Boonsboro is inn place for Nora Roberts fans

The Baltimore Sun

BOONSBORO -- The characters are stirringly romantic, by turns witty and tempestuous, flirtatious and elusive. The setting is Main Street, in a small town tucked in the side of a mountain and shrouded in history. And the plot? Stay tuned because it continues to unfurl in the hands of author Nora Roberts.

The prolific romance writer - someone calculated that she sells 21 books every minute - is hard at work spinning her next amorous tale. This time, though, the end result will be not words but rooms, not pages but high-thread-count sheets, not a book but a bed-and-breakfast that promises to draw even more of her fans to a town that quickly is turning into Noraboro, Md., 21713.

Inn Boonsboro, as she has renamed the long-vacant and deteriorating Boone Hotel, is being renovated for a scheduled opening next summer in this small Western Maryland town. Situated across the street from an Italian restaurant she opened earlier this year and a bookstore cafe that she opened in 1995, the B&B; will make it possible for visitors to not just read Nora Roberts but eat, drink and sleep Nora Roberts.

Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that the woman whose name is synonymous with romance turns out to be all business - whether the project is a book or an inn. She has published more than 150 books in just over 25 years, the majority of which have landed on The New York Times best-seller list, not through dreamy inspiration but something decidedly less romantic: sheer, grinding work.

"It's very much a job. It's not a walk on the beach," she said of the six to eight hours a day that she spends writing. "It's hard, sweaty work, and it should be. Your ears bleed sometimes."

If you were envisioning a chiffon-swathed, head-in-the-clouds heroine, the real Nora Roberts would come as a surprise. Wearing jeans and toting a Diet Pepsi, she was in town from her home in nearby Keedysville to work on some details for the inn and a book signing that she was having at the store the following day. Somehow, in the midst of all her ongoing literary and business projects, she's found time to bake Christmas cookies with her 5-year-old granddaughter Kayla and prep for the "very big deal" she makes out of today when her family gathers at her house.

With her reddish hair, flashing eyes and clear Irish complexion, she could star in one of her novels. And in fact, the 57-year-old Roberts has quite a love story of her own: Her second husband, Bruce Wilder, is a carpenter whom she hired over the phone to build some bookshelves in her house. He turned out to be tall and handsome and, well, you don't have to be Nora Roberts to plot this one out: The writer and the now silver-haired carpenter have been married for 22 years, and he now runs their bookstore, Turn the Page.

True to form, Roberts is crafting her new inn as she would her next novel - or, rather, the next six. Each of the inn's six rooms will be themed, from decor down to custom-scented soaps, to a literary couple, including Jane Eyre and her Rochester (gothic), Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth and Darcy (airier, Regency) and the Thin Man series' Nick and Nora (art deco). Only one room will be devoted to two of the hundreds of characters she herself has created - Eve and Roarke, of the futuristic police procedural series that she writes under the pen name J.D. Robb.

But don't expect to be able to check into a Romeo and Juliet room, or an Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky suite.

"Only couples with happy endings," she says cheerily.

Despite her financial and critical success, she remains down-to-earth and comfortable in the small-town lifestyle that she's chosen to keep, ever since she moved out here in the 1970s with her first husband and their two sons. Her friends are other romance writers who date back to those long-ago days when she received rejection slips rather than giant royalty checks - they go on annual "girl safaris" to shop Tysons Corner - and her work habits are those of a writer struggling to break in rather than one who is perched at publishing's topmost ranks.

She has never missed a deadline, even the one for Tribute, a novel coming out in July, that caught her by surprise last summer. By chance she happened to come across the contract that listed its due date, and realized the only way she could meet it was by working day and night and on weekends, too. Despite the fact that she knows her publisher gladly would have given her an extension, she worked 24/7 and finished in time.

"I'm wired that way," she says.

Roberts credits the nuns who educated her as a child in Silver Spring - she collectively calls them Sister Mary Responsibility - with her bone-deep work ethic.

"They instilled the discipline, the guilt, the paranoia," she said.

The discipline is self-explanatory, but guilt? "If you're not working," she explains, "you're probably near an occasion of sin."

And paranoia? "If I don't do this, people will say, 'Oh, well, gee, I heard she's slipping.'"

She may be a good Catholic girl, but she's no goody-good. She freely admits to drinking, smoking ("I quit like a million years ago," she says drily, "and gained 20 pounds in five minutes.") and cursing. But then, it's her modern sensibility that sets her apart from other, more traditional romance writers, and many believe that sensibility has helped her push the genre beyond its bodice-ripping origins and into greater respectability.

Roberts says her breakneck pace suits her for now. She still finds time for friends and her growing family - she has two grandchildren, and her son Jason, a theatrical lighting designer, is engaged to be married and, as she says with a happy sigh, "they are perfect for each other." Her other son, Daniel - the two of them are the "J.D." in her J.D. Robb persona - runs the restaurant, Vesta, that will provide room service for the inn, and his wife works at the bookstore.

The old hotel dates to the 18th century, and, with its sagging porch and crumbling brick, looks it. Vacant for years, it attracted but then scared away previous prospective buyers who realized the massive amount of work it needed to get up to code, said Charles "Skip" Kauffman, the town's mayor for the past 20 years.

"It's just a great thing for the town," Kauffman says of Roberts' investment in downtown Boonsboro. "We really appreciate her interest."

The town of about 3,200, founded in 1792 by cousins of Daniel Boone, is about midway between Frederick and Hagerstown. It's the site of the first Civil War battle fought in the North, and it's near Antietam and Gettysburg, so Kauffman hopes the new inn will help the town attract the history buffs who flock to the area.

Roberts might be the biggest thing around, but you'd never know it when you see her here, Kauffman says.

"She'll come to our events in the park," he says, "and she'll be inconspicuous and just stand there in the back."

The only time she creates a stir is when she has a book signing at Turn the Page. Then the Noraholics, as her fans call themselves, descend on the quiet, one-stoplight town in such huge numbers that the bookstore had to develop what it calls "etiquette" for the events - arrive in the morning to get a ticket to hold your place in line, come back in the afternoon for the actual signing, don't block the doorways of neighboring businesses, no more than two books can be signed, etc. Still, she can start signing at 1 p.m. and still be inscribing four hours later.

Roberts maintains an unusually close relationship with her fans, on her national book tours and online. "The only good part of being on the road - except for room service breakfast - is interacting with the readers," she says. Fans can stay abreast on her doings on noraroberts.com, and read posts from her and other fans on adwoff.com. The name is an acronym for, "A day without french fries." (The rest of the quote is vintage Roberts: " ... is like a day without an orgasm.") A fan, Suzanne McErlain, whom Roberts met on adwoff, has been hired as the innkeeper.

Readers, though, shouldn't expect to see Roberts lounging in the lobby or at the bookstore counter making lattes - although they sometimes do call the store asking for her. "Uh, I already have a job," is her response when people ask if she'll be involved in the inn on a day-to-day basis.

And it's one with not much breathing room. On this particular day earlier this month, Roberts says she's "this close" to finishing the first draft of a J.D. Robb novel, and once that's finished, she'll start work on a quartet, four novels based on four women who run a wedding business. That was inspired by the upcoming wedding of her son, who was just a little boy when Roberts, going stir-crazy during a blizzard, turned to writing as an escape.

She hasn't stopped since, even as she's extended her brand beyond words and onto Boonsboro's Main Street.

"We're basically a small town," Kauffman says. "We don't have any major industries."

Unless, that is, you count Nora Roberts Inc.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

ONLINE Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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