Guys. Guys. Guess what?! Last month, I got to have lunch with my very favorite romance writer!
Elizabeth Hoyt writes intelligent, funny, emotional, and hot historical romances that top the New York Times bestseller list, and you might win one of them just by commenting on this post! She also writes contemporary romance under another nom de plume, Julia Harper. I met her at a Thai restaurant in Urbana, IL. I was giddy and geeky, she was gracious and funny, and it was great.
Growing up in the United States and the U.K., Ms. Hoyt read the stories of Arthur Ransome (“It’s all about these kids who have no parental supervision”), Anne McCaffrey, and a particular favorite, the Poldark novels by Winston Graham, also made into a Masterpiece Theatre series. (“It’s terribly soap-opera-y”¦and I was too young to be into this, there was sex in it, there was a guy with a foot fetish. I remember giving a book report on the first book in sixth grade.”)
She started reading romance as a preteen, beginning with Wolf and the Dove by Katherine Woodiwiss, a friend of her mother’s (!). We talked about how she got started writing romances of her own.
EH: I started [writing it] when I was an at-home mom, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in life. At 35, my youngest went to kindergarten, and I’d been thinking about it off and on for years. Everything else I was interested in would take degrees.
BD: You had a degree in history?
EH: Anthropology, which was useless. And I was looking at other things where I’d have to go back and get a Masters or a PhD. So I told my husband I wanted to write. And fortunately he has a PhD, and I worked, and I would come home and he would tell me about all the soap operas he’d been watching when he was supposed to be working on his dissertation – so he’s always been very supportive. But I didn’t tell my parents anything. Because if you tell somebody you’re going to write a book, it sounds kind of like, “I’m going to go become a brain surgeon now.”
EH: Until you actually do it, you know. So a year or two later I went to–the first RWA [Romance Writers of America] conference I went to was in Denver, and I drove out there by myself when the kids were still little. My dad assumed that I was having a midlife crisis and leaving my husband. I think at that point I told my mother. She said, “You have to tell dad. Because dad thinks you are leaving him.” Why else would I drive out to Denver by myself?
BD: Right. There is no other possible reason.
BD: So your first book, The Raven Prince. How did you wind up selling that? Was it the result of a pitch at the RWA, or was it just query letters to agents?
EH: I got an agent. This was when–what genre do you do? You write romance, right?
BD: Mm-hmm. I’ve done one historical, one paranormal, I have another historical I’m going to shop around, and I’m interested in another contemporary paranormal project.
EH: Yeah, so you’re all over. Well, first of all, I never did a pitch. People say you have to pitch, and that’s ridiculous. We’re writers. If I were an actress, I’d be an actress, you know. Not to say pitching is bad, but it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. I don’t want to get that stressed out.
BD: I have done it, but it’s terrifying.
BD: And then I got one agent who would never talk to me. So it wasn’t really that useful.
EH: All those things they talk about, like an elevator pitch…before I met my agent, I don’t think I had ever met an agent. They hide out at conferences.
Anyway, at the time, historicals were “dead,” and now they’re “dead” again. It’s cyclical. Write what you want to write, because it comes back again. But I needed an agent, so I made a spreadsheet, queried my top ten. They all rejected me. Every time I got a letter back, I’d send another out. Finally I got the email back and she wanted to look at the full [manuscript], and she was interested. So I got her, but it was another year and a half before I actually sold that book. It was my first book, and by this time I’d figured out historicals were “dead.” We were rejected by every major house, until the very last place. By that time I’d started writing contemporaries, because I figured I was going to write something.
BD: Under another pseudonym.
EH: Yeah. So then I had four manuscripts…You just keep on writing.
We talked about some of my favorite aspects of Ms. Hoyt’s writing, and about misconceptions regarding the genre.
EH: Thief of Shadows is a little out there. People who talk about historicals being all the same haven’t read my books, at least.
BD: Thief of Shadows might be my very favorite”¦definitely one of those where I went, “God, I’ll never write anything that good.”And then I was like, “Yes I will!” (laughter)
It is different. I’m going to ask you more about that, about breaking conventions. We were talking about Katherine Woodiwiss–in those older romances, and sometimes still, like in, ugh, 50 Shades of Grey, you have this heroine who’s virginal and a “good girl,” who barely knows she has a body, let alone any urges. A lot of your heroines are up front about liking sex. Do other readers appreciate that as much as I do?
EH: I hope so. Once in a while I get an email from someone who doesn’t like swear words, or whatever. Or explicit sex scenes. I had one that said Georgette Heyer would be rolling over in her grave.
BD: Oh for heaven’s sake.
EH: I personally get kind of bored of virginal heroines. Also, because my daughters are seventeen and twenty-one, it’s creepy. Which is not to say I’ve never had virginal heroines before.
BD: Also, the first book I read by you was Wicked Intentions. I just thought it was so great, and a couple of things surprised me. I didn’t think the hero was–he was really hot, but he didn’t have movie star, typical good looks?
EH: I don’t think any of my heroes do.
BD: They usually don’t. And I wondered if any editor has ever had a problem with that.
EH: Well, with Raven Prince, I think it just didn’t get picked up at first because historicals were dead. Several people told me, I really wanted to buy it, but I couldn’t because of sales. But a lot of readers seem to enjoy The Raven Prince because he’s sexy but he’s not really good-looking. I have had some good-looking heroes, but then you almost need to find something else interesting about them”¦For new writers, it can be such a placeholder for why the characters are falling in love. He’s falling in love with you because you’ve got blue eyes? It’s shallow. Who wants to read about that?
BD: I just found your stories really refreshing. And you know, I didn’t read romance until I was, I guess, in my late 30s”¦before that I was kind of a literary snob, I guess”¦and as a pimply teenager, I guess I just thought that they were stories about perfect-looking people and I wouldn’t be able to relate.
EH: And there’s the whole feminist thing, too. Like if you’re feminist there’s no way you can write or read about romance, because it’s all about women not being whole without a man. Which is not really what it is.
BD: Right, right. And you consider yourself a feminist–
EH: Yeah. I do. And I remember being a teenager and being ashamed of reading this, and then I’d think, wait a minute, I’m a feminist, my mind has not been brainwashed.
We talked a lot about writing habits. I knew from her blog that Ms. Hoyt writes pretty much every day, mostly at cafes. I hadn’t known that she and fellow famous author Jade Lee hang out and write together. So cool! I wondered about whether she outlines her stories before she writes them.
EH: You’ve probably already heard this, that it doesn’t get easier, it actually gets harder to write. When someone–I think it was Christina Dodd who I heard say that, and I thought, Oh, shit. That’s just not fair. So”¦sometimes I outline, sometimes it’s down to the wire and I just need to write the damn thing.
EH: Right now I’m working on a contemporary, and I’ve outlined the whole thing, because my contemporaries are more plot-driven. A lot of things are happening, a lot of characters.
BD: I was curious, when you first started writing, what was a big mistake or a big thing that you had to correct in your work? If there were any?
EH: “¦When I first first started, I think when I went to that Denver conference, a light bulb went off in my head, like, Ohh, I need to start in the middle of the action. The scene I had started with was the heroine and her best friend sitting there bantering, and nothing much was happening. So after that I wrote the first scene. And that’s a very common beginning writer’s mistake. I don’t judge contests any more, but when I used to, you could almost pinpoint, three chapters in: there’s where you should have started the story. “¦ I always tell people, that’s not wasted. That’s your character study. “¦The Raven Prince also had a lovely prologue that was terribly sad about him burying his entire family.
BD: Oh my gosh. So sad!”¦See, I’m the jerk reader who never reads prologues.
EH: Nobody reads prologues.
BD: Some people like them”¦
EH: No, they really don’t.
I asked about nice things and dumb things people had said about her writing.
EH: Dumb is easier than nice. I tweeted recently that I was at Starbucks writing, and someone responded: Oh, it’s wonderful that you’ve got free time!
EH: I looked at her profile, and she has small children, so to her it probably seems like free time. But yeah, I’m at Starbucks, but that’s working time. If it were free time, I’d be in my garden or reading a book. I think that’s true for all writers, though. People don’t realize this is actually your job.
…For nice”¦I was at a signing once and this woman came up–very elegant, perfect makeup, self-possessed–and she was so excited she couldn’t speak. And I had a letter from a reader whose husband was in Iraq, and she said that she read the books with her husband–I don’t know if it was a marital aid, but–
BD: Don’t you feel proud when it is?
EH: I always feel a little skeeved out, actually.
BD: Oh, I feel so proud! I’m like yay, it worked!
EH: Well, this woman told me she had my latest book, but she hadn’t read it yet, because she was waiting for him to come home and read it.
BD: Ohhh, that’s really nice. That’s lovely.
EH: There have been lots of readers dealing with some illness who say it takes them away. I enjoyed one from a woman who had gone back to school. She had three children, and she was going into nursing, and working a lot, and she walked into a pharmacy looking for something to take her mind off things. She happened to get one of my books and she wrote me to tell me how wonderful it was, and uplifting. “¦You don’t always remember the nice ones, though, you always remember the worst ones.
BD: Someone at a party told me that he’d thought of taking three weeks to bang out a romance novel and then get it published. I should have said, Why don’t you just go do that? Tell me how it goes.
EH: Someone on Twitter told me something similar, and I said, tell them it really shouldn’t take three weeks. It should only take a weekend. And also, you should have it sold in a month or so.
Naturally, I wanted to know what Ms. Hoyt had learned from writing lots of books.
EH: With the business, I think it cannot be said enough that it’s not talent, it’s numbers. I know of many people who are very, very talented who have been dropped”¦I always think of us having a core of iron. You need to be able to believe in yourself and your talent, that you can do this, because there’s nobody else who’s going to. You may have an agent, but they might drop you. You may have friends, but they might say unencouraging things”¦it’s got to be you.
The sixth book of Ms. Hoyt’s current Maiden Lane series, Duke of Midnight, comes out this fall. She was kind enough to send me an advance copy, and ohmygosh, it is fantastic.
Today we’re giving away The Raven Prince, the first of her Prince trilogy; To Taste Temptation, the first of the Four Soldiers trilogy; and Wicked Intentions, the beginning of the Maiden Lane series. Good luck!