#ViveLaDifference: Older Heroines
This month Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone and PHS editor Trish Wylie talk about romances with older heroines. Is the romance genre telling us love has an age limit?
Trish Wylie: Not Dead Yet
I can count on one hand the number of romance novels I’ve read which feature a heroine in her mid-to-late thirties. I’ve thought long and hard about it and can’t remember if I ever read a category/series romance with a heroine in her forties and know for sure I’ve never read one with a heroine who was older than that. As an author, up until now, I've been just as remiss when it comes to writing heroines in any of those age groups. It's somewhat akin to perpetuating the myth women's lives are over if they haven't 'met the right one' and got married by thirty.
Fact is, in real life women are ‘settling down’ later and forging their own path when it comes to happily-ever-after. It's not all about marriage and 2.4 kids anymore.
But while it might be nice to re-live a smidge of our youth in the pages of a romance novel, I think we're missing out on a lot of story potential by dismissing the more mature heroine.
Just think of the conflict! If they spent most of their twenties and thirties focusing on their career, will women risk losing their position to someone younger if they take time off to start a family? And that brings us to the children part of the debate. What if the heroine doesn’t want them? Will we like her less? Or what if she wants them but is worried she may have left it too late? What about a heroine who is menopausal when she meets the man of her dreams or y’know, that whole sexual peak thing we’re supposed to reach later in life. When it comes to the latter, do we all turn into cougars or will any guy with a fully working penis suffice? What if we’re simply set in our ways and find it difficult to share our space with someone else or vice-versa? Then there’s the divorce rate and the number of women who may find themselves single later in life when they thought they’d already found a life partner. And let’s not forget the effect it can have if you’ve searched long and hard for love and never found it or had your heart broken several times. Oh, and gravity. 'Cos it is not our friend. Body issues don't disappear when you get older. They just change.
From a writer’s point of view, this stuff is gold-dust.
Truth is, when I created a more mature heroine in my upcoming release, Just Josh, I didn’t ask any of those questions or deliberately set out to prove a point. She simply was what she was and I didn’t fight it. Her age and experience added to the story in ways which made complete sense to me because I've walked in her shoes. I'm not what would be considered young any more, though I would argue that age is a state of mind. I do, however, think the fact more mature heroine's are starting to appear in my imagination is reflective of where I am in life. I’ve never married, don’t have kids and am at an age where the very thought of dating is exhausting. All that dressing up and putting on make-up and the associated mental and emotional angst… *shudder* Having said that, I’m not dead yet and if the right guy came along at the right time…
BTW, no, I'm not going to apologize for how young the heroine looks on the book cover. I'll just give you a few names to prove my point: Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Halle Berry, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez... need I go on? And seriously, do any of them look like their lives are over?!
For me, it comes down to being open to possibility, both in life and writing/reading terms. I’m not going to dismiss a potentially great story because the heroine is over a certain age. I’m going to ask the questions I always do: Who is this person, what’s their goal, motivation and conflict and what can I learn about them and maybe even myself along the way? That’s what interests me most and sparks my imagination. Love doesn’t have an age limit. We don’t get to choose when it enters our life; we’re either open to it or we’re not. I believe those things as firmly as I’ve always believed the romance genre is about the character’s emotional journey, not their race, religion, physical ability, gender, sexual orientation or age. The stories should feature characters as diverse as the people who read them.
Amanda Ward: Norty Forties, Flirty Fifties and Sexy Sixties
Yes indeed, you read that right, so go back. Read it again and let the words sink in. Strangely enough romance and romance novels shouldn’t end just because men and women reach ‘a certain age’ I type in a hushed whisper. We are norty, flirty and incredibly sexy.
As an author of romance novels focusing on the post forty hero/heroine I’m asking the question: Why aren’t there more of them?
I’m incredibly fortunate that both my publishers have a great deal of faith in my work, and I love writing them. It seems only fair that as we age so should our heroes and heroines in romance novels. Although it is our bodies that age, our minds however are completely different kettle of fish. I’m physically forty-five but my mind-set seems to be stuck at seventeen and back in the late 1980’s for some reason and I would like to read romance books for my age group. At times reading a mainstream romance for me is reading about a fantasy my daughters would have, but they seem to all be aimed toward the late twenty to mid thirty woman. Yes both my eldest daughters are in their mid-twenties now, so it’s more than awkward sadly.
We are a wonderful age range to write about. Women live longer than men – FACT. When it comes to social skills, we actually enjoy ‘talking’ to one another and NOT text (gasp!). Manners, respect, a sense of humour and the fact that when the kids are grown up life can become a little more laid back. As for the sexual attraction bit, that is still there, believe me. When you haven’t got the anticipation of a wailing/quiet toddler around there’s a lot more time to be spent actually exploring and enjoying each other, despite the fact that things are a lot less perky and firm than they used to be.
There are couples falling in love no matter their age. Last year a couple in their late nineties were married after falling in love at their care home, how romantic is that? I think it’s wonderful they have found someone to make their lives complete and happy for whatever time they have left.
I LOVE writing my older heroes and heroines. I adore finding their quirks, their off-the-cuff sense of humour and strange collections or habits. My couples date with a purpose, and as for any issues along the way, they deal with them together to work out the kinks and have their happy ending.
True story: Within a six month time period, a thirty-nine year old woman lost both her parents, not only that but on her husband’s 39th birthday he was tragically killed in an accident leaving her with three children aged between fourteen and eight years old. When her kids had grown up a bit, and in her mid-forties she was working as a home help (or as we call them now; carer) for the elderly and one day she met the gentleman who lived in the maisonette above her client. He asked if she would like to earn some extra money by cooking some meals and cleaning for him. Twenty-eight years later they’re still together and married for twenty-six. How do I know this? The woman is my mother, and the gentleman my ever patient step-father. At the start of the relationship they kept it quiet, but one Christmas it all came to light when my older sister gave him an album entitled ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ by Yazoo.
So there’s the proof. I hope that more writers and publishing houses realise that romance novels do not have a cut off age. We need more books featuring these remarkable characters and I will do my utmost to continue writing them for as long as my characters talk to me.
Liz Flaherty: Writing for Older Readers
That particular revolution was only one Big Thing — romance and most of its changes have been an embarrassment of riches since its beginning. Multi-cultural romances are widely available, which wasn’t always the case. Indie-pubbing is huge, yet I remember when the very idea of it was pretty close to the f-bomb on the roster of dirty words. Romance used to be the love story of one man and one woman and now gender isn’t even an issue. The traditional Happily Ever After ending can be Happy For Now or, if some supporters have their way, Not Happy At All. Sex has gone from being a heavy-breathing suggestion near the climax of the story to multiple scenes in the same chapter. The use of any kind of swearing or other obscenity has become a non-issue because nothing is forbidden.
It must be admitted that nearly every adjustment has been accompanied by kicking and screaming by its authors, readers, or both, but the biggest blessing of all these changes is that now there is something for everybody. I write sweet romance for Harlequin Heartwarming with no on-the-page sex and no swearing. Inspirational publishers, lines, and imprints are alive and well. Readers don’t have to look far to find books that tell stories of LGBTQ protagonists. A reader can go from chaste kisses to multiple orgasms with the touch to the screen of her e-reader. Contemporary, historical, and paranormal romances have delighted readers waiting for them and no one’s intoning in somber voices that their chosen category is dead.
I’m old enough to be appalled at some of the alterations to the genre I love at the same time I am, as a child of the 60s, completely thrilled that the changes have been made.
Except. Did you see that term in the paragraph above, there where I said “60s.” That’s where I’m at—not the 1960s anymore, but in my 60s. Somewhere past the middle. If we want to be brutally honest or intentionally rude about it, I guess I’m old. I’m retired from a long and happy career at a day job but I still write romantic novels and work part time in a library. I’ve been married to the guy who holds my heart for 46 years and we have seven pretty-much-perfect grandchildren.
Surprising as it is to me, apparently no one wants to read about romance between people who lost their skin tone and their waistlines sometime in the previous decade. Or the one before. Who aren’t necessarily falling in real, true love for the first time, who won’t be pregnant or have children in the epilogue, who answer first and foremost to such pet names as Nana and Grampy-Buttons.
My daughter and daughters-in-law are in their early to mid-40s. They’re bright, beautiful, educated women with professions they’re excellent at and proud of. They’re also great mothers and wives. They’re readers, too, just like me. But no one wants to read about people like them, either. People whose days start in the dark and end in the dark because between their jobs and their families and that little-bit-of-time-before-bed they can call their own, their lives are completely full.
We read, all four of us, but we can very seldom read about women like ourselves because we’re too old, too settled, too married, the wrong demographic all around.
It makes me sad, because as gorgeous and smart and hilarious as everyone born after 1975 is, I don’t want to read about them all the time. I’m not interested in their body art or, for that matter, their body parts. I don’t believe they invented sex or that they’re the only ones who are good at it or that they are the only ones who can experience angst in its truest, most heartbreaking forms. They’re not the only ones who know how to laugh from their deepest parts or who hide behind closed stall doors in restrooms and weep from those same parts.
Do I sound a little bitter there, as if I’m protesting too much? Yeah, probably. Because those of us born before 1975 have been in all those places. What’s more interesting is that we’re still there. We still laugh, cry, and have sex. We love more than we ever have before simply because the width and depth of our lives grow every single day and the love grows right along with it.
Yet we can’t be heroines in romance novels and the men we love can’t be heroes. I mean, we can, but not often. Not many. Not usually ones published by the Big Boys in New York. We can’t have imprints with provocative or heartstring-pulling names. It’s been tried; Harlequin’s Next imprint comes to mind. Its 100 titles are some of the best women’s fiction/romance books ever published and several of them had Baby Boomer protagonists. But think of that—100 titles. Not many in the scheme of things.
When I began to stage this little protest—remember, I said I was a child of the 60s; protest is part of my personal operating system—I looked up the demographics of romance readers. On this particular website, I read that “18 percent are between the ages of 45-54, 11 percent are between the ages of 55-64…eight percent are over 75…six percent are between the ages of 65-74…” Now, the way I read that, 43 percent are 45 and older, so wouldn’t that make you think protagonists “of a certain age” might have more stories in them than are available to read?
Not all statistics read that way, of course—it depends on your source. And not everybody my age or my girls’ ages want to read (or write) about protagonists in their own age groups.
But some do, and I’d love to see statistics on how many of that 43 percent I mentioned up there would like to see more romances about mature people. I’d love to know how many writers would like to write more romances about mature people. (I must note here that using the word mature is making my teeth itch—we’re people and don’t need labels.)
I have friends who write older protagonists — Nan Reinhardt and Jan Scarbrough to name two. I’ve written a few. Many others have, too, and terms like seasoned romance, grown-up love stories, never too old, not their first rodeo populate numerous blogposts and websites. I’m glad to see it, glad to read those stories that are written from hearts scarred and made strong by surviving life’s rodeos.
But I don’t think it’s enough. Until such time as seniors, silver streakers, or whatever anyone wants to call us have our stories published and marketed with the same respect and enthusiasm awarded virtually everyone else, we’re still going to be the writers and the readers who are left over at the end of the day.
Dee Ernst: Let’s Hear It for Une Femme d'un Certain Âge
My very first romance, A Different Kind of Forever, was the passionate story of a 40-something college professor and a hot, young rock star. The college professor was the mother of three daughters. The rock star was named Michael. This is the novel that got me a faithful and hard-working agent and gave me the confidence to continue to write because of all the positive feedback from editors. It was not published because, despite all that positive feedback, no one thought that an older heroine would sell any books. This was before Cougartown. In fact, it was before the concept of cougar wound it’s way into popular culture.
I continued to write, and I continued to write about women over forty. In a few of my books, the women are over fifty. No, traditional publishing houses didn’t pick up these books because, you guessed it, that pesky older heroine. Amazon publishing took a chance on a few of my books, and they are doing very well, thankyouverymuch. But even fifteen years after my first cougar, I still get the same plea from editors —can’t you make her younger?
No, I can’t. And I won’t. For a few reasons.
First of all, being over forty-fifty-sixty-myself, I know that woman, and I love that woman. She’s fought and tried and failed. She has kids and good friends and a few husbands. She knows herself and she is unafraid. I remember reading The Devil Wears Prada and thinking how much better a book it would have been if Andi had been in her forties, strong and confident, and able to push back and give as well as she got from her boss.
I know that the woman over forty is still a romantic, sexual being. She wants not just love, but respect, appreciation, adoration...everything a twenty-something romantic heroine wants. So why can’t she be older? I realize that part of being involved the the romance game requires a certain fantasy element, but a realistic character can still have a fantasy relationship. So why not write a woman for the reader who is not always a 24 year-old, wildly successful, amazingly beautiful size 4 virgin who gets lucky? A forty-something mom of three who snags the hottest young rock star on the planet? Now, that’s a fantasy!
As much as I know this older woman, I am clueless as to what the younger generation of women is doing with men, in and out of bed. I have two daughters, thirty-six (OMG how did that happen?) and twenty-one. Believe me, neither of them behave the way younger heroines in contemporary romances behave. There’s Tinder and hook-ups and doing with their bodies whatever feels good, with no guilt or second thoughts. They are not interested in relationships, not because of some life-altering hurt/abandonment/trauma, but because it’s simply not a priority to them. They have jobs and friends and a life. Men are not a prize. In fact, they are barely on the radar. So how could I write a love story about a twenty-something who thinks about men in a completely different way than myself? If nothing else, I take pride in the reviews I get that talk about how real my characters are. I know what I know. To write about what I don’t know would come off as false, and my readers would know it.
And finally, here’s the main reason I write about older woman. I get reviews and emails all the time from readers thanking me for writing about a woman they can identify with. The Baby Boomers out there are gobbling up books like Ms. PacMan, and they are thrilled when then can read about themselves on the page. I have found my audience and I want to keep them happy. There are plenty of places for readers to go for all kinds of romance. For the reader looking for a tough old broad battling her way across the romantic landscape armed with humor, good friends and a world of experience behind her, my books are for them.
Writing the older heroine is not the hardest part of my job. It’s the easiest part. My main difficulty comes in trying to get a traditional publisher to recognize that the audience is out there for my books. My agent, bless her, really tries to sell my books. But change, as some of us have noticed, does not come easily to New York publishing houses. Luckily, I don’t need them to write the kind of books I want to write, and, more importantly, my readers want to read.
Morgan Malone: Later-In-Life Romance
They say you write what you know and I know about later-in-life romance. Widowed at 36, at the age of 50, I embarked on a decade of dating men between the ages of 35 and 70. I did not really believe there were men who would be interested in women of a certain age, with a few wrinkles, a few strands of silver in their hair, and kids in college…you know, the baggage of most middle-aged women. I joined some online dating services and was overwhelmed with the responses. Many I rejected - poor grammar, pornographic profile pics, questionable marital status – but for almost ten years I had the time of my life meeting interesting, funny, successful and sexy men. I had so many adventures that I put them in a book. My romantic memoir, Cocktales: An After-50 Dating Memoir, was published by Turquoise Morning Press in 2015.
My publisher requested a work of fiction next. Because I had irrefutable proof that women over the age of 30 dated, had great sex, and fell in love, it was inevitable that my heroine, Katarina, would be strong, successful and sexy. I write about the women I know, women I went to law school with, women from my neighborhood, from my office and my synagogue. Of course, I take hair color from one, profession from another, dream heart-throb from my own fantasies to create a heroine who has lived a full life and has the wrinkles, scars and laugh lines to prove it. How could a sexy, intelligent, adventurous silver fox resist them?
Women of middle-age who read one or more books per week are the largest group of readers who buy romance. Yet we still hear from certain publishers that no one wants to read a romance with a couple over 30. I even had one NY editor say “Yuck” to me when I described the sexy 48 year-old heroine and her “hot doc” 50 year-old lover from my latest book, Shoulder to Lean On. The most difficult part of writing about “mature love” is not coming up with a plot or dealing with aging bodies, complications with kids, grandkids, ex-spouses or even finding readers. The biggest obstacle is finding a publisher. Fortunately, there are some publishers willing to take a chance with women of a certain age.
The industry prides itself on its diversity: multi-racial couples, mixed faith couples, LGBTQIA romances, disabled heroes and heroines and even that last great taboo: big beautiful women! But, “older” heroines, even more than the increasingly popular “silver foxes” still seem to be outside romance’s circle of inclusion.
Nora Roberts is probably my favorite all-time author of romance; I’ll read and re-read anything she writes! Several years ago, Nora wrote The Villa. The main protagonists were the requisite young couple but what sucked me in to the story was the secondary romance between the heroine’s newly divorced mother and the new CEO of the family company. I had not read a love story about people my own age before, certainly one with a heroine who worried that she wasn’t attractive enough anymore and a hero with teenage kids and insecurities of his own.
I was hooked.
And I vowed if I was ever able to follow my dream and write the romance novel that had been flitting through my sub-conscious for years, I would write about a woman with a few gray hairs who was falling in love for the last time in her life. That book eventually became Unanswered Prayers. Readers have been particularly attracted to Naomi and Sam, because they are 36 when their romantic adventure begins and the book ends when they are 50.
More and more authors are writing love stories about silver foxes and the strong women who capture them. Here are some of my favorites:
Roxanne St. Claire has created a wonderful world of sun, sand and sexy romance in her Barefoot Bay: Timeless series. Her three hot heroes are around 50 and her heroines are in the same age range. These books have been some of the most successful in the Barefoot Bay series.
LuAnn McLane’s Cricket Creek series usually has a main couple in their late twenties or early thirties but each book also features a strong love story with a couple in their forties, fifties or sixties. LuAnn is working on a new series about a “boy” band that gets back together now that they are in their forties and it looks amazing!
Karen Booth has written one of my favorite “older” heroines in Bring Me Back and Back Forever – imagine finally meeting the hot rock star you drooled over when you were in your teens, only now you have a teenage daughter of your own!
Do you read/write romance novels which feature more mature heroines ? Is it something you've dismissed in the past, had turned down or are considering writing? Is it something you would like to read or haven't been able to find?
We want to hear your older heroine romance recommendations! Share them with us in the comments or on social media using the hashtag #ViveLaDifference!
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