Unhand me, Fabio!

Think romance novels are all swashbuckling men and heaving bosoms? Meet three up-and-coming writers who put the “hero” in romantic heroine.

Sacramento Valley Rose President Anna Stewart actively practices the author’s vocational motto: “Writing equals butt in chair.”

Sacramento Valley Rose President Anna Stewart actively practices the author’s vocational motto: “Writing equals butt in chair.”

Photo By Jill Wagner

It was unusual for Anna Stewart to be sitting in a cafe at 10 a.m. on a weekday morning. Usually, by that time on a Wednesday, she would be well into the middle of her six-hour morning shift in front of the computer, wrestling with prose and plot to complete her latest 500-page novel. But on this occasion, she agreed to let her characters rest in the hard drive and came to downtown Sacramento to discuss her work in service of that great American pastime—the romance novel.

Stewart is the president of Sacramento Valley Rose, the local chapter of the Romance Writers of America, which currently boasts 101 of the national organization’s 8,400 members. She’s also an aspiring author of paranormal romance novels. A subgenre that places a story of a romantic relationship within a magical setting involving ghosts, witches or other occult elements, paranormal romances have joined romantic suspense, “chick lit” and romantic adventure novels as the modern faces of romance—a genre traditionally panned by critics as socially passé, if not disposable.

“Romance novels aren’t taken seriously,” Stewart said, “because most people’s image is of a bodice-ripper with Fabio on the cover. Hello? My ultimate nightmare is to have him on the cover of my book, unless he’s being attacked by a seagull—which, in paranormal, is entirely possible.”

Stewart may not be a born romantic, but it’s safe to say she converted early. “I knew I wanted to write romance novels from the time I was 14 years old,” she confessed. Students at an all-girls Catholic high school, Stewart and her friends began reading romances to learn about the habits of the opposite sex. Before long, they had formed a writing club to conjure romantic tales involving favorite movie stars and rock idols. “That took over my life completely,” Stewart recalled. “I was a horrible student. All I wanted to do was write these stories.” She filled shelves of binders with her original love sagas—all written in longhand.

After graduating from high school, Stewart enrolled in creative-writing courses at American River College to prepare for her chosen profession. Unfortunately, she found little respect for the romance genre among her peers. “As a creative-writing student, if you write romance, you’re not exactly thought of as a great literary mind. It’s easily dismissed as, ‘Oh, what does it take to write a romance novel?’ Well, it’s work. Let me tell you.”

Stewart earned an English degree from California State University, Sacramento, and continued to write romances on her own. “I always knew I wanted to be a published writer, but I didn’t know how to go about it.” Two weeks after she got her first rejection letter from Harlequin, she found the Sacramento Valley Rose Web site and decided to attend a meeting.

Stewart instantly felt at home. “I got a round of applause for my rejection letter,” she recalled. “That’s huge for a writer. Only writers understand what writers go through.” She began volunteering with the group immediately and currently is serving a one-year term as president.

Ironically, the same prejudice against romance writers that frustrated Stewart in college led to the creation of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) in 1980. RWA was founded in Houston by a group of women who felt snubbed by writing conferences and workshops that refused to address romance novelists, despite the fact that romance is the single most popular fiction genre, read by more than 51 million people. Romance makes up 34 percent of all fiction sales and 55 percent of paperback fiction sales, accounting for more than $1 billion annually.

Today, RWA hosts its own conferences, which are always sellouts. Nearly 20 percent of the organization’s 8,400 members worldwide have published novels. Something about Sacramento must lend itself to literary success, because a full third of the Sacramento Valley Rose’s 101 members are published authors, including such popular writers as Brenda Novak and Pamela Britton.

It’s a list Stewart hopes to join soon. “There’s a running joke that our presidents get published. It’s happened quite a few times that the presidents are published the year after they serve,” she said. Having recently submitted her latest novel to an editor at Tor Books (a science-fiction and fantasy publishing house just beginning to break into paranormal romance titles), Stewart has high hopes that her dream might happen soon.

Allison Brennan looks serene, even as she plots her next murder mystery.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“Writing is a very solitary profession,” Stewart admitted. “You need the support of people who go through what you do. That’s why I volunteered. Hopefully, once I’m published, I’ll be able to turn around and give someone else the guidance I got.”

Davis author Eileen Rendahl, one of Sacramento Valley Rose’s published authors, first approached romance writing from a far more cynical viewpoint. She was working in an art gallery in St. Louis after college and was looking for a second job to make ends meet. A co-worker suggested they try writing romance novels during their lunch hours. “He brought in some Harlequin romances,” she recalled, “and I had never read one before. I thought, ‘How hard can this be to write? There’s a formula here.’”

She began a manuscript and immediately ran into difficulty. “You have to stick to the framework and, at the same time, you have to be really creative. You have to adhere to the rules and make it your own, too, because there are a lot of people trying to do this. It was outrageously hard,” she concluded, “but it piqued my interest.”

Over the years, in between marrying, raising two sons and starting a career in graphic design, Rendahl continued to dabble with romance novels whenever time allowed. Writing was a hobby that would grow to sustain her through a traumatic period when her father fell temporarily ill at the same time her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “When my life was falling apart, and everyone was sick, I got to escape to a place where I told everyone what to do, and they did it,” she explained. Her first published book, Petals on the Pillow, grew out of that time.

After the death of her husband, Rendahl and her two sons moved to Davis to be closer to her family, and she started writing again. “I intended to write a romantic comedy. I was four or five chapters in. Then a friend died in a bicycle accident, and I went to his funeral. His wife wasn’t as young as I was when I was widowed, but still way too young to be burying a husband. It brought up all this stuff for me. I went to my critique group and said, ‘Look at this. I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s just coming out of me.’ And they all said, ‘Ditch the romantic comedy! Write this!’”

“This” turned out to be Do Me, Do My Roots—a semiautobiographical novel released in April of 2004. Do Me marked Rendahl’s shift from traditional romance to contemporary women’s fiction. “It’s about a woman who is the youngest of three sisters, whose husband dies of a brain tumor, and how she puts her life back together,” Rendahl said. “I worked through a lot of my feelings about losing my husband through writing this book, about wanting to start over but not wanting to start over at the same time, feeling disloyal and yet lonely, and trying to find those balancing points for yourself.”

The book got her a two-book contract with Pocket’s Downtown Press, a line of contemporary women’s fiction or “chick lit.” As Rendahl explained, “Chick lit is not traditional romance. While you want the ending to be happy, happy doesn’t necessarily mean walking down the aisle to get married. It could be that she’s not with the wrong guy anymore, or she got promoted at her job or she’s finally on the right track. It’s not happily ever after. It’s happy enough for now.”

These more expansive stories are a trend Rendahl expects to continue. “I think we’re going to see more of this, because you can only read so many stories about somebody in their 20s dating.”

Allison Brennan, Sacramento Valley Rose’s published-author liaison, also has noticed this shift in the focus of romance novels. “In the older novels, the woman tends to be weaker physically and the martyr emotionally. In modern romances, while you still want to keep the femininity of your heroine, you want them to be as emotionally strong as your male characters. You don’t want them to be little wimps saying, ‘Oh woe is me,’ like ladies tied to the railroad tracks.”

Brennan writes romantic suspense—a subgenre centered around mysteries and crime dramas. Her first novel, which will be published by Ballantine Books in the summer of 2005, is built around a former FBI agent turned crime novelist. She must track down a killer who re-enacts the crimes in her books—certainly no damsel in distress. “I’m not going to do the knight-in-shining-armor thing,” Brennan asserted. “I don’t buy it, so I don’t write it.”

Stewart shares her opinion. “I think we’ve moved from women needing to be rescued to women rescuing,” she said, “from Goldie Hawn’s character in Foul Play to Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Women are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and if they find a man to enhance them, that’s great. That’s the kind of love story I want to see and want to write.”

Let go of that bodice, Fabio. These women have work to do.