February 1, 2020 | By Margo Hammond
Isn’t It Romantic?
Tampa Bay’s Sizzling Hot
Warning: You may need to take a cold shower after reading this piece. Romance writers from this area are red-hot.
The Number 1 title on Goodreads’ list for romances set in Florida is Tamara Lush’s Hot Shade. The novel has “a little violence, some Florida intrigue and lots of erotic scenes between a hot Italian man and a sex, curvy woman,” according to the popular readers’ site.
Lush, who in real life is married to an Italian (probably a coincidence), lives in St. Petersburg’s Allendale Terrace. In 2018 she was a finalist for a Rita award — the Oscars of the Romance world — for her novel Constant Craving. Also that year her story “Words With Benefits” was included in Cleis Press’s prestigious annual Best Women’s Erotic anthology. When she’s not writing romances, she’s a reporter for Associated Press.
Tampa resident Desiree Holt’s Coyote Heat is also on Goodreads list. Coyote Heat is described as the story of commitment-phobic Miguel ‘Coyote’ Cruz who joins his fellow Navy SEALs in Key West for a wild weekend and ends up meeting a woman who “gives a new meaning to hot sex but also singes his heart.” USA Today calls Holt “the Nora Roberts of erotic romance.”
Last month Tampa writer Erin Zak, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, was featured at Gulfport ReadOut2020: A Festival of Lesbian Literature. Her latest book, The Road Home, will be out in May.
Cassidy K. O’Connor, Sheri Lyn and Jennifer Wedmore are three sisters (Sheri and Jennifer are twins) who all write romance novels. When they recently set up a Facebook page inviting fellow writers to join them for meet-ups and advice swapping, 18 of the sign-ups were from Tampa Bay.
O’Connor and Lyn live in Oldsmar. Wedmore lives in Clearwater. Along with their mother Patti Spell, these sisters are the “fierce foursome” behind Books at the Beach, a writer’s conventions scheduled for next year — October 21-24, 2021 — on Clearwater Beach. Although all genres are welcome, the sisters estimate that 95 percent of the attendees will be romance writers. Already 75 authors have signed up for tables (they are capping that number at 80).
These women are among dozens in Tampa Bay who write suspense, paranormal, historical, LBGT and young adult romances. TARA, the deliciously romantic name of the local branch of the Romance Writers of America (it stands for Tampa Area Romance Authors), boasts 87 members.
Like many romance writers, most of these women know each other and are supportive of each other’s work. “When I grow up, I want to be Desiree Holt,” says Lush. Holt is slated to attend Books at the Beach and she and Lush have appeared together in print — in 2016 their stories were included in an ebook entitled Sizzling Florida Heat: Sexy Stories from the Sunshine State which featured 11 romance writers, most of them from Tampa Bay.
The doyenne of the group, Desiree Holt, who turns 84 in June, has been dubbed the oldest living writer of erotic romance fiction in the country.
“That sounds about right,” she says when I called her at her home in Tampa where she works surrounded by Grace, Blanca and Bast, her three “tortoiseshell (‘tortie’), white and black cats.”
Holt may also be one of the most prolific. Since she retired from her own public relations firm in 2004, Holt has written 273 romance novels, 185 of which are still active titles (“I’ve pulled some to fluff them up a bit,” she says), grouped into 15 different series with juicy names like Naked Cowboys, Game On, Strike Force and Phoenix Agency (her most popular).
Her story for that sizzling anthology was called “All Tied Up,” the kind of work she creates for a London-based publisher called Totally Bound.
She also writes about Navy SEALs and cops. “I write a lot of military and law enforcement series and I have a lot of help from other people,” she says, naming Joseph Tranor who is with “local law enforcement” (he has asked her not to be more specific) and former SEAL Jack Carr who writes best-selling military political thrillers.
Twice married (and twice widowed) to “wonderfully supportive men,” Holt recently become a great-grandmother. Desiree Holt is a pen name (her real name is Judith Rochelle), cooked up between her and her second husband who was the one who encouraged her to write romances.
She met him while working for WUSF, where he was the manager. “He had me read scenes to him to help me with the masculine point of view,” she says. When he was dying he told her that when he was gone he wanted her to wake up every day, feed the cats and then sit down at the computer and write something.
“Whenever I write I think of him,” she says. “It’s wonderful to let the passion we shared inspire me.”
Holt is quick to point out that there is a difference between erotic romance and erotica. While both include sexual explicit scenes (think words like licking, sucking, biting), romance always has to have a happy ending or at least a happy-for-now ending while erotica does not. “If there’s no happy ending, it’s not a romance,” declares Holt.
“The Notebook is not a romance,” agrees Lush, referring to the best-selling Nicholas Spark novel which does not end happily ever after.
The 49-year-old Lush, who describes her romances as “steamy and emotional contemporary,” published her first in 2015. She has written about 12, some of which are serial novels. She writes about 1,000-2,000 words a day.
“As a reporter, I’m mindful of burnout,” she says. A lifelong journalist — she worked for the St. Petersburg Times when I was working there — since 2008, she’s been covering the Gulf Coast from Naples to Citrus County for AP, helping out with breaking news when needed and working on special projects (she’s currently on a team looking at voter demographics).
When I talked with her by telephone, she was fielding calls about Vice President Pence’s visit to Florida, health care and voting demographics.
Did her name destine her to become a romance writer? “I thought about using a pen name because of my day job, but the AP editors didn’t care,” laughs Lush. In fact, Lush thought it would be better to be transparent. “I didn’t want anyone to discover a ‘secret’ and use it against me.” Also, she explains, she has no children who might be embarrassed that their mom writes hot sex scenes. “Besides, I didn’t want to deal with having multi social media handles.”
Many of Lush’s stories are straight erotic, “open door sex scenes” but some of her books are not all that sexy. Some of Lush’s have no sex at all. “Not even a kiss,” she says. It depends on the story and characters.
“You don’t even need sex to have a romance novel,” she explains. “Entire subgenera — YA stories, Christian romance, inspirational romance — don’t have sex in them.” The genre covers a wide swatch, she says. “Romance can be inclusive of all genders. It can be pollyanna-ish. It can have elements of sci-fi and fantasy. The only requirement is that it ends happily for all involved.”
But even when she writes erotic scenes, Lush always tries to have an element of sweet. “I am always careful… really careful that it’s respectful — I have a lot of younger readers to consider. The sex may be hot, but it’s always needs to be respectful and consensual.
“There was a time when romances did portray unhealthy relationships,” says Lush, which, she points out, was a reflection of societal attitudes of the time.
Now, she says, in the wake of the MeToo movement, authors and publishers are trying to be more mindful of the scenes they put out there. “There are certain themes and tropes that readers want, however, and we shouldn’t shame them for what they want,” she adds. “The book Asking For It by Lilah Pace, which describes a woman with rape fantasies, for example, is respectively done but some would find it beyond their comfort zone. I personally wouldn’t have the skill to write it. Lilah Pace did.”
The MeToo movement has not been the only agent of change in the world of romance novels, now a billion-dollar industry (romance books account for about one third of all mass market fiction books sold).
Last month a controversy over racial stereotyping and discrimination in the industry erupted when Courtney Milan, a romance writer of Chinese descent was censored after she accused a fellow member of the Romance Writers of America of racism. Members (including Lush) dropped their membership. That grand titan of romance Nora Roberts sided with Milan. Board members resigned and when publishers began to pull out, the Rita Awards were cancelled, precipitating a shakeup of the RWA’s leadership. The dust has yet to settle: The RWA, started in 1980 by black romance editor Vivian Stephens with a specific aim of inclusion and advocacy (insert irony here), is still looking for its happy-ever-after-ending.
How has the brouhaha affected the local chapter of RWA?
“With this kerfuffle, we’re taking a wait and see approach,” says Holt who is vice president of programming at TARA. “We’ll see if they clean up their act. At any rate, TARA is a very cohesive group. No matter what happens with RWA, we’ll continue to flourish because that’s the kind of members we are.”
O’Connor says her sister Sheri has experienced discrimination against LGBT authors, so she can relate to marginalization. Sheri Lyn, who describes herself as an “asexual lesbian,” writes LGBT romances featuring male/male relationships. “Lot of the ‘cons’ are cliquey,” says O’Connor, stressing that everyone will be welcome at Books at the Beach. She and her sisters never had joined RWA anyway. “We found that the RWA treated Indies like second-class citizens and we weren’t going there.”
“Indies” refers to self-published writers. More than half of romance writers self-publish, reaching their audiences primarily online.
Lush published her first two books with a small publisher. Then she published Tell Me a Story in that sizzling anthology of Florida writers. “It was initially supposed to be a one-off, a short novella for the anthology,” Lush explains. “Then things snowballed. I hired a designer to create a beautiful cover. I decided to self-publish the book on its own. Then I wrote five more stories in the series. I sold some books, then I sold some more.”
Tell Me a Story became the most downloaded erotica book in several countries. It even got some good reviews from mainstream publications. “Just like that, I was an Indie author, that is a self-published author.” Now she exclusively self-publishes through Wattpad and Radish fiction.
Holt, on the other hand, calls herself a “hybrid.” Beginning in 2006 with the now defunct Ellora’s Cave, then one of the biggest publishers of erotic romances, she now is both an Indie publisher and works with such companies as Totally Bound and Wild Rose.
The Books at the Beach trio only self-publishes. O’Connor started first with historical romance, then moved to paranormal romances. She also writes YA books (she has teenagers who demanded she write something they could read).
Sheri began writing LGBT romances four years ago. Jennifer writes mostly horror, but has written a few romances, including contributing to the Deep Hollow series started by her sisters. Lyn and O’Connor created a fake town in Massachusetts called Black Hollow (near Salem, of course) and asked four other writers to write paranormal romances set there.
Their latest volume in the Black Hollow series breaks the fourth wall. “All six authors show up in the fake town and interact with the characters,” says O’Connor. “The fans are loving it. Many of them have met us at romance cons and they recognize us. All six of us are quirky.”
Besides the three sisters, the other writers in the Deep Hollow series are Gracen Miller from Alabama, J.C. Layne from North Carolina and Robbie Cox from Cocoa Beach. Cox, one of the rare male romance writers, runs Space Coast Book Lovers, a romance convention in Cocoa Beach with his three “wives.” (O’Connor calls him a polygamist). I told you she said they were all quirky.
For the series, the group gives out a physical charm for anyone who buys the books directly from them instead of through Amazon or BookBub, two common sites for selling romance.
In romance fiction there truly is something for everyone.
Explore the work of
Tamara Lush here
Desiree Holt here
and Sheri Lyn here
Meeting Romance Writers
Tampa Area Romance Authors (TARA) Events
Monthly Meet Up
When: Second Saturday of every month from 10 a.m-3 p.m.
Where: 6942 West Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa
Registration: No Registration is necessary. Guests are welcome to attend two general meetings before joining.
. . .
Now in its 29th year, the TARA awards are for full-length novels in seven romance categories: series contemporary, contemporary single title, paranormal (futuristic, fantasy, time travel), historical, inspirational, romantic suspense and women’s fiction. The author does not have to be a member of Romance Writers of America or the TARA chapter to enter, but the work must be unpublished and the author’s original work.
When: Entries accepted from 15-April 26 for awards.
. . .
Workshop: The Hows and Whys of Submitting to Publishers and Agents
Hands-on workshop with Rhonda Penders, editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Wild Rose Press, and Sharon Belcastro, literary agent and co-founder of Belcastro Literary Agency. The Wild Rose Press publishes romance in all genres and YA. The Belcastro Literary Agency specialize in adult genre fiction (including mystery, suspense, thriller and women’s fiction) and young adult titles. from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. with an hour break for lunch.
When: March 14 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. with an hour break for lunch
Where: The Golden Corral, 6942 West Hillsborough Ave. Tampa
Details and Pre-Registration here
. . .
BOOKS AT THE BEACH
A writer’s convention organized by a trio of romance-writing sisters: Jennifer Wedmore, Sheri Lyn and Cassidy K. O’Connor. Open to all genres (although the organizers expect nearly 95 percent will be romance writers).
Eighty tables will be set up for attending authors. Included is a meet and greet, at least two meals and a tote bag full of swag. Participants also can attend sessions featuring a doctor, a police officer and a Domme/Dom from a local BDSM club “to answer questions and demonstrate techniques to make our books more authentic.”
An author signing, held on Saturday, October 24, 2021, will be open to the public
When: October 21-24, 2021 from 7-10 p.m.
Where: Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa, 400 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater