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Romance writers gather for retreat

May 01, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

BOONSBORO - Although she's published 12 historical romance novels and four mainstream novels, Patricia Gaffney still makes a point of attending the annual Washington Romance Writers retreat in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

There are plenty of "meaty" workshops that even an experienced writer like Gaffney can pick something up from, but the retreat also is about getting together with people who have become close friends, the Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., resident said.

"It's like a two-day sleepover," Gaffney said of the annual retreat at the Hilltop House.

The three-day retreat kicked off Friday after Gaffney and more than a dozen other romance writers signed their books at Turn the Page Bookstore Cafe in Boonsboro.

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The bookstore, its porch and the sidewalk out front were packed with autograph seekers and romance novel fans who came from as far away as Columbus, Ohio, and Fort Worth, Texas.

The official retreat, which is sold out, includes opportunities to pitch story ideas to editors and agents, panel discussions and seminars on topics, such as "Compelling Themes: Barrier and Ritual Death as Thematic Gold Mines" by college English professor Pamela Regis.

"Don't you want to go hear that? What in the world is she talking about?" Gaffney asked.

Gaffney, who no longer writes romance novels, said "this is where I got my start and my middle so I always come. I don't miss it. This is where my pals are."

Gaffney said she stopped writing that genre because she had "run out of stories that I felt fit into the framework of historical romance."

She began writing romance novels after learning at age 39 in 1984 that she had a lump in her breast.

The doctors gave her a 70 percent chance of survival, but Gaffney said, "I was sure it was curtains."

"I wasn't ... going to say, 'I'm going to beat this.' I figured I had nothing to lose," Gaffney said.

So she told her husband, Jon, she wanted to pursue her dream of writing and move from Washington, D.C., to the country.

The couple moved to Blue Ridge Summit and in 1989, Gaffney's first romance novel, "Sweet Treason," was published.

Gaffney's latest, "The Goodbye Summer," is about a 32-year-old piano and violin teacher who lives with her grandmother. The main character is shocked when her grandmother - after breaking a leg in a fall - insists on being sent to a home for the ailing and elderly, according to the book promotion.

Gaffney's family recently put one parent in a nursing home and the other in assisted living.

"These were very hard, sad changes in my family, but I didn't want to write a sad, depressing novel," Gaffney said. The story, according to Gaffney's Web site, is about "daring to love, braving a loss, and learning to live a little."

With the exception of her novel "Flight Lessons," Gaffney said she is doing what she wanted by putting more of her life in her mainstream books.

When asked what her inspiration was for her romance novels, Gaffney said "my fertile imagination."

She said she told her husband, "'You're the hero of all my books,' but really I just made those guys up."

Gaffney's advice to others inspired to write is to "read what you want to write, but don't stop there. Read everything. Fundamentally, that's how we learn to write, by reading."

If they are interested in writing romance novels and are in the area, the retreat is a wonderful, relaxed atmosphere in which to learn about the business, but it is sold out this year, she said.

Gaffney and romance novelist Nora Roberts appreciate the writers' community atmosphere of the retreat.

"Writing is very lonely. We love getting together," Gaffney said.

Roberts, who lives outside Keedysville, said other writers are the only ones who understand her frustrations.

She and Gaffney said those frustrations could be deadlines, interruptions, dissatisfaction with a story idea or the way they developed a character - as Gaffney put it, "I screwed up. My hero is a jerk."

For Gaffney, the retreat is about fun, good food, friendship and still learning something.

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