The old adage never judge a book by its cover doesn’t apply in the world of romantic fiction. Take the sultry cover of Kensington Publishing’s newly released compilation, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, which includes three novellas, one from USA Today best-selling author Lorraine Heath, one from award-winning romance writer Georgina Gentry and another from Missoula’s own Teresa Bodwell. On the cover, just above the right pectoral muscle of a hunky, half-naked cowboy, is the subtitle: Saddle up, ladies. Combined with the photo, it’s a not-so-subtle hint to readers that this is a steamy read, one with a touch of eroticism, and clearly set in the Wild West.
“There are a lot of sort of code words,” says Kensington editor Hilary Sares. “Our women readers are very sensitive to things like design and the words that are used. We’ll never come right out and say This is so hot it will melt your sheets, but the title, cover copy and artwork are specifically used to convey the heat of the book.”
Where the same adage—never judge a book by its cover—may still apply, however, is with the authors of such romantic fiction. During an interview on a recent Friday morning, Teresa Bodwell is conservatively dressed in a striped shirt and matching pants, her gray hair cut short and neatly parted. She wears eyeglasses, has an easy, kind smile and admits she’s shy when meeting people for the first time. Judging by general stereotypes, Bodwell looks like a Girl Scout troop leader, a lawyer, a mother of three, maybe even a former clarinet player for a traveling U.S. Army band. Sure enough, she is all of those things. But a romance author?
“It’s amazing the backgrounds of people I’ve met who do this,” she says. “Doctors, lots of lawyers, dentists, people who have PhDs in English literature or are professors—there probably isn’t a profession that you can think of that doesn’t have a published or aspiring romance author.”
How Bodwell ended up writing in the romance genre—specifically, historical romance set in the West—is a combination of dumb luck and a search for happy endings. Now that she’s got her foot in the door, she’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Western Montana’s best-known, best-selling romance novelist, Rock Creek’s Kat Martin, and make it a full-time pursuit. Within the past 15 months, two of Bodwell’s novels have been published; Our Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys is just hitting bookstores; and proposals for her next books are under consideration. What’s the inspiration behind a romance author’s work? And how do you balance the sexed-up fantastical content with real-world responsibilities?
In Bodwell’s case, it’s not a matter of starting at the beginning, but of understanding the end.
As usual, she hid her misery behind pleasant conversation. ‘Seems almost like midday, but it’s the moon reflecting off the new snow.’ She was proud of the way she’d managed to sound almost normal. ‘It’s not like rain that wakes you when it falls. Snow comes in silence. It’s a surprise.’ Like love.
—from Bodwell’s novella, “Moonlight Whispers”
The Romance Writers of America—right there on its website—defines a romance novel as having two basic elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Up until a few years ago the definition included wording about “happily ever after.” The organization changed that wording, Bodwell says, because not all stories end in engagement and marriage anymore; some simply end with the hero and heroine “fulfilled,” or less formally partnered up.
Not Bodwell’s stories—her protagonists always end up tying the knot or planning to. For her, writing about romance is all about controlling the happily ever after.
Off and on for the last 10 years, Bodwell has worked as a supervising attorney in the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) legal clinic. The clinic provides a variety of legal services to students at the University, including consultation and representation in everything from relatively mundane misdemeanor DUIs to more emotionally-charged situations including child custody cases and divorce. It was the latter that had the most emotional impact on Bodwell.
“When I was a [practicing] lawyer and would see all of these negative things—I saw a lot of divorces—you know happily ever after doesn’t happen,” says Bodwell. “It’s my feeling you can’t always have the sense that everything’s going to work out in real life, so it’s nice to have that in the story. It’s a big boost for a lot of people, especially women. It’s an appeal for a lot of women who are struggling with different things in their lives.”
Six years ago, Bodwell and one of her daughters watched Drew Barrymore’s romantic fairy tale Ever After: A Cinderella Story, and as a gift for her daughter Bodwell decided to write an epilogue to the movie. Once she started writing, the epilogue snowballed into a love story more than 180 pages long. A friend who read the creative exercise suggested Bodwell try romance novels, but the lawyer was completely ignorant about the genre.
“I had never read anything like that before,” she remembers.
Bodwell did research at a local bookstore and ended up buying a handful of examples from different romantic fiction sub-genres. Historical romance appealed to her most and she decided it was something she could pursue. Still, when she started work on her first novel, Loving Mercy, her intention was to write it as a straight Western with a strong female heroine, and not specifically as a romance.
“Then Thad and Mercy fell in love,” she says about the book’s two leading characters, “and I realized this was going to be a romance no matter what I did. That’s when I joined the Romance Writers of America.”
The national organization—which boasts more than 9,500 members in 144 chapters across the country—is an advocate for established and aspiring romance writers. Bodwell joined and began attending regional conferences, where contests are often held in search of new authors. At the Victoria Island, British Columbia, meeting in March 2004, Bodwell entered a sample of Loving Mercy and was named a finalist. During the awards ceremony, the judge of the competition—Kensington’s Sares—asked to speak with all the winners.
“It just so happened I had the spots available in our schedule, and I liked the work a lot,” says Sares, who offered all of them contracts. “There are certain writing pockets where we always find our best work, and the Northwest just seems to be one of them.”
Bodwell was shocked. She signed a two-book contract with Kensington, which resulted in the publication of more than 53,000 copies of Loving Mercy in January 2005. Her follow-up, Loving Miranda, which she wrote in six months, was released in October. For each book Bodwell received a modest advance toward her share of royalties. Sares, speaking generally, says first-time authors often receive advances under $10,000, and sometimes under $5,000, for their first contract.
“Obviously, an author who sells well is in position to negotiate better deals, but it takes a while,” Sares says. “Typically, it takes three to five years, on average, for a writer to gain traction and become familiar to readers and reviewers.”
Bodwell is realistic about how long it will take her to establish herself in the romance market, but when she was asked to contribute to My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, alongside established sellers like Gentry and Heath, she took it as a sign that her writing career could take off. To accommodate her newfound success, last year Bodwell stopped working at the ASUM legal clinic and started grading papers for an online law school, Concord University. The flexible schedule allows her more time to focus on her writing.
“I’m writing more seriously now,” she says. “It can be a lot more enjoyable to work on something like this, something fun, than dealing with the frustrations of the legal world.”
In the last line of the biography she posted on her extensive personal website (tbodwell.com), Bodwell writes: “That’s why the rest of my life is devoted to making HAPPY ENDINGS GUARANTEED.”
‘Kiss me there, now!’ he demanded. She dropped to her knees and kissed him as she continued to stroke him with her fingers. He groaned, ‘Take me in your mouth.’ She looked up at him, surprised. She took the gleam of victory in his eyes as a challenge and opened her mouth, tasting the tip. It felt smooth against her tongue. Warm, salty.
—from “Moonlight Whispers”
Hilary Sares drops her voice an octave, like she’s delivering gossip at a cocktail party, and pretty much nails it on the head: “You have no idea what grandma’s been up to, do you?
“It’s okay,” she adds, “a lot of people don’t understand how the romance industry has changed, unless they’re fans.”
Sares is referring to sex. Romantic fiction used to have a Harlequin-induced reputation as sweet stories in which everything stopped at the bedroom door. In the late ’70s, “bodice ripper” titles emerged with scathingly sexual tales that often included over-the-top details. Today’s sex scenes have matured, using fewer euphemisms and more specific descriptions, and evolved to the point where they’re no longer the exception in romantic fiction, but more often the rule.
“It’s always been there, but I think a lot of it has to do with how it’s talked about,” says Nicole Kennedy, public relations manager for the Romance Writers of America. “The level of steaminess has broadened and diversified. There’s a lot more opportunity for steaminess…Romance fiction follows a lot of the trends of American culture, and I think we’re seeing more of today’s woman in these books, even in the historical sub-genre.”
Bodwell is comfortable talking about the sexual element of her work, even if her husband and three children—a son in college, a daughter who recently graduated high school and another daughter still in high school—might prefer she didn’t.
“My son wouldn’t go near them,” says Bodwell, who calls her books “sensual” and admits the novella is “hotter” than her two novels. “My daughters both wanted to read them, but neither could get past the love scenes. I think it was just a little too weird to think of Mom writing that kind of stuff.”
Her youngest daughter came closest to finishing a book, but she stopped midway through Loving Mercy when the story began leaning toward a love scene—Mercy, the heroine, was checking out Thad’s ass as he leaned over a fire.
“I think on one level they find it kind of cool,” says Bodwell about her kids’ impressions. “But all kids have trouble with the concept [of their parents being intimate]. We joke that our three children came from the cabbage patch because this idea that mom and dad did anything other than having hands touch is something they don’t like to think about. That’s very natural for kids. So, when I’m writing about it, it’s almost as if I know how this was done and they think, how could that be?”
Bodwell’s husband, a professor at UM’s law school, has read all of her writing—he actually helped her with some poker playing content in Loving Mercy—but they don’t talk about the sex. He’s never commented on the love scenes, she says, and Bodwell’s never asked.
“I was very nervous the first time I wrote [a love scene], but have become more comfortable with it now,” she says. “Another author told me that she actually writes the love scenes first because it helps her get to know the characters. I haven’t quite gone there, but I have found that sometimes if I’m stuck in a story that writing a love scene does help you with characters…[For example], Luke is a lot more expressive in the love scenes than he ever is anywhere else within [“Moonlight Whispers”]. He’s the strong, silent type, yet he’s very dynamic as a lover and I think that helps reveal how he really is.”
Potentially more awkward than discussing the sexual content at home is addressing it within Bodwell’s extensive work with the Girl Scouts. A lifelong member, she’s led troops for both of her daughters and become a nationally certified trainer for the organization. She’s open about her involvement—“Any story about me has to start with this—my blood runs Girl Scout green,” starts her bio—and donates a portion of her book sales to the organization; during her two local signings for Loving Mercy and Loving Miranda at Waldenbooks last year, one dollar of each book sold was donated to the Girl Scouts.
“I’ve never actually had the conversation with them, other than asking if I could use the name for the book signings. And with that, they were very supportive,” she says. “I thought about it a lot in terms of being a role model. I think the big thing I feel is that most modern romances in the last 15 years or so, the emphasis is on having a strong heroine who’s not dependent on a knight in shining armor to rescue her. That’s important and a good model for girls.”
He set her back on her feet, and she stood watching him as he opened his buttons and pulled his pants and underpants down. His erection came out straight. When he pressed it against her belly she felt it hard and hot. Her fear was quickly replaced by curiosity.
—from “Moonlight Whispers”
Romantic fiction’s inclusion of more broadly explicit sexual content is one element that’s helping the industry register an ever-increasing impact at the cash register and expanding its demographics. According to the Romance Writers of America, romance novels accounted for $1.2 billion in sales in 2004 (the most current data available) and almost 55 percent of all popular mass-market fiction sold. At least 2,285 romance titles were released that year and the second-largest reading audience, just behind the South, could be found in Montana’s own Western region. And all of these numbers show a steady rise from previous data.
“Romance publishing supports all publishing. We pretty much pay the bills,” says Sares, who’s used to defending her trade. “However, historically speaking, we don’t get much respect. More recently, that’s not the case.”
Within the last 10 years, publishers have worked to diversify or, as Sares says, “hybridize” the genre. Instead of just offering sweet love stories, an emphasis has been placed on stronger heroines, sexier plot lines and supplying narratives within a number of specific sub-genres: contemporary, historical, inspirational (religious), regency (set in early-1800s England), suspense, time-travel and the current sales front-runner, paranormal. The result of these changes is a financial boon—longtime diehards being joined every year by more and more younger readers.
“It’s hard to call it just romance anymore,” says Sares, “[It’s not] those dopey books you maybe picked up at the college laundromat with a chewed-up cover and a really built guy bending a poor woman over backwards. The industry has really changed.”
Locally, The Book Exchange carries as much romantic fiction as any other genre. Owner and manager Rebecca Haddad says the store stocks 6,000 romance titles, nearly 28 percent of her entire mass-market section. And while the typical customer who buys or trades romantic fiction is female, Haddad has noticed an influx of male readers.
“It’s definitely more female than male, but as the publishers force more books into areas of suspense and action and paranormal, we’ve actually seen more men,” Haddad says.
In fact, Romance Writers of America counts men as the genre’s fastest-rising demographic. In 2002, only 7 percent of romance readers were male; in 2004 that jumped to 22 percent.
“I had one encounter with a male reader, so I know they’re out there,” says Bodwell. “He wrote me an e-mail to tell me that he was in a Wal-Mart and saw an attractive woman reading my book. So he picked it up and…nothing happened with the woman, but he told me he bought my book anyway. And he said he liked it. He called it a cute story. From a guy, that’s a compliment.”
She wanted to blame him for using her. For giving her desires she’d never guessed were possible, then refusing to satisfy her needs. Logic told her the blame was entirely hers, but that didn’t keep her from being angry.
—from “Moonlight Whispers”
The more you read romance novels, the harder they are to put down. They’re guilty pleasures; like Avril Lavigne and Runts candy. That’s why the genre’s mass-market paperbacks are sold for less than $10—Bodwell’s debut retailed for just $3.99—and placed in grocery checkout aisles. They’re impulse buys.
Bodwell’s writing rewards the impulse. She and her editor describe her style as spare but vivid. The stories move quickly, without flowery details, and demonstrate a knowledge of the historical West without overly idealizing it. For every shootout or chase scene, there’s an attempted rape. For every internal monologue oozing lust and love, there’s brisk dialogue that speaks to the time.
“It’s my job,” she says, “to write the stories well enough that they hold a reader’s interest as well as [the cover model] does.”
For all the success Bodwell’s achieved thus far, she’s still at the infant stages of the business. By comparison, Kat Martin is a full-time local romance author who has been in the business since 1985, with more than 10 million copies of her work in print. A New York Times best seller, Martin is well-established in both the historical and suspense sub-genres. Bodwell is still waiting for her second contract.
“Western historical romances have dropped off, but she hit the wave at exactly the right time,” says Sares, speaking frankly about Bodwell’s prospects for another contract with Kensington. “I have proposals from her on my desk and depending on how they fit with the slots we have open, we’ll have to see. But she’s good enough that I’ll always have her in mind.”
Bodwell’s proposals run the gamut: She’s proposed a historical sequel to “Moonlight Whispers” that spins off one of the novella’s secondary characters. She’s also proposed a sexy contemporary with the working title Hot Lips, which involves a jazz trombone player (pulling from her experience playing in the Army band in the mid-’70s). And she’s been working on a third idea about a paranormal romance involving ghosts and spirits in Hawaii.
“It’s a tough business,” she says. “Unless you sell incredibly well, it’s a matter of timing and what the publishers are looking for at that particular time. I’m confident, hopeful, [the next contract] will come through, but you never know.”
In the meantime, Bodwell is pushing My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys with book signings—her most recent was at the Hasting’s in Great Falls, with her name on the store’s marquee—and shopping for an agent. Also, knowing that an offer could come through at any time, she continues to write every day.
“One of the things I’ve learned is the ability to let go and not hold back at the emotional level,” she says about her approach now. “I realize the reason people enjoy books about people is because we can relate to their emotions…The key is capturing those human emotions and the only way I know to do that is to put myself out there. It’s hard because most writers are observers, but I’m learning you have to—in many ways, like an actor—be the character. You have to put yourself into the character.”
That way, her characters’ happy endings can be Bodwell’s as well.