The Secret Life of a Librarian

Writing under nom de plume Elizabeth Camden, librarian Dorothy Mays has achieved critical acclaim for her historical fiction.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Right now, there are five manuscripts sitting somewhere in Dorothy Mays’ house, novels that will never see the light of day. Years ago she sent the first manuscript, a contemporary mystery novel, to 30 agents—and received 30 rejections. “Looking back on it,” she says, “it was not publishable.”

Over time, the rejections became less frequent, and the agents began to show interest. She was getting better. Manuscript five, she believes, is probably good enough to be published. She may submit it someday, though now it goes against her brand. Since 2011, Mays has published four  historical novels under the pen name Elizabeth Camden—her 2012 book, Against the Tide, won the 2013 RITA Award for Inspirational Romance, given by the Romance Writers of America; the 2013 Christy Award for Historical Romance; and the 2013 Daphne du Maurier Award for Inspirational Romantic Mystery/Suspense.

Mays, as Camden, writes historical fiction—sometimes labeled “inspirational romance” in reviews—that contains elements of romance, though no gratuitous sex or violence. (Her RITA Award, she says, was in the “clean category.”) Her stories center around major events: Against the Tide focuses on the turn-of-the-century opium trade; her newest book, Into the Whirlwind, is about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  “The race to rebuild Chicago in the months following the fire is one of the most dramatic stories in American history,” Mays says.  “I wanted to write an inspiring novel about the power of the human spirit and the bonds that can be formed during a shared crisis.”

And she’s done it all as head of public services for the Olin Library. In fact, being a librarian has empowered her as a writer. “My job is to know how to do research and teach others how to do research,” she says. Before entering the fiction world, she wrote four nonfiction history books—she earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia—the most recent of which was 2004’s Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World, which examined the lives of American women in the 18th century.

“That’s probably done,” Mays says of her nonfiction career. “I just wasn’t enjoying writing nonfiction books anymore.”

Similarly, she stopped pursuing a career in history; it wasn’t really her thing. She loved learning about history, but hated it as an occupation. Being a librarian meant that she could continue learning and writing about history, while pursuing her love of research.  Eventually, she decided to incorporate her love of history into her fiction.

Mays’ first efforts—those manuscripts that are gathering dust on a shelf—weren’t historical, which was part of the problem. Her work as a librarian and her research skills enabled her to write about history with a sense of authority and expertise. Her books are peppered with intricate details about life in their periods of time, the specifics that help readers imagine themselves alongside her characters and immerse themselves in the story.

“I love historical novels,” Mays says, “big, sprawling epics where lots of things happen.” Some historical novelists, she adds, employ “wallpaper history,” but she wanted to go deeper. “I wanted something that had more of a basis in historical events.”

Mays also wants to share her love for genre fiction—in other words, popular fiction such as mystery, science fiction, and romance novels that are often dismissed in academic circles as fluff—upon students. This semester she’s teaching a Rollins College Conference class on genre fiction called Cowboys, Aliens, and Vampires, which she describes as a “whirlwind tour of the great genres of popular fiction. Although not as hefty as traditional literary fiction, the study of popular fiction can help students explore fundamental questions, such as: What makes me unique? To what extent are individuals responsible for what happens to them? What motivates us to fight and die for a cause? The study of genre fiction is a terrific springboard into such discussions.”

The literary classics—such as Hemingway, Dickens, and Melville—are often taught in high school and college, Mays says, and while they have undeniable merit, they’re also dense works with layers of meaning that can sometimes turn young minds off, and in the process make them less avid readers for life. Genre fiction, whatever its critical acclaim, has the ability to enthrall students in another world, getting them to explore literature and delve into topics they might otherwise ignore.

“I just felt like I have something I can share,” says Mays, who grew up reading genre fiction. “It’s about how to express yourself. I want to get people to read.”