Interview with Stephanie Laurens

by Claire E. White

Australia's only single title historical romance author, Stephanie Laurens was born on the island known to the ancients as Serendip, or Paradise, but has lived most of her life in Melbourne, Australia. In the late 70s and early 80s, she spent 4 years living in England, in the Kentish countryside, living in a 16th century coasthouse, next door to a 1st century Roman villa, just down the lane from a 14-17th century castle.
Photograph of
 Stephanie Laurens
Her time in England gave her first-hand experience of the scenery, grand houses and the English weather; her memories contribute to the richness of the background of her historical romances. She trained as a research scientist, and has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. After 19 years in medical research, rising to being head of her own laboratory, she decided that too much of her time was spent on administrative, non-creative labors. In looking for a more satisfying career, she started writing novels; she has been actively writing since 1989. Her first work, a Regency romance, was published in 1992 by Harlequin Mills & Boon, London. It was followed by 7 more, published in the UK, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Australia, Philippines, the U.S. and Canada. Stephanie then turned to writing longer historical romances, still set in the Regency period, but specifically tailored for American publishers. Her first such romance was entitled Captain Jack's Woman (Avon, 1997) which received a rave review and an "Outstanding" rating of 6 stars from Affaire de Coeur -- only the second book ever to have achieved this rating. Romantic Times rated Captain Jack's Woman as "Exceptional", dubbing Stephanie "a bright new star of the adventure romance genre." Subsequently, Devil's Bride, Stephanie's second work for Avon, and the first in a series of six, was promoted into Avon's Romantic Treasure line -- their line for "rising stars" in romance. Stephanie was also approached to contribute to the St. Martin's Press anthology Rough Around the Edges, due for release in summer '98; her contribution is titled Melting Ice.

Stephanie lives in a leafy suburb of Melbourne with her husband and two daughters. She talked with us about her career change from cancer researcher to romance novelist and gave us some insight on how she creates her romantic treasures.

When did you first start reading romance novels?

The first I recall was when I was 13 and my mother was reading Georgette Heyer -- she borrowed them from a friend and I would read them before she returned them. These Old Shades was the very first I read. Through my teens, I bought the whole set, and they have been read and re-read many times, by my mother and sister as well as me.

Tell us about your prior career as a senior research scientist. What was your specialty?

My specific training was in immunology, immunogenetics and molecular biology. I always worked in one area or another of medical research, but for most of my career I worked in cancer research. My two major projects before I stopped were in studying a family of genes overexpressed in ovarian cancers, and a new cancer-associated gene in breast cancer.

How did you go from being a research scientist to being a romance novelist?

I made the transition over a period of about 4 years. I originally made a decision to move out of research, then looked around for what else I could do. During that period, I stumbled onto writing novels as an accident -- I ran out of the type of book I wanted to read (at that point, I was thirsting for a Regency romance), so I sat down to write one, to amuse myself more than anything else. Once it was written, I thought it was quite reasonable -- I enjoyed it, so made someone else would. Someone else did, and from that a romance novelist was born.

Do you ever miss your scientific work?

I've asked myself this often over the past five years, but the answer remains the same: No. I think that's because I'm an inherently creative sort, and the element that initially attracted me to scientific research was the cutting-edge, creative side of it. But the more senior you become, the less time you can spend at the creative interface personally, and that was where I started losing interest.

How did you make your first professional sale as an author? Did you use an agent?

My first sale, of that first manuscript of mine, a Regency romance, was to Harlequin Mills & Boon, London. It was made by submitting an unsolicited manuscript based on their guidelines. An agent wasn't necessary, and, for that house, still isn't. Crossing to New York, however, changed things, but while I now have a wonderful and savvy agent who handles all my new works, all with New York publishers, my "sales" as such have always come about through my work itself -- either the editor reads it and wants it, or another editor has read something of mine and approaches me to write something for them.

What was the inspiration for Captain Jack's Woman?

If you mean was there something I saw or heard that triggered an idea that I then developed -- well, that's not how any of my stories come about. They literally simply appear in my head, sometimes virtually complete, other times less so, but always with the hero and heroine visually detailed and with their characters reasonably clear, and the focal point of the story, the central premise or conflict or whatever, also set. I literally wake up with the story in my head, and I have to make time that day to get it down in sufficient detail so I won't lose it -- this may mean pushing something important aside, but I always do it-then I can go back to it later. Sometimes years later, but that's how my stories come about. Some writers call it the muse -- I don't have any particular name for it -- it's just that something up there that goes around putting ideas in novelists' heads. I don't need to understand it to be grateful and use it. This means, of course, that I always have this long list of stories waiting to be written; I'm always puzzled by authors who actually have to think up a story to write.

The love scenes in Captain Jack's Woman are quite steamy -- how do you approach writing those scenes? Are they difficult to write?

Whenever someone asks how I write love scenes, I answer: slowly. That's true -- I'm a pretty fast writer, but I always notice my speed goes down with the love scenes. I think that's because there's so much choreography involved, much more than in any other sort of scene. And not only physical choreography either, but the emotional threads need to be both consistent with character development and also clear to the reader. There's a lot going on in my love scenes!

But I don't find them difficult to write, I think because by the time I get to them, I know the characters so well, and it is the characters that are driving the action by this point in the book. So to a large extent, the love scenes are written for me, by the hero and heroine, and I simply have to translate the action and emotion into words for the reader. That fact also tends to mitigate against unnecessary love scenes, as the hero and/or heroine will only instigate a love scene for a reason, a deeper reason than simply because they want a roll between the sheets. This means my love scenes are an integral part of the story, influencing character and/or plot development, rather than something that just happens along the way.

The heroine in Captain Jack's Woman, Kit Cranmer, is spirited and intelligent. What or who was your inspiration for Kit?

Again, Kit wasn't inspired by anyone or anything, she simply came as part of the whole. With my books, the heroine tends to have to be a certain sort of female, because of the hero. If you use over-the-top, know-they-are-irresistible, dominant but intelligent males as heros, as I invariably do, then you really can't have them brought to their knees by a weak female with more hair than wit who, when faced with a catastrophe, stands there wringing her hands.

As a large part of the attraction of a romance to female readers is the victory of love, leading to emotional commitment from a male who would otherwise avoid the whole idea like the plague, then you are really looking for a heroine who is going to affect our strong willed hero like an earthquake -- and shake the damned man to his knees. No weak woman is going to be able to accomplish this. In short, Kit and all my other heroines are the type of women they are because of the males they have to "tame".

The hero, Lord Hendon a/k/a Captain Jack, is strong-willed, passionate, adventurous, yet kind and honorable. How did you create him?

Jack popped into my head, a fully-fledged hero ready for use, as it were. All my heros arrive this way -- always unheralded I might add. It never ceases to amaze me that, despite this, they are each and every one different, not just physically but emotionally, too. They have different problems, different emotional backgrounds, a never ending variety. I guess that just goes to show how wonderfully diverse the human male truly is. (and yes, I'm grinning here). Yet I have to admit that all my heros all have the basic underlying characteristics you mentioned above-strong-willed, passionate, adventurous, yet honorable and inherently good, trustworthy and decent. I suppose that's my view of the ideal hero, and the muse only sends me the sort I'll believe and can therefore work with. Interestingly, the only romance I have ever written that did not sell had a different sort of hero, a less-than-perfect one. This was also the only work where I tried to "think up" a romance, rather than just use what the muse sent ready-made. The work simply wasn't a "Stephanie Laurens"; the emotional pattern the readers (and editor) expected wasn't there, so it didn't fly. I learned a lot from that experience. Now I always stick to the heros that I love, the gorgeous specimens the muse directs my way.

What are your writing habits? (e.g., do you write everyday, where do you write, do you use the computer to write, do you listen to music while you write etc. )

I write in a study, which is pretty well devoted to writing, and the business of writing. It's a fairly large room, with good natural light and good lighting as well. When I'm "creating" i.e. writing the first draft, then I simply write as much as I can, for as long as I can, everyday that I can. My impulse is to write -- I want to be at the computer with my fingers on the keys, typing away, essentially draining the story from my head.
"The entry of Borders and Barnes & Noble into Australia later this year is expected to have a big influence on the industry; I suspect the effect on romance will be profound."
However... There are, of course, all sorts of interruptions to this simple timetable, until it becomes anything but simple. My experience is that you can't become a professional writer without establishing some sort of discipline to your writing week. I currently write 4 days a week, and my minimum acceptable is 30 hours per week, Monday to Sunday, and I won't let myself drop below that no matter what. I am a "computer writer" in that I couldn't have become a writer without computers. I think far too fast to write in long-hand, and I would have become too frustrated to have ever finished that first manuscript if it hadn't been for computers. I'm not a touch typist, but my speed and accuracy are good, so I can go along as fast as a slow think.

What are your pet peeves in reading romance novels?

Impossibilities. I can stretch my imagination with the best of them, but impossibilities I can't accept. I don't mean just material impossibilities, but social, emotional and motivational impossibilities. When a novel derives from a premise that just couldn't have happened, then I really find it difficult to read, other than by considering it a fantasy. This occurs most often with historicals, of course, but some contemporaries also suffer from emotional or motivational implausibility that goes too far, into impossibility. My other personal pet peeve is weak principal characters who wait for the next instalment of the action plot to get them moving. I suspect this means weak emotional motivation; whatever, I don't respond to romances that are action-plot-driven, as distinct from principally character -- or emotional-plot-driven.

How do you approach the research needed to write historical fiction?

In writing Regencies, or historicals set in the Regency, I have relied on what I have absorbed through my reading over the past 30 years, which has included a very large number of British Regencies, and British historical texts. When I use any specific factual point in a draft, one that I haven't used before or don't know for a fact is right, then I check it in historical texts or reference books as I work over the draft.

Have your research skills learned as a scientist translated to skills that help you when doing historical research?

Oh, yes! Having used all sorts of resources for scientific information for years, hunting up historical information is really no different. But that isn't the major overlap between scientific research and writing. The most useful scientific skill apropos of writing is analysis. Scientists analyze everything -- it's an automatic instinct.
"[M]y writing motto, not blazoned on my wall but blazoned across my inner eye...[is] Write the book. Nothing else matters -- just write the book. And make every book you write your best ever."
My husband once came into the study when I was working on a manuscript, and laughed, saying: "Anyone could tell instantly that you were a scientist!" This was because I had a huge sheet of graph paper spread out, and was graphing the whole book, page by page, as to action, dialogue, monologue, narrative description, point of view, emotional intensity, etc, etc. I did that for quite a few books, and have now trained myself to mentally "alert" if I exceed certain parameters -- the ones I know will keep the pace up and the reader absorbed. And then, once I'd achieved repeated success, I had to discover how I'd done it, so I could keep doing it. That took another round of different types of analysis, both of my works and those of other successful authors. I now know what sort of structure I instinctively use, and how and why it works for me, so I can assure myself as I'm writing the first draft, which I sort of "write as it comes", that I'm working within this basic structure, so all will be all right in the end. That structure, and the parameters I worked out first, have proved excellent guides in helping me convert first drafts into final polished submissions. So being a scientist has helped enormously, in more ways than one.

Do you use the Internet for research?

Not extensively. I'm still a bookworm at heart, and I like browsing around libraries. You never know what you might find, and I need to keep feeding my mind.

Your publisher, Avon Books, is based in New York. Is it difficult coordinating with a publisher who is in another country?

Actually, I'm not sure it's not easier being in another country. That way, everything is in writing, of one sort or another. New York and Melbourne are 14-16 hours apart, which makes intelligent phone conversations exceedingly difficult. You quickly learn the details of courier deliveries. I've only ever worked as an author with London and New York, and have found them equally easy. But I think the most useful aspect of writing in Melbourne is the isolation -- I can manage the information influx better, as there's very little, if any, relevant local activities or magazines to tempt me.

What is the market like for authors of romantic fiction in Australia?

First, there are no publishers of romance, per se, in Australia -- all romance novels come from either the UK or North America. So for an author who wants to write romance, it's either London, New York or Toronto. As for the romance market here, it's more than a decade behind the US, which means the big explosion is yet to come. The entry of Borders and Barnes & Noble into Australia later this year is expected to have a big influence on the industry; I suspect the effect on romance will be profound. Most booksellers here don't understand what romance is -- I think that's about to change.

What do you hope your readers take away from your books?

I have this aim: To leave my readers with one of those big, silly smiles on their faces.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

Learning that I succeeded in my aim. I get a lot of satisfaction from hearing that I gave some other woman a few hours of fantasy, a brief period of escape, and left her feeling good.

What do your former colleagues think about your career change?

Most are fascinated -- some are actually proud. Even the males, and, of course, it's largely a male preserve, are truly interested in an intrigued sort of way. I think they'd like to suspect that I was mad, but they knew me for too long to doubt my sanity.

Does your husband read your books? What does he think about the sex scenes :)?

My husband has never read any of my books -- nor has any other male that I know. I don't actually expect them to -- I specifically write for women, in ways that women understand, not for men. When they have tried, they usually can't get past the first few pages, and when you discuss it, you find they're missing all the "tag lines", the emotional interplay and the body language, etc. They literally can't figure out what the book is about, because they don't see an emotional plot as relevant or sufficiently important to write a book about -- like I said, I write for women. So my husband hasn't read any of my sex scenes, although he knows they are there. I don't know that he has any "thoughts" about them at all. :)

When you're not reading romances, what else do you like to read?

I read a lot of genre fiction, and always have. I read mostly crime and fantasy fiction. I love finding good authors, ones whose works work for me, and hunting down their books. Occasionally, I'll read a non-fiction work, but that's rare -- usually only if it's about something intriguing and/or romantic. As I said above, feeding the mind.

What advice would you give to aspiring romance authors trying to crack the historical romance market?

Find your voice -- not anyone else's, but yours. Then tell your story, the one you've been given to tell. That's the story you love, the story that moves you. Take the creating one step at a time, but remember, you can only find your voice by writing the book. So write the book -- and then rewrite and rewrite, by yourself, until your voice rings clearly. Until your book sings. Then it'll sell.

What projects are you working on now?

Cover of The Devil's Bridge
A wild and wonderful series of six, stand-alone romances, all set in Regency England, featuring six cousins of a ducal house. Each book has as its hero one of the male members of the Cynster family, each a member of the infamous Bar Cynster. Each novel tells the tale of how the hero meets his fated match, how he woos and weds his lady, how he falls victim to the inescapable fate that overtakes all Cynster men -- despite their strong resistance, all Cynsters are fated to love. The first book in the series, Devil's Bride, will be a March 98 release from Avon -- it tells the tale of how Sylvester Sebastian "Devil" Cynster, 6th Duke of St. Ives, meets and marries Honoria Anstruther-Wetherby, overcoming her trenchant opposition to marrying a tyrant-sane women, after all, do not marry tyrants. The second book in the series, A Rake's Vow, will follow in October 98; I'm currently working on the third in the series.

What is the most valuable lesson you learned since you became a novelist?

It's encapsulated in the above, and is basically my writing motto, not blazoned on my wall but blazoned across my inner eye. Write the book. Nothing else matters -- just write the book. And make every book you write your best ever.

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