HUNTER ROMANCE WRITERS: For the love of it 

IN a scene in the 1989 film She Devil, Meryl Streep’s character is seen tapping away at a pink portable computer, while wearing a pink hat, a pink scarf and sipping a pink cocktail.

She gazes into the distance and licks her pink lips as she dreams up the plot of her latest romance novel.

This glamorous, if tongue-in-cheek, image of how a romance writer looks and works was a notion aided and abetted by the late Barbara Cartland, who, dressed in her trademark pink dresses and decked out in diamonds, was usually photographed with a Pekinese perched on her lap.

The prolific English author was said to have dictated many of her 700-plus romance novels while reclining on a chaise lounge, eating bon bons.

But there was only one Barbara Cartland.

The reality for other romance writers, particularly the cadre of those in the Hunter, is much different.

Adamstown Heights author Michelle Douglas writes what is known in the industry as category romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon.

‘‘Lots of people in my family read Mills & Boon, so it was kind of a culture when I was growing up,’’ she says.

‘‘Having said that, I read everything as a kid, and I read everything now.

‘‘But romance is a hopeful genre, so it’s fun to write, it’s fun to read.’’

There were not many genres out there that dealt in joy.

‘‘Every romance novel has to have a happy ever after,’’ she says.

‘‘So many literary books don’t want to end happily. It seems they must end with a character feeling disaffected or coping with a dream that hasn’t been realised.

‘‘I do love the classics, but in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary for example – one throws herself under a train and the other eats arsenic.’’

Some say writing romance is the perfect antidote to reading the classics.

Douglas agrees.

‘‘It makes you feel happy after reading all those tragedies.’’

Douglas, whose 13th romance has just been released, waitressed at wedding reception centres, worked in admin and at a call centre while studying and trying to realise her dream of becoming a paid, published writer.

Douglas holds a Masters in English, and has just enrolled in a PhD at Newcastle University.

She will research the parallels and differences between category romance and single title romances.

(Category romances tend to be short, usually no more than 200 pages, while single-title novels are longer and not published as part of a publisher’s category.)

Reading an article in one of Newcastle’s community papers set Douglas on the path to writing romance.

‘‘The article said Mills & Boon reads every unsolicited manuscript they receive, and that it was a really good way for a writer to hone their skills,’’ she says.

‘‘Then I found out about Romance Writers of Australia [RWA]. It’s a great organisation that gives you industry news, and teaches you how to write and submit a manuscript.

‘‘My first few attempts weren’t accepted, but they received encouraging feedback from editors.

‘‘Then finally I wrote a book they liked.’’

Her first book, His Christmas Angel, was published in December 2007.

Writing a romance was harder than many might assume.

‘‘Romances deal in emotion,’’ Douglas says.

‘‘I think that’s one of the reasons most men don’t like romance so much, because they say ‘nothing happens’. But the emotions in romance can be considered the event.

‘‘Maintaining that level of emotional intensity can be a really tricky thing to do as a writer, and to make it believable, or believable enough, that a reader will keep following the story.’’

There are thought to be more than 50 published and unpublished romance writers living in the Hunter.

They are a supportive community.

Nationally, RWA has almost 1000 members.

Closer to home, Hunter Romance Writers has 14 members.

‘‘There is a real belief amongst romance writers that ‘a rising tide floats all boats’,’’ Douglas says.

‘‘If somebody picks up your romance and loves it, it might entice them to seek out others.

‘‘It’s a very nurturing and supportive environment.’’

Two of Douglas’s novels have been set in Nelson Bay, and another in a fictitious hotel set on Newcastle beach.

Douglas doesn’t dwell on the stereotypes that surround romance writers.

‘‘I think a lot of the beliefs that might’ve been held 20 years ago aren’t held today,’’ she says.

‘‘I think once upon a time there was this idea that a romance writer, or romance readers even, were all just middle-aged housewives, and that’s just not true.

‘‘They are from all walks of life.’’

THE giddiness and excitement of first love drives many of the novels of young-adult author Kaz Delaney.

But the Belmont North grandmother, one of the founding members of Romance Writers of Australia, says it was more than just the tenderness of first love that attracted her to writing for teenagers.

‘‘I just happen to think these people are fascinating,’’ she says.

‘‘Everything is bigger, better, worse and more devastating, depending on the situation.

‘‘Their lives are underpinned by the extremes of all emotion. I love the drama and the passion – it offers an author such great scope.’’

Delaney has now published 67 novels.

Her next book, Almost Dead, will be released in January.

Delaney surmised the nurturing nature of romance writers could be born of the feel-good genre itself, and perhaps the isolation of writing.

But it was also the struggle that brought them together.

‘‘The struggle to make it in such a competitive industry, and the struggle to be respected by some areas of the industry who frown upon mere romance writers,’’ she says.

RWA was formed in 1991.

‘‘I joined because, at the time, I was – like a lot of Australian writers –  targeting overseas publishers and flying blind. We were all hungry for information that would help us achieve publication.’’

The aim of the organisation was to give Australian writers a fighting chance. To educate and inform.

‘‘Within a couple of years, Australian publishers noticed a sharp rise in the professionalism of manuscripts they were receiving – and noted that almost all claimed membership to RWA in their cover letters,’’ Delaney says.

LAKE Macquarie’s Annie West also writes category romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon, and recently celebrated her 21st romance being accepted for print.

West had a romanticised notion of what being a romance writer would be like.

‘‘I had the idea that you’d manage to support yourself by sitting in this lovely office surrounded by beautiful stationery – walls lined with books – and you’d craft a marvellous scene or chapter and then go off and meet friends for a nice lunch, possibly with champagne,’’ she laughs.

While the reality was much more difficult and time consuming than anticipated, the call of writing romance – rather than just reading it – grew ever stronger.

‘‘At the time I had young children and I thought, ‘If you don’t try it now, you never will’,’’ she says.

‘‘It wasn’t as though I was born with a pen in my hand. I never felt I had a book burning inside of me.

‘‘But I think it was just the love of the stories and the storytelling. I really enjoyed trying to do that myself, and trying to craft a satisfying story – and perhaps a more satisfying story than one I’d just read.’’

West hosted a session called ‘‘Casting Off: Getting Your First Chapter Off the Ground’’ at the RWA conference in Fremantle in August.

‘‘One of the things I love about writing is the first chapter,’’ she says.

‘‘You’re so enthused and you’ve got this great idea and characters you can’t wait to develop.

‘‘But as a contest reader, I kept finding similar sorts of issues in a lot of entries in the first-chapter contests.’’

She drafted some openings, and attendees looked at what worked and what didn’t.

Helping other writers was her way of giving back.

‘‘I wouldn’t be published without RWA,’’ she says.

‘‘I wrote my first manuscript and I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.

‘‘Some poor editor picked it up and choofed me off a note that said ‘Thanks but no thanks’.’’

Joining RWA and entering writing competitions had helped hone her skills.

There are many contests, such as Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write, that budding romance writers can enter as a way to get constructive feedback on their work.

West was about to give up when she finally got an email back from Harlequin saying they’d like to publish one of her books.

‘‘It took a while, but it was worth it.’’

West studied the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare during a university arts degree.

But she always came back to romance.

‘‘I found, particularly when you’re working in a really busy job, there was something nice about being able to pick up a romance and get swept away by a story you really enjoyed.

‘‘And it’s a relatively quick read, so you can read them with snatches of time here and there.

‘‘I don’t know a romance writer who isn’t also a romance reader.’’

West found the myths surrounding romance writers intriguing.

‘‘I’m not aware of quite so many cliches about other writers, or other readers,’’ she says.

‘‘I have wondered whether it could be because romance is written predominantly by women, for women.

‘‘When you look at the huge number of people worldwide who read romance, I find it unfortunate that sometimes you encounter people who think romance is laughable.’’

BAR Beach romantic suspense author Lee Christine (real name Lee Burgess) remembers sitting on the floor of her daughter’s room with Speers Point crime writer Jaye Ford during a dinner party many years ago.

They were poring over her old Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Donna Parker and Famous Five books when both women confessed to having writing ambitions.

Ford recently released her third thriller Blood Secret, and Christine will release her second romantic suspense, In Safe Arms, in January.

Christine’s opportunity to take writing seriously finally came when her youngest son got his driver’s licence.

Since she was no longer a taxi service, the former legal secretary and corporate software trainer began treating writing as a day job.

Her perseverance paid off when three digital publishers – Escape, Penguin’s Destiny Romance, and US-based Entangled Publishing – expressed interest in her manuscript for what would become In Safe Hands.

The manuscript had won several romance writing competitions in the US.

‘‘Contests are a great way of getting your work out there, and getting direct feedback from editors and agents who are often on the final judging panel,’’ Christine says.

‘‘I’m certain those wins were instrumental in the three publishers wanting the book.

‘‘It got their attention in my query letter, and brought my book out of the slush pile, so to speak.’’

Meanwhile Ford worked in newspapers, radio and television as a news and sports journalist while dabbling with the idea of writing a novel.

‘‘Then I was getting close to 40 and I was between jobs and I thought to myself, ‘This is my opportunity – perhaps my last opportunity, because I knew if I got another job I probably wouldn’t give myself the time,’’ she says.

‘‘So I actually set myself the target to complete one story, and if it lived in the bottom drawer, that would be fine.

‘‘It didn’t work that way. It took a really long time to finish. In fact it took almost 10 years to finally get that publishing contract, and three manuscripts before I actually got published.

‘‘I also realised that just finishing a book wasn’t enough for me. I realised I actually really loved the process and I wanted to keep going.’’

After several rejections, the turning point for the Davitt Award-winner came when she realised she could spend her entire life writing and never get published.

‘‘So I then decided to write to entertain myself,’’ Ford remembers.

‘‘I would just write what I wanted to write and let go of all the other goals of writing for the right publishers and that kind of stuff, and that was actually the first book that sold.

‘‘A lesson for beginner writers.’’

Ford, who also published romantic comedy Just Breathe under the name Janette Paul, is essentially a crime writer, but there is a strong romantic element to all of her stories.

DEBORAH Challinor doesn’t consider herself to be a traditional romance writer, but she does write stories about women for women, so romance tends to follow.

When the New Zealand-bred author moved to Newcastle a couple of years ago to write a four-part series of historical novels based on convict women, she was invited to join Hunter Romance Writers.

‘‘In traditional romances it’s the romance that drives the story forward, and they live happily ever after,’’ she says.

‘‘I don’t really believe in happily ever after, so romance isn’t at the core of my stories.

‘‘I hang all of my stories on either historical events or eras.

‘‘But I always write about women, and women often fall in love and have relationships, so romance is quite often there.’’

Getting involved in Hunter Romance Writers had been invaluable.

As she says, only other writers understand when you say, ‘‘I feel my climax isn’t strong enough, and I think my middle’s sagging as well.’’

‘‘We get together once a month and it’s great company,’’ she says.

‘‘Writing can be a lonely job. 

‘‘We all write in different genres. 

‘‘Some write romance, some write erotica, a couple do historicals, some do young adult.

‘‘So we all bring different ideas to the table and I find it really useful.’’

The characters in Challinor’s convict series are loosely based on her own ancestors.

‘‘I had a great times five grandmother who came out on the Lady Juliana, which is known as the floating brothel, and that ship came out with the second fleet,’’ Challinor says.

‘‘Her name was Mary Ann Anstey.

‘‘I don’t know how much pocket money she made on the way – we don’t talk about that in our family – but she was on that ship in 1790.

‘‘She pinched two silk handkerchiefs, that was her crime.’’

Friday Woolfe, one of the main characters in Challinor’s Behind The Sun – the first book in the series – is based on Mary.

‘‘Friday Woolfe is a prostitute. I’m pretty sure my ancestor wasn’t, but Friday is,’’ she says.

The second book, Girl Of Shadows, hit shelves in December.

Challinor holds a PhD in history, and so takes great pleasure in researching her novels.

She has also written non-fiction books Who’ll Stop the Rain and Grey Ghosts, based on New Zealand’s experience of the Vietnam War.

SUZANNE Hamilton, writing as S.E. Gilchrist, is one of the founding members of Hunter Romance Writers.

The lower Hunter Valley author has written romantic action adventures, contemporary rural romance, and a science fiction romance.

‘‘I’m one of those writers who has scribbled stories off and on over the years,’’ she says.

‘‘Romance drew me because I love the feeling of hope it engenders in readers, as well as that sigh of satisfaction when you reach the end.’’

In January 2009 she read a bunch of ‘‘how to’’ books and joined RWA.

‘‘I went to my first RWA conference and the next year began a local face-to-face writing group with another romance writer, Sandra Hudson.’’

Gilchrist has had three e-books published by Escape Publishing, another with Momentum, and she has also self-published two digital novels.

Dance in the Outback was just released, Storm of Fire landed in November, and Star Pirate’s Justice is due out in February.

‘‘I believe if I was still attempting a publishing contract with one of the Big 5 publishing houses [Hatchett, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster] in print form, I’d still be struggling,’’ she says.

‘‘The advent of e-books has been a wonderful opportunity for me since I write cross-over genres, which can be hard to place in traditional format.’’

Gilchrist also works full-time, which she finds can sap her motivation and creative well.

‘‘Giving myself goals and deadlines does help, but yep, there certainly are nights when I collapse on the couch and reach for the remote. I call that research.’’