Romance author Chanel Cleeton was unsure whether she’d ever write again after finishing her latest series, Wild Aces. The only things that inspired her were the stories she had grown up hearing about her grandparents’ flight from Cuba, and how they had buried their prized possessions in the backyard the night before they left the island for America. But as Cleeton began work on a plot inspired by her family history, she realized the story would need to be a different genre entirely in order to do it justice.
My favorite part of writing is the adventure my characters take me on as their story emerges. When I begin working on a book, it’s that adventure I look forward to most, and while I usually have a kernel of an idea to guide me, a rough sketch of a plot and of my characters, the heart of the story is often unknown to me until I sit down at my computer and discover where the story will take me. That sense of adventure fuels my passion for writing, making it exciting and challenging while pushing me to grow as a writer, explore new boundaries and learn new things about myself.
In the summer of 2016, I was at a crossroads in my career. I had finished writing the final book in my Wild Aces series, and while I had some romance ideas rattling around in my mind, nothing was really jumping out at me. I liked the characters in the story I was working on well enough, but I didn’t love them like I wanted to. And as a writer, when you spend months working on a book and exploring your characters, it’s difficult when you don’t feel that connection. To be honest, although I didn’t admit this to anyone, I was at a point where I wasn’t sure if I would keep writing—and that was scary. I didn’t know what my next book would be or if I would have another publisher deal. And honestly, it was a familiar feeling. It wasn’t the first time I had felt that way, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But it did inspire me to step outside my comfort zone and write something different, something a little bit scary.
Because I did have an idea that had taken hold. But it wasn’t a romance novel like my earlier books. It was based on my family’s history in Cuba, based on my own attempt to better understand my Cuban identity, to explore an island I was desperate to visit yet had only ever experienced through my grandparents’ memories. It was inspired by a family story told to me by my father—of the night before they left Cuba, when my grandparents snuck out to their backyard and buried their most prized possessions, knowing they would be forced to leave them behind when they fled the country. That story stuck with me for weeks, posing the question that inspired Next Year in Havana. If you were forced to leave your home, and you had a box in which to place your most cherished items, what would you save for the day you would return?
I knew that the heart of the book would be about two women, that they would be bound by a powerful legacy, and because I am a hopeless romantic, I knew that each woman would have a great love, a man who would challenge them—epic love stories set against the backdrop of revolution and its aftermath. But the focus wasn’t the romances. It was equal parts a love letter to Cuba, then and now, and a story of the courage and strength of these two women and their family and friends.
In the beginning, the scope of the novel was daunting and took me into uncharted territory. Working with dual timelines was often like fighting a Rubik’s Cube, and writing in two distinct time periods brought its own set of challenges. But as soon as I dove into the story, as soon as I met my characters, I fell in love with them, with the experience and with the journey they took me on. And when I found myself wading in murky waters and didn’t know the best way to proceed, it was the lessons I’d learned writing romance that guided my way as I focused on what fueled the story, the human elements of war and political upheaval.
When I began writing Next Year in Havana, I wasn’t sure what would come next or where this journey would take me. Was this move away from romance a one-time thing or a more permanent one? But as with my writing, my characters answered that question for me. As soon as I introduced one of my heroine’s sisters and discovered her fascinating background, I knew I had to write her story. And then another book came, with more characters demanding their stories be told. And I’m loving the challenge that this adventure presents as I move into a new genre, learning new things and incorporating the elements that have filled the heart of my previous books—love, sacrifice, family—in my forthcoming women’s fiction titles. I can’t wait to share this next chapter with my readers and am so grateful to everyone who is joining me on this new adventure.
Author photo by Chris Malpass