Arts feature The bodice rippers 

San Antonio Romance Authors exercise their passion in a lucrative market

Fresh from a writers' conference and flush with promising news of a book deal, they weren't expecting it. It had been a long drive from Nashville, but the 35-pound turkey didn't care; he darted into the road, smashing the windshield of the borrowed, brand-new Expedition.

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Sisters and romance novelists Delilah Devlin and Elle James have yet to live down the collision, and it earned Devlin the Sara award, an "atrocious" doll made by a grade-school class that is bestowed upon the San Antonio Romance Authors member who shares the worst news at the organization's monthly meeting. The local chapter of Romance Writers of America, SARA is dedicated to promoting romance writing. Its 79 members meet on third Wednesdays at the Cha-Cha's restaurant on Babcock Road, each ready with a few romance-novel ideas and poised to compete with tales of editorial rejection or writer's block. "Sara" is the trophy.

RWA members write 48 percent of all paperback fiction, generating more than $1 billion in sales each year, according to the group's website, rwanational.org. SARA's members are scheduled to release at least 21 books this year. Devlin contributes to that output, working 20-50 hours a week churning out 30,000-to-40,000-word books every two months. "I can pack a lot of plot, a lot of sex, a lot of fun in a shorter novel," she says.

Though Devlin has come a long way since that collision with a turkey outside Johnson City, she still writes in her spare time, diligently tapping on her laptop during the lunch hour at her project-management job and heading straight to her home office after an eight-hour workday. "I used to actually spend time with my family," Devlin jokes. "I get immersed `in a book`. It's not work. It's an obsession."

Thirteen of Devlin's books have been published since she ventured into romance-novel writing with her sister as a 2000 New Year's resolution. Devlin and James - a former IT manager who now writes full-time - decided they needed a change in their middle age. Longtime fans of romance novels, they embraced the world tucked between Fabio-adorned book covers. James, writing upstairs in one of the women's homes, would "puke `the story` out" and Devlin, editing downstairs, would "clean it up a bit." The sisters worked rapidly, wrapping up their first novel in about a month, though Devlin admits, "It was also pretty terrible."

While the sisters heaved their first bosoms together, they no longer share a byline. Devlin, who lists "a sweaty man" among her favorite tastes and smells, concentrates on the erotic-romance genre and often creates tales about creatures of the night. "There's something very sensual about a vampire feeding off a lover," says Devlin, who occasionally gets ideas for her books by lying awake at night pondering questions such as, "What sort of adventure would a brand-new vampire have when they just wake up from being dead?"

"There's something very sensual about a vampire feeding off a lover,"

- Delilah Devlin

"It all comes from dreams," she says. "I can see the opening scenes of a book like a movie reel."

James' latest release, To Kiss a Frog, is a romantic comedy. "It's easier to have your own baby," says James, who writes for Dorchester Publishing and Harlequin Intrigue. "It's not all about writing the book of my heart, it's about writing a book that will sell."

Though James moved to South Dakota in 2004, she is still in contact with SARA members, participating in a Yahoo chat group in which the authors act as editors, offering critiques and suggestions about one another's writing. But her best brainstorming still happens with her sister, says James.

SARA was formed in 1991 and welcomes published and unpublished romance authors. In addition to providing a sense of fellowship, the chapter connects writers with conventions and contests where they have the opportunity to meet editors and sign a book deal. Many SARA members live outside the San Antonio area but keep in touch via the Yahoo groups, according to Janet Kaderli, SARA's newly elected president. "If you're published, great - unpublished, great," says Kaderli. "Everyone works well together and is very supportive of each other. There is not a sense of competition among the members, but more of a sense that each member is there to learn and share about writing the best story possible."

Devlin says that struggling writers develop a special camaraderie through the meetings and chat groups, sharing their struggles with character nuances and plot pitfalls. The members also tend to share similar lifestyles. "You end up with friends that are only writers. You forget birthdays, anniversaries. They understand you drop off the face of the earth when you have a deadline."

SARA members resolve more than plots, passing along advice on how to be a mama who can write a romance novel and still have the magic of Clorox, for instance. "If you go to the library, you can't do laundry," says James, who admits she's easily distracted. "Sometimes your laundry just doesn't get done if you want to get that book done."

Katherine R. Jones, a contemporary romance author and SARA member, works from home, piling snacks and research for her books on her bed and crafting 10 pages of steamy love and action scenes a day. "I usually don't move for two to three hours," says Jones. "When I start getting stiff, that's when it's time to go put a load of laundry in."

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Jones didn't intend to become a writer, but she fell into the gig when she was bedridden in the hospital for five months. A CNN story about crooked cops inspired her to write a romance novel using the crime as the plot. She earned her first book deal with BET Books in 2003 after submitting her proposal at Romance Slam Jam. Now, Jones says, she often becomes animated as she sits at home with a laptop perched on her legs, making her characters "jump through hoops. If someone saw me from the street, they'd want to commit me."

Jones' husband supports her by making sure she has samples of her writing to give to editors when she attends writing conferences. He also provides some inspiration. "Sometimes he'll look at me and say, 'I know you're using me for research,'" she says.

Jones later signed with Kensington Books Dafina, earning the second award given at each SARA meeting: the Elda K. Angel for "best good-luck publishing story." The award, a stained-glass angel, is named for Elda K. Bradberry, a beloved SARA member who died in 1998. Devlin says the bad-news stories may be the "most fun," but the angel award ensures that members leave the meeting with the ultimate goal for romance novelists and readers alike: a happily ever after.

"`The key is` always, always a happy ending," James said. "And yummy heroes - alpha heroes."

No muscular love machines were around to help the sisters the night of the turkey accident, only a police officer who hitched up his belt and asked, "Do you have a hunting license, Ma'am?" But just like a successful book deal, the sisters wrapped up the situation and found their way back to San Antonio. And though their books are sold at local retailers and online, the women aren't about to display the excess aplomb of many romance-novel heroines. "Every time we think we are getting too big for our britches," Devlin says, "we remember the turkey."

By Heather Holmes


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