I remember when I first came into this industry several years ago, I hadn’t even considered using a pen name until the editor who’d decided I was worthy of a try at this thing contacted me and asked me what name I’d be writing as. I felt rather pressured to come up with something on the spot as she seemed in a hurry to get on with things, so without further ado, I chose one (one I later regretted!) and got on with things. At that point, I didn’t even put any thought whatsoever into why I would acquiesce to the notion of writing as anyone other than me. I would later learn exactly why, and most of the whys hinged on my chosen genre: romance.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. While I’m sure verbal renditions of epic tales of action, suspense, horror, and even romance have been passed down around the proverbial fire since humans could communicate, even if by rudimentary syllables, the first account of a written story, novel if you will, came when someone scratched The Epic of Gilgamesh on clay tablets a couple of millennia B.C. It wouldn’t be until some millennia later most scholars agree and cite the first known written romance presented from the heroine’s point of view would make the scene. In 1740, Pamela by Samuel Richardson was published. Written from the heroine’s point of view, yet written by a man. It’d be nearly another hundred years before Sense and Sensibility would storm the world, the first noteworthy romance novel by a woman. Over one hundred more years would pass before Harlequin would mass produce the first “brown wrapper” bodice rippers and market them in groceries and drugstores.
How far have we really come since then? Has the reputation of romance evolved at all? I ask simply because I was faced with the questions which have swirled around the romance industry since its conception yet again one evening this week. Is romance legitimate romance? And will the words romance writer ever not be dirty words?
I’ve been due an upgrade on my phone for a few weeks now, and since MarshFox is way further behind in the updated technology than I am, and since he’s now in training for his second career and away quite a bit engaging in that training, it was decided I’d level up a few notches and he’d inherit my current smart device. (Lovelies, he was so far behind he was still toting a flip phone and all his buddies were complaining he never texted. Of course, he didn’t! Anyone else remember texting on one of those ancient pieces of plastic? Gravy!) Anywho! We stepped into the cellular store where all your technological dreams come true only to discover our regular cellular guy, and neighbor by the by, was otherwise engaged making someone else’s dreams come true. So, he recommended his friend, who was still quite wet behind the ears I must point out. Quite. Wet. Like, younger than my youngest child young and only six years older than my eldest grandyoungin’. The transaction was pleasant enough. He asked a couple of pertinents pertaining to my phone usage and he brought three devices forth for my inspection, I chose red, go figure. We chatted about his schooling and upbringing as he began the process of resetting my old phone. Then he asked the question that people have been asking me for years when it becomes apparent my spouse is a Marine, now retired, but once a Marine always a Marine. Right?
“So, what do you do, ma’am?”
I cleared my throat and took pause before answering.
Why, oh why, by all that is good and right and southern is this question still to this day so hard to answer? Why? I mean, I’m not ashamed of what I write. Even in the darkest hours when my writing wavered on the fine line between true romance and erotica proper was I ashamed. I mean, I didn’t allow my gramma to read anything I wrote. Being a staunch Baptist, she’d have taken on a daunting case of the vapors had her eyes ever perused the scorching pages of my novels.
And, going back to the pen name debate. This was one of the reasons I wrote anonymously. I didn’t want to scandalize my dear gramma. Again, wasn’t ashamed of my writing, but I respected Gramma enough to leave her in the dark. She was raised in a different time. You know, back when Harlequin was still wrapping romance in plain brown paper.
After letting the feeling of what was to surely come next at the cellular store of dreams wash over me and fade, I concocted my answer. But. I did censor my answer. It went something akin to this…
“I have been running a quilting business, but the market is so tight right now, I’ve decided it best to let it go. And…I write. I write, too. That’s another reason I need to let go of the quilting business. I was on sabbatical from the writing, but now I’ve reclaimed that playing field, and I’ve got submissions out, and it looks to be taking back off, so I needed to pare down how many irons I have in the fire.”
Yes, I rattletrap like that when I feel cornered. Much like Chloe in Recoil, the second book in the S3 series I’m writing, I rattletrap with the best of them.
“Oh! My mom has a degree in English,” the young man said, excitement crossing his features at the realization we might have a common interest. What he didn’t know. “She writes, too! Children’s books. I can always remember in elementary school how excited my friends were…”
He kind of lost me a bit there. You see, I too have a degree in English and the certifications in Children’s Lit he was so excited about, but…
“What do you write?”
I hesitated with the words forming on my lips, fiction mostly, women’s fiction. Then, I decided, nope. Not going there. When is the world going to get over the stigma of the two dirty words? Might as well start right now and do my part in facilitating this much needed change.
And there it was…the look. The look that crosses someone’s face when you utter the dirty illegitimate form of the literature word. The look that’s something akin to the look crossing everyone’s faces when one farts in church.
“Yes. Romance.” And I smiled and winked.
Yes, I’m a romance writer. I’m the epitome of the dirty words.
And this is why years ago, I chose a pen name. I didn’t want the neighbors looking at me differently. I didn’t want hate mail. I didn’t want to embarrass my son when I attended his school events and all his friends and all the other “normal” mommies were also in attendance. Although, after he graduated from high school and a few of his friends figured out who I was and what I did for a living, they were just as excited as I’m sure the young man at the cellular center’s friends were when they knew who his mom was. No, only a select few knew who I was and knew what I did for a living. Today, only the few I select will know who I am and what I’m about. And, this is why I chose a new pen name when I came back from the sabbatical. One learns that in the romance world, the world perceived to be an illegitimate form of literature, you must protect the innocents from scandal, be they your gramma or the lad who’s still wet behind the ears trying to get your new phone set up. Sure, he now knows what I do, but he’ll never know who I am when I’m doing it.