Beth Trissel has published four romance novels and has several more in the works. A self-described romantic, she weaves history and paranormal elements into her love stories.
Photo by Nikki Fox
The first time Beth Trissel entered a writing contest for unpublished romance authors, the judges told her she’d broken all the rules.
“And I said, ‘What rules?’ ” Trissel recalled. “I thought you just wrote.”
She’s learned since then. Trissel, 54, of Harrisonburg has had four romance novels published within the last year, with an anthology contribution due out in December and several more in the works – all of which adhere to the basic rules of the romance genre.
The first, according to Trissel, is to know whose story you’re telling. “You’re supposed to choose a point of view. It needs to be either in the hero’s point of view or the heroine’s point of view. Sometimes you can be in the villain’s point of view, but that’s about it,” said Trissel, adding that in her first contest submission, she switched vantage points so often that “I even did the dog’s point of view.”
Stories should keep tangents to a minimum and focus mostly on the relationship. And, most importantly, the central characters need to have a shot at a happy ending.
“You have to leave them with a chance. You can’t kill one of them at the end. I had to learn all that,” Trissel said. “You can put your characters through hell, but at the end, they’ll be together. Maybe they’ll be blind and beaten up, but they’ll have a shot at happiness.”
But beyond following the basic guidelines, Trissel’s books don’t have much in common with standard romance novels. To begin with, her stories take place in and around the Shenandoah Valley, and usually dabble a little in the paranormal (characters may encounter a vindictive ghost or a mystical spirit guide, or will be overcome with a strong sense of déjà vu). If they’re not set in the past (she’s especially fond of the Colonial American period), her characters will have ties to it. This, she said, is what really sets her apart from other romance authors.
“[My publishing company] was very pleased to find an author who writes American historical, because there aren’t very many who do and because it doesn’t sell well,” Trissel said. “New York [publishers aren't] interested, so that’s discouraged that whole field … so they were very pleased.”
And though her books do include that other romance trademark – “My characters go all the way, you know, they don’t just hold hands,” Trissel said – the love scenes are more a natural progression of the characters’ relationship than a focal point of the story.
“I’m a little different,” Trissel said. “I’m not your traditional romance author; what people think of as a bodice-ripper.”
Not that she considers the romance insignificant. A self-described lifelong romantic who left college to marry her high-school sweetheart, Trissel grew up loving “Romeo and Juliet” and the works of Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier. She believes in the conquering power of love, but also enjoys adventure and feels a strong connection to the past, mostly due to stories she’s heard about her Scots-Irish/English ancestors, who first came to the area in the 1700s.
“It’s almost like my ancestors are speaking to me, but they’d probably turn over in their graves with the stories I’m telling,” she said.
Trissel first began writing around 14 years ago, seeking a creative outlet after spending years raising her three children and dabbling in various cottage industries, including raising plants, dogs, cats and ducks. In the beginning, her writing time was ruled by a handful of superstitions and rituals.
“I had a certain favorite beat-up mug that I would always drink my tea in. I had a denim dress that I called my fat dress because it was baggy, I would always wear that,” she said. “I used to be afraid that if I didn’t stay on the story like a dog on a bone that the muse would leave me.”
Though most of Trissel’s original writing rituals are defunct now, some have stayed the same. She continues to exhaustively research historical periods to ensure that her writing is accurate, and though her publishing company doesn’t assign deadlines, she strives to finish each book in three to six months. Most importantly, Trissel continues to look to her characters for inspiration on the direction the story should take.
“I reach deep inside myself to get to know the characters,” she said. “I have a basic idea of where I want to go, but I’m very influenced by the characters, so if they want me to do something else, I listen.”
In the beginning, Trissel wrote her stories by hand using black Bic rubber-grip pens and then gave the pages to her mother to type. When the manuscripts were finished, Trissel would submit them to contests for unpublished writers, hoping to reach the finals and catch the attention of a publishing company. Eventually, “Somewhere My Love,” a love story tinged with murder, mystery and ghosts, made it to the hands of a contest judge and editor at Wild Rose Press, a romance publishing house that focuses primarily on the online/e-reader market (but also offers print).
“That was my foot in the door,” she said.
Trissel was invited to submit the book for publication, and as more of her manuscripts placed in other contests (including “Through the Fire,” “Daughter of the Wind” and “Enemy of the King”), the company asked to see them as well. “Somewhere My Love” was the first to be published, in September 2008, and Trissel said that finally seeing her name on the cover of a paperback was “the most exhilarating thing in this world.”
Though Trissel’s mother, Pat Churchman, no longer transcribes her pages – Trissel switched to a laptop computer in 1998 – she and Trissel’s father Charles remain two of her biggest fans. The couple said they’re not usually romance readers, but are intrigued by the historical and paranormal elements of Trissel’s books – and insist that reading the love scenes penned by their daughter isn’t awkward, because they’re a natural part of the story.
“I don’t think, ‘Oh this is Beth, oh this is Beth,’ ” Pat Churchman said. “You get involved in the story. I think they’re …. kind of an essential part of it.”
Outside of her family and close friends, few people in the community know about Trissel’s writing career. Karla Dodson, who’s been friends with Trissel for about 10 years, said she was told about the books only after the trust in their relationship was firmly established.
“As we got to know each other, she confided that she was writing and I said, ‘I’d love to read it,’ and I guess finally she trusted me enough to let me look at some things,” said Dodson, who began editing chapters for Trissel and was particularly enthralled with the Native American theme of “Through the Fire.” “Her research into the Shawnee tribe was fascinating. She knew so much, and she had contacted Shawnee tribe leaders and talked with them and met them and researched the language … I loved it.”
The historical elements peppered in her stories are a favorite among many of Trissel’s readers, including Barbara Moyer, a Dayton teacher who worked with Trissel’s daughter. “She is so historically accurate that even history that I’m not aware of or that I don’t know about, she gives enough information that it’s a good read,” Moyer said. “It’s informative. It truly is not distracting. And it really is informative, so I learn details that just are fascinating.”
And though neither woman is a fan of books heavy on the paranormal, both say it enhances Trissel’s stories.
“It enriches the book,” said Moyer. “I’m not into the magic and fairy and witches and wizards, but I really liked how it was more to what was going on in the story line, so it added to it as opposed to making it weird.”
Though her books have received rave reviews from online readers, Trissel has been hesitant to push local book stores to carry them. “Word is starting to spread, but I haven’t made a huge thing of it locally because I wasn’t sure how people would take the romance aspect of it. It’s a conservative community,” she said.
Trissel’s publishing company does have a section devoted entirely to Christian and inspirational romance, and though she’s Christian and has a strong faith, she found the category too restrictive.
“It’s one of the tightest boxes you can be put in,” she said. “I wanted to write about real people with real feelings and real emotions…I wanted it to be real.”
For perhaps this reason, Trissel said, most romance writers use pen names. She had picked one – Elizabeth Maury, after the Maury River in Roanoke – but eventually decided that cloaking her identity wouldn’t work for her.
“I just am too much who I am. And who I am is so important,” she said, “because I’m writing what I know.”
Contact Kate Elizabeth Queram at 574-6272 or kqueram.dnronline.com