Sat 21 Jun 2014
Unfortunately, this week I had a close encounter with a dentist. I say unfortunately, not because this dentist and his team aren’t amazing (He’s even smart enough to have an office manager named Mary Anne) – I say it because I have a deep and profound terror of dentists. I have the same feeling about ophthalmologists. I know I fail in both areas so I feel like I’m taking a test I know in advance I will fail. But some encounters can’t be avoided, and thanks to a riled and rowdy tooth, this was one of them.
It turned out that the tooth and I had to part ways, so I saw the dentist twice this week. At one point, we discussed my romance writing and the dentist mentioned how much his Grandmother loved reading Harlequins. I enjoy reading those too, but they’re not my first love. My first love is reading historical romance. My dentist’s comment made me think back to the beginning, the first time I encountered the genre. I picked up a book at the public library and started a love affair that still burns strong today. Yes, the book I found was the one that started it all. It created a genre and blazed a trail for future authors to follow, including a certain crazy duck lady.
The late Kathleen Woodiwiss had a 600 page MS titled “The Flame and the Flower” and she believed in the book. It was rejected across the board by agents and publishers of hardcovers, so she submitted it to paperback publishers directly. The first on her list was Avon, and it snapped the book right up. From an initial 500,000 run for its first publication in 1972, the book sold over 2.3 million copies in its first 4 years — and it created an industry.
Woodiwiss wrote historical romance. I suppose the term was invented to describe her work. Susan Elizabeth Phillips – a NY Times Bestseller and absolute genius at her craft – says that “We all owe our careers to her. She opened the world of romance to us as readers. She created a career for us to go into.” Another of my favorite authors, Julia Quinn, says “Woodiwiss made women want to read. She gave them an alternative to Westerns and hard-boiled police procedurals. When I was growing up, I saw my mother and grandmother reading and enjoying romances, and when I was old enough to read them myself, I felt as if I had been admitted into a special sisterhood of reading women.”
You know what Woodiwiss brought to the literary world? Passion. She created heroines readers adored from the first page and paired them with deeply flawed heroes. Her work, like most of the early historicals, have been criticized by the PC Police as “glamorizing” or “advocating” rape. Today people call her books and the early historicals “bodice rippers.” I find all of that to be hogwash. I’d agree with a review on the “Amazon” site by “A customer” who says that perhaps the heroes in Ms. Woodiwisses’ work should have been redeemed earlier. Or, if not redeemed, that readers should be given more reason to like and understand them a bit earlier.
But it’s hard to criticize Woodiwiss too much because the passion in her stories is as contagious today as it was back, lo, many years ago when I first found “The Flame and The Flower” in the library as a young teen. The characters carry her story and they carry the readers right along for the journey. I think readers today wince too quickly and put stories down too fast. If they read a little further, they would experience more than a bodice being ripped. Maybe, they’d ignore the opinions of others and realize for themselves that in a Woodiwiss book, the hero dominates physically, but the heroine dominates emotionally. In the end, it is the heroine’s love that saves the hero.
Ms. Woodiwiss is no longer with us, but her work lives on and today, it is available at Amazon for your Kindle. If you’re an independent free thinker who doesn’t follow the herd (like a certain duck lady), then I suggest you boogle on over to Amazon and pick up the book that started it all. Give “The Flame and The Flower” a read for yourself and see if you can find in the book the seeds of brilliance that started a genre.
The lesson I take from it all is that if a writer creates strong characters, puts them in an interesting situation and listens very hard – they will tell her their story. And if it’s done right, the passion in the tale will continue to burn bright enough to illuminate readers for generations to come. That’s my hope, every time I sit down at a keyboard.
Oh, and BTW, if you pick up “The Flame and The Flower” and read it for the first time, you might boogle back by and leave a comment sharing your thoughts. I’d love to discuss!