Heather Grothaus began reading romance novels as the tender age of 13, surreptitiously perusing her mother’s collection of novels written by Kathleen Woodiwiss, a pioneer of the genre.
“I just loved them” she says. “I couldn’t get enough of them.”
They were good fun, but as her reading continued into adulthood, she felt the quality had declined and the books had become shallow, filled with loquaciously described sex scenes and thin plots.
One night at home after finishing a novel, in frustration she threw the book across the room. “My husband said, ‘What’s wrong with you?'” she recalls. “I said, ‘That’s terrible. I can do better than that.’”
And so she did.
She spent the next 18 months researching medieval history, particularly the Norman conquest of England, her favorite period, to prepare for writing her first book. She learned how to pitch a book idea, and searched for a literary agent.
She found a list of agents who represent romance authors and picked the top five agents with a track record of representing people who wrote similar books. “I told myself that I was going to write one manuscript and if it doesn’t sell, I’m done, I’m not going to do anymore. To my shock I got a New York agent.”
The agent located a publisher for her first effort and The Warrior was published by Kensington Publishing in March 2006. It became part of two-book deal with the New York-based house.
Today, Grothaus, who lives with her family on six acres in southern Kenton County, has just published her fourteenth novel, The Laird’s Vow.
It’s the story of a son of a young lord framed for murder and on the run from the villains out to steal his inheritance. He’s forced into hiding in Scotland, leaving a string of love affairs and illegitimate children in his wake.
Interestingly, and perhaps unusual in the genre, it’s just the first of her 14 books with both the hero and the heroine on the cover, although the others have featured bare-chested men, often in kilts and brandishing weapons.
Grothaus says you can’t judge a book by its cover, even romance novels.
“It gives the impression that you’re going to be reading a particularly steamy story; it’s going to be rather fluffy, there’s going to be a lot of sex going on and not a whole lot of depth,” she says. “The funny thing is, I have gotten dinged by reviewers several times because my books are actually not that steamy.”
The Laird’s Vow is the first of a series Grothaus calls "Sons of Scotland," a series she came up with after stopping in on a whim at an antiques stores in Bellevue.
On a weekend visit to Twice as Nice Antiques and More, where she was hoping to find some English plates to add to her collection, she spotted an old book that caught her eye. The book was Lodge’s Peerage of the British Empire, an encyclopedic volume of the genealogy of the British empire published in 1839.
For an Anglophile like Grothaus, the find was certainly interesting, but what was inside was fascinating: handwritten notes, perhaps from the books’ original owner, and a newspaper clipping from 1843 that detailed a scandal surrounding a man fighting to earn back his title.
“I thought how bizarre is that to have such intimate detail published for anyone to read,” she says.
Her romance novelist’s imagination kicked in, perhaps fueled by her editor’s inquiries about the timing of her next book.
“It was a big deal about whether he deserved this title or not,” she says. “I started wondering if there had been a challenger to that title and the challenger had framed him.”
“I found myself wondering about this man, about his circumstances and his family, and what had happened to him to bring him to this pivotal moment in his life.”
As her imagination turned, she came up with the idea of a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit who flees to Scotland, where he indulges in a string of illicit affairs, resulting in many children who, years later, are faced with questions of inheritance, guilt and innocence.
A series was born.
Critics have said of her books, “Her wry take on the realities of medieval life infuses her entrancing love stories with immediacy and timeless motivations,” and “Funny, brave and fascinating, her characters glow against the backdrop of a clever storyline.”
“My books have been described as a little scary, very intense and they’re definitely heavy on history and heavy on historical religion,” she says.
Romance novels have been unjustly stereotyped, she believes, as lightly disguised excuses to portray lascivious tales.
But “the range of romance novels is incredibly vast,” Grothaus says.
Her books are “very action heavy, very history heavy,” she says. She doesn’t insult the intelligence of her audience. “These are some of the most intelligent readers around,” she says. “I want readers to feel like they have a better understanding of that time period.”
To churn out books at that pace demands a strict writing schedule. With three children, a husband and lots of family activities, she has to stick to a plan for productivity.
“I have days when it’s Mom’s work days,” she says. “I have to go into my office and do my thing.”
She usually begins with a loose outline, but not a strict scene-by-scene formula.
“I’m more of a seat of the pants writer than a plotter,” she says. “I usually know how it’s going to end. I definitely know how it’s going to begin. It’s the middle part that has to be worked out as I write.”
And for inspiration, she can always return to the antique store in Bellevue, where she not only found the English plates she was looking for, but the idea for four more books.