When Barbara Johnson Heinlein began writing fiction, romance was the last thing on her mind.
“I set out to write murder mysteries, I just wanted to kill people,” the Malta resident and New York Times best-selling author said with a laugh. “And I still do.”
Instead, the prolific writer who goes by the pen name B.J. Daniels found a nice balance creating murder mysteries laced with romance. She’s got 86 books under her belt, another one out soon and a contract for 12 after that.
Most of Heinlein’s books have a Montana setting, which makes sense; the 69-year-old woman has lived much of her life in the state.
“I write what I know, and growing up here, this is what I know,” Heinlein said in a FaceTime interview filled with memories and laughter.
She lives in Malta with Parker Heinlein, her husband of 20 years. She describes the small northern Montana town as “more trucks than cars, more cows than people and more churches than bars, which is probably a good thing.”
Heinlein was 5 when she and her family — father Harry Burton Johnson, mother Marcella Johnson and younger brother Charles — moved to western Montana. Harry Johnson, a masonry contractor, constructed a cabin in the Gallatin Canyon, with the wilderness for a backyard.
Heinlein attended Montana State University for 3-1/2 years at her father’s urging, to get a teaching degree as a backup plan. But she left early, in 1980, to work as a stringer for the Bozeman Chronicle.
Then Heinlein started writing features for the daily newspaper and was hired full-time to write and to oversee the entertainment section. She did that for nearly 20 years.
In the meantime, in 1987, a friend told her that Woman’s World magazine was accepting short story submissions that paid $1,000 each. Heinlein got hold of a copy of the magazine and figured she could write a story better than the one she had read.
The plot of her first piece involved a game warden, poachers, a wounded mountain lion and a woman rancher, set partially in mountainous terrain. The rancher rescued the game warden, and eventually they got together.
“It had quite a bit of adventure,” Heinlein said, admitting the magazine wanted more romance. But Heinlein obviously satisfied the magazine’s editors and they bought 40 of her stories.
Then Heinlein learned about one category of imprints that publishing giant Harlequin sells, called Intrigue, which blends romance and suspense. It seemed a perfect fit for her style of writing.
Of course Harlequin is also home to bodice-rippers. But the company publishes a wide range of romantic fiction.
“My guys don’t have their shirts off because that’s not what I write,” Heinlein said. “I like the mystery of the story and I like the relationship, and sex is a smaller part of my books.”
Then she laughed.
“I’ve been told I write pretty hot sex, but it’s short and sweet,” she said. “A lot of my readers appreciate the fact that it’s not in your face.”
Heinlein’s first book was published in 1995. She managed to write one book a year while she was still working for the Chronicle.
“I thought I’d have to get a job at Costco handing out food if it didn’t work out,” she said. “But 87 books later, it’s turned out OK.”
Heinlein works in a small office in the building that originally housed the town’s telephone company. She writes daily, including weekends, from 8 or 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, pausing only to go home for lunch.
“If you take a few days off, you can’t remember where you were,” she said, “It’s easier, even if you just write five pages.”
More often, Heinlein bangs out 10 pages a day, about 2,500 words. That allows her to complete three of the smaller series books and three of the larger stand-alone volumes in a year.
While some authors prefer plotting out a book first, Heinlein writes “by the seat of my pants.”
“I don’t plot, which is scary because I don’t know where I’m going with any book and I have deadlines,” Heinlein said. “Sometimes I get stuck.”
That’s when she jumps into her pickup and hits the road. Driving lets ideas percolate and helps her figure out where to take the story next.