A couple of months ago, I did a quick Instagram reel about Black romance in 1994. The idea was to show the contrast between Black romances published in the first half of the year (none!) and the second half after the beginning of the Black Summer of Love.
As I said in my Peeling the Onion talk the other day, I want readers and authors to know they’re not alone, that they are part of a history. Romance fiction is nothing without community, and a community needs to know its history. I hope that my sharing this stuff gives you as a reader a seed of curiosity- a thread you can pull on to build your own understanding of genre history.
One thing I’ve learned in the time since making this reel is that there’s a love story I missed! Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris, originally published in 1991 by independent Consortium Press, was reprinted by Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday in the spring of 1994. Though his 15+ books were written outside of the romance establishment, Harris deserves to be included in this “Class of 1994” as someone who was writing about the life and loves of Black gay men and finding mainstream success doing it.
Learning about romance history is a never ending journey with constant twists and turns and “ah-ha!” moments. I’m glad you’ve joined me!
If I’m honest, I’ve been a little out of practice when it comes to talking to groups lately. That’s why I was so chuffed that Kharma Kelly and the programming team at the Inclusive Romance Project reached out to me to talk a little romance history recently. As I was talking with a group focused on opening up the genre to underrepresented groups, I spent a lot of time talking about the ways in which marginalized romance authors and readers wrote themselves into the narrative. If you weren’t able to make it to the event, you can watch the replay!
If you’d like to dig in a little more, you can check out the Black Romance Author Timeline, and here are the links I mention at the end of the presentation:
I’d originally planned to do a reel or two on the Harlequin NASCAR line, a weird and under-remembered early 2000s partnership between two iconic brands. While your first instinct might be to think that this was some oddball attempt to woo male readers, it really seems to have been more synergistic than that; at the time NASCAR had a growing female fanbase who their studies showed were more likely to be readers than their male counterparts, and Harlequin had a readership who enjoyed new plots, not to mention their desire to sell more books. After a pair of Pamela Britton NASCAR themed books in 2005 sold well, the companies agreed to a more formal partnership in 2006, with NASCAR’s logo appearing on the covers, and book sales happening both on their website and at race events. The Harlequin NASCAR was in the mold of traditional Harlequin Romances, so closed doors and no drinking or drugs were the rule. The series lasted for about five years and 91 books, wrapping up in 2010.
And all that is fine and interesting, but it’s not why I’m here today. Scrolling through the list of authors, I came across a name I’d never seen before. Ken Casper was listed as the author of Speed Bumps, published in May 2007 and book 14 in the series. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I hit the brakes so hard I spun and the roof flaps deployed. To the best of my knowledge, male names had disappeared from Harlequin covers in 1959 with Edgar Wallace’s The Man at the Carlton, after which the publisher began its exclusive romance reprinting deal with Mills & Boon. Clearly more research was necessary!
According to his 2021 obituary, Ken Casper was a New York native whose Air Force career took him around the world until he finally settled in San Angelo, Texas. He retired from the Air Force in 1997 as a Colonel. In San Angelos, he tried his hand at writing a few years before retirement. He wrote that his critique partners challenged him to write a romance story, and when his early efforts earned him a prize, he submitted it to Harlequin. A Man Called Jessewas published as a Harlequin Superromance in October 1998. Like many of the men who’d written romance before him, Ken adopted a pen name (K.N. Casper) that didn’t immediately give away his gender.
Ken published 15 more Superromances between 1998 and 2005, many of which used his adopted home of Texas as a setting. With the publication of Speed Bumps in 2007, he switched to using his real name on his Harlequin titles, a practice that he used for the next 8 books with Harlequin as well as the 7 indie published romances and mysteries at the end of his career.
Ken Casper didn’t get rich off romance or sell millions of copies or get a book made into a movie. But like all category romance authors, he did the work and acknowledging that work matters. Since the 1990s, the romance community has often leaned on the idea that “romance is by women, for women”, but people like Ken Casper, David Wind, and Tom Huff serve as reminders that genre within the romance genre has always been more complicated than that.
I did make an Instagram reel about Ken Casper and not the NASCAR series, in the end. Enjoy, and give me a follow if you liked it!
Over on Instagram, I’ve been posting regular reels about items from my collection. A few weeks ago, I went over a few of the print reference resources that I just can’t live without! Check them out below and importantly, let me know if you have any issues with viewing them- this is a test to see if this kind of cross-posting will be useful. Enjoy, and thanks for your help!
It began, as so many things do, with a sleepy tweet on a sleepy Sunday.
I was just stating an opinion- not trying to stir the pot or cause a ruckus. But. What followed was perhaps a predictable nightmare swirl that comes with going viral in romancelandia, particularly if you present as male. “Mansplainer” was bandied about, intentional and unintentional misreadings abounded, I was accused of trying to kill the HEA (Happily Ever After), and I eventually just had to disengage. There was no room for actual conversation, largely because of my gender. A normal person might’ve apologized profusely and deleted the offending tweet.
But here’s the thing.
I’m right. I was then and I am now.
And not just because it was my opinion (which, don’t we get opinions about books anymore?), but because the two books I allude to did play with the HEA tropes of their moment. Yes, tropes. Word choice matters. But more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the books.
Nurse Morgan Sees It Through by Rubie Saunders (1971)- The fourth in Saunders’ series of nurse romances focused on the character of Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N., this focuses on the nursing adventures of Marilyn as she cares for the sick daughter of a Broadway star and falls in love with the new attending physician who’s assigned to the case. At the end of the book just as in the other three Marilyn and Ed are happily dating but not engaged or married. In this book, the engagement ring that typically appears at the end of a nurse romance is on the finger of Marilyn’s roommate.
Today, we would call this book a Happy For Now, but in 1971 this just wasn’t done. Category romances like the Signet Nurse Romances Saunders was writing ended with an HEA 99 times out of 100. Saunders wrote Marilyn not as a prize for some lucky doctor, but as a fully formed woman whose story couldn’t be contained in one book.
Back in the Dayby Katrina Jackson (2021)- The second story in Jackson’s Bay Area Blues series, the book begins with widower Alonzo packing up his house to move in with his son after his wife dies. What follows is Alonzo telling the story of how he and Ada fell in love over a weekend- sometimes told to Amir, sometimes just to the reader- with interludes in the present that show the community that Ada and Alonzo built over their long and happy life together. It’s a brilliantly told and emotional story.
Does the fact that we know that one of the characters is dead at the beginning of the story take away from the fact that it’s a genre romance? I argue no. The narrative may not be as linear as today’s typical story, but all the elements a romance reader would expect are there.
Both of these books are 100% genre romances. The love story is central to the plot, and the central couple is happily together. But in both books, the author has taken the tropes typically associated with the HEA convention of the moment they were written in and subverted the expectations of the reader.
“But Steve, HEA/HFN is a convention, not a trope!” Sure. But be that as it may, the HEA/HFN convention frequently uses the same tropes over and over again. Maybe it’s the last minute reversal of fortune, or the change of heart, or the battle against evil being won, or whatever. How that HEA/HFN finally comes about can be any number of ways, but it often repeats across books within the genre or subgenres. And that’s fine! But it’s also possible to break from the typical tropes and structures and still have that convention. And I would argue it’s a necessary evolution of the genre as stories become more inclusive and the idea of what a “happily” means to one set of people is different than what it means to others. That was the point I was trying to make, and that’s what got lost in all the noise that followed.
I don’t suspect the people who got real mad at me will read this, and that’s alright. And smarter people than me can probably give better and more complete explanations than I did here, and that’s fine too.
I want you for a moment to imagine yourself in 1983 (easier for some of us than others, I know!). You’ve just finished Jayne Castle’s Candlelight Ecstasy title from the previous year, Spellbound. You need more of Castle’s distinct writing style, but you haven’t seen her name on the new release shelf at the book store in a while. At the checkout counter, you ask about your favorite author, hoping the clerk has heard something.
Today, it would take a few clicks to find the information you need. Not so in 1983! But you’re in luck! The clerk tells you to hold on for a moment, and they turn around to grab a thick trade paperback off the shelf behind them. This may help, they tell you. It’s a brilliant new resource that lists all of the authors you can think of along with their books. The Romantic Spirit, it’s called. In a few seconds you learn that Jayne Castle (real name Jayne Ann Castle Krentz) has also written for Silhouette as Stephanie James, and McFadden as Jayne Bentley. A whole new world of books opens up in front of you as you can now follow your favorite authors as they change name from publisher to publisher.
First published in January 1983, The Romantic Spirit was the self-published debut for an author named Mary June Kay. Appropriately for a book about pseudonyms, Mary June Kay was the pseudonym for three San Antonio women- Mary Hotchkiss (1921-2004), June Manning (1923-2008), and Kay Garteiser. Hotchkiss and Manning were sisters who had retired from federal service and operated a romance-focused used bookstore called The Second Edition in San Antonio. They knew their stock, but didn’t have any printed reference resource for themselves or readers to use in finding, or more particularly, cross-referencing more romances. Garteiser worked with word processors at an accounting firm, presumably bringing the technical know-how to the project.
Lovers of genre fiction have long relied on bibliographies- collectors of science fiction and mystery novels used them to not only show off their own collections of pulp magazine and novels, but also to be able to cross-reference authors, publishers and titles. As romance exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, no one had yet made an effort to gather information about the genre in one place. Mary, June, and Kay were the first to take on this mammoth task.
The book itself is utilitarian and no-frills. After a brief three page introduction by Romantic Times publisher Kathryn Falk, the books sets straight to business. Authors are listed in alphabetical order, along with their known pen names [in brackets] and real name if known (in parens). Their books are then listed, with the publisher identified and book number if applicable. In some cases, sub-genre information is provided- for example, <RS> for romantic suspense. In the back, numbered lines are listed together, with titles and authors. The information appears to largely be drawn from the published books themselves, though in some cases authors are listed without books; presumably those names were taken from resources such as Romantic Times, which was still in its infancy at the time.
The book was enough of a success that Mary, June, and Kay kept at it for several years. They published updates for 1983-1984, 1985-1986, and 1987-1988 focused only on the books from those individual years, alongside corrected errors or omissions from earlier editions. The original volume earned an award from Romantic Times, presented by Barbara Cartland herself at the 1983 Booklovers’ Convention.
In 1990, Kay Garteiser announced in the pages of Romantic Times that she was retiring from working on The Romantic Spirit due to her health. She passed the torch on to occasional RT reviewer Lisa Miller, also a San Antonio resident, who put out a revised full edition of the book in 1990. The revised volume used the same format as the original, adding books and new entries where appropriate, though it lacks the line indexes of the original.
At the same time as Mary, June and Kay were working on The Romantic Spirit, reviewer Melinda Helfer was writing a column for Romantic Times identifying authors and their pseudonyms, calling herself “The Pseudonym Sleuth”. Helfer began writing the column in 1981, taking an alphabetical approach. By 1989, she had only reached the letter “P”, which tells you the scope of the task. In 1989, Helfer’s work was combined with that of Kathryn Falk and Kathe Robin in The Romance Reader’s Handbook, published by Romantic Times. This spiral-bound volume took a less comprehensive approach than The Romantic Spirit, listing only the pen names and known real name of authors but not their books. Also included was a guide to RT’s “Bookstores that Care” network, a nationwide group of independent bookstores that welcomed romance readers (and generally sold RT as well). The Second Edition in San Antonio isn’t listed- near as I can figure it was gone by then. There’s also contact information for authors and publishers, and a delightful collection of author ads in the back.
The five editions of The Romantic Spirit, alongside The Romance Reader’s Handbook, are not essential resources for collectors in this day and age. The vast majority of the information about authors found here can be found elsewhere. But- not everything can be found on the internet! There are author listings here that can connect you to authors you may never have thought of as romance authors, such as mystery author Jane Haddam, who wrote romance as Nicola Andrews and Ann Paris. And the bookstore section of The Romance Reader’s Handbook is an exploration waiting to happen all on its own! Or maybe you’re just like me, and a random name pops into your head at 9:30 at night and you don’t feel like looking at a screen. It can be tricky to find all of these volumes, but to me, the joy of a nicely done bibliography is well worth it!
It’s been quiet here, but I promise I’ve been busy. I created a new Instagram account called the Romance Historian, where I’ve been sharing shorter content about some of the random romances and reference books in my collection. Some of it will mirror content you’ve read here, but I’ll try to make sure there’s lots of new bits and bobs to enjoy.
I also recently wrote an article for Fine Books & Collections Magazine, which is in their Summer 2022 issue! I was able to speak with some of my favorite people in the romance collecting community- Funmi Brown, Jennifer Wielt, Rebecca Romney, and Rebecca Baumann- about their approaches to collecting, and how they’d like to see collecting in the genre grow. It was great fun talking with these awesome people, and I’m really pleased with how the article came out. You can order print editions of the magazine directly from their website, or you can find it at select bookstores.
I hope you’re having a great start to your summer, and look for more content soon!
The vast majority of category romance writers in the 1980s and 1990s did not create beloved characters or become household names. From their relative anonymity, they turned out book after book, year after year, of happy endings that brought readers happiness. When they pass away or stop writing for some other reason, they often end up forgotten by the reading public. In many cases, those authors were fascinating people in their own right, whose personal stories deserve to be remembered.
There is no more shining example of that than Eva Rutland.
Eva Rutland was born in 1917 in Atlanta, the daughter of a pharmacist and a school teacher. Her grandfather, Isaac Westmoreland, was a former slave who worked as a shoemaker to ensure that each of his children attended college. Eva attended Atlanta’s segregated public schools, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where she appeared on stage with classmate Lean Horne, and went on to Spelman College, where she graduated in 1937. After marrying Bill Rutland, a civilian Air Force employee, the couple moved to Tuskegee, Alabama and Columbus, Ohio before settling in Sacramento, California. While stationed in Tuskegee, Eva underwent an operation that ended up severing her vocal cords, which led to her needing a tracheotomy tube in order to speak.
After her first book, Rutland turned to fiction and began writing stories. She had begun to lose her sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, but did not let that stop her. In a 2011 interview with AARP, Rutland described her early process- she would dictate a story into a tape recorder and then slowly transcribing using a regular typewriter.
In 1988, after years of trying, Rutland’s first book was published by Harlequin. To Love Them All debuted in the Harlequin Romance line in March of 1988, just two months after Eva turned 71. It was followed in November 1988 by another contemporary, At First Sight.
A year later, the author whose favorite book was Pride and Prejudice would become the lead author for Harlequin’s new line of Regency category romances. Matched Pair (1989) is a classic “sweet” fake relationship Regency with, not to give it away, a surprising deus ex machine twist at the end. For several years, Rutland would go back and forth between contemporaries for Harlequin Romance and Regencies for Harlequin Regency Romance, until the latter line’s demise in 1993- after that she only wrote contemporary stories. Among her Regency romances is 1991’s The Willful Lady, which I mention mostly because it has one of the most delightful covers in romance history, featuring a man falling down while trying to hold on to a Macaw.
Of the 18 titles Eva Rutland wrote for Harlequin only the last, 2005’s Heart and Soul, published when she was 88, features a Black main character. In a 2000 profile for the Orlando Sentinel, she says that she had once considered writing an earlier book with a Black character, but had been dissuaded by a friend. During the time Eva was writing for Harlequin, the publisher put out only a handful of stories with Black main characters, so one can imagine a writer who wanted to keep working with the publisher not wanting to mess with success. Even authors like Sandra Kitt and Chassie West, who had in the early 1980s written groundbreaking books with Black characters for the publisher, were mainly writing white protagonists for Harlequin.
It is worth taking a moment here to point out that while we know that Eva Rutland was one of the few Black authors writing for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, we cannot definitely say how many others there might have been. Many authors published under pseudonyms, and would’ve been either implicitly or explicitly told to stick to writing white characters for their books, which may have led them to write very little or later disavow what they did write. We just can’t be certain. Rutland’s status as the first Black author to write a Regency romance for Harlequin is undeniable, however.
Eventually, Eva would team up with Sandra Kitt and Anita Richmond Bunkley to write novellas with Black characters, this time for Signet- 1996’s Sisters and 1999’s Girlfriends. Rutland’s stories in these books- Guess What’s Cooking in Sisters and Choices in Girlfriends– would end up being her only romances to feature Black couples.
As American romance publishing boomed in the early 1980s, editors frequently played an outsized role in shaping the direction of the genre. Avon’s Nancy Coffey famously retrieved Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower off of a slush pile in the early 1970s for a weekend read, liked what she read, and changed the historical romance game forever. Vivian Stephens took over Dell’s moribund Candlelight Romance line in 1979 and injected it with relatable characters and locales, upped the heat level, and made it the first line to seriously challenge Harlequin’s dominance of the category romance market. Today I want to add a new name to that list- one that we don’t often mention, but who had just as important an impact.
Around the same time Vivian Stephens was joining Dell, a new face appeared in the offices of Berkley-Jove in New York. Carolyn Nichols came to publishing from journalism, having been one of the earliest writers for WETA television in her hometown of Washington, D.C.. Like Stephens, she felt something was missing from Harlequin’s tried and true romance formula that could be exploited. According to John Markert’s Publishing Romance, Nichols submitted a memo to Berkley-Jove management in 1978 outlining an idea for a contemporary romance line with increased sensuality that could compete with Harlequin Presents. Management didn’t like the idea, but after the arrival of Stephens’ Candlelight Ecstasy line in 1980, Nichols was finally given the green light and went about creating the line that would become Second Chance at Love (Markert, 94).
Carolyn Nichols may have been new to publishing, but she wasn’t new to romance. Born Carolyn Iona McKnight in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1939, she grew up in Washington, D.C., attending Wilson High School and then George Washington University before working at WETA, one of the first public television stations in the country. In the mid 1970s, she partnered with WETA colleague Stanlee Miller Coy for a series of gothic romances- definitely five, possibly six- under the pseudonym Iona Charles. In 1978 and 1979, not long after she had joined Berkley-Jove, Carolyn published two books under the pen name Carolyn McKnight, including Gravetide for Vivian Stephen’s Candlelight Romance! Nichols understood the romance market as both a consumer and author, a viewpoint she’d use to her advantage over the next few years.
More than a copy of Harlequin Presents, the identifying feature of Second Chance at Love- as the name suggests- was that both main characters had experience with love. They may have been married- to each other or someone else- and divorced, or widowed, or otherwise driven apart. This naturally meant that characters were older and typically were no longer virgins, a marked departure from the older formulas, and more in line with the direction Candlelight Ecstasy was taking. The line launched in June of 1981 with Susanna Collins’ Flamenco Nights, and found success in a contemporary romance market that was not yet oversaturated- although it was getting there.
Nichols’ success did not go unnoticed. A year after the premiere of Second Chance at Love, she was hired by Bantam in 1982, ostensibly to save their newly launched line, Circle of Love. A Harlequin Romance clone, Circle of Love turned down the heat at a time when its competitors were turning up the heat, and it was struggling to stay afloat. Luckily for Bantam, Carolyn Nichols had a better idea.
The many lines launched between 1980 and 1982 were starting to create a glut in the romance market. Highly specific tip sheets, like the one Nichols herself created for Second Chance at Love, had created too formulaic of a product. Worse still, publishers with little experience in romance and no interest in hiring talent who did were throwing sub-par books onto the market, hoping readers would snap them up anyways. The quality of a new line had to be something special.
At the same time, a nascent fan culture was emerging in romance. The reader-oriented Romantic Times had launched in 1981, and held its first Booklover’s Convention in 1982. As they had done with historical romance, readers were starting to identify authors they liked and not just the lines they wrote for, and wanted to know more about the people behind their favorite books. Nichols saw all of this and developed a plan that would make her new line stand out in what was now a very crowded field.
With Loveswept, Carolyn Nichols threw away several parts of the old category romance formula. Gone were the tip sheets and guidelines for authors. Also gone were the pseudonyms and relative anonymity of the author. Each book would be under the author’s real name, and the inside of the front and back cover would include a picture of the author and a note from them about their lives. By giving authors the chance to write the stories they really wanted to write, and readers the chance to get to know their favorite authors better, Nichols was betting Loveswept would work.
The other new thing about Loveswept was how it launched- with a free sampler. About the size of a category novel, somewhere around 200,000 of these were printed featuring a chapter from each of the first six books in the series, along with a biography of each author. Importantly, Nichols’ editor note at the front of the book identified each author as well as the pseudonyms they’d already published under as well as their prior publishing houses. The six authors in the book- Sandra Brown, Helen Mittermeyer, Noelle Berry McCue, Fayrene Preston, Carla Neggers, and Dorothy Garlock- had to that point used some combination of sixteen pen names, but here they were standing on their own.
The line was a hit. Nichols’ instincts payed off, and both authors and readers came to love Loveswept over its sixteen year existence before it was shuttered in 1999 (it was resurrected as an ebook-only line in 2011). As she had predicted, authors preferred writing without limits, and readers loved seeing their favorite authors at their best. Nichols continued to innovate- 1986 saw the launch of The Delaneys, one of the earliest attempts at a category romance cross-author series, featuring superstars Kay Hooper, Fayrene Preston and Iris Johansen all writing in the same world. Within each of the books was an ad for Clairol hair dye, including colors that matched that of each of the female main characters.
Nichols would go on to a long career as an editor and publishing executive at Ballantine and New American Library before retiring from NAL as Vice President and Executive Director, Editorial in 2001.
Carolyn Nichols died on October 21, 2017 at her home in Portland, Oregon. Former employee and writer Elizabeth Barrett wrote a lovely remembrance of Nichols after her passing. While we don’t talk about her much now, there can be no doubt that Nichols played a crucial role in the development of American romance. Her innovations as an editor centered readers and authors in ways that shaped the genre to this day and she belongs in any conversation about the most important romance publishing figures of the 20th century.