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Romance writer to coach new scribes

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When working on her first historical romance, writer Sylvia Baumgarten would often put pen to paper while stuck in traffic.

"Oh yes, I'd come up with ideas all of a sudden and I often couldn't get to a typewriter fast enough," said the Forest Hills resident. "So when the (traffic) light would turn red, I would scribble down my ideas in a notepad."

Today, about two decades since completing that first book between traffic lights, this widely read writer is more than happy to share an idea or two with a new generation of writers for the genre. In fact, the award-winning author Baumgarten, known to genre readers by her pen names, "Sylvia Halliday" and/or "Louisa Rawlings," is conducting free romance writing workshops at the Forest Hills Barnes & Noble, 70-00 Austin St in the months of February and March, following an initial workshop held at the bookstore on Jan. 11. An upcoming Feb. 8 workshop will instruct budding writers in "How to Write a Love Scene." A March 14 workshop will teach the beginning basics of writing a romance novel. Both remaining workshops will begin at 7:30 p.m., offering would-be novelists roughly an hour-long session of romance fiction writing tips.

"The first thing is to read, of course, and to read good stuff," Baumgarten said, offering her first tip via phone. "It helps teach a writer how a book is put together."

"And read outside the genre, of course. "You can always tell when you are reading the work of someone who's only read romance fiction."

During her own formative years, the Canadian-born Baumgarten first turned to adventure books to get her kicks.

"As a kid, I loved the 'swash n' buckle' stuff. It was the perfect route for escapism and wonderful for the imagination," she said, adding that the impending transition from reading adventures to writing historical romances was most natural. "In many ways, the historical romance is adventure fiction written for women."

Before settling down to pen her top-selling adventures, however, Baumgarten's first profession was that of housewife and mother. As a sideline, she initially tried her hand at various things.

"I was the self-indulgent housewife. I did some freelance interior decoration, you name it," Baumgarten said. "I would read something and say, 'Oh, I can learn to do that,' and then I would try this thing or that, never even considering that I was a novice."

"Looking back, this was a good quality," said Baumgarten, recalling the day when it occurred to her to give writing a real try.

"I was at a college reunion and one of my classmates turned out to be a big muckety muck in the publishing world, " she said, remembering the classmate inspiring her to give writing a try. "The first book took about eight months or so. My family thought I was crazy. Pretty soon, the house was collecting dust... you could draw pictures in it, it grew so thick. But I couldn't stop writing. It was like an explosion."

Although she sat down to write for the first time, seriously, in 1979, Baumgarten was a published author by 1982, already working on her second book. Since then, she has written various hardcover and paperback sellers for the genre's heaviest hitters, including Harlequin and Kensington Books. She has lectured extensively for the Romance Writers of America (RWA) , one of the industry's largest associations and has won its coveted award for best historical romance of the year. She has also won in the historical romance category in the trade publication Romantic Times. And the average time it takes for her to finish writing a romance today is three months, more or sometimes less.

"At the moment, I'm not working on anything. I've been working as a 'book doctor,'" says Baumgarten, referring to her freelance work editing manuscripts. "But, when I am inspired, I'm like a house on fire. I'll work through the day, through the night, every day, until I'm finished. I'll wind up napping more than sleeping."

And, at the end of the day, it's an author's discipline that gets the job done.

"There is no substitute for sitting down and doing the work," Baumgarten said. "So many people say, my life would make a great story, and I'm sure that's true. After all, there are only a few actual plotlines in the world as they say. It's the work that's the key. Most people, when push comes to shove, just don't sit down to do the work. They don't put the time aside for it each day."

"I love giving these workshops because I come away from them inspired," Baumgarten said. "A lot of people don't wind up writing, but there are always one or two who seem to leave with something, who seem somehow determined to get down to writing."

The Forest Hills Barnes & Noble is located at 70-00 Austin St. For more information, call 793-1395.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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