Christie Ridgway’s 11th published novel, This Perfect Kiss, opens with the heroine, a vintage-clothing dealer, heading for an afternoon appointment. She’s dressed in a tight-fitting, flesh-colored chiffon evening gown out of which her voluptuous breasts keep threatening to spill. (For reasons beyond her control, she hasn’t changed into the business suit she’d planned to wear.) She’s also late, which irritates the man she’s meeting, a wealthy software mogul described as “six lean feet of black hair, blue eyes, and unusual, almost exotic features.”
The two get off to a rocky start; she has to badger him to let her help liquidate his grandfather’s estate. To any seasoned romance reader, it’s clear by page eight that these two will wind up having passionate and extended sexual intercourse (which will be described in graphic detail). Various misunderstandings and tensions will complicate their wild mutual attraction. But by the end of the book, they’ll be bound together for life.
Caidwater, the estate where much of the action in This Perfect Kiss takes place, includes a 44-room mock Moorish castle set amidst eight separate gardens and “acres of undeveloped land…crowning the highest ridge of hills ringing Hollywood.” The author of this fantasy lives in an old neighborhood near the base of Mt. Nebo in La Mesa. Ridgway’s property is a corner lot distinguished by a majestic California pepper tree that sits on a bank of ivy sloping down to the street. Ridgway is conscientious about decorating her house, a two-story tan edifice with teal and white trim. This past Christmas, for example, a Santa and sleigh pulled by five reindeer stretched across the low front roof, and on the porch a wagon held several potted poinsettias. Inside the house, golden-toned wood floors gleam. Ridgway and her husband of 18 years have 13-year-old and 9-year-old sons, as well as a rambunctious golden retriever, but little clutter is evident. You have to enter Ridgway’s office to find hints of her love-soaked calling: a collection of wedding cake ornaments displayed in a bookcase; a file cabinet painted hot pink. Behind her desk hang framed paperback book covers, each one bearing Ridgway’s name.
At the moment, the wall space holds 13 of these literary emblems, but Ridgway’s productions are hard to keep up with. Two just came out last month (First Comes Love and In Love with Her Boss), and three more are slated for publication between now and the beginning of next year.
All her published-book credits place Ridgway among the more prolific romance writers of Southern California, which in turn ranks as one of the steamiest hotbeds for the genre nationwide (second only to Texas). The Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America includes about 300 members, making it the largest in the country, and the 20-year-old San Diego branch is also hefty, with a membership of more than 100 women, including 20 or so who have published.
Their collective aim is to help satisfy the voracious appetite among American women for stories about male/female relationships that “end in a way that makes the reader feel good.” That’s how the national writer’s organization defines romance on its website. These novels “are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice — the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished.” Lovers “who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship” receive “emotional justice and unconditional love.”
The sale of such stories amounted to $1.37 billion in 2000, according to the writer’s group. In that year alone, almost 2300 romance titles were released, making romance far and away the most important segment of the book market — accounting for 55.9 percent of all popular paperback fiction sales. That’s twice the percentage claimed by mystery and suspense paperbacks combined (28.1 percent) and more than four times that for “general fiction” (12.9 percent). A 1999 survey of reading habits commissioned by the Romance Writers of America found that 41.4 million people aged ten and older — 18 percent of the reading-age population — had read a romance within the past year.
Women (and a small percentage of men) obtain these books from a variety of outlets. Some get monthly shipments in the mail. Others pick up paperbacks in airports, supermarkets, drugstores. Still others turn to bookstores, both the big chains and smaller stores, such as Gracie’s Book Nook in National City, the Book Mark in Escondido, or Nina’s Books on El Cajon Boulevard, that have a reputation for their robust romance sections. The ultimate local amatory outpost, however, is Romance World in El Cajon.
Picture a parking lot a block away from the Parkway Plaza shopping center. At one end looms a Michael’s craft emporium, and along two sides, long arcades hold back the concrete sea. The overhang of the arcades makes it hard to see the businesses tucked within them, but the strip that shelters the used-tuxedo shop and the hair salon and the plus-size dress store is also home to a vast storehouse of literary love.
Owner Mary Roscom estimates that Romance World contains more than 100,000 volumes, with maybe 80 percent of them romance. Most are paperbacks, the majority used. In the five years she’s owned the business, Roscom has developed a ruthless system for organizing her stock. The newest books face the front door, just steps from the entrance. After a few weeks, they move to the sides of their bookstands. Those unsold later shift again to a lowlier perch. Roscom’s cash register and central work area command the space just beyond the new books. Around and beyond this administrative island, Roscom has created tidy nooks for the used books. Labels hint at the head-spinning varieties within the genre: historical, paranormal, contemporary, inspirational, and more.
“Everything you could get another way — military, horror, mystery, sci-fi — you can get in romance,” Roscom declares. She says whenever she tries to read a straight mystery, she always thinks afterward, “That was good, but it was just missing the romance.”
A rotund woman with short thin hair, thick glasses, and an astute air, Roscom worked as a post-office clerk for 12 years before she bought the romance-book business from the man who had started it in the late 1980s. She was shopping in his store one day when she heard that the enterprise might be for sale. She pressed for details. She’d always dreamed of owning a store, had considered and rejected selling pets. (“I started thinking about how they get diseases. Some of them die.”) She’d thought about rubber stamps. (“I’ve been rubber-stamping for 21 years.”) But romance books had also become important in her life.
Although most of her customers started reading romance in junior high school, Roscom didn’t begin until she was 40. Her discovery came in 1993, at a time when she was reading magazines but not much else. One day, called for jury duty, “I picked up an old Victoria Holt,” she remembers. When she returned from her courthouse stint and reported to her postal coworkers her disappointment with Holt’s trademark Gothic style, they protested that Gothic romance was passé. “There’s no sex,” Roscom now states with authority. “It’s more dark and depressing — somebody you know is really a bad person. That sort of thing.” One acquaintance pressed a copy of Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendor upon her, and its light, funny tone bewitched Roscom. “It’s not incredibly spicy, but there is some sex. And it definitely makes you feel good when you read it.” Reading it “put me on the path of no return.”
Roscom’s friends pointed her to other books. “And I started branching out pretty quickly.” She began keeping a computerized list of every romance novel she read. On this list, she notes the one-to-five-star rating accorded each book by Romantic Times, the monthly bible of the industry. Next to that, she logs her own opinion of how many stars each book deserves. A few years ago, Roscom recorded her 1000th entry. Some of her customers were incredulous. Surrounded by all those books, how could Roscom not have devoured more? But Roscom isn’t the fastest reader. She figures most people consume 60 to 90 romance pages per hour but says her speed falls at the low end of that range. It’s a rate that allows her to complete a book every two to four days, depending on the length. In contrast, “I have customers who say they can whip right through two or three a day,” she discloses.
What Roscom lacks in speed, she makes up for in retention. “I can tell you about every book I’ve ever read.” Pick out a listing at random, The Passionate Ghost, for example, and she can deliver a quick précis: “That’s part of a whole series of books about ghosts. They’re Regency period, and basically they’re all about this house that’s haunted by this ghost. He appears to just a few people in the first book, and at the end you find that he was madly in love with the lady who’s now the grandmother matriarch through all the books. She dies and they end up together in the last one. It’s really a cute little story.”
If you ask Roscom about one of Christie Ridgway’s books, however, she’ll tell you she hasn’t read any of them. She’s made a point of avoiding books by San Diego County writers; she thinks if she disliked one and a customer asked her about it, she’d have to be truthful. But she would feel bad about doing so. Instead, her abstention allows her to say that she doesn’t have an opinion.
Unlike Roscom, Christie Ridgway followed the classic path to romance fandom. Ridgway says in sixth grade she started buying Harlequin romances from the Woolworth in the small Bay Area town where she grew up. “I loved them. My friends and I would trade them back and forth.” Nowadays the books “have more sensual content than they did at that time,” she notes. She herself writes books she wouldn’t recommend to a sixth grader, because of their explicit sexuality. “But back then they were okay.”
Trim and blond, Ridgway has the sort of wholesome good looks often seen in actresses playing housewives in TV commercials. A quote from Publishers Weekly that appears on the cover of This Perfect Kiss could apply as well to her as to her creation: “SMART, PEPPY…”
Almost as far back as her memory goes, she wanted to write. “I have spiral notebooks of my writing going back to second grade. Every Christmas my mom would give me a new notebook.” Ridgway did some news reporting in both high school and college but finally decided she wasn’t good at journalism. She shrank from asking tough questions. “I could feel people being uncomfortable, so I would back off.” At UC Santa Barbara, she studied English, however, rather than yielding to her parents’ conviction that a business major would be more practical.
In college, she met and fell in love with her future husband, now a high school and Grossmont College math teacher. A few years after graduation, they married, eventually settling in La Mesa, his hometown. By then Christie had decided that technical writing might be a way to make a living with words. She got a job with a local company but before long learned how to do computer programming for the firm. It paid better, and she says it provided psychic payoffs too. She likes the idea of everything fitting into little boxes. In an alternate life, she could imagine herself designing websites or being an interior decorator, bringing order to an untidy world.
Her study of literature in college had consumed all her reading time, and the programming job further influenced her pleasure-reading choices. “I was a young woman working with a lot of men in a very male setting.” She traveled a lot, and on airplanes and job sites, surrounded by older men, she wasn’t comfortable burying her nose in paperbacks plastered with images of bosomy young women wrapped in torrid embraces with tall, dark-eyed men. Instead, Ridgway read thrillers — novels by Robert Ludlum and the like, whose covers depicted knives dripping with blood.
Reflecting on those years, Ridgway feels bad that she denied herself the pleasure of the books she loved. She didn’t go back to romances until her first son turned two (at the end of 1990). She was still working part-time as a programmer, and one day an old friend asked why she wasn’t writing.
The question made her stop and think. Ridgway began checking romance books out of the library. She recalls being “enthralled” by some of the work of Patricia Veryan. “They’re Georgian-era historical romances. I was just so taken away. And I thought, ‘I don’t care how long it takes, or what I have to do, but I could learn to do this. I’ve learned to do lots of other stuff that I didn’t even like so much.’ ”
Within a short while, “I called my mom. I called my brother.” She announced to them, “I’m going to be a romance writer.” If they harbored doubts, no one laughed in her face. She joined the San Diego chapter of the Romance Writers of America and began attending a critique group to which members brought five pages of new writing each week. “We would read them to each other and comment. It was fabulous! So helpful.” The other members of the group shared with her practical tips about publishing within the genre, and Ridgway says her confidence began to grow. “It was very much like a women’s group.”
In the group, she completed her first novel, the story of a one-time high school boyfriend and girlfriend who meet again years after graduation. Sent off to publishers, it brought in her first crop of rejections. “I probably didn’t have as good an understanding of story form as I do now,” Ridgway reflects. “I remember trying to think of events: ‘Okay, they can go on a picnic!’ Well, no. Plot comes out of character,” she says she now knows. Back then, “I probably didn’t come up with characters that changed enough.”
She started a second book, though today she can’t remember much about it. She joined a new critique group in which members were challenging each other to write as much as possible, some producing 20 pages a week. This seemed like a lot after the 5-page-a-week regime. But Ridgway had an idea she thought might sell. At a romance writer’s conference, she’d learned about a new line of books from Silhouette Books. The editors wanted stories in which the hero and heroine are brought together by the written word — an ad, for example. “Being from California, I came up with a message in a bottle. That made sense to me,” Ridgway recalls. She began spinning out the tale that later came to be titled The Wedding Date. (Its heroine, seething with anger over being dumped by her fiancé, hits the beach in search of a tall, blond, and handsome surfer type to take to her ex’s wedding. Growing desperate, she slips a cryptic pink note into a two-liter diet cola bottle, and this action results in her meeting Mr. Right.) About three months after starting it, Ridgway had a complete manuscript in hand. “That book sold. They were looking for something in a very contemporary voice,” Ridgway says. “And that’s what it had.”
Within the field of romance writing, there are two overarching subdivisions: category (also called series) books and single titles. Ridgway explains that The Wedding Date was one of the former. Writers of category books have to meet very specific criteria. Harlequin’s Blaze line, for example, demands 70,000 to 75,000-word-long stories that have “a strong sexual edge,” according to the publisher’s editorial guidelines. Heroes and heroines in Silhouette’s Romance line (53,000 to 58,000 words) “don’t actually make love unless married, [but] sexual tension is vitally important,” the guidelines state.
In contrast, the (mandatory) Christian characters in all Steeple Hill Love Inspired stories (70,000 to 75,000 words) have “sweet romances” in which “any physical interactions (i.e., kissing, hugging)…emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire.” In Mills & Boon Medical Romances (50,000 to 55,000 words), “An exploration of patients and their illness is permitted, but not in such numbers as to overwhelm the growing love story.”
More than just their short length and circumscribed content characterize the category offerings, Ridgway says. They’re also marketed in distinctive fashion, more like periodicals than books. The publishers release a certain number of titles, usually four to six, in each line every month. They mail some as a package directly to subscribing readers. Storeowners can pick and choose what to order from among these monthly offerings, but Ridgway says many don’t discriminate. They’re buying a commodity: the explicit sexual romps of Blaze; the decorous Steeple Hill romances. “Then the next month comes around, and those books are all pulled off the shelves and replaced with the new ones. Sort of like a magazine.”
A single-title romance book, in contrast, “is not a prepackaged thing,” Ridgway says. Longer and wider-ranging in their content, these books receive more marketing attention from the publishers, who display their offerings in catalogs and send sample covers to bookstore owners. The storekeepers in turn base their decisions on such factors as how well each author has sold for them before and how attractive the cover is. “The cover makes a big difference about how something is going to sell,” says Roscom, who orders more copies of volumes bearing crisp, attention-grabbing art.
Ridgway points out that single-title books have some drawbacks compared to their category counterparts. “I have to tell you that Harlequin/Silhouette [the colossus of the category-book publishers] is great to work for. They pay really well, and when you go out under the Harlequin/Silhouette umbrella, people know what they’re getting.” In contrast, “In the single-title world, hey, it’s you by yourself, hoping that someone recognizes you. They’ve never seen your name before. Why would they buy your book over someone else’s? It doesn’t have that automatic draw.”
So she was delighted when within six months of her first book being accepted, she sold another category novel to Silhouette’s Yours Truly line, this one using the device of a groom getting a note calling off the wedding as he was in the dressing room preparing for the ceremony. “I had kind of figured it out. I was getting it — understanding the form,” Ridgway says. Four more sales to Yours Truly ensued, though over time the publisher dropped the written-word gimmick. In 1999 Ridgway shifted to writing for Silhouette’s Special Edition category, a homey line in which the typical heroine is the woman next door. “She’s not going to have a job as a spy. She’s going to work at the preschool or as a caterer. That kind of hearthy thing.”
Around the same time, at the urging of her literary agent, she ventured into the single-title arena. “In terms of ultimately becoming a multimillion-dollar famous author, you have to move to single-title because only the single titles get the widest distribution in the most locations.” Ridgway felt as if she were starting over again. “The books are much longer, and I was writing for a somewhat different audience with different expectations.” Her heart sank when her editor rejected the first 100 pages she submitted, asking her to go deeper, hit everything harder, make every disappointment more wrenching. “I think probably I had been just skating over the surface of the emotions,” she reflects today. Ridgway rewrote the beginning, and the book at last reached publication in February 2000 under the title Wish You Were Here.
Set on a fictional island off the coast of Southern California, it tells the story of a jet-jockey-turned-astronaut who flees to the island to recover after being temporarily blinded in a car accident. There he falls under the spell of the sexy and beautiful woman who runs the bed-and-breakfast where he’s hiding out from reporters. “It’s a homebody/wanderer story. She’s the homebody. She’s somebody who won’t leave an island because she feels she’s only safe there. In fact the name of the island is Abrigo, which means shelter in Spanish. And he’s somebody who’s not only wandered the earth but the universe. His name is Yeager Gates, because he’s the gate to the world for her.” By the end of the book, the heroine is willing to leave, but the hero chooses to stay on the island and start a flying service.
“I love all my single titles, like, desperately,” Ridgway confesses. “It stabs me in the heart, I love them so much.” She followed up the astronaut book with the Los Angeles–based romance between the software mogul and the well-endowed vintage-clothing vendor. That book gave Ridgway her first experience with seeing her name on a best-seller list. For one week, This Perfect Kiss occupied the 126th slot on USA Today’s compilation of the top-selling 150 books in the United States.
Ridgway’s third single-title effort, First Comes Love, came out last month and made it up to number 117 on the USA Today list. For this book, she kept the action in California but shifted the focus to a small town loosely modeled after Nevada City. “The heroine works in a little living-history district where people dress in costume and live supposedly like they did in the Gold Rush time.” To make it interesting, Ridgway decided that many of the townsfolk should be descendants of the original settlers. The heroine is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the madame who once ran the local brothel. “So who would the hero be?” the author asks. “Of course he has to be the descendant of the first lawman in the town. I mean, it just goes.”
Two characters who are peripheral in this book will move to center stage in Ridgway’s next single-title book, scheduled for publication in January 2003. She says romances never follow a character or characters through a series of books the way mysteries (and often thrillers) do. The happy-ever-after endings preclude that. By the final page, all the tension has drained away; the quest for true love has been fulfilled. But looser linkages are a common romance convention. Harlequin, for example, publishes one popular “continuity series” called Montana Mavericks. The more than 30 books that constitute it are all set within the same fictional Montana town. Authors, including Ridgway (who was asked to write one of the latest installments), have to follow written guidelines known as “The Bible.” Ridgway received a one-page outline of what she was expected to write. It described the heroine’s conflict, as well as how the lovers needed to meet. The outline dictated that a lesser character needed to get food poisoning at a wedding (in order to pave the way for developments in a later book). Ridgway says that the experience was a bit like writing a soap-opera installment.
Although Ridgway has moved outside California for at least one other book (set in Oklahoma), she’s never traveled back in time or into other dimensions (such as space or the paranormal) the way some of her peers do. Pressed to classify her writing, she refrains from calling it romantic comedy “because I think that undercuts the emotional content.” But comedy is “a pivotal element in everything I write. There are usually some real comedic scenes.” Also, “The characters always have a sense of humor, so there’ll be moments when you smile to yourself, or hopefully even laugh out loud.”
Sex is another universal element in her work. None are “sweet romances,” she says, referring to the chaste narratives in which “the characters don’t consummate their feelings for one another.” In Ridgway’s work, “They do. And with detail and using ‘The Words.’ ” She says when she decided to become a romance writer she knew she would have to write such scenes. She enjoyed reading them in other people’s books, and not to include them in her own work somehow “wouldn’t be fair.”
Creating fictional sex has demanded a certain amount of revelation and vulnerability, she acknowledges. “You would assume that if I’m writing about a particular sex act that I at least think I’ve done it before.” A self-conscious laugh rescues her from her tangled syntax. “But I’ve gotten more comfortable with it, and I think I’ve gone even farther with it than I thought would be possible. Because it’s always about the characters. And they aren’t me. When I’m writing a love scene, I really don’t think it’s me. I think it’s a story about the characters, so I don’t feel uncomfortable.”
Forcing one’s characters to keep their clothes on can be challenging, Jill Limber attests. Limber is the current copresident of the local romance writer’s chapter. A friendly, down-to-earth woman who lives on a gracious street in the upper reaches of Mission Hills, Limber studied behavioral science in the late 1960s at San Diego State and worked in management for the phone company before getting pregnant with her first child in 1974. “I took a very long maternity leave that lasted, oh, 18 years,” Limber says. She always read a lot. Autobiography, popular fiction, nonfiction, particularly history — all this she enjoys, but since her college days, at least half her reading has consisted of romance. “I’ve always been a sucker for a good love story,” she says, “whether it be a movie or a book or someone telling how they met their husband.” At some point, the flash of insight that launches so many romance-writing careers struck her: the thought that she could figure out how to tell such stories herself.
But where to start? Her solution was to enroll in a master’s program in creative writing at UCSD. Under the tutelage of a professor who “was very accepting of all the genres,” she began crafting a romance novel and took other classes that interested her, then decided to drop out of the program and concentrate on writing. Limber figures she worked on that first book, a yarn about Civil War spies, for five or six years, writing and rewriting it and feeling some despair as it accumulated an inch-thick file of rejections. “They did get nicer and nicer over time,” she notes. But she finally set her first effort aside. She resolved to give her career as a romance writer one more chance. She would start a second book, and if it didn’t get published, she would expand the catering business she had dabbled in for years.
Limber outlined a story about a feisty young woman whose cattle-rancher father dies leaving a will that requires her to get married or lose the land. The heroine finds an unlikely candidate for this marriage of convenience, a man facing the gallows, and true to the well-worn format, he ends up winning her heart. Limber blasted through a rough draft of this story in six weeks, then queried several publishers about it right before the 1996 Christmas holidays. HarperCollins astonished her by asking to see the full manuscript just two weeks later. “I very quickly finished the book, and a couple weeks later, they bought it. And my catering business went down the drain!”
Further sweetening this news was the fact that the publisher wanted the book for a summer promotion and so printed 98,000 copies that were sold for a special price of $3.99, versus the $4.99 that was more standard for paperbacks of that size at that time. Because of the large print run, Limber wound up making more from the sale than do most first-time authors, who can make as little as $1000 or less. Pressed for details about how much money romance writers earn, Limber hesitates. “It’s kind of an unspoken rule that you just don’t talk about it.” Even within the romance writer’s organization, little discussion of the subject takes place, she says. Sometimes a woman will say that she just got a “really great” advance, but “I don’t know what that means,” Limber confesses. The advance that Limber received for her current (fifth) book “is double what I got for my first book, but it still is only $6000. So when somebody says, ‘I got a really fabulous advance,’ I don’t know if they mean that they’ve been getting $1500 advances and then they got a $6000 advance. You just don’t know.” Whenever a newcomer declares her intention of making a living at romance writing, Limber tries to be straightforward about the likelihood of success at that. Some writers do earn $100,000 or more per year, but not many. “If somebody has unreasonable expectations, I might just say, ‘Hey, look, can you live on $10K a year? At least for the first couple of years?’ ”
Nonetheless, the news of her first sale, in 1997, buoyed her spirits and inspired her to pull out her Civil War spy story and rewrite it yet again. It sold to the Kensington Publishing Corporation in 1999. “Then I decided that the historical market was getting weak, so I wrote a contemporary and sold that one.”
Limber’s first three books included sex scenes that she classifies as “very sensual.” She no longer recalls if Romantic Times magazine rated them according to its scale, which runs from Sweet (“May or may not include lovemaking. No explicit sex”) through Sensual, Very Sensual, and Spicy, up to Sexy (“Borders on erotic. Very graphic sex”). Limber’s fourth book, another contemporary romance, would probably have fallen at the hotter end of the spectrum, but one day she heard a talk that made her reconsider her strategy. One of the Harlequin/Silhouette editors, describing the Silhouette Romance line, was making the point that “oftentimes authors will include sex scenes when actually the story might be better suited to having more sexual tension rather than actual sex,” Limber recalls. Hearing this, she thought about the heroine she was in the process of developing: a beautiful 25-year-old woman who would be making her way from Seattle to New York after being dumped by her fiancé. Limber was planning to get this girl stuck in Montana, where, to earn some money, she would take a job working as a nanny for a rancher. He was going to need a nanny because his wife would have run off with his brother, leaving behind their ten-month-old baby. (“I just happened to have a ten-month-old grandson at the time I was writing it,” Limber confides. “He was my model.”)
Limber realized that this story might fall under the rubric the editor was describing. “I pitched it to her at the conference, and she said to send it to her.” Omitting the sex scenes “worked out well because the gal had just been jilted and wasn’t interested in a relationship. She thought she was moving on.” The hero, in turn, was reeling from the betrayal by his wife and brother. “So it made sense in this story that these two people could be very, very attracted to each other, but for personal reasons they would say, ‘I’m just not going to do that.’ ”
The 15-Pound Matchmaker is scheduled for release this coming May, and last December, Limber sold another book proposal to the Silhouette Romance line. At the time of the sale, she knew what would bring the hero (a former Navy SEAL working as a handyman) and heroine (an aspiring children’s writer who hires him to help her with a house renovation) together, but “How I’m going to keep them from sleeping together is going to be interesting,” she disclosed, adding, “it is very difficult for me to have two healthy, young, single adults together on the page throughout the book without consummating the relationship.”
The switch from historical to contemporary romance also has continued to be challenging. Whereas the dialogue in historicals tends to be “more stilted and formal,” Limber says, “In a contemporary, it’s very snappy and upbeat. I’m 53 years old, and snappy young dialogue is something I don’t do.” She gets around this problem in a variety of ways. She presses her twentysomething son and daughter for current parlance. She watches Dawson’s Creek, the Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “That’s very helpful. You have to stay really tuned in to the younger culture.”
To the charge that romance writing is formulaic, Limber counters that “it no more has a formula than mysteries do.” In the detective genre, “You have to solve the mystery by the end of the book.” In romance, publishers make a promise to their readers that their books “will be a love story and will have a happy ending.” Beyond that, Limber enumerates a few other principles underpinning the genre. “In any romance, the characters have to be on opposite sides of an issue or in opposition to each other.” She says a classic example might involve bringing together an environmentalist and a land developer. “And then they have to find a way to work it out. Otherwise, you don’t have a story. Like my husband and me: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They get married. They live happily ever after. There’s not much of a story there,” Limber says with a wry smile.
She says romance writers also understand “that a lot of romance readers do not want to get heavily into controversial subject matter. You want entertainment. You want to get away from real life.” Furthermore, within the books, “There’s a real moral code.” Danielle Steel falls outside the pale because her books have ambivalent endings, and the characters often do unheroic things. In romance, “A heroine would never have an affair,” Limber says. “A hero would never walk away from a child, even if it was conceived during a one-night stand.… Part of the fantasy of romance readers is that they become the characters that are in the book.” Limber laughs at the memory of a comment made by her husband when he first began proofreading her work. “He said, ‘You know, I’m not sure a guy would say this.’ ” She retorted, “This is why women read romance! Because the guys say what we need for them to say. These are our heroes!”
The hero’s point of view is an essential fixture of the romantic terrain, the writers point out; some have even argued that it’s the men who carry the books. Laura Kinsale, a former petroleum geologist who left the oil business and produced a string of historical best-sellers, starting in the late 1980s, argues in a 1992 collection of essays about romance writing (Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance) that “as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace…can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability.… In short, she can be a man.”
Another essay in the collection tackles the genre’s much-ridiculed language. “Descriptive passages are regularly culled from romance novels and read aloud with great glee and mockery by everybody from college professors to talk show hosts,” write Linda Barlow (a one-time lecturer in English at Boston College) and Jayne Ann Krentz (a.k.a. Amanda Quick, a former academic and corporate librarian). “You would think that we romance novelists would have the wit to clean up our act.… Yet we persist in penning sentences like ‘Caught up in the tender savagery of love…she saw him, felt him, knew him in a manner that, for an instant, transcended the physical. It was as if their souls yearned toward each other and, in a flash of glory, merged and became one.’
“Are we woefully derivative and unoriginal?” Barlow and Krentz ask. “Do our editors force us to write this way?” Rather, they argue that such language represents a code “clearly understood by readers but opaque to others.” The effusive imagery and “Lush use of symbols, metaphors, and allusion is emotionally powerful as well as mythologically evocative.… Each word conjures up vivid images in the minds of the readers, and the combination of so many evocative phrases in a short passage of prose creates for the reader a dynamic, multilayered intellectual and emotional gestalt.… Like a secret handshake, the codes make the reader feel that she is part of a group.”
When Janet Wellington decided to become a romance writer, she couldn’t have been more of an outsider. She hadn’t read a single romance novel. Yet her example illustrates how a diligent newcomer can not only crack the code but reproduce it well enough to sell her work.
For the past 7 years, Wellington has been an executive assistant and secretary at San Diego Hospice, but “I have lived many lives in my short 46 years,” she says with a laugh. Raised in Wisconsin and Illinois, she was a hairstylist before moving to San Diego in 1983. Once here, she stayed in the beauty business for a while, then switched to doing marketing for a series of enterprises ranging from a local nutrition foundation to the Broadway department store. One day in 1992 she happened to read an article about local romance writers. This came at a time when she had begun to yearn to write fiction. But it was very clear to her that she also wanted to see her work published. “And that pushed me into romance because of the statistics,” she says. “They’re always looking for new writers because they publish so many darn books. The statistics are huge!”
The first romances she read repulsed her. “I probably got them at a garage sale or something. They were really old — something our grandmothers would have been reading.” Undeterred, Wellington enrolled in a half-day class at the local Learning Annex taught by an Orange County writer named Diane Pershing. Wellington says when she later read some of Pershing’s books, she loved them. “They were about women solving problems. They were not about inequality. They were about equalizing partnership.” In one of the books, the heroine was a little chubby. “She was a little older than the guy. They were of different religions.” Wellington’s preconceptions vanished, and in 1995 she joined the San Diego and Orange County chapters of the Romance Writers of America and gave herself a deadline: “If I didn’t sell a book in five years, I wouldn’t permit myself to sink any more money into it. Because I was buying books. I got a computer. I was going to conferences.”
Dreaming up a story proved easy. “One day I was walking in the Gaslamp Quarter,” she recalls. From a bookstore window display, she learned that Wyatt Earp had once lived in San Diego. “Gosh, that must have been really exciting,” she remembers thinking. What must life here have been like? This “germ of an idea about time travel” prompted her to read about the period, and over the next year, she spun out a yarn about a modern-day San Diego school nurse who gets sent back in time to 1888. Within two pages of realizing what has happened to her, the horror-struck heroine meets a bartender whom Wellington describes to readers in the following manner: “He was neatly dressed in a clean white shirt and ornate crimson and black brocaded vest. Wisps of curly hair peeked from above the loosely knotted silk string tie. His inky black hair was combed back and seemed to be cut in longer layers than most of the other men’s. A few untamed tendrils curled onto his forehead. He was clean shaven, with a generous mouth that…was quick to smile.”
Rose, the heroine, predictably falls in love with him, but complicating matters is the fact that he’s plotting to kill Wyatt Earp. By the end of the book, Rose has straightened out the misunderstanding behind the intended mayhem, bedded the barman, seen him murdered — and met his modern-day reincarnation (after she’s been returned to the present day).
Although the book was easy to write, Wellington soon learned that paranormal romance is one of the hardest forms of romance to sell. “The readership is extremely loyal,” she says. “But it’s also a very small sector of the romance market.” So she resolved to “learn how to write a contemporary romance — because of the bigger market share.”
To the task of producing such a tale, Wellington applied herself with the diligence of an honor student. “I remember taking ten books from within one line and reading the first three chapters of each of those books and figuring out how much is dialogue. How often are the hero and heroine together? Where was the first description of her? Of him? I analyzed those first three chapters to understand the ebb and flow.” She studied first lines and finally decided to open her book with this one: “All I need is one cowboy for one night. No problem.”
Wellington had learned that cowboys still play a central role in the fantasy lives of many American women. She wanted to exploit that, but at the same time, “I wanted to do something a little different.” So she made Jared, her leading male character, a San Diego County llama rancher. “He still has all the attributes of a cowboy, yet I was able to put my own stamp on it.” She gave him an adorable 5-year-old daughter and an ex-wife whose career as a flight attendant had engaged her more than had motherhood. Lacey, the 32-year-old heroine, was “the working manager of a mall-based hair salon,” an occupation that enabled Wellington to milk her own haircutting experience. The story opens at the “Rockin’ Ranch country music bar,” where the inhibited heroine has gone to seek bachelor cowboys to participate in the mall’s “Most Eligible Bachelor charity auction.”
In March 1998, Wellington sold this story to the Kensington publishing company’s new Precious Gem line. Kensington’s unorthodox plan for marketing its Precious Gem books was to sell them only in Wal-Mart stores and price them at $1.96. Wellington’s work appeared on Wal-Mart’s shelves in September 1998 under the title Bachelor for Sale. Behind its hot pink cover, the pace of the action is swift. By page 9, Lacey has stumbled by accident into Jared’s arms. The two wind up on a sheepskin rug, taking their clothes off, by page 113. “You’re so wet, so hot,” he whispers four pages later. They discuss using a condom, but both have had HIV tests, so she guides “his [unprotected] shaft to her hot, moist entrance” and they ride “wave after wave of ecstasy.” Fifty-three pages later, he asks her to marry him, and in the epilogue she’s rubbing her pregnant belly. “She was the luckiest woman on earth — married to the perfect man, the perfect little angel girl, and a new bundle of joy to add to their perfect little family,” Lacey concludes in the second to the last paragraph. (In the last one, he’s urging her to go back to bed with him.)
For a while, Wellington’s career seemed as if it might move forward with similar speed. Before Bachelor was even published, Kensington gave Wellington the go-ahead to write a second contemporary story, this one about the operator of a gourmet cookie shop in Coronado. And six months later, the Jove division of Berkeley Publishing bought Wellington’s time-travel fantasy. In March 2000, it appeared under the name Forever Rose and the author threw herself into the task of promoting it.
Wellington loves this aspect of being a romance writer. When her Precious Gem books came out, she arranged visits to every Wal-Mart in the county. “It was a blast! They set me up at the front of the store, and I greeted everybody as they came in. I sold a lot of books.” Wellington’s private goal was to sell at least one book to a man at every appearance. She says she found “if I could get them to stand there for five minutes and listen to me, typically they would buy one.”
With the appearance of Forever Rose, Wellington’s promotional efforts grew even more elaborate. She created a brothel tour in the Gaslamp Quarter; organized Wyatt Earp walks. Out of paper doilies, she fashioned page-corner-hugging bookmarks to which she affixed clear stickers bearing the words, “Escape, Explore, Imagine…Read! www.janetwellington.com.” She printed up cards in which she invited readers to curl up with Forever Rose and a cup of tea. To the inside of each card, she stapled a shiny packet of chamomile, ready for steeping.
The publicity work did keep her away from writing, one factor Wellington cites in explaining why she hasn’t sold anything since Forever Rose came out two years ago. Another was her decision to develop her own Learning Annex program: “How to Write Romance Novels That Sell.” Wellington says she’s given this class three times in the past two years. She dismisses the notion that her students might become her rivals. She thinks the genre is big enough to accommodate any author who’s willing to work hard and persevere. “I honestly believe in my heart that there’s plenty of business there,” she says. “Or else I wouldn’t share.”
The mutual support that exists among the local romance writers, new and experienced, seems as much a hallmark of the genre as all the smoldering glances, hard thighs, and heaving breasts. In San Diego alone, at least ten critique groups hold regular meetings. For participants, the relationships they form in these groups can feel “like a marriage,” attests Oceanside resident Judy Duarte.
Duarte has been a member of such a group for about five years. Early one recent Sunday morning, three of the four regular members piled into a booth at the Coco’s restaurant just off Interstate 5 at Encinitas Boulevard. Both Duarte and Sylvia Mendoza had brought written material to share. The third woman, Chris Green, offered an excuse for coming empty-handed. An eighth-grade teacher at the Wilson Academy Middle School in City Heights, she explained that she was taking a professional class for which she’d had to write a paper the day before. “It’s really been cutting into my time,” she lamented.
“But normally you write a lot!” her colleagues reassured her.
Green (who uses “Crystal” instead of Chris as her prenom de plume) might be a model for the cover of a romance book. She’s 34, with pretty features and a head of strawberry-blond hair that tumbles down to the middle of her back. “My parents used to read romance. Even my dad,” she says. As a teenager, she too got addicted to the genre and made her first attempt at contributing to it when she was 19. “I’ll never submit [that manuscript] anywhere, but it was a good exercise,” she says. Green got more serious about publishing five years ago, when she joined Duarte’s critique group. Encouraged by the feedback from her fellow members, she’s managed to sell four books. Three have been set within a little town that Green thinks of as part Mayberry, part Twilight Zone.
The last two years have also been encouraging ones for Mendoza. The mother of three children (ages 9 through 14), she worked for years as a freelance journalist before deciding to diversify into fiction. Her break in the romance realm came when she was selected to be one of the launching authors for a new line of books from Pinnacle called Encanto. The initial concept was for each Encanto volume to include English and Spanish translations of the same story. Mendoza produced two San Diego–based tales for this bulky format, before soaring paper costs made Pinnacle abandon it. Since then, Mendoza has landed a contract from Encanto to write three interconnected English-only books. The heroes of these books are all Mexican-Americans who go into the Navy. “The first one’s a commander on a carrier, the second is a Blue Angels pilot, and the third is a SEAL.”
Until last year, that left Duarte as the only member of the group who hadn’t yet sold a book. She says her attitude toward this turn of events was philosophical. “Somebody’s going to sell first. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is better or more advanced. One of us will hit the New York Times best-seller list first, and maybe that will be me.”
Still, Duarte admits to feeling relief and excitement when a Silhouette Special Edition editor called on May 7, 2001, to declare her intention of publishing Duarte’s story about the love that develops between an incognito heiress and a Texas cowboy (who happens to be a single father). This book is scheduled to appear on local bookshelves next month. She got word of her second sale at the beginning of December and since then has been trying to bring another big idea to life. Duarte envisions writing a series of books to which she’s given the working title “Logan’s Heroes.” The hero of each book would be a young man from a troubled childhood who has grown up and made good after being mentored by a tenderhearted cop named Harry Logan. Scanning the proposal that Duarte brought with her on the recent Sunday morning, Green praised the Oceanside resident for remedying a shortcoming that had appeared in an earlier version. In response to Green’s criticism, Duarte had come up with a satisfying explanation for why one of the heroes had committed arson as a youth. (She’d decided that he had burned the building where his evil stepfather had sold drugs.)
Green also gently suggested that Duarte might cut a few of the references to coffee-drinking that Duarte had scattered through her sample chapter in a veiled effort to build sexual tension.
“Oh, I loved the coffee references!” Mendoza interjected.
“No, I think I may have overdone it,” Duarte murmured.
Mendoza was working on a proposal aimed at Harlequin’s newest line — one that the women described as Chick Lit rather than Romance. “You know — your Bridget Jones’s Diary–type book,” Green explained.
Sensing opportunity, both Green and Mendoza were hoping to write books for the line, but in the proposal Mendoza was developing, she was having trouble juggling the multiple points of view she thought the editors wanted. After reading Mendoza’s pages, Green offered several suggestions to help readers keep the characters straight, as well as praise for the way Mendoza’s material was shaping up. “After the first few pages, the writing gets really clean and the pace is snappier,” Green said.
Mendoza confessed that the vagueness of the publisher’s guidelines for the new line still made her nervous. “It’s pretty wide open.”
“I think they want misadventures of the dating life,” Green stated. “I think they want a quirky heroine who’s searching for that job and that defining moment in her life that’s going to shape her.”
The subject of Harlequin’s new line came up again in conversation one week later at a conference sponsored by the local chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Held at the Quality Inn in Mission Valley, this event drew about 50 women and 1 man. For the better part of a day, they sat at banquet tables strewn with chocolates wrapped in shiny foil. They complained to one another about their editors’ slowness in replying to proposals. They speculated about how September’s terrorist attacks and the subsequent war would affect the romance industry. Most felt confident that a heightened craving for escapism would help the business.
During a brief business meeting, the women applauded the jubilant announcements of two of their comrades of recent book sales. Then they settled in to listen to the speakers. First to take the podium was Linda Lael Miller, a plump, late-middle-aged, self-described “barn goddess” who lives on a remote Arizona ranch. The author of 60 novels that have spawned some 20 million books in print, Miller confided, “Seventy percent of the time I feel like an absolute beginner.… The struggle is renewed with each book.”
Elda Minger faced the group next. Minger is a fortysomething L.A. resident with pale skin and long, straight dark hair that she wears parted down the middle. She talks fast in a low, mellifluous voice, and on this occasion she dressed all in black. Minger has a reputation for writing bold, provocative sex scenes, and the conference program made it sound as if she would pontificate on this topic. Instead, she offered a lively if rambling monologue that touched upon everything from medieval Japan to astrology. (The latter, she suggested, could provide any writer with “gorgeous, gorgeous archetypes.”)
Last to speak was thin, blond Suzanne Forster, who has published close to 30 books over the past 17 years. “Go to what’s burning in your soul, or you won’t fuel a career,” she counseled. “Core fantasies” within the romance genre included the “soul-mate fantasy,” the “intimate-stranger fantasy,” the Ugly Duckling fantasy, and tales of rags to riches. “These are the secret dreams or secret weapons that can turn an average story into a best-seller,” she declared.
Christie Ridgway was among those who attended the day-long conference. Afterward, she judged it “excellent.” She added, “I could listen to Elda Minger talk for hours. I could sit in a room, and she could just talk to me for days and days. She’s so interesting!” Even when a conference features less-accomplished writers, “Sitting with a group of people and talking in general is so fun,” Ridgway said. She loves discussing romance books with kindred spirits. “Because I don’t really meet a lot of people in my other life who love romance the way I do.”
Ridgway says it’s gotten harder and harder for her to find the time to attend conferences. In order to produce the two to three books a year that she’s been selling, she has to write every day, including weekends. Often, she logs an eight-hour day both Saturday and Sunday. “The book is always there,” she explains. “There’s always something you can do.” Still, she wants to continue gathering with her fellow writers even if she does one day become a permanent fixture on national best-seller lists.
What’s the likelihood that Ridgway will produce a book devoured by millions of readers? Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, Johanna Lindsey, Amanda Quick — these women and a few dozen other writers can boast that accomplishment and have earned the riches that go along with it. Ridgway would appear to have at least a chance at joining them. She says she’s now making as much money as when she was programming computers. She’s winning book contracts on the strength of brief proposals. Her books have been published in 19 countries. Fans write her letters.
Still, Ridgway says she’s almost afraid to make best-seller status a goal. “Too many elements are out of your control,” she explains. “Too many things can happen. Say your book comes out September 11. How many copies are going to be sold? Boom!” The next book’s orders will be based on the sales of the previous one. “Or you can discover — too late — that everybody hates books set in the Gold Country. But you didn’t know. You thought it was a good idea.” In the end, she’s concluded, “You just can’t think about it too much. I think you’ve got to just write the best book you can at that moment.”
She can’t imagine ever leaving behind the romance field. “It’s what I love,” she explains, and its constraints have never bothered her. “I want to write about men and women who come to an understanding and build a love relationship. That speaks to me in my life.” To those who would criticize the genre for being something less than literature, she points out, “It’s called mass-market fiction for a reason. It’s fiction that appeals to a mass number of people. It’s storytelling. I’m not writing a book to show off my literary skills. But on the other hand, I don’t try to dumb down my books ever; I use the vocabulary that I use in my daily life. And I’m a well-educated person.”
Ridgway says she’s never understood how anyone could denigrate romance. Romance writers believe in the union of one man and one woman. And Ridgway thinks when a man and woman come together, something greater than the two individuals results. She thinks that’s how people become heroic in life, and she wonders how anyone could disparage it. “What part of ‘one man, one woman, love, happy-ever-after’ don’t they like?” It all sounds good to her.