When I was but a wee little princess, my father built me two bookcases. My parents filled them, first with picture books, and friends and family members added to the collection as I grew. I remember sobbing inconsolably when I pieced together that Morte de Arthur meant that King Arthur was actually dying and not living happily ever after with Queen Guinevere. The whole Lancelot thing went over my head at that tender age, and I still have mixed feelings about the whole triangle. Maybe I’ll explore a similar dynamic in some future novel of my own, someday. I did not take the fall of Camelot well, either, despite my father’s attempts to explain how noble and tragic it all was.
Fast forward a few decades, and those very same bookcases now live in my office, and they are stuffed with romance novels. The top case (one stacks on the other) holds my Bertrice Small collection, while the other holds various keepers, and books on writing, some of them (my favorites) specifically on the writing of romance. I have two copies of How to Write a Romance and Get it Published, by Kathryn Falk, the brains behind RT Book Reviews, and they are both tattered. Granted, a lot of the information is obsolete now, with the e-publishing revolution, the advent of independent publishing, and whole subgenres have come and gone since the first edition first hit the stands, but I still treasure those books, and still refer to them, because the most important part of each entry has no expiration date.
The inspiration I get from reading the words of those who have gone before, some of whom are now retired, some now gone to the great library in the sky, some of whom are still with us now, still bringing their A game, book after book, is new every time I dip into that particular well. It’s there, too, when I dive into the books that gave me my love of historical romance; big, epic stories of love that could conquer impossible odds – and always, always did. Always will, as a matter of fact. That’s not a cliché. That’s the foundation of the genre. No matter what else happens, or doesn’t happen, by the end, our two lovers will be together, and happy about it.
That’s the skeleton of the genre. With that in place, we can hang anything on that framework. Once I took my first step into the genre proper, I read love stories that took place in medieval times, the Gilded Age, and everything in between. Heroes and heroines were titled nobility, gentry, dirt-poor, outcasts and pirates, bondservants and performers, and a thousand other variations. Through the pages of books, found in used bookstores, flea markets, libraries, and the then-king of chain bookstores, Waldenbooks, I fell in love a million times over. I knew, not hoped, knew that I had to tell stories of my own, in that same vein.
I can’t say it was a choice. More like I came pre-programmed for romance fiction. I don’t know if my biological mother read romance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did. My real mother did, mostly from paper sacks filled with big, thick, glossy historical romances that came with my Aunt Lucy, every time she visited. My job was to take the bag of books to the laundry room, de-bag them, and put them where Mom wanted. I wasn’t allowed to read them, a rule I did not, at the time, think to question, apart from stealing the Small titles, which did not come from Aunt Lucy, but I did study each cover, read the back blurbs, breathe them deep into the very marrow of my bones. Yes. This.
I assigned my own characters to the people on the covers, made up my own stories to go along with them. It didn’t occur to me to write those down, not then, but I would turn them over in my head for days or weeks, paint pictures in my mind, and feel the stories as vibrantly as I did what is generally called real life. When real life got stinky, I went to that story place more, not as an escape -I always had to come back, after all- but as a respite, a place to go and remind myself that things get better after they get worse. That’s what the heroines in the books, both real and imaginary always did. They kept going. They fell down, they got back up. They fell down again, got back up again, and became all the stronger for it. In the end, they got all they ever wanted, and more. They got a hero who loved them exactly the way they were, who always had their backs and knew they could count on the same thing in return. Sometimes, back then, if there was a connected book, it could be the child of the first couple, all grown up, and ready for their own adventure. I loved that kind of thing. Still do. Who knows? Maybe I’ll write one of those, myself, too. If there’s one thing romance fiction teaches us is that, with love, all things are possible.
When I look a little ways down the road, and think about what to write next, after the current WIPs are out in the world, I’m not worried. I have the core of my stories already in my marrow and bones; two imperfect people will find their broken edges fit into a cohesive whole, and the love they share means that nothing life throws at them even stands a chance. I think that’s a pretty good place to start.