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Linda Howard at the Washington Romance Writers Retreat, Harpers Ferry, W.Va., April 28.
(All photos by Jean Marie Ward)

Linda Howard writes New York Times bestsellers like All the Queen's Men, Now You See Her, Kill and Tell and Son of the Morning about tough, dangerous, demanding men and the women who stand up to them. The suspenseful plots sizzle like the fuse on the opening of Mission Impossible, while the romances generate enough heat to burn your fingers as you turn the pages.

But Howard's passion for Tomcats and F-14 fighter planes (she always wanted to fly them), men in uniform and characters pushed to the edge coexists with a firm belief in the importance of dreams and the "magic dust" of creativity. "If you dream it, you can write it," Howard told a group of area writers in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in April. But as a person who saw -- and heard -- heroic tales in her head from childhood, Howard wonders, where do writers' dreams come from? "Are we listening to other people's stories, or are we creators?"

Book: Linda Howard, All the Queen's Men Crescent Blues: What is it about a guy in uniform that so turns you on? Why do you think they make such good heroes?

Linda Howard: Because when they put on that uniform, that is proof that they are willing to put themselves between you and danger. It's a visual statement.

Crescent Blues: If the willingness to put themselves between you and danger is the key to your heroes, what's the key to your heroines?

Linda Howard: Equal strength. They are also willing to put themselves in jeopardy to protect the people they love. One of the things particularly for my heroines is that I want them to be honorable. I don't like heroines who do petty stuff. They can and do make mistakes, but not be petty or little. There's just no reason for it. I want them to think, to have standards and morals. And I want them to be strong. I think strength is what I go after every time.

Crescent Blues: So you seek a basic equality between your hero and heroine.

Linda Howard: Everything needs to be balanced out, that you have different strengths. Equality is not fifty-fifty. Equality is complementing each other and appreciating each other for what you are. That's equality.

Crescent Blues: You can easily see this notion of equality at in your contemporaries and your romantic suspense. Was it harder to inject this notion of complementary strengths into your historical romances?

Linda Howard: You're asking me if I analyzed it beforehand, and the answer is no, I never have. I never analyze a book when I'm writing it. It's only afterwards, when people ask me questions, that I realize why I did what I did. At the time, I don't even think about it. I just do it.

Crescent Blues: Does this way of working derive from the dreams and stories you told yourself growing up?

Linda Howard: Always. Always. And I don't tell the stories to myself. They are just there. It's like they tell themselves to me, and I have to listen closely enough to catch all of it.

And I was giggling to myself, listening to the voices of these four women talking.

Crescent Blues: Do your characters form the same way -- you listen to who they are?

Linda Howard: Yes, when I first start writing a book, I have to know the characters' names. Obviously. Sometimes that's the hardest part of it -- finding out what their names are.

I can't just pick a name. Sometimes, I'll just know their name immediately, and it won't be a name I would've chosen in a million years. But that's their name, and I can't change it. Sometimes, I think: "Well, I'll name the character this, and I'll just start writing the book." And it just will not work. Finally, I'll realize that's not the character's name, and I'll have to find out what is.

Crescent Blues: Is that how Mr. Perfect started -- with the names of the characters?

Book: Linda Howard, Mr PerfectLinda Howard: No. No! With Mr. Perfect, it was the voices that I was hearing. I was in the kitchen cooking, puttering around, and this conversation started playing in my head. It was the conversation in the bar where they're talking about the qualities [of the perfect man]. It was The List. And I was giggling to myself, listening to the voices of these four women talking. I thought it was hilarious. It was like I was eavesdropping. And that was all I had. The entire book was built around that conversation.

Gradually, I found out what their names were. The character of T.J. -- I mean, she's a woman. Why is her name "T.J."? I don't know. But that was her name, and it just popped like that. And Jaine [Jaine Bright, the heroine of Mr. Perfect] -- I didn't know her name for a long time. I went over baby name books. I went right down the lists, and nothing seemed right. Then, all of a sudden, this one name… It's like it's written in bold letters. It just pops out, and it does that for a lot of writers.

Linda Howard

Crescent Blues: Speaking of things popping out, the scene where Jaine's looking out her kitchen window and sees Sam Donovan [Mr. Perfect's hero]… [Here the interview breaks down as both Linda Howard and her interviewer dissolve in very ungirlish laughter.]

Linda Howard: That scene played itself in my head too. I was listening to [Jaine], and when she called [Sam] and he said, "Get an eyeful, did you?" And she says, "Yes, thank you." [More laughter.] It was, literally, like I was not writing it. I was listening to them.

Crescent Blues: That's wonderful, because it's a funny, funny book.

Linda Howard: I laughed so much when I was writing it, because I never knew what those people were going to say. Sam was outrageous, and Jaine held her own with him. She certainly did.

Crescent Blues: Complementary strengths.

Linda Howard: Yes, complementary strengths.

Crescent Blues: I understand you've got a new book coming out around the end of July called Open Season. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

The murderers don't know that she doesn't realize what she's seen, and they are hunting her.

Linda Howard: Open Season is not Mr. Perfect, but it is still lighter in tone than some of my other books. It's about this… She terms herself an "old maid." She's about 34. She's a librarian. She lives with her mother and aunt, and she decides that what she really wants out of life is a husband and family. And she's not getting any younger, and she has let herself become so dowdy that she has to do a complete image change. She's just sure she does.

So she embarks on this change, all in her manhunt -- which is where the title Open Season came from. In the course of broadening her horizons -- she's going to clubs to dance and all -- she sees something she shouldn't have seen. Actually, she sees a murder, but she doesn't realize she's seen it. The murderers don't know that she doesn't realize what she's seen, and they are hunting her.

Crescent Blues: And she's oblivious to the whole thing.

Linda Howard: Yeah, she's oblivious. She's such a naive character, but she's good-natured and kind of starchy. I'm having a lot of fun with her.

Crescent Blues: Will this have another cop hero?

Linda Howard: Yeah, the chief of police.

Crescent Blues: Frustrated, I'm sure, that the heroine's so oblivious.

Linda Howard: Well, mostly, he's totally amused by her. She's so good-natured and naïve, and at the same time, she's so old-fashioned. She's enthusiastic. She's just an open person.

Crescent Blues: How much of her reflects you?

Linda Howard: I don't think any of them ever reflect me.

Book: Linda Howard, After the NightCrescent Blues: So you tell yourself stories about people completely divorced from yourself?

Linda Howard: I think they are people in themselves.

Crescent Blues: Anyone who hears your wonderful drawl knows you're from the South. Do you think your way of working stems a Southern story-telling tradition. Did people tell stories in your family?

Linda Howard: Southerners always tell stories. It's not the kind of stories that are written, but they recount things that have happened to them and draw it out so long. You sit around the dinner table and…talk.

There are a lot of Southern writers. There always have been. I think it goes back to the predominantly Scottish and Irish heritage -- people who were also storytellers. I don't know if it's inherited or not, or if you just were sprinkled with the magic dust.

Crescent Blues: You said earlier that you always knew you wanted to be a writer…

Linda Howard: No, I always knew I was a writer.

Crescent Blues: You always knew you were a writer. When did you figure out you could make a living from it?

Linda Howard: When I was 29 years old. You know, I'd written for myself for years. I wrote my first book when I was nine, and it was for my own enjoyment. Totally. But all of a sudden…

Linda Howard - Continued