Madeline Hunter exploded onto the historical romance scene with the publication of her first novel in June 2000, and she’s been dominating the genre ever since with her blend of razor-sharp plotting, steamy seductions, and detailed historical research. She’s appeared regularly on the NYT and USA Today bestsellers lists, and has won oodles of industry awards, including the RITA 2003 for her medieval romance STEALING HEAVEN. Her upcoming release, LESSONS OF DESIRE, is eagerly anticipated by romance readers, and, astonishingly, is her 15th title in seven years. Her prolific output coupled with high-quality prose has garnered her a loyal readership and keeps her at the top of the romance genre.

We are pleased to bring you the first of our two-part interview with Madeline Hunter.

Q: What is your writing process? Do you plot extensively first or do you tend to “fly in the mist?” Has your process changed over time?

MH: When I began writing, I flew into the mist. I had characters, a set-up, and usually a conclusion (so I knew where I was going.) Once I was published, I was required to submit proposals, so I had to flesh it out more. I found a workable middle ground where I plot out the spine of the story in advance, the “what happens” but not the “how it happens.” Editors want to know that there is a viable story there, so it makes sense that this kind of proposal is required. However, I have sometimes radically changed the story from what is in the proposal too. So it is not carved in stone and it does not interfere with my writing process.

Q: Your writing “voice” is very clean, with few dialogue tags and passages of introspection. Was this a conscious choice on your part, or was it part of your evolution as a writer?

MH: I learned this by necessity. My first novels were long. Very long. In order to get published I had to cut and cut. So I looked for any wasted words—anything at all that would allow me to pare off a line or a page. It was the best training in writing that I can imagine anyone having. I think that I have quite a bit introspection, but I pare that out as well if it is redundant to information imparted in other ways.

Q: I’ve read that romance writers consider the romance between the hero and heroine to be the ‘third’ character in stories that are essentially character-driven. Do you agree? And do you approach your story with having detailed the characters in advance or do you let the story dictate the character?

MH: I have never thought of the romance as a third character. The romance, at least for me, is the primary plot in a story that has two plots. The second plot is not a subplot, but one that is interwoven with the romance plot (if that makes sense.) I also do not think of my work as character-driven or plot-driven. I think that a story needs compelling characters in a compelling plot.

I do not work up my characters in detail at the beginning, although I have a very clear idea of their personalities and an even more distinct sense of their “presence”. I feel that presence more than I see their physical characteristics. I don’t do character charts or character interviews or any of those other preparatory exercises that some authors use. I let the characters develop and evolve as I write. On a few occasions a character has insisted on being somewhat different from what I initially envisioned and that requires me to adjust.

Q: The marketplace is highly competitive and you’ve published 15 books in seven years, with a backlist and publisher support that would be the envy of many other authors. The rumor that the historical romance market is softening is contradicted by your success. Do you feel that there is a decline in demand for historical romances, or is this worry the result of natural fluctuations in the market?

MH: This is an interesting question. I think that historical romance is still very strong in the market. Writers of historical romance are making the bestselling lists on a regular basis and careers are growing. However, since there is much more variety in romance today, the total sales of historicals might be down from their peak. The talk of the market softening is a reflection of this, and of the fact that one does not see big growth in this area of the market. Historicals have been around a long time, and so we don’t see, and probably won’t see, the kind of huge growth that gets reported for new sub-genres breaking out. However, historicals are still strong sellers in the chains and the mass market outlets.

Q: Speaking of historicals, they require gobs of research, and sometimes the detail can overwhelm the story. When do you know how much to leave in and leave out and yet give the reader the sense they are plunged into another world?

MH: When my first book came out, there were comments complimenting me about the detailing. This fascinated me because along with cutting out all those dialogue tags to save words, I had also cut out most of the historical description. But not all of it. I learned from this that one or two perfect details can communicate setting and atmosphere in ways that listing dozens of details cannot.

I also write in what we call deep point of view. That means that in any scene the reader is inside a character’s head, seeing and hearing what the character sees and hears, and only that, and absorbing the world from that perspective. So if my heroine enters a room that she uses every day, she is not going to take an inventory of the room’s furnishings. At most she will absorb an impressionistic view of the room. By keeping in that deep point of view, I find it is easier to avoid the temptation to labor the detailing.  This is also an area where my other life, as an art historian and researcher, influenced me. I learned early on that the key to research is to do it as thoroughly as possible, but later to leave it out whatever doesn’t belong in the text. It is tempting to stick it all in, of course. Especially if tracking down that information took a lot of time and creativity.

Q: You lead a busy life, with a family and a day job in academia. How do you balance both?

MH: Good question! I always say it is a matter of prioritizing (which means lots of things just don’t get done), and also of compartmentalizing. It is not so much a matter of balancing as it is a matter of going into the mental room labeled “writer” and closing the door, or doing the same with any of my other roles in life.

In part two, Madeline talks about what it was like winning a RITA, the Romance Writers of America’s highest honor, and the state of the historical romance market. Link below.

About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.