The beautiful heroines in low-cut dresses swoon in the arms of handsome, bare-chested males on book jackets in grocery stores, pharmacies and bookstores.
Or the young women pose more demurely with fully clothed men who stare passionately at them.
Who are these young women, and who are the almost-always female authors who create them? Are romance writers hopeless romantics themselves--suckers for occasions like Valentine's Day--or pragmatic scribblers who simply know what sells?
Most of the paperback houses that publish adult romances have several lines of books, varying in style and sexual explicitness. (According to a Harlequin Books fact sheet, romance novels make up about 35% of all best-selling mass-market paperbacks in America.) Teen romances, in which sensuality is often implied but not always explored, are also popular.
The writers who keep the presses turning for these lines also differ in their views on romance, as interviews with three Southern California romance novelists--Barbara Conklin, Rita Rainville and Patricia Matthews--showed.
Barbara Conklin, 59, of Laguna Hills, has written three best-selling adolescent love stories and just sold her eighth teen romance (tentatively titled "Blue Mountain Dreams") to Bantam Books.
A plump, vivacious woman who favors colorful clothes and gold jewelry, Conklin describes herself as "really a romanticist" who remembers her own teen years with affection and draws from those memories to write her novels. She updates her material with details from teen magazines.
"I had such a good time being a teen-ager," said Conklin, a former records supervisor for the Huntington Beach Police Department and part-time confession story writer who retired to write full time in 1982. "I wish it (adolescence) could have lasted longer."
Conklin met her husband-to-be, Bob (now a quality control inspector at McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach) when she was 16 and he was 17 and they worked at the same five-and-dime store in Bristol, Pa. She was a cosmetics clerk and he was a stockboy.
"I remember telling a co-worker that I would marry him (Bob) someday," Conklin said, laughing at the memory. "I openly flirted with him. I know now he had several girlfriends, and no matter how much I flirted with him, he would not ask me out." Finally, she said, she arranged "a hayride and doggie roast" for several friends and persuaded Bob to come too. That began the dating that would lead, two years later, to the altar.
The Conklins have been married for 41 years.
"I think our marriage is successful because we both work at it," Conklin said. "We'll have candlelight dinners . . . he'll come home tired and he won't know that I have his bags packed because I have called Palm Springs and we have a reservation" for a relaxed weekend away, Conklin said.
"I'm so romantic, I live for it," Conklin declared. "That's the most important thing in the world, is something romantic."
In Conklin's books, teen-age girls learn about love, self-respect and social responsibility simultaneously. Each protagonist goes "through a process, where she's going to be a better kid in the end," Conklin said. None of the teen-agers in Conklin's books does more than "hug and kiss and touch," she said, because "Bantam's a really clean outfit. I have little Amish girls reading my books. Can you believe that?"
Her husband acts as her manager, handling paper work and publicity for her, Conklin said. He's also her sounding board when she's writing. "We sweat over these things. We sit at the breakfast table and talk about what this character will do. He always knows exactly what I'm doing," she said.
Her marriage has not always been smooth, Conklin added. "We have a lot of fights. They're very feisty fights. But they're over in a few minutes . . . If you really dig into our personalities, you'll discover that neither of us are quitters. We just wouldn't let little things bother us. And there were big things (problems) too, but we just knocked ourselves out" to resolve them, Conklin said.
Another romance writer, Rita Rainville of Lakewood, said that she, too, is romantic but "I really define that differently" than do most people. "A romantic is somebody who sees the good things in life, who appreciates happy endings--not necessarily someone who's draped in trailing cloth and eating candlelight dinners all the time," she said.
Many romance writers have long-term marriages, noted Rainville, who has been married to Don, a Hughes Aircraft engineer, for 28 years and has two adult sons. "I'm not sure what can account for it," she added, unless it's that romance writers often share an attitude that "romance is something that's not just transitory."
Rainville, 51, sold her first adult novel to Silhouette Romances (now a division of Harlequin Books) in late 1983. She's currently writing her 10th book. Her eighth novel, "It Takes a Thief," will be out in May.
Rainville said she likes to read and write romances "because there's a lot of ugliness, a lot of unhappiness in the world. We get a daily dose of it in the news, on television," but romances provide "entertainment and escape" from reality.
In Rainville's novels, the protagonists usually don't "consummate their romance" between the pages of the book. "I love writing books with lots of sexual tension but not graphic sensuality," Rainville said. "I really prefer reading and writing about the emotions involved."
Formerly a registrar at Paramount High School, Rainville quit that job in 1982 when Don encouraged her to try writing full time. However, "romances just aren't my husband's bag," she said. "It was very demoralizing for me to have him fall asleep in the middle of reading my first book!"
Don was a Navy electronics technician when friends introduced them 30 years ago. She and her husband are very different from each other, Rainville said. "I'm more of a people person; Don is a more inward person," she said, and together "we do interesting things that turn out to be romantic (although) I don't think either of us ever deliberately sets out to create a romantic atmosphere.
"We have a deep relationship, and that's terribly romantic in this day of frequent divorces," Rainville said.
Another romance writer with a long-term marriage is Patricia Matthews, who's written 16 best-selling historical romances in the last 10 years.
Matthews, 59, has been married for 15 years to fellow writer Clayton (Matt) Matthews, 69. Formerly of Los Angeles, the Matthews have lived in northern San Diego County for almost four years, on a six-acre parcel of land.
On her own, Patricia has written 27 sometimes-steamy novels (seven under pseudonyms) and one book of poetry. Her next novel, "Enchanted," will be out in April from Worldwide Books. Matt has written 50 suspense, Western and family saga novels. The Matthews have collaborated on three additional romantic suspense novels and four Gothic romances.
They met about 21 years ago in a Los Angeles writers group where Matt was "the father figure" everyone looked to for advice, Patricia said. Today the two writers still make suggestions about each other's work when they meet up each evening, after working separately all day.
"But I don't pay much attention to what she says," Matt said, straight-faced but clearly joking.
"Yes you do," Patricia told him.
Each writer produces two novels a year, with Matt occasionally managing a third. Patricia writes on a computer, Matt on a manual typewriter because "I don't need a computer and also I think the damn computers are taking over the world," he said. An old-fashioned, two-fingered typist, Matt said that "I always say I'll keep writing until I'm senile, and I might write even better then."
In her spare time Patricia paints, sings, plays the piano and reads. Matt smokes cigars, plays pool and pinball and reads. Both like to go to movies and the theater in San Diego, which is about an hour away from their home.
Although they're different personalities, the Matthews seem to be good companions. But are they Real Romantics?
"Part of me" is romantic, Patricia said. "I'm a lot of different things . . . I follow the pattern of the Moon Child. My head may be in the clouds, and I'm very imaginative and creative, but my feet are on the ground."
And is Matt, maybe, a Taurus?
"I have no idea," he growled.
"He's a Scorpio," Patricia said quickly. "That's a good sign for a Moon Child (partner). A lot of our values are the same, although he's more liberal and I'm more middle-of-the-road--I'm always cranky when they let murderers go loose, I was against (former state Supreme Court Chief Justice) Rose Bird and he was for her.
But they've always gotten along well, Patricia said. "We squabble, but we never have had a real fight. When couples get in trouble, it's when they have trouble with money and with (differing) values. Although Matt's older, our knowledge (base) and values are very much the same.
"We don't need a lot of people," Patricia said. "Do we?"
"No," Matt said quietly.