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NewCityNet Love In The Afternoon

Learning the ropes at the Romance Writers of America conference

By Tony Peregrin

AUGUST 9, 1999:  "The purpose of the corset was to pull your fat down and push your boobs up," says romance novelist Carolyn Louailier, prancing down the center of the conference room in a homemade version of the garment.

"From the sixteenth century onwards, the ladies wore underwear. But because the corsets were so cumbersome to remove, those undergarments were crotchless," she adds, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "Just imagine the plot line possibilities!"

The audience, a collection of aspiring romance novelists, teeters with nervous laughter. We are at a workshop entitled "Giving Your Lady a Fashionable Line: A Look at How Undergarments Shape our Heroines." The seminar gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "multi-layered character" as we learn how to dress a leading lady of love - from the inside out - by using a combination of bloomers, bourrelets, bustles, drawers, farthingales, hose and panniers, always remembering that in the sixteenth century an exposed ankle was considered naughtier than an exposed breast.

More than 1,700 published and unpublished romance authors, literary agents and publishing execs are gathered at the Chicago Sheraton for the Nineteenth Annual Romance Writers of America national conference. The convention, which also includes a charity autographing session and a black-tie awards ceremony, is mostly a whirlwind of workshops covering everything from sex scenes to crime scenes.

In "Creating the Contemporary Cowboy," the presenter insists new writers shadow a bull-rider or calf roper with a video camera. "This is the only way you will accurately document what he wears, the way he walks, the way he talks and how he behaves in that environment." She says this in hushed, serious tones as if we were planning to film a documentary on wildebeests for National Geographic.

But the world-be authors soak it up, jotting notes on what defines a "romance novel": The manuscript must be the monogamous love story between one hero and one heroine - no adultery - and it is essential that the novel have a happy ending.

Walking through the convention after the workshops, the hallways are brimming with romance writers. Scores of shiny sequined blouses and bright pink pastel scarves give way to animal print tops humming with zebra or tiger stripes and leopard spots. Nails are all painted and manicured; hands and necks seem to bow under the weight of heavy gold jewelry, and the hairdos are elaborate, sprayed and sky high.

It's tempting to feel smug and superior to these purveyors of "women's fiction," but underneath it all are writers who might just know a thing or two about something that has the rest of us eternally baffled: Love. "I enjoy what I do," says a young writer who has just finished her first novel. "And I really don't care what people think of the genre, of my writing, or of me. When my book gets published I'll be laughing all the way to the bank." Romantic or not, that's a happy ending.

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