Let authors of serious literature wring woe and Angst out of their every word. Mary Jo Putney is a romance writer, and she's having the time of her life.
From her suburban town house near Security Square Mall she sends forth female Persian warlords, 12th-century knights, sword-fighting knaves, bejeweled contessas and, in her latest novel, a half-Gypsy British earl who marries a minister's daughter.
And she does so with great success. Her new book, "Thunder and Roses," was released in May and is already in its fourth printing. She is the star writer in the Topaz Historical Romance line at Penguin Books and has won numerous awards for her books.
Her heroes are strong but tortured men. Her heroines are independent, bookish and nurturing. They are meant for each other, and by the end of the book they know it.
Ms. Putney writes historical romances. She is a lifelong history buff, reading Thomas Costain's four-volume "History of the Plantagenets" while in junior high school -- for fun. She also likes the psychological freedom history can give her as a writer.
"You can do things in a medieval setting that would be psychopathic in the present," she says with a grin.
For example, in "Uncommon Vows," her third book, the hero is a 12th-century earl. He falls in love with the heroine after he catches her hunting illegally in the king's forest and takes her prisoner.
Ms. Putney calls the plot "my subversion of the captivity fantasy. I've never gotten into these captivity books where the heroine is a captive and falls in love with the hero. That strikes me as nonsense. . . .
"I wanted a guy to take her captive, but do so in a legal context that made him something more than a savage."
Her characters contend with alcoholism, abusive parents, physical disabilities, incest and dyslexia.
"There's nobody who gets through life without major problems sooner or later," Ms. Putney says. "The thing about romance is that you can confront some very painful issues in a safe context. Because you know they're going to work it out."
Ms. Putney cheerfully tortures her heroes, but not out of any desire for revenge herself.
"My life has been made easier by the fact that I like nice men," she says. John, her "significant other," has been in her life for 15 years.
The heroes in her books, she says, are "men in need of emotional healing. There may have been too much war, there may have been traumatic problems in childhood. They're strong men, but they haven't known much peace."
Ms. Putney's heroine is typically "practical, intelligent, very warm, very caring," she says. She may be managing a farm or teaching school. In one book, "Silk and Secrets," the heroine was Persian warlord.
"Feminists who read most current romances would find that the heroine is usually not just looking for a husband; she's usually an effective woman," Ms. Putney says.
When Ms. Putney writes about effective women, she knows firsthand what she's talking about.
She is smart and witty, a self-described "modern woman." She may write about times long past, but she's happy to be in the late 20th century herself. She lives in a newish town house, not a vine-covered cottage, and it's within shouting distance of that shrine to consumer convenience, the suburban shopping mall. She uses a computer, not a quill, to write.
And though her novel's heroes are men of a different time, she makes it clear that they belong in her writing life, not her real life.
"Modern men, I think, are a lot better deal," she says. "I think the modern American man has evolved beyond just about any of the social types you'll find in the past."
The modern sensibilities of Ms. Putney and other romance novelists notwithstanding, the genre doesn't get much respect. When you consider that it's a $750-million-a-year business, it's hard to see why. Even the romance demographics are great: Readers are mostly female college graduates 25-49 years old.
Maybe it's the lurid covers: the ones in which the rakishly handsome rogue in tight pants crushes the panting beauty to his bare chest.
Quoting romance writer Joan Wolf, Ms. Putney says, "All genres have trash, but no genre is judged by its trash the way romance is." That's true, of course. When was the last time Stephen King and Tom Clancy had to defend their genres?
Maybe it's the steamy love scenes and the passionate dialogue.
At one point in "Thunder and Roses," Nicholas says to Clare: "Do you need to feel wanted, Clarissima? I want you. You have the mysterious, subtle complexity of fine wine -- a drink to be savored over and over again."
Taken out of context, sure it's a little flowery. Would there ever be a second date with a man who really talked like that? But in the midst of the seduction dance between the hero and heroine, it works.
Ms. Putney's fellow writers believe in her writing, too.
Romance Writers of America members have nominated three of her books for the "best romance novel of the year" award, and she is a four-time winner of the association's award for best historical novel.
"In any genre, the writing that stands out is the writing that conveys the strongest voices," says Jayne Ann Krentz, another popular romance novelist. "[Ms. Putney] has a very strong individual voice that readers respond to."
Ms. Putney gets swept up in her own stories as she writes. "I ought to take Kleenex as a deductible expense because I get very emotional when I write," she says, laughing now. "When I'm feeling emotional and there are tears in my eyes it's something that's authentic, and I know that this will be working for the reader."
4 The writing doesn't always come easily, however.
"Somebody, it might have been Evelyn Waugh, said, 'Hard writing makes easy reading. And easy writing makes hard reading.' The better the writing is, usually the less you notice it. And with popular fiction, you want that story to flow."
Her love scenes, which can take three days to write, are the most difficult "because they have to be both psychological as well as physical. You don't want to repeat yourself, you don't want to use cliches, you don't want to be vulgar.
"Historically, people were a lot more careful about whom they went to bed with. The consequences were a good deal higher. There were no antibiotics. Contraception was unreliable at best if there was any at all. And a girl who was 'ruined,' who had sex outside of marriage, it would destroy her whole life.
"So generally speaking, when my characters get together, there are compelling psychological reasons. Either that or they're already married."
Ms. Putney knows that her readers like fantasy, but she also likes to give her romance novels an almost spiritual dimension.
"The inner fantasies of two people who fill the holes in each other's spirits, who can make each other whole -- that's a pretty nice fantasy," she says.
"That's one of the reasons [women] read romance. Not because they expect Prince Charming to come swooping up in a Lear jet and carry them off, but because at its best . . . that emotional closeness with another is as close as we get to spiritual or divine love. It's the earthly equivalent."
Ms. Putney has been making up stories in her head since she was a kid in upstate New York. She didn't put them in print then or as a young adult because she found making corrections on a typewriter so cumbersome. Then came desktop computers. So about three months before she turned 40 (she's 46 now), she started to write a romance novel just to see if she could.
At the time, she was a free-lance graphic designer. (She has bachelor's degrees from Syracuse University in 18th century English literature and industrial design). Even she was amazed when her first manuscript sold.
These days, she has five or six ideas for novels always jostling for position in her mind. At some point, the pieces of a new book "assemble like a jigsaw puzzle" and she writes an outline for her editor.
"I always have a framework," she says. "But the flesh -- that takes a long time." Secondary characters and much of the plot emerge as she writes.
Ms. Putney's historical research is extensive. She draws on memories of her travels all over Britain. But usually, the most exotic locale she visits for most of her research is the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
"I'll make at least one trip to the Pratt Library and go to the social history section with a very large canvas bag from L. L. Bean. And I fill it with books until you can't lift it. . . . And from those I will also look at the bibliographies and often find other titles that I can get through interlibrary loan. Maryland has an excellent interlibrary loan system. I get books from Frostburg State and the Naval Academy, Johns Hopkins."
Her own social-history library fills one side of the writing room in her town house. There you can browse through "Victorian Prison Lives," "Medieval Warfare," "Paupers and Pig Killers" (the diary of an 18th-century curate), "Sex in History" (a history of contraception), "Boswell's London" and "The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant."
This month, you can also find Ms. Putney in an anthology called "Rakes and Rogues." Her next full-length novel, "Petals in the Storm," is due for release in December and takes up the story of Rafe, a secondary character in "Thunder and Roses."
"I'm lucky that this rather narrow talent to tell an emotional, romantic story happens to be one you can earn a living at," she says. She makes a "very comfortable living" now, but it took a while.
Being self-employed as a graphic artist was "great preparation for a writing life," she says. "No benefits, erratic cash flow -- it's perfect training. Being self-employed, you feel like a wolf out beyond the fence. The sheep are inside, but there you are prowling. And sometimes times are lean. But at least you're your own boss."
These days, the writer of romantic fantasy is living a fantasy herself. But hers is set in a town house near Security Square Mall, not in England in the arms of a half-Gypsy earl.
"The fantasy I've had all of my life was of being a writer," she says. . . . "I'm one of the lucky people who has achieved my life's dream. And I can't think of anything I would rather do, even though it's the hardest work I've ever done."
SHEILA DRESSER is an editor at The Sun.