It's an addiction. A compulsion that draws you seductively back to the same behavior. But in this case, it's a paperback novel and the habit is reading. Erica Spindler unfolds her cautionary tale:
"I got a really bad summer cold, stopped at a K&B to buy some cold medicine and the cashier dropped this little romance novel into my bag. I had never read romance and almost told the cashier to save the free novel for someone who was going to read it because I wasn't. I sat home bored and I kept looking at it, picked it up and just fell in love with the story. I started going to all these drugstores to find more of these novels."
That was in the summer of 1982. For Spindler, whose 19th novel, Dead Run (Mira Books), hit bookstores this May, the decision to pick up the book was a watershed moment. Up to this point, she had just graduated from the University of New Orleans with a master's degree in fine art and had accepted a teaching position at Southeastern Louisiana University. While she did go on to teach for six years, her recreational reading became more and more frequent, and her aspirations turned to producing her own romantic novel.
"Sometime during this orgy of reading, I thought I'd like to try writing one," she says. "The minute I started writing I became obsessed with becoming a published author to the point that my family thought I'd lost my mind. All my free time was devoted to writing."
Spindler joined a writing group, learned about The Romance Writers of America, and began the process of submitting manuscripts and receiving rejections. Two years later, she sold a manuscript -- the third she'd written. "I'd gotten an agent and it sold right out of the gate without any revisions," she says.
Many local writers have pursued a path similar to Spindler's, starting their own novels while gaining membership to groups such as the Southern Louisiana Chapter of Romance Writers of America (SOLA). Success is not guaranteed, but the SOLA Web site (www.sola.org) lists 20 published members, including Nancy Wagner, who pens romantic comedies and is the current co-president of the local chapter as well as the head of the paralegal department of Tulane Law School.
Spindler's change in career might have meant more lustful encounters and torrid embraces -- at least on her computer screen -- but it didn't involve giving up a determined work ethic. She writes 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and still maintains a healthy marriage and a family of two sons. If she hasn't met her weekly quota of written pages, she is up and typing early Saturday morning.
"Every writer is different, but I've learned that when I start a book I start out really slow," she says. "At the very beginning I might only write five pages a week, but I'm setting up characters, setting up story and that takes me a while to put all those things together. As I move forward, all of that's in place, and I really know where I'm going. So I might set a goal of five pages for a week, then 10 for awhile and so on until the last week where I might write 40 pages in a week."
Spindler's latest books, including Dead Run, are considered a sub-genre of romance, romantic suspense -- or, as her publisher prefers, psychological thrillers. In Dead Run, a woman, Liz Ames, is searching for her sister, Pastor Rachel Howard, who has vanished from her home and ministry in Key West, Fla. Ames is convinced something criminal has befallen her sibling and moves to Key West to investigate the mystery. There, she encounters a hedonistic cult, a convicted serial murderer, ritualistic killings, and a police department that has a logical explanation for each of her suspicious discoveries.
Such a plot verges from The Romance Writers of America's definition of a romance: a love story for the main plot, with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Still, Spindler doesn't stray too far from her roots when she provides a character to assist in Ames' continuing investigation. The only person who seems to believe Ames is Rick Wells, a handsome and personable former Miami homicide detective, who has seen his share of personal tragedy. Together they struggle to find out what happened to Rachel Howard and who is behind this rash of sadistic murders.
At almost 400 pages, Dead Run nearly doubles Spindler's previous romance novels, which weigh in between 200 and 250 pages. Dead Run also required more research, says Spindler, including interviews with state police and private investigators. Still, she says there is an underlying similarity between romance and romantic suspense: "In romance novels, the women always win. They win on many levels, not just (getting the) the man, but they overcome circumstances. They're strong and they beat the odds, so it's very affirming for women.
"Romance novels are about feelings and so are suspense novels -- they're just different emotions. It's fear compared to love, but it's still heightened emotion.:"
- Twenty years ago, a chance encounter with a paperback novel led to a new writing career for Erica Spindler.