My gut feeling is that it’s probably not very cool to admit to having written light romantic fiction. However, I’ve decided to ‘come out’, not least because it’s a skill that is maybe not that common amongst scholars!
It was nearly a quarter of a century ago, and I was not yet thirty. However, the rumour on the grapevine was that early retirement was being offered to many middle-aged academics, and I was a little concerned that when I reached that age , I might be put out to pasture myself. To paraphrase the old nursery rhyme,* And what would poor Karen do then, poor thing, and what would poor Karen do then?
I’ve always loved writing. However, when we came to Glasgow, three things happened to catapult me into my unexpected brief career as an author of light fiction. First came my mother-in-law’s visit. A Glasgow girl herself, she was delighted when we moved to her birthplace, and liked nothing better than a wee jaunt in the car to the places she’d visited before moving to Tyneside. The only downside was that she was getting deaf, and couldn’t hear me speaking from the back seat. Thus excluded from the conversation, I jotted down some of the stories she told, and wrote an article that I sent to the People’s Friend – the magazine she read every week. To my astonishment, they accepted it. She was delighted, but her younger sister was furious!
Next, I saw a short story competition in a different magazine. My entry got nowhere. However, I sent it to the People’s Friend – they accepted that, too.
So I signed up to one of those correspondence courses that promises to refund your fees if you don’t succeed in publishing anything. I published nothing that my tutors assigned, but by now I was publishing other odd things elsewhere. In short, I abandoned the course, and just kept on writing. Thirty published short stories and a serial (which became a People’s Friend paperback) later, I had subsidized my first maternity leave – and bought a decent used car with what was left of my savings when I returned to work. OK, it was a Lada. It was also the newest car I’d ever owned!
I do know what formula writing is – Mills and Boon used to produce a booklet about breaking into their market; it was very much about writing to formula, but it wasn’t for me. My own stories weren’t written to formula, though I did learn how to write for a particular market. I also learned what made a strong story-line; how to pace dialogue; how to portray character; and how much descriptive writing to use in different contexts. I learned to work with an editor, and to revise stories in accordance with her suggestions. Over and above all this, I learned to write fluently. You can’t deny that’s a useful skill! Mind you, I have absolutely no idea how many words I wrote – I typed them all on a manual typewriter. (My even earlier RSA typing certificates came in handy there!)
When, in my doctoral viva, I was told that ‘you really made the characters [Victorian song collectors] come to life’, I quietly blessed my secret former life as a People’s Friend author. I might have started out writing fiction a couple of decades earlier, but now my serious, scholarly writing was actually benefiting from the lessons I’d learned then.
Out of idle curiosity, I did try to write another short story after finishing the PhD, just to see if I still could. It was rejected. I suppose I could have worked on a revision, but I had other more challenging writing to do. Fiction writing had a been a phase in my life, and now I had moved onto pastures new. (Oh dear, a cliche. Quick, where’s my red pen?)
*The North Wind Doth Blow, and We Shall have Snow, and What Will the Robin do Then, Poor Thing?