In my latest novel, Chasing Adventure, book 8 of the Entertainers of the West series, the heroine, Thora Alviss, is a published author with The Oceanside Library, a New York City-based publisher of dime novels. She writes female-centric stories and learns of an opportunity that sends her west to interview a famous U.S. marshal so she can create more believable heroes. Trouble is, said U.S. Marshal Harte Renwyck wants nothing to do with his previous life after a tragedy related to his last arrest. The two butt heads and their interactions were so much fun to write.
Several earlier books in the Entertainers series had mentioned dime novels in passing. For this novel, I did in-depth research and was fascinated with what I read. The earliest rendition of this printed entertainment was called story papers with the first edition titled The Young Gentleman’s Magazine in England published in 1777. The stories were printed on eight pages of cheap paper, with sizes varying from tabloid style to regular newspaper format. The writing wasn’t expected to be great, because the issues sold for a penny, thus coining the term “penny dreadful.” The first story papers started in American in the 1850s and had series that ran on a weekly basis for fifty years. Lots of companies printed the stories in England under such titles as Boys of England, The Boys’ Herald, Boys’ Best Story Paper, The Modern Boy, and Boys’ Champion. Fewer titles were aimed at females--Peg’s Papers, The Schoolgirl, Schoolgirls’ Weekly. The Boys’ and Girls’ Penny Magazine (1832) was the first story paper to gain popularity.
In America, most historians agree the first acknowledged dime novel was published by Beadle & Adams Company and titled Maleaska, The Indian Wife of the White Hunter written by Ann S. Stephens. The date of the publication is July 9, 1860, but the story first appeared in three parts in Ladies’ Companion magazine during January through March, 1839. Thus started the habit of reprinting already published material, because at that time, the copyright laws didn’t protect the author. Beadle’s Dime Novels were 6.5 by 4.25 inches (a little shorter and a little wider than current regular-sized novels) and 100 pages each. The first issues were printed with a plain salmon-colored cover. Issue 29 featured a wood-block cut illustration. This series ran for 321 issues and is credited with establishing the standards for the genre: outlandish plots, lurid action, and the melodramatic title and subtitle to entice the readers.
The vast majority of the early stories were set on the frontier (a geographic line that kept moving west) and included encounters with vagabond travelers, scary wildlife, and Indians. As the American West became settled, these stories evolved into westerns. Due to an increase in literacy around the Civil War, the volumes became very popular among young, working class people. Following a story line or character from week to week was similar to the scripted television shows we currently watch. The first dime novel detective, Old Sleuth, appeared in 1872 in the Fireside Companion. Some characters became so popular that issues were published with only stories featuring that character. By the 1880s, with other publishers like George Munro and Robert DeWitt starting publication, stories set in cities appeared, as well as medieval-set romances and soap opera-ish titles.
Publishers were eager to find stories of all types. The publication that had a set format needed to fill 50 or 100 pages every week, 52 weeks a year. Original stories were sought and many women found a place for their creations. When a character grew popular, publishers gathered 4-5 stories featuring the main character and printed a separate issue under a new title. A practice that became confusing to reads but proved popular with those who collected the issues.
Next part: In depth with Penny Dreadfuls
Look for Chasing Adventure here (don’t buy until October 2 to ensure you received the correct copy. A glitch occurred with the pre-order copy) An e-copy will be gifted to one lucky person chosen from those who comment on this blog post by Sunday, September 30.