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Romance novels, despite their widespread popularity, have often been tarnished with a label of being trashy and simplistic. The truth is markedly different in a publishing sector that is fiercely competitive. “There’s a real discipline to be learnt in terms of focus and tight writing. [There is] no room for self-indulgent turns of phrase or boring characters who do not seem real – even it they’re a Sheikh of some imaginary desert kingdom.”

Left : Beautiful Kapiti Island at Sunset. Top: Diana and daughter, Holly. Bottom: Artwork by Diana’s husband, David Abbotts.

Romance novels are a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, according to the Business of Consumer Book Publishing. In a time when retail book sales continue to slide, romance and its many sub-genres (Historical, Paranormal and Time-Travel, to name but a few) have bucked the trend. Indeed, the Romance Writes of America claim that nearly 75 million people in that country read at least one romance novel in 2008. For Kiwi author Diana Holmes, an ongoing succession of national and international competition wins with her romantic fiction has led her to begin her own foray into the world famous for bodice-ripping and tall, dark strangers. A key contributor to her writing is the inspiration she finds in her lifestyle and in the beauty of the New Zealand landscape.

Born in Norfolk, England, Holmes moved to New Zealand when she was 21 years old with her partner, artist David Abbotts. The couple settled in the small coastal town of Pukerua Bay in the lower North Island. Despite its population of less than 2,000, the township boasts an impressive history of creative residents. Over the years it has been home to Kiwi poets such as Sam Hunt, James K Baxter and Denis Glover and is the birthplace of filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson. For Holmes, Pukerua Bay represents an ideal setting for her own artistic endeavours. “With more sunshine than Auckland, beautiful beaches, a vibrant city half-an-hour away and the Tararuas as a backdrop,” Holmes says, “Who could ask for more?” Indeed, the area is striking, with the steep hillside plummeting into the Tasman Sea, providing long, picturesque views of the coastline and Kapiti Island. Even though Pukerua Bay has close proximity to Wellington, it retains the small-town tranquillity that is a boon to a writer’s concentration.

According to the Romance Writers of Australia, publisher Mills & Boon receives over 20,000 manuscripts every year from hopeful writers. From that massive amount, only around 30 new writers are taken on. Mills & Boon are only one publisher working in the romance field. Such statistics maybe daunting to a new writer, but Holmes has progressed thoughtfully, honing both her skills and her confidence. She followed up her short fiction publications by winning the Romance Writers of New Zealand Great Beginnings contest in 2010. The contest, judged by the Mills & Boon in the United Kingdom, required a first chapter and synopsis from its entrants. To prove the victory was no fluke, Holmes proceeded to win the competition again in 2011. Holmes has since followed up the wins by doing well with two manuscripts where the completed books were judged by readers and then topped it all by placing first in the inaugural Romance Writers of America contest.

Holmes began writing seriously in her 30s, when she had two short stories published in women’s magazine New Idea. This success led her to investigate the world of romantic fiction.

Even with the growing attention from publishing houses, Holmes is not waiting for the approval of others. Embracing Internet technology, she is investigating selfpublishing through the burgeoning world of E-books.

“I’d never read a Harlequin Mills & Boon but thought they looked the right kind of size for the next step,” Holmes confesses. “I read a couple by Kerikeri writer Robyn Donald and was hooked by the emotional read. I realised that in any book, whether literary or popular, I always read more avidly the bits about relationships.”

New Zealand has produced more than its share of successful romance novelists, with names like Daphne Claire, Robyn Donald, Susan Napier and the late Essie Summers regularly cropping up on bestseller lists. It seems likely that soon, the name Diana Holmes will join their ranks. CH

“There’s a real discipline to be learnt in terms of focus and tight writing.”

Catherine Holmes Magazine Assignment  

Catherine Holmes Magazine Assignment

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