Romance on the Rappahannock: Hope Tarr

Is it something in the water around here, or is it common for communities the size of Fredericksburg to be home to a lot of successful writers? I discovered another one last week. Hope Tarr. Genre: Romance.

I'm always curious to meet the human being behind a jacket blurb. Writers sometimes adopt pseudonyms, and for all I knew Hope Tarr was a male weightlifter with tattoos and a buzz cut, a Harley, and an insatiable appetite for Jane Austen. No. A quick keyword search brought up a website - a pretty slick website at that (http://www.hopetarr.com/) - that featured photos of someone who, in a different wardrobe, would look right at home in one of her own novels. She lives downtown in the historic district, which seems fitting, with her husband and - was it nine? - cats.

The website linked to an excerpt from Ms. Tarr's new book, Tempting, her third in four years. I pulled it up, read it, and enjoyed it. Three weeks later, composing my own prose, I'm playing that excerpt in my head like a movie clip - visuals, sound effects, background music. Those characters intrigue me. I'm pretty sure I know who ends up with whom in the final chapter, but I'm still curious about how it comes about. In my line of work, that's called good storytelling.

Hope knew as a kid that she wanted to write romances. She was a voracious reader, devouring Victoria Holt, Daphne Du Maurier, and similar authors.

Ten years ago, during some downtime in her work as a research consultant, she was browsing in a bookstore and found an instruction manual on how to write and sell romance novels. She says it took her three years to finish an "unpublishable" romance, and that it was time well spent because she found out that she could indeed begin and complete a long work of fiction.

She joined Romance Writers of America, the largest genre writers' association in the U.S., which boasts a huge proportion of published writers. That's where she met her literary agent. That's when things started happening. She signed with her agent in 1998, sold her first book, Rogue's Pleasure, in 1999, and since then has sold two more, My Lord Jack and her single title debut Tempting, both critically acclaimed award winners. Tempting, she says, is her personal favorite. Several agents warned her that book would not sell - not with its intense opening scene; not with a Jewish hero. Tempting is not only published (Berkley Jove, 2002), the reviews glow and award nominations are stacked up solidly behind it.

Currently she's working on a trilogy (or, as Hope once giggled, a "trequel"): 1890's, England/Scotland, three orphans becoming self-made men. "Most of my heroes tend to be self-made men," she says. In the first story, the hero is a photographer, the heroine a suffragette he is bent on discrediting.

Writing solid historical romance requires not only good storytelling, but also good research. At the moment, the author is learning more about early photographic processes than she ever thought she wanted to know.

Her own process as a writer sounds like a study in the Puritan Work Ethic. Which is to say that she works long and hard, not that her prose lacks sizzle and sensuality. She estimates that she's at the computer five days a week - writing, editing, fact checking. Added to the act of creation, there's the business of promoting. Until you're firmly established as a writer, you're pretty much on your own when it comes to promotion. You arrange your own signings. She says even when a bookstore treats her like a princess, she still has to schlep her own card table. "It's the opposite of glamorous." And it's absolutely necessary if you want to cultivate a readership. The really tough part is striking the balance between promotion and getting the books out.

"Romance readers are voracious! Some serious fans read 8-10 books a week. Getting (new titles) out is crucial," she says, and owns that she is not a fast writer. Her goal is to work up to two books a year. Some romance writers put out half a dozen or more.

During the course of her literary career, Hope's writing ambitions have expanded. She's branching out from historical romance and working on a contemporary story - along the lines of Rush Limbaugh falling in love with Gloria Steinem - "only they're young and hot." And, close to her heart, she's working on a children's book in memory of a beloved cat, Gabby. A veteran animal rights activist and organizer, she hopes to set up an endowment, "Gabby's Garden Fund," to provide small veterinary stipends for senior citizens with animal companions who are terminally ill.

Pick up a Hope Tarr romance and here's what you'll find: A character-driven love story in which the principal players, usually outsiders and always animal lovers, eventually come together in a relationship where everybody thrives. People you like, negotiating twists of plot, quirks of fate, and flaws of character to arrive at the place where they can settle down and live happily ever after.

Note: Hope Tarr is offering a Valentine's Day special at her Web site -- purchase signed copies of her books and she'll ship them to you for free. Watch for the upcoming Tarr interview on the Library's cable program, "CRRL Presents."