Millions of words of romance Writer: Novelist Nora Roberts tucks herself into a cozy Western Maryland home to write. Of course, with 126 books, she spends a lot of time on promotion tours. @

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a pleasant enough home, a sort of naturalist retreat tucked into a corner of rural Western Maryland. A place where the cows may very well outnumber the residents, and folks like it that way.

The bright, blue deck is the first thing that catches the eye. Then the country silence is broken by four dogs who announce the presence of unfamiliar arrivals with feisty barks.

Inside, the home is filled with books and the occasional pet meanders in and out. There's an indoor swimming pool and a bright, cozy, second-floor office with a window that looks out at woods filled with poplar, dogwood and oak.

Even with the pool and the shiny BMW parked outside, it isn't a particularly imposing house. Nothing remotely on the mansion level, no grand foyer that would befit a queen.

It is not what one might expect from one of the most prolific and successful writers in America. Yet Nora Roberts, a reigning queen of the romance novel and author of more than 100 books, is quite content in this place she has called home for more than 20 years.

"As soon as I saw this area, I knew it was home," Roberts says, taking a drag on a cigarette.

Roberts will not be at her home in Keedysville for some weeks now. She is on yet another book tour. This one is for her latest novel, "Homeport," which is hardcover mainstream fiction. Her publishers forked over $250,000 for promotion (including television and print advertisements) and did an initial printing of 250,000, according to Publisher's Weekly.

Although she is probably best known for her romance novels -- the genre she began with -- Roberts also writes mainstream novels, in addition to a series of futuristic suspense books under the pseudonym J. D. Robb.

"She creates characters that readers love," says Isabell Swift, editorial vice president at Harlequin Enterprises and is one of Roberts' editors. She creates characters from witches of the past to detectives of the future.

A new J.D. Robb novel, "Holiday in Death," is due out in June. In the romance genre, there will be a book titled "The MacGregor Groom" in November.

"I am very disciplined," says Roberts, who can whip out a book in roughly two months.

That may be an understatement.

By the end of 1998, Roberts will have 126 published novels under her belt.

"She is really a publishing phenomenon. Here, we publish over 70 original paperbacks a month, so we are always looking for prolific writers," says Swift, who has worked with Roberts for about 15 years.

Note to all the aspiring novelists who have suffered the agony of rejection slips: Roberts, who had six books on the New York Times best-seller list in 1997 alone, couldn't get her first manuscript published.

"Now I'm glad it didn't get published. It didn't deserve to be published," she says, laughing at the memory. "That first book was dreadful!"

Roberts was raised in Silver Spring, the youngest of five children and the only girl. Her father, Bernard Robertson, was a television lighting technician who, upon retirement, opened a theatrical lighting equipment company with his wife, Eleanor.

After high school, Roberts married and moved to Keedysville with her first husband and their two children. While her husband commuted to his job in Washington, she did "the earth mother thing." And she was a huge fan of romance novels, reading them in her spare time.

She first took pen to paper (literally -- she wrote the story in a spiral notebook using a No. 2 pencil) while keeping an eye on her two young sons during one of Western Maryland's legendary long, cold, snowy winters.

That first story, she says now, was quite forgettable. But the first rejection only spurred her to keep at it.

"One of the things about writing is, if you want it, you will keep at it. You can't buckle at that first slap back. I was writing for my own pleasure," she says.

Her first published novel, the romance "Irish Thoroughbred," came out in 1981, and by then, she had already started on the next one.

"I was awe-struck," she says at receiving that first acceptance letter. "It was the best feeling in the world. But even better was seeing the first book in print. I was completely dazzled. It was better than sex."

Now, Roberts writes on a computer in her home office and has her own home page on the Internet (http: //www.lightst.com/ nora).

She generally receives good reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, which use words like "lively" and "sexy" to describe her books.

There have been a few bumps along the way.

Most notable is the well-publicized plagiarism suit that Roberts filed against fellow romance author Janet Dailey. Last year, Dailey admitted that at least three of her books contained work cribbed from Roberts. And the lawsuit estimates there may be at least 13.

"We don't have any comments," says Bill Dailey, husband of Janet.

In a previous statement released to the press, Dailey has said she was under psychological stress due partly to the deaths from cancer of her two brothers and her husband's lung-cancer surgery.

"We are still in settlement talks," Roberts says about the lawsuit. Roberts is trying to read as many of Dailey's books as possible but says the task is wearing her out.

"I just can't read any more," she says. "Your eyes start to bleed."

Roberts is not requesting any monetary damages from the lawsuit but is asking for a contribution to the Literacy Volunteers of America.

Plagiarism aside, the other thorn in Robert's side is the lack of respect romance novels receive from some who criticize the genre as fluff that gives women unrealistic expectations.

"I have to roll my eyes at that, because it is an insult to women," Roberts says. "I don't think guys who read Ian Fleming want to go out and be James Bond. Women can tell the difference between what is real and what isn't."

The critics don't bother her enough to give up what she loves -- writing, writing and more writing.

She credits her discipline to an early Catholic school experience.

"I was educated by nuns. I have to have structure. I write from 9 to 5, five days a week. On weekends, I might work a couple of hours. If it's really going good, I write a lot on weekends," she says.

Her system works because it doesn't feel like work.

"I also love this. It would be harder being disciplined if I didn't love what I was doing," she says.

Now, her sons are adults, ages 22 and 25. Roberts was divorced in 1983 and married her present husband, Bruce Wilder, in 1985.

It was a courtship that could have come straight from a romance novel.

"I hired him!" she says. "And then I kept him."

What she means is that Roberts decided to remodel her home, and Wilder was a carpenter who was hired to build a bookcase. Wilder now runs a bookstore in Boonsboro, a small town about 10 miles from their home.

The bookstore, called "Turn the Page," was Roberts' first stop on her book tour. It's a tour that will take her to 20 cities in less than a month, including Washington on Monday.

Then she will be back home in Keedysville, in the cozy office, and writing yet another manuscript. It is all very gratifying to her.

"It is just sort of a miracle to me," Roberts

Writer on the road

Who: Author Nora Roberts

Where: Trover Shop bookstore, 221 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E., Washington When: Monday, 12: 30 p.m.-1: 30 p.m.

Call: 202-543-8006

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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