My story is mostly shorter than those of my colleagues, unless, of course, one counts the years of being an obsessed reader, which began about somewhere in first grade, about thirty seconds after I mastered the elements of reading.
I loved to read: With a flashlight under the blankets, which my mother said would ruin my eyes. (She was right.) Any spare minute during the day. The school library would only let grade school kids take out two books a day. I did just that, every day, and generally finished them both by 5:00, after which I could watch cowboy shows with my sibs. I was particularly fond of a very lengthy series of youth biographies of famous Americans. I learned a lot of history that way.
But my preferences ran from Trixie Belden to animal stories to series of boys’ sports books. I’ve never had much interest in sports per se, but I liked the stories. And I read lots and lots of science fiction—there wasn’t as much fantasy in those days. My family were all readers (though none as much as me.) We all read different things—sometimes my father gave me American set historicals to read. Yes, I always liked history.
I even, sometimes, thought it would be very cool to be a writer, but it never seemed possible. I grew up in the farm country of Western New York State, about equidistant from Buffalo and Rochester. The biggest local employer was Attica Prison, about ten miles away. My consolidated school district gave me a pretty good education, but this was not an area that nurtured the idea that a kid could grow up and be a writer. Snow removal? We were darned good at that, but writing? No.
It didn’t help that I’m a touch dysgraphic, with horrid handwriting (it has been suggested that I should become a doctor) and an inability to type very accurately. (I had taken typing in high school since my parents firmly believed it was a skill all college-bound students should have, but accuracy was not my long suit.)
Oddly enough, one of my maternal great aunts, or maybe great-great aunts, allegedly supported herself as a popular fiction writer, but such was the social stigma of ‘writing trash’ that she used a pseudonym which she never revealed. I wish I’d known the old girl—clearly, we had a lot in common. <g>
Since writing wasn’t even on my radar, I daydreamed when bored and did the usual things, like go to college. I had vague aspirations toward engineering, but didn’t like the math enough to proceed in that direction. Wandered into an English major (emphasis on 18th Century British literature.)
In my junior year, I dated an industrial design student who seemed to be having more fun than I, so I switched into the art school as a freshman, took courses like crazy, and became an industrial design student. Found that I could cut a year from the 5 year ID program by completing my English degree, so took more courses like crazy. Graduated after 6 years with two bachelors’ degrees, 7 years worth of courses, and none of them were writing. <g>
Somewhere around junior year, I discovered Georgette Heyer, and fell in love with her books. (My first was a stripped cover version of Sylvester: or, The Wicked Uncle, sold for a nickel at a downtown bargain store. And no, I didn’t realize that selling stripped books was illegal.)
Design served me well as a career and I worked in California and Oxford, England (as the art editor of a left wing magazine) before washing up in Maryland. After getting fired for being insufficiently corporate (undoubtedly true: it was not a nice place and I was glad to be gone), I became a freelance designer. I was never going to get rich, but I made enough to support myself, and I was my own boss. Life was good.
Then–<roll of drumss>–I bought a computer. Mostly I wanted to be able to send out invoices without typos and occasionally do copywriting for clients. Plus, I figured I needed to either get a computer or admit that I was too old and dim to move into the modern age.
So I bought a Leading Edge. My SO spent a couple of hours teaching me how to use the word processing program. After a limited but intense display of profanity, I got the hang of it. And really, viscerally, realized that when you fix something with word processing, it stays fixed.
“Gee, we’ve always wanted to write a book. Let’s write a book!” Note the plural, the sign of a lot of characters occupying my mind. I’d discovered the Walker hardcover Regencies in the library the summer before and read every one I could find, so I had Regency romances on my mind. (I was not generally a romance reader then, though I’d always loved Mary Stewart and similar authors.)
I thought about a plot for a week or two, and decided to do a subversive version of the classic Regency where the tall, dark, rich, bored hero, inevitably known as “the greatest catch on the Marriage Mart,” would become engaged to the shy young innocent. Properly speaking, they should fall in love as her innocence sweeps away his jaded boredom. Except that in my version, the Shy Innocent slips away and finds a man she likes better, while the bored baron rediscovers his first love, who broke his heart back when he had one. And First Love is Shy Innocent’s aunt. So everyone ends up happy, but paired off in ways they hadn’t expected.
Thus was born The Diabolical Baron. (Which is being reissued in January, actually, along with my one Western novella, “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know,” in a trade edition called Dangerous to Know.) I started it on March 21, 1986. First full day of spring, which was good symbolism, and besides, it was a Saturday so I could take the time.
I bobbled along with the story, thinking it wasn’t half bad, but with no real expectations. Still, I wanted to hear what an industry pro thought of it. I went to the library to research publisher guidelines (my library didn’t have much.) My accountant was friends with category writer Eileen Naumann (who writes as Lindsay McKenna), who very generously agreed to talk to me. She told me to join RWA, subscribe to RT, and most generous of all, offered to look at the first chapter.
She sent it back with gold stars and Snoopy stickers all over it, saying it was obvious I had what it took to get published, and if I had more questions, I could call her. So I did. She offered me the name of her old agent, who was fast, or her new agent, who was slow. I said, “Give me the name of the fast one!” (Not being a complete fool, I found out why they were no longer together. It was nothing that reflected ill on the agent.)
So I sent the 88 pages I had to this California agent, along with an apologetic cover letter and an SASE. (I didn’t know much, but I knew an SASE was essential!) She called a week later wanting to know how long the book would be, when it would be done, and could I write more stories like this? I hadn’t a clue about the first two questions, but I was pretty sure about the third. Yes, I could do more stories.
So Ruth returned the 88 pages, marked up with suggestions. I took most of them, and returned the 119 pages I had written to this point. A week later Ruth phoned and said, “Hilary Ross at Signet would like to talk to you tomorrow morning between 10:00 and noon. Will you be in?”
Well, DUH!!!! Yeah, I could fit that in my schedule. So Hilary called the next morning and we chatted. Much, much later, I found that if she wasn’t sure whether or not to buy, she liked to talk to the writer and see if they sounded like the genuine article. (Since the book was only a third written, this was essential.)
I passed the test, because she ended the call by saying, “I guess I’ll call Ruth and see if I can buy the book.” Later that afternoon, Ruth called to say I’d been offered a three book contract for Signet Regencies.
It was just over three months after I started writing The Diabolical Baron.
I have still not recovered from the shock of this! I really had no expectations, just a feeling that this was fun and something I wanted to see if I could do. Once I sold, I went out and bought a compact edition of the OED, used, to celebrate. Plus a dashing French navy surplus cape from Banana Republic. And I hurled myself into learning about writing and publishing like a lemming over a cliff.
It’s still hard to account for selling so quickly, though I will point out that the market was very different then. The romance business was booming and if you could tell a good story, you had a chance of selling. I didn’t really know much—anything!—about writing, but I knew basic grammar, had good storytelling instincts, and a good voice for writing book set in Britain. (Those years in Oxford paid off!)
I can’t dismiss the Divine Intervention Theory. I have met a few other authors who sold as quickly as I did, but no question, I was exceptionally lucky. Ruth was my agent for 19 years, till she retired last year. Hilary Ross was my primary editor for ten years, and we continued working together on backlist projects for six or seven years more.
I was also lucky to make the jump from traditional Regency to Regency historical at a salubrious time. (Very shortly after I realized that I could never write trads fast enough to support myself. <g>) I’ve worked mostly with very good editors who gave me creative elbow room (we won’t go into the exceptions), and the kind of books I wanted to write were in tune with what audiences were looking for.
So that’s the story of how I got published. And believe me, I NEVER take it for granted!
So—what was your first Heyer?