Grace Burrowes is a New York Times best-selling romance author who started out writing for the sheer fun of amusing herself. She’d written close to two dozen books and two million words before she ever thought of publishing anything.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Grace talks about why ”the joy of the pen” is its own reward, and being a multiple RITA finalist and author of more than 70 Regency and Scottish romances.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Her amazing output before she published anything
- Why Regency is so popular with readers
- How romance has changed in the last decade
- The way romance saved her from despondency
- The writers she admires most
- What she’d do differently second time around
Where to find Grace Burrowes:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Grace . Hello there Grace and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Grace: It is wonderful- and I do mean wonderful- to be here.
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning – was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction? And if there was a catalyst, what was it?
Grace: Well I think I have recounted elsewhere, the idea that I came upon a book – I was saving it for a cold, dark, lonely night and the book just didn’t do the job. It was a little disappointing and I had the thought, the same as many of us have; I bet I could do this, I bet I could write a book. I did begin to write.
A catalyst though would have been my Master’s degree. I am a lawyer, but I went back to school to get my masters degree in conflict, and conflict resolution. My adviser asked me, “if you could write anything in the world for your master’s thesis, what would you write?”
I told him, I would write a novel. That novel would have two lawyers as the protagonists- one of them would love the legal system, one of them would see it as a necessary evil and would have had experience with many of the ways it’s flawed. I’d make it a romance.
So my adviser said, well why don’t you do that! I wasn’t expecting a graduate adviser to advise me to write fiction, but I just had the best time. It wasn’t my first attempt at fiction- but it was a catalyst in the sense that the book had a theme; ‘what is justice?’ That made writing the romance more of a challenge and more fun.
So I’d say putting together that manuscript was a turning point for two reasons; first of all, because it was a more complicated process then simply “writing a love story because that’s what I love to write”. Also, my adviser read it when it was finished, and to that point I hadn’t been writing for anybody else to read, I’d just sort of been writing for fun. So that was the catalyst story. It may not be the first book that I wrote, but it was a turning point book.
Jenny: That’s so interesting that they even did accept it as a master’s thesis. That’s fantastic actually!
Grace: Well, it was 400 pages. It certainly held up in terms of weight compared to anything that was being written in that department at the time. The book turned out to be I think The Sweetest Kiss. It was published years later in a revised form, and I think it did a good job in showing that when the American legal system works, it can achieve justice. Too often, it does not work and the results are tragic. So I hit those wickets too.
Jenny: But that was probably a contemporary, was it?
Grace: Yes, that was a contemporary.
Jenny: But you’ve very much made your world now in the Regency period with the romances you’ve been doing in more recent times.
Grace: Yes. I’ve done some Scottish Victorians and some Scottish Regencies. I’ve got to have my dose of Scotland!
Jenny: And it was always romance? Your website strap line is “I believe in love” – and I guess for you there has never been a temptation to do anything other than romance….How could it be anything else?
Grace: There has not been a temptation to do anything but romance. I toyed with the idea of writing historical mysteries, because I so admire those and I enjoy many of them. The plotting is not as familiar to me as the romance plotting. There maybe a historical mystery series in my future, but it’s not talking to me yet.
Jenny: How many novels did you finish before you thought to publish one? I’ve known from reading websites and things that there were an amazing number of books that you beavered away with, just for your own fun as you describe it- how many had you got to at that stage before you thought about publishing?
Grace: Maybe a couple of dozen- somewhere between 20 and 25. They were monstrosities- you know, 200,000 words. I was having the best time. I got hold of Stephen King’s On Writing, and somewhere in there- On Writing is about 20 years old- he said that about 180,000 words was a good length for a book. Well, nobody writes 180,000 words except Stephen King! So I had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes I had to chop a book into two books before it could be published, but I was so happy writing those books.
Jenny: Two dozen completed manuscripts? Remarkable! And it wasn’t planned as a business decision either.. it was all for love?
Grace: Oh yes, but at the time I was running my own law practice, so the idea that something is a business topic or you’ve got to scope out the business angle; that’s just a yawn. I’ve been running my own business for 25 years. I do wish I had self published sooner- everybody said self publishing is so much work. Well, no it’s not! Not compared to running a law practice and compared to my experiences with traditional publishing.
I should have seen for myself sooner, in that regard. But I don’t have a television, and I live pretty much alone in the country so entertaining myself has always been an item on the agenda. Writing for me was just a form of entertainment. I think we’ve lost that- we’ve lost writing as a hobby. But for me, it was a good five years of just frolic.
Jenny: I think Gareth Lord of the Rakes was your first novel – and I gather he later blossomed into a series of his own – the Lonely Lords series. I find it interesting that your first book focused on a man who maybe was a bit of a rascal?
Grace: That is the first regency that I finished- I finished the manuscript. It should have been at least in that series, the Lonely Lords, the first one published. However the first house that I worked with was Source Books, and my editor was Deb Werksman.
She had the thankless task of sifting through- she would say “send me your best three”, and “send me three more” until she spotted three books that she thought were good quality, representative of the brand and could make a good, strong trilogy of brothers. So the first one she published was The Heir, followed by The Soldier and The Virtuoso. Gareth appeared later on.
Jenny: I was interested in Gareth, because when I read about the premise, it sounded remarkably brave for a first time author. It was a rakish marquess who’s tasked with ruining a proper and well bred young woman. I thought – wow, that’s pretty strong territory for a romance first book.
Grace: Well I had four brothers, and I’ve told them I struggle with plotting. You know, you pick the low hanging fruit, you use the tropes that appeal to you most, and then what do you do?!
One brother said to me at one point- you make your protagonists choose between the competing demands of honour. Here is a marquess, and he’s sort of convinced himself he’s an un-redeemable bad boy, and a proper lady says to him: “look. If you ruin me, I’ll be ruined, but I’ll have a roof over my head- I’ll be safe. I’ll have means, because I can manage this brothel that’s been bequeathed to me.
“If you don’t ruin me, I’ll be ruined just the same because I’ve been left in penury. I won’t be able to eat, I’ll end up on the street. I would rather own the grovel than work in the grovel.” So those were his choices. He could have walked away, but then she would have gone to somebody else.
So I thought I did a pretty good job of boxing in the hero. Just how much of a horse’s behind was he willing to be? In the end, he sort of found the way out of the box and found his own decency in the process. So we can think one of my brothers for that premise!
Jenny: It’s remarkably astute really, because in one of the craft books I’ve read, there’s this thing called “The best bad choice”. The idea is to push your protagonist into a situation where they’re faced with two bad choices, and they have to pick the best of the bad choice. That’s one of the ways you generate interesting conflict, so it’s that under another guise, isn’t it?
Grace: It is, and I find a theme in my life is rejection of forced choices. We’re often told- well, you can be a social worker or you can be a scientist but you can’t be both. Well, yes you can! It’s just going to be long, expensive and a lot of work but you can! Or women are frequently asked; is it career or family? Whoever asks a man that? Men are doing that all the time. So m knee jerk reaction in response to a forced choice is those are not my only options. There’s at least a third way in, and probably a fifth and a seventh.
Jenny: Yes, that’s great. And when it comes to plotting- you can do that, you know write a little list of ten things that could happen and then pick the most interesting. When it comes to four, five or six I think the most interesting idea starts to pop up; the first two or three may not be the most interesting at all. That’s a little side track I suppose. the major series are the Windhams and the Windham Family Tree is something to behold!! How long have you been writing the Windhams and how many books are there now?
Grace: There are a total of eight Windham’s because there are eight siblings. There are a couple of novellas for the mum and dad, and the Duke and Duchess. These Windham’s just sort of pop in and out of the bushes in other books. I think there are a total with all the novellas – ten or twelve titles.
Jenny: Yes, there’s an impressive family tree at the beginning of them, and you can look and see how they’re all interrelated!
Grace: If you’re a visual thinker- and I am – I’d rather see a family tree than read a list of dramatist personae. I want a picture.
Jenny: Your books have a very strong sense of the period – and enjoyable period slang . . have you done a lot of research on the Regency period – including going to England and sussing it out?
Grace: I have. I’m lucky enough to live on the East Coast of the United States, so a trip across the pond is six to seven hours in a plane; it’s not that bad. We mostly do red eyes from the East Coast, so you fall asleep in New York and wake up in London.
I go as often as I can afford to, and I try to see a combination of things I’ve planned and the serendipitous, spontaneous, “that looks interesting” kind of items. In the United States, our recorded history started 300 years ago, maybe 400 if you’re on the East Coast.
But if you’re on the West Coast, it’s 150 years ago, and you compare that to the centuries and even millennia of history that’s available in the UK. It just boggles the American mind! It’s delightful, and it feels like you can dig, dig and dig and never reach bed rock in the culture. It fascinates me, I wish I could spend long chunks of time there.
Moving to a more general focus, away from specific books to your wider career
Jenny: You’ve hit the New York Times best seller list three times in four books – and been a RITA finalist many times. You must have a sense of having “made it” now? And what does that feel like?
Grace: It feels wonderful. I’m so fortunate, I’m just so aquiver with glee that I get to do something I love so much, and make a living out of it. I’m so grateful to my readers, and to the other writers who boost me along the way. This is what I was born to do- to write happily ever afters.
You know on fifth grade career day, way back when you’re a little person, nobody ever says to you “would you like to write fiction?” Its just not on the options. Like “would you like to be a painter? Would you like to be first violist in the Philharmonic?” You know, the arts and professional pursuits are just not presented to us as options on the same footing that some of the other choices are. I’m just so grateful that I can do this.
For long time I did this, and I was also a child welfare attorney. Nobody should have to be a child welfare attorney.
You know, you see things, hear things and have to listen to stories and people who have experienced trauma on top of tragedy, on top of tragedy, on top of foolishness. I think if I hadn’t had the romance to read and write while I was being that kind of lawyer, I could not have been that kind of lawyer! I couldn’t have represented those clients, or lasted as long as I did. So I’m grateful to romance writers who have sustained me and I’m grateful to be a romance writer.
Jenny: In what way do you think romance has changed over the time you’ve been writing, and do readers expect something different from you now than they did when you first started out?
Grace: Let’s say I’ve been writing for the past ten years. In that time, historical romance has become broader. You can now write Edwardian, Victorian, Elizabethan, Ancient Rome, Incan Peru- the readership has broadened with us.
There are far more options in the romance genre. It’s as if the sub genres don’t fade, there’s still people writing vampires, dystopians, erotic romances- it’s all still there that we keep on adding more depth and breadth to the genre. There is certainly an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity that wasn’t there ten years ago. We have a long way to go, but the discussion has started. I think there are more people writing romance, which is good. Self publishing of course, has changed the landscape for many of us, and it’s no longer just a traditional publishing game. So I see all of those steps as positive- I think that the genre’s livelier, and it does a better job at offering something for every reader.
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Grace: That’s an interesting question, because often I think we look at writers at the people at the top of their game and think- “I’m going to do what they’re going to do, and I’m going to be successful”, without realising that there’s a fallacy in that. If those people have been doing things like we do, they may be twice as successful.
So success fallacy is something I try to be aware of. If I am successful to some extent, it’s despite what I’ve done not because of what I’ve done. Trying to figure out those two piles- where are the “despites”, and where are there the “because ofs”. It takes a crystal ball! I would say the one thing I’ve done that has allowed me to keep writing, because in order to succeed, you’ve got to have books – is to focus on the writing. Stay with the writing, stay with what I call the “joie de plume” – the joy of the pen.
It’s very easy to get distracted by comparing yourself to others by hopping on writing trends, and hopping on marketing trends, by seeing the glass half empty. But if writing brings you joy, and you can get in touch with that joy – all the ups and the downs won’t unhorse you. The ups can unhorse you just as badly as the downs. But if you can stick with the writing, and stick with the pleasure of creation, then you’ll probably be around for a long time, having a good time.
Jenny: Grace, I think that sounds so wise. I think that’s marvellous. I can see why you have been invited to be a speaker at Romance Writers New Zealand- you’ve got a lot of wisdom there!
Turning to Grace as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . . . .And series really are the “coming thing” as you’re proving So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read”? And do you have a current series or author – or more than one – you’d like to recommend to listeners?
Grace: Well, because my reading tastes were developed when all we had was traditional publishing, you would get one or two Mary Balogh’s a year. The whole idea that you can just plough through a whole series, and that an author might have a book for you every month – that’s a real paradigm shift for me.
What I do over the winter though is I read whole series. I will read the Bedwyn series,and the Bridgertons. That’s how I spend my winters, because the evenings are long, cold and dark. They’re perfect for reading, so I do binge read series then.
Jenny: For readers who are unfamiliar with the Bedwin and Bridgerton series- who writes those?
Grace: Mary Balogh wrote the Bedwins. We probably know that as The Slightly Series. Slightly Dangerous, Slightly Wicked. She had six siblings, and finished with the duke Slightly Dangerous. They’re big thick books with lots of family action, in a very developed world. The Bridgertons are of course Julia Quinn’s foundation series. It’s going to be developed by Netflix, so that sounds like a good idea! But again, it was eight siblings and the books did not come out in quick succession, but now you can read them in a week, and it’s a very good week when that happens!
Jenny: When I first started out, I read a lot of Julia Quinn but if I’ve read one of those it hasn’t remained in my poor old brain! I started reading romance long ago, so I must go back to those because Julia was one of my favourites when I started out, yes.
Grace: Well that series I think is about twenty years old. It was one of her earliest books. But again, it wasn’t published quickly like some series are now. It was a book or two a year, so it came out over a span of several years. But oh, those books have held up! They’re wonderful.
Jenny: And it’s terrific they’e been picked up by Netflix now- that thing about the creative work never really dies is very much seen there, isn’t it?
Grace: Oh, I hope so! I hope they develop a large and unquenchable appetite for historical romance on Netflix!
Circling back to the beginning at the end
(I see this as a bit of a narrative)
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Grace: Well I’ve mentioned that I would have self published sooner- I think also I would trust my gut more. We bring to writing a lot of experience, as parents, spouses, neighbors homeowners and professionals. Yet when it comes to the writing, we sort of forget all that and are looking to others for guidance. Sometimes contrary to our instincts.
When I had the “uh oh” feeling as a lawyer or a mum, I listened to it. I was much slower to listen to my instincts as a writer. If there was an offer on the table that didn’t feel quite right to me, I was more likely to hold my nose, sign it and assume I was new to this, I didn’t understand the business end of it. People would consider themselves very lucky to even have a contract on the table. I talked myself out of my doubts, and I shouldn’t have done that.
Jenny: Now what is next for Grace the writer? Your work in progress, or any new projects underway?
Grace: I will start a new series. The series is Rogues to Riches, and the first book comes out November. That will be my one and only duke. The premise for this series came to me as follows. I think we’re all a little sick of dukes, and billionaires and alpha males. It’s hard to keep that material fresh, because it’s been done so often.
And yet a man who is high status or a woman who is high status has a long way to fall. So it’s fun to write those characters. It is interesting to watch them bought to the brink of despair, despite all the power and blessings they might have at the beginning of the book. So I asked myself- who is the farthest person I can think of in Regency London from a duke?
And being a lawyer, I said a convicted killer waiting execution in Newgate. So that’s where I started. That’s where our hero is when the book opens. From there, he sort of has to back slide and slip slither and claw his way to a happily ever after. That book was so much fun to write! It was a challenge, but it turned out to be a fun little book!
Jenny: Now it’s a series, so you must already have an idea where that series is going. With a single guy like that, is it giving any secrets away to ask how do you build a series from that one? It’s a great premise for a book, but how do you make it continue?
Grace: Well one of the heroes – his name is Quinn Wentworth – one of the things Quinn has to learn is not to be such a lone wolf. He has younger siblings, and the first person he has to let into his life is of course his wife, his love interest.
He also is a very wealthy banker, which is where his power comes from. Bankers were held in universal contempt, because they were always skirting around the usary laws. So he has servants in his home, business partners, employees.
There is a community orbiting around him. At the beginning of the book, he’s kind of oblivious to that. By the end of the book, he truly is a duke and he leads others. He doesn’t just go charging around on his own, and the duchess is largely responsible for bringing him into the fold that way.
To answer your question, there’s two younger sisters, a younger brother, a cousin and a business partner – plenty of people to make a series with.
Jenny: I see that. . . We are running out of time, So where can readers find you on line?
Grace: I am somewhat active on Facebook, less so on Twitter. I send people to places – of course I have my website www.graceburrowes.com.
All the books and pre covers are there, and I do my blogs on Sunday. But I’m telling readers if they want to keep up with and stay up to date with new releases, discounts and deals, just follow me on Bookbub. It’s a happy little environment where we all recommend books to each other, but you’re spared from social media, kitten pictures and wars – you just get the things readers want to know, like when is a book coming out, or when is a book coming on sale.
If you want more than that, you can sign up to my newsletter on my website or find me on Facebook as Grace Burrowes Author.
Jenny: Fantastic Grace. Look, it’s been such a pleasure to see you. I know that we’re actually going to be meeting at the Romance Writers New Zealand conference and I’m really looking forward to hearing what you’ve got to say there, and meeting you in person.
Grace: Thank you so much, I can’t wait to see you there and meet you in person.
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