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.
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
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.