The romance novelists holiday -- Writers in the lucrative love business meet and exchange recipes at their yearly meeting

Think of a weekend with Thelma and Louise — but without the guns. Then imagine 1,200 romance novelists gathered in New Orleans to bolster their careers and keep their publishers honest. They may wear aqua pumps, pink polyester pantsuits, and flowered hats, but these women, in town for a meeting of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), are as fervid about their calling and as ferocious about advancing it as any delegates at a NOW convention.

And why shouldn’t they be? As the engines of a $200 million business with 22 million readers, their books represent 40 percent of all mass-market paperback sales. If romances are the lucrative heart of the publishing industry, the New Orleans Marriott Hotel on this steamy summer weekend is Romance Central.

In a chandeliered hall with floral carpets, best-selling author Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Fancy Pants, Hot Shot) is wearing an elaborate openwork-embroidery blouse and describing the romance novel as an expression of female empowerment: The heroine takes on a domineering hero and by the end of the book she has turned him into a sensitive human being. ”In other words, she has turned him into a woman,” Phillips says. The audience cheers.

A panelist in a seminar on sex scenes proclaims, ”We know the thing that makes the penis live is women.” There is uproarious laughter.

A female official of the RWA announces that all the restrooms on two floors of the Marriott are reserved for Women Only. More cheers.

”My family sucks up all the energy out of me,” one unpublished writer remarks to a companion. ”Here I’m filled again, reenergized.”

To get to the Big Easy for the long weekend, the writers, both published and aspiring, had taken leave of their jobs as lawyers, plant workers, teachers, deans, accountants, and mothers. Now they were going to talk contracts and book jackets and plot guidelines. But since they were romantics all, they were also going to keep one well-painted eye out for Kevin Costner, who happened to be in town shooting Oliver Stone’s movie on the Kennedy assassination.

By day they attended workshops and discussed the importance of frank language in love scenes. ”Be careful that you don’t get caught up in using things like ‘her succulent hot spot,”’ one editor admonished. They swapped tips on writing tidy endings, and they learned how to deal with everyone from literary agents to the IRS. ”This is a profession,” one writer remarked in passing. ”We’re businesswomen. We don’t sit down between soap operas and dash off a chapter. That’s not the way we work. We work at our jobs, just like everybody else works at theirs.”

At night their publishers threw parties for them. They ate bananas Foster at Brennan’s, tripped through the Cajun waltz at Mulate’s, and peeked at the naked ladies in Bourbon Street dance halls. They got cozy around a box of pralines back at the Marriott and, again, gossiped about who’d seen Costner at Two Sisters and who’d seen him at Emeril’s.

But it was not just slumber-party chatter. ”When we’re all together in our rooms, with no makeup and our pajamas on, that’s when we talk specifics and find out what’s what in the industry,” said novelist Sandy Steen, who wrote the Waldenbooks best-seller The Simple Truth.

Those late-night sessions have been instrumental in helping the Romance Writers of America grow from a handful of women who met in Houston 11 years ago to an organization of 5,000 women and a few token men. In these hotel rooms, beauticians and Ph.D.’s forge alliances and aspiring writers get tips from seasoned pros. Such exchanges have given the organization unity and power. The members are no longer unsophisticated ladies who work in isolation and are so grateful to be published that they will accept any contract, even if it means signing away the rights to all future books for $1,200 each.

That was a mistake Candace Schuler almost made. ”When I started writing, I knew nothing about contracts,” she said. ”I didn’t know about copyediting or galleys or that they could change my name.” Now even the greenest members know what to expect when they start their books. The RWA takes financial surveys so that its members will know what others are being paid for their first book or their fifth. It is also trying to eliminate from contracts such objectionable provisions as a joint-accounting clause that took profits from an author’s second book if the publisher lost money on the first one.

There’s even an effort afoot to get the industry to replace bodice-ripping covers with illustrations that reflect the contemporary nature of the books’ contents. Like the Mystery Writers of America, which has its Edgar award, RWA in 1990 established its standard of value by creating the Rita (named for a past RWA president). On Saturday night, the members gathered in the Marriott’s grand ballroom to see who in 19 categories — Best First Novel and Best Series Historical, for example — would be awarded the golden statuette of an ersatz Greek goddess bent over her quill. Draped in enough sequins to satisfy Jackie Collins, the writers ate chicken and steak and exclaimed over how Costner looked when someone or other’s roommate spied him in the French Quarter. Accepting their awards, the winners thanked their romance-writing ”sisters” for their support. Janece Hudson, who wrote Step Into My Parlor as Jan Hudson, brandished her statuette for the Best Short Contemporary and said, ”If anyone ever accuses me of writing fluff again, I’m going to hit them in the head with my Rita.” Beth de Guzman, who won for coediting the Best First Novel, Black Horse Island by Dee Holmes, quipped: ”This more than makes up for the fact that I didn’t see Kevin Costner this week.”

”Reading and writing romances opened me to the idea that a woman is an independent person,” said Elaine Coffman, who used to be an elementary school teacher. ”It enabled me to take charge of ending a bad 26-year marriage. I’m not only writing it, I’ve lived it.” Another sighed: ”If I lived the life of my heroines, I wouldn’t have enough time for writing.”

”Or enough brains,” a friend replied.

They both laughed.

Writers of the Purple Ink

Kathy Lawrence
Kat Martin, 44, used to look over her husband Larry’s shoulder while he wrote his Westerns. ”I could do that,” she told him. So she did. She’s now written five romances, including Lover’s Gold. She and Larry have also teamed up under the name Kathy Lawrence to write Tin Angel, the story of a Boston girl who inherits a brothel out West. In the interest of research, the two go on mules into the High Sierras. ”If you’re gonna take a beautiful woman camping, you have to learn to heat water for washing up,” says Larry, 50. Kat will do anything for research, but she does admit needing hot water: ”I wear makeup. I wash my hair every day. You don’t have to be a dirtball in the wilderness.”

Mary-Ben Louis
”I’m 72 years old, and I don’t mind if you say so,” Mary Ben Cretenoid announces. After having been an English teacher, a newspaper reporter, and an executive secretary, Mary Ben is now a writer of romance fiction: Her first book, Dark Windows, written under the name Mary-Ben Louis, has just appeared, 56 years after she vowed to become a writer. ”For about two years after my husband died (in 1974) I almost became a rocking-chair person,” she says. ”That’s when I joined RWA and began writing.” She reworked her novel twice and got 23 rejections for her efforts, but she persisted. ”I’m not special,” she says. ”I’ve just lived a long time.”

Leslie Lynn
Sisters-in-law Sherrill Lynn Bodine, 45, and Elaine Leslie Sima, 44, once convinced a judge to send them to prison for a day. But it was only so they could get some material for their next romance. When she was 18, Bodine eloped with Sima’s brother, and the two women have since raised seven children. They’ve also cowritten eight romance novels as Lynn Leslie or Leslie Lynn, depending on which publisher they’re using. Their books (including Scandal’s Child) are not much noticed by their families, but Bodine did catch her 18-year-old son teasing a friend by saying, ”You don’t know who my mom and my aunt Elaine are? You really don’t know? They’re Danielle Steel.”