- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Romance novelist Donna Kauffman attributes the start of her literary career to hormones those of the maternal variety, mind you.
The Sterling, Va., resident began writing romantic yarns while she was pregnant with her first child.
"It was very hot… . it was a third-trimester hallucination," Ms. Kauffman explains.
She tucked that tale away, unfinished, only to find it a year or so later when she was pregnant with her second child. Though the text needed work, it was good enough to persuade her to keep going.
Seventeen novels later, Ms. Kauffman's imagination remains pregnant with possibilities.
She will share some industry secrets with fledgling novelists this week when the Romance Writers of America (RWA) gathers for its 20th annual convention tomorrow through Saturday.
The event, dubbed "Life, Love and the Pursuit of a Happy Ending," will feature more than 1,700 published and aspiring romance novelists, literary agents and publishing executives.
Most of the workshops will be exclusively for writers who belong to the 8,400-member RWA, but tomorrow's book sale and autograph session will be open to the public. It will feature 450 romance authors, including such heavy hitters as Nora Roberts and Catherine Coulter. All money generated by book sales will go toward literacy efforts, split evenly among Washington charities and others nationwide.
By the Houston-based group's definition, a romance novel must have a love story with an "emotionally satisfying" denouement.
To hear Ms. Kauffman tell it, that "happily ever after" has little to do with what the Dixie Chicks dubbed "mattress dancin'."
"People think they're sex books," she says flatly. "Sex is definitely a part of it. Intimacy is one of the defining moments of a relationship. But it isn't the focal point of the story. It's not thrown in for titillation value."
Wearing a heart-shaped locket, the happily married Ms. Kauffman, 40, has long curls and expressive eyes and looks more like a soccer mom than a novelist.
In the beginning, she would write her novels from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. because her family demanded her attention during the day. Today, with her children a bit older, she has switched to a more businesslike schedule.
"I write until the [school] bus pulls up. Then, I'm Mom," she says. "That's the way it should be."
Ms. Kauffman debunks misconceptions of her field as easily as she conjugates verbs. Damsels in distress, for example, need not apply when she casts for new heroines.
"We put women in situations where they can be empowered," says Ms. Kauffman, whose books have been translated into 12 languages. "It's not about being rescued. The whole point is to rescue yourself."
The determined author did just that when she decided to pursue writing professionally. She signed up for local writing classes, networked with RWA members and asked as many questions as she could of those in the industry. She had no prior writing training.
"You either discover you're a storyteller, or you're not. It's a very daunting task," she says.
Daunting, too, is the prospect of making a living this way. Charis McEachern, communications manager for the Romance Writers of America, says a cash advance on a given novel can range from $8,000 to $20,000, with royalties at 8 percent of sales. Ms. McEachern adds that though such top writers as Nora Roberts can make $1 million a year, most of the group's members write because they love to, not because it's a lucrative field.
Ms. Kauffman herself will not specify what she makes in part, she says, because earnings vary wildly from book to book. An author who has begun to make a name might bring in $20,000 for a given book, Ms. Kauffman says and if blessed by "buzz," that writer could earn as much as $500,000 on the next book.
Ms. Kauffman is no stranger to daunting tasks. Years earlier, she chose another grueling path that prepared her for the hard knocks of the literary life.
In the mid-80s, she was working as a hairdresser when she befriended a woman competing for the Tour De France bicycle race. Their friendship led Ms. Kauffman to the gym and then into competitive bodybuilding.
"It required unbelievable discipline," she says. "I wasn't genetically gifted to be a bodybuilder."
The judges of the Ms. Piedmont North Carolina contest in 1987 felt differently.
"I stood on stage in a bikini and won" the heavyweight and overall titles, she says with a laugh. "It was a personal triumph."
She competed in several other contests from Pennsylvania to Richmond but retired when she started "building a new little body" her first child.
"What I learned from that is a big reason why I got published," she says of the discipline forged by pumping iron. "Everything else was cake."
Romance author Carole Bellacera of Manassas, Va., flexed a similar sense of discipline to get her first novel published.
"The most important thing, other than talent, is perseverance. Don't give up," says Ms. Bellacera, 47, whose agent needed 10 months to pair up "Border Crossings" with a publisher.
Being a part of RWA "helped me learn about the business. I was totally naive about writing," says Ms. Bellacera, whose second book, "Spotlight," arrived on bookstore shelves this month.
The only thing it hasn't taught her is how to avoid brusque comments from strangers.
"A lot of people ask me, 'How do you do your homework?' " she says, a question accompanied by a lecherous wink. "I've been married to the same man for 25 years… . it's kind of insulting in a way. It all comes down to imagination."
Ms. Bellacera met her husband, Frank, while they were both stationed in Greece in the Air Force. She was a medical technician at the time and had to administer a flu shot to her future husband. They even married in Greece, and their marriage certificate is written entirely in Greek.
Mr. Bellacera now works as a computer programmer in Oakton, Va.
Ms. Kauffman wrote her own love story while researching an improbable plot line she hoped to use in a novel. She needed information on how a prison break might occur, so she turned to the Internet for help. She contacted Mark Jean, an officer who transferred prisoners for a living, via e-mail.
Though the story idea didn't pan out, the two kept swapping e-mails whenever Ms. Kauffman needed advice on a police-related matter. They eventually met over a casual lunch when he came into town on business, and a romance blossomed.
Today, 2nd Lt. Jean serves as training coordinator for the sheriff's office of the Police Academy in Chantilly, Va.
Their unconventional meeting, and his ability to supply her with arcane police information, has led to more than a few amusing anecdotes.
One time at a party, someone approached Lt. Jean with the same question Ms. Bellacera gets asked all too often.
The umpteenth person asked him, "I bet you love doing research for her." Lt. Jean responded, "Yes, I taught her 12 different ways to kill someone," Ms. Kauffman recalls.
Snappy retorts aside, Ms. Kauffman doesn't worry about running out of romantic stories to tell. Nor should her fellow writers.
"Go to the first 100 couples that you meet, and ask them how they met and fell in love. You'll never hear the same story twice," she says.

WHAT: "Readers for Life" literacy autographing session and book sale
WHERE: The Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park
WHEN: 5:30 to 8 p.m. tomorrow
PHONE: 202/775-0800

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