Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Romance Writing, Sturdy Corsetry and Chicken Grease -- What I Learned Along the Way

by Heidi Hamburg 

I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years, and I think there’s a good chance every one of them has gone to prepare me for my present work as a romance writer.

Take my first summer job, at sixteen, working in a Co-op Fruit Stand. It may have said Fruit Stand on the big sign out front, but it was by no means a vegetarian haven. My first task each morning was to scrape two inches of congealed chicken fat from the bottom of the rotisserie chicken machine.

Then I got to scrub the floor. Never fun around the chicken machine. But hey, I got paid. For every six day week I got the princely sum of eighteen dollars and fifty cents. I was pretty happy with that- with my first pay I bought a cotton skirt, a ban-lon sweater and a pair of cuff links- not bad.

Now here’s the thing- my second summer I got promoted. Someone else did the chicken machine and scrubbed the floor, I looked after customers and ordered supplies, and my take home pay jumped to over twenty dollars.

Most romance writers start out that way- they work for years for that first sale, but they don’t get paid nearly as much as they think their deathless prose is worth. Still, if they persevere, they usually climb and crawl their way to the mid-list, and sometimes higher. Far beyond the chicken machine.

My next summer job was at a dry goods store. Mostly I measured out yards of fabric and stared out the window. But this store had a side-line in serious corsetry. One slow day when the boss was out the other clerk and I decided to try on the support garments. I picked one somewhat smaller than my body actually was. The other clerk had just laced and hooked me, with a certain amount of difficulty, into my choice of a boned shoulder-to-thigh peach coloured foundation garment when the little bell above the shop door chimed.

She dashed out to serve the customer, while I tried to escape the sturdy peach number that was cutting off all my oxygen. No luck. The fastenings were all in the back. And then the bell chimed again. And again. Nothing to do but pull on my dress, which now hung two sizes looser, and get to work.

Customers poured in merrily for the next hour or more while I tried hard not to faint. What did I learn from this that has the remotest connection to romance writing? One size does not fit all.

You need to figure out if you write short or long, whether you love to read and write category length books or great big sagas. You also need to find the kind of book you can do the best. There are a lot of options out there.

My most long-term work has been teaching. I’ve taught every grade except twelve, in Nova Scotia and in Nunavut. No matter the age or background of the students you work with, you find out pretty quickly that good teaching is a performance art. You can’t just phone it in. You have to hook the kids right away, before they zone out or act up. Then you give them the meat of the lesson, keeping it as lively and interesting as you can, and then you round it up, neatly and quickly.

Oh yeah- that’s a book. Hook your reader, keep that long middle section popping along, no sagging, and then wrap it up. If possible, in a way that will keep them coming back for more.

So that’s my on the job training. I’m learning still.


  1. Sounds like you were a fun gal to work with, Heidi. I'm still smiling picturing you in that tight peach number with customers streaming into the store. So you actually know how it feels to wear a corset. Definitely valuable on-the-job training.

    1. It always amazes me when a corset vanishes like mist under the hands of the hero. It's just not that easy!

  2. Great post, Heidi! I love your take aways and how you brought it back it writing.

    1. And I didn't even tell about my stint in the underwear department of Eaton's in downtown Montreal. I do remember my best order was three dozen pairs of knee-length underpants for a convent, but I just couldn't make a connection.

  3. If your classroom was as entertaining as your stories, I bet those students were enthralled!

  4. Thank you, Anne.
    ... and then there was my honeymoon year as the Factor's wife, in a tiny Hudson's Bay post on an island in Red Sucker Lake. I needed money for a Christmas present for my husband, so all fall I baked sweet iced cinnamon buns and braided breads for a group of men who came every day to play checkers on the floor behind the pot bellied stove. Another perseverance story. I gained five pounds, but Rick got a guitar for Christmas.