It is a damp, bleak morning. Deep in the bowels of her Columbia town house, Ruth Glick sits drumming her fingernails in the shadowy light.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She and co-author Eileen Buckholtz quietly plot their next Harlequin novel. Their heroine, Jessica Adams, is trying to make a vampire movie. Unfortunately, cast members keep showing up dead with neck bites.
But the vampire angle isn't quite enough. The novel needs more danger.
It needs . . . birds.
It's Mrs. Buckholtz's idea. A flock could attack Jessica while she scouts out an old house for filming.
"That's good," says Mrs. Glick, her eyes widening.
"And we haven't done birds before," Mrs. Buckholtz adds.
When you've collaborated on as many romantic suspense novels as Mrs. Glick and Mrs. Buckholtz -- 11 to be exact -- it's hard to come up with new ways to threaten your characters' lives.
"We've had explosions. We've had fires. We had an airplane crash," says Mrs. Buckholtz. Their latest novel, "Hopscotch," is no different. In 252 pages, the heroine gets:
* Knocked out cold during a holdup.
* Chased onto the roof of an English country home by gun-wielding thugs.
* Briefly abducted by a man with a tranquilizer gun.
"Hopscotch," published last month, is the sixth of nine books in a Harlequin Intrigue series called "43 Light St." Each book in the series is set in Baltimore. The fictitious address refers to a small buildingwhere many of the main characters keep offices.
The women spice the books with local color. Noel Emery, the main character in "Hopscotch," is a graduate of Patterson High School, has an apartment in Roland Park, shops for fresh vegetables at Lexington Market and visits her Uncle Henry at his jewelry store in Fells Point.
Breezily written under the pseudonym Rebecca York, the stories alternate between cliffhanger action scenes and heart-thumping romantic interludes. A brief 1991 review in The Sun called their writing "sharp and snappy, a cut above the 'icy fingers of fear,' genre cliches."
Well . . . most of the time.
At one point in "Hopscotch," the hero declares: "You're wrong. I'm not your husband."
And some detail is repetitive. By Page 56, blood has pounded in somebody's ears at least three times.
But their legions of fans couldn't care less. They snap up 40,000 to 50,000 copies per novel, which sell for $2.89 in book stores and grocery stores across the country. At romance writers conventions, readers arrive with bags of paperbacks for them to sign. Each book draws 30 to 40 letters like this one from a woman in Grand Island, Neb.:
"I love your 43 Light Street series! I mark my calendar when I know the next in the series is coming out."
Despite their avid readership, neither woman is likely to become rich any time soon. Together, they make $10,000 to $20,000 a book. Both have husbands who work.
"I'm still having to keep another job to send my son to college," says Mrs. Buckholtz, who lives in Sykesville.
The creative process begins around 9:30 each morning in the Glick household.
After having coffee in bed and reading the newspaper, Mrs. Glick might pull on some sweat pants, curl up in the covers and begin to tap away on her laptop computer, editing the previous night's work. Sometimes, she will move to her basement and work with her calico cat, Carrie, draped across her lap.
Mrs. Glick and Mrs. Buckholtz start each book with a short outline, 12 to 15 pages long. They then divide up scenes and work at their respective homes.
During the day, the women will read scenes over the phone, fax drafts back and forth for editing and sometimes swap computer disks. Later, they will meet to stitch sections of the novel together.
One painful part of writing a suspense novel is killing off likable characters. Mrs. Buckholtz, the softy of the two, had real problems when they bumped off the sister of the heroine in a book called "Needlepoint."
"It's very hard," she says. But "it's nicer to kill somebody you don't like."
As they get to know their characters better, they occasionally go back and change personal details. Part way through "Hopscotch," the authors changed the villain's occupation from rare-coin to jewelry smuggler.
"Women would probably be more interested in antique jewelry," says Mrs. Glick.
The principal characters at 43 Light St. are fairly modern women. They have jobs, often keep their birth names and solve their own problems. In "Hopscotch," Noel Emery saves the hero by blowing away some baddies with a machine gun.
The authors gleaned details for that scene from a target practice session with best-selling author Tom Clancy, whom Mrs. Glick met at acocktail party in Washington.
While discussing what flying bullets really sounded like, he offered to show her. A bullet-riddled piece of wood autographed by Mr. Clancy sits on her desk as a memento.
Mrs. Glick, 50, began her career as a feature writer for the Columbia Flier, a weekly newspaper in Howard County. Mrs. Buckholtz, 44, a two-day-a-week computer consultant for the U.S. Defense Department, grew up reading romances.
They met at a Howard County writers' group Mrs. Glick helped form nearly 20 years ago. Mrs. Glick wrote her first novel -- a science fiction adventure for children called "The Invasion of the Blue Lights" -- with the help of the other writers.
Three publishers rejected it initially, but one wrote a two-page letter back with suggestions. After revisions, it was published in 1982.
Mrs. Glick and Mrs. Buckholtz take pride in their work and offense at those who criticize it as a literary opiate for women. Values like love, home and family just aren't popular with the literati, they say.
And, so what if all the books have happy endings? she says.
"Have you ever read a mystery where the detective didn't solve the crime?"