WHEN EL PASO AUTHOR Janice Woods Windle published her first novel, True Women, in 1994, it seemed to be just another rose-toned romance of early Texas pioneers, distaff division. Yet two years later, the 57-year-old’s book is a publishing phenomenon. It has sold half a million copies and is now in its fourth hardback printing. Texas celebrities from Ann Richards to Dan Rather have raved about it; Texas schools have adopted it as a supplement to history texts. Windle receives letters from readers daily and gives lectures around the state. And, inevitably, Hollywood has taken notice. Later this year, production begins on a True Women miniseries to be filmed in part in Seguin, where tourists flock to visit the sites described in the novel. Rumor has it that Teri Hatcher of TV’s Lois and Clark is eyeing the plummest role, that of Euphemia Texas Ashby, an acquaintance of Sam Houston’s who fled Santa Anna’s army in the infamous Runaway Scrape.

What accounts for True Women’s charm, and what distinguishes the book from every other bodice-ripper, is its grounding in historical fact. The three heroines—who fend off evil Yankees, angry Indians, starving wolves, and more—live up to the title: They are Windle’s ancestors, two great-grandmothers and one great-great, and their eye-opening exploits really happened. “I was nervous that I was going to have to fictionalize some things,” Windle says. “But I didn’t have to.”

Equally noteworthy is the fact that the author is by profession a philanthropist; she heads the El Paso Community Foundation. Windle began True Women in 1984 not as a novel but as a genealogical project. “It was originally going to be a family cookbook, loose-leaf, very modest,” she recalls. “Then I decided I’d stick in some old photographs of the various relatives. Then I decided to do a one-page sum-mary of their lives.” The manuscript grew like Topsy, and she spent much of the next eight years visiting ancestral turf to pore over attic archives.

Like her foremothers, Windle learned to persevere when dozens of agents and publishers rejected her tale (“Too Texas, too women, no national market,” she chants). Fortunately, a copy found its way to Neil Nyren, the editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons in New York. “He called and said, ‘Where did all this information come from?’ I said, ‘Most of it came from boxes under my mother’s bed.’ There was this pause, and he asked, ‘How many more boxes does your mother have?’”

Plenty, it turns out. Windle is now researching her second novel, Hill Country, based on the life of her paternal grandmother, who raised horses in Blanco. True to the original plan, she’s also finishing up a True Women cookbook. But entertainment and moneymaking are not her goals. “I’m thrilled that readers love the book,” she says. “But for me, the icing on the cake would be for people to get excited about their own family histories.”