A Fairy Tale Second Career

Writers of fiction know that an opening sentence is the hook that draws readers into a story.

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by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

“Eleanor Plantagenet, Queen of England, by the wrath of God, watched as pride and anger stiffened the spine of her young ward.”

Writers of fiction know that an opening sentence is the hook that draws readers into a story. Fail to hook them, and you’ve failed. Period. Don’t you want to know who that young ward is? Don’t you want to know how she got so proud, and why she’s so angry, and where she got the gumption to stiffen that spine?

Well, you could read the book. Or you could walk into an operatory in either Cherry Hill or Moorestown, N.J., and ask the hygienist.

Terri Brisbin, RDH, wrote that sentence. It’s the opening of her fifth novel, “The Dumont Bride,” published in 2002 by Harlequin Historical.

Isn’t it delicious? A hygienist who is also a romance novelist - who would have imagined it?

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"I'm a deadline binge writer," Brisbin explains. "Most of the book is written in the last three weeks. Before that, it's percolating. It's stewing. Then when I'm ready, I have this internal push and I can work eight to 10 hours a day.
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She did. “I’ve always been a writer, even back to high school. I did short stories and poetry for a creative arts magazine there. In college it was more technical writing: case studies, reviews, abstracts. Then for the New Jersey Dental Hygienists’ Association and the New Jersey State Board of Dentistry, I was in charge of newsletters and journals.”

Still, she never saw herself as a professional writer. “In high school, I always thought I’d be a nurse. Then, while I was working as a candy striper, I was sent to the dental clinic at the hospital. I thought it would be filing, but I ended up assisting in four extractions. I passed out. The dentist invited me back later to train as an assistant. He eventually suggested hygiene, and I got an associate’s degree from Camden County College in 1976.”

Brisbin has mostly worked in private practice, but she also spent seven years on the clinical faculty at Camden, and served a four-year term on the state Board of Dentistry, where she worked on regulatory issues.

In the mid-1990s, Brisbin started thinking about creative writing again. “I’d just discovered a romance novel bulletin board on Prodigy. I had some ideas, and one thing led to another. I wrote the ideas down and formulated some stories. I never had any formal training in writing, other than the good sisters at my Catholic school. I came out of elementary school with a good, strong knowledge in the basics of grammar and structure. That was all enhanced by my experience in editing hygiene journals and newsletters.”

As a budding novelist, Brisbin soon discovered the New Jersey chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA). The members helped her define one of her ideas - a contemporary romance - as the most marketable, and she concentrated on that one. “I went to writers’ conferences and pitched my idea. From that, I got requests from editors and ended up submitting my contemporary while I worked on the second book, a time travel novel. The second book eventually sold. The third book was rejected, too, but I’ve sold every one since.”

The RWA, by the way, recently nominated “The Countess Bride” as a finalist as a Best Short Historical Romance for the association’s RITA Awards. The winners will be announced at the RWA national conference in July. The same novel was also named Favorite Short Historical Romance of 2004 by the Reviewers International Organization.

Brisbin loves history, especially historical fiction. “Really, although that first book was a short contemporary, I always saw myself in historicals. As soon as I got the chance, I went to full historicals.”

She begins her books in different ways. “Each story is different, but sometimes it starts with the character. With the ‘The Dumont Bride,’ I could see the hero in a medieval dungeon, but I didn’t know what was going on. Once a character tells me his name, then they’re ready to tell me their story. I just wait for it. That’s character-driven writing.

“Once I have the plot, I do the research. I must have 200 volumes in my home office. Most of the time, though, I use the Internet as a starting place. If I’m not quite sure what monarch or time period I want, I start there. The Internet has wonderful sources. I can get into the catalogs of so many educational facilities.”

The need to get the details right, she believes, comes from being a hygienist. “I find that as a group, we’re a bit compulsive-obsessive about details instead of the big picture. It’s an advantage I have as a creative fiction writer. I take the truth and use it for what I need. It’s amazing how many details I have in my head. It’s a good thing I’m a writer, or I’d have no place to use them all.”

So how does the life of a romance novelist mesh with that of a dental hygienist?

“I see myself as a completely divided person,” Brisbin says. “Right now, my life is just about evenly split between hygiene and writing. I work 18 to 20 hours a week for Paul Adler, DDS, in Cherry Hill, and Quinn Moccia, DDS, in Moorestown. I’ve been with each of them for about 12 years. I’m also active in the ADHA and the NJDHA. In my writing life, I’m on a two- or three-book-a-year schedule, and I’m a conference chair for the RWA.”

Those are 350-page books, by the way, and the publishing company expects a new manuscript from Brisbin every four months.

“I’m a deadline binge writer,” Brisbin explains. “Most of the book is written in the last three weeks. Before that, it’s percolating. It’s stewing. Then when I’m ready, I have this internal push and I can work eight to 10 hours a day.”

Her dental offices have been very accommodating, she says. “Another hygienist and I share a full-time position, so we can be very flexible. Sometimes I’ll work Monday and Tuesday, then stay home and write. The following week, I won’t go back until Thursday and Friday.”

Her family has been surprised at her choice for a second career, Brisbin says, because she was always so science-oriented. “My husband has never read any of my books. Sometimes I’ll ask him to read a short scene if I think I’m not getting the male perspective right, but that’s all I expect from him. He’s not a reader.”

Her three sons, 23, 18, and 12, have never read them. “Their girlfriends have read them, but the boys have been alternately embarrassed and supportive. They do like the extra money it brings. We took a family cruise last Christmas with writing money. And my 12-year-old recently said he was extremely proud of me.”

Brisbin’s mother hadn’t read the books, either, until she was coaxed by friends. “My mother-in-law is really my biggest family supporter. She’s always been an avid romance reader, and I use her as my pre-reader, to make sure I’m accurate.”

Though her family is somewhat underwhelmed, her patients have been more excited. “A lot of them know, and many of them have read the books. I keep them in my room, because our operatories are very personalized. I don’t bring up the subject, but sometimes they look at my name tag, then they look at the books. Actually, when I was interviewed on NBC’s “The Today Show,” the office got a dozen calls.”

That’s one of her best stories - “my 15 seconds of fame,” Brisbin calls it. “I was with a group from Romantic Times magazine, and we were on a research trip to Scotland. Somehow, the magazine connected with NBC. They were doing those ‘Where in the world is Matt Lauer?’ stories, so their European correspondent interviewed us.”

She doesn’t normally have such a high profile, though. “I’m not sure many people in town know about me. I’m just a soccer mom and a church volunteer. Once I saw a woman in a bookstore buying one of my books, so I introduced myself and signed it for her.”

Brisbin does support her local library, and each year she awards a writing scholarship at the local elementary school.

She can’t imagine a future without writing. “I’m enjoying this so much. I love having a chance to tell these stories. Every time I think this is the last I’ll ever come up with, I have more ideas. I have a very supportive editor, and she’s eager for my work. I have good sales, and I see a very positive future in writing. I’ll continue to write the stories that come.”

Author’s note: Brisbin’s book, “The Countess Bride,” was named Best Short Historical Romance of 2004 by RIO - The Reviewer’s International Organization. Her first novella, “Love at First Step,” came in second place for Best Novella. Excerpts above are courtesy of Harlequin Historicals.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor based in Calcutta, Ohio. She can be reached at cseckman@raex.com.


Books by Terri Brisbin

Novels:

“A Love Through Time,” Jove Time Passages, November 1998

“A Matter of Time,” Jove Time Passages, November 1999

“The Queen’s Man,” Jove Time Passages, September 2000

“Once Forbidden,” Jove Highland Fling, March 2002

“The Dumont Bride,” Harlequin Historicals #634, November 2002

“The Norman’s Bride,” Harlequin Historicals #696, March 2004

“The Countess Bride,” Harlequin Historicals #707, June 2004

“The King’s Mistress,” Harlequin Historicals, January 2005

“The Duchess’s Next Husband,” Harlequin Historicals, May 2005

Novellas:

Love at First Step in “The Christmas Visit,” Harlequin Historicals, November 2004

The Claiming of Lady Joanna in “The Betrothal,” Harlequin Historicals, May 2005


Excerpt from “The Dumont Bride” -

November 2002

A heavy hand on his shoulder forced him to his knees. Christian looked up on the dais and saw the reason he knelt - he was in the presence of the king. Lowering his eyes, he swallowed and prepared to face his judgment. As the eldest son, he could accept death, not without question, but he would not lose control. His only thought was to somehow save Geoff from that same fate.

“Ah, the Count of Langier, though not of late it appears.”

The king began to laugh at his own wit and the others joined him. Christian looked at those surrounding Richard and recognized no one - no one who could speak a word or two of support in his cause.

“Rise, Dumont, I would look on your face as you speak.”

Christian struggled to his feet and tugged on the frayed edge of his sleeve. Standing in the presence of the king, who was splendidly attired, he felt ashamed of his appearance for the first time in his life. Magnificent fabrics and decorations never mattered to him before, but his months of imprisonment turned his mind to the simple things he never paid attention to in the past. He even dreamed of things such as clean, well-fitted clothes, food and water and fresh air and the sun’s light.

He faced the king and then realized that Richard and the others were eating at the high table. The aromas of well-cooked beef and hot bread and cheeses surrounded him and his mouth watered. Without thought, he licked his dry lips with his parched tongue and inhaled once more the luxurious smells.


Excerpt from “The King’s Mistress” -

January 2005

“How did you know?”

“Know what, lady?”

“My weakness.”

He took a step closer and leaned down to her. “’Tis always a sound strategy to know your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.”

“And am I your opponent?” she asked, not turning her head or meeting his gaze. The room suddenly felt much smaller as though the shelves had moved in towards them and the ceiling had shrunk from its original height.

“I thought so when first we met,” he said, his deep voice sending chills down her neck where his breath tickled the skin. “But I learned quickly that you presented yourself with your own worst challenges.”

Now she did turn to him, sliding on the bench to put some room between them. How did he have such a canny sense about people? “What do you mean?”

“Your first days here you were in the defensive position, among strangers without knowledge of what forces were against you, no idea of your allies or enemies. Pretending not to know our language was an intelligent move on your part.”

It was odd to hear her behavior explained in such terms, but she conceded that he did describe her first days clearly.

“But then you made a critical error and went on the offensive. Do you comprehend what I mean?”

The night she seduced him. Her first downfall with him. She nodded and waited for his words, feeling the heat of a blush enter her cheeks. Memories of him and his touch still haunted her from that night.

“I’m a deadline binge writer,” Brisbin explains. “Most of the book is written in the last three weeks. Before that, it’s percolating. It’s stewing. Then when I’m ready, I have this internal push and I can work eight to 10 hours a day.”

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