Once a woman starts writing romance novels, she doesn't tend to stop. Numerous authors have careers spanning decades, serving as mentors and inspiration to younger writers, and defining the romance genre both in response to and in defiance of trends in the outside world. Their new releases and backlist titles alike gather tremendous and loyal followings.
Publishers are happy to work with more experienced authors: they've been proven successful; they have considerable name recognition across generations; and they've had years to hone their craft. Shauna Summers, senior editor for Ballantine Bantam Dell, holds up Mary Balogh as an example: "Her sales and her writing have only gotten better with age. The kind of historical romance she writes is timeless, as we've seen with the success of the reissues of some of her books that were originally published well over 20 years ago."
Older writers have to be flexible to keep up with the genre as it grows and changes. Ann Maxwell (aka Elizabeth Lowell), whose romance career began in 1983 with several novels for Silhouette Intimate Moments, now has a body of work that includes historical romance, romantic suspense, and even mystery and science fiction. "The romance field has exploded into a wonderful array of possibilities," she says. "No more stories told from only the virginal feminine point of view. Now there are paranormal, mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction stories with a core of romance driving the narrative. My writing has evolved from a leisurely, novelistic approach to a much more dialogue-driven, suspense-oriented style."
Veteran romance author R.C. Ryan has written 11 book series. Her most recent release, Montana Glory, features a single mother. She finds that modern sensibilities open the door to a wider range of protagonists. "When I began writing in the late '70s, readers and editors wanted their heroines to play traditional roles, and of course play by the rules," she says. "Today my heroine is free to be the teacher or the school superintendent, the courageous nurse or the brilliant surgeon."
Other longtime romance authors prefer to stay with the same kinds of stories that have always delighted their readers. Virginia Henley, whose Lords of Passion is due out from Kensington's Brava imprint in December, has no interest in changing what works so well for her. "My books are the same sweeping sensual adventures as when I began," she says. "I write authentic, meticulously researched British history and believe that a good part of my success is the consistency of the quality of my stories."
Older writers face many of the same challenges that their younger colleagues do, and also have some specific concerns. Many have physical constraints on how many hours they can spend sitting in a chair and writing. As print book sales make way for those of their electronic counterparts, writers' advances are shrinking. And while some writers beyond middle age have made an easy transition to the rise of new technologies, others have found it less comfortable. Ryan remembers being shown that her 2,000-piece envelope-stuffing publicity process could be replaced with a touch of her computer mouse. "I'd reach 10 times as many readers without any of that effort, time, or money spent. I was thunderstruck."
Some authors who got a later start in the romance writing field are just hitting their stride as they come into their 50s. Annie Solomon, whose Two Lethal Lies hit the shelves in October, notes that the distractions from the nonwriting side of life may change but never disappear: "We no longer have the pressure of children and their various needs, wants, and activities. But there are pressures at the other end of the spectrum that can be equally draining. Aging parents and the passing of friends, spouses, and close relatives are all events that can keep our focus off the writing."
These authors may have progressed with the decades, but no matter the age of the writers or the readers, the heroes and heroines of romance remain young forever. Solomon quips, "Romance is an escape for me—both the writing and the reading—so I don't want too much reality in my books."
Melanie Thompson, who has just published her debut novel with Ravenous Romance, has found a sensible solution to writing authentic stories about younger characters: bring in a consultant. "To solve the challenge of keeping up with technology, slang, and young trends when writing contemporary pieces, I started writing with my daughter, who is in her 30s. Together we are able to produce a more hip and salable product." But experienced writers have plenty to give back to their younger colleagues, as Henley observes: "I belong to a chapter of the Romance Writers of America, and I do feel like a mentor to our younger members. Younger writers are far more computer-savvy than I am, but I have years of experience dealing with editors, copyeditors, agents, and publishers, and I am always willing to share it."