By Lindsey Wojcik
While some feared the rise of e-books would contribute to the downfall of publishing as the industry once knew it, Jenn LeBlanc recognized the popularity of e-books as an opportunity to combine two of her passions: photography and writing. Through e-books, the documentary photographer turned romance-cover photographer turned historical romance writer has created a genre of her own—the illustrated romance.
Designed specifically with the digital book reader in mind, the illustrated romance brings the book’s cast of characters to life on the page or screen. LeBlanc has incorporated illustrations in her latest series Lords of Time, which follows love affairs in Victorian-era England. The illustrated versions of The Trouble with Grace and The Spare and The Heir, books four and five in the series, will be released on Sept. 13 via iBooks. A limited print edition will be available exclusively at the romance-only The Ripped Bodice bookstore, based in Culver City, Calif., where LeBlanc will celebrate the release of the books with the cast on Sept. 17.
Ahead of the release of books four and five, LeBlanc set aside some time to answer questions about the research involved in writing historical romance, the differences between writing and illustrating a book, and the secret to capturing an alluring romance cover.
Lindsey Wojcik: What made you want to pursue writing, specifically historical romance?
Jenn LeBlanc: I was born to be a storyteller, both visually and in words. I absolutely adore people and what makes them who they are, and I'm fascinated by what may bring two people together. I grew up watching the BBC with my mother and always loved the period dramas with their sweeping landscapes and beautiful dresses. What I love about writing stories set in the Victorian era specifically is that there are distinct rules about etiquette and logistics that you have to take into consideration when putting the story together. Technology as we know it simply didn't exist. There were no cell phones, and in most cases, no phones at all, no cars, no rapid transit, and it could take months to travel or send messages. I need to factor in all these restrictions and complexities when I write my stories, which makes the process even more satisfying. The Victorian era is also not at all what it seems on the surface—many think the people were buttoned up and repressed, when in fact they were quite the opposite.
LW: What kind of research goes into outlining and writing historical romance novels?
JL: There's an inordinate amount of research required for a good historical novel. You not only need to research the time period in general but also specific incidents that will color the specific point in time in which the story is set. The research required for my latest novels included a great deal of information on India, timetables for trains and ocean steamers, the Paris Opera, a particular bill that was passed in England in August of 1885, and quite a few other things. I also researched Ashoka, who was an Emperor in India from 268-232 BCE. He changed the path of India in some amazing ways.
LW: What is your writing process like? How has it evolved over time?
JL: I am a panster, which means my stories are character driven. My process takes a lot of time in the planning stages simply getting to know the people who will be in the book. My ideas come from all sorts of sources. Sometimes I'm not even aware something will influence a character until much later. It's a very organic style of writing, but it makes it much more difficult to work on specific deadlines.
LW: What inspired your latest series Lords of Time?
JL: There are quite a few things that inspired the series. The way women were treated in the Victorian era and that juxtaposition with our modern world. You may be surprised how little has changed. The other main factor was the clothing. 1885 was the era of bustles and boots and beautifully detailed garments. The series begins in 1880, and the latest novel takes place in 1885, when the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was passed. It included a list of provisions specifically written to protect women and children. Just before it was sent to vote, a man by the name of Henry Labouchere added another provision criminalizing homosexuality. This is the amendment that Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under, and it was in effect for more than 80 years.
LW: What themes or character developments did you want to explore in your two latest installments of the series, The Trouble with Grace and The Spare and The Heir?
JL: Calder, one of the heroes, has been a part of the series since its inception. He's been running around in my head for more than seven years, and his story was of the utmost importance to me. As a gay man in Victorian England, he could face a great deal of issues by simply being alive. As a man of the peerage (he's the heir to a Duke), there was also no possible way for him to get around marriage. Calder is one of the most brave and true heroes I've ever had the honor of knowing. He puts everyone before himself, even to his own detriment at times. I wanted to give him his own happily ever after while showing the reality of being a gay man not just in Victorian England, but today as well. Again, as with the themes of women, we think we've come so far, but in so many ways, we really haven't come that far at all.
LW: How do you define illustrated romance and what inspired you to illustrate your novels?
JL: Illustrated romances are stories told not just with words but also with images. I was inspired to illustrate my novels when I saw the birth of e-books, and I recognized that with such a fantastic medium, it would be easy to create illustrated books without any significant production expenses. Since I'm a photographer, I can do all of the imagery myself, which not very many people are able to do. When the first iPad was introduced, I knew this was something I wanted to explore. It also fit very well with the Victorian era, as many novels were serialized and illustrated at the time. It just seemed like the perfect time to try something new.
LW: How is the process of illustrating your novels different from the writing process?
JL: It's quite extensive. After the novel is finished and headed for edits, I start going through scene-by-scene to pick out the most visual moments that I feel really lend to telling the story. I compile a shot list, which must be organized by costume, setting, hairstyle, the amount of dress/undress, props needed, and lighting setup. It's a completely different art form compared to writing, and there's quite a bit that goes into overall production.
LW: What's #StudioSmexy and what's the mission behind it?
JL: My primary mission with Studio Smexy is simply to provide beautiful imagery for romance novel covers. I started out with a stock site and focused on filling content gaps in the cover photography industry, including interracial romance, gay and lesbian romance, and historically accurate costuming, with images that are intimate, intense, and passionate. It grew much bigger than I expected, but it also took away from my writing. I've pared back, but am still dedicated to shooting covers with an eye for diversity in romance. I never expected to find myself in this field of photography, but I absolutely adore the work I do.
LW: You've shot more than 1,000 romance novel covers. What's the key to a creating an enticing cover image?
JL: Intimacy. There are a number of factors that I take into account when it comes to the creation of an image, but at the very core of each and every image I create is a level of intimacy that goes beyond what we're accustomed to seeing. It isn't about how clothed or unclothed the models are, or even whether or not the clothes are appropriate. If you're nitpicking the details of the image, I've already failed in my mission. My mission is to make you feel, not see.
LW: What's your advice to aspiring writers and photographers alike?
JL: Simply to create every single day. Challenge yourself. If you're a photographer, you need to be able to see, and you do so by making images constantly. If you're a writer, you need to be able to write convincingly, and you learn to do so by writing.