EVER since she was a tiny girl, Mary Nichols has been besotted with love stories. As a refugee, during the war, she busied herself by reading classic romances, peopled by brooding heroes and beautiful heroines. And she promised herself that, one day, she'd write a love story of her very own.
"I started reading well before I went to school; I always had my head in a book," recalls Mary, now 76. "By the time I was seven or eight I'd read them all: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, George Eliot's Mill on the Floss.
"And I loved them. I always thought I'd like to write a book myself but, of course, that didn't happen. Well, not for a long, long time . . ."
Meeting her husband, Bryn, when she was still a girl, Mary married at 18. And being a wife and mother, who also worked (as a radiographer and school secretary, among other things), she found little time to fulfil her girlhood ambition.
But the moment Mary retired, in 1981, she dedicated herself to writing. Since then, she's penned an awe-inspiring 40 novels. And her 25th love story has just been published by bastion of romance, Mills and Boon.
Titled Working Man, Society Bride, it is set in the 1840s at the dawn of the railway era. "People think Mills and Boon books have a formula, but they don't - they're all different," says Mary, who lives in Ely.
"But they do have to have a strong interaction between the hero and heroine, with things going wrong for them to start with and all coming right in the end. Everybody likes a happy ending."
In this case, earl's daughter Lady Lucinda Vernley has a secret crush - on a strapping chap she's seen working on the nearby railroad. "He's the most good-looking man she's ever seen," explains Mary.
"Of course her parents are dead against him; a girl of her standing would have been expected to make a good match. But, as it turns out, Miles Moorcroft is actually the son of a lord, the man who owns the railway. So it all works out well!"
Already at work on Mills and Boon number 29, Mary says she never struggles to find inspiration. "I've usually got the plot for the next one worked out before I finish the book I'm working on," she says, with a smile.
"It can be anything - a little piece of history, a short story, an article in the newspaper - which just sparks my imagination."
While some Mills and Boon books are pretty racy (they have a whole series, known as Blaze, dedicated to bodice-ripping), Mary says she only does "a little bit of the physical stuff".
"You have to write what you're comfortable with," she explains. "And it's got to fit in with the rest of the story; in most of my books, it wouldn't really be appropriate for the period."
A fan of historical novels, most of Mary's romances are set in Regency times. "It's very popular, lots of people like reading about the period," she says. And she's not wrong: her Mills and Boon books have been translated into umpteen languages - and sold millions of copies all over the world.
"They've been translated into practically every language you can think of," adds Mary. "I've seen them in French, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, Danish . . . and I can't even recognise my own name in the Greek and Russian versions."
Mary says her storytelling talent was inherited from her grandmother, whom she lived with, in rural Norfolk, during the war. "She told me so many wonderful stories about her childhood and what my grandfather did before they were married," remembers Mary, now a grandma herself.
"He was a shepherd. I remember her telling me that he used to sleep the night under a hedge, while driving his flock to King's Lynn.
"And she had a fascinating life herself: she ran away from home when she was eight. Her mother had died and her father was remarrying and, because she didn't get on with the new person in the house, she ran away to her grandmother's.
"Her grandma said she could stay if she was willing to earn her keep by working in the family brickyard, which she did. Because she was so young, she was told to tell anyone who asked that she was 13, not eight.
"Right up until she died, she kept that secret: everyone thought she was nearly 100, but it turned out she was only 95. I only discovered that when I started researching a book about her, later published as The Mother of Necton, because she was a midwife, and everyone in the village confided in her."
After joining the Cambridge Writers' Circle in the 1960s, once her children were old enough to start school, Mary started writing short stories and articles. But she struggled to find time to write anything longer. "Writing is a full-time job," she explains. "I start, in my little office, at 8am and work through until about 6pm. At that rate, I can finish a book in three months. But I do take time off at the weekend, for my husband's sake!"
All Mary's romances are informed by her relationship with Bryn. The couple, who've been married for nearly 60 years, met on a dance floor in Great Yarmouth and have been together ever since.
"We had a dance, he walked me home and it just went from there," explains Mary. "He tells me that, when he got in that night, he told his mother he'd just met the woman he was going to marry. Whether that's true or not, I'm not sure - but that's what he tells me. And everyone needs a little romance in their life, don't they?"
Working Man, Society Brideis out now in paperback, priced £3.69. For more information, visit www.millsandboon.co.uk .
Romance at heart of success story
WHEN Gerald Mills and Charles Boon joined forces in 1908 to create Mills & Boon Ltd, the company was not founded as a romance fiction publishing house - although its first book was, prophetically, a romance. Since those early days, Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd has developed from a general fiction publisher to become the UK's undisputed market leader in romance fiction publishing . . .
♥ Mills and Boon has 50 million readers worldwide.
♥ The company sells 200 million books a year across the globe
* that's 6.6 books a second.
♥ Over three million women in the UK regularly read a Harlequin Mills & Boon book.
♥ Romantic fiction accounts for 20 per cent of the fiction books retailed in the UK.
♥ Over the last 40 years, Mills and Boon characters have kissed each other more than 20,000 times, shared about 30,000 hugs and headed for the altar at least 7,000 times.
♥ Mills and Boon has 1,500 authors worldwide, 200 of whom live in the UK.
It issues 600 new titles per annum - 50 each and every month.
♥ If you set out to read all the Mills and Boon books sold over the past 10 years, averaging a little over two hours per book, you would be reading for the next quarter of a million years.
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