Guest Post

Guest Post: Jenn LeBlanc on Diversity in Romance

The Trouble With Grace Jenn LeBlanc

Hello all! Thank you for stopping by to visit me here at EverAfter! I’m really excited to share my two newest erotic romance novels with the world. The Trouble with Grace and The Spare and the Heir is a duet within a larger five-part series, Lords of Time, which is centered on a family in late Victorian England. The illustrated versions are available exclusively on iBooks. (While you can read the duet without having read the first three books, just know there’s an overarching time travel element and two characters, Francine and Lulu, are both from the 21st century.)

Set in the 1880s, the love story in the duet centers on Calder and Quinn, two men who long to be together in a world that tears them apart. When Quinn marries the beautiful Celeste to save her life, the two of them must convince Calder that their relationship is platonic.

The reason my two newest books aren’t published as a single book is because they are truly two separate stories with two completely separate happily ever afters, or more correctly, a happily for now for Celeste in The Trouble With Grace, and a happily ever after for all three of them – Celeste, Calder, and Quinn – in The Spare and The Heir. I’m in love with these characters and their story. Their shared journey is one of the most intricate and powerful stories I’ve had the pleasure of telling and I can’t wait to hear from readers!

Let’s start with Celeste. Celeste is autochorissexual, which is a subset of asexuality. Technically she’s gray asexual, or grace. She doesn’t want or need a physical partner, but she does enjoy intimacy and her sexuality in her own way.

Celeste is also a woman of color born to a family in the peerage. Her grandfather was the second son of Marquess. Since his older brother would ascend to the title, he was superfluous in the family and traveled, ultimately marrying a woman from Capri. They were happy together until his older brother died and he was necessarily recalled to England to take up the family title of Marquess of Dunphreshire.

There were many people who married women outside of England, and many of them returned without them, as if the marriage never existed. To her grandfather’s credit, he refused to abandon his wife, bringing her back to England with him. They lived a fairly reclusive life because his marriage to someone of unacceptable breeding meaning she wasn’t accepted by the peers.

Celeste’s grandparents had several children, the oldest of which was Celeste’s father. As a man who had a title and presented as white, he was able to marry a prominent woman of wealth. [She isn’t named beyond her mother]

She was, however, a racist and when her first daughter, Celeste, was born with pigment in her skin she was horrified and refused her husband again. She did have three more children, passing them off as his own, though he certainly knew the truth of it.

Celeste had to find a man to marry and somewhere to live because once she was of marriageable age her mother wanted her out of her house so that her other daughters wouldn’t be tarnished by the constant visual reminder of their father’s heritage. These facts are important to who Celeste is as a person, the fact that she’s mixed race with dark skin isn’t something that can be glossed over or ignored for this story, this is Victorian England, she was treated differently by many simply for the way she looks. I wanted to be sure that was understood within the story, she is every bit a lady and a woman of the peerage, save the color of her skin.

Calder is another one of my main characters. I’ve had running around in my head for about seven years. He is gay and has always been gay from the moment he entered my mind and walked onto the page. While I never discussed his sexuality in any of the previous books his character has always been gay. Not questioning or curious, but gay. Quinn is bisexual, clearly bisexual. He appreciates both men and women. He loves Calder for who he is, he loves Celeste for who she is. He’s truly torn between the life he can lead in the public with her and the one he wants to lead with Calder but can’t.

This isn’t a simple story with a simple solution. While Quinn doesn’t necessarily need to marry as a second son, Calder does. He’s the heir to the Duke of St. Cyr. He will take the rein of the title and be expected to marry and get the next heir off his wife. It’s something he wants for…but not with a woman. He wants the impossible, to spend his life with Quinn.

So while the story of Celeste, Calder, and Quinn very much deals with the complexities of sexuality and skin color in a time where these things were much less acceptable than they are today, I don’t define my characters by these aspects—it’s part of who they are but it isn’t their sole definition. It’s when skin color or sexuality is the entire definition of a character that you end up with a stereotype and problematic storytelling. Using stereotypes for characters is lazy and can be harmful to the respective communities and amounts to exploitation of people by proliferating stereotypes instead of writing fully fleshed out characters based on more than the color of their skin or the people they love.

As writers, we write outside our experience constantly. It’s simply an inherent part of our job. When writing diversely we need to be mindful of harmful stereotypes. We need to be mindful of things that could harm the communities we write stories for and about. We need to be conscious of storylines and characterizations that proliferate those harmful stereotypes. Basically we need to do the work.

Diversity is something I am very passionate about as a writer, because it’s part of my life and always has been. I didn’t write these books with the intent of making a statement about diversity. I wrote these books with the intent of sharing the lives of these three characters who were so very strong and beautiful in my mind. The fact the cast is so diverse is simply the way it worked out—but isn’t that how life is? Shouldn’t our literature reflect the reality of the landscape we live in?

We should be telling stories that reflect the diversity of the world we live in, and the biggest part of that as a white woman writing diverse characters is being sure that the characters I write are not stereotypes. I want to write, and do write, fully realized characters with depth and passion.

I am conscious of my work now in a way I’ve never been. I pay attention to the world around me in a way I never have. It’s because people have spoken up and brought attention to so many issues in publishing and I’m doing my very best to listen. Publishing has a lot of work to do in the realm of diversity. Publishing the voices of diverse people as well as diverse stories that respect the communities they include.

As a pantser my writing is primarily character driven instead of plot driven. I don’t mold my characters to a specific storyline, but rather my characters dictate their storyline. I think this is part of what makes my storytelling successful. I have to know these people intimately to write a character driven story, they have to be fully realized personalities in my head. Their behaviors and reactions are true to who they are, they’re never forced or a convenient plot device.

My writing process is pretty organic. I cannot write a story before its time. By that I mean that my characters have to start talking to me. I absorb information while I read and research within the time period I’m writing and somehow this information congeals in my head to become the basis for the characters I’ll write about. This duet was born from research on John Singer Sargent, Emperor Ashoka and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, among other things.

I read and research and assimilate information and somehow my characters are born. I have no idea how they’ll get to their happily ever after, but I trust that, somehow, they will. Once the book is finished and sent off to my beta readers and editors I start looking at the manuscript to find the most visual aspects for the photographs. The imagery, for me, is an important part of the process. Because I’m a visual storyteller as much as a writer I love that I can photograph aspects of the story to weave together with the words. While both aspects stand alone, I present them as a single work because eBooks are such an amazing digital medium they offer the perfect opportunity to present illustrated romances with very little additional expense for printing—though the print versions are terribly pretty.

I’m excited about these books for a lot of reasons, but most of all, I’m excited to tell the stories of these three people that I have come to love dearly. Calder and Quinn and Celeste are very dear to me now. I hope you adore them as much as I do.

Jenn LeBlancAbout Jenn LeBlanc

Born and raised in beautiful Colorado and never wanting to leave–very nearly with a camera in hand–I’m currently on an extended vacation to Los Angeles.

I started my own family, went to college, started a business objectifying all the beautiful people and tried to get used to humidity wrecking havoc with my hair. Texting complete conversations using only RuPaul’s Drag Race gifs, being a member of Romance Writers of America and totally beating the daylights out of a ninja (with a camera in hand of course) are my prized talents.

Spending my days in parenting chat rooms I got highly adept with one-handed typing and I can still type just about as fast with one hand as I can with two. It’s a great talent to have when engrossed in a scene and in need of a hit of caffeine.

I live and thrive off chaos and the constant flow of the creative process. I wore shorts and flip-flops year-round in Colorado–much to the chagrin of my friends and family and once I finished my first novel I quickly remembered: I was born a photographer.

From the realization that someone ELSE would be shooting the cover of MY book my control-freak took over. What started as an easy cover shoot ballooned into this ground-breaking new kind of media, designed specifically for digital book readers: The Illustrated Romance.

The images from my book started a ruckus, and from there #StudioSmexy was born. I’ve since shot over 1,000 romance novel covers and currently shoot custom images for very special clients.

You can find me on Twitter and Facebook sharing eye candy (NSFW) and being a total rock star.

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