I didn’t always write romance. When I was a teenager, and much braver than I am now, I wrote poetry. Lots of poetry. Long poems, short poems, series of poems. I had enough poems to make a medium-sized book. I was confident that the world was waiting for my insights.
I typed them up on my mom’s behemoth, a manual Royal and sent them to her cousin, who worked for a publishing house in New York. He was very kind to a fifteen year old with aspirations and told me that poets didn’t start out by having books published. They needed to get published in magazines first. He suggested that I look at something like Writer’s Digest, find some magazines that published poetry, and start there.
Unlike most teens, who had posters of pop singers on their walls, mine were papered with rejections, but not from small literary magazines. I dreamed big and sent my poems to The New Yorker, The Saturday Review, Poetry Magazine. I occasionally received some nice comments in the rejections, but after a year I decided I should take my writing in another direction.
Most of the reading I did outside of class assignments was mysteries. Agatha Christie was my favorite but Dorothy Sayers wasn’t far behind. I read all the golden age mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s and beyond. When Ellery Queen said that the reader had all the clues and should be able to solve the murder, I was that reader. So I decided I should write mysteries instead of poems.
The problem was that I was never able to put a good plot together. I could see the plot twists in the books I read, but I wasn’t sure how to make that happen in my own writing. Red herrings. I couldn’t do those either. For one thing, I had no idea how to create interesting characters, or a plot. And at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, I was too emotionally immature to be a good novelist. Besides, I didn’t like analyzing books, just reading them. That’s why I changed my major from English to Social Studies in college. I could see being a history teacher, but never teaching English.
I did write. I wrote papers, lots of papers, for my various degrees. But the idea of writing mysteries niggled. I tried to put something together a time or two, but never got beyond chapter one.
By the time I started a Ph.D. program at the advanced age of 41, I had learned how to write academic papers. I even published as a historian after I finished my degree, which was just in time for my 45th birthday. The main chapter of my dissertation, which focused on upper-class women’s education in England from 1399 to 1509, was the opening piece in a book of essays on women’s education in the early modern period. I also published some articles, most on fifteenth-century English history. I no longer had any ambition to be a novelist.
All that changed after a series of events, starting with my husband’s death from prostate cancer at the end of 2013. For one thing, my reading changed. I no longer wanted to read mysteries. I turned to romantic comedy. I was sad and I was lonely and these books made me laugh. Book boyfriends became a thing. I started by reading books that took place in Chicago, because I grew up in the Chicago area and still had family there.
In 2017, I sold my newly remodeled house and moved from a university town in Central Illinois to a condo in a century-old building in Rogers Park, the farthest northeast section of Chicago. Both sets of my grandparents had lived there when I was growing up in the suburbs. It was affordable, familiar, close to my brother in Evanston, and only two blocks from Lake Michigan. I decided I didn’t need a car because I live on two bus lines and I’m three blocks from the “L.”
That first year I gorged on what the city had to offer—restaurants, theater, music, museums. I went to a ridiculous number of Blackhawks games, having re-found my love of hockey through Aven Ellis’ hockey romances. I made friends. Life was good.
By 2018, I was traveling to book signings—not only Chicago, but farther afield to places like London and Denver. I soon realized that I didn’t want to be one of the crowd, just get signatures, and leave. I wanted to be more than an aging fan girl. I wanted to be part of the in-crowd, and that meant being a writer. Not a mystery writer. That time was gone. So I started writing a romance about a couple of characters I had been thinking about on and off for years. The problem was that I didn’t have a plot and still didn’t know how to write fiction.
Smarter than I was at sixteen, I joined some professional organizations and started taking classes, reading craft books, and hanging out with other writers in coffee shops. I began the novel in July and finished a first draft on New Year’s Eve. The book changed a lot from my original ideas but I thought it was a pretty good first draft.
Now, after many rounds of revision, it is no longer Rom Com. The two subplots have been trimmed to one. Originally written in third-person, past tense, it is now first-person, dual point of view. I discovered I enjoy writing dialogue. And I can still indulge my love of research all the time.
Friends always wonder why, as a historian, I don’t write historical fiction. I tried and I’m no good at it. Besides, I’m incredibly picky, so I’d probably still be on chapter five, trying to make sure all my nonfictional characters are where they would have been on any given day.
Instead, my book takes place in Chicago in 2013. Why not today? I’m hoping that readers will love the book enough for a series. By starting back a little, I have room to move forward. My characters are older than in typical romance, but then so am I.
Now, in 2021, still polishing that novel, I can tell you that I have learned a lot about writing and about the business of writing. Fingers crossed, At First Sight, will be published just in time for my 70th birthday. I hope you love Cress and Max as much as I do.