Sue Ellen Welfonder is happiest in the company of handsome, brooding alpha males with a propensity to sling her over their shoulders and ravish her in canopied four-poster beds. As a child, she found her prince in Grimm's Brothers fairy tales; as a teenager, Welfonder scoured the Gothic romances of Victoria Holt and Daphne du Maurier in search of her heroes. Now an award-winning romance author, Welfonder creates the men herself, leaving her readers clamoring for more of her sexy heroes, like Duncan MacKenzie, Sir Marmaduke Strongbow and Donall the Bold.
With three books already published and a fourth due out this summer, the Longboat Key resident-whose genre is historical Scottish romance-has shot to the top of the romance book charts. Each book has garnered four-and-a-half stars out of a possible five and been named a "Top Pick" from the Romantic Times Magazine (the Bible for the romance industry), which also awarded Welfonder with a Best First Historical Romance title. Welfonder just got back from a launch party in New York to celebrate her most recent title, Bride of the Beast, which was selected to launch Warner Books' new romance imprint, Warner Forever.
It's a happy blur of activity for the former airline stewardess, who admits she never intended to write. But she has no doubt that this was her destiny all along.
"I don't believe in coincidence," the blond and voluble writer says. "If you're meant to do something, it's going to happen."
Welfonder was a stewardess for Braniff and Lufthansa Airlines for 20 years, traveling to Europe and later living there in Munich with her husband, Manfred. Always a bookworm, she kept meticulous travel journals, recording details about interesting passengers, sights she saw, and what she ate. Later, she struck up a pen pal friendship with one of her favorite romance authors, Becky Lee Weyrich, with whom she exchanged 18-page letters detailing her adventures on her travels. It was Weyrich who steered Welfonder toward writing novels.
"She said, 'You should be writing books,'" Welfonder recalls. "My first thought was, I can't write a book. She's crazy."
But the idea appealed to her, and as a true-to-type Capricorn, Welfonder was armed with ambition and determination. She pored over how-to articles in the Romantic Times. She attended chapter meetings, annual conventions and workshops of the Romantic Writers of America, an organization of more than 8,000 romance writers responsible for more than 55 percent of American paperback sales.
"I studied voraciously everything I could get my hands on about the craft of writing," Welfonder says.
Within two and a half years, Welfonder had sold Devil in a Kilt, about a brooding 14th -century knight, Duncan MacKenzie, who is forced to marry plain Linnet MacDonnell, who possesses second sight. Two books followed in quick succession (Knight in My Bed and Bride of the Beast) and a fourth, Master of the Highlands, comes out this summer. Devil in a Kilt has since gone into a second printing and been translated into Russian, and its author's transition is complete: from ardent audience member to a happy insider of the Romantic Writers of America. Now, Welfonder is the one on stage receiving awards and interacting with a growing number of fans. In fact, she wrote Bride of the Beast because fans begged for a happy ending for Marmaduke, best friend of Duncan MacKenzie from her first book.
Welfonder talks about Marmaduke and Duncan (both voted Romantic Times Hero of the Month) as if they were family members or close friends-as she says they are. They "appeared" to her as all her characters do, during biannual research trips to the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland. There, Welfonder, who is strongly attached to her own Scottish heritage, often rents a car and spends days driving over misty moors and hiking to obscure abandoned ruins. She finds inspiration in old abbeys, battle sites, holy wells and circles of standing stones, where she takes copious notes about her impressions: Were the stones covered in moss or lichen? Was it cold in the shadow of that castle wall, and how loud was the roar of waves on the rocks below? She records every detail of sight, smell and touch and adds the notes to her massive collection of journals that go back 20 years.
"There's no setting, whether castle or land, that I haven't actually been to myself," Welfonder says. "To me, Scotland is magical. The sense of timelessness, of continuity . . . it's almost as if time stands still. There's a nebulous veil between times that you can almost see or hear through. You can feel it to the roots of your soul."
It is in these settings that her heroes thrive: sexy men whose power-most are lairds of some Scottish castle-is part of their charm. They're not politically correct, Welfonder admits, and she doesn't want them to be. She's in perfect agreement with her heroines about the ideal man: Tall, dark, handsome, well-endowed, and good in bed (and her men, like her novels, have become progressively steamier).
As for the heroines, Welfonder divulges that she has much in common with the Ladies Caterine, Isolde and Linnet. "They're very determined, and can't be swayed by baubles and money," she explains. "It's what's in somebody's heart, character and soul."
But good looks help. And Welfonder has to admit that her real-life hero has them in abundance. She met Manfred while she was in Munich and sparks flew from the very beginning of their courtship, which survived a car accident that injured them both and put her in the hospital for months of therapy. After 15 years of living in Germany, Welfonder grew homesick for the States and her native Florida (she grew up in Miami), and the couple relocated to Longboat Key. Here, she writes 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with an occasional break to walk her Jack Russell, Em, or grab a bite to eat. Manfred, a commercial realtor, does his part by sending his wife flowers every week and whipping up gourmet dinners. "He makes the best pecan-crusted tuna in Sarasota," Welfonder confides.
And when she finished writing Knight in My Bed, Manfred (who, after all, has to compete with his wife's larger-than-life characters) surpassed ordinary husbands who may have rewarded their wives with mere jewelry or a vacation. Instead, he drove up to the front door with what is possibly the ideal, over-the-top gift for a wife whose passion is writing romantic fiction: a full suit of armor.
Welfonder promptly named his offering "Longsword," and he sits three feet away from her while she escapes for a few hours each day into the land she loves.