When I began writing Written in the Cards, my latest western historical romance, I decided to have my heroine be the author of dime novels. These cheap paperbacks flourished during the 19th century, as increased mechanization made printing them easy. But what really put things over the top? The growing literacy rate in the United States.
Dime novels were aimed at young, working-class readers. They were sold at newsstands, which were popping up everywhere—and even at dry goods stores! Beadle’s Dime Novels began the craze by publishing Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, in the summer of 1860. Priced at ten cents, these paperbacks soon earned the nickname of dime novels.
Although critics bad-mouthed them for being cheap and sensational, they captured the reading public, much like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series turned a new generation on to reading. But like the Potter books, they soon gained a widespread audience.
My heroine Maggie Rutherford is the daughter of a New York publisher. She decides to submit her first effort at a dime novel to Rutherford House, but she does so under the pen name of Lud Madison. She doesn’t want to be shown any favoritism, and she also thinks keeping her identity a secret and publishing under a man’s name will guarantee more sales. As she continues to write and her editor wants more stories from her, Maggie leaves New York to experience all the adventures the Wild West has to offer so she can write about them more realistically. A talented artist, she also illustrates her covers.
Dime novels grew from mere tales of the American frontier. By the dawn of the 20th century, they included detective stories, novels about urban outlaws, and even costume romances.
In England, dime novels went by the name penny dreadfuls and were considerably more lurid and sensational than their American counterparts. Showtime has recently launched a new series entitled Penny Dreadful, starring Josh Hartnett and Eva Green, which weaves stories of classic monsters (such as Frankenstein and Dracula) into the narrative.
I enjoyed making my heroine an author and loved getting to delve into research about dime novels!