The Secret Lives of Romance Authors

Posted by Hayley on February 11, 2019
She’s an expert at true love, the master of scenes that make readers sigh and swoon. She is a fearless champion of happily ever after.

And she’s also a whole lot more.

After years of interviewing authors, our team noticed something truly delightful: The real-life backstories of romance novelists rival anything made up in a book.

We reached out to some of these writers—a divorce lawyer, a Shakespeare scholar, a biomedical researcher, and a former clerk for the Supreme Court—to dig into their “secret lives” and find out how their unique pasts influence their books.


Eloisa James: The Shakespearean Matchmaker

To be, or not to be—for Eloisa James, the real question is, why not be both? With degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford, she finds time to write bestselling historical romance novels while teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University.



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Tell us about your "other" life.

I never had any interest in being a Shakespeare scholar as an undergrad. But I liked rain and men with British accents.

So I ended up applying for a master's program at Oxford and later an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at Yale, covering everything from music to art (which turned out to be a perfect background for a historical novelist).

And then for the last 20 years, I’ve been a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University. I feel so lucky—the plays constantly surprise and delight me, and I can’t imagine a better subject to teach.

This fall I began a new position as a dean in charge of strategies and initiatives, a long way of saying that I try to solve problems with big ideas. It’s wildly challenging but very interesting.

How has that experience influenced your books?

Actually, writing a historical romance is not unlike writing a play back in the 1600s. My readers range from college professors to teenagers, and I need to make the stories work at a lot of different levels, just as Shakespeare did.


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One reader might guess that a book is a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet (my Once Upon a Tower), but another won’t—and doesn’t need to. Hopefully they are equally happy with the reading experience. Shakespeare’s language and plots weave their way into all my books, but mostly in a subterranean fashion.

What other careers would you love to explore?

Being a doctor! I was thinking the other day how interesting it would have been to study medicine.

Sometimes I think I’d like to have been in politics—who doesn’t wonder if the government could be better organized? But I realize that’s an impossible task.



Penny Reid: The Analytical Cupid

What's the difference between writing federal grant proposals and rom-coms? The latter just has more jokes, according to Penny Reid. The beloved author of the Knitting in the City series still draws inspiration from her years as a biomedical researcher.



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Tell us about your "other" life.

I was the chief operating officer of a large data-coordinating center, with a focus on biostatistics and clinical-trial design in pediatric rare-diseases research.

The prospect of making a tangible difference is what led me to biomedical research. Ensuring internal and external integrity of data, systems, procedures, analytics, as well as ethical clinical-trial design, was a passion I felt extremely blessed to have pursued for 15 years—which, I realize, makes me a huge nerd.

How has that experience influenced your books?

My approach to writing a book is extremely similar to how I used to approach writing a grant, or a clinical-trial protocol, or a journal article. Every piece of writing tells a story that begins with assumptions and statements, which are made relevant and valid through citation of research.


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Hopefully, if done well, each story takes the reader on a journey and eventually leads the reader to a conclusion. How entertaining that story is depends on both the reader's interest in the subject matter as well as how the facts are presented.

Previously, for grants, journal articles, and protocol documents, I would spice them up with tables, graphs, and flow diagrams; all the better if they were in full color.

Now, for my novels, I use jokes.

What other careers would you love to explore?

I've always wanted to be a falconer.



HelenKay Dimon: The Love Litigator

It doesn't get much more unromantic than reading prenups for a living. After divorce lawyer HelenKay Dimon tired of helping people terminate their relationships, she turned to love stories. Now she's all about steamy romantic thrillers.



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Tell us about your "other" life.

People who know me would likely say I became a trial lawyer because I like to argue. They aren’t exactly wrong.

I started at a small firm in Maryland that handled criminal and domestic cases. I represented athletes, political figures, people in law enforcement, and representatives from almost every government agency, including the CIA, DIA, FBI, Secret Service…and a few agencies I had never heard of before that job.

My specialty areas were writing premarital agreements (so romantic) and litigating contested custody cases (the least romantic job ever).

For years my days involved listening to people fight over living room curtains, who got the kids for the Friday after Thanksgiving, and money—so many fights about money. That might be the reason I write romantic suspense and pretend to kill people for a living now.

How has that experience influenced your books?

Divorce and romance aren’t the most logical companions. But I do think seeing people at their worst and learning so much about what happened to them and what they survived before they ever walked into my office helps me when writing characters now.


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And, honestly, if I wrote about some of the real things that happened, no one would believe them. I can almost see the editorial note: “There’s no way someone would do something so ridiculous. Think about rewriting this.”

What other careers would you love to explore?

Screenwriter. I never would have said that when I was a kid. I’m not sure if I knew what a screenwriter did when I was growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

I am a huge movie and television fan. The idea of being in that world, sitting with a group of other writers and brainstorming ideas for a weekly show, sounds like bliss.

So yeah, unless there’s an actual job that would allow me to watch television and movies all day, I’ll say screenwriter.



Courtney Milan: The Supreme Romantic

Courtney Milan likes a challenge. From untangling the mysteries of the universe and clerking for the Supreme Court to taming (fictional) dukes, the self-professed dork throws herself into new experiences, especially ones that she can use in her novels.



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Tell us about your "other" life.

When I was a graduate student, I created Ising models of glassy systems. Why? Because glassy systems were “an unsolved problem in physics”—and that sounded sexy to me. Then I realized it was unsolved for a reason.

So I went to law school. But I soon discovered there is absolutely no money in anything that doesn’t involve corporate dollars. I decided I wanted to be a law professor instead. I did well in law school and clerked for really important people like Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (who is one of the best people I’ve met) and Anthony Kennedy.

I loved teaching. But it was pretty much impossible for me to sleep at night, thinking, “Wow, my students are graduating with $200,000 in debt and maybe getting jobs that pay $40,000.” It turns out that I’m also very bad at taking a salary when I feel like it’s hurting people.

What you should take from this is that I’m a massive dork. I like learning new things, I’m not afraid of a challenge, I hate being told what to do, and I like to generally do decent things.

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How have those experiences influenced your books?

Many of the things I’ve done have shown up in my books—from The Governess Affair, which explored my experience with #MeToo, to Unraveled, which covered my time clerking for the Supreme Court. And the things that haven’t yet shown up? Don’t worry, I’m sure they will at some point.

And my books are all very dork friendly, and the dorkiness in my books is varied. You want a book that talks about the Declaration of Rights and the founding of the American Empire? I have written that book: The Pursuit of... You want a book about chromosomes and the discovery of genetics? Here it is: The Countess Conspiracy. Want a book about mobile gadgets? Got that one, too: Trade Me.

What other careers would you love to explore?

Here are things I wish I did, but which would require probably ten-plus years of dedication to really be good at:

  • literary translator
  • interior designer (But is there a version of this where I don’t have to interact with people? That’s what I want.)
  • speechwriter
  • environmental scientist
  • dog trainer


Do you know of any other authors' secret lives? Share them with us in the comments!

Check out the complete coverage of Romance Week:
The Beginner's Guide to Reading Romance
Legendary Literary Couples Live on in Countless Retellings
26 of the Hottest Romances of 2019

Comments Showing 1-49 of 49 (49 new)

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message 1: by Amber (new)

Amber Lynne Penny Reid is one of my favs! Her intelligence and style of writing is so unique! I love her books so much!


message 2: by Merei (new)

Merei What fun interviews! I adore Penny Reid and am so excited to learn about Courtney Milan!


BrookeNoWhiskey This was fantastic! Love the behind the scenes info on some author favorites.


message 4: by Laura (new)

Laura Love me some Penny Reed and Courtney Milan!


message 5: by Zsuzsa (new)

Zsuzsa Lévai Great interviews!Penny is my favorite!


message 6: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Great article that highlights the wonderful highly educated women who write romance. Love love Penny Reid!


message 7: by Connie Wilhoit (new)

Connie Wilhoit Thank you so very much for spot lighting Penelope Reid. I am beyond taken with her writing. Yes they are funny and her characters capture your heart- she just has that extra something. i feel like i’m respected as a reader. that she knows i can think - does that make sense? i learn things when i read her books. i’ve had to look up things! and I love that!! anyway delightful woman and lovely smart books. Thank you


message 8: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl I really enjoyed these "back story" interviews, especially Penny Reid's. She lives in my city and I even worked for a biomedical research organization here for a bit. She's got me thinking about flexing my fledgling romance-writing muscles. She could probably name every one of them!


message 9: by Antonella (new)

Antonella Penny Reid's books have special place in my heart and on my shelves. Love the stories and characters that I often revisit.


message 10: by Marivi (new)

Marivi Sanz I really love Penny Reid and her books. She writes amazing heroines and delightful heroes. Every romance is different, and there are lots of nerdy facts and fun, and you even learn new things. It's a win-win!


message 11: by Lori (new)

Lori I love Penny Reid’s stories!! Maybe it’s because I’m kind of a nerd, maybe it’s the jokes, but it’s definitely the wonderful stories she writes about love and relationships. 🤓


message 12: by Anne (new)

Anne Wright I'm a big fan of Penny Reid and Eloisa James. I plan to read more of Courtney Milan. I haven't read HelenKay Dimon yet, but I'll have to take a closer look. Each author's background is so different, and that is definitely reflected in their works.


message 13: by Cherimoya (new)

Cherimoya Love, love, love Penny Reid and her books! I so appreciate an author who respects my intelligence!


message 14: by C. (new)

C. Lesbirel Loved reading this!!! We are all from such different worlds and I love that romance reading/ writing brings us all together X


message 15: by Josh (new)

Josh I've never read any of these authors, but I hope this kind of thing continues on Goodreads. I enjoyed reading about the different authors and their backstory. Wonder what is next?


message 16: by Erica (new)

Erica Moura Diana Gabaldon, who writes the Outlander series, holds 3 degrees in science: Zoology, Marine Biology, and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology. Besides writing fiction, she has an academic career as a university professor; she has written scientific articles and textbooks too.


message 17: by Brenda Slaven (new)

Brenda Slaven UNSUBSCRIBE!!!


message 18: by Shhh (new)

Shhh HelenKay Dimon is the only new author for me.
I just love Penny Reid, her books are the best! I love her style of writing. It's hilarious!
Eloisa James, haven't read in a while, but have to grab her book next.


message 19: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Bailey Her other life is not quite a secret at this point, but what about Stacey Abrams? She's a lawyer, politician and romance novelist.


message 20: by Jenn (new)

Jenn I love romance


message 21: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Deborah wrote: "Her other life is not quite a secret at this point, but what about Stacey Abrams? She's a lawyer, politician and romance novelist."

I was going to post Ms. Selena Montgomery. Thanks for beating me to the punch.


message 22: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie How about Alyssa Cole who is secretly a science editor, and writes amazing pluralistic feminist romance.


message 23: by Amenda (new)

Amenda Fisher Recently saw Eloise James at a speaking engagement - fascinating lady! She is a prime example of having the best of both worlds - a scholar and a successful romance writer. Love her books too!


message 24: by Jenn (new)

Jenn How do you guys know so much about her


message 25: by Jenn (new)

Jenn I think she should make a Valentine themed stories about love.


message 26: by Bonnie (last edited Feb 12, 2019 12:09PM) (new)

Bonnie I generally love her books. I need to keep my eyes open for when she speaks. We live in the same city, I have to imagine the opportunity will arise. Thanks, Amenda, for making me seek out those opportunities!


message 27: by Jenn (new)

Jenn Cool!! 😇😇


message 28: by Jenn (new)

Jenn Hi Bonnie


message 29: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Jenn wrote: "Hi Bonnie"

Hi, are you a Jenn I know from elsewhere?


message 30: by Jenn (new)

Jenn Thx? Just America


message 31: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Jenn wrote: "Thx? Just America"

Cool, America is full of cool people (and others, but still.)


message 32: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Toni Anderson, author of the Cold Justice series, was a marine biologist in her former life. Smart woman writing smart romance!


message 33: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Eager Great Article, and fantastic to see it crush the stereotype that romance is only for bored housewives! Thanks Good reads


message 34: by Me Like Reading (new)

Me Like Reading One really can’t judge a book - in this case, author - by its cover! 😂


message 35: by Angela's (new)

Angela's Book Addiction Penny Reid is one of my favorite authors. She's brilliant and hilarious! One of the few authors that I one-click whenever she has a new release.


message 36: by Patience (new)

Patience Anthony-Euba This behind the scene info is awesome. It's like bringing the authors to real life. Kudos goodreads


message 37: by Shirly (new)

Shirly This was really interesting!


message 38: by Helga (new)

Helga Hi! Thanks for contribution. Students often don't have free time to devote yourself reading favourite books because of a big amout of tasks in university. This website is a solution!


message 39: by Arjita (new)

Arjita Ghosh I love Courteney Milan, and Eloisa James works.


message 40: by Joy (last edited Feb 13, 2019 03:30PM) (new)

Joy Madeleine Brent, Siri Mitchell, & Tess Gerritsen.

Brent wrote adventure-romances in the late 60s - early 80s. It was a well-kept secret for many years that Brent was the pen name of Peter O'Donnell, who wrote the Modesty Blaise comic strips & novels (Modesty was a criminal mastermind-turned-British spy; a feminist 007).

Mitchell writes Christian historical novels with a sense of humor reminiscent of L.M. Montgomery. She used to be a technical writer.

Gerritsen is a former doctor who writes medical thrillers, but she started her career writing romantic suspense.


message 41: by Jeanne (new)

Jeanne Hurley Grace Burrowes recently switched to writing romance full-time but for many years was a family attorney here in Maryland. Her romance protagonists frequently have (wonderfully written) children. She was astoundingly productive while working a really demanding day job.


message 42: by Annette (new)

Annette super fun article!


message 43: by celln (new)

celln Great article! Thank you so much for sharing!


message 44: by Sohail (new)

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message 45: by Katie (new)

Katie Such a fun article! It's so great to learn about the authors behind my favorite books!


message 46: by Lili (new)

Lili I love Penny's writing and humor!


message 47: by Jill (new)

Jill What a fun thing to do! Penny Reid is amazingly talented. Her thoughtful research shows in her books!


message 48: by Silvia (new)

Silvia I love Penny Reid... she's witty snd entertaining, her books are romantic and smart. She never disappoints!
I read this interview because I saw she was featured, but I'll definitely try some of the other authors, now that I've read their interview!


message 49: by Sunnymay (new)

Sunnymay I giggled after reading about Courtney Milan's desire to be an interior decorator who doesn't have to deal with people.


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