Millions of words of romance Writer: Novelist Nora Roberts tucks herself into a cozy Western Maryland home to write. Of course, with 126 books, she spends a lot of time on promotion tours. @

March 26, 1998|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

It's a pleasant enough home, a sort of naturalist retreat tucked into a corner of rural Western Maryland. A place where the cows may very well outnumber the residents, and folks like it that way.

The bright, blue deck is the first thing that catches the eye. Then the country silence is broken by four dogs who announce the presence of unfamiliar arrivals with feisty barks.

Inside, the home is filled with books and the occasional pet meanders in and out. There's an indoor swimming pool and a bright, cozy, second-floor office with a window that looks out at woods filled with poplar, dogwood and oak.

Even with the pool and the shiny BMW parked outside, it isn't a particularly imposing house. Nothing remotely on the mansion level, no grand foyer that would befit a queen.

It is not what one might expect from one of the most prolific and successful writers in America. Yet Nora Roberts, a reigning queen of the romance novel and author of more than 100 books, is quite content in this place she has called home for more than 20 years.

"As soon as I saw this area, I knew it was home," Roberts says, taking a drag on a cigarette.

Roberts will not be at her home in Keedysville for some weeks now. She is on yet another book tour. This one is for her latest novel, "Homeport," which is hardcover mainstream fiction. Her publishers forked over $250,000 for promotion (including television and print advertisements) and did an initial printing of 250,000, according to Publisher's Weekly.

Although she is probably best known for her romance novels -- the genre she began with -- Roberts also writes mainstream novels, in addition to a series of futuristic suspense books under the pseudonym J. D. Robb.

"She creates characters that readers love," says Isabell Swift, editorial vice president at Harlequin Enterprises and is one of Roberts' editors. She creates characters from witches of the past to detectives of the future.

A new J.D. Robb novel, "Holiday in Death," is due out in June. In the romance genre, there will be a book titled "The MacGregor Groom" in November.

"I am very disciplined," says Roberts, who can whip out a book in roughly two months.

That may be an understatement.

By the end of 1998, Roberts will have 126 published novels under her belt.

"She is really a publishing phenomenon. Here, we publish over 70 original paperbacks a month, so we are always looking for prolific writers," says Swift, who has worked with Roberts for about 15 years.

Note to all the aspiring novelists who have suffered the agony of rejection slips: Roberts, who had six books on the New York Times best-seller list in 1997 alone, couldn't get her first manuscript published.

"Now I'm glad it didn't get published. It didn't deserve to be published," she says, laughing at the memory. "That first book was dreadful!"

Roberts was raised in Silver Spring, the youngest of five children and the only girl. Her father, Bernard Robertson, was a television lighting technician who, upon retirement, opened a theatrical lighting equipment company with his wife, Eleanor.

After high school, Roberts married and moved to Keedysville with her first husband and their two children. While her husband commuted to his job in Washington, she did "the earth mother thing." And she was a huge fan of romance novels, reading them in her spare time.

She first took pen to paper (literally -- she wrote the story in a spiral notebook using a No. 2 pencil) while keeping an eye on her two young sons during one of Western Maryland's legendary long, cold, snowy winters.

That first story, she says now, was quite forgettable. But the first rejection only spurred her to keep at it.

"One of the things about writing is, if you want it, you will keep at it. You can't buckle at that first slap back. I was writing for my own pleasure," she says.

Her first published novel, the romance "Irish Thoroughbred," came out in 1981, and by then, she had already started on the next one.

"I was awe-struck," she says at receiving that first acceptance letter. "It was the best feeling in the world. But even better was seeing the first book in print. I was completely dazzled. It was better than sex."

Now, Roberts writes on a computer in her home office and has her own home page on the Internet (http: // nora).

She generally receives good reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, which use words like "lively" and "sexy" to describe her books.

There have been a few bumps along the way.

Most notable is the well-publicized plagiarism suit that Roberts filed against fellow romance author Janet Dailey. Last year, Dailey admitted that at least three of her books contained work cribbed from Roberts. And the lawsuit estimates there may be at least 13.

"We don't have any comments," says Bill Dailey, husband of Janet.

In a previous statement released to the press, Dailey has said she was under psychological stress due partly to the deaths from cancer of her two brothers and her husband's lung-cancer surgery.

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