Welcome Virgin Moriah!
My next virgin is a lady after my own heart. Moriah Densley sees nothing odd at all about keeping both a violin case and a range bag stuffed with pistols in the back seat of her car. They hold up the stack of books in the middle, of course. She enjoys writing about Victorians, assassins, and geeks. Her muses are summoned by the smell of chocolate, usually at odd hours of the night. By day her alter ego is your friendly neighborhood music teacher. Moriah lives in Las Vegas with her husband and four children. And her book, Songs for Sophia, sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to read it. Read on and you’ll see why…Welcome, Moriah!
Finding My Niche, or, Getting Away With Murder
I had trouble finding a home for my ill-tempered, OCD, borderline alcoholic, hallucinating, pianist, mathematics genius, former assassin, possibly gay, autistic savant hero. I wondered why.
My hero, Wilhelm Montegue, was inspired by autistic savants in real life and in fiction. I loved the idea of a person blessed with extraordinary talent yet also impaired by some emotional limitation. Laura Kinsale, Jennifer Ashley, and Lisa Kleypas, to name a few, wrote beautiful stories featuring heroes with some sort of mental disorder. I couldn’t get enough of this kind of tortured hero.
I’d spent weeks researching savant syndrome and found more information than I knew what to do with. You wouldn’t believe how generous and candid the autism community is. Daniel Tammet, a savant with mathematical synaethesthia, described how he “experiences numbers”. “Five is like a clap on a front door, the sound of a wave against a rock. Six is small, the hardest for me to experience. It’s like a black hole, a chasm.” Daniel “sees” every number from 0 past 10,000 in colors and textures. He holds the European record for reciting pi from memory: 22,514 digits in five hours, nine minutes.
Kim Peek, an autistic megasavant known as “The Real Rain Man,” memorized nine encyclopedia volumes at age four. A capable reader finishes two pages in about three minutes. Kim Peek would read the same text in eight seconds, his left eye reading the right page while his right eye read the right page, and he recalled 98% of the text. However, the simplicity of choosing clothes to wear was beyond his ability; he couldn’t fasten buttons. I found the contrast of his talent and limitations fascinating. Modern scientists and doctors admit they understand little about the condition.
Over and over I heard similar stories from savants – astounding genius paired with seemingly random disabilities. Prodigy musicians, chess champions, architects – who couldn’t tell you how to fry an egg, or who don’t comprehend sarcasm.
Next I dove into the historical aspects of savant syndrome, and found, unsurprisingly, most savants were misunderstood. Stripped of property and rights, many were committed to asylums, where they finally did go insane, committed suicide, or were victims of cruel experiments.
I wondered, what about a fictional character whose freedom would be at stake should the antagonist want to prove him unsound? It wouldn’t be difficult to do; the savant would convict himself. He would lose everything, if not for the loved ones who fight to protect him.
I was jazzed about creating Wilhelm Montegue, Lord Devon. He reads four books a night and can recite the complete text the next morning. He returns from an opera debut and transcribes his favorite aria without flaw. The heroine’s personal favorite: after a romantic night in his bedchamber, inspiration strikes in the form of “mathematical erotica.”
Sound charming? Only on a good day. His “illness” (Victorian society’s label, not mine) also inhibits his social radar. He quotes Newton to insult the vicar. He breaks furniture when he loses his temper. He is prone to “trances,” long episodes of staring into oblivion, regardless of the social awkwardness.
During the Crimean War his talent was exploited by the army; he worked as a spy and assassin before being captured and tortured by the Russians. Wilhelm drinks to escape the “ghosts” who haunt him, the “ghosts” being his perfect recollection of every soul he killed in the war. He fears venereal disease and despises the duplicity he observes in women, so avoids them altogether. Thus the rumors of his insanity and “unnatural proclivities.”
Wilhelm is a mess. You might wonder who could be his match? Meet Anne-Sophia Duncombe, the lousiest housemaid in all England. She’s hiding from her abusive father, and her only other choice is taking her vows in a Spanish convent. She has her own scars, has been to hell and back and emerged made of fire and steel. She distrusts men, having never met an honorable one. In the middle of the night she stumbles (literally) over Wilhelm in a garden, and the fun begins.
I adore these characters. Social misfits. Damaged. Academic, artistic, passionate. Snarky. I thought I had something really unique. Too unique, as it turned out. I have an email folder full of rejection letters. Their declines range from the likes of “You weirdo. Good luck selling this to anyone outside a psych ward,” to “I loved it, but ain’t no way I could sell this to the committee.”
I got the message: I’m not writing mainstream romance. My choice: tone down the controversial elements, or strike out on my own and self-publish. Neither appealed to me; artistic reasons for the former and my own limitations for the latter.
So I queried smaller publishers. I turned down a contract; the editor got my title wrong in the offer letter (wrong, as in, a different book altogether), which made me wonder if she’d even read it. The terms of the contract from another small press concerned me (always read the fine print, friends!) and though embarrassed, I declined. I was nearly prepared to give up when I read about Crimson Romance, the new imprint from Adams / F+W Media. I queried Jennifer Lawler. She has no acquisitions committee – the buck stops with her, and she liked my story. I was in business! Most importantly, she let me keep my controversial characters. I’m literarily getting away with murder.
Then, imagine my surprise on March 26th to hear from THE Julia London, saying I was a Golden Heart finalist. Really? My beat-up, politically incorrect characters? I couldn’t believe it. I was delighted and honored.
Most of all, I’m starting to hope my unconventional characters might find their niche. They might be unusual, but the theme – Love Conquers All – is one all romance readers relate to. I hope readers will like it, but I’m also putting on my thick skin. My fantasy? Fan mail. I don’t need much to be happy, but if I ever see a note or two from readers who get Wilhelm, I will be thrilled!
Do you like unconventional romance? What makes it work, or not? How is a flawed character redeemed? Feel free to join the discussion! One lucky commenter will be randomly selected on June 14th to win a copy of “Song for Sophia,” a 2012 Golden Heart finalist in historical romance published by Crimson Romance.
Visit moriahdensley.com for teasers and sample chapters, and humorous blog articles on life as a writer. See reader reviews on Goodreads.com. Connect on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. I love hearing from readers!