How do authors know when romance is working in a novel? Gayle Forman answered that question bluntly: “When I want to have sex with my male character more than my husband,” quipped the author of bestselling novels If I Stay and Where She Went.

Well, this just about summed up the tone of the YA or Bust! 2012 Group Tour – at least at last week’s stop at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. Calif. This West Coast book tour features Penguin authors Forman, Nina LaCour, Stephanie Perkins, and – in the Bay Area – Jess Rothenberg. The visit to Kepler’s was full of frank answers – and some racy talk. In fact, the night opened with moderator Heidi Kling, author of SEA, asking panelists to read “sexy, swoony and sweet romantic scenes” from their books.

Oh sure, there were other topics on the table, too, such as weird writing rituals and – more seriously – the writing process. But it was clear from all the laughter going on, that what these authors are really into is connecting with their audiences – and each other. “It’s pretty rare that authors of contemporary young adult fiction get to go out on the road,” Perkins later told PW. “Usually, it’s the people writing the paranormals [or] the dystopians. So we’re really excited for this opportunity.”

They were certainly willing to spill some secrets: when it comes to describing their writing quirks, Perkins, author of Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door, admitted obsessively organizing files on her desktop -- and putting on a different lotion for each book, saying that a distinct scent helps her evoke tone (for Anna, for example, Perkins wore lychee rose). The Catastrophic History of You and Me’s Rothenberg, on the other hand, says she often takes walks, talking out loud to herself – something she knows makes her look a little strange. Her new trick? Bringing along her mobile. “I pretend I am on the phone,” she told the audience.

And speaking of mobiles, there was a brief hushed moment when Forman pulled hers out to play Mojave 3’s “Bluebird of Happiness,” a moody song she says encapsulated her book Where She Went, about a rock star reconnecting for one night with his former girlfriend, who broke up with him after a devastating accident (its haunting lyrics say, “Gotta find a way to get home strong/ gotta find a way back home.”)

Of course, much of the night’s focus was on writing and the writing process. LaCour said she had no idea how she was going to wrap up her book The Disenchantments, while Rothenberg said she actually started with the end. But they shared similar methods for getting unstuck, like cooking or taking a shower (Forman says she even knows one author who runs a bath, then sits underwater, breathing through a snorkel, waiting for inspiration to surface).

The fun night wrapped up with a “lightning round” of quick questions from the audience, such as what book do they wish they had written. Perkins nailed that one: Harry Potter, of course. And, she said, “You may all come to my castle in Scotland.”

From Menlo Park, the tour continued north to Petaluma, where the laughter and hijinks continued. At one point, Rothenberg said, Forman even ate Swedish Fish from Perkins’s bright red hair. The bonding continued, too. “It was great learning firsthand that I’m not the only one with writing quirks,” Rothenberg told PW in an email. “Between Steph’s OCD and Gayle’s occasionally wanting to sleep with her characters, my long walks spent muttering to myself about plot no longer seem so crazy!”