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Start a New Romance This Valentine's Day
By GAIL A. SISOLAK
Contributing Writer

It's February, the month of Valentine's Day. Of course your thoughts of a new romance are tempting. Go ahead; no one will know! Time to treat yourself to a little indulgence. Take a bubble bath, pour some wine, light a few scented candles and slip between the covers with a good ... book.

Romance novels account for close to 50 percent of paperback sales, according to first-time romance novelist and Wilmington resident Carolyn Matkowsky. Seaford resident Colleen Faulkner, another Delawarean romance writer, agrees and says that readers keep coming back to romance novels because "it makes them smile. They have enough of the real world every day; if they want to see that, they can turn on the television." When readers pick up a romance novel, they know there is going to be a happy ending.

The Women Behind the Romance
As the saying goes, behind every good man there is a good woman. Three long-time Delaware residents use their talent and skill to create some fabulous heroes and heroines.

Judith E. French, best-selling author of 23 full-length historical romance novels and five novellas, is a native of Kent County Delaware. Avon books published her first novel in 1985. She now has more than 1 million books in print, many published in a variety of languages worldwide including German, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Italian, French, Danish, Norwegian. Her daughter, Colleen Faulkner, is also a best-selling author, and continues the strong tradition of storytelling that has been shared by their family for generations. French is married, writes full time, and lives with her husband in a restored farmhouse that has been in her family since the 18th century.

Faulkner sold her first historical romance to Kensington Publishing in 1986 at the age of 24. She has since sold 25 full-length historical romance novels, six contemporary romances, a mainstream suspense novel and seven novellas.

Her books are also published worldwide and she has appeared on QVC home-shopping network to promote Zebra historical romances.

Faulkner resides in southern Delaware with her husband and four children ages 10-20. She is currently under contract with Harlequin/Silhouette Books and Kensington Publishing.

Carolyn Matkowsky, also a Delaware native, graduated from Claymont High School and Goldy-Beacom College. She and her husband of 26 years live in North Wilmington, and have one adult son.

Matkowsky writes part time, eking out moments during lunch hours and Sunday afternoons. Tuesday nights are spent either writing or having past work critiqued by fellow writers.

These hard-working writers share a few common traits. All of the women are voracious readers and have been interested in reading and storytelling from an early age.

As a little girl, French's father read to her every night. Edgar Rice Burroughs' tales of Tarzan, Kipling's stories and her father's favorite author, Zane Grey, filled her evenings.

Mother and daughter French and Faulkner come from a long line of storytellers. French can remember sitting with her grandfather, who at 90 could still enthrall family members with ghost stories, family sagas and true regional tales. She said she grew up hearing stories about "the trouble with England" and "the trouble between the states."

It wasn't until later when she started studying history in school that she realized those stories were about the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. History, for French, was "a jigsaw-puzzle of family lives."

This personal connection to local history sparked her interest in writing historical romance novels. French said many people are under the misconception women in the past had little power or lacked a significant role in society. According to her, it depends on the time and place you study. The Mid-Atlantic States were settled by educated people, who in turn, educated their daughters. These women kept the accounts, ran plantations, shipyards and businesses in the 17th and 18th centuries. French heard about these strong women in her own family and wanted to write about them. The female characters she created needed strong men, French said, and their relationships struck a chord with readers.

Faulkner initially didn't want to write romance novels, even though she shared the same heritage as her mother. In fact, she "never wanted to be a writer. Who wants to be the same as their mother?"

Faulkner and French both made sales at an early age. Faulkner sold a story at age 16 to an old magazine she thinks was called Delaware Digest. It was a ghost story told to her by her grandfather, and she thought it was great to receive money for a story. But her mother was already working as a freelance writer while she was in high school, and Faulkner was not interested in following in her mother's footsteps.

French also had made a sale in her teens, to a concession magazine similar in style to True Confessions. At age 17, she sold a short story about parents dealing with a child born with Down syndrome. French laughed when she compared some of those magazines of the 1950s and 1960s to the romance novels sold today. She said the pictures on the covers may have appeared "lurid," but the stories inside were often family oriented.

While Matkowsky did not start writing until later in life, she was an avid reader and constantly haunted the bookshelves at the public library.

Getting the First Break
Matkowsky said an article she saw in The News Journal prompted her to write and sell her first romance novel. In the early 1990s, she and a friend had discussed a Harlequin Romance they had read and said, "we could write one of these." At around the same time, The News Journal featured the Delaware Chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), now disbanded, in a story. Matkowsky and her friend took the day off from work and drove to Dover to meet with the group. She said she was "in awe" of the published authors she met, including French and Faulkner.
Matkowsky now admits she was overly optimistic about how easy it would be to write a novel, and that she didn't know anything about point of view or the conflict between the hero or heroine that is an essential element in a good romance novel. By joining RWA she was able to attend conferences and workshops to learn the necessary writing skills.
Matkowsky also found a critique group at Borders Books, which she said gave her valuable feedback. Most importantly, she persevered. "You won't get published if you quit," she said.

Her break came when she met Erin Cartwright, editor for Avalon books at a New Jersey Romance Writers Conference. Cartwright asked to see the first five chapters of Matkowsky's book in 2001. When she liked what she read, she asked to see the remainder in February of 2002. In May of 2002, Avalon Books offered to buy "A Catered Affair." The novel is due out later this month as part of the Avalon Career Romance line. Matkowsky said the sale of the novel was actually quick for the publishing industry, especially for a non-agented author.

Set in Delaware, Matkowsky's contemporary romance tells the tale of a stubbornly self-reliant catering business owner, Mary Beth Kendrick, and her forced business relationship with the man who once broke her heart, Tom Sackett.

If Matkowsky said her book sale was fast, then Faulkner's first novel sale was meteoric. She managed to find an agent who sold her book on the strength of a proposal alone. The market was vastly different in the mid-1980s, Faulkner emphasized, and her publishing house had just opened. They were looking for new authors they could keep and build. Faulkner admitted she was in the right place in the right time.

Hard Work and Happy Endings

Faulkner followed up on the opportunity given to her. She wrote her first book on a typewriter and used the money from the sales to buy a word processor. She has since received numerous nominations and awards in the romance writing industry, and in 1999 was presented with "The Diamond Award," given by the Delaware Chapter of the Romance Writers of America for literary excellence in the state of Delaware. Her next release, "The Other Twin," scheduled to be released in August of 2003, will be her first suspense novel.

French's most recent release was "Falcon's Angel," published by Ballantine Books in February 2002 and set in the early 19th century in the Outer Banks of Carolina and in Charleston. Her next release will be a Scottish historical romance, "Wedded Bliss," Kensington Books, May 2003. Her current project is a contemporary romantic suspense, set in Dover and along the Delaware Bay. Her many awards include: Romantic Time's Magazine Career Achievement Award for American Historicals 2000, Affaire de Coeur's Best Historical 1989, Delaware Diamond Award for Literary Excellence and the Colorado Romance Award of Excellence.

So the next time you decide to escape between the covers of your favorite romance with the dashing hero and a confident heroine, remember these local women who worked behind the scenes to carefully weave the stories.