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Wednesday, July 10, 2013


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
For me, a good book always has a way of taking me on a wonderful journey where compelling characters come to life, and storylines not only keep you spellbound but emotionally invested. How many of us have laughed, cried, or even screamed in terror after reading what a beloved character experienced? The first time I screamed out loud while reading was in public. And I mean, I screamed…loud. The looks I got make me smile now. The year was 1979 and I was in a school lunchroom totally enthralled reading Sphinx by Robin Cook. I still remember the horrific scene and how unexpectedly it escalated just as I turned a page.

How many of us have finished a novel and held the book close to our heart with the certain knowledge we must keep it forever? Even if our bookshelf becomes bowed to the point of breaking from the weight of these treasured books, we cannot part with them.

Well, the other day, I was organizing my bedroom walk-in closet (no small task) and, in particular, some shelves with keeper books. Primarily, the ones on these shelves are paperbacks. The hardcover books are usually placed in my writing loft on stronger shelves. Some of the books are autographed, but all of them are books I read, loved and wanted to preserve in a special place of honor. A great majority are romance novels. The settings vary although most take place in the Regency period. Other time periods I love to read include Medieval, Georgian, Colonial America, Westerns, and Victorian. No doubt about it, I have always loved historical fiction and being transported back in time. But as I looked at these books, it got me to thinking about the authors who earned a hallowed spot on my 'keeper shelf'; the ones whose works I keep returning to, like a thirsty traveler making a pilgrimage to a sacred well.

Ask anyone who loves to read, and they will tell you the names of their favorite authors. And if that reader is also a writer, it’s quite possible that one (or more) of their favorite authors also inspired them to become a writer and perhaps influenced their writing style.

Just as people readily name their favorite actors or actresses, or perhaps a favorite sports team, devout readers can trace their affection for a certain author back to their childhood. Without question, the ‘Little House’ books of Laura Ingalls Wilder remain dear to my heart. After all, she was the first author who transported me back in time as a child. Through the pages of her books, I was also introduced to characters based on her childhood that have forever touched my young heart. [Photo Credit: Catwalker/Shutterstock]

I can also remember the day I got my first ‘grown up’ book. It was my 12th birthday, and my mother gifted me with a special hardcover volume of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I read that book over and over again. In fact, I loved the book so much that a few years later my mom introduced me to the 1939 classic film version in a way I would never forget. For anyone who has seen this film, perhaps on Turner Classic Movies, it starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. However, long before there was a TCM, my mom surprised me with a mother-daughter day, just the two of us. Instead of going to the museum (which she knew I loved to do), or perhaps a concert with nothing but pipers from the Highlands of Scotland (which she also knew I adored), we went to a special screening of Rebecca in Saratoga Springs, New York. And after the film ended, none other than Miss Joan Fontaine walked out on stage to be interviewed and talk with the audience about the making of the film. I was beyond thrilled.

Miss Fontaine was so lovely, friendly, and gracious as she answered questions from the audience about the book-to- film transition of Rebecca, and what it was like working with director Alfred Hitchcock for the first time in her career (and in what was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood directorial project). She also talked about the process of filmmaking and the beautiful sets constructed for the film. Needless to say, I sighed with disappointment to know Manderley (the beautiful Cornwall estate in the film and a character unto itself) had consisted of specially constructed sets for the various interior rooms and a miniature built for exterior shots. Miss Fontaine did, however, elaborate on how beautiful that set had been and then shared an interesting anecdote.

At the time Rebecca was being filmed, Gone with the Wind was also being filmed. For those who do not know, Miss Fontaine’s sister is actress Olivia de Havilland, who portrayed Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. Well, Miss Fontaine stated that one night as the two sisters had dinner with their mother, they shared what happened on set during their respective day of filming. Ironically, the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind was filmed the very same day that Manderley had been set aflame in Rebecca. Interesting, no? I can well imagine the number of firemen on both sets that day to make sure those raging infernos we saw on film were very controlled.

[Pictured: Daphne du Maurier]

In any event, without question Daphne du Maurier has long remained one of my favorite authors, and she has influenced me as a writer, too.

Needless to say, I cannot adequately describe the emotional impact I had upon learning my first novel, The Sense of Honor, a gothic historical romantic suspense set in Regency England, had been honored with the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Romantic Mystery and Suspense.

As I looked over the names of authors I love and whose books I always keep, certain names bring a smile to my lips.

For example, virtually anything by Johanna Lindsey is a keeper.

[Pictured: Johanna Lindsey]

Lindsey's Malory family series to this day remains my absolute favorite collection of romance novels. She got me so invested emotionally in that family, I looked forward to reading what Malory the next book would be about. She also gave her readers the opportunity to reconnect with characters from earlier works.

Another writer whose work I adore and who (I feel) has influenced me greatly as a writer is Miss Jane Austen. When you think upon the fact that Pride and Prejudice (my favorite Austen novel) is this year celebrating its 200th birthday and that its popularity continues to grow all over the world, the woman was amazing.

In addition to characters that have become branded into the hearts of readers all over the world, Austen gifted the modern world with such a compelling visual of the Regency period in England that her works are not just literary classics but time capsules that document the landscape, culture, fashion, politics, and even socio-economic issues prevalent in the lives of privileged and working class people.

But if I were to name the one writer whose works I have cherished and collected in hardcover print since childhood, and whose flair with gothic historical romances greatly influenced me as a reader and writer of historical romance, it would have to be Victoria Holt.

[Pictured: Victoria Holt]

Literary talent aside, perhaps I love Victoria Holt so much for sentimental reasons. After reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt stepped in (also introduced by my mom) and not only bridged my childhood to adulthood transition as a reader with all her books, but truly became my dearest literary companion.

Whether it was on a rainy day reading in my room, or a cold, winter night seated by the fireplace, one of her books was often with me. I especially remember packing Holt titles for long summer vacations at either Hampton Beach, New Hampshire or Ocean City, Maryland. As music blared from nearby portable radios and everyone frolicked in the surf, I was enthralled by the pages of my book, transported far away to England where storm clouds gathered and waves crashed against razor-sharp cliffs. And at the top of those cliffs stood a beautiful estate where the young governess (who could have been me), was being terrorized by some gothic mystery I could not yet glean.

Captivated by the romance, passion, and suspense of Victoria Holt’s novels, I was surprised years later when, as an adult, I re-read them only to discover the hero and heroine had never shared anything more intimate on the pages than an embrace or kiss. The romance and passion had been deftly orchestrated through Holt’s finesse with characterization, subtle nuances, and sexual tension. Written from the heroine’s point of view, I felt her uncertainty as she tried to discern not only her feelings for the hero, but her confusion about how he felt toward her. Titles such as Mistress of Mellyn, Bride of Pendorric, The Shivering Sands, Lord of the Far Island and so many others not only take me back to that innocent young girl of my youth, with a rather idealistic view of romance, but the gothic Victorian world that had been opened to me by Victoria Holt.

[Just a few of my treasured novels by Victoria Holt.]

Born Eleanor Alice Burford in England on 1 September 1906 (which also makes her a Virgo like me. :-D), in her early twenties, she married George Percival Hibbert. In addition to writing gothic romance novels as Victoria Holt, Ms. Hibbert also used the pseudonyms of Jean Plaidy, Philippa Carr, Eleanor Burford, Kathleen Kellow, Anne Percival, Elbur Ford, and Ellalice Tate. Influenced by the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and George Eliot, her first novel, Daughter of Anna, was published in 1941 under the name of Eleanor Burford. Twenty years later, she has 32 novels published as Eleanor Burford.

The pseudonym of Jean Plaidy was used for her historical novels such as The Mary Stuart, Queen of Scot Series, The Stuart Saga, The Tudor Series, and The Catherine De Medici Trilogy. It is interesting to note that all her Plaidy novels were recognized for their historical accuracy and detail, as well as her writing. In addition, her Lucrezia Borgia Series published under Jean Plaidy was the first work to portray Lucrezia as a “pawn and victim of her family’s political machinations”.

However, the books I love and treasure most are the 33 gothic romances she penned from 1960 through 1993 as Victoria Holt. Beginning with Mistress of Mellyn and ending with The Black Opal (published after her death in 1993), I must admit all her Holt titles captivated me as a reader and have inspired the elements of mystery and suspense, as well as gothic influences, that I love to create in my books.

Summer has come once again and many people will be reading while vacationing at the beach, traveling to far off places, or poolside in their backyard. You might purchase a new book by an unknown author this summer, or a new title by one of your favorite authors. Perhaps some will take down a book from their 'keeper shelf' or revisit a title by one of their dearest literary companions – the author whose talent and collective works have earned their loyalty. Although I will likely be spending much of the summer writing myself, whenever I sit down to write I cannot help but remember the authors who opened the world of literary fiction for me, and especially historical romance. And I hope, on some cosmic level, they might know how much they have meant to my life.

Is there one author in particular who has your undying loyalty? An author who perhaps introduced you to a genre of literature that has become your favorite? If so, tell me who and why. I would love to know.

Thanks for stopping by, and Happy Reading! ~ AKB

[Whisper in the Wind is a best-selling sensuous time travel romance set in 1885 Texas. Now Available in print and digital for Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and Sony Reader.] The Sense of Honor, a historical romance suspense set in Regency England is also available in print and e-book format.

Note: All photos used are either public domain, purchased stock photos, or my own personal photos.


  1. How exciting that you go to see Joan Fontaine. Great post, Ashley.
    My first authors were Nancy Drew and Louisa Mae Alcott. After those books, I went on to Victoria Holt. I did read one romance, which a neighbor gave to me and told my mom it was historical--omitting the word "romance." I read it over and over until the pages of the cheaply bound book fell out. The title was "Lusty Wind For Carolina" by Inglis Fletcher. My mom would not have let me read it had she known it contained (gasp) romance. But Victoria Holt in all her names, Phyllis Whitney and Georgette Heyer captivated me.

    1. Hi Caroline - Going to that special screening of Rebecca and seeing Joan Fontaine remains a wonderful memory for me. I had the opportunity to not only see the film in a theatre as it was originally seen by an audience, but I also think the experience contributed to my fascination with movies and acting. Thanks for posting and sharing your experience. I can't wait to hear more about "Lusty Wind for Carolina" - maybe at lunch on Saturday. :)

  2. My first go-to authors in grade school were Laura Ingalls Wilder, Walter Farley, and Carolyn Keene. Then High school I moved to Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. As a young adult I read Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Dick Francis and eventually Nora Roberts and LaVyrle Spencer who made me give romance writing a try. Now I read a variety of authors ones I've met some I haven't.

    1. Hi Paty - It doesn't surprise me that you loved Walter Farley. As a girl, I also loved books about horses and his "The Black Stallion" is a classic. Another horse book I loved as a child and is still on my hardcover 'keeper shelf' is 'King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian" by Marguerite Henry. And Agatha Christie was amazing. :)

  3. Good post, Ashley. When I was growing up reading, I never knew a romance novel from anything else. Where I lived, we had no TV, most of the time no radio and no outside entertainment of any kind. We didn't have a library either. So we read whatever was at hand. Everything from the almanac to some books some passerby had dropped off. I think the first romance I read might have been "Kathryn" by Anya Seton. From that, I started to enjoy historical tales about old England and pirates. Eventually, my reading scattered in all directions and I covered the gamut of genres. These days, my faves are Deborah Smith, Linda Howard, Penelope Williamson and Tami Hoag, although Penelope Williamson hasn't had a new one out in a long time and Tami Hoag no longer writes romances. I've found a sprinkling of new authors I've enjoyed, but they haven't yet earned my undying loyalty. Since I've become a writer, my taste in reading has dramatically changed...Anna Jeffrey

    1. Hi Jeffery - Fascinating learning about your childhood and the small town you grew up in. Not having easy access to books or a library -- and knowing how intelligent you are -- must have not only challenged you but developed your pure love of reading. As a result, you cultivated an interest in mutli-genre books which has remained with you as an adult. I love it! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and favorite romance authors.

  4. Oh brought back soooo many memories with this post!!! Laura Ingalls Wilder really instilled my love of books when I was a young girl! I still have my original set with my little girl writing of my name in the covers....:-).....Johanna Lindsey, as you said, is always on my keeper shelf...I remember the first time I read one of her books...I think I was about 15, my freshman year in high school and I checked out A Pirates Love....(I think that made me love pirates...hehe...)....but I remember hiding it under the covers with a flashlight so my mom wouldn't catch me reading one of those 'scandalous' books....but I was hooked from then on.......I love books in general, as you know...but romance takes you away to a land of matter the time period or place......Thanks for the childhood reminders...(((HUGS)))

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your memories, Michelle. I do know how much you love books and how much you read. It is certainly true how important certain books become to us, and the emotional connection we have to them that can last a lifetime. :)))

  5. Ashley--I think I came from a different generation and read different kinds of books, too. I did not read most of the authors you mentioned, because I never picked up a romance novel until about 1995. Before that, yes, I read as a child, but I loved the series about real people, George Washington Carver and The Peanut,etc., Strawberry Girl books, The Bobbsey Twins books, etc. As an adult, I read science fiction, and then plain old Westerns. The first romance was a Western by Janet Dailey. After that, I as many of those--and Sandra Brown's--as I could I turned to women's fiction--Maeve Binchy, etc. By 2000, I did discover Joanna Lindsey and still love her books. But as to the classic romance stories--most I've never read.
    Laura Ingalls Wilder books? My daughter devoured those, and even those she was a voracious read by first grade, she still wanted me to sit on her bed beside her and read all of Laura's books..over and over and over. So I do know those.
    I love your post about all the wonderful authors. And thanks for the great photos, too.

    1. Hi Celia - What were the Strawberry Girl books? I have images of Strawberry Shortcake (the cartoon character) popping up in my head. :) I am also curious if you had a certain dramatic flair to your voice when you read those Little House books to your daughter. I know I would do different voices when I read books to my children, which they always enjoyed. Plus, I think there is such a bonding effect of a parent/child reading together, sharing a love of books and the journey that books can take us on. It's a great thing to pass on to your children, and I am forever grateful to my mother for motivating me to read more and introduce me to the books I love so much.

  6. Terrific post, Ashley! I haven't read all of your favorite authors, but did read several Joanna Lindsey books, along with Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss. They were my favorite early romance authors. As a girl, I loved Black Beauty and The Black Stallion. Later I got into reading westerns by any number of authors -- influenced by my dad. Nowadays my faves are Diana Gabaldon, Linda Howard, Iris Johansen and Judith Ivory. Truthfully, though, I've read many indie authors I could add to that list, including you, Ms. Ashley.

    1. Hi Lyn: Thank you for including me as an author you enjoy. Such a compliment! ((hugs))). You also named some other authors I loved to read, especially Kathleen Woodiwiss. I once read that she used to tell stories to herself as a very little girl to help fall asleep. So cute. She was certainly a born writer. Among her titles on my keeper shelf are: The Flower and the Flame, Ashes in the Wind, and Shanna. I still feel sad that she died a few years ago because I always looked forward to her next book, and I'm sure she had many more wonderful stories she could have shared with the world.

  7. Ashley, I enjoyed reading your post and all the comments to learn everyone's favorite authors. I didn't read as a child. Like Celia, I discovered romance authors as an adult and read voraciously during a difficult time in my life. In that period, Linda Lael Miller, Sandra Brown (all her pseudonyms), and Constance O'Day Flannery were my constant companions.
    My days and evenings, as a child, were spent in theaters and drive-ins with the movie stars I grew up with. But that's a story for another day. ;)

    1. Thanks for your commnent, Carra. Linda Lael Miller is great! She was one of the first western romance authors I read, and many of her titles are on my keeper shelf. Plus, I had the good fortune to meet her and they are personalized and autographed! Very talented author and a lovely person. :)))

  8. Because we didn't have a TV until I was 16, I did a whole lot of reading as a kid. I would go down to the orchard and lay on a limb or a blanket under one of the apple trees. As a preteen I loved Louisa May Alcott. I've read every book she ever wrote--even the lesser known ones like Jack and Jill, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. I, too read Victoria Holt and so enjoyed her books in my teenage years. I sort of left romance for a while on a wild quest to read science fiction and adventures. Kathleen Woodiwiss introduced me to grownup romance and then Linda Lael Miller took me into western romance. I first read her work in a western romance anthology.
    It was so much fun reading your blog and all the comments by your visitors.

  9. Hi Sarah - Your childhood sounds idyllic to me. Very Louisa May Alcott in fact. :) Thanks so much for sharing your memories and the authors you enjoyed. I agree with you about Kathleen Woodiwiss; her romances were among the first adult romances I read. So happy you enjoyed the post and comments.


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