Romance Writers of America, a national organization 3000 members strong, was formed, according to their literature, for published and aspiring writers with “a common interest: their love of romance and their desire to write what they love.” A recent monthly meeting of the San Diego chapter was in the Aztec Room of the Sports Arena Travelodge.
The room has beige walls. It is noisy. Too noisy for my 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning ears. Beyond a check-in table bearing translucent pink Mylar “New Member” kits is a merchandise table offering paperback romance novels, a set of miniature toiletries with flowery labels, white index cards printed in purple: name of character, age, sex. physical description, strengths, weaknesses, fatal flaw, characteristic quote.
Reinforced with free coffee and 35-cent doughnuts from a setup at the back of the room, about 60 women and one man take seats at long Formica conference tables. On each table is a placard designating the category of romance novel for which the table is reserved: Historical, Regency, Sweet. Hot ’n’ Spicy, and Thriller/Suspense. All of these are market categories refined over the years by a publishing conglomerate known as Harlequin/Silhouette, which dominates the romance fiction market. Each category has its own rules about permissible length and plot and “level of sensuality.”
The man is silvery haired and wears glasses. A tweedy type. Writerly. He sits at the Thriller/Suspense table, to which a woman, over the podium microphone at the end of the room, has also invited Adventure and Science Fiction-oriented writers. She has also directed Contemporaries to join the Hot V Spicies. I happen to be sitting at the Hot ’n’ Spicy table, which is fine by me.
The women are fat or frail, with pretty faces. Some dress like businesswomen in skirts and heels. They have good hair and nails, wear makeup. Others wear polyester sportswear and running shoes. A few wear stretch pants and flower-print blouses. Most appear to be in their 40s and 50s.
A pale, overweight woman, greying brown hair pulled back from her face in a messy ponytail, tells me that those wearing lavender nametags are published writers. I only see white nametags around me.
The morning workshop involves reading aloud the assignment from last month’s meeting, a scene that stresses secondary-character development. The workshop leader had given each member a picture clipped from a magazine. A lot of these pictures seemed to be of cowboys. Each woman had also been given a quote, typewritten on a strip of paper, which had to be included in the scene. A woman in the Historical group, for example, was given a picture of a Victorian house and a quote about frogs.
The women do not hesitate to read their efforts aloud. After each has read her piece, the group leader solicits comments and criticisms from the others. These are offered politely, generally in one or two sentences. I move from table to table. It is the same at each one. Giggles burst from one part of the room or another, or sudden serious murmurs.
After the women have read aloud their assignments, they swap anecdotes about real-life situations they have borrowed from for their scenes, speculate on character motivation, discuss problems they’ve encountered in their writing. I overhear someone speaking of “having cardboard characters,” as if it were ring around the collar.
A sheet for the next workshop assignment, on “the villain,” is passed out. Who is this person? What are the character’s strengths, weaknesses? What does the villain have that we want? From the podium it is announced that there is some extra time before the afternoon speaker arrives. It is decided that each group will send someone up to the mike to read aloud her secondary-character assignment. After that, the Hot ’n’ Spicy group sends up a person to talk about the villain they have, as a group, decided upon. “We chose Madonna as our villain,” the young woman announces. She explains that her group admires Madonna’s self-confidence and flair but feels she cheapens women.
I eat my box lunch Cobb salad, and then I leave.
MERYL STREEP PLAYED a romance writer in the movie Heartburn. She was a loony, wistful creature. Every material detail of her life, from her drapey gowns, long ropes of pearls, and glossy, curling tresses (not hair — tresses) to the heart-shaped sunken tub in her rose-colored home (not house — home) was a prop supporting a kitsch love fantasy she attempted, with a certain pathetic desperation, to live as well as to write.
This character was my idea of what romance writers might be like. I told this on the phone to Caro Dose Birchfield, who herself is in the habit of wearing drapey gowns and long ropes of pearls to RWA chapter meetings.
The Birchfield house is in Vista. When I ring the doorbell, a little blonde girl in a pink-and-black Lycra exercise suit opens the door. She stands with her hand on the doorknob and looks up at me with raised eyebrows. “Welcome, Madame. How may I be of service to you?” She says it school-play loud, with dancing eyes. I introduce myself.
“I shall inform Madame of your presence." She walks backward away from the door, pivots, nods to a faint murmur from another room, returns to the door, and bows me inside, sweeping a hand out. She leads the way up two orange-carpeted steps into the living room.
Caro Birchfield is centered on a brown-striped couch against the far wall, shimmering in a gown of silver and seafoam green paillettes. Her hair is up in a braided bun. Silver snake-link chain earrings spill down her neck. Her makeup is discreet, slightly shimmery. Silhouetted against the picture window behind her are baskets of pink stuffed rabbits, some potted plants.
“Welcome!" She lifts her chin like a royal. “Does this meet with your expectations?”
The little blond girl hops around in the entryway, taking part. Caro stands up, shifts the material of her dress around her hips, installs me in a brown-striped club chair. “See her running shoes?” the little girl says to me, pointing at Caro’s feet.
“We were just having some fun,” Caro says. “I’m going to go change.” She sends the girl off to the kitchen to start lunch, and Caro leaves the room.
At the picture windows, the white drapes are open over pink sheers. Under the pink sheers is a glaring, overcast sky. The room is crammed with half-empty cardboard boxes and trash bags dripping clothing. Bicycles lean against the walls. On the dark wooden coffee and end tables, on narrow tables in front of the windows, at the base of a jumbo green glass table lamp, are more potted plants and baskets, teddy bears, and more rabbits — pink, white, and blue.
Caro pads back into the room in cut-off jeans and a T-shirt, plops cross-legged onto the couch. Her T-shirt has on it a cartoon serape’d and sombrero’d guitar player, a crazy-eyed bull, a sehorita with lush lips. Espahol es la len^ua de amor, reads the legend.
The little blond girl returns from the kitchen. “This is my daughter Autumn,” Caro says. She puts an arm around her daughter's waist. Autumn leans into her mother’s side, lifting one leg sideways in an awkward arabesque. “She's 10, going on 30.” Autumn dances to the attention, takes instructions on cooking — pigs in blankets, pork and beans — and leaves the room again. “She and Billy, that’s my husband. Billy Joe. He’s Southern. You know he is, with his first name. They will brainstorm with me. I’ll read a passage to them, and I always get yays, but they’ll tell me if there’s a passage in there they don’t care for. And she’s my consistency expert. She’s the one who’ll say, 16 pages later, ‘Mom, how’d the rabbit get out of the cage?’ ”
I ask her age. Caro is 49 years old. She looks much younger. Her red hair is long and straight. Her figure is fine. She is a 24-hour-a-day person, used to work flat out from when she got up in the morning until 11 o'clock at night, when she’d collapse into bed. But that was 15 years ago.
She apologizes for being in the process of unpacking. They’ve just moved over from Oceanside. They lost out on a lease option, got ripped off, she says. “We are such victims. Everyone is so much more clever than we are."
Caro grew up in Solana Beach, that was home; but her dad was Navy so she was coast-to-coast-to-coast. She was seldom here. It was just checking in every six years or so. So she was a lot more in Florida than here.
She came back out from Florida with her first husband, knowing they were going to divorce when they got here. Settled in Encinitas. A great place for kids, an early condo development. And then she met him, Billy Joe. He proposed to her about 15 minutes after they met. She didn’t accept right away. It took her a couple of days. They didn’t get married for six weeks. They didn’t want to seem precipitous. But he would’ve gone to Las Vegas that night.
Billy’s 16 years older than she is. He had been waiting for her.
First time she got married she was 21. and this time she was 34. Emotionally, she’s a Peter Pan; she’s not a sophisticated, know-everything-going-on type of person. Even within the Navy, she had been very protected by her parents. And she was a rebel, sneaked out on dates when she was 16. But she was always an incurable romantic. Always.
She didn’t read romances when she was little. There weren’t romances when she was little, and she’s not a young kid. The romances of yesteryear, the old Harlequins, were all nurses and doctors and probably wouldn't have interested her in the least. She did read Forever Amber when she was 15 and thought that was a great book. Got into The Robe and The Silver Chalice — by Costain. Thomas Costain. There was a lot of romance in what he was writing. So yes, she was a romance reader. And Daphne Du Maurier. Loved all of her books.
Being a romantic is just Caro’s nature. She thinks some of us are just bom that way. You see romance in anything and everything. Her parents were romantic.
She’s always gotten marriage proposals from men. Everybody’s always proposed to her. And usually they were geeks. “I mean,” she says, “these geeks are now senators, doctors, lawyers, but they were really....*’ She shakes her head. She was attracted to the greaser sort. The wild ones.
Her husband is a romantic. He’s just wonderful. He bought her the long dress she was wearing when I came in. He just came home with it the other night and gave it to her. He often gives her presents like that, just for nothing. He treats her like a queen, which is why, she says, better to be an old man’s sweetheart than a young man's slave.
When Caro was first separated — well, after a year and a half, until her divorce was final — she wouldn’t have anything to do with anybody. There were some young men that were sniffing around, andflfcp scared the hell out of them. She has a very strong personality, and the young bucks want to co^ete. But Billy was satisfied in his own masculinity, didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s a great deal of security.
She came into this marriage with two kids, who were at the time four and six. Billy, ten years earlier. had been thrown out of the house on Christmas Eve and had lost kids four and six. So he was quite tickled to pick up where he had left off.
Caro is Billy’s third marriage. He had ten years in each one. Caro’s first husband, great romantic soul that he was, asked for a divorce on the day of their tenth wedding anniversary. He was a real twisto.
When Billy put up particle-board shelving in her bedroom, Caro rediscovered some old Reader’s Digest condensed books. She was going through those two a day. She was always a voracious reader, but she had gotten away from reading for a while, and all of a sudden she was reading anything she could get her hands on. She went to a garage sale and she found Katherine Woodiwiss’s Shanna, and whoa! She went down to the grocery store and bought every book Woodiwiss had out, which was like five or six at the time. She writes a hell of a story. Even before she could understand the sensuality of the books, the romance was still strong and compelling, Caro says. Then she discovered used book stores, which helped, because she could pay a quarter or 50 cents for a book, instead of five or six dollars.
Caro has virtually every historical romance novel written up to June of last year. She doesn’t read all of them, but if she finds a writer she particularly likes, she’ll go and buy the other books of that line. She has an absolute mania. She just can’t seem to leave a book alone. If she doesn't have every book then she’s not happy.
Caro has most of the Contemporary sensual lines as well. The Harlequins, the Silhouettes, and the Love Swepts. She has every Love Swept. Because that’s the line she has chosen. If she ever sells a Contemporary, that’s the line she wants to go in. They’ve got humor to them, and they’re just a shade off-center, which fits her fine. They tend to be a little slapstick, will set up a situation that is not quite normal, and she enjoys that. They’re a little zany. This same zaniness shows in Caro’s writing, and it comes out even in her Historicals, which is hard to do. You almost never read Historicals with humor in them.
Caro started reading romances way before she started writing. Everybody does. “You finally reach the time when you read a book that’s absolutely awful, and you struggle through, and yot^ink, ‘God, I could do better than that!”’
Then you get an idea. Caro had an idea based on a logic problem. Two children bom on thesame date, same parents, and yet they’re not twins. The book that idea grew into she started four years ago. It is called Full House in Hearts. It’s so complicated, she works on it for a while, and then she comes to a block where she doesn’t know enough — if she really knew what she was doing, she’d put the book down. But she keeps going on in her blissful ignorance. She’s picked it up a half dozen times, worked on it for a while. Last time, she completely changed her heroines. They started out innocent la-di-dahs, and now they’re not at all. There’s another dark secret to the book that she’s working with and trying to formulate in the plot. It’s taken her weeks just to work this plotting through in her mind.
A lot of time she’s working on other books while this is going on. It’s like a crock pot in the back of her mind. Things percolate. Then when you finish a book, you should have something else set up and ready to go. She launches into it, gets to a point where she’s not happy with it, puts it down for a while.
Caro works very well with computers. It gives her the freedom of sitting there creating, and it doesn’t have to be letter-perfect; you can go back and correct it. You’re working with two sides of your brain. Creativity is from the left side, and the correcting is from the right side. If you go into one too thoroughly, the one will stymie the other.
Before Caro knew about the local chapter of the RWA, she went to a writer’s conference given every year by Diane Dunaway, walked into an editor's meeting, and there were, like, two other people there, with Linda Morrow from Pocket Books. If Caro had known then what she knows now, she’d have fallen down and died. She didn’t know enough then to be excited about it. So she just talked to Linda Morrow for half an hour, worked out a few plot points with her. Originally, the two women were going to be identical twins. Morrow said, "That’s not gonna work."
Autumn walks in and flops down next to her mom on the couch. Caro slides her left arm around her and squeezes. Autumn puts her right arm behind Caro’s back and snugs her head against the side of her mother’s left breast. The tips of Autumn’s thin blonde hair are lime green from chlorine. They have a hot tub. Maybe we’ll have a soak after lunch, Caro suggests.
Caro has completed three novels. One was totally done before she even knew the RWA existed. A second one of that same ilk she finished not too long thereafter. That’s when she found out that it’s not something just anyone can sit down and do. There are rules and regulations, and she’d shattered the hell out of them. You can’t do that. She was told she writes very well but her structure stinks. Well, there’s not a lot you can do about structure sometimes, especially if you’re using plot points that are not acceptable. Even in her third book, which was done totally within the guidelines of the RWA, she still went out on quicksand.
It’s a very loving organization, the RWA. She had people who know what they’re doing critique her work. She got raves on the writing and thumbs down on the book. She had chosen a couple of occupations in the arts for her characters; “she" was a literary agent, and “he" was a closet writer of romance novels under the guise of his ex-wife. He was writing all the romance novels she was famous for. Well, Caro thought it was great. The only thing is, the artistic world is not acceptable for the occupations of characters in the work of a first-time author.
There were some other problems. Caro had a cliche secondary character, the ex-wife. It’s the sort of thing where you go and do it and then you find you’re not so good after all. Her critique group, bless their hearts, would defend her to the death.
She sent in her second book. Saint George and Ms. Dragon, a 55,000-word Contemporary, when she found out the first one wasn’t going to fly. Sent it in to Love Swept when they had an open submission thing. “Star Quest” was what they called the contest. They kept her book from September till March and sent it back with a form rejection letter. It hurt. That really hurt. It was funny because she could see they’d gotten about halfway through the manuscript because the pages were turned back in the opposite direction.
But she still wants to go with Love Swept. It’s an imprint of Bantam. It’s one of the few competitors to the great big conglomerate of Harlequin/Silhouette. But more and more she’s thinking about going mainstream. She has been told since she joined the RWA that you can’t just jump into the mainstream. It’s like starting as CEO. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to pay your dues. You have to write some simpler things first. But her simpler things weren’t setting the world on fire, so she thought, “Hell, I’m just going to write my mainstream and jump into it. If it goes, fine. If it doesn’t, fine.” There are other things she can write. She’s got some dynamite plots cooking. But there’s always an element of luck and happenstance in getting published, like catching an editor on a good day.
“It’s not common knowledge, but you can look for roughly two to five thousand dollars on a first novel. If you have a good buyout after that, then your price goes up and you can start negotiating and enjoying a few of the perks that go with it. Get approval on your cover art, for instance, so your next guy doesn’t look like a wookie.”
“Get Fabio,” Autumn says, still in her mother’s crook.
“Fabio doesn’t do anything for me,” Caro says. “He’s all right. As far as blonds go, he’s gorgeous. Fabio is a very highly developed, blond cover model for romances. A hunk, Italian. When they want a blond hunk, they get Fabio.”
“Yeah,” Autumn says.
The characters on the covers of historical romances are painted from photographs. Usually there is a man, strong jawed and wild haired, with a half-bared, V-shaped torso. He is often gripping the arms or waist of a woman with long, rippling hair and breasts half exposed from her period costume. Behind the couple there is usually a period building and a dramatic cloud formation or crashing ocean.
According to Caro, "There’s a trend towards going directly to photographs now as a cost-cutting measure. The market has changed. So has the writing. The RWA is doing a lot to improve the writing. You would not recognize the writing today from five years ago. We’re causing the established writers to improve. When these little hot competitors are breathing flames down your neck, you’re gonna listen, you’re gonna learn. We have conferences and all of this information available to us. So it’s a loving, giving organization, and I am thrilled to be a part of it. Because there’s not a better group of women to be found.”
We eat lunch at a low, round table in the family room. On the table are economy-sized condiments — relish, catsup, mayonnaise, mustard, Arby’s sauce — and a large vase of gladiolas from Caro’s garden. Pink, salmon, yellow, and white ones with magenta hearts, rich Spanish red ones, tiny orange ones with yellow coronas. On our plates are pigs in blankets, pork and beans from a green plastic bowl.
Caro talks about twins. She often wondered if she had a twin who just dissolved, “I guess because I’ve always felt there was a part of me missing.”
For dessert we have raspberry tea and brownies left over from Billy Joe’s Bible study meeting last night. He is a Jehovah’s Witness. So is Caro. But he is more into it than she is.
Romance changes, she says. The heroes change. The Alpha or dominant male faded into the Beta male — the Alan Alda type — for a while. Now it is changing back. It is the Alpha males we fantasize about and the Betas we want, Caro says.
It used to be in romance novels that the hero raped the heroine at the beginning, and then she fell in love with him, and at the end he realizes that he was in love with her all along. But romances have backed off on the rape issue.
The heroines have changed too. They don’t have to be innocent Goody Two Shoes. They can have flaws. A quick temper, perhaps. This is known as spunk. They can have children from a previous marriage, although it’s better if they were widowed instead of divorced. They are conflicted about their commitments to career and family.
Downstairs in Caro’s basement are 4000 romance novels in cardboard boxes. The boxes line the walls and rise in stacks from floor to ceiling in the center of the room. There is not enough room to walk a circle around the center stacks. Caro waves at it. “I have this all on my data base.”
Her office is a windowless room next door, lined with shelves of reference books. There are file cabinets topped with sheaves of paper. On her desk is a computer with a turquoise-colored screen. On the walls around her desk are calendars of hunks. Young men with V-shaped chests springing from bulging crotch bags, strong jaws, and small, stupid eyes. Caro keeps the pictures for inspiration. Helps her imagine her heroes. Autumn squeezes behind me and lifts a calendar off the wall. “Show her Fabio, Mom.”
Fabio, tanned, in a well-packed thong, wears a Santa cap at a jaunty angle. In the background is a Christmas tree. Caro puts down the calendar and rifles through a stack of papers, emerges with a recent issue of Romantic Times magazine. Facing a page offering “Lunch with Fabio: An interview at an exclusive Beverly Hills restaurant” is a full-page ad for Fabio’s fan club. He stands with his legs apart. He holds a box. He smiles invitingly into the camera. A 900 number is listed in big white block letters across the pink background. In curliqued white script is an exhortation to send for the Fabio Promise Kit, which comes with a Fabio poster and membership in the Fabio fan club.
Upstairs in the living room, Caro sits down on the brown-striped couch again and heaves a thick computer paper stack onto her lap. It is a printout of her romance novel database. It lists all the books she has read and their authors. There is a column for Caro’s code system. These are grades for the books, based on how many tears or how much laughter. One to four, and CBB — for “couldn’t be better”; 3.5 is the average. She adds comments like “No!” or “Cheyenne, 1858” or “cliche char.”
Caro likes so many authors she can’t name them all. She likes historical novelist La Vyrle Spencer, Nora Roberts (the reigning queen of Contemporary romance), Francine Rivers, and Brenda Joyce, who is not afraid to call body parts what they should be called.
Sometimes it turns out that an author you’ve been reading for years is a man. Caro met Jennifer Wild, who was a man named Tom Huff, at a convention. She had never seen such a flaming faggot in her life. She can say that because he died a while ago.
Danielle Steel, well, what she writes is such pure crap Caro can’t believe it. It’s full of every sin known to man and has no story. Rosemary Rogers has gotten too sexy. But there are so many she likes. There’s Jayne Ann Krentz, Amanda Quick, and Kat Martin that Caro likes too.
I ask Caro again about romance. She says she likes long dresses and hats. “She’s renowned for them," Autumn says.
Being a romantic is just a part of Caro. Maybe it’s genetic. What makes someone pamotlc? Greedy? TheyM[pnjbaMyfind a cure for it someday. EwerytJSyhfc is a cure. Stress is a cure.
Romance is not the place to preach. It is an escape. All writing is an escape. People pooh-pooh romances. They tease her all the time. They say, “I’d sure like to help you with your research, heh-heh.” It doesn’t bother her anymore.
“Love does make the world go ’round. Love makes the world go ’round softer. Love is the melody that makes the planet spin.” She giggles. “Hey, this is good.
“Writing romances keeps it alive. Where else can you fall in love 17 hours a day? Stay a virgin all your life? You can have three affairs a day, if you can read that fast, without taking a risk. I mean, who knows what that alley cat I used to be married to could have brought home?”
Christine Ridgway is very pregnant. Her belly stretches the flower-print fabric of her cotton jumper. She has to stand sideways to open her front door. The house is a two-story, remodeled, in a section of La Mesa where lots of mature trees shade the hilly streets. Her boy Jesse, three, totters by her side at the base of the staircase as she lets me in. She introduces me to him. He grins maniacally. He has an imp's face, tumed-up nose, and ears sticking out. “Do you have children?” he says to me.
“He’s always asking people questions like that. They’ll come to the door and he’ll say, ‘Where do you live?’ or ‘Where are your parents?”’ Christine guides Jesse by a hand on the head down a hallway. The floors are glossy wood. Reflnished. “We’re going to get Jesse set up with a snack and a video so we can talk in peace.”
In the kitchen she hands him an opened cellophane package of Wacky Players Real Fruit Snacks from a box decorated with cartoon characters. The kitchen is clean and modem and tasteful. She directs him over to a couch, where he sits down hard. He looks up at her for approval, but her back is turned. She puts in the video. Winnie the Pooh. “Let’s go back out to the living room.” We sit on an L-shaped couch that has tiny blue tulips on rust-colored stems on a beige background. There is a beige, blue, brown, and rust oriental carpet on the wood floor. There is a plastic toy racetrack with speed racers, a plastic mountain, and several plastic bridges on the carpet. Also an antique coffee table, heavy carved wood with a pinkish marble top. A brass rabbit, vaguely oriental in design, squats on the coffee table.
Christine didn’t know anything about the world of romance writers until about two years ago. She was talking with a friend, her best — one of her very best — high school friends about doing the things you always wanted to do. Her
Christine Ridgway friend said, “You’ve gotta start writing Harlequin romances. You always said you should do that. You should do that." Christine said, “Yeah, you know, God, wouldn’t that be a blast?” So she started buying them and reading them. She hadn’t read them since seventh and eighth grade. She hadn’t read one since. She remembered what they were like then, and she found them much changed. In them she often found a credit saying thank you to Romance Writers of America. She thought maybe there was a chapter somewhere around here. She found it through the library.
Christine settles back into the couch a little. She is composed but animated. She glows with health. Her shoulder-length, blunt cut red hair is shiny, pulled back with a headband from her pretty face.
She went down to the meeting, and she couldn’t believe — there were, you know, 50 or 60 women in the room. Oh my God! She had no idea. If she had known, she probably would have done it years ago. That was March of last year. So, March of 1991.
Christine was an English major in college, and she had been a technical writer for years. You know how it happens in your career when you end up doing something completely different? She was a computer programmer, went from technical writing to computer programming. Had always loved writing; she had always wanted to go back to that. She had never really known what outlet to take, didn’t feel like she was really prepared for journalism because she was an English major. She was thinking about doing PR stuff. She was working part-time, consulting out of her home when Jesse was bom. Then the friend came and she said, “C’mon. You gotta write those Harlequin romances. Go ahead. You were the one who was always into that. We told you you could do it.” She thought she could probably just read those things and do it. She really did think after she had read about ten of them, well, shoot, yeah, anybody could do this. It’s a lot more difficult. She means, there’s a lot more to it than you think.
She still thinks it’s a good market to get involved in. It’s still a good place to start. It certainly isn’t like she thought it would be. She had read a whole lot of them, absorbed a certain amount. She thought it was coming pretty easy. But then when she learned more about the genre, found out what’s acceptable and what isn’t, then she learned you have these rules. Of course, you say, oh, these rules make it harder to do. but it actually makes it easier. It’s not so wide open. She really likes it from that regard. You really have certain things you can and cannot do. Like, the hero can't be in love with anyone else after he meets the heroine. So their relationship is the only love relationship in the book. He can’t get sidetracked. That’s taboo. Let’s say they could break up for a time and could date other women, but he certainly couldn't go to bed with anyone else.
The heroine couldn’t either, generally. And it has to be revealed in the story that she is in love with him, if you’re talking about a hot one, before they have sex. There’s no sex without love on her part. On his part, you could possibly not know, but of course, later it’s revealed that from the very first...
We laugh at how silly it all is.
They never have bad sex. Rarely. There is a great favorite book of everyone’s, Christine says, called Duncan’s Bride, and in this one — believe it or not, it’s a Contemporary romance — a 25-year-old woman lives in New York City and decides to marry this guy. She’s a mail-order bride, out in Wyoming. Some western guy or something. She marries this guy. He’s had one terrible marriage, but he has this need for a wife to kind of make lunch and stuff. He feels this need to have a wife and children. He’s really attracted to her, but he’s determined not to get too emotionally involved with her because he’s been hurt so badly before. And actually they do kind of have bad sex, and she’s a virgin and all this. Probably the lone 25-year-old virgin in New York. But then over the course of the relationship it evolves.
From the other room drift high, nasal voices, singing. Jesse’s Winnie the Pooh video.
You love the book. It’s a real page-turner; it’s a really appealing fantasy, and the author makes you buy it. One of her other favorites — and Christine laughs, because if you read the back of the book it sounds so silly she would never have bought it — is about a guy who has been in a terrible plane crash, and when he recovers from his injuries he has the ability to heal people. She never would have said she could have possibly read two pages of a book like that, but it’s great. Obviously, both of these women who wrote these books were doing something right, even though they were doing something really outlandish. Both of these books were nominated for awards at the annual conference that Romance Writers of America has.
Reading romance, Christine can become a different woman. She can be this other heroine. What’s so wonderful is that nowadays they do so much of it from the hero’s point of view. It used to be strictly from the heroine’s point of view, in the early ’80s and before that. And she was a weak kind of thing with a big domineering male. Now it’s about 60/40,60 percent from the heroine’s point of view, 40 percent from the hero’s. Or even 50/50. It’s a much bigger challenge, she thinks, for the writer to say what a man is thinking. “But all that doesn’t matter, right? It’s only our female fantasy of what a guy would think. That’s all it has to be. It doesn’t have to be really what some guy would think. It's what you want to think he thinks and probably is not. But what you’d love him to think. Or what you think the jerk thinks, if he’s a jerky guy or if at that moment he’s being a scum or whatever.”
Writing is something Christine does just for herself. The profession she was in. technical writing, she had to be exactly right, say it exactly the right way. And then it’s something different from all the other roles that she is in life: she’s somebody’s wife and somebody’s mommy and somebody else’s mommy. Christine glances at her stomach and laughs. She is due in three weeks. She's excited about it, but not as excited as before. Second time around she knows what to expect.
But with the writing, it’s just like the life that she has that’s her life and not anyone else’s life. The women she has met that are romance writers are so great. The very first meeting she went to, she happened to be sitting at a table with women and they were doing the workshop and she asked about getting into a critique group and two women sitting there said they happened to have an opening in theirs. So now she goes weekly to a critique group with three other women. Three of them are writing Contemporaries, and one of them is writing a Historical. Christine is working on a Contemporary.
It’s like a support group. They often laugh, because in another time it would have been a quilting bee or something. You discuss not only the writing, but of course, you get down to business, “Okay, who’s got writing today?” They gauge how much chitchat they can do based on that. But it’s great. It’s so fun.
Christine has completed one 55,000-word book, which she is rewriting. She wrote a second, 25,000-word story, called a “short read,” for a particular contest. She submitted that and it was not accepted. It’s sort of just sitting there. She has that, that she could expand to 55,000 words, but she’d have to introduce more conflicts. What she has outlined now is a third story that would be a 55,000-word book. She’ll have the baby and then really work on it. But she has it all outlined, has a synopsis really ready, all the way thought through, which she didn't do before. She really didn’t know what she was doing. She was really flying by the seat of her pants.
This third one is the first one Christine has really planned and worked on according to what she has learned from Romance Writers and from the very best people she has listened to. There are ways of plotting and ways of getting started that she didn’t have the first time around. Probably she will give it to Silhouette. She happens to like their stories better.
Christine can’t really give the exact differences in the lines. Harlequin has the Temptation line, and Silhouette has Desire, which are comparable lines, based on how long they arc and how much sex is in them. That’s what they tell you to do. Read a bunch and find what line you’re comfortable with. The line she was comfortable
Jesse and Christine Ridgway with came strictly out of the fact that she could write 55,000 words a lot easier than she can write 75,000 words. In school and everywhere else, her things were always shorter than everybody else’s. If you had to write a ten-page paper, hers always ended up seven and a half. She knew she always writes under.
She has had to struggle to find things to say. She says, “Well, these are my characters, and then you have to find a place to put them, and then you have to find another place to put them and then another place and then another place and then, what’s going to happen after that?” It’s hard.
When Christine was writing a lot, at the most she was probably writing 15 to 20 hours a week. It’s probably gone down to about 5 hours a week. It depends on how much consulting work she has to do. She thinks the way to do it is to do it full time as much as possible. She gets up early in the morning. Since Jesse was seven months old she was employing herself, through consulting, so she would get up and work from five to seven in the morning. Her husband is a teacher, and he would come home at three in the afternoon, so she would work again at three, try to leave a block of a day for it. Or if Jesse took a nap. He doesn’t nap anymore, but when he was little, he could take a nap, and then she could write.
It’s amazing the number of women in the Romance Writers group who are published authors. Christine went there and she was in shock. She really thought she would go and find a group of amateurs. They’re published and successful. Most of the women in the group are pretty serious.
The women in the group come from across the board. The only thing that Christine has noticed is that there is maybe one woman in the group who is younger than she and one woman who is about her age, and that’s it. Mostly they are women whose children are grown and they are older. Christine is 33. When she went to the Romance Writers conference last year in New Orleans, there were maybe 2000 women, and they were, again, all older.
Most women in the RWA go there to be published, to make money. You can make good money if you’re good. This is the big controversy, because nobody really knows, but you can make good money apparently. The money that she has heard is that you can get a $5000 advance on your sale, and then over the life of a book you can get 15,000 additional dollars. She thinks you can make $20,000. This is her feeling, and she’s lowballing it. She’s thinking that if you’re a new author, you can make between $10- and $20,000. Then as you get better or get a following, then you can make more.
The Silhouette Desires come to her once a month in the mail. Just because she wants to read what they’re publishing. Some of them she still enjoys. Some of them she thinks, “God, I know I could do better than this!” Some people have a name, and they will buy anything that person does. It may be something that person knocked off in six weeks, but they’re so good at it, and it doesn’t matter because people will always buy a Diana Palmer, for example.
Linda Howard is the author Christine enjoys the most, the author of Duncan's Bride. She would definitely buy anything Linda Howard did. And Elizabeth Lowell. She is somebody who has left the category lines and is being published mainstream, but her books are still in the romance section of the bookstore. She actually writes with her husband.
Christine does not write with her husband. He is not the biggest reader. And he likes anything she does, so he’s not even any good for critique. She will read it to him, though. He’s good for little stuff — like, she was just writing a little scene, and she had the hero fixing a bicycle. She asked her husband, “Well, how would you fix this on a kid’s bicycle? He can tell her that kind of stuff. Or he can tell her what a man would think. He can give her some of the male viewpoint. But again, most of that doesn’t matter. It’s just what we want them to be thinking. He might tell her a guy wouldn’t think that, and she could say it doesn’t matter, it’s what she would like a guy to be thinking.
Christine’s husband thinks her romance writing is great. She doesn’t really tell many people she does it. She's a little embarrassed by it. At first she told her family and a few of her very close friends. But then when they saw her they would ask her if she had been published yet, and she would have to say she’s really only starting out. Especially with romances. If she knew a certain person was coming over, she would hide the romance books.
It’s embarrassing because they are such fantasy. And there are some women who think they are doing a disservice to all those women out there who will now be looking for all this. But Christine reads them, and she knows it's all a bunch of crock. Those women out there are like her; they’re reading them for fun. She doesn’t know that she would be reading them if she wasn’t writing them.
“But some women feel there are women out there who don’t realize this for what it is. That love isn’t like this. There isn’t gonna be this great guy who’ll come along and sweep you off your feet, and you’ll have great sex and there isn’t gonna be any problems after that. But I don’t know if I believe that or not.
“It’s not the happily-ever-after. Some would say our heroines are not feminists. No, they’re not. but these women are not the heroines of 20 years ago, living off their fathers. These women have jobs, they’re single mothers, they're divorced women, they’re struggling to support themselves, they’re women who are very successful in business and have chosen not to marry. Some of them are looking for the traditional family life and some of them are not, but they all end up with it.
“The basic idea has not changed. The guy is going to come. And you’re going to know him. And he is going to know you. And after X number of conflicts, you’re going to live happily ever after.”
Christine tells me the same thing Caro did about Alpha males and Beta males. The trend is a return toward the Alpha male. It’s the same old guy, only we want to pretend he can’t run roughshod over us. They are funner characters to write, the bad boys. The domineering ones. When she writes, Christine doesn’t imagine heroes she herself would want. When she first started, though, she wrote what she thought was a fairly common fantasy, about meeting up with a high school sweetheart years later and finding he has never forgotten you. That’s about the closest to her personal fantasy as any hero she has imagined, this returnee from the past.
The next two heroes she wrote were more tortured and heavy, only because she thought they were more impactful to read. She really liked books where they had emotional scars. The “short read” she did, the hero’s mother had died and at the same moment his girlfriend had left him. He was someone who felt he couldn’t provide any emotion to anyone and had withdrawn into himself. He was a real kind of cold person. The hero she is writing now, his parents had divorced at an early age. and he had chosen to live with his father. He’s this consummate bachelor, not the swinging singles kind but someone who feels he’s no good at commitment. But she wouldn’t be attracted to a man with those kinds of problems.
Christine tells me the plot of a book that the women in her critique group love. It is one of the rare cases in romance fiction where serious psychological wounds in the characters are left unhealed at the book's end. She tells me part of the plot of her current work and how tricky it is to provide motivation for characters. Then Jesse returns. He wants another snack. Christine tells him no. Then she relents. “Boy, you’re really lucking out today," she says.
“I want some Shark Bites,” he says.
I tell her she doesn’t seem like the sort of woman who would write romances. She agrees. She’s in it for the money, thinks she could do it for a number of years for a second income. It’s something she could do at home.
The RWA is full of intelligent, dynamic women, Christine says. Jesse returns with the box of Tiny Toons, in which are the Shark Bites. He begins saying, “Mama. Mama.” But Christine keeps her eyes on me as I ask a question.
Eventually, “Mama. Ma-ma,” becomes, “ ’Scuze me. Maina. Scuze me. Mama.” Christine seems to have lost the thread of our conversation, begins saying “Unh-huh. Yeah,” over Jesse’s increasingly vociferous demands for attention. “Mama! MAMA!”
“What,” Christine says at last, breaking off in a sentence.
He mumbles something about no more Shark Bites and she’ll have to buy some at the grocery store. She says okay. “Why don’t you go upstairs and play with your Legos? Can you do that for me? Thank you.”
He wanders beyond the couch but stops and puts a car on the racetrack. It hisses around. “Jess. Hey, Jesse. I’m going to ask you to do something for me. Remember how I asked you to go upstairs and play with your Legos?’
There is a pause. “Nawh.”
Christine take this in. “Huh... Well, you can play in here, but not with the cars.”
“Because they make too much noise.” She turns back to me. “Ummm, so with husband and children — ”
“Mommy WhnuhHUHNEUHWHAHNAH-HAH!!” Christine suspends things to set Jesse up with another video.
When she returns, I ask her if perhaps the RWA has replaced the function of women’s encounter groups of the ’70s. She guesses that it has, in a way. She is a member of the Junior League, and that kind of charitable organization provides a similar outlet. But the RWA group, it does bring up issues that you don’t discuss in other environments. Men and women issues. And not only just based on fantasy. Then you start talking about real life.
Christine has missed out on a lot of experiences that she must construct for her writing. She has been married for six years and began dating her husband when she was 19. So she missed out on a lot of experiences, and she has to make them up. She met her husband when she was 18, in college at UCSB.
So sometimes the problem is she doesn’t know what it would be like. You try to remember what it was like. A lot of times they laugh, in her group, reading books where the characters are having sex, and maybe it’s not a good idea, but they get swept away. And they have to think back. well, what was it like to get swept away?