I couldn’t tell you precisely when I knew I wanted to write a book about a convicted felon, only that it was a year or more before I ever thought to pitch the idea to my editor. It was a vague sort of wish-list idea, jotted down on my mental notepad and left to sit around in a dusty corner of my head while I attended to contracted projects.
As I’d first envisioned it, the romance would be a purely epistolary one, comprised solely of letters between an inmate and a woman on the outside—a correspondence born of both curiosity and caution, then steadily evolving into something more intense and explicit, and always a touch dangerous. Though I never articulated it to myself, I had imagined that it would be a passionate but doomed affair, the felon serving a life sentence and having no chance at parole (and guilty of his crime, as well.) Loads of longing and hollow hope, leaving it to the reader to imagine what might have happened if the two had been able to be together, that sort of thing—more lit fic than a true romance. More of a concept piece than the novel that little seed ultimately grew into.
Last autumn I’d been struggling to come up with an idea that really clicked for my next book, the third of a three-book contract. I’d been wanting to revisit Darren, Michigan—the struggling Rust Belt city I created for an earlier story, After Hours—and had been wondering what sort of sub-setting I could use. After Hours was set on a locked psychiatric ward (I love grim, institutional stories, whatever that says about me.) Cousins Correctional Facility already existed in that world; many of its inmates wound up at the psychiatric hospital. The moment I realized I could set this new book in a prison, I was instantly infatuated with the notion. (Readers who are familiar with my backlist may have noticed that my heroes are often pretty pent-up, not having gotten laid in a while for a variety of reasons, so writing one who’s been locked up for five years…? Right up my weird alley.)
It took a little effort to convince my then-editor that a story about a felon could be sexy, as opposed to plain old scary, but in the end, I think my naked obsession with the idea swayed her. At least enough to run it by the editorial director, who thankfully shared my enthusiasm.
There’s a point in Hard Time, about halfway through the book, where the heroine discovers that the hero is about to be paroled. (She’s an outreach librarian, in charge of the prison’s literacy program.) By then they’ve been interacting cordially in public and exchanging secret, heated letters for months, but she’s suddenly faced with a reality she hadn’t anticipated. Every worry she has—Is he really as good a man as he seems? Is he dangerous? Is it wise to try to pursue him in the larger world? Will our heat even translate into a kiss, and beyond?
These are some of the same worries I had, myself. Or perhaps more pointedly, Can I pull this off? Will readers stand by this heroine, if she chooses to pursue a romance with a felon with a heinous crime in his past? Will readers feel the depth and strength of her infatuation and understand her decisions, or condemn her as an unforgivable fool?
Well, Hard Timee is out now, and I’m sure readers are falling into both of those camps. It’s not the easiest romance, certainly, but I hope some readers will enjoy that about it, and embrace the contentiousness. Many questionable decisions dot the paths of both characters’ lives before they ever meet and embark on their risky love affair, and writing it was a bit of a risk in itself.
I can say already, however, that the risk has paid off, at least for me—few books have been such a joy to create.
Cara McKenna writes contemporary romance and smart erotica, sometimes under the name Meg Maguire, and has sold more than thirty-five novels and novellas to Penguin, Piatkus, Harlequin, Samhain and Signet Eclipse. She’s known for writing no-nonsense, working-class heroes with capable hands and lousy grammar. She was a 2010 Golden Heart finalist, and a three-time Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee. Cara writes full-time and lives in the Pacific Northwest with her own bearded hero.