By Mary K. Tilghman
8:43 AM EST, December 24, 2012
Every day, they sit alone in their offices, writing about love, passion, romance. They bring to life muscled heroes, dangerous vixens, strong heroines — lovers all — then put enormous obstacles in the way of the would-be lovers so they must struggle for that happily-ever-after.
The members of the Maryland Romance Writers meet once a month at the Arbutus Library to discuss the craft and business of writing the most popular genre of fiction in America. Their books are among the $1.3 million worth of romance novels sold in a year.
They are serious-minded writers who know how to tug at the heart strings, force a tear or two, get the pulse racing.
With its 81 members spread across the state, the library is a convenient meeting place, as is Chef Paolino's restaurant on Frederick Road in Catonsville for their catching-up dinners before the meeting.
The library's central location near the Baltimore Beltway and Interstate-95 makes it suitable for picking up speakers for their meetings and workshops.
"And they're very nice to us," said Joya Fields, of Catonsville.
The MRW is one of a number of groups that rent space in the library, said librarian Kim Preis. "They seem like they genuinely have a lot of fun," she added. At the suggestion of fellow librarian Ann McElroy the group has agreed to speak about romance novels at the library in May.
The group met in Linthicum until about two years ago when space limitations forced them to look for a new location, said Lea Nolan, another member of the group who just published her first book.
With an atmosphere that can be celebratory and maybe even risque, the meetings serve to connect writers, help them get their start and offer support. And it's done with chocolate.
Rebecca York, of Columbia, has published 140 books — with titles in 22 languages. She been coming to these meetings for more than 20 years. "It's a good group of productive writers," she said.
She heaped praise on the meeting's programs that can range from ghosts to psychics and offer a little insight on the many paranormal romances she likes to write.
Like York, about half of the group's members are already published, some with several novels, some with best-selling titles.
About half are "pre-published," in the process of seeing their prose go out into the reading world for the first time, according to Laura Kaye, the group's vice president and the author of New York Times and USA Today bestsellers.
Writing is a solitary pursuit, Kaye said. "It's helpful and encouraging to know other people get what you're going through," she said.
"At my first meeting of the MRW, I was stunned at the professionalism of the women," said Stephanie Draven, of Owings Mills. "I have never encountered a savvier group of ladies."
These writers are not producing the "bodice-rippers" of past generations. At least, the majority aren't. Romance today can involve vampires, ghosts or gods. It can take on subjects as serious as the environment or even a political campaign — as one of Draven's new books has this year. They can be filled with suspense or adventure. Some are humorous while others get dark.
"Now, there is truly something for every flavor," Fields said.
Some have explicit love scenes while others are more circumspect. "There's the close-the-door theory and an open-the-door theory," Fields said.
In one way, romance novels are all the same: "In romance, a happy ending is essential to the genre," York said.
Such endings have some basic components.
"The bad guy's going to get caught and the couple is going to get together," Fields said.
The recent crop of best-sellers, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, has brought new attention to the genre.
"It certainly helped my sales," Draven said.
The attention has broadened the audience.
"It pulls in new readers," said Christi Barth, a Baltimore resident who is the group's president for 2013. "It's rejuvenated their interest in reading."
And some books have inspired new writers, including Nolan, an Arnold resident, and her friend, Laura Kaye.
Kaye and Nolan began writing after they were inspired by the "Twilight" series.
"If Stephenie Meyer (the author) can do this, I can do this," Nolan remembers thinking.
Nolan explained she didn't want to write just any romance. It would have to be young adult romance, like the "Twilight" books, a genre that has developed since her own teen years. "I missed that whole genre because it didn't exist," she said.
"We didn't exactly know what we were doing," Kaye said.
Without knowing a soul, she went to her first meeting of the Maryland Romance Writers. "It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made," Kaye said.
New writers can benefit from the experiences of published authors. "The person who has 100 books published is willing to work with the person who is pre-published," Fields said.
"We really value mentorship in this organization," Kaye said, noting that the group is more collegial than one might expect.
"Now I can't imagine life without some of these women," she added.
Meetings give members a chance to meet agents and publishers and learn about the whole publishing experience.
"There's a kinship you can grow with other people who are close to you. We can be in such an isolated profession," Nolan said.
Members take part in workshops online or in person to learn how to write, especially the finer points of structure, and how to get published, especially what will catch an editor's or agent's attention.
Barth credits one of her colleagues for helping her land a six-book contract.
"The networking cannot be overlooked," she said.
And unlike other writer's groups, where critiques can be scathing, there is a feeling of support. "You're there for each other," Nolan said.
Barth said the willingness of members to read each other's manuscripts is invaluable. "You can't just find people like that," she said. "You have to come to a group like this and discover them."
Nolan said she'd be a member even if she wrote mysteries or adventure stories. "Even if you don't write only romance, it's still very useful," she said. "There's so much to learn."
These writers come from different places and backgrounds. Many are wives and mothers. Some write full time. They've been teachers, historians, archaeologists, health care professionals, journalists. Many live in the Baltimore area but others attend only a few meetings because they live farther away.
Shelley Greene, a pre-published member from Columbia, brought her laptop to the November meeting so Sarah Allan, who lives in England, could attend via Skype. "She met the members of MRW through (the Romance Writers Association) and chose our chapter because she liked the group," Greene said. Both members are on the verge of seeing their first manuscripts published.
If last month's meeting is any indication, the conversation can veer from serious talk about getting an agent to laughter over heroes or plot details.
When it's time to celebrate, a gallon-sized bag of Dove chocolates is passed around the room as members announce winning a contest, signing an agent, having a book published, getting on a best-seller list, negotiating movie rights. Even taking the time to write is worth a chocolate reward.
"This is my baby," Nolan said in November, holding up a copy of her first book, Conjure, a paranormal fantasy for young adults. "It came out last month." It will be, she told her colleagues, the first in a series.
Kaye's recent appearance on national best-seller lists was cause for celebration at the November meeting as fellow members pinned on a Miss-America-style sash. "It's been an incredible two weeks," she said as the meeting began. One Night With A Hero is on both the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists. "Her Forbidden Hero" is also on the USA Today list.
"When somebody does well, it feels like we all do well," said Fields, whose newest book, Hereafter, a ghostly tale set in downtown Baltimore, was released in mid-December.
Inevitably, the meetings get serious. Speakers come every month to offer advice on editing, online promotion, high-tech writer's tools, ghost hunting and social media.
In November, web editor and blogger Mary McCarthy, stopped in to offer "Six Ways to Grow Your Readership Online."
Since most of these authors rely on their own blogs to promote their books, the discussion ranged from good blogging sites to the value of Facebook and Twitter and using Google Analytics.
In addition to providing an opportunity for networking and professional support, the MRW also co-sponsors the Baltimore Book Festival. This past September, with Kaye at the helm, they group organized the Maryland Romance Writers Stage, packing appearances by 40 authors into three days. They plan to do it again next year, Kaye said.
The Maryland Romance Writers meet at the Arbutus Library, 855 Sulphur Spring Road on the third Thursday of the month at 6:30 p.m.
For information on the meetings or the writers, go to http://www.marylandromancewriters.com.