If you had one piece of advice for aspiring writers, what would it be?

I DO have one piece of advice for aspiring writers: Write more than you aspire to write. Hammer away at a novel, a collection of short stories, a volume of poetry, until you have something completed in draft, and ignore all the noise. Then hammer away at the next project.

Story time: I’d been writing for a couple years, FOR FUN, because I enjoyed it, and I got tired of family and friends elbowing me about “when are you going to get that stuff published?” I hadn’t been writing for publication, but what the heck, why not give it a shot? People–me among them–had been known to pay money for books, and being a lawyer had become wearying.

So I joined RWA and I went to a small (about 150 people) conference. GAAAH! Everybody there knew each other, and they all had tremendous energy (I’m pretty uniformly whamped). They blathered on confidently about WIPs, and GMC charts, saving the cat, story mastering, and pitch appointments and I had NO CLUE what any of it meant. Eventually, some kind soul explained the Goal, Motivation and Conflict (GMC) chart to me, and immediately, my remaining joy and confidence spiraled down.

That was basic stuff and I didn’t know it. I hadn’t had an inkling what a pitch appointment was (you pitch your book to an agent or editor), I didn’t have a WIP (work in progress), I usually had several and that had to be a bad thing because nobody else worked that way. I left the conference a writing wreck.

Silly me. MANY of those energetic, knowledgeable, fast pitching, GMC’ing hot shots are still not published. I’ve stumbled my way onto bestseller’s lists, starred reviews, reviewer’s choice awards, and other honors. I’m convinced that part of my success is because I wrote and wrote and wrote rather than paid any attention to what people who were no more successful than I had to say about the process.

Don’t listen to the noise, don’t do it the way “they” do it just because it’s working for them. Listen to your characters, listen with your writer’s ear and your writer’s heart. Work on your craft–of course, always work on your craft–but leave the anxiety and subtle competition and posturing to others.

You write.

If you had a second piece of advice for aspiring writers, what would it be?

Writer’s write… but they don’t write ALL THE TIME. 

Lawyers can go days, even years, without setting foot in a court room. Parents can go years without seeing the children they pray for nightly. A gardener must wait out the winter, subsisting on catalogs and web surfing. 

An aspiring writer can feel great pressure to produce, to a quota, on a schedule, no matter what. Some people comforted by a highly structured approach to writing, but for most of us, there’s a danger that we’ll be tyrannized by somebody else’s definition of success.

So many writers I know are also raising children, tending a significant relationship, holding down a day job, keeping an eye on the elders, hitting the gym, keeping the house in order, and even nurturing a social life. On top of that they pressure themselves to make progress with writing goals AND get enough sleep. 

Any writer who can wedge 250 words a day into a schedule like that is a superhero (and is producing a book every year with a few weeks off).

To me, the bedrock upon which a writing career must be built is not a word count goal, or measurable goals prominently displayed in a well ordered writing space. Of course, if you want to be published, creating a product at some point is important. To me, though, to create a product worth reading, the writer must have a passionately experienced life, an emotionally vibrant reality, from which fictional worlds can spring. All that parenting, partnering, and professional-ing is the golden grist for the writer’s imaginative mill.

So my second piece of advice would be, don’t let an obsession with writing productivity leach the joy from your writing soul. Whether you get out a book this year or not, whether you write one day a week or five, whether you have six outlines under the bed, or one monster rough draft…. writer is something you ARE, it’s an identity, not simply a job.   

What’s the hardest part about writing a book for you?

This is a tough question, with an element of “answers may vary,” because every book faces slightly different challenges. I often struggle with figuring out WHAT exactly pushes the characters apart and how I can make it EVEN WORSE as the story progresses. If I get that nailed down, the ending can give me trouble. Not the “how do I solve this” part of the ending, but the “how do we say good-bye to these characters so we know they’ll be endlessly happy” part of the ending.

In revisions, the book fares best if I go over and over it, with several weeks down time between layers of varnish. The downside of that approach is that I get tired of the book, even as each review cycle reveals more to polish. This can produce anxiety, and buffing a book this way can take a long time.

If I had to put a finger on one aspect of writing for publication that’s most difficult, it’s that I must let the book go. Once the book is published, particularly if it’s traditionally published, it must stand or fall on whatever merits it had when it left my hands. If I wake up a week later with my head full of snappier dialogue, more imaginative settings, and cleverer symbolism (and I do), that’s too bad. The book has been released into the wild, and belongs to the readers now.

Letting go is so hard, that the only way I’ve found to deal with it, is to write another book.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

First, what is a plotter, what is a pantser?

These are terms writers use to describe how they approach writing a manuscript. Some of us make an outline, some of us make a VERY DETAILED outline. Other of us have nothing more in our heads than an opening line or opening scene, and we crank up the computer and “see what happens.” We don’t know the story until we write it.

I’m somewhere in between. I have OFTEN started a book with only a single line in my head. I hear a man’s voice, a Scottish accent, but an educated one, and he’s grousing about needing a rich wife. Somebody paraphrases Jane Austen, and I find out this guy needs a wealthy wife, but the whole idea makes his quietly sentimental and family-oriented heart ache.

That was all I needed to get started on The Bridegroom Wore Plaid.

With Nicholas: Lord of Secrets, I’d met Nick in earlier books, and he wasn’t making sense. He was a ladies man, sorta, and he loved horses, kids and old people, but he was loath to marry. Why? He’s a dear sweet, guy, handsome and charming, he needs an heir, and he won’t marry. He had a reason. I knew he had a reason and a valid reason (no reason-y, no book-y, dude), but he wouldn’t share his secret with even me until his book was half written.

That’s an extreme case of my usual approach: I write as much as I know, a few chapters, usually, and then I must perch on my croquet wicket, waiting, waiting, hoping, waiting, for the characters to let me in on the deal. Lady Louisa took half the book to tell me what exactly was plaguing her from her past, but in the middle of a conference of the American Librarians Association, she came clean.

Other books I have a sense going in where we’ll end up based on the character’s wounds–Lady Eve had to get back on the horse, so to speak; Gillian, in The Captive, had to reconcile herself to how far we’ll go to protect someone we love. Those were by far the easier books to write, so now I try to spend more time analyzing where a character hurts before I get too much of the book written.

A word of caution: I’ve been told, and I expect it’s true, that no matter what our preferred process is, a book will come along that refuses to be written unless we go over to whatever the dark side of the writing process is for us. For me that would probably be a detailed outline, for another writer, it’s the hold your nose and jump school of plotting. I haven’t hit that book…. yet.

What is your writing routine?

Erm, I don’t have one.

In one blog on craft after another, in one craft book after another, I see that writers who have a set writing time, who write every day, who have word count goals, written business plans, prominently displayed objectives, five-year plans, visible affirmations, and a bunch of other accoutrements of outwardly expressed purpose are the authors who attain success.

I don’t do any of that stuff and I never have. I write when I feel like it, I work on what clamors for my attention in that hour, and I write because I love to write, not because a deadline looms. Maybe I would get ten times more done, or write better quality prose, or sell more books if I were comfortable with more structure–it’s possible–but it’s highly improbable.

I thrive on unstructured time, on heeding an intuitive sense of what task I can do best in any given hour. For another writer my approach would be the death knell of their publication dreams, nothing would ever get finished, and a sense of chaos would defeat their creativity.

That said, I do think writing first thing in the day works best for a lot of people. Your brain is still enjoying the alpha waves, and Stephen King’s “boys in the basement’ are coming off their shift. But I’ve also written terrific scenes late at night and in the middle of the day, and I’ve written schlock right out of gate. To each his or her own.

Why do your stories so often involve families and sibling relationships?

The simple answer to this one is that I have six siblings, so family relationships are part of me. I’m also number six in the queue, so I was born into a situation where I had many sibling relationships to observe as I grew up. Then too, I love my brothers and sisters, and consider each one a friend, so that’s also an organic part of what I write.

There are other reasons to build siblings into a story, though.

First, the hero and heroine need what are called reflection characters. These are the side kicks, mentors, sometimes the devil’s advocates, henchman/women, and other secondary roles who enrich the protagonists’ worlds and make their stories complicated Siblings fit well into these roles, and using siblings helps me get to know characters who may soon have books of their own.

Second, a lot of what troubles the hero or heroine probably comes from their past, and few people will know that past as well as siblings do. Think of Lady Eve, and how her sisters alone knew how hard she’d fought to recover from her fall. Only Westhaven’s brothers knew how much pressure he was under to marry. Ian MacGregor held Asher’s secrets, and was the one encouraging Asher to trust their siblings with those confidences.

Third, because the hero and heroine are carrying around old wounds, they often have to sort things out with family members before they can rise to the challenge presented by the romance. Ethan and Nicholas had to air old laundry before Ethan could move forward, same with Sara (Beckman) and Polonaise (Gabriel). The family of origin stuff will hold us back until we deal with it, and then our family ties can propel us forward into a happily ever after.

Fourth, part of what every romantic protagonist has to learn is that they are lovable, and worth being loved. It’s not enough to learn this only as it relates to their partner. That’s a life lesson, and means accepting the love and support of siblings as well.

Tons of reasons to build siblings into a romance!

When did you first sit down to write a book?

My parents gave me a manual typewriter for Christmas when I was eight years old. I wrote about forty pages of a story about cats, The Cat Council, but it didn’t have a plot that I can recall, and most of the names for the cats were the results of typos. Hissfur, for example, was what happened instead of “his father.”

My next effort to write a novel came from the master’s program I did in Conflict at Eastern Mennonite University. My advisor asked me what I wanted to do for my thesis, what I would do if I could choose any project in the whole world.

“Write a novel evaluating the American legal process as a conflict management system,” says me.

“Then do that,” he replied.

I had pages and pages of head-hopping, ranting, digressing, fun, without much of a sense of character arcs or even dramatic arcs, but I got the degree, and I could use a few elements of the book in my first published contemporary, A Single Kiss

As for writing a romance novel… I was in my late forties, a voracious reader of romance novels, but it had never occurred to me that I might write one. I was working late at the office, trying to finish up some legal motion or pleading that had be to filed at the courthouse the next day. I’d reached the point where I was so tired, progress was slow I decided to treat myself to one chapter of a romance novel I’d been saving back for a low moment. This was from one of my keeper authors, and like the last candy bar, I had held it back until I had no other ammunition in my emotional arsenal.

No author hits one out of the park every time, but this book was a disappointment. I didn’t throw it at the wall, but I certainly set it down and muttered to myself, “I could do better than that.”

I opened up a new document on my computer and wrote, “A Young Person to see you, my lord.” The book turned into Gareth and Felicity’s story, and from there flowed the entire Lonely Lords series as well as the Windhams. I had a signed publishing deal by the time I was fifty, and at age fifty-five had maybe thirty-five titles under contract. Best five years of my entire professional life!


Do you ever base your characters on real people?

That would be a qualified no. Sometimes, a real person’s inflection will catch my ear, the mischief in their smile will catch my eye Maybe they have some colorful turns of phrase that I can tweak to tuck into a scene I’m working on, but I haven’t used anybody’s direct experiences to form the basis for a major character—with one exception.

My books come from me, from my life, from my experiences. I could write about Lady Eve falling off a horse because I’ve come a cropper many times (never with the results she suffered). I could write about the horror of realizing your child is climbing a tree to within several feet of a large hornets nest because my daughter did that. I can write about courtroom experiences because I’ve sat at many a counsel table before many a judge.

So yes, to some extent there is a real live person inspiring many of my characters—me.

What do you love best about writing?


That’s not a PR answer, either. I love the struggle to find a plot that really works for the characters emerging from my imagination. I love the creation of prose that tells their tale their way. I love the follow-up detail work, buffing the words, spackling in tighter structure, sanding down the pacing. I love the unplanned twinkles, when parts of a book resonate with each other all without my planning it. I love the research, from figuring out which words are anachronistic, to digging into entire biographies to mine a single, priceless detail of the period.

I love it all, and I’m happy when I’m working on a book. When a book can also brighten a reader’s day, then I have joy to go with my happiness, and that just makes me want to write MORE.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from the dark place under the bed where nameless groaning monsters once lurked, turning every night into a battle between terror and the demands of a full bladder.

I slept with the light on until well into adulthood. I am not proud of this, but it’s indicative of some wiring I was born with that makes writing fiction easier for me than it might be for some other people: I have a busy imagination. The question “What if?” has long been my bosom companion, and the petty inconveniences of reality and logic do not bound the answers that come to me in response to “what if?”

You are glowering at your screen, perhaps, because that’s all lovely, but it’s not very helpful in terms of the question. I’ll try again. Romance is character-driven fiction, so what I’m stalking in the world of ideas, are characters who have unhealed wounds. Characters who are emotionally stuck fast, usually because they’re clinging to coping mechanisms that once served them well, or at least allowed them to survive, but are now consigning them a lonely, fearful, half-life.

To find these characters, I think about how we hurt, how we get stuck. I pay attention to the stuck people I meet, I pay attention to the times in my life when I was stuck, or when I did something REALLY stupid, because I’d confused avoiding pain with living life. I also look at when I’ve felt the most torn.

I asked my brother Dick once how to make a man really, really suffer, and his response was brilliant, “Make him choose between the competing demands of honor.” Make a hero choose between protecting his mother or his legitimate younger brother, the title’s sole heir. Make him choose between his duty as a soldier and his duty as a son, between telling the truth and protecting the innocent. Tear his heart in two. Works for any character.

If I dwell on those questions long enough, some feckless character usually come stumbling up from the imagination’s root cellar, and off we go. I get my ideas by dwelling on how we suffer, and then figuring out to make the suffering go away.