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Janet Dailey dies at 69; romance novelist overcame plagiarism scandal

Prolific writer Janet Dailey sold millions of books. Even after admitting to using prose similar to romance writer Nora Roberts' writing, she continued to write and find success.

December 23, 2013|David Colker
  • Janet Dailey, shown in 1981, wrote about 100 books in her lifetime, beginning with "No Quarter Asked," which was published in 1974 by romance specialty house Harlequin Enterprises.
Janet Dailey, shown in 1981, wrote about 100 books in her lifetime, beginning… (Los Angeles Times )

Romance novelist Janet Dailey, who went from secretary to bestselling author with millions of copies of her books sold worldwide, found herself in the midst of a scandal in 1997 that could have been a career-ender.

But in her world, the heroine always found a way to overcome dire straits.

In Dailey's "Night of the Cotillion" (1977), Amanda finds love with Jarod, though he mocks her early on for being "wrapped up in those romantic notions ... and the happily-ever-afters." In "For the Love of God" (1981), Abbie overcomes cruel gossip to win the hand of Seth, the town's new minister. Similar happy endings were in store for the protagonists of "Valley of the Vapours," "For Bitter or Worse" and the nearly 100 other books she wrote.

Dailey's real-life dilemma came when she was accused of plagiarizing the prose of the biggest name in the genre, Nora Roberts. Dailey eventually admitted to the infractions and lost her big-name publisher. But she kept on writing, and many of her fans stuck by her.

"There's a formula in women's fiction called: 'sin, suffer and repent,'" said Dailey's agent, Richard Curtiss. "Well, she sinned, suffered and repented. And then she went on."

Dailey, 69, died Dec. 14 at her home in Branson, Mo., according to Taney County coroner Kevin Tweedy. Although he declined to give an exact cause of death, Tweedy said it was "health reasons."

She wrote about 100 books in her lifetime, beginning with "No Quarter Asked," which was published in 1974 by romance specialty house Harlequin Enterprises. By then, she and her husband, Bill — who she said was the model for the rugged men in her books — had taken early retirement and were traveling the country in a Silver Streak trailer.

"I had always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't have the vaguest notion of what to write about," Dailey said in a 1981 Los Angeles Times interview. "Then I started reading romances." By the time of the article, the extremely prolific Dailey had more than 50 books out, several of which had hit bestseller lists. In a Washington Post interview, she claimed to be able to write a novel in 16 days.

Dailey wrote several themed series of books, including her "Americana" series of 50 novels with one set in each state. Her devotion to U.S. settings and themes was one of the keys to her success, Curtiss said.

"Until Janet, the romances were English drawing room stories, very stylized and not very sexy," he said. Indeed, Dailey was the first U.S. author published by the Canada-based Harlequin. "Janet's books were much more muscular, with red-blooded males, and they had more explicit sex scenes."

Dailey did not shy away from calling her books escapism. "The enormous majority of my readers are all women just like myself, who are combining a career and home life," she said in The Times interview. "They need the escape from frustration that romance gives, but they know what reality is."

Janet Anne Haradon was born in the small town of Storm Lake, Iowa, on May 21, 1944. After attending secretarial school in Omaha she went to work for a construction company owned by Bill Dailey. They eventually married and he became the main researcher for her books that were steeped in history.

Her 1986 "The Great Alone," published by Simon & Schuster, was 768 pages and spanned Alaskan history from the 18th century to post-statehood. A Times review said the tome marked a move by Dailey "to shed the romance cloak, although there are enough beautiful heroines and handsome heroes falling in love (or at least lust) at first sight to keep longtime fans satisfied."

In 1997, some fans of the genre posted a paragraph from Dailey's recent novel, "Notorious," online and compared it to a similar passage in a book penned by Roberts. Other suspect passages were found.

Dailey issued a statement, saying that the similarities "were there and had to be admitted." She blamed personal stress, saying the missteps came at a time when her two brothers had died and her husband was battling cancer. She also said the "essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had," and that she was in treatment for the unnamed "disorder."

"Notorious" was pulled by publisher HarperCollins, which dropped Dailey. The author skipped the 1997 Romance Writers of America convention and generally laid low in Branson, where the Daileys had lived since 1978.

In 2001, Kensington Publishing starting bringing out her new books, beginning with "A Capital Holiday." Her last book published in her lifetime was "Merry Christmas, Cowboy" that came out earlier this year. A promotional synopsis says that the heroine of the book comes to realize "that the best gifts are second chances, happy endings, and the kind of love that makes every day warm and bright."

Dailey's husband, Bill, died in 2005. She is survived by stepson Jim Dailey, stepdaughter Linda Scheibe, three sisters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com

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