#ViveLaDifference:  Diversity in Romance

We're all about intersectionality in romance at the PHS, and we're delighted to have Piper Huguley, Vanessa North and Angela Bissell talking about why celebrating and fighting for difference in romance is important! #WeNeedDiverseRomance

Piper Huguley: Authors of Colour and Romance

Within the past few years, you may have noticed an explosion in the use of hashtags such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseRomance. Even if you haven’t noticed, I’m here to offer a few suggestions to hopefully help you understand why expanding your reading and worldview to include more people of color will help the publishing industry, and will also help you as a writer.

1. No matter what you are writing or reading, there are authors of color who have already written it. The best thing that you can do is to read some of them and engage in what is known as “signal boosting.” This means that you should purchase their books and then, at some point in some way, talk about them. It doesn’t matter whether you are sending tweets about your reading (which you should do as an author anyway) or write about them in a blog post, you should boost authors of color.

If you need help looking for some of these authors, you might subscribe/support blogs like Women of Color in Romance, Romance Novels in Color, Girl Have You Read, and Romance in Color and the CIMRWA chapter of RWA. These sites/blogs have lists of books that you can enjoy and signal boost the authors. As the inestimable Beverly Jenkins says, “There is pie enough for us all.” This is not promo. It’s about bringing necessary visibility to all parts of the industry.

2: Romance writers tend to hang within their own groups. Writers can be very insular and introverted. I’m shy too (no laughing out there from the folks that know me. I am!). Still, we all can do better to broaden our circle of friends. I try to set a goal for myself to meet five new people at a conference like RWA or RT. Strike up a conversation in line. Invite a lost looking person to sit at the table with you. Start to follow people on social media.

We need to do better in broadening our circle of friends so that we can come to understand life experiences beyond the ones that we are comfortable with. Some have only one friend of color. When that happens, you need to ask yourself if you are you trying hard enough?. Your “one Black friend” is probably not impressed that she’s the only one that you have. As that friend, it always made me wonder if I was the visible proof that my friend wasn’t bigoted. We all need to do better to understand the increasingly diverse world that our children and their children will grow up in. We can be better.

3: Now, I will reveal the most obvious bonus of enriching your life with diversity. Boosting the work of other writers of color, expanding your circle of friends, both in person and on social media, and opening your mind to new views and ideas ends up making you a better writer! A top goal of any writer should be to always situate yourself in the process of learning, growing, and becoming better. If that is what we all seek to do as writers, then you need to view expanding your world view and experiences as just another part of what it takes to be a better writer with an increased awareness and business sense. There are also numerical reasons for doing this.

At the Nielsen Summit that I attended at last year’s RWA in San Diego, the summit was centered around presenting publishing editors, officials, and authors hard core proof that the audiences who read books are becoming more and more brown. It’s inevitable that these audiences will want books that reflect their experiences of people of color. If you are planning a writing career for the long term, it is in your best interest to be prepared for these audiences. I don’t mean to make this benefit sound self-centered, but all of these suggestions will help you grow as a writer and to be a better person.

As part of a panel that I will be on at Romantic Times, I’m in the process of building a list of books by authors of color that are similar in tone, content, and approach to books by other authors. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments. Good luck on your journey to expand your diverse worldview and improve as a writer.

Piper's latest book, A Champion's Heart, is out now. For more information about her and her writing check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Vanessa North: LGBTQ and Romance

When I was a teenager, I lived for my afternoons at the public library. Not the tiny one in my rural home town, but the big one a few towns over. I read everything I could get my hands on—science fiction, fantasy, romance. I couldn’t get enough. I devoured novels so quickly, my mom had to pull the minivan up to the front door of the library to pick me up with my giant stacks of them.

But the book that rocked my world wasn’t a novel at all—it was a book of one act plays written by teenagers. Nestled among those pages was a play about coming out, and the final stage direction was a kiss. I read that play over and over again—somehow, it reached into all of my sexual confusion and loneliness and shook them up, simply by saying that we can have stories too.

It was a few years before I would eventually come out to a friend as bisexual, but that play stayed with me, prickling under my skin whenever I questioned my identity. And it was decades later before I wrote my own first novels, which were full of sexual fluidity and sex positivity and unapologetic queerness. Even as I started to find my own voice as a writer, I explored queerness as a celebration of my own identity.

Writing the Lake Lovelace series became a watershed event in my career for two reasons—it was my first time writing an entirely queer series, and it was my first time writing an entirely contemporary series. One of the major themes of the series is friendship—and as I wrote the first book, I wanted Ben’s world to look like my own. I didn’t want it to be some boys’ club where everyone was gay and there were no women around. I didn’t want it to be some heteronormative place where everyone was in the closet. I wanted it to be the kind of place where queer people live. And if Ben’s world was to look like mine, there would be transgender characters too, which is how Tina Durham became a part of the backbone of Lake Lovelace.

Tina, the main character of Roller Girl, is a recently divorced transgender woman finding love and friendship on the roller derby track. I wanted to tell a story about female friendships—because those relationships have been profoundly important in my own life—as well as romance between women. Tina’s exuberant and heartfelt journey into a new sport was my way of celebrating the joy of community—both female community and queer community. And with trans women being pioneers of queer rights and feminism, it was only right to me that a trans woman be the star of the show in this book.

Everyone should have an opportunity to see themselves in stories—and to feel the joy I felt reading a one act play about queer kids kissing. Though my real life is enriched by the friendship of many trans and nonbinary friends, I’ve found that finding transgender characters in romance novels isn’t so easy, so I thought I’d finish out this essay with a handful of recommendations of books I’ve loved with trans characters:

Coffee Boy by Austin Chant was one of my favorite books of 2016. A workplace romance between two men who at first couldn’t be more different, it’s funny, sweet, and hot in equal measures.

The Burnt Toast B&B by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz, a contemporary romance about an out of work logger and an injured stuntman is a sweet slow-burn romance with two intense characters in close proximity becoming friends, then lovers.

Not one but TWO trans retellings of Lost Boi by Sassafras Lowrey and Peter Darling by Austin Chant. Barrie’s classic story is ripe for trans retelling and both authors do an amazing job—I can’t pick a favorite.

In YA, Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl is a wonderful story about a young trans woman coming of age and falling in love, and it was written by a trans woman. Bonus: the cover features a gorgeous trans model.

And in side character love: K.J. Charles' Society of Gentlemen series features a prominent trans side character, as does C. B. Lee’s wonderful YA romp, Not Your Sidekick (and rumor has it the MC of the second book in Lee’s series will be trans! I’m in!)

Vanessa's Roller Girl is out now. For more information about her and her writing check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram.

Angela Bissell: Disability and Romance

First up, a huge congratulations to The Pink Heart Society on the launch of their refurbished site. I know it’s going to be fabulous and I can’t wait to see it! Second, a very warm thank you to PHS for inviting me to chat a bit about my book, Defying Her Billionaire Protector, and a subject that ties in nicely--celebrating diversity in romance.

I have to start by saying that I’d never intended to write a romance with a paraplegic heroine. When my first book, Surrendering to the Vengeful Italian, was bought by Harlequin Presents (Mills & Boon Modern/Sexy), my acquiring editor asked if I had considered writing a connected story for one of the secondary characters, Marietta (the hero’s sister), who was an incomplete paraplegic resulting from a spinal cord injury sustained in her teens.

At first, the idea of writing a passionate love story featuring a paraplegic heroine seemed like one for the too-hard basket, not because I didn’t love Marietta to bits as a character and a strong, beautiful, inspiring woman, but because I was terribly afraid I wouldn’t do her justice. I mean, what did I know about life with a spinal cord injury? Yes, as writers we use our imaginations to plunge our characters into all sorts of situations we’ve never experienced ourselves, but this seemed like a serious issue to tackle and given it would be only the second book I’d ever completed, I honestly wasn’t sure if I could do it.

However, not wanting to shy from a challenge, and of course wanting to impress my new publisher, I told my editor I would do some research and let her know if I felt confident enough to take on the project.

I went home and immediately read four autobiographies by four amazing, courageous women, all of whom have suffered spinal cord injuries and permanent paralysis, and I was so inspired by their stories, which moved me at times to both tears and laughter, that I knew straight away I wanted to write Marietta’s story. I’m going to take the time to list those books here, because if ever you need a reminder of the strength of the human spirit to overcome tragedy and loss, these make for a great read!

Never Give In, Never Give Up by Carlana Stone Lawson

Never Tell Me Never by Janine Shepherd

My Body Politic: A Memoir by Simi Linton

If You Fall…It’s A New Beginning by Karen Darke

Something else happened, too, when I was in that research phase. A few weeks after the conversation with my editor, my husband and I went to California to meet up with some very dear friends from the UK for a long-planned holiday.

One of those friends, Lisa, has multiple sclerosis and has, over the years, gradually lost the function of her legs and is now reliant on a wheelchair for mobility. My husband urged me to talk with Lisa about “life in a wheelchair”, but at first I was reluctant. Not because I didn’t think she could offer some valuable insights, but rather because she’s an amazing woman who simply gets on with life and doesn’t like to focus on her disability, so I wasn’t sure how she’d react to me digging and probing and asking a hundred and one potentially annoying questions!

As it turned out, Lisa was more than happy to share her experiences and challenges with me and she was excited about the book. During that holiday, we sat on loungers in the Californian sun drinking wine and talking and plotting for many hours. I even spent some time in Lisa’s wheelchair. Her husband created an indoor/outdoor obstacle course for me to navigate, and Lisa set me tasks to complete, such as making tea for four people in a kitchen NOT designed for wheelchair users. Two bruised shins and a fair bit of swearing later, I had a solid appreciation for just a few of the challenges Lisa faces on a daily basis. By that stage, I’d well and truly made up my mind. I wanted to write Marietta’s story—and I wanted to dedicate the book to my dear friend Lisa.

I was nervous to write Marietta’s story but I’m so glad I did. No matter how many books I write and how many characters I fall in love with, she’ll always hold a special place in my heart. As a category-length romance, the sole focus of the story is the developing relationship between the hero and heroine, so ultimately it’s her story of finding love, not a story about her disability, but her paraplegia is part of who she is and one of the things that’s made her so courageous and resilient and strong. And that’s what I love about romance. It reminds us that love is for everyone. No matter how scarred or flawed we think we are, there’ll always be someone out there who sees the true beauty inside us.

Angela's latest book, Defying Her Billionaire Protector, is out now. For more information about her and her writing check out her website and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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