Day 18 Christine Merrill – Escaping is Bliss

Escapist Fiction? You Say That Like It’s A Bad Thing

My father died last month.

Two Wrongs Make a MarriageI was in Atlanta, at the time, at the Romance Writers of America annual conference. This, of itself, is tragic, not strange. Iit will seem stranger when I tell you that I knew he was dying, I left anyway, and left him in hospice, and my soon to be widowed mother in assisted living. I greeted his death with dry eyes, an embarrassing tendency to blurt the news out to people who greeted me with the usual, “How have you been?”

TMI, Chris. TMI. But answering “Fine!” didn’t seem to cover it.

When I got back to Wisconsin and had to prepare for the funeral, the priest asked me if I’d like to say a few words. I weighed the odds of being struck dead at the altar for lying, vs. the odds of being struck dead for telling the truth, and informed him that I was saving the stories for the eventual bestselling memoir.

This left the priest to do a eulogy. He asked me, among other things, what my best memory of my Mom and Dad together was. To which I replied, “…. Uh… Well… There was that time when…No. That didn’t end well…”

He let me skip that one.

Now, some of you are wondering if I’m a stone cold bitch. Others are suspecting the usual, physical abuse, sexual abuse, alcoholism scenarios. All possible. All tragic. And yet, not my story.

How to describe my parents? They went together like cigarettes and lung cancer. Or maybe Gomez and Morticia, only without all the sex. More exactly, they went together like undiagnosed mental illness and extreme co-dependency. And they stayed together for sixty three years. Everyone who’s seen them in recent years tells me they are/were an adorable old couple. My husband, my two sons and I try not to laugh. Each holiday with them was like a cruise on the Titanic. To us, the ‘cute couple’ routine was a cue to start heading for the lifeboat before something went horribly wrong.

A marriage is like a house. There are ranch houses and bungalows, and big cold McMansions. There is the split level with the one bathroom for six kids that architect Mike Brady built: perfect for situation comedy.

And then there was The Winchester Mystery House that was my parent’s marriage. They kept building on it long after sane people would have given up and torn it down. It was a maze of secret rooms, dead end corridors, stairs leading nowhere and dangerous doors in second floor exterior walls. I was the only child in the funhouse: a little girl who wandered away from the tour sometime in grade school and got horribly lost.

When I was eighteen, I found my way to the gift shop and left for college.

The Greatest of SinsThe fact that I ended up writing escapist fiction is not a surprise. Creating your own fictional worlds comes much easier when you actually had something to escape from. But why choose romance? I had no experience with it: no good role models to base my characters on. I’d never read them as a girl, or even a teenager. They had S E X. And if my parents could agree on nothing else, it was that books like that were not appropriate.

I knew nothing about romance. But I knew I liked it. Movies needed happy endings. Books of any genre were not keepers unless I had some thin hope that two of the characters might, just maybe, fall in love and stay together. I could build whole stories out of a line or two of innuendo, reading them over and over again, sighing over nothing.

I could write a romance. How hard could it be? I was married, with two kids to prove that I’d figured out the mechanics. And there was supposed to be a formula, wasn’t there? A magic pattern that led to two people being together forever, until death. I just had to follow it and I could be a best seller. And maybe in the process, I could understand my own life, or at least my parent’s marriage, which continues to defy all explanation, even now that Dad has gone.

But it turns out, a love story is less a formula than it is a puzzle. It seems simple at first. The frame is built: the ending is happy, the goals are clear. But the box has no picture. If we could see what was coming, in a lifetime with one person, we might not start, much less finish. And yet, we keep putting the pieces together, pulling them apart, turning them, trying again, praying for a miracle.

Questions for Chris:

What is the craziest or ugliest object in your house, and why do you keep it?

I have a hand painted Troll doll given to me by an instructor I helped while I was a librarian in a tech school. It is definitely ‘artistic’ with drawn on eye makeup, and body paint that looks like a face. The face on the belly has eyes about on nipple level (assuming trolls are mammals) and the chin is near the crotch, ending in what is either a goatee or troll pubic hair. The doll itself has a drawn-on smile with wide red lips and a lot of white teeth. It is holding a flag that says “I love you”.

I have not thrown it away because when I was a kid I saw a movie with Karen Black being chased around by an evil doll with a lot of teeth. Anyone else who saw this movie knows exactly what I mean. The troll on my desk reminds me of that doll.

I am afraid of it, even if it claims to love me. I keep it because I am not totally sure that, if I try to get rid of it, it won’t just come back on its own.

If there was a movie made about your life, what would it be called? (And just for fun, who would play you?)

“If You Really Think That’s a Good Idea…” starring Melissa McCarthy.

What is the best non-monetary gift you ever received?

Can I say cats? Two out of three of the ones we had were dumped in the country near my house, and have been an endless source of entertainment. And this is not saying that I want anymore gifts dumped in my yard. Please, people, take care of your own pets. I have been gifted enough.

If you had to pick one romantic scene or couple to recommend to a first-time reader of YOUR books, which would it be? (Any picks for romance novels in general?)

From my books, I would suggest Jack and Cyn from Two Wrongs Make a Marriage. I love all my books, but I have a real weakness for this one, which is a Regency set, caper story with a con man and an impoverished heiress. For books in general, Duke of Shadowsby Meredith Duran and Dinah of Senecaby Corinna Lawson.


You are reading this essay at Be sure to visit the About Read-A-Romance Month to learn more, or the Authors & Contributors page to see a list of all the great romance writers who are participating in celebrating the romance genre during the month of August.  Also visit the Awesome Contests page to see how you can register each week to win “A Month of Romance” (31 books), e-readers, and even the Grand Central Grand Prize, an iPad mini. If you love romance, then this is the place to be!

Chris is generously donating one copy of THE GREATEST OF SINS and one copy of  TWO WRONGS MAKE A MARRIAGE to U.S. readers and a copy of THE GREATEST SINS to an International reader (International readers enter here). U.S. readers, to enter, either leave a comment here or enter the weekly drawing on the contest page. Or both.  (Only one entry per commenter per post, though – multiple comments on one essay does not give you more chances.)  Comment entries must be posted by 11:59pm EST Aug 18 to be eligible, though winners will be announced the following week.

Christine MerrillGolden heart winner, Christine Merrill has written thirteen historical novels and an assortment of stories and novellas for Harlequin Mills and Boon, and has self published two contemporaries. She is also the only author of Regency set historicals ever to fail a college English class covering Jane Austen. If pressed, she will insist that the F had more to do with her feelings on Tristram Shandy than Northanger Abbey. After she graduated with a degree in English and theater education, and could go back to reading for fun, she discovered Pride and Prejudice and learned the error of her ways.

She lives in rural Wisconsin about ten minutes outside of pizza delivery range with her high school sweetheart. They have two sons, a labradoodle, and two cats with active social lives. She talks frequently about getting “just a few sheep or maybe a llama.” Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when she stops.

When not writing, Chris can be found at the movies, halfway back and towards the center, with a large buttered popcorn (but only if the film has a happy ending). Her next book The Fall of a Saint will be out in March of 2014. Visit her on the web at


Buy Christine’s Books on Amazon


  • Tin

    Hi, Christine!

    Thank you for sharing your story — like you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with escapism and this isn’t something that is exclusive to romance novels. What I appreciate about romance novels is that, while the story is fictional, sometimes the problems our heroes and heroines find themselves in are so plausible — so real and the novel tries to find a way for them to be together.

    Agree as well that love stories are never formula — the simple sentence “I love you.” is three words but contains a world (or two) of problems and solutions that links the “I” to “you” —

  • Nancy Huddleston

    Families make us who we are. Me I’m slightly crazy and I love my life.

  • Deb Hinshaw

    Thank you for sharing today, Christine. You are a new-to-me-author, but after seeing Bobbi’s FB lead-in to today’s post, I just had to stop by and read yours. I am very lucky to have a close family and brought up by parents who were loving to each other and to my two sisters and me and now have a loving husband and daughter. (Although, my dad’s nickname was Stormin’ Norman on the baseball field and at home, so I grew up to be a “good” girl ’cause I never wanted to cross the Stormin’.) There is nothing wrong with escaping our troubles for awhile. I want to escape into a good book and into another couple’s story so that when I get worried or stressed about my own life I can feel happy for awhile about someone else’s story.

  • Melanie Backus

    I,too, am an only child. I found it interesting in reading your story, how different our growing up was. I think it is amazing that you sit down at a computer and words pour out like they do. Keep up the good work! My fingers are crossed for the win!

  • Patricia Ann Sanders

    I think everyone needs to escape once in a while. Thank you for providing a way. Thank you for sharing your story. I don’t think I could have turned out as well as you have.

  • Ketta Peters

    I love the way you write. As a fellow only child, I can relate to needing to escape.

  • Kim Cornwell

    Thanks for sharing your story. Always looking for new authors!

  • Karen Scott

    I saw the same Karen Black movie and have never allowed troll type dolls in my house because of it!

  • Melissa Cowling Terry

    Thanks for sharing your story. I will be checking out your books.

  • Carrie Marie

    *non-creepy-random-stranger-internet-hugs* thanks for sharing your story, and i’m glad you found that door in the gift shop! keep up the great writing!!

  • Meredith Richardson

    You’re a new author for me which is a good thing because I’m always looking to find new authors and books 🙂 I can’t wait to check yours out.

  • Jen C

    Loved reading this! Thanks for sharing your story. I especially liked the comparison to the Winchester house. 🙂

  • Karin Anderson

    Everyone wants a happy ending. The only difference is the road we take to get there.

  • Ann Mettert

    My parents were married over fifty years and I could never figure it out. How they got together, why with all the undercurrents they stayed together. But I guess it worked. Maybe no one ever understands the parents’ marriage?? Maybe that’s one of my reasons for reading romance, I’m on the inside seeing how it works?? I don’t know. All I know is I love reading and look for to the new books. 🙂

  • Melissa Sullivan

    I think the want to have a happy ending is ingrained in everybody. No-one wants to be miserable. If it wasn’t ingrained then people wouldn’t daydream about scenarios they would like to happen.

    I read your story and don’t think you’re stone cold. I dislike my sister’s fiance (now husband) and because of that i pretty much didn’t want to help her with her wedding. A flu bug that caught me on the night of the rehearsal actually prevented me from going. Instead i stayed home and read a happy book. ^w^ But i still didn’t have anything written or to say for her reception. Sometimes there are just no words to say because you can’t sum up any.

  • kimmy lange

    Your review hooked me – I’ll be reading this.

  • Barbara E.

    I definitely think escapist fiction is a good thing. I love reading romance that takes me away to a time and place different than where I am. And to end with a happily ever after, that’s the best part. 😀

  • Patty Vasquez

    Maybe writing romance gave you the opportunity to explore the possibilities of what a healthy relationship could look like while working through the difficulties. A visualization process of sorts. Since you’re with your high school sweetheart, I would say you’re doing something right and very well!

  • Anne

    Thank you for the insightful essay. Welcome to my new “I have to read” author list.

  • Christine, thanks for the international prize and, most of all, thanks for sharing. Life is a puzzle indeed, or a kilt which frame we can understand only sometimes, in sparkles and shadows.

  • Beth Re

    I agree Love is like a puzzle.

  • M Kuxhaus

    It always strikes me as odd when people talk about the dead as if they were perfect humans. We all fail; when we die, it doesn’t erase all the bad.

  • Kim

    Thanks for sharing your story. The key, hopefully, is to learn what doesn’t work in a relationship as to avoid the same mistakes. Romance books always ensure a HEA, something real life doesn’t guarantee.

  • Sue G.

    Wow! What a life you had growing up. Glad to see you found something positive out of it! And I love a happy ending!

  • rebecca moe

    OMG, you had me at “Winchester Mystery House”

    That alone has you rocketing to the top of my long TBR list!

    Thank you for sharing–and showing that any experience can…eventually…be channeled in a positive way.

  • Carrie

    Thank you for sharing your story. Reading has always been my favorite form escape from life’s harsh realities.

  • Kareni

    Ms. Merrill, I’m now looking forward to reading one of your books. I suspect that your memoir would indeed be a bestseller!

    Your troll makes me think of those moving Santas. I had to get rid of the one we were gifted with — I feared that it was watching me.

  • jcp

    I’m glad you decided to write. Escapism is necessary.

  • Marcy Shuler

    I can relate to your story. My mom was involved with hospice (and my dad had died 7 months before) but when I was told she had died I didn’t go home. I went to work. You see, I’d been working 10 days straight (on the opposite side of the state) and then going home to care for my parents for 4 days…repeating this cycle for 8 months. Many people didn’t understand my decision, but my mother had told me not to return home as she wouldn’t be there. It’s not that I didn’t care, I did, but there was nothing I could do.
    Thank you for sharing your story and your wonderful books.

  • Mary McCoy

    Thank you for your books, and is it wrong that when they announced that Karen Black had died, the first thing I thought was that the evil little doll from Trilogy of Terror had finally gotten her?

  • Ann

    Nice post, thank you!

  • Beverly DeeAnjello

    I’ve been happily married for 28 years, so I believe in HEA. It hasn’t been perfect, but we are a team. With four kids and four dogs we need each other or we are outnumbered.

  • MooMoo Cake

    Your title had me hooked. And I stayed hooked throughout your post. Thank you for sharing your story and for writing escape routes for readers.

  • Janie McGaugh

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m like you in that I always want my stories (books and movies) to have a happy ending and, yes, I always wanted at least the hope of a HEA, too.

  • QuenKne M

    Life and love are difficult enough to get through on your own – everyone needs to know they can turn to romance novels when they need to know there is a happily ever after.

  • Glenda

    We all have to escape at some point or another, thanks for writing novels that give us a chance to do so!

  • brhill2010

    I am glad that your stories have happy endings. My parents never rebuttled against me reading the books because they were an escape for me and I wasn’t getting into trouble.

  • ki pha

    Sometimes being honest and true is the way its got to be. And love sometime is just like that. You have to be honest to make it work and lying will just make it even more worse. Thank you for your story, and for being strong and honest with us about your feelings.

  • Chris Merrill

    Thank you all for posting. And for coming to this really cool event. And thanks, Bobbi, for setting this up. I definitely do use my books as a kind of second chance, to see life go the way I think it should (with a happy ending, of course). During a particularly stressful time, recently, when my mom was going through her list of 63 years of complaints, I leaned over to my son and said, “This should be the most romantic story, ever. And in some universe, it is.”

    In my personal universe, of course. When opposites attract, as they did with my parents, it is much easier to make them two haves of a whole, and pair bond them for life.

    And frankly, I think I learned something, by writing HEAs: the value of patience, the need for kindness, and empathy.

  • Chris Merrill

    And, on the equally important subject of creepy dolls. Yes, I totally thought of Trilogy of Terror when Karen Black died.
    Also, if any of you saw the movie The Conjuring, I think they got that Annabelle doll wrong. The thing was obviously a demon. It was hideous. Why would anyone keep it? At least my troll wasn’t coloring on the walls.
    Supposedly, the ‘real’ haunted doll the story was based on is a plain old Raggedy Ann. I can believe that. You buy one of those, and they probably turn creepy, after you get them home.

  • Thank you for posting such an honest, heartfelt look at why romance matters. I was happy to read your post today. I live in rural-ish Ohio, outside the limits of any type of food delivery. LOL.

  • Flora Segura-Buchler

    Thank you for your candor and honesty, Christine. I have belonged to a book club for over fifteen years. The usual type of book we read is a best seller and full of tales of woe and dysfunctional families. Very often they have been Oprah book club selections, and several of them have one various literary prizes. I read them and participate in the book club meetings and discussions; then I come home to my true love genre: ROMANCE. My friends know my tastes in reading, but I have been unable to get them to take up Romance: Their loss, life is too short to drink bad wine and sad literature!

  • Larena Hubble

    I think everyone at some time or other need an escape and romances give them every time. And you can be sure usually of an HEA.

  • Chris Merrill

    Ahh,the Oprah books.

    That is actually the working title of my memoir, btw. The Oprah Book. Full of disfunction. But probably too funny to make her book club. But all full up here on messed up family stories.

    I’ve gotten into online disagreements with people who think I must be shallow, if I don’t want to enjoy depressing quality literature. My reasoning is, if I’m paying for antidepressants, it makes no sense to choose recreational reading that depresses me.

    I’m sticking to happy books, and saving the depressant space for recreational alcohol. Can’t have both Atonement and a margarita.

    • Chris Merrill, you crack me up. So glad you’re here. xoxo {hugs}

  • Kim

    I love your honesty! Families can be difficult and complex at the best of times. I love reading about the path couples take to falling in love and getting their HEA.

  • Pamby50

    I remember seeing the movie Trilogy of Terror with Karen Black. That doll really scared me. I see your dilema with getting rid of it. I look forward to reading one of your books.

  • Melinda Young

    The highest achievement in life as well as art is to transform the bad into good. A lot of writers and readers these days have forgotten this. They think HEAs are shallow and wallowing in darkness is the height of sophistication. They’ve forgotten that once upon a time tragedies allowed for catharsis. Now most of the highly-touted and depressing “must-read” books of today’s fashion take a bad situation and say, “See? See how horrible it is?? Life sucks!” Expurgation of pity and fear, My Aunt Fanny!
    Chris, you keep finding that HEA. The world is a better place for it.

  • Anita Medeiros

    I love a happened, thank you Christine for giving them to us! =)=)

  • Anita Medeiros

    I love happily ever after stories, our lives and families can be too serious and painful. Thank you Christine for writing those novels that take us away for a little while….=)=)=)=)

  • Stephanie M.

    I like your Winchester Mystery House analogy. And the thing about the troll doll coming back if you ever got rid of it, so true. You have been added to my TBR list.

  • Brenda E

    Hi Chris, I was reading Kathy Steffen’s RARM blog today and she mentioned your blog so I thought ..what the heck..let’s give it a read. Chris, what a strong woman you are to have not only survived your parents, but thrived, finding such a creative and joyful way to heal, through writing happy endings for yourself and sharing them with the rest of us. So, I just had to say thank you for sharing your story. Plus, I just have to add, despite the circumstances you related, you had me laughing out loud.

  • Joan Varner

    Thank you for sharing your story. I was touched by your honesty and appreciate the strength it must have taken to share that story with us.