Strangelove | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST


The paranormal romance genre is predominately created and consumed by women, featuring fantastical and over-the-top storylines and cheesy cover models. Get to know some local authors who turned seduction, myths and hard work into successful careers

Krista Comeau

Lily is a teenage girl trying to make sense of her past. Luc is a fallen angel looking for redemption. They fall in love. In an apocalyptic future, a Demon Slayer tracks down Airie, a half- human/half-goddess and soon they face an epic battle with demons. They fall in love too. Meanwhile, Jamie, a female Siren, is trying to control her lust for the hunky Seth, who happens to be a merman. They may be in love, but it's mostly about the sex.

These are not your typical stories, but why read the conventional romance novel when you can have the paranormal too? As the paranormal romance genre grows in the US, Nova Scotia writers bring their own unique twist, turning our province into a hotbed of popular romance writers who bring the mythical into the bedroom.

It's no mistake that the above-mentioned Jamie and Seth live in a world of sea mythology. Rapture is one of more than 12 erotic paranormal novels written by Renee Field that captures the beauty of the ocean.

Field always loved telling stories. Human interest pieces were her speciality when working at the Daily News. She quietly began writing during the evenings at her local Starbucks in the Rockingham neighbourhood near Clayton Park after the birth of her third son, Nolan, eight years ago. It was part of her "me time," but since then, Field turned her intense passion into a successful writing career. A few years ago, at a romance writing convention in Miami, Field's publicist booked a table for three hours so Field could sell her box of 30 books. She sold out in 45 minutes.

"I know what works in this business," says Field. "I like to have control on things like covers because I know what sells."

Field's erotica is based on her fascination with the ocean. As a young girl growing up in the small fishing community of Oyster Pond on the Eastern Shore, she saw the power of the sea firsthand. Her father was a fisherman and would take her along on his boat.

"I remember my Dad and his friends telling tales about the sea," says Field. "When I went out with him, he could feel the sea turn. He could tell when a storm was coming. It's a wonderful feeling to be close to the sea," she says. "That's why I love sirens, mermaids and Poseidon. I respect the ocean."

Field has published more than 15 novels in her eight years as a novelist. Besides writing steamy erotica, she also writes young adult novels set in Halifax under her pen name Renee Pace. Her paranormal YA novels are part of the nitty-gritty teen subgenre, where young characters deal with teen angst, love and the struggles of life.

Her 2011 novel, Off Leash, in which 15-year-old Jay Walker and his canine friend Ollie deal with his drug addicted mother in Halifax, was a semi-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.

"I love using Nova Scotia as a background because in the US market it's considered an exotic location," says Field. "I'm proud to be a writer of this genre."

Shawna Romkey feels the pride as a first-time published novelist. Her story is a tale of courage and triumph. At 42, it took Romkey 20 years to make this journey and she's enjoying the ride, releasing her debut novel Speak of the Devil while surrounded by friends and fans at the Lower Deck on Friday, April 5 for her book launch.

Like her characters Lily and Luc in Speak of the Devil, Romkey found a way to move on from her past. Romkey grew up in Wardsville, Missouri, a tiny town of 1,500. When Romkey was 16 years old, her friends were killed in a car crash. Romkey had planned to hang out with them the night they died but had to work a night shift at a local restaurant. From then on, her life changed. She moved to Kansas City with her father to start a new life.

"It was pretty terrible," says Romkey, who now lives in Lawrencetown. "I had to leave because people around me at school started doing drugs after the crash and I didn't want to do that."

The beginning of Speak of the Devil echoes Romkey's tragic experience, where Lily must deal with the aftermath of the death of her friends. Also similar to Lily's tale, Romkey's story doesn't end with tragedy.

Romkey quickly developed a love for writing. While working on her bachelor's degree in English at the University of Kansas, her play Brick by Brick was performed at a local theatre. She completed her MA in English at Central Missouri State University in 1993 and wrote a novel as her thesis.

"I got the whole spectrum of feedback," says Romkey. "One professor said he loved it, one said he hated it and one said it was so-so. That worked for me."

Negative feedback didn't deter Romkey, but an incident that happened 15 years ago did stop her in her tracks.

In 1997, Romkey met a man who claimed to be an agent. He asked Romkey to send him $400 to submit Romkey's manuscript to publishers. She sent the money and he disappeared. Defeated, Romkey decided that writing wasn't for her and went on to open a bed and breakfast with her husband Trevor in Dartmouth, later getting a teaching job at the Nova Scotia Community College.

"I didn't write anything for 10 years," she says. "I thought I didn't know what I was doing and that writing would be a waste of time."

Time away from work offered a way back to writing. In 2010, while she took a year off from teaching, she wrote Speak of the Devil. She joined the Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada in 2011 to get help and support. The RWAC is a local network of romance writers who support each other by sharing insider information on book deals, marketing tips and general advice. The tightly knit group of professional authors and hobbyists meet regularly to discuss their projects and gain valuable feedback on their work. The RWAC will be hosting a workshop on writing a first novel on Saturday, April 20 at the Keshen Goodman Public Library.

"I joined a writing group with Renee and I started to gain confidence," says Romkey. "They were integral in helping me get published. They know who to talk to and what works in this industry."

Friday the 13th became Romkey's lucky day. On April 13, 2012 she received an email from Crescent Moon Press, a US-based fantasy publisher, saying that they would publish Speak of the Devil.

"I remember screaming and crying and running out into the front yard to tell my husband the good news," says Romkey. "Our contractors working on our house didn't know what was going on and my husband said, 'It's a good cry.' It had been a long time coming."

Crescent Moon Press proved to be a perfect fit. Many paranormal romance writers choose to work with niche publishers in order to work with editors who have an understanding of the genre and its female readership.

"I'm a big fan of strong female characters," Romkey says. "Only 12 percent of books focus on female characters and very few publishing companies are owned by women. I like my publisher because I know I won't have to rewrite my ending where a woman saves the day."

Novelist Paula Altenburg chats over coffee about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: The Warrior Princess before talking about her own writing. Strong female characters are a staple of the Altenburg's novels, reflecting her love of Buffy, Xena and the Joss Whedon canon. At 49, the Middle Musquodoboit native is reinventing her career and starting to feel comfortable as a novelist.

Her talent shows in her latest novel, The Demon's Daughter, which features the Demon Slayer and Airie fighting through a world of demons. The Demon's Daughter is the first in the Demon Outlaws series, where each book focuses on different Demon hunters. For Altenburg, the characters are more important than the setting.

"I love to take my characters and put them anywhere," says Altenburg. "The fun is exploring 'what if?' and being able to build your own world. There's so much to do in the fantasy genre."

Altenburg's journey to the paranormal began two years ago. While working as a technical writer at IMP Group International, she began to write paranormal novels with friend and author Catherine Verge. Under the pseudonym Taylor Keating, the duo published The Guardian series, in which the main characters live in a video game, struggling to adapt in the real world.

"I was in charge of the characters and Catherine was in charge of moving the story along," says Altenburg. "I have a very slow writing process so the arrangement worked well for us."

Altenburg decided to pursue writing full-time in 2011 and began crafting the Demon Outlaws series. Her work experience helps her manage the business side of writing.

"I have a lot of time and management skills, which is really helpful," says Altenburg. "I'm really good with deadlines and organization."

And the business of romance novels is booming. According to the Romance Writers of America, romance fiction sales in the US totalled $1.3 billion. Nearly 15 percent of the US consumer market is made up of romance novels with 91 percent of novels being read by women.

Then there's Twilight. Field says the mega series written by Stephenie Meyer helped make paranormal novels part of the mainstream culture.

"Twilight made it sexy and OK to say that you're a paranormal writer," says Field. "All of a sudden people say, 'You write about vampires? Wow.' Those books helped us reach a wider market."

Like most of the paranormal romance genre, popularity for Twilight was fuelled largely by social media. Book sales are led by online purchases of ebooks and paperbacks. According to the RWA, nearly 45 percent of romance novels are sold in ebook format, up from 22 percent in 2011. More importantly, ebook readers are more likely to buy paranormal romance in the ebook format as opposed to print.

More online sales means more authors creating an online persona. To get noticed, authors usually need multiple reviews on websites. Field found the process of soliciting reviews and paying for online promotion frustrating. Last year, she launched StoryFinds, a website that helps authors promote their work. Authors represented by traditional publishing houses as well as the self-published can offer daily specials for $1 ebooks or pay a small fee to be featured in the Author Spotlight section. The website offers ebooks for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, IPad and audio formats.

"I was really annoyed by how I couldn't promote my book because I didn't have a lot of reviews," says Field. "Fans would email me from the UK saying they couldn't find my book on the Nook or other devices. Authors, especially self-published authors, need a place to showcase their work and readers want choice for devices. Amazon doesn't give you that."

The prominence of ebooks has led to writers leaning towards small, niche publishers or self-publishing. The push towards indie publishing means authors have to take the lead in marketing their work. With the help of the RWAC, Romkey has learned about promotion and marketing and now helps fellow authors in Nova Scotia plan events and online giveaways.

Her YouTube book trailer was recently featured on USA Today's website for a piece featuring romance writers. "For marketing to work, you have to build up your platform and then promote. You need to know what your customers need and what they value. I've done Facebook and Twitter parties," says Romkey. The scheduled social media events allow fans to chat with authors, answer trivia and win books. "They're really successful because readers are able to interact with me."

Blog tours are also a popular promotional tool, where a group of authors will write guest posts on each other's blogs, and participate in online giveaways.

As the genre grows, romance writers continue to look for the next craze in the paranormal world. Field and Romkey will be headed to the Romantic Times Booksellers Convention, a week long conference for romance writers and enthusiasts put on by romance writing hub, RT Book Reviews, in Kansas City. In addition to workshops like "Vampires to Die For!" and social events like "Cover Model Karaoke," part of the conference will cover what's new in the paranormal genre.

Altenburg may be on the cusp of a new trend. Her opening scene in The Demon's Daughter reminds the reader of a lone cowboy walking into a saloon. Field says the vampire market is oversaturated. So what's the next Twilight-level craze? Cowboys.

"The hot thing right now is cowboys and westerns," says Field. "I'm working on a sweet romance based in Cape Cod about a hunky fisherman. Maybe I'll work in a cowboy there too."

Julie Sobowale is a freelance journalist based in Halifax who read lots of Danielle Steel novels as "research."

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