Romancing the Novel
My snootiness was in full flower as I drove to the Esther Bone Memorial Library in Rio Rancho. I was on my way to a panel discussion featuring three New Mexico-based romance writers: Celeste Bradley, Doranna Durgin and Alice Duncan. It didn’t help that I was stressing out about being late to something I’d already decided wouldn’t teach me anything. They’re not for serious people, I thought. They aren’t real books. I pulled into the parking lot and hurried into the building. Although full of preconceptions, I secretly harbored a small flame of hope that someone would redeem the genre for me.
This story begins two months ago when, in the span of a week, I received review copies of several romance novels, as well as invitations to various events featuring authors in the genre. I discovered Romance Writers of America, and its New Mexico chapter, Land of Enchantment Romance Authors, which has more than 50 members. As I talked to other Alibi staff members about this most-looked-down-upon genre, our curiosity deepened. We had to know who was writing—and reading—all of these books.
When I took a seat at the panel discussion, I noticed the other attendees were not all middle-aged soccer moms, as my preconception dictated. Some were granny-age ladies, several were hip-looking chicks in their twenties, and even two men sat in the audience, waiting calmly. As the writers talked, my judgments started to change. These authors were serious about their craft.
“I always wanted to write books,” said Alice Duncan, a brassy woman with gray hair. “I guess as soon as my mother first read me a story, I wanted to write them.” It took her decades to pen her first book, which was published in 1995. Since then she has produced more than 45 titles.
“She has little children and elderly parents and a crazy husband. And she needs to escape.”
Author Celeste Bradley on her target audience
Doranna Durgin, who also has dozens of books under her belt, said she writes best in hermit conditions. She also works every day, giving herself a word-count quota to meet. New York Times best-selling author Celeste Bradley said she writes up to 25 pages a day. All three women research extensively for their books. Durgin said she has interviewed people as diverse as genetic scientists and highland cattle breeders. Once, when Bradley saw two policewomen eating in at restaurant, she asked them to stand up and describe how all their gear worked. Duncan collects vintage magazines, recipes and clothing ads for future use.
Each of the authors has developed her own process. Durgin starts at the beginning of a story and writes through to the end, chronologically, while enjoying the freedom to come up with ideas as she goes. “I don’t really like to follow outlines, so I try to sketch things kind of vaguely,” she said. “You know, ‘insert miracle here’.”
Before I could ask, Bradley addressed one of my criticisms. “I know it’s marshmallow fluff,” she said, acknowledging the books’ pure escapism. “It’s for fun.” Then she revealed how she motivates herself on days she doesn’t feel like working. She pictures a woman who is “responsible for too many people. She has little children and elderly parents and a crazy husband. And she needs to escape.” This image—that Bradley and countless other real-life people can intimately relate to—makes her sit down every day and write. “The fact that I could help her get through it means a lot to me.”
Bradley said she firmly forms her stories before she begins. After she finishes a book, she thinks about the next one for several months, planning what it will be about. She then creates an outline on a 50-foot-long piece of paper. She might write out of order, like the last scene first, she said, but she sticks to what’s in the outline. “Usually when I’m finished, the book is finished. I don’t really go back and make a lot of changes ... my first draft is usually my last, too.” However, she said she does revisit her manuscripts to check a few things, especially to make sure there are equal parts male and female points of view.
These romance writers are, in fact, writers—with discipline, quirks and passion for their work—not unlike the harried journalists tapping away at keyboards in the Alibi offices. Durgin said her biggest reward is when she gets feedback from a reader that she has reached them. If a book’s basic job is to affect you in some way—and offer you something that your life doesn’t—perhaps it doesn’t matter if it’s a serious classic, marshmallow fluff or anything in between. Heck, at least you’re reading.