Joan Medlicott never expected to find herself in the forefront of a new literary genre. But six years ago, as she relaxed in the bath one evening, three characters suddenly appeared in her imagination. All were widows of a certain age.
Over the next few days, as a plot began to develop, Ms. Medlicott sat at her computer, recording essential details of her story. Although this was her first foray into fiction, "my fingers just flew over the keys," Medlicott says.
The result was "The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love," the first in what would become a popular series of novels about women in their 60s who begin new lives together at a North Carolina farmhouse.
Since then, other novelists have also realized the fictional potential of this age group. They are creating a growing cast of midlife and older characters who serve as counterpoints to the hip young singles romping through popular novels.
Move over, chick lit. Make room on bookshelves for "matron lit," the latest literary category to catch publishers' - and readers' - interest. As baby boomer women reach their 50s and approach their 60s, many are eager to read about women like themselves, Medlicott says.
In books with catchy titles such as "The Hot Flash Club," "Julie and Romeo," and "The Red Hat Club," authors offer reassurance that the middle and later years, while not without challenges and sorrows, can include zest, adventure, and - gasp - romance.
Even Larry McMurtry, the bestselling author of "Lonesome Dove" and "Terms of Endearment," has joined the matron lit set. His new novel, "Loop Group," stars two feisty 60-plus women on a road trip to Hollywood.
"Women need to connect," says Medlicott. And in matron lit, those connections revolve around "women who find themselves, who build new lives, who accept the possibilities that life offers and are willing to take risks."
In the beginning, though, finding a publisher willing to take risks on this subject proved challenging. Medlicott mailed query letters to 25 female literary agents, hoping they would be receptive to a book starring older characters. One of them, Nancy Coffey of New York, said yes.
After sending the book to 15 publishers, some of whom were in their 50s, Ms. Coffey received 14 rejections.
"They all said, 'Thank you, it's beautifully written, but nobody cares about older people.' " Coffey recalls. "One publisher said, 'Tell her to make her characters in their 40s, hot and juicy, and I'll buy it.' I said, 'That's not the story. It can't be done.' "
When St. Martin's Press published the book, readers responded enthusiastically.
Still, no one really loves the term matron lit. "There doesn't seem to be a perfect word that describes this demographic," says Micki Nuding, a senior editor at Pocket Books, which in March will publish Medlicott's next novel, "The Three Mrs. Parkers."
Terms such as "hen lit" and "lady lit" didn't have the right ring, either, publishers found. A similar category in Britain, "granny lit," refers to novels written by authors over 60.
"Matron lit sounds so dowdy," says Nancy Thayer, author of "The Hot Flash Club," which features four women between the ages of 48 and 62.
Most of her readers mirror that age category. But she also hears from younger women; some have mothers dealing with aging issues, while other simply identify with the stories, Ms. Thayer says.
"So many women I meet are starting life over at 50," Thayer says. "Many people this age, maybe because they have to, are revising their lives. They're taking different jobs or finally writing that novel they've always wanted to write."
The inspiration for her novel came after AARP asked to use a quote from one of her earlier novels, which reads: "It's never too late, in fiction or in life, to revise." About the same time she received her AARP membership card. "Both of those things made me realize, You know, we do exist."
Her novels include another credo: "It's never too late to make new friends." The power and enduring importance of women's friendships run like a golden thread through many matron lit books.
In nonfiction, new titles focusing on midlife include "Dating After 50," by Sharon Romm, and "Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood," by Suzanne Braun Levine.
Thirty-seven million women are between the ages of 49 and 69, notes Ms. Levine. In addition, women over 45 make up the largest number of people starting their own businesses.
"We face an open frontier that we can experience," she adds. "We're not just going to fill it with the grandma role, as a white-haired lady with her bags packed, sitting by the phone waiting to be summoned to baby-sit. We love our grandchildren, but we have big plans for ourselves. The question women are asking themselves is, What am I going to do with the rest of my life?"
Some will continue their careers. But Levine offers another point of view. "People often define being effective in old age as continuing to work. We're going to redefine that. A lot of women have worked hard with great satisfaction or with no satisfaction and really want to try something else."
Ideas for this "something else" abound as matron-lit novels continue to roll off the presses. In addition to Medlicott's latest book in March, other titles coming this spring include "Julie and Romeo Get Lucky," by Jeanne Ray, and "The Red Hat Club Rides Again," by Haywood Smith.
Referring to the potential of matron lit, Coffey says, "The climate is changing a little bit, but it will take a little more magic for the doors to open completely. Someday it's all going to click. These books are giving women ideas, giving them hope for something that is available for them for the last part of their lives."
For now, as women in this generation work to counter what Levine describes as "a terrible plague of ageism in our culture," she remains optimistic. "It hasn't hit us yet what we are capable of," she says. "We're striking out in new terrain with confidence, expertise, and energy, with the freedom to write our own script. What we're doing will be so interesting that sooner or later it will be picked up and noticed."