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Starting fresh

Our son was home from college for spring break this past week, so I took the week off from writing. The weather wasn’t great during the week, but we had a nice time, anyway, and managed one day of hiking near the Little Red River in Heber Springs, Arkansas. My husband and I enjoyed spending that time with our son.

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Today I started a new book, the second in my Doctors in Training series for Silhouette Special Edition. The first book of the series, DIAGNOSIS: DADDY, will be in the stores in August, 2009. It introduces a close-knit group of five medical students, and the series will follow them through all four years of medical school, each book covering a different year — and a new romance, of course. The book I began today, PRIVATE PRACTICE, takes place during second year — and many thanks to my almost-doctor-daughter, Kerry, for answering lots of questions yesterday about that grueling schedule! We both know there will be more questions as I get further into the story.

Starting a new book is always a challenge. I don’t really know these people yet, though my heroine, Anne, was introduced in the first book. But now I’m delving more deeply into her life. Her demanding family of overachievers. Her hopes and dreams and fears. And I’m getting to know the hero, Liam. Who is he? What’s he like? What does he want more than anything in the world — and what’s keeping him from obtaining it?

Every romance novel has a conflict. Some people think conflict means fighting. I’ve read a few books in which the couples fight all the way through, and then suddenly declare their undying love at the end. Those stories didn’t work for me. I have to see them falling in love, despite their differences. I have to believe that this couple will beat the odds and stay together for a lifetime after the story ends. Conflict, in a romance, is the obstacle that threatens to keep the couple apart — whether it’s an external conflict (the family feud in Romeo and Juliet, for example) or internal (the differing personalities in The Taming of the Shrew), to put it very simply.

So my challenge now is to figure out what the conflict is between Anne and Liam and then help them solve it in such a way that the reader wonders for a while if they’ll ever overcome their problems. When they do, the reader should be pleased and satisfied. One of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz, once wrote that the writer should take away everything the protagonist cares about — and then threaten to take away even more, so that the stakes in the story are very high and the reader becomes invested in wanting that person to succeed and find ultimate satisfaction. I’m sure I’ve accomplished that better in some books than others, but it is always my goal to make the reader care about my characters, to root for them, and to want them to win.

I’m always thrilled to receive letters from readers telling me they enjoyed a book and loved the characters. I frequently get letters asking for stories about secondary characters in my books. The reader feels as though she has come to know that person and wants to learn more about his or her life and future romance. One of my favorite letters was from a reader who apologized for asking, but she just had to know — did the couple in my book have a girl or a boy? (I left the heroine pregnant at the end of the book.) I knew then that I had accomplished my goal of bringing the characters to life, at least for that reader. (And by the way, they had a boy. I knew that already, because the characters become real for me, too, as I accompany them through their journeys).

So now it’s back to work. I know what Anne wants and what’s holding her back — but I’m still a little puzzled about Liam’s hopes and fears. I’m sure he’ll let me know once I immerse myself in his story and listen to him.

By the way, the first quarter of 2009 is almost behind us now. Have you scheduled your annual physical? A breast exam, if you are a woman over 40, or younger with a strong family history of breast cancer? A colonoscopy, if you are 50 or over, or have a family history of colon cancer? Our fight against cancer continues, and the best weapons in our arsenal are prevention and early detection. Charge!

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Award-winning, best-selling author of women's romance fiction.

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