For three years, I had the privilege of working at the 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. Over the years, I met many dozens of women who read books by authors on a long list of pioneers; 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 underfunded 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 A 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. 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 later set Island Healing on a fictional version of that island.
When these pioneers 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 so many others!
An active member of WisRWA since 2001, Virginia McCullough lives in Green Bay and writes romances for the Harlequin Heartwarming line and award-winning women’s fiction. LOVE, UNEXPECTED, Book 3 of HER Two Moon Bay series, is due out in May. Virginia also writes and edits nonfiction and is a writing coach. Please note: this blog post has been adapted from a post on Heartwarming authors blog, 10-2017.)