Navigating a Successful Collaboration
It begins before dawn. Linda Howard, often called the “Queen of Romantic Suspense,” wakes on her small Alabama farm and has her coffee and quiet time. Later, there will be words to write and cattle and llamas to tend, but for now she takes the time she needs to prepare her mind and spirit for the day.
A few counties away, writing partner Linda Jones is up before her retired hubby, having coffee and quiet time of her own. The two, both award-winning, New York Times bestselling authors, have been friends for more than a quarter of a century. Between them, they’ve written more than 130 books.
“I’m a morning person,” Jones says. “It’s much easier for me to write in the morning. My parents live across the street and need help now and then. I have seven grandchildren we like to see as often as we can. I juggle writing and family well, as long as no one asks me to clean the house. There are only so many hours in the day.”
Howard agrees. “Writing for me will start around nine. How long I write depends on what’s going on around me.”
The two had been writing independently for years by the time they had the idea for their first collaboration. The result was Blood Born, a paranormal romance in which a vampire and a human, both champions of their kind, come together to save the world from a monstrous future. Howard says, “We’d already kind of collaborated in the Raintree trilogy with Beverly Barton, so it was a short step into actually co-writing.”
Since then, the friends have written three more books together, each in a different genre or subgenre. Running Wild is a contemporary Western romance, Frost Line a paranormal romance. Their latest, AFTER SUNDOWN, is a romantic suspense about societal collapse during a near-apocalyptic natural disaster.
Set in rural Tennessee, AFTER SUNDOWN features Sela Gordon, the shy owner of a general store, and handsome but distant ex-military man Ben Jernigan. When Ben learns about an imminent and catastrophic solar storm that could take down the power grid, he feels compelled to warn Sela. In the resulting chaos, both discover strengths they never knew they had and a love they never knew they needed.
Jones says they chose Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains as the setting for AFTER SUNDOWN while “sitting on a porch overlooking the mountains and letting our minds wander.”
Howard explains their reasoning. “One, we’re familiar with the area. Two, Wears Valley and Townsend are considered by survivalists as perfect for surviving the type of scenario we set up in the book, with plenty of water and game, a mild climate, and rural.”
When asked what they hope readers will take away from the book, Jones gives an answer that seems eerily prescient. “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst! Disaster might not be likely to strike, but it can, at any time. While doing research for and writing this book I started buying freeze-dried food to put back. Just in case. My husband started planning a rainwater collection system.”
Like all their novels, the story emerged from a process Howard describes as totally organic. “What we write springs from whatever catches our interest at the time. It might be something we’re talking about, something that’s just happened, or sometimes lightning strikes in the form of ‘what if’ and we’re off to the races.”
Jones says, “It’s usually a slow, gradual process that starts with that ‘what if’ then grows and morphs from there until the final idea takes shape.”
Of course, as in any collaboration, there are challenges. Asked what their greatest obstacles are, Howard says, “Wrestling our writing styles into working together, because our individual processes are so different. She’s a fast writer and it drives her crazy that I’m so slow. I like to polish each detail as I proceed, and rough first drafts drive me crazy.”
“We’re both pantsers,” Jones adds, “which means we’re never quite sure where we’re going when we get started. Well, we might know where we’ll end up, but how will we get there? Writers like us make plotters a little crazy. Now and then, we find ourselves headed in different directions. This means we have to be in constant contact, in case one of us runs too far amuck.”
Once, while discussing a problematic scene, they realized they were envisioning mirror images. Where one might see a door on the right, the other would see it on the left. Now they draw maps and are careful to clarify the spatial configurations of a given scene.
Some co-writers allocate specific chapters or characters to each member of the team. “We don’t,” Howard says. “We just start writing. She’ll write a portion and send it to me, I wade in with my additions and alterations, I send it back to her, and she does the same.”
It’s a time-consuming process. Jones explains, “We both go over every single word. We’ve found that writing a book together doesn’t take half the time, it takes twice as long.”
It does have its high points, though. Asked about the rewards of their collaboration, both women are enthusiastic. “The research and investigation,” Howard says. “The road trips and conversation.”
Jones weighs in. “Fun. The planning that precedes the actual writing is so much fun. Then reality hits…”
As pantsers, they achieve a balance of romance and suspense through intuition rather than technique. “I don’t think about it,” Howard says. “I just tell the story, whatever the story is.”
Jones concurs. “If I think about that kind of detail I find myself paralyzed. It’s best to just allow the characters to unfold as we tell the story.”
Based on their multiple bestsellers, that approach seems to be working. But neither Linda takes her audience for granted. Each has a newsletter through which she engages with her readers, and they have a joint Facebook page that’s very active.
As for the future, both Lindas have independent novels next in the queue. Howard is working on the third and last of the GO-Team series, as yet untitled, while Jones is working on the next book in a light paranormal series. “[It] started with Bigfoot and the Librarian,” she says. “I can see Linda H. shaking her head now…”