Nora Roberts is a romance novel icon. And, as I found out the more I researched her, she is also an extremely cool person. It’s impossible to overstate her popularity or the impact she’s had within romance publishing in the last four decades. She’s written more than 240 romance novels (a number that is hard to count because so many more come out each year). Since 1999, nearly all of her novels have been bestsellers and many have debuted as number one bestsellers.
She was the first romance writer inducted into the Romance Writer’s Hall of Fame. And she’s won 19 RITA Awards from the RWA (Romance Writers of America). However, even though she was a founding member, she left the organization and spoke out against them for their homophobic definition of romance as being between a man and a woman in the early 2000s and their racist treatment of Courtney Milan in 2019.
Nora Roberts is more than just a living literary legend. From standing up to plagiarizers to epic takedowns on her blog to donating money to fight recent book bans, Nora Roberts is as independent, brave, and freethinking as the heroines she creates on the page. And she hasn’t only written many of the best romance novels of the last 42 years (of all time really). She helped define the genre of American romance novels and pulled the genre out of earlier conventions into the contemporary era.
Nora Roberts’s Early Life & First Marriage
Nora Roberts is the pen name for Eleanor Marie Robertson, who was born in 1950 in Silver Spring, Maryland. With four older brothers, she was the youngest child and only daughter in her family. Her family loved books and reading, and she spent her childhood making up stories inside her head. However, she never planned on becoming a writer when she grew up. Her parents were Irish American, an identity that has inspired many of the characters and settings in her novels.
In 1968, at the age of 17, she married her high school sweetheart. It was right after high school graduation and her parents didn’t approve, even though they had also met as teenagers. But the pair settled in Western Maryland, in Keedysville near Boonsboro where Roberts lives now. She worked as a legal secretary for a few years, before having her two sons and becoming a stay at home mother. As a mom, she loved reading Harlequin romance novels, because they were short and fast-paced enough to finish during nap time.
The Snowstorm That Started Nora Roberts’s Career
The story of how Nora Roberts began writing is legendary within the romance community. It all began in February of 1979 during a blizzard where she was snowed in with her two young sons. She got so bored and stir-crazy that she began writing a novel by hand. She fell in love with writing immediately. And Roberts quickly wrote six manuscripts and submitted them one by one to Harlequin. At the time, Harlequin was a Canadian publisher who dominated the romance novel publishing space when they acquired the British-owned Mills & Boon. According to A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis, Harlequin continued to reject Roberts. They told her they liked her writing but already had their one American writer, referring to Janet Daily, who would go on to plagiarize from Nora Roberts later in her career.
Irish Thoroughbred and Silhouette Books
In 1980, Simon and Schuster opened Silhouette as an imprint to rival Harlequin. They were specifically seeking American category romance novels. Category romances are shorter novels, around 200 pages or less, in contrast to the longer historical bodice rippers predominant within American romance publishing through the 1970s. Roberts sent them her seventh novel, Irish Thoroughbred, and was shocked when they were interested in buying her book. In the book, a young Irish immigrant is in a marriage of convenience with an American stable owner. Nancy Jackson, Roberts’s first editor, didn’t follow the romance formulas as strictly as other editors at the time. Roberts’s early books stand out for including both male and female perspectives. Roberts’s heroines were also more independent and modern. Both these elements would have tremendous impact on romance novels at the time and still do today.
Irish Thoroughbred went into several rounds of reprints. And from 1982 to 1984, Roberts wrote 24 novels for Silhouette. In 1985, Playing the Odds came out and was Roberts’s first bestseller. It also introduced readers to the MacGregor clan and started a tradition of long series where each book would feature a new family member falling in love. And while Silhouette had once worried that Irish Thoroughbred was too ethnic, Roberts would become famous for generation-spanning family series featuring the Scottish MacGregors, the Irish Donovans, and the Ukrainian Stanislaskis.
Expanding into Romantic Suspense and J.D. Robb
In 1987, Roberts began writing single title books for Bantam along with her Silhouette categories. In her first book for the publisher, Hot Ice, a socialite and a thief are both hunting the same hidden fortune. That same year she published Sacred Sins, about a detective and a psychiatrist falling in love while catching a serial killer. These suspense storylines were a big departure from her previous work. She was inspired by her all-time favorite writer Mary Stewart. Five years later, she moved to Putnam, where her book Honest Illusions told the story of female magician who becomes a jewel thief.
All the while, Roberts kept up her schedule of writing and publishing several books a year. If you were a Nora Roberts fan, you didn’t have to wait long for her next novel. I personally know this, because my mother read all of them and kept hundreds of her paperbacks in my childhood home. In 1996, Roberts published her 100th book with Montana Sky and she would pass the 200 books mark in 2012 with The Witness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When Roberts moved to Putnam, her publisher couldn’t publish books as fast as she could write them. Her longtime agent Amy Berkower, suggested she create another pen name to develop a second brand. At first Roberts demurred, but she came around to the idea and created the name J.D. Robb using both of her sons’ first initials and a last name similar to Roberts. She used this new name to push the boundaries of her suspense writing even further. She began with the futuristic police procedural Naked In Death set in 2058 NYC. By the end of 2023, Roberts will have published 57 novels in the In Death series.
Nora Roberts’s Second Marriage & Life in Boonsboro
Roberts’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1983. She planned to remain single for some time, but met her second husband, Bruce Wilder, in 1985 when he came to build bookshelves in her home. They’ve been married for 30 years now. And in a delightfully romantic detail, they have a portrait of themselves hanging in their house that portrays them as Sam and Ilsa from Casablanca. Together they own a bookstore in Boonsboro called Turn the Page. In 2009, they opened the Inn at Boonsboro where every room is inspired by a different literary couple that had a romantic ending. Roberts used this experience to inspire her Inn Boonsboro Trilogy about a trio of brothers who decide to renovate and open a historic hotel.
Nora Roberts invests heavily in Boonsboro, something that is perhaps inspired by her husband, who was mayor of the town for 28 years. Along with their bookstore and bed and breakfast, Nora opened a gym for locals to have a place to work out. And each of her sons owns a restaurant that operates on Main Street. Roberts has invested millions of dollars into Boonsboro and other Western Maryland causes. She has supported local hospitals, a music program for the elementary school, a new fire house, teen pregnancy prevention programs, a shelter for victims of intimate partner violence, a local film festival, hiking and nature programs for kids, scholarship programs, and more. She also funded the Nora Roberts Center for American Romance at McDaniel College. Roberts obviously believes in giving back to her community and staying local. As she said in a 2019 Jezebel article, “We wanted to give back as much as we could.”
When Janet Dailey Plagiarized Nora Roberts
When Roberts started writing, Janet Dailey was the most popular American romance novelist. As Harlequin told Roberts in rejections, they already had their American writer. Dailey was not only a writer Roberts respected and enjoyed, she became a friend and colleague to Roberts. In 1997, a reader read Roberts’s Sweet Revenge back to back with Dailey’s Notorious and posted about passages that were the same, even listing the page numbers on an internet chat board. At first, Roberts did not believe it could be possible. But she asked her son to bring a copy of Notorious home from their bookstore. In a blog post about the experience, Roberts wrote, “I can’t describe what I felt in that moment, the shock, the grief, the sense of betrayal. I flipped through and that shock, grief, betrayal increased as I recognized more and more and more of my work in her book.”
Roberts was initially pressured to keep the plagiarism a secret. And when Dailey called to apologize, she promised it was just the one time. But Roberts found evidence of Dailey plagiarizing her books going back seven years. After that, Roberts grew even more furious. As she said on a podcast interview with Fated Mates, “I wanted her blood in my throat.” She decided to sue Dailey. Roberts initially agreed not to go public, but Dailey went to the press claiming the similarities were unconscious on her part. Two years later, Roberts won and donated her entire settlement to literary nonprofits. In 2019, Roberts filed another plagiarism lawsuit against the Brazilian writer Cristiane Serruy, who plagiarized extensively from Roberts and more than 40 other writers.
Nora Roberts’s Internet Presence & Epic Take Downs
Roberts was an early adopter of the internet as a place to do research and connect with her fans. She is not afraid to speak her mind and stand up for herself in this space. “I have personally explained the process to you Debra,” is romance legend at this point. It refers to Roberts’s response to a fan who kept trying to explain how publishing works and why Roberts should be publishing more books every year in the comments on her blog. Many authors would just ignore annoying comments. But Roberts seems content to engage when she feels like people have stepped out of line. When a YA author accused Roberts of copying her title in the book Of Blood and Bone, Roberts responded on her blog that she wrote and titled the book a year before the YA author’s came out and hadn’t heard of her before.
The Writing Routing & Continued Success of Nora Roberts
Nora Roberts writes wonderful books that people want to read. But a lot of her success is due to her ability to write a lot of books really fast. For the past three decades, she’s published four to five books a year. She staggers the releases between her standalone books, In Death sequels, and romance series. She usually concentrates on one novel at a time. And she wakes up early to write six to eight hours a day. She writes three drafts of each book, before she sends the manuscript to her agent. “And no, it’s never easy. It shouldn’t be easy. If it was easy everyone would do it,” Roberts said, describing her writing routine. Both from her prolific output and the way she describes writing, you can tell she truly loves her work.
When she wrote as a mother of young children, it was harder for her to find the uninterrupted time to work on her novels. She’s said in many interviews that her rule was that her sons couldn’t interrupt her writing time unless there was blood or fire. At 72 years old, Nora Roberts’s writing isn’t slowing down at all. She once told USA Today, “I want to die at age one hundred and twenty at my keyboard after having great sex.” So far, she’s remained on track to reach that goal.
Her books have changed from the novels that catapulted her into popularity in the 1980s. Despite her early reputation for more equality between the sexes, Roberts’s heroes now are less macho and domineering than before. The heroines have even more independence and agency. But the core story of emotional equality, happy endings, and great sex remain the same.
While writing this article, my mom got a bad cold. But she said, “If I’m going to be sick, at least a new Nora Roberts book is coming out this week.” Roberts’s books bring joy and entertainment to literally millions of readers, including me.