alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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How I Became a Romance Reader

I spent last weekend at a retreat with members of the Indiana chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Being around so many different romance writers, with different backgrounds, preferences, and aspirations got me to thinking about how I ended up among them.

I concluded that I became a reader of romance novels entirely by accident.

As some readers may know, I grew up on a small farm in the Appalachian foothills of southern Pennsylvania. Once a week, my mom and I would drive into town for groceries, and to Agway for horse feed. If it was a long trip, we’d stop at the Lincoln Diner for the gyros platter and the biggest, wettest baklava I have ever encountered. But we also went to the county library.

Adams Country Prison, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1851
Courtesy Library of Congress

At that time, the library was in the county’s old prison. And it had freaking turrets!! Can you imagine a better psychic place to start a relationship with books?

As soon as we passed through the front doors, I headed for the children’s room, and my mom for the adult fiction – probably to get herself some Westerns. I was starting to outgrow children’s books, but YA wasn’t the category it is now. In my library, the ‘Teen Reads’ section, was a single 8 x 10′ area against the wall of the lobby, stocked with some sad paperback copies of things I wasn’t interested in, like Sweet Valley High.

I scrounged around in the children’s room for what I could find –after all, I had been coming there weekly for more than 10 years, and had basically read everything I wanted to, some several times. Then I’d go to the adult section to see if my mom was ready to leave. The adult section was pretty boring, since all of the books were hardback and had the shiny paper covers removed. They were just plain dark covers with plain block letters stamped up the spine. Like I said, Bor-ing.

So I’d wander back out to the front, where the romance was shelved in the first few rows. They were shiny, colorful, gloriously tawdry mass-market paperbacks. And I started picking through them. There were plenty of contemporaries, but these didn’t interest me in the least–nurses, doctors, yachts, and businessmen — bleagh. But Pirates? Runaways? Castles? Mysterious portraits? Horses? Countesses? Murder? Ghosts? — God bless the historical gothic, and the cross-dressing Regency.

These books were at the reading level for eleven-year-old me. I started with the Regencies, which were short and which had a mercifully offstage approach to sex. Later I moved on to sweeping historicals, traveling the world with Vikings, Spanish conquistadors, British privateers and French revolutionaries. I had adventures, and I learned something, usually history. I know a lot more about the succession of the British monarchy than any U.S-ian should, but I learned a few other things as well!.

I read everything ever written by Victoria Holt, and moved on to Kathleen Woodiwiss, Valerie Sherwood, and eventually, Jane Austen. Somewhere in my mid-teens, I lost my fear of those plain dark covers with the plain-lettered spines, discovered the classics, and left romances behind. But now I’m ready to acknowledge that early love that surely shaped the reader and writer I am today: I’ll be writing my own historical romance novel in 2013.

Anybody out there have a serendipitous reading experience? An accidental, but life-changing read? I’d love to hear about it.

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