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What it takes to write romance novels: Desire

July 10, 2016

How many times, he demanded, had she done this?

“Thirty-five to forty,” she panted, her voice thick with — what? Desire?

Probably not. Most likely, HelenKay Dimon’s tone reflected deadline pressures. With roughly three dozen romance novels to her credit, Dimon is juggling contracts for a dozen more. Like many of the 2,000 attendees expected at this week’s Romance Writers of America conference downtown, she has to maintain a grueling pace to satisfy her passionate fans.

“The readers are incredible,” Dimon said. “They know that romance books come out on Tuesday, and they will buy four or five books every Tuesday. And now they buy them electronically on their Kindles.”

From E-books to eroticism, romance writing’s many facets will be explored at the 36th annual conference, Wednesday through Saturday at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina. Superstars Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz will dish. Beverly Jenkins, author of the first African-American historical romance, 1994’s “Night Song,” will inspire.

Creating characters; ensuring your audience’s loyalty; marketing your book without breaking your bank; the dos and don’ts of historical romance, paranormal romance, espionage romance, LGBTQ romance, inspirational romance — they’re all on the agenda.

What’s not: A male model whose studly torso and wind-blown tresses once graced many paperbacks’ covers. “It’s difficult for us to get any media coverage that doesn’t include ‘bodice-ripping’ or Fabio,” said Alyssa Day, whose “Warriors of Poseidon” series is set in Atlantis. “It’s tiresome and sloppy journalism.”

It also reinforces romance fiction’s reputation as literary junk food, a reputation RWA members insist is outdated and undeserved.

“We are given short shrift because these books are written by women,” said Jenkins, “and not many things done by women are valued.”

Critics may snub this genre, but publishers — reviewing last year’s record-breaking sales — are smitten.

“We brought $1.3 billion to the table last year,” Jenkins said. “$1.3 billion says a lot.”

He stepped close enough for Maddie to breathe in the scents of whisky and wood smoke, and to glimpse a wide, devilish mouth slashing his light growth of beard. After long seconds, she coaxed herself into meeting his gaze.

— from “When a Scot Ties the Knot: Castles Ever After” (2015) by Tessa Dare

In high school, Tessa Dare enjoyed romance novels. In college, she didn’t dare.

“You’re told you should be reading something that is more literary,” she said, “something that is conventionally thought to be improving.”

When she wasn’t studying, she turned to mysteries. The plots engaged her, yet she was repelled by one popular narrative device: “The Girl in the Refrigerator.”

“That’s shorthand for something awful happens to the woman and that motivates the man,” Dare said.

In romance writing, women may motivate men (and vice versa), but not as victims. Dare’s first novel, “Goddess of the Hunt,” was praised by Publisher’s Weekly for its wit and the “sizzling affair” between Lucy Waltham and the Earl of Kendall. “Goddess,” like Dare’s subsequent 13 full-length novels and five novellas, was set in Regency England.

All of her works adhere to the Romance Writers of America’s guidelines.

“There has to be a central love story,” Dare said, “and there has to be an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Usually, a romance novel ends with commitment. Happily ever after or happily for now.”

And no corpses in the crisper.

As he waited, up to his chest in the healing water, death taunted him — flickering at the edge of his vision, shimmering in the deep blue ocean currents surrounding him, pulsing in the scarlet blood that dripped steadily from his side and leg.

— from “Atlantis Rising” (2007) by Alyssa Day

The boundaries between romance and non-romance can be difficult to discern.

The “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, the 2011-2012 best-sellers wrapped in sexually explicit bondage?

Romance. “It ends with a committed relationship,” Dare said. Moreover, even the steamiest scenes in this popular series are told from the heroine’s point of view.

Then how about “Me Before You,” the 2015 novel about a working-class woman who goes to work for — and falls for — a wealthy, paralyzed man?

“I haven’t read it,” Dare said, “but my understanding of ‘Me Before You,’ the hero, um...”

No happy ending, right?

“I think it would not meet the definition of ‘romance.’”

That definition has been radically expanded since the 20th century heyday of the late Barbara Cartland, whose 723 novels starred Anglo-European, heterosexual virgins who were too good to be true.

That’s not Alyssa Day’s approach. In the 26 novels she’s published since 2004, Day has created characters as fantastic as tigers who can take on human shape and the undersea inhabitants of Atlantis. Despite their unreal exteriors, their inner lives are all too real.

“No matter what sub-genre you are writing in, people are facing real issues,” Day said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, Lars, bring me your gorgeousness!’”

While Day’s characters battle vampires and consult witches, they also struggle to pay the rent, cope with old age, fight depression. “There has to be a core of honesty and truth at the center,” she said, “or people can’t connect emotionally.”

Romance readers don’t want real life, Jenkins said, but they do want realism. “America’s changing,” she said. “You have people of color, different sexual orientations, different abilities.”

Jenkins specializes in novels about the 19th century African-American experience, from Harriet Tubman’s spies network to the frontier “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“You give them a great love story with strong African-American women,” Jenkins said, “and strong African-American men.”

While guys are vital to romance novels — except, of course, in lesbian romances — romance readers and writers are overwhelmingly female. The current Romance Writers of America board includes 18 women and one man. Still, these ladies are a varied lot.

“You have women who are judges, who are lawyers, physicists, doing a little bit of everything,” Jenkins said, “and also satisfying their creative sides with the happily ever after and the happily for now.”

“I can’t help you if I don’t know all of it,” Nathan said.

Fisher went with blurting it out. “Okay, fine. I’m gay” He threw his arms out to the sides. “Happy?”

— from “Mr. and Mr. Smith” (2016) by HelenKay Dimon

As a lawyer in D.C., Dimon specialized in contested child custody cases. “There’s really nothing worse on earth,” she said.

After a rough week, a colleague handed her three romance novels. “No matter what happens,” Dimon was told, “it won’t end with something awful.”

Dimon devoured the books and was transformed. Something she’d never considered before suddenly became a burning desire. Her briefs, oral arguments and recently-earned lawfirm partnership? She was willing to abandon them all for the sake of love on the printed page.

“I can honestly say that romance writing changed my life,” she said.

After her 2005 debut, the novella “When Good Things Happen to Bad Boys,” she wrote full-length novels of contemporary romance and romantic suspense. The latest in her “Bad Boys Undercover” series, “Facing Fire,” is nominated for a RITA award, the highest honor bestowed by the Romance Writers of America.

“I’m a big fan of action movies,” said Dimon. “There is a romance couple in each book, but the women aren’t hiding somewhere waiting to be rescued.”

While her own private entanglements are heterosexual — Dimon is married to a dashing, square-jawed Navy lawyer — that’s not true of all her characters. Her “Tough Love” series, launched in May with “Mr. and Mr. Smith,” is a gay espionage romance.

Other than four-hanky endings, little is off-limits in romance today. “There’s a push for inclusion,” Dimon said.

Yet some authors — put off by an impression that romance writing is fusty and formulaic — aren’t sure they want to be included.

“I took a breath before I said, ‘I’m going to be at the RWA,’” said Thelma Adams, a Crawford High graduate and former movie critic for US Weekly and the New York Post. “At first, I didn’t want to be put in that box.”

Tombstone kicked my ass, and I kicked back. No one expected that from a little Jewish girl from a no-name family. I wasn’t invited to the dance near the O.K. Corral with my husband, Wyatt, and his brothers Earp, or those irascible Clantons, or my ex, Sheriff Johnny-come-lately Behan. I was just a woman — a footnote — expected to tuck my skirts under my tail and inspire male bravery when I wasn’t baking corn bread or childbearing.

-- from “The Last Woman Standing” (2016) by Thelma Adams

“Last Woman,” a fictionalized account of Josephine Marcus, the independent beauty who became Wyatt Earp’s great love, is a historical novel. Or a Western. Or a feminist Western. Or...

“I thought of this as really a Jewish book,” Adams said. “She’s a Jewish girl.”

But a romance novel? Invited to attend the RWA conference, Adams hesitated before accepting: “I go where the readers are.”

On Wednesday, she’ll join Roberts, Krentz and 400 more authors in the Marriott Marquis ballroom. From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., fans by the thousands will line up to buy autographed copies of these writers’ books. All proceeds from this “Readers for Life” fundraiser will be donated to ProLiteracy Worldwide and other literacy-related nonprofits.

Since 1990, this annual event has raised $961,300. This year, donations may crack $1 million.

Wouldn’t that be romantic?