me. As long as the book is written well and I can feel a connection with the characters, the love story is emotional and compelling then I am so there. To answer your second question…that’s a little harder, especially with regency romances. England at that time, for all intensive purposes only had one race….different classes, but not a lot of color. If your talking historical romance set in England I would find that harder to believe. If you were talking historical set in the new world…now that’s more believable. So I guess I am saying it depends on the context and setting of the story.

  18. Hi Beverly! Wow now I really wish had done my block hopping on a regular basis over the last week. This is certainly an interesting topic to post about. I am thinking that I might have to go on a rant on my own blog about this.

    I don’t think it should matter what race the author is versus his/her characters. A good story is a good story! Today is the first time that I have seen your picture and you know it never crossed my mind to even wonder what your race is. I don’t question the race of any author. Yes I am a cover lover. It is what initially draws me to a new book while browsing the stores, both physically and (mind just drew a blank on the word I want to use) while browsing the internet. I admit that if the book has a cheesy cover I will pass it up, prime example is the Sookie Stackhouse series. I really dislike the cartoonish covers, think they are ridiculous. And a hot guy on the front, doesn’t matter what race, will grab my eye in a heart beat. But ultimately I buy the book because of the blurb, a friend referral, or a great review. So no Race never plays a part in my choices.

    I read a few books this past year where the heroine was Black/African American. The author was Black as well. I read two or three by the same author before I gave up on her. Her writing did not sit well with me, the dialogue between the characters always seemed childish or like a B rate movie with bad acting. I quit reading the author for that reason and that reason alone. Her content was pretty good I just didn’t like the writing style. I read a few where the heroine was black and the hero was white, yes interracial relationships. I loved them and highly recommended the books on the review group that I was a part of at the time.

    It really irritates me that something so trivial as the color of a persons skin causes so many irrelevant issues. I am looking forward to starting Sinful Surrender today! Lots of luck to you Beverly!!