By John Skipper
Historical romance novelist Dorothy Garlock of Clear Lake, Iowa, was speaking a few years ago at a writers workshop, giving tips to young writers on how to pen a novel. She talked about description, dialogue, setting and character development, but warned them, “Sooner or later, you have to burn down the barn or have a tornado.”
Garlock has “burned down barns” for nearly 40 years and set the publishing world on fire with 60 books to her credit and more than 20 million books in print in 18 languages.
Now, at age 94, her pace has slowed but her legacy continues to grow. She still gets fan mail from all over the world, including a woman from Michigan who has written to her regularly over the years and is coming to visit her later this year.
“It will be fun for both of us,” said Garlock, as if to dismiss her own popularity.
Her books have hit the New York Times best seller list seven times and critics have praised her for her “inimitable grit-between-the-toes feel for time and place” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) and for putting the reader “actually there, where you can feel the heat of the campfire, you can hear the wagon creaking and the slice and snap of the bullwhip” (Beverly Hills Courier).
She was named one of the 10 most popular writers of women’s fiction each year from 1985 to 1988 and was named Most Outstanding Western Writer in 1986 by Romantic Times Magazine and Favorite Historical Author in 1989. In 1997, Romantic Times presented her with the Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2006, she received the Iowa Author Award presented by the Des Moines Public Library Foundation. She is also a member of the Romance Writers Hall of Fame.
The setting for most of her books is in the Southwest, where she spent much of her youth. She describes herself as “a native Texan who grew up in Oklahoma, married a Yankee and moved to Clear Lake.”
Garlock’s book-writing career began quite by accident. She got a job as a writer and a bookkeeper for the weekly newspaper Clear Lake Mirror Reporter, covering a town of 8,000 people. She worked there 14 years with no clear writing ambition other than to provide local readers with tidbits of small town news. The only books she dealt with in those days were in her role as the newspaper’s bookkeeper.
In the summer of 1976, Garlock and her husband, Herb, went on a trip to the South for the winter. She didn’t know it at the time, but the trip would change her life.
As she described it, “My husband wanted to go south with a trailer behind a pickup like people do. It was so boring. There wasn’t anything to do except shuffleboard and potlucks. So we went to a secondhand store and got this old typewriter and I just started writing for my own pleasure.”
With the aid of her $50 manual typewriter, Garlock discovered that she liked to write stories about pioneer men and women in the South and Southwest — women of strong character.
“I don’t care for a weepy woman who doesn’t have any backbone,” she said in an interview with Iowa History Journal. “I don’t like wimpy women — or wimpy men for that matter.”