Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Ode to Pioneer Romance Authors by Virginia McCullough

For three years, I had the privilege of working at the Rockland Public Library in the small mid-coast town of Rockland, Maine. I won’t say exactly how long ago it was, but I was young and the classic oak card catalogue and a date stamp machine were not. Our fulltime staff of five did a little of everything, from circulation to cataloging. My “specialties” included something called “readers’ advisory,” which meant, among other things, choosing books for those unable to visit the library in person. Volunteers then delivered shopping bags of books to retirement or care facilities or to the readers’ homes.


Over the years, I met many dozens of women who read all kinds of romance. They cherished their favorite authors, who just happen to be on the long list of writers who paved the way for all of us in the broad romance genre. My coworkers and I created waiting lists for these authors’ new releases, and in some cases we bought more than one copy, a big deal for an under-funded, small-town library.

Remember Eleanor Hibbert? Me, neither. But I do remember Victoria Holt, a pioneer in gothic and suspense romance (The Shivering Sands, India Fan); Philippa Carr, author of historical romances (Daughters of England, a 20-book series); and Jean Plaidy, who also wrote historicals. These books were perpetually checked out or on reserve, and some of the shut-in readers would ask me to pick out anything by Holt, Carr, or Plaidy.


Another British author, Catherine Cookson (The Lady on my Left, The Bonny Dawn) wrote over 100 books. I recall dragging out glue and tape in our “book ER” as we tried to hold her books together just a little longer. (Cookson suffered a genetic bleeding disorder and other illnesses, which caused great hardship in her life, recounted in a memoir found after her death, Before I Go.)

We also had long waiting lists for books by a Mainer, Elizabeth Ogilvie (The Tide Trilogy), who wrote 40 books for adults and young readers. She lived On Gay’s Island and rarely came to the mainland, but when she agreed to give a talk at the library, her fans showed up in droves. No one could draw a crowd like Ogilvie.

Who can forget Phyllis Whitney (Spindrift, Amethyst Dreams)? In her104 years, she wrote 70 books for adults and young people. She was labeled the Queen of American Gothic, but she described her work as “romantic novels of suspense.” Now a subgenre all its own. Born in Japan to American parents, this trailblazer had a penchant for exotic locations. She also wrote Guide to Writing Fiction—I read this long ago and loved it.


In the 1990s, when I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, I was driving to a speakers’ conference in Florida but ended up seeing a highway exit sign for St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. Hmm…it sounded vaguely familiar. Curious, I went to have a look and soon realized I was visiting the adopted home of the wildly popular author, Eugenia Price (St. Simon’s Trilogy), and many other books based on historical figures in the region. I ended up visiting the lovely churchyard where she’s buried, now a regular stop for tourists-fans. Price is given great credit for boosting tourism on the island.  


In a case of serendipity, that day I learned about an annual writers’ conference held on St. Simon’s Island and attended every year thereafter until I moved to Wisconsin in 2001. I met so many wonderful romance writers and had a pitch session with an agent, whose agency later represented one of my nonfiction titles and now represents my fiction.  All because of Eugenia Price! 

When people ask what inspires me, these pioneers in our genre always pop into my mind. When they began writing, they faced real barriers for women trying to break into the fiction market (let alone garner any respect!). Somehow, they took what was a narrow path to success and independence and bulldozed it to make room for all of us.

Today, romance, in all its variations, remains the top-selling fiction genre. So, thanks Victoria/Jean/Philippa, Catherine, Elizabeth, Phyllis, and Eugenia…and many others!

*****

Virginia McCullough is excited about her January 2018, Heartwarming release, Something to Treasure (available for pre-order), the second of her Two Moon Bay series. (Book 1, Girl in the Spotlight, released in June 2017.) All her novels are stories of the heart and feature characters who could be your neighbors and friends struggling with everyday life issues. Drawn to the water herself, Virginia’s fictional towns almost always include oceans, lakes, or rivers.

Born and raised in Chicago, Virginia spent years as a ghostwriter, producing more than one hundred books for physicians, business owners, professional speakers and many others with information to share or a story to tell. She’s moved around a lot, and a few years ago she landed in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she enjoys hanging out with other romance writers, walking on trails, and downing mugs of dark roast at local coffeehouses. Her other award-winning romance and women’s fiction titles include The Jacks of Her Heart, Amber Light, and The Chapels on the Hill. Virginia is always working on another story about hope, healing, and second chances. For more information, visit www.VirginiaMcCullough.com.

25 comments:

  1. What a great story, Virginia. Were you writing when you stumbled across the writers' conference or is that what piqued your interest?
    I miss the classic oak card catalogue. :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd been writing a long time back then, almost exclusively nonfiction books, ghosted and coauthored. Professional speakers were a clientele for me, hence, the speakers' conference. But I was starting to learn how to write fiction, and the conference with two different fiction tracks was so appealing. I had a whole week to focus on fiction--and the ocean! A real treat.

      Delete
  2. Lovely story! I think it's sad that kids today will never learn how to use a card catalog. Half the fun at the library was looking it up and going in search of that book. It was like a treasure map!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're so right! It was fun to look things up and then go in search of the books--by its number. It's still fun to go to the library and walk out with print books, audio books, music and movies!

      Delete
  3. Best of luck with your new release. I remember going back to Pattee Library at Penn State a few years after I graduated and being shocked to discover the card catalogue was gone!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the good wishes. I think we all have a soft spot for those card catalogs, but young people have never seen them. They really are antiques now.

      Delete
  4. The romance genre pioneer who inspired, and continues to inspire, me is Barbara Cartland.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She's really a legend, isn't she? And so prolific!

      Delete
  5. You’ve conjured many memories, Virginia, with all those authors! I remember reading most of them as a pre-teen getting permission from my mother to check the books out of the adult section of our local ‘bookmobile’. Remember those? They were used to deliver books to the newer areas of our city. Thanks for this very interesting post and your serendipitous entry into romance writing!





    were a fixture of our small city

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks--ah, yes, bookmobiles! I think Whitney and Holt were probably the intro authors for many young girls going from YA to adult books. Nothing like creating readers!

      Delete
  6. Oh, Elisabeth Ogilvie. I've never been to Maine, but she--even now when I re-read--brings it to life as surely as if I had. We still have the file drawers in the library where I work and so many people, myself included, are sorry to find them empty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I only met Ogilvie once, at her library talk, but I still remember her--she was slight, quiet and modest, but with a good sense of humor. As I recall, she wrote on a very strict schedule, too. I started my writing career just before going to work at the library, so I paid attention to authors and their work habits!

      Delete
  7. I didn't know Eleanor Hibbert was all those women! And to think that she wrote all those books without a computer. Puts us all to shame. When I worked at a bookstore, there was always a slow, steady dribble of sales for Catherine Cookson's novels. And I remember checking out Georgette Heyer from the high school library. Oh, the mortification when her book slipped out from my binder onto the school bus aisle for all the smirking kids to see!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heyer is another pioneer to honor. We can find them everywhere! I wrote my first articles and several nonfiction ghosted books before the computer age. I can't even imagine it now.

      Delete
  8. What a wonderful trip down the vintage reading hall of fame. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful volunteer library staff housed in the basement of our fire department. People came from small towns all around to check books out until some enterprising volunteer started what amounted to a Book Mobile that she ran to the other towns once a week. I loved Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and Eugenia Price. I used to love going through the card catalogue drawers. And I still love the smell of a vintage library.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your library started out connected to the town--I think libraries are at their best when they're community centers. Lots of meetings and programs and such. That's how they'll stay relevant in this age of personal computers.

      Delete
  9. Ah, thinking about those little oak drawers in the card catalog means I can almost smell the library. My mom was a volunteer who ran Saturday story time, and I got to tag along and check out new books every week. I read the entire horse section. I didn't discover romance until later, but I do appreciate those pioneers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, the library smell, story hour...memory lane. Happy birthday, Beth!

      Delete
  10. Okay. My small town still has a bookmobile that goes out into the county. Also, our median age is 55, which is why that kind of thing is still around. I remember so many of these authors, but want to add Kathleen Woodiwiss. There will always be Shanna. And yes, Barbara Cartland was IT. I think I read that once she was in her nineties, she dictated her stories. What an inspiration that is. Fantastic, marvelous post, Virginia! I so miss the card catalogue. Half the books I checked out were because I found something else in the card catalogue and went home with three times the number of books I'd gone to the library to get.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've heard so many people talk about Woodiwiss as their intro to romance. One of my friends always says her mother introduced her to romance through Woodiwiss. I love your comment about checking out so many books. One summer I used an old beat up small suitcase my parents had around to cart books back and forth to the library. It was a mile walk or so in Chicago. Lots of amused smiles from the librarians when I'd click the suitcase open on the floor and pile the books on the return desk. Today, I'd be one of those kids with the big backpacks! Now I use totes. Old habits die hard, huh?

      Delete
  11. Loved reading this post! As a librarian, I know what you mean. And I recall helping people find these books. Thanks for sharing, Virginia :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. It's very gratifying, for sure. I hope libraries can maintain a personalized approach these days.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I want to be Phyllis Whitney and live to be a 104 and write The End to a manuscript the day I go to that great writers conference in the sky. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  14. You and me both--writing and reading 'til the end. My mother, a librarian, used to talk about moving on to the great library in the sky!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi, Virginia, You certainly have an interesting background! As a former librarian, I well remember the card catalog, not only looking up books there but also filing the cards! Whitney and Holt were favorites and inspired me to write romantic suspense. I still have some of their books on my shelf. Looking forward to reading your new book.

    ReplyDelete