Thursday, August 18, 2016

About the journey...


Helen DePrima

Growing up in my grandparents’ home, I devoured the old novels my mother loved, even some from my grandmother’s girlhood, a whole generation out of sync with other girls my age. I never thought of these as romances, simply as wonderful tales of challenges and steadfast devotion. One of my favorite authors was (and still is) Gene Stratton-Porter, an avid naturalist and nature photographer writing in the early 20th century. Her novels took place for the most part in Indiana a few hours north of my home in Kentucky where I grew up exploring the fields and woods surrounding my grandfather’s farm. I treasure my first editions and love to think of my mother and aunt dreaming over the love stories as I did. And I often wonder if reveling in books such as Laddie, The Harvester, Freckles and Girl of the Limberlost led me to rehabilitating orphaned and injured wildlife.

 My all-time favorite “romance” isn’t regarded as such: The Virginian by

Owen Wister written in 1902. Generally considered the first great Western novel, its core plot line tells of a dashing cowboy courting a prim schoolmarm from the East, probably why I became fascinated with all things Western. Imagine the thrill I felt riding the same range as a teenager spending summers on the Colorado-Wyoming border. Many years later I learned that the cowboy and his sweetheart had real-life counterparts; the settings and action described mirror historical events in southern Wyoming.



Liz Flaherty
Very often, journeys are as much fun as destinations. I love all manner of travel, and the getting there is nearly always as great as the being there. But occasionally, the destination is all you want a destination to be. I loved my day job (the journey) until the day I left it (the destination.) Five and a half years into retirement, I’m still excited every single day the alarm clock doesn’t go off.  
So Helen and I were thinking about our journey to writing romance.

It was the 1960s. I was in high school and the book was called The Silver Cord. I don’t remember that much about the story, although I read it several times, but it was about a young woman whose new husband’s mother—whom he adored—was a horrible person whose apron strings gave the book its title. I’ve tried to look the book up and can’t find anything about it. It’s too bad, because that’s when I decided that the Jo March I’d always known was my true identity was going to write romance.

I wanted to write category romance, though, and at that time Harlequin was the only player in the game—at least that I knew of—and everyone who wrote Harlequins was British or Australian. But then one day my girlfriend called and said, “You’ve got to read this book.” It was No Quarter Asked by Janet Dailey, an American writer who changed everything. Her legacy is complicated, but nothing that happened later changes what she did for Americans writing romance in the beginning.

Time marched on. For decades. I read Nora Roberts and Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Betty Neels
and our own Muriel Jensen and Roz Denny Fox and enough Betty Neels books that I should be qualified to be a nurse in the Netherlands. I loved nurse books. Exotic location books. Harlequin American books.

I remember arguing vociferously that romances weren’t written to a formula. The only thing formulaic, I insisted, was the happy ending. I still believe that. Each publisher, line, and imprint has its own guidelines, but our voices are not silenced within them.

Back to journeys. The one to publication was lovely. I read at least hundreds of romances and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were thousands. And I wrote them. In longhand, on an electric typewriter—I think I was on my third computer by the time I sold my first book. Goodness knows how many manuscripts there were—I didn’t keep count of either them or the rejection slips that hit my mailbox like clockwork. Which was a very good thing, because I might have given up.

And what a loss that would have been. Because being a published author, even if you never get the multiple-books-a-year career you lust after, is a really good place to spend your time. Even when you reach that destination, the journey continues.

55 comments:

  1. Good morning Liz, I'm sooooo laughing as your early reading habits sound so much like mine. I skipped past Nancy Drew and went right to Mom's books. She loved romance and biographies and historical fiction. And when I started to write, I was involved in reading Janet Daley's books set in each of the 50 states. I loved her books. How fun to know your reading past. Makes me feel much better about mine. LOL

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    1. Hi Sandra -- Because going to the library meant a trip into town, books already on hand were my go-to reading. Besides the lovely stories i mentioned, I also ate my way through novels way above my age level such as novels by Frank Yerby and histories like The Nile and The Mediterranean. I fell greatly blessed that I have been able to travel to many of the places I read about such as Egypt, Israel, Greece and other countries around the Med.

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    2. Hi, Sandra--I read Nancy Drew, too, and the Hardy Boys. And everything my mom brought home from the library (after I finished my own stack.) At my grandparents' home, there was a bookcase in the corner of the living room full of the books my aunt bought through a book club. Oh, the authors I met there!

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  2. Helen and Liz, how I love this post. All these influences and lovely stories that are part of our brains and creative spiritual chord...I would be lost without all of YOU!

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    1. Hi Catherine -- I can't imagine how anyone who doesn't grow up an avid reader can later write for others' pleasure. My grandmother was sure I'd have a withered arm from always having a book tucked under it. I even read in the shade of a huge oak, stretched out along my horse's back on summer afternoons.

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    2. I love what you said there, Catherine, about a "creative spiritual chord." It definitely exists, doesn't it?

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  3. I have the book Girl of the Limberlost. I've not read it. I need to go unbury it and put it on the top of the pile.

    I've heard that there was a time when Harlequins had no American authors. I'd love to know more.

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    1. I don't know if I ever heard the story of how American authors--and maybe Canadian ones, too? I'm not sure.--came into the industry, but I'm really glad they did.

      Do read the Girl of the Limberlost. It's a lovely story. And a lovely area--about an hour from my house.

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    2. Hi Pamela -- A Girl of the Limberlost is a wonderful story, one I've reread dozens of times since I first discovered it in my grandmother's bookshelf. Although it's very much a stand-alone novel, you should try to read Freckles first, a lead-in story and equally absorbing.

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  4. Hello ladies! Helen, what great books! I'm going to have to go back and reread some of them. I loved the older books.
    Liz, it was Janet Dailey's Americana series that inspired me to be a writer. I totally agree with you. Her legacy may be a little tarnished, but I loved traveling through the US with her. I still have all her books and they hold a special place on my bookshelf.

    And I'm so grateful that you both never gave up! What a great post!

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    1. Thanks, LeAnne. I think authors who were inspired by Ms. Dailey are as important a part of her legacy as anything else. I hate that it happened, but am still grateful to her for knocking down doors for the rest of us.

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  5. Well, there's proof. We are all one! Helen, I LOVED The Virginian and was so impressed when the heroine rescued the hero. The author was a woman before her time. Though I lived in the heart of the city, I loved westerns and went to the movies with my dad every Friday night because my mother worked. We had a blast! I saw every western and every WWII movie ever made. I could save the fort from Apaches or invade Normandy myself because I'd seen it done so often. And, Liz, I had precisely the same reading path as you and Sandra, too. I submitted to the old Harlequins - I still have the rejection letter because it was really sweet but told me I wasn't quite on target. Because of kids and life I didn't submit again until Janet Dailey got H to realize American women could write them, too. I loved Nora Roberts and Kathleen Gilles Seidel. Also Glenna Finley. I can't count the hours of substantive reading and HEA they've given me. Sorry, this is so long, but you both struck a chord!

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    1. I felt bad because I couldn't name everybody who influenced, but that line would be soooo long! I hate to admit I've never read The Virginian (although I've lusted over James Drury for many years), but Zane Grey was in my preferred reading and I grew up on John Wayne movies.

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    2. Hi Muriel -- If there's anything better than a strong female writer, it's male novelist who makes his heroine a strong woman; a man wrote The Virginian, and in 1902! He picked the the right setting too -- or rather it picked him: Wyoming gave women the vote in 1867.

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    3. Oops! Got Owen Wister mixed up with Gene Stratton-Porter, who I always thought was a man, because of the way Gene is spelled. Sorry. It's an old brain. But even better that a man saw a woman's abilities. Great post, both of you.

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  6. Helen, Girl of The Limberlost is one of my all time favorite books. I also read all of Gene Stratton Porter and others in that same era. Also Frank Yerby. My sister and I devoured books and our parents encouraged us to go to the library twice a week. And Liz, I'm humbled that you listed me with some of the really wonderful Harlequin writers like Muriel and Betty Neels. I actually remember Nora Roberts once telling a group that when she first sent a book to Harlequin they told her they had their "American" writer and it was Janet Dailey. It's too bad those two wonderful writers had such a problem with each other after they both wrote so many fantastic stories. I'm still like a kid in a candy store when I go to a book store or library. Need more hours in the day to read all of the new writers I'm discovering, too.

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    1. You belong in that list, Roz! And I'm the same way in a bookstore. I recently started working at the library (a bucket list thing...) and would love to spend more time just browsing in the stacks, but since they hired me, they expect me to work! :-)

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    2. Hi Roz -- Ah, libraries! When I was a child, the library in our little town near Louisville was a small shotgun house on a side street: one room in front for the books with the librarian living in the rear of the house. My grandmother wrote the librarian a note giving me permission to check out any book, not just those from the children's shelves. The library had a small front verandah where I would sit with my newest treasures and read until my grandfather picked me up after filling his order at the feed store.

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  7. Thank you for sharing your journeys with us, Liz and Helen! As an aside, it was Roz's and Pamela's books (which were given to me by my editor to introduce me to the series) that helped me decide to write for Heartwarming!

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    1. That's nice! I was trying to remember whose Heartwarming book I read first, and can't. I recall a reprint by Cheryl St. John.

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  8. Hi Kate -- Congratulations for being nominated for an award -- well done!

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  9. I LOVE The Harvester! I remember staying up all night to finish it...the second time I read it. I think I've read all of Gene Stratton Porter's novels, but not the nature books. The library was always my favorite place, as a kid. Ours was in a wonderful old building, with a circular stairway in a sort-of tower, that led up to the children's section. I miss that. Amazon and Kindle books are convenient, but not the same experience at all!

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    1. Welcome -- glad you're enjoying our recollections. For me, the Harvester is Gene Stratton-Porter's best hero.

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    2. I always think of libraries as the ultimate in safe places. I know that's probably wishful thinking. I started listening to A Daughter of the Land on audio while I was walking this morning. It had been so long since I'd read it, but the words were still familiar.

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  10. Helen, I meant to ask if you'd also read Grace Livingston Hill at the same time as Gene Stratton Porter. They didn't write fast enough for me. I loved both of them as writers.

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    1. Roz, have you ever read any of Elizabeth Oglivie's Bennett's Island books? She started writing in the later '30's and continued the series up through the '90's -- three generations of the Bennett family off the Maine coast. She wrote stand-alones too, but I loved the Bennett books best.

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    2. Oh, me, too, Helen! Bennett's Island is the reason I have an island off Maine in my book, The Girls of Tonsil Lake.

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    3. I haven't read Elizabeth Oglivie---must find.

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    4. I'll bet you'll love them, Roz. They're on Amazon with lovely new covers. Makes me yearn for a place I've never been just thinking about those books! They stay in my mind the whole time I'm reading or writing my Christmas Town stories.

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  11. Welcome -- glad you've enjoyed our recollections. I think the Harvester is my favorite of all Gene Stratton-Porter's heroes.

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  12. I really appreciated this post. Thank you for telling us about your early reading affinities. How interesting. I'm actually late to romance reading, having begun only a few years ago with Harlequin Heartwarming books. They really appealed to me and it's where I got my start. Before that I read a lot of true crime. I'm enjoying romance reading now so much. Sorry I missed out on it for so long.

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    1. Hi, Laurie! You'll always have something to read, though. Have you gone back and read any old ones to gauge the evolution of the industry?

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    2. Hi Liz!! Do you mean any old Heartwarming books or others? I own a few Betty Neels books that I'd like to get to because they sounded like something I'd like. Any recommendations??

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    3. I meant any old romances, Harlequin and otherwise. Muriel's and Roz's are lovely. Betty Neels--if you love the first one, you'll love all of them. I loved a lot of the old ones with the British authors, but I can't remember most of their names. Senior moments becoming senior hours...

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    4. Oh, okay, thanks. Will look up some old romances for sure...definitely some of Muriel Jensen's and Roz Denny Fox. British authors are some of my favorite writers, so I'll be sure to search for some of those too. Google will find some for me. Thanks so much!!

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    5. Hi Laurie -- I do believe you'd enjoy the Gene Stratton-Porter books. They would fit into the Heartwarming model if written today. I also loved Gothics by Mary Stewart, always a strong heroine able to hold up her end of the action with the hero.

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    6. Thanks for the suggestions. I'm going to look them up.

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  13. Helen, your mention of Gene Stratton Porter's books bring back such happy memories. My mom gave me a copy of 'Freckles' for my 8th birthday. I read it so many times, the cover began to fall off. And Liz, I have those same lovely memories of the early romances written by Americans, though I loved the ones written by the British, Australian, and Canadians, too.

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    1. I've tried to remember which one I read first. I think it was Laddie.

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    2. Freckles was definitely my first Gene Stratton-Porter novel; I still have my mother's first edition as well as her Girl of the Limberlost, equally fine. I'd be hard put to choose my favorite -- probably The Harvester.

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  14. I'm off to the library to look for "The Virginian." We lived the first six years of our marriage in Wyoming and my son was born there. While I'm at the library, I'll look for Janet Daily and Betty Neels, too. I'm sure I've read some of their books, but I need a refresher. Thanks for the wonderful post.

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    1. Enjoy the reading! Thanks for coming by.

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    2. Hi Beth -- If you lived in Wyoming, you're in for a treat with The Virginian. The Johnson County War forms the historical background for the novel. And if you haven't discovered Craig Johnson's Longmire mysteries yet, you should. He writes so well it makes my teeth hurt.

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  15. Freckles Comes Home was one of my favorite books growing up. Western Man by Janet Dailey still is a favorite. Lovely Post.

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    1. Interesting you should mention Freckles Comes Home. I had a hard time accepting Gene Stratton-Porter's daughter as a worthy successor to her mother's legacy. Sometimes it works, such as Anne Hillerman's continuation of her father's Navajo mysteries, and Dick Francis's son does a credible job with horse racing thrillers.

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    2. My mom couldn't accept it, either, Helen. I was okay with it. Hi, Marion!

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  16. I loved Betty Neels books...and I remember snatching The Virginian from my grandfather's bookshelf one summer. I can still remember the smell of their pages...

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    1. That particular smell is one thing the Kindle can never reproduce!

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  17. Beautiful, thought-provoking post, Helen! Thanks!

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    1. Hi Loree -- glad you could join in. I've always believed that a child who grows up with a love of books has the best upbringing possible. My uncle's family with five kids lived next door; my grandmother read to us all on a shady screened porch on hot summer afternoons. Her reading was often interrupted by the wail of a train whistle passing across the back of the farm; that sound still evokes wonderful memories of growing up with my grandmother and cousins.

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  18. One of Gene Stratton-Porter's home's, along Sylvan Lake, is just a fifteen minute drive from my home. Very inspiring for an Indiana author! She's gotten a mention in two of my books so far.

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    1. Hi Mark and welcome. Like the Little Scout and Little Sister in Keeper of the Bees and Laddie, I was allowed to roam the woods and field of my grandfather's farm in Kentucky. Gene Stratton-Porter's books seemed to be written just for me.

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    2. Hi, Mark. It's a very special area, isn't it?

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