When you want to get schooled about Valentine’s Day, talk to a romance author, right?
Fortunately, there’s a great cast of homegrown authors who write books in a variety of romance novel genres. We wanted to hear their take — their experiences, their memories — on the red-heart holiday that’s beloved and berated.
Meet authors Carla Cassidy, Katy Madison, Heather Snow and Sara DeWylde. We also asked each for three of their best reading recommendations.
Carla Cassidy of Kansas City has published more than 165 books since 1988. She focuses on romantic suspense and intrigue, molding internally conflicted characters who must contend with a good measure of “external danger.”
“I like serial killers with my love stories,” she says. “Doesn’t everybody?”
While lovers in her books are typically in their 20s and early 30s, Cassidy’s outook is, let’s say, seasoned. She and her husband have been married for 40 years, so she takes the long view of Valentine’s Day.
“I can’t remember a specific Valentine’s Day,” she says, although certainly candy and flowers were involved. What she savors are the Valentine’s messages she receives from her husband, Frank, on all those non-Valentine’s Days:
“It’s when I sit down at the computer and find a Post-it note that says ‘I love you.’ When he pours me a cup of coffee and brings it to me when I’m working. Or in the spring when he plants flowers he’s chosen because he thinks I’ll love them.”
After several years fighting breast cancer, Cassidy recently underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. Many Valentine’s moments then, she says.
“He did the laundry, and that was Valentine’s Day. He cooked the meals, and that was Valentine’s Day.
“It’s not that you should never get jewelry, but it’s those little things throughout the year that really matter.”
Need a read? Cassidy recommends “Fear Nothing” by Lisa Gardner, or anything by the best-selling crime novelist, who also has written romance under the name Alicia Scott. She recommends anything by suspense-thriller author Dean Koontz, and she’s been telling everyone to read Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.”
Katy Madison of Kansas City has been writing romance novels full time for more than 10 years, including Gothic romance and her current Harlequin Historical series about mail-order brides.
Madison has her mother to thank, in part. At age 8 or 9, already a voracious reader, she pestered her mom for a new book and was handed a romance novel.
“Pretty soon after that I was sneaking books out of her stash,” she says.
Madison wrote her first novel as a high school senior but never thought about a career as an author until, in her 30s, her older sister died of cancer.
“I decided I wanted to do something I love to do and try to make a living at it,” she says.
Madison’s favorite memory of Valentine’s goes back to her childhood, when her lawyer dad, a real workaholic, came through every Feb. 14. He set out cream-filled chocolate hearts and cards for her and her sisters.
“He was stoic, not all that demonstrative,” she says. “My mom usually took care of holidays so I think that surprised me every year.”
Need a read? Madison’s recommendations focus on books she loves to rediscover, including “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte. It’s probably why she sometimes skews Gothic. She loves Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” And she likes to re-read “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, although she imagines “an epilogue, in which he really does ‘give a damn’ again. I’m a romance novelist. I want a happy ending.”
Heather Snow taps her background in science — she has a chemistry degree — to create historical romances featuring super-smart heroines.
Snow won awards for her book series called “Veiled Seduction” and wants to call her next romance series, set in the 19th century, “The Ladies of Seductive Reasoning,” a sort of Victorian CSI, she says.
Snow’s writing slowed for a bit, what with her two young sons and a recent move from Overland Park to near Springfield, Mo. But she’s gearing up now, not only for a new romance series but a historical mystery novel and maybe a middle-grade fiction book.
About Valentine’s Day experiences, Snow says, two extremes come to mind. First, the “it’ll be funny later” Valentine’s story.
Snow and her now-husband Jason started dating around Christmastime, so by Valentine’s Day he wanted to really impress her. Fairly new to Kansas City, he decided to take her to Garozzo’s restaurant in Columbus Park. He hadn’t thought about the high demand on such a night.
“They took pity on him and squeezed him in at 11 p.m.,” Snow says.
That left plenty of time to first stroll the Country Club Plaza and Brush Creek — for three wintry hours.
“It was freezing and windy,” she says. “At least dinner wasn’t crowded anymore at 11.”
Snow’s favorite Feb. 14 memory was made years later, when she and Jason attended an event at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It had become their Valentine’s tradition.
A few days earlier Snow received a call from her mother. A family friend knew of a pregnant woman who planned to give up her baby for adoption — in two months.
The couple had been trying to have a baby for years. They deliberated quickly and said “yes,” which begot several busy and emotion-packed days.
Then, there they were at the art museum, all dressed up, sipping wine and enjoying the elegance of Kirkwood Hall. Suddenly, they just stared at each other.
“Because that’s when it hit us: Next year, we’d need a sitter. Life was about to change in a major way,” she says. “I love that moment.”
Need a read? The love-story book Snow recommends to everyone, women and men, is “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. She especially likes the audio book format. For romance novels, she suggests “Too Good to Be True” by Kristan Higgins, who is always “light and hilarious,” she says, and Laura Kinsale’s “Flowers From the Storm,” a historical romance that’s “deep and quite amazing.”
Saranna DeWylde of Leavenworth is also Sara Arden. This happens with romance writers: They sometimes use separate names for different genres. As Arden, she wrote a small-town romance series called “Home to Glory,” set in the fictional town of Glory, Kan.
Her DeWylde books cast a darker shadow, more paranormal and fantasy. As Sara Lunsford, her real name, she wrote a memoir of her time as a state prison corrections officer in Lansing. She called it “Sweet Hell on Fire.”
For DeWylde, the surname we’ll stick with here, her foremost memory of Feb. 14 is altogether unromantic — traumatic, even. On the upside, she did win a handbag when she recounted it for a “worst Valentine’s Day” magazine contest.
DeWylde began dating a guy at the recommendation of a friend, and not long before Valentine’s, he was “crying in his beer” about missing his ex-girlfriend. DeWylde took that as a cue to break up. He flew into a rage. She told him what she really felt about him. In short, things ended badly.
Cut to Valentine’s Day, when she and a new guy were having a nice dinner at his place, which was upstairs from the old boyfriend. Suddenly, old boyfriend was screaming at the door. Then, a cracking sound. An ax? She called 911, but the dispatcher disagreed there was an emergency.
“It was like something out of ‘The Shining,’” she says.
DeWylde hightailed it off the apartment balcony. He chased her — with the ax. She ran into a liquor store, where several men hanging out there surrounded her in a defensive action. Crazy guy left and didn’t bother her again.
“I’m not making this up,” she says. “On Valentine’s Day.”
But DeWylde also recalled a happy moment. Every year in high school, she passed out Valentine’s cards or carnations to friends. The next day, one of the guys showed up with “a dozen roses, a box of chocolates and a card I still have in my yearbook.”
Like Cassidy, DeWylde is moved less by big gestures on Feb. 14 than by devotion shown throughout the year. When she started writing books full time, her husband, Jonathan, worked two jobs to help make that happen.
“He hated one of the jobs, and he went there every day so I could do what I wanted to do,” she says. “That’s more important than any gift on Valentine’s Day.”
Need a read? DeWylde has read “Phantom” by Susan Kay so many times she had to buy a second copy. Historical fiction, it’s beautiful, tragic and hopeful, she says. She also loves romance author Virginia Nelson for her great heroines and slightly tarnished heroes, particularly “While You Were Writing.” Elizabeth Lowell’s “Untamed,” a medieval romance series, offers powerful writing, she says.