I got the idea for the first scene of my second book, The Proposal, while watching the 2016 Olympics. There was an epidemic of public proposals that summer, which I—even though I love to be the center of attention—truly loathe. I watched a replay of yet another poor woman who said yes with a grimace on her face (she’d just gotten a silver medal for diving! let her have her moment!), and thought, “I wonder what would happen if she said no? That sounds like a fun beginning to a romance novel.” I wrote a quick first scene and sent it to my writing group, sketched up a short outline to send to my agent, and The Proposal was born.
I didn’t actually start writing the book until the spring of 2017. By then, America was a different place than it had been in the summer of 2016, and I was a different person than I had been when I drafted the synopsis for the book. I thought I could ignore this. It was easy to do in the first few scenes: Nik says no to her actor boyfriend in front of 45,000 people at Dodger Stadium; some strangers a few rows back leap in to get her away from a camera crew and out of the stadium; they deliver her to her friends, at a bar elsewhere in L.A., and all proceed to get drunk. The Proposal is a romantic comedy about Nik and Carlos, a character from my first book, who—along with his sister—rescues Nik after the botched proposal, and I had all sorts of plans about how their relationship would proceed from that first meeting. Fun, lighthearted, lots of Los Angeles tacos, etc. etc.
But when I wrote the next few scenes, the story became a very different one. I hadn’t previously devoted enough thought to what would happen to a woman in America today who said no to a very public proposal, especially if the man who had proposed to her was an actor, especially if he was a white man and she was a Black woman. Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I realized the fun, low-stakes romance I’d outlined wouldn’t work anymore. Because in spring 2017, as I wrote this book, I knew something about this woman I hadn’t thought through in fall 2016, when I’d made that outline. I now knew: she would be harassed; she would be threatened; she would get tweets and emails and messages anywhere she could get messages that called her names. She would be afraid. She would be angry. Maybe even as angry as I was, that spring and summer of 2017.
Because wow, was I angry then. (I’m glad I didn’t know how much angrier I’d be now.) I couldn’t stop thinking about how badly women are treated in America, especially Black women. And that knowledge of how we have been treated, are treated, and would continue to be treated came out as I crafted Nik’s story.
When I really thought about what Nik would go through after she said no, it changed a lot about the story, and helped me figure out who she was as a person. Nik was confident and fearless enough to say no to a proposal with tens of thousands of people watching, but that strength wouldn’t shield her from feeling the abuse she suffered in the wake of these events. I knew she would try to make light of what was happening to her, but she would also be furious and want to fight back. How would she do that? Where would her fight lead? How would she act when she accidentally showed Carlos how vulnerable she felt? Those are some of the many questions I asked myself as I tore up the middle of my outline and figured out Nik’s story. (Here’s what I realized: she would want to punch things.)
I particularly struggled with one scene. It was on a Monday, two days after the proposal, the day everyone figured out who Nik was, and the surge of harassment—from her now ex-boyfriend and the entire internet—hit her. That day, she leaves her apartment and then realizes she’s scared to go back home. The whole time I wrote the scene, I second-guessed myself about her fear. Was this something legitimate to be scared about? Would people think she was making a big deal over nothing? Was I making a big deal over nothing?
But I thought of small and large things throughout my life that men had done that scared me, almost all of which made me doubt myself and my fear. I thought of the many other women I’d talked to who had similar stories and laughed off their valid fears, or pretended them away. And I reminded myself of all of the reasons women had to be afraid, and got angry at the world for making me ashamed of being afraid. I let Nik have her fear. But I didn’t want the book to be about her being afraid; even though she recognized that fear, I didn’t want it to take over her life. And I didn’t want it to be just about her rage either; I wanted her to have a hell of a lot of fun too. So I figured out how she would push through the fear and the anger, how she would find joy, and laughter, and love (and tacos) afterward. There’s a lot more anger in this book than when I initially conceived of it, but the story would have never come together the way it did if I hadn’t let myself—and Nik—embrace that anger. But there’s a lot more triumph in this book too. Because what I needed that spring and summer of 2017, and what I continue to need, this fall of 2018, is hope that we can go on, we can fight on, and that the love we have for people in our lives, and the love they have for us, matters. That’s the story I told myself as I wrote this book, and the story that at my core, I believe, even on the days it’s hard to believe that.
The Puzzle, the Solution is a Popula column in which writers talk about story problems, and story solutions.