Ann Cannon: The state of romance writing in Utah

(Courtesy Photo)    Author Kerrigan Byrne (Courtesy Photo) Author Kerrigan Byrne
Fiction • A genre with many subgenres, romance has strong roots and a vast following in Utah.

If you’re not familiar with the romance genre, you might be surprised by how many types of romance novels there are from which to choose. Historical, contemporary, cozy, paranormal, Regency, romantic suspense, Gothic, sci-fi, Western and the emerging “new adult” are all popular romance subgenres. You might also be surprised by how many romance writers live right here in Utah. In fact, this state is home to a thriving, tightknit group of authors whose books are popular not only locally, but nationally as well.

This, of course, raises the question: What is it about Utah that creates such a romance writer-friendly environment? With Valentine’s Day approaching, we asked a few authors to share their impressions.

Jodee Steffensen observes that “we have a well-educated population that is trained at an early age to read, and often readers become writers.” Steffensen also maintains that the local Mormon culture, with its opportunities for lay speaking and teaching, encourages the kind of self-expression that motivates a person to write.

Tiffinie Helmer notes “there are not just a lot of romance writers, but more writers across all genres in general than in most states. It could be the landscape that helps fuel our creativity, but for me it has a lot to do with the support I have found here.” Like many of the state’s romance authors, Helmer belongs to the Utah Chapter of Romance Writers, whose members, she says, “are willing and able to help and mentor other writers.”

Joy Spraycar also cites the number of resources available to the writers who make their home here. “Besides Utah Romance Writers of Utah, we have the League of Utah Writers, LDS Story Makers, and Life, the Universe and Everything”—a long-running academic science-fiction conference that originated at BYU in the early ’80s. Additionally, Spraycar points to the presence of local publishers and the presence of the film industry as factors that nurture the writing ambitions of many Utah residents.

Cynthia St. Aubin offers this insight: “Utah is really unique in terms of the balance between predominant traditional values and a healthy counterculture. I think romance as a genre has a strong place in both realms. Within the more traditional cross-section of the population, there’s a definite call for romance without graphic content, and, indeed, many of the writers in the Utah RWA [Romance Writers of America] chapter have built successful audiences in that kind of endeavor. I think any time you do have a predominant conservative mainstream, you’re going to see a reaction to that as well, which creates a market for writers who prefer to explore romance in more detail for an adult audience. In my opinion, it’s the existence of both kinds of readerships that contributes to the proliferation of romance writers in Utah.”

Kerrigan Byrne also believes that the state’s overarching conservative culture is partly responsible for the rise of romance writing here: She maintains that how a woman expresses her sexuality in the culture speaks to “either her virtue or her villainy.” Romance novels become an outlet for, as well as a means of, discovering desire.

When these writers are asked to characterize their readers, the surprises continue.

Annie Oortman refers to a 2013 statistic compiled by the Romance Writers of America that says “the typical romance book buyer is a female between the ages of 30 and 54.” But each of the writers interviewed is quick to point out that the audience and appetite for romance are actually much broader than you might expect.

As Lesli Lytle, who writes under the name L.L. Muir, observes, “I’m always surprised by who reads romance.”

Joelene Coleman, aka Harley Brooks, for example, writes primarily for young and new-adult audiences. She also notes in her experience that the older women get, the “steamier” they want their books. “There are a couple of little old ladies at my parents’ nursing home who hide their ‘bodice-ripper’ romances inside their Bibles when sitting out in the common areas.” Coleman, on the other hand, prefers to have her books in plain view “stacked on the coffee table.”

Many local romance writers report that male readers number among their fan bases. “Actually,” says Spraycar, “I’ve been surprised by how many men read my romance novels.” Helmer agrees. “Turns out men enjoy a good love story, too”— especially, she notes, when those stories are “laced with action and adventure, with a side of murder.”

Byrne makes this interesting observation: “With the advent of digital e-readers, men can read more of what they want without having to hide the ‘embarrassing covers.’ 

“As a retired soldier told me once, ‘It’s like watching an action movie, but they don’t black out the bedroom scenes — plus I get some good ideas about what women want in their fantasy men.’ ”

When asked what they enjoy most about writing romance, the authors’ answers are less surprising.

Jennifer Beckstrand speaks for most of her fellow writers when she says, “My favorite thing is seeing characters come to life and creating witty and charming things for two people to say to each other.” Brooks agrees: “To me [my characters] are very real, with loud voices that rob me of sleep. Finding out their quirks, wiggling into their minds and living their emotional turmoil as they tell me their story is exhilarating. I am merely their secretary.”

Are there any surprises ahead in the world of romance writing? The publishing industry as a whole has experienced a number of dramatic changes over the past 20 years, and those changes are being reflected in the world of romance writing, too.

Kristin Holt says, for instance, that diversity has become more of an industry value. “Sweet wholesome [romances] have always been around, but erotica hasn’t been mainstream until relatively recently — ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ opened up a whole new market. Same with gay/lesbian romance. Many more subgenres (military romance, firefighter romance, rodeo circuit romance, billionaire bosses, were-bears, pro hockey players as heroes, immortal heroes and mortal heroines) have sprung up over the last 10-15 years.” Holt maintains that subgenres will continue to appear because romance readers are always looking for something “fresh and new.”

The recent rise of e-readers also bodes well for the genre, according to Oortman. “The ease of accessibility to more and more novels via the Kindle and other e-readers means the romance genre is poised to grow exponentially. Even Barnes & Noble recognizes this potential growth, demonstrated by their recent rollout of a larger romance genre footprint in each of their brick-and-mortar stores.”

The fact that a larger portion of the population has become more tech-savvy in general is also good news. Says Oortman: “I see more and more people reading via their mobile devices, i.e. phones, tablets and e-readers. Millennials have been doing this for a while, but now the trend is being pushed via senior citizens and retirees.”

No matter how the genre expands and changes, the romance writers of Utah agree it is here to stay. Why? Because in Oortman’s words, “Everybody loves a happy ending, especially during hard times!”

Romance in the air

The Heart of the West chapter of the Romance Writers of America will hold a group signing with 18 of Utah’s best romance writers along with selected readings.

When • Saturday, Feb. 7, noon to 5 p.m.

Where • Sam Weller’s Book Works in Trolley Square, 665 E. 600 South, Salt Lake City. For more information call 801 328-2586 or visit

Tickets • Free

A fine romance

Utah romance writers pick a few of their all-time favorite romances:

Jennifer Beckstrand • “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

Harley Brooks • The Stephanie Plum mysteries by Janet Evanovich

Kerrigan Byrne • The Bow Street Runner series by Lisa Kleypas

Tiffinie Helmer • “Sea Swept” by Nora Roberts

L.L. Muir • “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Annie Oortman • “Ritual of Proof” by Dara Joy

Cynthia St. Aubin • The Plum Orchard Series by Dakota Cassidy

Joy Spraycar • “Kiss of a Stranger” by Sarah Eden

Jodee Steffensen • “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell