(This interview originally written for Romantics at Heart in 1996)
A writer to whom duty, honor, and loyalty are paramount, Merline Lovelace, author of eleven series and single-title romances since 1991, was, for more than twenty years, an Air Force officer. As a woman in a traditionally male environment, her perspective has provided her a unique frame of reference - her heroes are strong and tough and never tortured. And her heroines are never victims.
--Laurie Likes Books
As an Air Force brat, Merline traveled the world from an early age absorbing history and a strong set of values along the way. Among those values is a strong work ethic, which has no doubt helped in her own military career. "As a young lieutenant I was a squadron commander with the responsibility of a 250-person unit and a multi-million dollar annual operating budget. It was scary, but I sure learned the meaning of leadership."
Growing up, Merline was an avid reader who loved romantic fiction before it was so labeled. After discovering Georgette Heyer in college, she spent the next summer driving to the libraries all over New England to hunt down her books. "Years later, my husband walked 20 blocks with me through the pouring rain in London to a bookstore, so I could track down the only book of hers I didn't own. (See why I love the guy!)"
Merline might well be a heroine writ from the pages of one of her books. As part of a test group, she was one of the first 18 women to attend Princeton. In the late 1960s, when mostof her contemporaries were protesting the war in Vietnam, Merline joined the military. She was an Air Force officer before the feminist movement had taken hold.
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After a long and fulfilling career in the Air Force, Merline decided it was time to try something different, something that would give her more time with her husband. Upon her retirement from the Air Force, Merline started to write.
Merline had met her warrior-mate, ". . . this incredibly sexy young captain my second day on active duty. My marriage -- ah, meeting Al was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I'm amazed every time I think of all the little events that had to occur in his life and mine for our paths to converge when they did, for us to meet and fall in love and enjoy 25 years of laughter and adventure. Guess that's why I'm such a hopeless romantic -- it happened to me, and I want it to happen to everyone, if not in real life, then in books."
When Merline first put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), the trend was toward tortured heroes and troubled heroines. "That's not my style. I like strong, aggressive characters who reach out and grab hold of their fate." Merging her love of travel, history, and romantic fiction, Merline's heroes, heroines, and settings were different from the current mold.
Unabashed in describing her strong, decisive, and dynamic husband as a model for her heroes, Merline waxes rhapsodic when discussing her mate for life: "How does my husband fit into my image of the alpha/beta scheme? I'm soooooo lucky. He combines the best of both. I could write volumes about the wonderful, thoughtful, caring, occasionally grouchy, always funny, fiercely protective man I'm married to. In fact -- I have! He's the hero in every one of my books. When we were first married, I used to bristle at his alpha-male tendencies. I mean, I'm 5'9" in my bare feet and qualified at the expert level with a .38. But over the years, I've come to appreciate his instinct to protect hearth and home -- and me. It makes me feel cherished."
When she retired, this highly decorated colonel set herself as single-mindedly to the task of writing as she once did commanding the largest air base in the world. Typically, Merline writes up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week. She has brought her intense work ethic into play, discovering that writing a book is both physically and emotionally difficult.
The research and outlining of her stories, requiring a month of intense effort, involves hauling a suitcase full of books home from nearby University of Oklahoma Library. She "reads and reads and reads until some fascinating detail or piece of trivia will spark my interest and anchor the book."
In less than a year she had completed three manuscripts and made her first sales. In typical whirl-wind fashion, she describes that first year: "I started my Roman historical, Alena, first. I'd work on that for a while, then switch to a contemporary. Then I'd get another idea and work on that. As soon as I finished a manuscript, I'd start it circulating to the publishing houses and get right to work on another. When I hired my agent, Pam Hopkins, I had to send her a spreadsheet that showed all my works and where they'd already been rejected and where they were now."
The forces that drove Merline as an officer also drive her characters. When asked whether conflict is inevitable between a fighter of war and a maker of love, she responds, "I see no contradiction between a warrior and a lover. I guess I believe every man and woman, no matter what their occupation, should be prepared to defend what he or she holds dear, whether it's in a court of law, on the streets, or on a battlefield."
Of her medieval love story between a war-hardened warrior and a defiant, misunderstood Lady she says, "There's a definite parallel between His Lady's Ransom and my experiences in life. In fact, the concepts of duty, honor and loyalty--to your country, yourself, and your mate--pretty well drive all my heroes and heroines."
This author's stories are inspired by sensory perceptions. An "eerie walk in the mist atop Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain" resulted in her first historical Alena. "I mean, I could almost hear the Roman sentries who manned the wall muttering about the cold and the damp and the sour wine of the Britons. Another trip, this time to Greece, brought to life the dusty histories I'd read about Athens and Sparta and the ancient Olympiads. I used the sights and sounds and scents of Greece in Siren's Call, which pitted a headstrong Spartan noblewoman against an Athenian ship captain."
Sometimes starting with a plot in mind, sometimes with a character, she has a vague knowledge of how the story will evolve. "I have a general idea where I want the story to go, and I do a brief outline that sketches out the major plot points for each chapter. But the characters have a way of taking hold of the story, and too many juicy situations develop along the way to ignore. So generally, I just go along for the ride."
As to the love scenes Merline writes, those are sketched out only as to placement in the story. Her scenes of intimacy grow from her characters' personalities. In His Lady's Ransom, for example, she wanted to build "two strong-willed, passionate characters who struck sparks off each other from day one, yet their coming together had to be more than just an explosion of physical need. Ian had to understand and accept Madeline's fierce concept of loyalty, which I think he does by letting her unshackle him to tend his wounds. Madeline has to hold to her honor, despite her growing desperation about what the heck she's going to do with this tiger she's caged."
Having read and adored His Lady's Ransom, I can attest to the imagery and vividness of her love scenes. When the hero and heroine come together, their chemistry is so intense you can practically see sparks fly off the page. Their desperate need for each other is evident and their joinings are passionate. This couple's loving is not gentle and sweet, it is as fierce and demanding as the characters themselves.
The characters written by Merline all have unique strengths and weaknesses. She says, "In Siren's Call, the heroine was sometimes brutal in her honesty. She was matched with a sailor/poet who drove her bonkers with his laughing approach to love. In His Lady's Ransom, Madeline drew her stubborn pride around her like a shield and refused to defend herself against the rumors about herself and Prince John. Maggie Sinclair, my female James Bond (in the Code Name: Danger series), had a tendency to skirt around orders and get herself into situations she had to answer for later to her boss, Adam Ridgeway."
While her characters are unique as people, they are always uncompromising in their actions. Merline describes her ultimate heroes/heroines as characters who "follow their hearts and do what they believe is right--without lying or being surly or suffering anguished, tortured doubts about themselves or the one they love."
We live in a world where it is acceptable to blame others for our own actions. We read romances where heroes and heroines are plagued by self-doubts and evil relatives. What sets this author apart from the romance pack where long-suffering, tortured characters are the norm is that Merline's characters could whine about their circumstances, but she doesn't let them.