Romancing the Rock: 18 Newfoundland novelists cash in on steamy stories

Who knew how many writers from Newfoundland and Labrador are turning out dozens of romance novels, on paper and online, and how well the steamy stories are selling?

'You get to fall in love again and again,' say husband and wife who write together

Romancing the Rock is a support group for Newfoundland writers who say they aren't always taken seriously by other authors, even though they sell a lot of books. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Who knew how many writers from Newfoundland and Labrador are turning out dozens of romance novels, on paper and online, and how well the steamy stories are selling?

A group of 18 local writers have come together to call themselves Romancing the Rock, and between them they have published dozens of novels that have sold more than a million copies.

"We get to fall in love again, over and over, through different characters, as we write the stories together," said Joshua Keep, who writes with his wife Michelle Keep under the pen name Alexis Abbott.

Joshua and Michelle Keep write together under the name Alexis Abbott, and sold 400-thousand copies of their books last year. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The duo, married for 15 years, has about three dozen novels, more than 150 short stories and some novellas.

Their real romance began online, and continued in creative writing classes. "From the very first moment, our communication was all written," said Joshua.

​"We were always writing stories to please each other ... and then we started publishing stories to please other people, too," said Michelle, who quit her job with an oil and gas company in 2014 so the pair can write full time. 

"It paid off because last year we sold 400,000 copies," said Joshua. "We were Number 2 in the erotica category behind E.L. James [author of 50 Shades of Grey] for a brief period."

He does the plots, she does the business side and promotion. They self-publish, and about 75 per cent of their work is purchased as e-books.

Writing together requires a certain level of closeness. The two hold hands, and said they haven't spent a night apart since 2002. 

Secret passion

Not everyone is so open about their passion for romance.

Denise Fowler, by day a restaurant owner and real estate agent, wrote her first book in secret, getting up at 4 a.m. to complete the two-part novel, due out Feb. 14.

When she finally told her husband, he "tore away the safety blanket," she said. "He went on Facebook and told everyone … he was extremely proud."

Fowler, who writes as Katherine King, has now hired someone to run her business so she can spend more time writing.

Denise Fowler has hired someone to run her restaurant, Magnum & Stein, while she concentrates on writing romance. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

She said joining Romancing the Rock has given her the confidence she needs, something that was missing in other writer's groups where there is a "stigma about romance writers."

Stigma or not, the writers who belong to Romancing the Rock say their work appeals to readers.

"Collectively, we've sold probably well over a million," said the group's co-founder Debbie Robbins. The books have made best seller lists in USA Today and the New York Times.

All about the happy ending

"By coming together we can help each other all become more successful," said Robbins, who has written seven historical romances under the pen name Kate Robbins.

She said the key is to tap into the huge American market. "Digital makes it easier...self-publishing as well has changed the game tremendously."

Authors Debbie Robbins, Ian Gillies and Victoria Barbour say Romancing the Rock is an important way of supporting each other. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Readers are legion, and loyal. Authors find them largely through social media.

"It's important to get the really ravenous readers, because they'll read three books a day," said Michelle Keep. "If you look like you're similar to their taste, then they'll find you on their own."

Readers may like all kind of styles, but there's one rule. 

​"The primary thread throughout the book must be their love story, said Robbins. "But how the couple gets from page one to the happily-ever-after is entirely up to the author's imagination."

Steam levels, from sweet to raunchy

Romance novels can be hot.

"It has to do with the amount of description with the intimate scenes," said Robbins.

"Typically there's five steam levels. You can go from one, which is very sweet to five, which is pretty raunchy...mine are historical romances and I have a steam level of about four."

"I like to write the very steamy end of the romance for sure," said Ian Gillies, who writes with Robbins, and pens erotica under a name he won't share because he also writes children's books.

Romance writers say there are five different 'steam levels' in their books, and the only rule is to have a happy ending. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Gillies said it's important to bring a male point of view to a genre typically read by women.

"It just feels natural. They say write what you know. I'm sure there are women out there that will deny that I know romance, but I like to think that I do."

Gillies said the image on the cover is the clue to the level of heat inside the book.

Coming soon

Expect new titles from other Newfoundland romance writers soon.

Valerie Francis, a.k.a. Robyn St. Croix, said her novel Masquerade is due in April. It's a 12 part suspense novel, based on the question "What would you do if you wouldn't get caught?"

Each chapter is long enough to read "while drinking a glass of wine, or on the commute home, or while the kids are taking a nap," she said.

We get to fall in love again, over and over, through different characters, as we write the stories together.- Joshua Keep

Melanie Martin, historian and civil servant will publish her first book in May through Flanker Press. It's about a First World War soldier and the woman who follows him to the battlefields.

"Relationships are all about conflict," said Martin.

And the happy ending. "If you pick up a romance novel you know that author isn't going to break your heart," said Victoria Barbour, whose Newfoundland-based novels have made her a best-seller.

"I think the key to a successful romance would be a story that can take readers away from their own lives and their own troubles and give them a sense of hope or inspiration or if it's on the steamier level ... that exciting escape," said Charlene Carr, who has written five romance novels over the past year and a half.

"I'm not making a full-time living yet but I believe I could get there," she said.