Writer’s Corner

Jo Goodman

May 16, 2008

With accolades from AAR readers that include Best Romance of 2007, Best Buried Treasure, Best European Historical Romance, and Best Hero, I decided that Jo Goodman was an author that I should look into. I am currently in the middle of what is proving to be a very satisfying glom.

When I was offered the chance to interview Jo Goodman for AAR, I jumped at the opportunity. What I found was a delightful author willing to share insights into her process, techniques, and inspirations. Ms. Goodman has written books that delve into various settings and time periods and has created characters that are rich in detail and emotion. The characters act and react in ways that are quite human, often profound, and give me a new appreciation of the heroines of romance. I hope that you find Ms. Goodman’s responses as insightful as I do.

–Heather Brooks


You take some of the traditional elements of historical romance and breathe new life into them. How would you describe your writing process that allows you to create characters, dialogue, and scenes that are refreshing and rich in detail and emotion?

Your opinion is very flattering, so let me bask for a moment. Okay, I’m over myself now. Moving on to your question…I’m not sure I can describe my writing process. There’s the basic mechanics: up at 5:45 a.m., sitting at the computer at 6:07, and staring at the screen until it goes dim. But it’s pulling a thought out of my head through my fingertips (a sometimes painful process for which there should be drugs) that I suppose you’re really asking about. How do I explain that it’s just all in my head? The voices. The visuals. The movement. There is such an urge to get it out of my head and onto the paper that not doing it would cause a complete system backup. Oh, and that would be so ugly.

Some readers know what I do for a living, but I imagine it bears repeating here because it’s at the core of what goes on in my head. I’m a licensed professional counselor in my state. The one-to-one with clients is part-time now because I have lots of administrative responsibilities with the agency, but it’s working with kids and families that I find most enjoyable and always a privilege. Now, while I have never based any character on anyone I’ve ever worked with (or anyone at all, for that matter), the whole of my experience finds its way into my writing because how could it not? (But not on a conscious level, you understand, it’s just there, or I figure it must be because I have no other way to explain it.) I observe people all the time; I listen to what they’re saying and try to hear what they’re not quite ready to say. I pay attention to behavior. I don’t know that I would offer this information except for the fact that when I once told a reader what I do in my day job, her response was essentially, “Of course, that explains it.”

Do you consider yourself driven by plot or by characters and how do you develop your stories and characters?

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Jeezey peezy, I don’t know. Can’t I just drive? It’s both, I suppose. Plot without rich characters is a pretty flat story. I mean, who do you root for? Good characters without a plot are just Waiting for Godot. I develop my stories with a “what if?” question and go from there. I work without a net (no outline). That is a personal preference, and it causes me headaches sometimes, but I know that I have a tendency toward rigidity and following rules, so that if I do an outline, I’ll get myself stuck in the box that I’ve created. (I know this because I did it once, and it was a horrible writing experience. I couldn’t save me from myself.) Developing the characters begins with naming them, doing a brief description, and then doing a family diagram (also called a genogram). That’s where I think out the familial relationships, the birth order, that things that happened in their family that might impact the way they behave. I don’t squeeze all of that background into a book, but it’s in my head as I’m working.

For me, character development, dialogue, and interaction are critically important, both of which you do with great emotionality. Do you plan the dialogue or do the characters just take over as you write?

I think you’ve probably guessed the answer by now. The characters take over. I’m just not that disciplined of a writer to plan out the dialogue. Sometimes phrases or dialogue exchanges will occur to me when I’m away from the computer and I might jot them down or simply perseverate on them until I get back to writing, but that’s unusual. That’s not to say that everything they do is unexpected. I mean, I am directing this show. It’s just that sometimes the characters ad lib. I generally let them go with it and see what happens. It’s like life that way.

A fellow AAR reviewer observed that many of your heroes are nurturing and your heroines are tortured, which seems to be the opposite of most authors. She asks if that is intentional, and, if so, how did that develop?

Not too long ago, the adolescent girls at the group home where I work asked me if I would write their stories. Of course, they want me to write one for each of them. I always encourage them to write their own story and explain why I can’t write about them as individuals with personal details. But as I was talking to them, I just kind of stopped for a moment, looked at them, and said, “Who the heck do you think has been inspiring me for all these years?” They understood. It’s none of them individually, and it’s all of them in the great collective. I get to write better endings than some of them will experience, but in a small way I get to honor their combined courage. It’s important to me that while my heroines find a hero – it’s a romance after all – they also have a sense of self.

As for the heroes, heck, there’re enough stories out there about the tough guy. I find them one note wonders. Intelligence is sexy. Compassion swells the heart. Humor is an aphrodisiac. Laughter cleanses the soul.

On your Web site you mention naming places and characters after things that you are familiar with. Are there any instances of this that stand out the most to you in your books? Are there any instances of this in your latest works, either If His Kiss Is Wicked or The Price of Desire?

I got out a copy of IHKIW and thumbed through it. No examples jumped out at me. In the upcoming book, I know I used the names of two colleagues because they’re shameless and deserved to be punished. (I made them natty dressers and gave them Corinthian physiques. They can dream on.) I suppose the most standout name is the heroine of Scarlet Lies: Brooke Hancock. Those are the two counties where I’ve lived since moving to this state.

When you write a series that occurs simultaneously, how far in advance do you plan each book? Do you know where the series is going from the outset?

Okay, so maybe this is an instance where an outline might have been helpful. You’re talking about the Compass Club books. I did a little planning as I was writing North’s story and thought about scenes I might be able to use in later books. Keep in mind, I wrote these books in four successive years. I had to go back and reread stuff to remember what had happened. So, no, I didn’t know where it was going except in the broadest possible terms. There were some difficult moments, and I didn’t get the books as closely connected as I wanted to. Planning would have helped that, I think. On the other hand, planning might have caused me to open a vein.

Another AAR staffer wanted to ask if you wrote the Compass Club books, with all the action taking place at the same time but focusing on a different character, in response to your publisher’s request for connected books or just because you was thinking outside the box and wanted to try something new?

My editor asked me what I thought about doing a Regency. That was as directional as it got (and I love him for it). I was inspired by my brother and his friends to do the connectivity.

So far you’ve written about Colonial/Revolutionary America, the American South, the American West, the High Seas, and Regency England. Where do you plan to go next with your writing? Do you have a favorite period or setting that you would like to go back to or explore for the first time?

I’m headed West with the book that will have a 2009 release. I’m in the 1880’s in a Colorado mining town. I just thought I’d like to get out of mannered society for a while. I really do like the Regency period, so that might be a favorite setting, but I also love the clipper ships and wish they’d had a longer life span. They’re great for heroes, but oh, the hair and clothes are just awful for women. I like the colonial period because I find everything about the political ideas and vision of the time so meaningful. I’ve never done the Civil War, although I’ve had characters that have experienced that war. I can’t bring myself to work in that time period.

Will you continue writing historical romance or do you plan to venture into other areas of writing?

I have a contemporary collecting dust. I did that for fun. Now it needs editing and updating (that’s the problem for me with contemporaries – the details date it so quickly.) We’ll see what happens with it. I like historical romance. I don’t have a yearning to do something different. Today.

Are there any types of plots or characters that you try to avoid? Do you have favorite character types?

I don’t typically have adulterous characters. I despise the big misunderstanding as a plot device. (If I ever used it, I swear to you I didn’t realize it.) I like characters that are revealed by their actions, not simply by what they say. Oh, I generally dislike stories about characters that had a past, were separated (usually because of the big misunderstanding) and are now back together working it out. I tend to like characters that are strong in spirit, accept responsibility for their actions, and take risks. Warning: do not confuse me with my characters.

Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written or favorite characters?

This changes from time to time. I have a special fondness for a book called Sweet Fire (it takes place in San Francisco and New South Wales), but I’d have to reread it to see if it holds up for me now. I have short story called My True Love that I’m still happy with. My favorite characters, though, are probably those scoundrels from A Season to be Sinful. They made that book a lot of fun for me.

What authors are your biggest influences?

This really got me thinking. I originally thought of authors that influenced me as an adult, but then it occurred to me that there were early influences that probably did a lot more to shape my interest in writing. Wally Piper, for instance, for his “I think I can” mantra. Dr. Seuss for jingo jango lingo. Carolyn Keene for girl power. Charles Perrault for Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Every princess tale ever written.

But as an adult, I’d look to the following: Ayn Rand for the power of ideas; Herman Melville for the power of words (I’ve never finished Moby Dick. Please, I get seasick. It’s a short story called Bartleby the Scrivener that took my breath away.); Alexander Dumas for the power of adventure (and men in boots and puffy shirts); and James M. Barrie for the power of flight.

The writer that pulls it all together – ideas, words, life and death risk, and flight of the human spirit – has to be Thomas Jefferson and that document would be The Declaration of Independence. I swear, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Who do you read in your spare time?

Romance: SEP, Mary Balogh, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Nicole Jordan; Jennifer Cruisie. I typically don’t read historicals because it gets weird for me, MB and NJ being the most frequent exception.

Thrillers: Harlan Coben, Stephen J. Cannel, some David Baldacci, Michael Connelly, F. Paul Wilson, Lisa Scottoline, Lisa Gardner, Tess Gerritson. Oh, oh, oh! And Lee Child!

I’ve been hooked on audiobooks for a long time. I now download them to the iPod for walking and biking. Unfortunately, iTunes doesn’t have a big enough romance selection for my tastes.

Can you tell us a little about The Price of Desire, which is scheduled to come out in September? Have readers met the main characters before?

Readers met the hero briefly in If His Kiss is Wicked, and I do mean briefly. Really, can I pass on the rest of this question? I beg you. There’s a synopsis at my website. I find it very difficult to write just a little about a book. Truly, it’s excruciating.

Do you have any advice that you would like to share with aspiring writers?

I’ll pass on the piece of advice that was given to me that I found the most helpful (and it wasn’t from a writer): Don’t talk about the story that’s in your head; write it.

Can you tell us a little more about the flamingos that were mentioned in the dedication of If His Kiss Is Wicked?

Ahh, the flamingos. I’d love to tell you that story, but it’s a long one. However, the whole of it is available to read on my website, and I invite readers to go there and take a look. It’s got intrigue and action, plot and characters. It even has pictures. It’s called, Flamingos: A Love Story. Indeed.


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