Visibility, Invisibility: Grey Hair Breaking Down the Wall

Karen Booth, the author, advocate for Seasoned Romance, and co-founder of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group has a new book coming out in February, and it is an important book. Have a look as the title and cover and you may understand why—if you are over the age of 40, you may, at last, feel seen.

Visibility and invisibility slot together with discussions about inclusion and diversity, which boil down to the need to be seen. In Karen’s upcoming seasoned romance, Gray Hair Don’t Care, visibility and invisibility hinge upon a full head of hair. For some women, grey hair is fraught with meaning that is usually not positive. In our society, many equate grey hair with with decline, particularly if you’re female. Women are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that grey hair signals the decline of not merely youth, but of desirability, of their worth as a human being.

Grey hair is a human being’s badge of successful living, a sure sign of age and ageing well. I say ‘ageing well’ because growing older, that is, not dying at a young age, is what humans seek. We search for ways we can exercise better to maintain our bodies, eat foods that may help us live longer. If you are female living longer, going grey, a perfectly natural aspect that comes with bypassing that early grave, is signposted as something ugly, as something shameful, as something to deny, cover up, to erase. I don’t know about you, but  I’m sick of that directive. While there is a growing backlash against covering one’s grey, the message that grey hair must be denied and dyed is powerful, deeply embedded in our culture, and it continues to, along with the plethora of anti-ageing products aimed at women, reinforce the notion that women and ageing do not go together. Sexism, ageism, and sexist, ageist practice is embedded in society and runs deep, so deep may people fail to notice it at all. This is why seeing a cover like Karen’s is so important. Many women will, at last, feel seen.

If you haven’t noticed how deep ageist practices go when it comes to women and grey hair, allow me to point out that you have most likely been indoctrinated to accept that a woman who has managed not to die and continues to live a long life is not a necessary depiction in advertising, on screen, or between the pages of a novel. Especially if she has grey or white hair. When an older ‘grey’ woman is represented it is in roles that cast her as secondary character, such as mother or grandmother, or, more often than not, as an ageist stereotype, such as cougar, lunatic, harpy, menopausal comic relief, or as sexless crone. Without realising, you have witnessed the regular ageist practice against women in advertising, film, and fiction, especially in romance fiction where older women are seldom seen, or not seen at all. You may not even notice that a male lead, the hero, is allowed to be the silver or grey fox, with distinguished grey temples, while a woman the same age, combined with the perceived ugliness of her grey hair, leads to devaluing and outright erasure.

Perhaps you are aware of this all because you are a woman who’s wondered why you no longer see other women like you in films, on TV, or in books. You may be a person of colour, or Muslim, or disabled, or fat and you want to see women who are like you, and you long to be represented. In this case, representation, visibility and invisibility comes down to the few hairs I’m splitting here, as you, if you read my pieces on ageism and romance fiction, would expect me to.

Karen and I share a few things. We are advocates for seasoned romance and women over the age of 40, and we have both written books that feature older women with grey or white hair as leads in romance fiction. The older female protagonist, or, as the genre prefers to call her, an older heroine, remains an anomaly in the genre. Still. I’ve been writing and studying older heroines in romance fiction for nearly two decades. Seven years ago, my second book, For Your Eyes Only, was published. It had taken me close to ten years to find a publisher who didn’t tell me I had to make my heroine younger. I was thrilled and so grateful that I had found an editor and a publishing house who were open to the idea of an older woman positioned as the heroine rather than as a secondary character or as a stereotype of a woman of a ‘certain age’. The silver foxy heroine in Karen’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is 47. The heroine in For Your Eyes Only is 50 and had white hair. Karen’s cover is gloriously representative of her heroine’s age. My cover is…well, as you can see, the victim of my publisher’s concern about my heroine’s advanced age. The cover model is 15 years younger and blonde rather than white-haired.

I should have fought harder for a different cover. I should have pushed and clawed for an image that conveyed that a white-haired, middle-aged woman was worthy of being a heroine on the cover, but there were a few things happening that prevented me from doing so. I was a new author, I had no clout, and, as I mentioned, my publisher was the only publisher willing to take a risk on a new author writing a heroine who sat outside the age norms of romance fiction.

Karen and I, as well as many other authors who have submitted books to romance fiction publishers, have faced the ageism and the ageist brick wall that exists within the industry. The brick wall often came—and still comes—in the form of statements such as, ‘we’re not sure how to market this book’ or ‘we don’t think there’s an audience for this book’ or ‘this book won’t sell unless you make the heroine younger’ or my favourite, ‘no one wants to read granny sex’. The way our culture has been conditioned to accept ageist practices as normal, feeds ongoing publishing concerns that putting a more ‘mature-aged’ woman on the cover would turn off readers, that a book featuring an image of woman with grey or white hair would not sell. Of course, any business would be apprehensive about a product that might not sell. No one wants to lose money. As I have said so many times before, film and fiction are actually losing out on making money by ignoring a specific population with money to spend. Being ignored as a consumer is one more form of invisibility.

Visibility and invisibility. Cover art comes and goes, from Fabio’s flowing tresses and drooping bodices to the current illustrated trend in romance fiction. If you didn’t know, many publishes use stock images to create cover designs, and this is where I admit I am not a huge fan of the illustrated cover. I’m also not a fan of a bare chest, the floating head shot over a country background, or the genre’s iconic clinch cover, yet it is obvious the illustrated cover solves issues that publishers find insurmountable, such as finding stock cover images to present curvy or fat heroines, disabled heroines, heroines of colour, heroines from non-western cultures, older heroines. It’s sad. It’s shameful in the way grey hair is not. It’s exasperating as hell. Things have changed a little in the last 2 years, but what’s out there is merely OK. It needs to be better. While silver foxy men are a cinch to find, peruse stock image companies for older women and you’ll find lots of attractive middle-aged women touching their faces. Search for mature couples and you’ll see lots of picnics.

As Karen notes in her cover reveal for Gray Hair, Don’t Care, rather than face the frustration of wrestling with the ingrained preconception romance fiction editors and CEOs have about grey-haired women, or trying to find a decent stock image, she decided to indie publish Gray Hair Don’t Care and commission a cover artist. That was one smart move. While Karen addresses, directly, the embedded ageist notions represented by a woman with grey hair, I went in a different direction when it came to choosing cover images for my indie releases, the In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. I decided to lean into the vector silhouette images one might find in spy fiction because of how incredibly difficult it is to find stock images of middle-aged women. I knew what I was up against. Then again, so did indie author Maggie Christensen. Publishers who adhere to the notion that a woman aged 40+ has no business being on a cover have their arses squarely kicked by Maggie, a Scotswoman living in Australia. When it comes to her seasoned romance covers and heroines, she knows her audience, writes fabulous romance fiction featuring women 40+, and Maggie puts those more grown-up women on her book covers, using the same style as romance novels featuring women in their 20s.

Maggie, like Karen, Natasha Moore, Maggie Wells, Kristen Ashley and I sell books and garner great reviews from readers who have sought out seasoned romance with more grown up heroines, older female leads, mature female protagonists whatever you want to call women over 40 who are the main characters.

What makes me most cranky about this ongoing struggle with sexist ageism is that publishers are ignoring readers. Readers responding to Karen’s cover reveal ought to be evidence enough that older women want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Visibility and invisibility. There are two things at stake here: the inclusion and representation of women of all ages on book covers and between the pages, whatever colour their hair might be, and instead of publishers telling authors that books with grey-haired women on the cover won’t sell, perhaps it’s time to take note of how readers have been ignored for far too long. I say this because, at the online Romance Writers of Australia (RWAus) conference I attended last weekend, the same editor who once told me that no one wanted to read granny sex also stated that authors were the ones pushing for seasoned romance. I believe, wholeheartedly, that this editor is wrong. As an author and as a reader, I’d like to point out that readers are driving the call for older heroines, for seasoned romance. Readers make up the overwhelming majority of the 3K+ Seasoned Romance Facebook group, as well as the nearly 2K membership of Romance In Her Prime. It is readers who are searching for heroines who look like they do—women with greying or grey hair, crow’s feet, with lines on their faces, life experience and the baggage that comes with it. It comes down to visibility and invisibility, to representation and inclusion. It’s obvious that publisher demographic studies, like so much advertising market research, fails to include older people, especially older women in their investigations or even take them into account as consumers—unless it’s for cruises, funeral insurance, or osteoarthritis relief. In their endeavour to make money, companies seek out the next generation of consumers, dropping the consumers they may already have, which in this case are readers. Romance readers, the editor at last weekend’s RWAus conference said, read down, meaning they read about younger characters, but this is only so because there are so few books like Karen’s, like mine, that offer older readers, grey-haired or not, the visibility they crave.

My books with silver, white, & grey haired heroines are available here and here. Karen Booth’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is out in February 2021. It’s now available for preorder. It’s going to be huge, the book that breaks through and breaks down the wall for seasoned romance.

And it’ll be because of flowing grey hair.

Wanna Sneak Peek a Chapter?

Perhaps you’re after a break from the incessant VIRUS and other glum news and you’re looking for a bit of a European springtime getaway, one bursting with new season colour. Maybe you’re wanting a bit of romance, mystery, and thrilling adventure, the sort spies and the middle-aged Irish butlers they love seem to have, except flying is out of the question, you know, with borders being closed, social distancing, and no one but hoarders having toilet paper.

This is why reading is SO AWESOME. Reading transports you to other seasons, to other places, and gives you the opportunity to step into a seasoned romance full of suspense, mystery and spies, where toilet paper isn’t really an issue–unless it’s used as a weapon, which, in the case of True to Your Service, I can assure it is not. But other things are, and they are jungle green.

Allow me to transport you to London’s Regents Park in early May. And if you like London, maybe you’ll want to snag a copy of True to Your Service and travel on to beautiful gardens in Amsterdam and the countryside of the Netherlands. Or perhaps a sex shop in Amsterdam tickles your, uh, fancy and you’d enjoy reading about a seasoned butler and the equally seasoned spy who are very much in love, secretly married, and willing to risk life and fingers to keep that love–and each other–alive.

Get ready for mystery, thrills, true love, sex, spies, scrambled eggs, and bar full of monkeys!

Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Nook 

Chapter One

A dog and a wife, two things one didn’t typically associate with a man in his profession. Married spies in fiction or on screen were few and far between—unless one counted tales of Russian sleeper agents living in plain sight. Married spies with smallish dogs best known for being the favourite companion to noblewomen in the Middle Ages were also an anomaly.

As the dog in the back seat nudged his snout between the headrests, Kitt glanced at the woman driving his car, and joy, unanticipated, vast joy enveloped him. He smiled. The last few months with Mae had been filled with moments of joy, joy that was as unexpected as having a wife and a dog, but with unexpected happiness also came an immeasurable sense of responsibility that stretched beyond his own self-preservation. It was a sober counterbalance to the giddiness of his joy and he frowned until his wife’s sniff of disdain brought another smile to his face.

He watched Mae give the Bentley’s ash veneer dashboard a once-over full of scorn. At the traffic lights, she looked at him in the passenger seat, picked a wad of fluff from the shoulder of his jacket, her mouth pursing, lips bunching like the white spring clouds over London. “Three months,” she said, hazel eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Three months?”

Mae adjusted her grip on the steering wheel and accelerated through the intersection. “Three months is when the restlessness typically begins, when the inactivity of office-based work has burrowed beneath your skin, and it becomes evident, in subtle ways, that you believe the sedentariness of desk work is turning you soft in mind and body. I worked for you long enough to know the pattern. The occasional pulse in your jaw, the long sigh when you finish your scrambled eggs, the tension in your shoulders every time I turn onto the Outer Circle. You’ve been out of the field and in an office since mid-February. Three months is your limit.”

“Valentine’s Day to the first week of May is only two months and three weeks, and my mind turned to mush the day I confessed my feelings for you, which was nearly a year ago.”

“My, how time flies when you’re soft and in love.” She gave him a quick, sidelong look and blew a tendril of blonde hair from her eye.

His transition from field agent to station-based intelligence officer had happened a little earlier than he had planned. He had actually been reassigned to Section SOST—Special Operations Selection and Training—as a result of breaking protocol in an unauthorised, yet successful action, where he lost bits of two fingers, nearly died, and uncovered ties funding terrorism through the sale of stolen cultural artefacts and counterfeit luxury goods. Most intelligence officers departed the harshest field work at fifty-five, leaving the more hazardous postings to younger women and men. The Consortium viewed all intelligence officers as assets to be utilised, it was ‘once a field officer, always a field officer’, regardless of age. How very broadminded of them.

The selection and training of new intelligence recruits was a challenge, and not the sort of challenge that stirred more than a generic enthusiasm in him. He lacked the patience for instructing officers who had some experience, yet were basically still novices, like Eaton, his current field trainee. Bryce had suggested his making an application to become head of Section SOST—an attractive prospect if it hadn’t been for all the bloody paperwork Section Heads necessitated. At the moment, what he’d envisioned, and what Bryce had suggested, didn’t matter, seeing as his reassignment was temporary and held him in limbo at HRM’s—or more rightly, Llewelyn’s—pleasure. His transition had yet to move from cocoon to chrysalis.

Kitt sighed exactly the way he had when he had finished his scrambled eggs this morning. “I admit I’m a bit bored, a bit impatient. I’ll grow accustomed to it, as one does any change, but how do you think I’m soft?”

“Shall I start with this car?”

“You’ve never liked my car.”

“Yes, because it’s soft. For example,” she gave another disdainful sniff, “it has a heated steering wheel.”

“It’s designed to warm the hands of a man with a cold heart.”

“Your heart’s not as cold as you think it is.”

“And I’m not as soft as you think I am, but my hands are certainly like ice in winter.”

“You could wear gloves when driving in the cold.”

“The steering wheel is heated, so there’s no need for gloves.” A cool nose poked into the side of his neck again, this time, a little tongue licked his ear. Kitt pushed Felix’s snout away. The Italian greyhound strained against his harness and set his narrow, ginger head between the front seats again. Somewhat absently, Kitt scratched beneath the dog’s white chin.

Mae shook her head and continued her critique, eyes on the road as she passed York Bridge at the edge of Regent’s Park. “There’s also the matter of the wooden dash.”

“It looks pretty.”

“Yes. Your car is very pretty, very soft and pretty.”

“That little Sunbeam Alpine Julius Taittinger had in New Mexico, the one you said was the perfect car for me, had a walnut dash.”

“That car was hot pink.”

“Yet you said it was the car I ought to be driving instead of my Bentley.”

“Which, I’d like to point out, you haven’t driven in over a month.”

“One must keep up appearances, Mae. That aside, I think, in embracing my soft life, I’ve come to enjoy your chauffeuring me about.”

A loud ha burst from her mouth. “Did you learn nothing about how to lie when you were a young lad at spy school?”

“What should I have said?”

“Driving is difficult with my stubby fingerlings, Mae,” she said, voice low and plummy.

“Yes, I sound just like that. I am always amazed by your uncanny talent with mimicry.”

“And mockery.” Eyes on the road, she caught the wiggling of stunted fingers on Kitt’s left hand. He’d lost the tops of his fingers in a fight last year, and lived to tell the tale.

“Is there anything about this car you like?”

Her mouth pursed again. “It’s a nice colour.”

“It matches the green in your eyes,” Kitt said as Felix licked his ear. Mae laughed and the Bentley skirted Regents Park, along the Outer Circle.

The muscles in his shoulders began to bunch and Kitt forced himself to relax as Mae chuckled. “Oh, stop it,” he said, chuckling too. The mobile in his jacket buzzed. He pulled out the device. Morland, his superior’s chief assistant, had sent a message—Review relocated to Gray, 7:30.

Kitt tapped out a reply: Received. He shoved the phone back in his jacket pocket and gazed out the window, watching bright green spring leaves flutter in the breeze, scratching Felix under the chin as Mae turned off the Outer Circle onto Chester Road, the street lined by fresh, new green leaves, an explosion of tulips, and pink cherry blossoms. “There,” he said pointing to a parking space that had been vacated. “You can drop me there.”

She pulled into the spot not far from the Broad Walk and The Espresso Bar café, shut off the engine, and released her seatbelt. For a moment, she rummaged in the centre console’s cubbyhole and drew out the dog’s lead. “Not to sound like a wife, but when do you think you’ll be home tonight?”

“Not to sound like a husband, but after six.” Felix nuzzled into Kitt’s neck again. Gently, he pushed the eager-for-a-walk dog back and looked up at the parking signs, unlit streetlamps, and the open iron gate near the corner of the Broad Walk entrance. Yes, a wife and a dog, two things he never thought he’d want or have. “I like when you sound like a wife,” he said, his tone idiotically earnest, and not any way corny.

“That’s the benefit of being married to you rather than being your employee.”

“Yes, I no longer pay you and you still care.” He turned in his seat to face her. “Have you planned something for this evening?”

“Sean’s invited us for dinner. He has something he wants to show us.”

“Oh, goody.”

“He’s trying.”

“Yes, you brother is quite trying—and judgemental.”

“You can’t blame him. His baby sister married a spy. He’s being protective.”

“No, no, he’s being judgemental.”

“It’s taken years for him to step outside his comfort zone and make a change. He’s worried about relapsing, slipping into old patterns of thoughts and behaviours. It’s a challenge to start again in a new place, away from the support system he had.”

“Ah, the cloistered brotherhood of priests keeping each other’s secrets.”

“You do realise how absurd that is for you to say, don’t you?”

“I’m crushed by the irony.” He opened the door and paused. “I understand the complexities of combat exposure PTSD, symptoms relapsing, and the previous government’s inadequate support of veterans with mental health issues, but sometimes…”

“Sean is just a prick?”

“I was thinking misanthropic arse, but prick works well for Padre Sean Vincenzo.”

Mae chuckled and watched a white sedan pass. The dog strained forward between the seats, but the harness he was belted into kept him from getting in front and into anyone’s lap. Kitt glanced at the street lights and parking signs again. “Come here to the boot for a minute.” He got out of the Bentley and shut the door.

Mae checked that no traffic was coming and climbed out of the car too pretty for an ugly-handsome man like her husband. Felix scampered about in the car, barking at two passing young men playing with a football. Mae went to the rear where the boot sat open, Kitt leaned into the space where she’d put her handbag and he’d tossed his sports bag and a shabby, old leather satchel. Dark, ginger-blond head bent, he stood with his arms inside the grey-lined gap, head hidden by the boot’s lid. When he didn’t straighten, she said, “What is it, have you become so soft that bending over to fetch your bags has made you slip a disc?”

“Come here.”

She moved nearer. “Oh, you have hurt your back. Poor diddums.”

Diddums?”

“Would you prefer schnookums?”

“I would not.” He motioned with his chin. “Come closer. I want you to have a look at something.” The transit van behind them had its side door open, the driver unloading and stacking boxes onto an upright hand trolley on the footpath at the rear of the Bentley. Across the road, a mud-spattered Land Rover Defender, one that looked like it had come fresh from an expedition in the Amazon, had parked in the front of the bollards.

At his side, Mae bent forward, hands on the rim of the boot as she looked into it. “Yes, I see. You need a new car and a new satchel.”

“I’d no sooner replace either one of them than I would replace you. Now, look.” His eyes darted to the Land Rover and the bollards.

Felix let out a little half-whine of a bark. “What is it you want me to see? Felix is doing his little need-to-pee dance.”

Blue-grey eyes met hers and he turned slightly. “Did you notice the street lights and bollards on either side of the Broad Walk?”

She shifted to straighten and look, but his swift hand kept her in place. He smiled softly, his fingers brushing over the top of hers. “The lights are there. Trust me.

“And you’re telling me because…”

“There are digital video cameras hidden inside. CCTV cameras in the bollards across the footpath too, and the cameras see everything.”

“As one hopes they would.”

“One must keep up appearances and away from prying eyes, yet, like most husbands, I’d like to kiss my wife goodbye before I toddle off to work to deal with people and,” he winced, “paperwork, but the cameras can see everything, Mae.”

“You are ridiculously melodramatic,” she said.

“Perhaps.” He brushed the two normal-sized fingers of his left hand over his lips then touched them to the hand she’d rested on the inside rim of the boot.

She laughed and straightened, patting the dog’s tennis ball bulging the pocket of her sporty pale-blue jacket and pulled at the waistband of cropped, black leggings. She was dressed for a run with the dog. Kitt’s eyes travelled over her as she pushed back a strand of silver-shot blonde hair loosened from a ponytail. These days, she seldom wore her old uniform of navy-blue shirt dress and apron, and, unless working on a renovation project, her hair was rarely in a French braid. Kitt looked down at her hot pink joggers. He smiled, chuckling. “I miss your Doc Marten Mary-Janes—and your apron. You don’t wear your apron anymore.”

“I’ll be sure to have it on when you get home.” She took his satchel and an umbrella with a curved handle from inside the boot. “Here,” she said, thrusting out the black, quintessentially British-looking object.

“It’s not raining,” he said, casting an eye at the blue sky.

She thrust the brolly closer. “Keeping up appearances?”

“Ah. Yes. The cameras.” He took the old briefcase and umbrella.

“I know. You think about my apron and it addles your brain, makes you so sloppy you forget about cameras that see everything.”

“You’re a nuisance and I love you.” He stepped away from the back of the car and their curtailed moment of marital normalcy. The transit van driver came back and shut the rear door, a small group of Lycra-clad men on bicycles hummed by, a woman wheeled along a baby in a pram.

Mae closed the boot and took Felix from the car. He’d pressed his nose and paws all over the rear-side windows, leaving damp smears all over the glass she’d polish clean later. She clipped on his lead, handed it to Kitt, and took his battered briefcase.

Umbrella in one hand, dog’s leash in the other, Kitt walked around boxes and the hand trolley. Mae fell into step alongside him on the footpath, Felix sniffing, stopping to pee, prancing along and sniffing again. At the mouth of the Broad Walk, just near The Espresso Bar café, Felix peed on a black bollard and Kitt exhaled in annoyance at the unexpected sight of his colleagues. Three men rose from a table at the café and began to approach. By the time the dog had moved on to the next bollard to continue his business, Bryce had joined them, the others a few steps behind.

“Morning, Kitty,” Bryce said brightly. He looked at Mae and peeing Felix.

Kitt wore no expression. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been reassigned from Shaw. I haven’t been informed to whom as of yet, but I can guess. I see you brought your entourage.”

“Ah, and you’ve brought Morland and Llewelyn.”

“They followed me here. Good morning, Mrs Valentine.” Bryce gave her a wink before Division Chief Brigadier Roger Llewelyn, and a stout bald man with a round, immobile face arrived to stand beside them. “Morland,” Bryce said, “this is Mrs Valentine, Kitty’s butler, and his dog, Felix. Morland is the administrative equivalent of you, Mrs Valentine.”

Ah-huh-huh,” the Brigadier cleared his throat. “A very good morning to you, Mrs Valentine,” Llewelyn said, his tone rousingly cheerful.

“Good morning, Brigadier.” Mae said, her tone pleasantly professional, “Sergeant Bryce, Mr Morland.”

Llewelyn looked like an older version of an actor many saw as a contender to play the ‘new James Bond’. He had a rich, melodious voice and he watched Felix trot about on his lead, saying, “This is your dog, Major?”

Felix sniffed at his trouser leg.

Llewelyn chortled. “Hm. Not quite what I was expecting when Bryce said you had a sighthound. Now then, shall we carry on, gentlemen?”

Kitt handed Mae the lead and umbrella, and took his satchel. “Thank you, Valentine. If you get the chance today, Valentine, he needs his nails clipped.” He turned away to face his superior, ignoring the stout man beside him.

“Excuse me, sir,” Mae said.

Three sets of eyes shifted back to her. “There was a Chelsea bun left from breakfast,” she said. “I put it in your satchel. Have a pleasant day at work.” She watched Kitt’s hard face change from ugly to handsome as he flashed her a smile. She left the four men and took Felix across the inner circle and into Queen Mary’s Garden.

It was a lovely spring morning with a soft chill in the air. Green buds and tulips in full bloom showed their vibrant shades against the bright grass. After half an hour’s run through verdant, dew-dappled beauty and cascading cherry blossom petals, the dog grew tired and Mae turned about. There were things to tend to at home, errands to run.

She passed by The Espresso Bar café and a strapping man wearing black sunglasses and a grey pork-pie hat too big for his head. He fumbled with a tourist map and muttered in Spanish to his mate in orange sunglasses. His bulky body reminded her of a man she’d come across in Sicily, an Asian man who had been all muscle and no neck. When she reached the car, she wiped the dampness from the dog’s paws, shortened the lead of the travel harness, and secured him in the back seat. The Transit van remained in the parking spot behind the Bentley. Cyclists took advantage of the space to cross the street and head into the park. Mae got in the driver’s seat and shut the door. Felix settled down onto the rear seat and sighed.

She started the engine and looked out the windscreen. Up ahead, a small tipper lorry loaded with garden mulch turned onto Chester Road. More bicycles whizzed by alongside cars, cutting in front of the Bentley. On the other side of the road, the man in the orange sunglasses and his mate, the big man in the pork-pie hat asked two women waiting to cross for directions, showing them the map. The blonde in an expensive suit pointed to something, the thin brunette nodded and unbuttoned the front of an ice-blue jacket. Parents rolled along with prams on the footpath. A blur of man and bicycle flew past the dirty Land Rover still parked across the street.

Mae twisted slightly, and reached for the seatbelt. She pulled the metal buckle forward, across her shoulder, and the world exploded in a white-flashing thunderclap.

 

Flying By The Seat of One’s Puzzle

There are things that puzzle me. First, I’m always amazed by writers who plot things out to the tiniest detail, you know, those authors who storyboard and collage and outline their tales. I’m not like that. I try to put any structure in place and my story disintegrates. I’m not a seat of the pants writer either. I lack the pants one usually flies from.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of pants (as in trousers, not knickers/panties/ full-coverage briefs). They are restricting, twist and bind the way collages and storyboards and outlines do when I try to do them. When it comes to writing, I have a box box in my head. It’s full of puzzle pieces made up of dialogue like this:

“We’re onto disguises now, are we?”
“You don’t like my hat?”
“You look better in the cowboy hat you wore on New Year’s Eve than in that ugly baseball cap.”
“You miss my cowboy hat.”
“Go on and think that if it makes you feel better.”
“I feel just fine.”
“Which is why you took your time getting here.”
“I was being thorough.”
“Thorough. Is that what you call chatting up Ms Goedenacht?”
“She was doing the chatting up. Weren’t you listening?”
“No. The earpiece stopped working when the discussion turned to marital aids and splinters.”

No speech tags, no description, just the two leads talking. They are always talking. And probably eating. There’s always food involved somewhere. Perhaps that’s one reason why True to Your Service took so long for me to write; I was always eating, as one tends to when one has a house full of visitors, or when one was on holiday someplace that may or may not become the setting for the next book in the series I didn’t realise was a series when the two characters started talking way back in 2011.

The other thing that puzzles me is that women over 40 are treated as a conundrum by publishing and Hollywood, both puzzling over how to structure a story with a woman over 40 as the lead, and scratching their heads over what a woman over 40 looks like as the lead.

It’s not that hard to show a woman over 40 as a whole human being, but Hollywood and publishing are anxious about that and stick to the sexist, ageist structure that has, well, worked for them . Film and fiction are risk averse. Film and fiction will stick to what makes them money; franchises make them money, and something new (well, actually, something older)  scares them because it’s different, it’s not what’s been selling, and what’s selling is what gets replicated or rebooted, or remade. Repeat sexist ageism and a lack diversity across the board…

I will concede one thing. I applaud the way Hollywood has grabbed onto the empowered badass-ass-kickin’ older woman we’ve seen lately onscreen. However, there is more to being an older, empowered, ass-kicking woman than we’ve seen. Being an older empowered arse-kicking woman with life baggage can be even more complex and exciting in telling a story, and it doesn’t mean an older woman has to be superimposed onto a male action hero narrative to be ‘acceptable,’ or adhere to the ageist and sexist stereotypes we are so used to seeing. I want more. Maybe you do too.

I’m all for showing ass-kicking-badassery, only I’m gonna do it like a middle aged woman would–with all that empowering, complex baggage and life experience, possibly slower, or maybe faster and with more ass-shaking like J-Lo at the Superbowl. The point is, there is MORE THAN ONE WAY to portray a powerful, attractive, capable, intelligent, sensual, sexual woman over 40, and it’s not simply making her an action lead, which is a start, but

True to Your Service, the third of the In Service Series features a middle-aged female butler and the slightly younger middle-aged spy who loves her. It’s genre-blending and crossing with a good measure of meta, seasoned romance, sex, tulips, murder, danger, and true love.  It knocks ageist and sexist stereotypes on the head and places a woman well past 40 as the lead. It pokes fun at spies and mysteries and crime stories. And it all came from a box of puzzle pieces in my head.

You can pre-odrer True to Your Service from your favourite e-tailer here and from Amazon

 

I’m On a Mission

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

As you might guess I have news alerts set up for anything that mentions ageism, women over the age of 40, romance fiction, anti-ageing advertising, diversity, stereotypes of ageing, and so much more. I often see posts from  Ageism Warrior Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks. A recent post that popped up in my Facebook feed gave details for Scott Harper, an independent documentary filmmaker in Canada. Harper is working on working on a documentary on ageism. He happens to be on the lookout for story and casting suggestions about ageism because, as he says,

“Frankly, we feel it’s time to give this issue the same profile as racism or sexism.”

He goes on to mention that,

“We’re looking to tell a story with a bit more edge. The film, ideally, takes us inside the world of someone who is actively trying to fight back against ageism where they have encountered it. This is, in our minds, someone who is pushing for change, in a way we can follow or at least re-tell, whether in the workspace, the courts, media, politics, healthcare, the community, anywhere where generations co-mingle and ageism is present… We want this to be a character driven film and so at this stage, we need to find a great cast, or at least, a single great storyline of someone on a mission in this space. To that end, we’re reaching out to people like yourself to ask if anyone comes to mind that you think might serve this role…”

Golly. Do I think I can help? Do I think can make a suggestion about someone on a mission because…well, you know, I’m on a mission? Some may write off my suggestion because it’s focused on romance fiction, but how great a fit when the genre struggles to be taken seriously, is so frequently maligned and viewed as unimportant fluffy trash. Stereotypes abound about romance novels much the way stereotypes abound regarding older people and women who have surpassed the age of 40. The thing is, the genre sells, the genre makes a crapton of money, and older women have money to spend on things like books, even when the ageism affecting women is rampant in the romance fiction genre.

Authors, like me, Natasha Moore, Karen Booth, Maggie Wells, and many others who write or want to write older female romantic leads are often told by agents, editors, and publishing houses that sell romance fiction, ‘no one will buy that that older woman character’ or that ‘a romance with a older heroine won’t sell.’  It’s that kind of fearful we-won’t-make-money-from-older that caused Lancôme, in the mid 1990s, to let go of 42 year-old Isabella Rossellini as the face of their cosmetics because she was too old, and “older women dream about being young.” That kind of thinking perpetuates the notion that women over 40 are suddenly unappealing hags. It also feeds into that perception that (here it comes, the comment I keep dragging out, the one made by a romance publishing CEO) “no wants to read granny sex.” In case you didn’t realise it, being an older woman not only ruins the advertising dream that a woman is supposed to have of being forever young, but a woman who happens to be grandma who has sex is going to ruin the romance fantasy. If you’re a man, this dream-killing, fantasy-spoiling, of course, does not apply, especially when it comes to fiction or film.

De Tavenier and Aartsen note that ageism leads to exclusion and exclusion leads to a lack of agency. Older women are being denied agency in romance fiction. In spite of romance fiction’s embedded unwillingness to see women beyond 40 as whole, vibrant human beings who dream of being beautiful or sexual at any age, there are those of us, like the authors I mentioned, above, who have not been discouraged. We write romance novels with older leads, with older romance heroines and try to change the publishing industry standard of that “younger dream” because we know, like Lancôme, who rehired 65 year-old Isabella Rossellini as the face of their cosmetics 2018, came to understand, it’s sexist, ageist, bullshit.

Trying to change an industry standard within a genre that is often discussed as being a ‘fantasy’ with a happy ending is an uphill battle. It makes me hoarse sometimes because the change is so slow, but age is an issue of diversity and everyone is shouting about the importance of diversity within the romance publishing industry, except diversity of age keeps getting left out of the conversation. I’ll repeat myself, again, and again, and again: ageism affects everyone regardless of skin colour, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, culture, weight, or height. Ageism has more of an impact on women than men and nowhere is this more evident than in romance fiction.

My mission is clear: change the industry standard by writing older romance heroines, like Mae the fifty-something butler heroine of my In Service series (book plug!) the kind who are like Isabella Rossellini returning to Lancôme as the face of women dreaming of being beautiful, whole, and vibrant at any age.

 

References:

Ashton Applewhite. (2019, 4 August). Scott Harper Documentary: This Chair Rocks. [Facebook post] Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/ThisChairRocks/posts/1968521509915290

De Tavenier, W. Aartsen, M. (2019). Old-age exclusion: Active Ageing, agesim and agency. Social Inclusion, 7(3), 1–3.

 

Misrepresentin’: An Open Letter to (Romance) Publishers

Dear Fiction Publishers,

Did you really need a survey to discover that women over 40 feel misrepresented, underrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women, and it’s past time to end the perception that women washed up the minute they hit 40?

Apparently you did because you haven’t you been listening. You haven’t been paying attention. I know this because I’ve been paying attention. I’ve been listening and watching and waiting and writing the books your survey says women over the age of 40 have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for.

A couple of you publishers are gonna say you’ve tried this already. Don’t we remember Harlequin’s NEXT, Berkley’s Second Chance at Love, Ballantine’s Love & Life, and  Kensington’s To Love Again. There are one or two of you sort of trying now, but seriously HarperCollins HQ, a SURVEY? This really proves you’re not paying attention. This proves you haven’t heard me shouting–or readers saying that they want to see female characters over the age of 40 as lead characters.

Forgive me. For those of you who are not publishers allow me to explain my beef with this survey.

The HarperCollins imprint HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, was once MIRA and MIRA Ink, both  romance imprints that rebranded to ‘commercial fiction.’ HQ joined up with Gransnet (Grans as in Grannies, an offshoot of Mumsnet–because yanno, all women are mums and grannies), a “social networking site for over 50s”), to conduct a survey of 1000 women aged 40+. This study “reveals” that women over 40 feel misrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women…oh, and pretty much everything we here already know, and all the stuff my damn doctoral dissertation noted–the stuff I post about often.

Now HQ is trying to fix this lack of representation with a contest open to women writing novels with female lead characters aged 40 and beyond. They are even running a competition.

“Together with HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins, we are launching a fiction writing competition for women writers over the age of 40. We will specifically be looking for stories featuring a leading character aged over 40.”

Two or three publishers saying they are looking for older women or older couples isn’t enough. Despite HQ, Entangled’s August imprint & Facebook groups like Seasoned Romance and Romance in Her Prime, in romance, the older couples are often secondary characters, or hero is older; the silver fox paired with younger woman, or the heroine is portrayed as a ‘cougar.’ More often older females are reduced to stereotypes like the survey explained, like I established in all my academic research.

One big issue no one bothers to mention in this survey is that many rom editors are still not open to older heroines, even the ones who say they are. Authors who write older heroines, like I do, are told to ‘make heroine younger’ because older ‘might not sell,’ or as one editor said to me, “no one wants to read granny sex.” For example, when it originally launched, Entangled’s August line HAD a a character age limit of 45.

Currently, their commercial fiction line Sideways has an age limit of 50.

Back in 2012, when I conducted interviews I with romance fiction editors, I was told older women have too much life experience & baggage for rom & were a better fit for Women’s Fiction–and yet there’s an age limit of 50 in Entangled’s Sideways commercial fiction line, which includes Women’s Fiction.

As I said, many romance authors have written older heroines only to be told to “make them younger.” They’ also been told, “older won’t sell, or, like I was told, that “no one wants to read granny sex.” Yes, I know I bring that chestnut up a lot because that was the response I got three years ago, when I asked Entangled’s CEO why the August imprint had that 45 age limit. However, age limits may be a thing of the past. Maybe.

HQ executive publisher Lisa Milton said:

“We publish many books by women over 40. Many of our books have female characters over 40. Many who also defy stereotype. But not enough.What amounts to a handful of books, in a genre (written mostly by and for women) that is clinging to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over 40, i.e. stereotypes, punchlines, is not enough.”

Like I said. Maybe. A competition, and what amounts to a half a handful of publishers and a handful of books, in a genre written mostly by and for women, in an industry that clings to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over the age of 40, that is as stereotypes, punchlines, or invisible is STILL not enough.

So back to my Open Letter to (Romance) Publishers

Dear Fiction Publishers,

Here’s a hint on how to fix what the HQ UK Gransnet survey discovered, and it’s not really that hard to change:

Stop telling romance authors who submit stories with heroines over the age of 40 to “make their heroines younger,” quit believing that books with older heroines “might not or won’t sell, or that no “one wants to read granny sex.” Have a damn look at the Seasoned Romance Facebook page, take a look at what the readers there say they are looking for. Check out the conversations on Twitter. Have a good look at the books on Goodreads reviews and pay attention to comments and reviews, like the ones for At Your Service, the first book of the In Service series about that middle aged female butler and the slightly younger spy who loves her:

“The plot is twisty and complex and the dry, witty banter flows thick and fast; it’s an exciting, fast-paced story, and I really appreciated the protagonists being older than usual for romance novels – he’s late forties, she’s early fifties and they’ve both been around the block a few times.”

Take a gander at Goodreads lists like:

Best older hero AND older heroine romance books (the main couple has to be over 40!)

Seasoned Romance

If you want or need help I’m here. And I am more than happy to help because conducting a survey and discovering it’s not enough is not enough. Running a contest as a response to the not enough is not enough.

Love,

Sandra

UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction

UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction

Gransnet and HQ writing competition

https://www.gransnet.com/competitions/2019/gransnet-hq-writing-competition

 

Right Before Your Eyes Only

Know how it was just Easter and you just ate all those chocolate Easter eggs?

Perhaps you may still be hunting for chocolate Easter eggs, or maybe now you’re after calorie-free Easter eggs to make up for  all the chocolate you ate, and if you are, let me tell you the In Service series is chock-full of calorie-free Easter eggs. CHOCK FULL.

And by “Easter eggs,” I mean Easter eggs of the meta kind, and by meta I mean the inside jokes, little nods to spy fiction and film, to well-known characters, to familiar tropes and cliches that run across the spy and romance genre. If you look, you can find them. Some are obvious. Some aren’t. Some are buried. Some are very, very subtle. Some are a running wink to a good-natured battle I have with a shallow-reading librarian friend named Vassiliki. Some show a connection between characters in Forever in Your Service and one of my earlier books, another seasoned romance, one not many have read.

Yeah, I mean the one I wrote for part of my doctoral work, the one that has a 50-ish peanut-butter-loving nuclear physicist heroine who’s solving a mystery with a local hot detective, while carrying out work as an FBI mole, the one with the cover that makes me shudder, the one that, at my publisher’s request, I had to change the title of to something that’s, well,  um… well… kind of a joke in itself that, like eating too much chocolate, which proves not all Easter eggs are a smart choice.

But they sure are fun.

At Your Service is available as a paperback and ebook

Forever in Your Service is available as an ebook

The origin short story, Your Sterling Service, is available as an ebook

For Your Eyes Only (yes, I KNOW) is available in paperback and and as an ebook

 

 

I Like My Easter Eggs Meta

Seeing how it’s Easter, which, for you, may or may not be all about the resurrection of Jesus, Passover, or a big white bunny rabbit, dyed eggs, and chocolate. I’m betting, that whatever your faith, whatever you embrace, most of us like chocolate.

Personally, I’m all about dark chocolate, which I eat in small bits and then put away for another tiny morsel two or three weeks later. I have to hide my chocolate because Dr Shrinkee will hunt for anything that has the slightest amount of roasted and ground cacao seeds that have been processed into a solid block that melts in his mouth.

If chocolate is your downfall, like it is for my beloved Dr Shrinkee, if you’re hunting for calorie-free “easter eggs” of the meta kind, the In Service series has ‘em in spades!

And by “Easter eggs,” I mean inside jokes, little nods to spy fiction and film, to well-known characters, to familiar tropes and cliches that run across the spy and romance genre.

Can you find them all?

I bet you can, you clever, clever, chocolate-eating readers.

Big Girl Pants: Authors Should NEVER Comment on Reviews for Their Books

Recently, as in a week ago this Friday, I released Forever in Your Service, book 2 of the In Service series. Reviews began coming in immediately, which was surprising because that means people are finding and reading my books about the female butler and the spy who loves her and her scrambled eggs.
Since reviews came all whizz-bang fast, and I actually read them when someone pointed out I had a review, I suddenly felt like I was in an old movie about an actor in a Broadway production after opening night, looking at the newspaper reviews of the show the next morning, you know when the actor sees something along the lines of “A Triumph!” Or “A bloated, dire attempt at genre crossing; Antonelli knows nothing about plot, pacing, or how to make scrambled eggs.”  Or “It’ll make you cry.”
That last quote is ambivalent and, if I had received such a review, I would have chosen to see as a good cry rather than bad cry because I’m like that.
Yeah, so reviews. Authors are advised to NEVER to comment on reviews, but…
I read something this morning that made me laugh. This is all couched in humour. I swear on a cup of coffee this is not really about me commenting on how a reader did or did not enjoy Forever in Your Service, or the comment they left on the review, which was in, essence, their review. This is more my reaction to a reader’s response to a character’s choice of UNDERPANTS/knickers/panties/undies, which I totally appreciated since it was about underpants, something I put on every day with very deliberate choice.

This is more of an Author’s Note* I could have placed in the book, an author’s need to do some ‘splaining, or more rightly confessing.  Practical, like Mae the butler in the series, Big White Underpants (BWU)  are the most comfy kind of pants to wear under tights. I’ve worn them since, well, forever. I am a huge fan of BWU, cotton ones, the big briefs that come up to, or just below, my belly button, the kind Dr Shrinkee calls Bombay Bloomers and Granny-panties, the sort that I have worn since I was a kid and a fashion-conscious teen aware of the VPL one got with bikinis and g-bangers (g-string for you in the US), the pants with which there is never a VPL, the pants I will still be wearing when I am 90. I love them THAT MUCH.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t a comment about a review of Forever in Your Service as much as it is a review of my very deliberate choice of underpants for a practical heroine who also wears aprons like I do.
*Author’s note: Poor Mae was subjected to a pair of more ‘fashionable’ knickers that got stuck in uncomfortable places in the previous book, soon to be available in print, At Your Service.

Seriously, A Trilogy?

Here I am, on the cusp of the release for the second book of the In Service series, I mean it’s TWO days away until Forever in Your Service drops, and it only dawned on me, oh, about 5 minutes ago, when I shoved in a mouthful of this really delish cabbage salad, that I am writing the third book of a trilogy when I had no intention of writing a series when I started the first book.

Some cabbage may have fallen out of my mouth and onto my keyboard.

Honest. I had At Your Service and the short story prequel, Your Sterling Service, and I thought that was it. I didn’t know I was going write a second book about the middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her. I swear, I started writing the second book without realising there was going to be a second book. Ms Ainslie Paton, an author friend of mine asked, “Is there another book?” and I sorta looked down and kinda noticed that, yep, I was 2 chapters deep in a series I never knew I was going to write.

And here I am, mouth still full of shredded apple & cabbage salad, writing the THIRD book about a middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her.  My series is a Trilogy–The In Service trilogy.

Look, I’m a slow writer who often gets interrupted by my day job, family, headaches, holidays and ranting about ageism and women over the age of 40, but I aim to have the trilogy completed before the next James Bond movie comes out NEXT YEAR, as in 2020. The third book is titled True To Your Service. I already have a cover for it.

I can’t tell you much about the third book because I don’t plot, but I will say it battles the ageist structures that continue to keep older women from being portrayed as romance heroines, it positions a woman in her early 50s as the romantic lead, has tulips, banter, sexy times, is another genre-crossing romantic suspense cosy spy thriller mystery with older protagonists, and gives a middle-aged spy the happy ending James Bond never gets.

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have to clean up spilled cabbage salad.

A Valentine, The At Your Service Edition: or Inside the Mind of a Novelist

There’s that thing a lot of writers do. They base a character on someone they know, or model a character on a well-know figure. For example, at the recent Golden Globe awards, during his acceptance speech for his win as best actor for his role in the film Vice,  British actor Christian Bale (You did know he was British, didn’t you?) thanked Satan for inspiring him to play a morally-dubious character– the real-life former American Vice President Dick Cheney. The Lord of Darkness was what gave Bale a model to inhabit. And trust me, Bale DOES inhabit his role in Vice.

Writers, like actors, find inspiration in someone. The character of GP in my novel A Basic Renovation was modeled on my coffee-drinking, surly, often hilarious grandpa who was born in 1906. I occasionally find inspiration in someone and some thing, be a it mannerism, a habit, a certain sense of fashion. While I don’t know any real life spies (although there is the one friend we have whose work is so complex and intellectual that when he explains the complexity of what it is he does, it makes us think he’s got to be a spy because his explanation is so obfuscated by the complexity), I do like spy novels, spy movies, Daniel Craig, Sean Connery, Jason Bourne, Matt Helm, Our Man Flint, George Smiley, and Austin Powers.

Lots of authors write about spies. Nowadays, fictional spies are, let’s face it, a cliché. By God, I love the cliché. The spy cliché is my inspiration. Mostly.

I play a lot with the spy cliché in At Your Service, the upcoming, Forever In Your Service, and the short story Your Sterling ServiceI poke some fun at the cliché-riddled superspy genre. At the same time, I wanted to take the well-known iconic superspy and retool him around the clichés without resorting to Austin Powers-esque parody, but I still wanted readers to see the self-assured, expert, erudite, womanising man trip over his own feet and emotions– and recognise him as that familiar spy figure. Yet the thing, my inspiration to make my spy, Major Kitt, human amid all the fictional clichés hinged upon two facts: Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, loved scrambled eggs and I eat eggs for breakfast every day. 

Eggs. Scrambled eggs for breakfast became Major Kitt. Eggs and breakfast became the running theme for the In Service books. Eggs are the motivation for the character, an item that makes Kitt think of things, of someone he never dreamed of wanting. Scrambled eggs (not Satan) are what make Kitt have a heart, the kind runny with emotion.