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'It's all about love'

The next time you see a woman with long blonde hair driving through Jacksonville talking to herself, maybe intensely, perhaps even with a tear in her eye, it’s entirely possible that you are witnessing the creation of a bestseller.

That’s because besides writing and selling a lot of books (and yes, similar hair), Maisey Yates and Megan Crane have something else in common: They write romance novels while they drive. Consider the open laptop in the front passenger seat a dead giveaway that relationships are being forged, plots thickened and love found, lost and found again, all thanks to the miracle of speech-to-text technology and the active imaginations of Yates and Crane. Friends and co-writers on two “quartet” books and one series (“A Good Old-Fashioned Cowboy” was released in January), they write as they drive by speaking as they drive.

And both are prolific by any standard, having written more than 100 books apiece, New York Times and USA Today bestsellers among them. In an industry notorious for chewing up and spitting out dreamers in favor of doers, Yates and Crane, who also writes as Caitlin Crews, have made successful careers out of their shared passion by pumping out romances like some people visit their in-laws — at least once every month or two, no exceptions.

Consider Yates’ recent production. Besides “Cowboy,” which has four interwoven storylines and the same number of authors, “The Rancher’s Wager” came out Jan. 12, about two months after “Claiming the Rancher’s Heir.” “The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin,” set for a Feb. 1 release and illustrated by Kazuna Uchida, ranks No. 23 among romance graphic novels. Late January sales put “Wager” at No. 16 on the mass market adult bestseller list, eight spots behind Danielle Steele’s “Moral Compass” and 11 spots behind Nora Roberts’ “An Irish Wish,” which helps explain why Yates’ name is at least twice as big as the title on most of her book covers.

Crane has been equally busy. “Special Ops Seduction,” the fifth book in her “Alaska Force” series, was released Jan. 12, or about 26 months after the first book in that series was published. “Secret Nights with a Cowboy,” the first book in her “Kittredge Ranch” series, was released Dec. 1, and “The Last Real Cowboy,” the third book in her “Cold River Ranch” series, came out Jan. 28.

How do they keep that pace? Mostly by driving down scenic country roads toward Applegate Lake while dictating their novels. Sometimes, they even see each other and wave, two novelists just stealing some scenery and paying the bills. It should come as no surprise that many of their books are set in idyllic small towns that bear more than a passing resemblance to some here in the Rogue Valley.

“Probably my most popular series,” says Yates, “is pretty directly based on Jacksonville — the ‘Gold Valley’ series.” The “Cowboy” series they co-wrote along with two other authors is set in Jasper Creek, a fictional small town “dependent on tourism, good weather, and a lack of wildfires. Smoke from fires could handily halve business during the typical high season.” Sound familiar?

Yates and Crane came to dictation for different reasons, though both somewhat desperate. Yates was still in her 20s when she began experiencing painful carpel tunnel symptoms. Writing hurt, but she couldn’t afford to turn down offers or miss deadlines. The books were in her head; the trick was figuring out a way to get them on the page.

“So for me, (dictating books) came from not wanting to slow the output of what I was doing because I mentally felt like I was completely able to do it and I wanted to say yes to the opportunities that I was getting,” Yates said of the transition seven years ago. “Because I’ve always felt like in publishing, well, right now people want to buy my books. Right now. So I have to say yes right now and it doesn’t matter how busy I am.”

Crane saw the light only after falling so far behind on a book that she saw no other way to make her deadline. It was about five years ago that she first opened up her laptop and started talking out chapters. She hasn’t looked back.

A perfectionist, Crane at first struggled with speeding through errors or plot holes, but the assembly line production convinced her. The difference between transcribing a novel and typing it, she says, is not unlike the difference between typing and writing longhand.

“Why would you do that unless you had to?” she said. “Because (by transcribing), I could get 1,000 words in half an hour, 10 minutes or something. And so it was like, ‘Oh.’”

Yates was born in Medford and has lived in Southern Oregon her whole life — she attended Ruch Elementary. Crane was raised in New Jersey and lived in Los Angeles until a fateful road trip that took her through the Rogue Valley to visit Yates about six years ago. She and her husband liked what they saw so much, they moved here shortly thereafter.

Now, besides co-hosting a book club once a month at Rebel Heart Books in Jacksonville, Yates and Crane have written another book together. A quartet, “A Good Old-Fashioned Cowboy” is a looking-for-love story that follows four best friends who return to their hometown to follow through on a pact they made as young girls. Each of the four authors involved took on roughly a quarter of the book, with Crane writing as Caitlin Crews.

Yates and Crane agree that the four authors of “Cowboy” work well together because they have similar writing habits, which they point out isn’t necessary but certainly made the process more enjoyable.

“The four of us have an incredibly similar approach to story and character, and so it is much, much easier just because you’re not irritating each other,” Yates said.

And what is that approach? For Yates and Crane, when it comes to the plotters versus pantsers question, both come down firmly in the pantsers camp — that is, they write by the seat of their pants, sans outlines. The process may be a little more messy to get through as they texted and Zoomed their way through what-happens-when knots, but it got done.

“That was actually not that much fun to write but ended up being fun in the long run,” Crane said. “No one would ever do that if they weren’t as close as we are.”

“Yeah,” chimed in Yates, “because basically what we have is four romances with four couples but there are all these things happening at the same time so you’re in different points of view when you move to the next stories and the focus is different. But you have some common themes.”

And often, those themes are explored against backdrops of quaint, out-of-the-way towns, lonely farmhouses and meandering dirt roads most Southern Oregonians would find familiar. And, of course, ranches.

Yes, there are a lot of ranches in the Yates and Crane universes, and to scroll through the covers is to understand that most are populated by bronzed, buff hunks who most certainly have cobblestone abs underneath all that flannel and leather, Hollywood hair, and eyes with the gravitational pull of a collapsed star. But both agree, you need a lot more than high cheekbones and steamy love scenes to keep romance readers coming back for more. To pull off that trick, Yates and Crane say you need to create real people surrounded by real problems. Then light the spark and stand back.

“Good love scenes stem from emotion,” said Yates, who recently signed a 10-book deal with her publisher, Harlequin. “If you have no emotion in the scene it means nothing.”

Both authors throw darts at one common criticism of romance novels: happy endings. So predictable, some may say. But to Yates, that’s a flawed view. Strip most love stories down, she says, and you really only have two possible outcomes. Readers won’t put in the time it takes to read 350 pages for a surprise in the last 10, so they better care about the characters.

“We have to invest people in the journey because they have to care enough to get to that end,” Yates said. “And that’s all about having main characters that I’m invested in the breaking down and also the climbing back out. I’m invested in how they are going to overcome the things that they’ve been through. I’m invested in how they arrive at that place where they’re like, ‘OK, I’m ready to be vulnerable and be in love.’”

People need stories like that now more than ever, Yates says, lamenting that if she wrote dystopian fiction, she’d be taking some time off about now. According to sales figures, Yates’ opinion on the importance of the genre is shared by many. According to Nielsen BookScan, romance had a 34% share of the U.S. fiction market in 2015, and the most recent data place romance behind only the mystery/thriller genre in terms of total sales.

Those numbers wouldn’t surprise Crane, who believes romances can satisfy a need all humans share. She had a friend in Los Angeles who was deep in grief after her father died, and went to see a therapist, who suggested picking up a romance novel.

“Because in romance novels,” she said, “no matter how dark it gets, no matter how bad, no matter what you’ve lost, no matter what you’ve done, there’s a happy ending. And so it’s an infusion of joy and it shows you over and over and over again that you can fix things. You can fix yourself.

“You might lose something and not get it back but you can find something new. It’s all about love.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Local bestselling romance novelists Maisey Yates, left, and Megan Crane have teamed up to write their second quartet novel, "A Good Old-Fashioned Cowboy."