Frenchtown novelist did arson in search of 1st Harlequin book

For her latest book, she paid some visits to the police and the fire department. She did a lot of Googling that would seem suspicious. FRENCHTOWN — Danica Winters, a romance novelist who lives in an immaculately clean home with a neatly mowed lawn, wouldn’t appear to have ever been anywhere near a police station.

“I am pretty sure I am on the FBI watch list at this point,” she said with a laugh. “For this book, I actually had to look up bomb-making, and how fires are started, how chemical fires and oxidizers work.”

The romance novelist’s new book, “Smoke and Ashes,” features a Missoula fire inspector as its protagonist who’s on the trail of an arsonist targeting a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage.

Winters also consulted with her father, a retired Missoula city firefighter who for a time was a training officer. A Missoula city police officer provided information on their operations and evidence kits.

Mel Holtz, a Frenchtown firefirefighter and paramedic, thought it was funny when she called asking questions about arson, until she explained that it was for a book. He said it’s usually the opposite of their outreach, such as visits to schools on how to prevent fires.

As with any profession, he said he’s used to seeing the details botched in popular culture.

“You kind of have to laugh when the TV gets it wrong and (a) movie gets it wrong,” he said.

“I want the books to be accurate and realistic. There’s going to be people out there who’ve had firemen in their lives, that are firemen or firewomen, or police officers, so I want it to be right,” she said.

“You’re going to get picked apart in this business,” she said.

Harlequin romance

Winters grew up in Missoula and graduated from Big Sky High School. She grew up reading Harlequin novels. “It was a closet habit,” she said. But she thinks fans are open about it now.

She attended the University of Montana and earned a scholarship for writing, but switched to anthropology when she decided she didn’t want to go into teaching.

In 2007, she began publishing her writing for Mamalode magazine, which is based in Missoula. That led to marketing work for a publishing house. She became an assistant editor and began writing romance novels five years ago.

She joined a local romance writers’ group to learn the beats and contours that the genre requires.

“It taught me to write a bit quicker, and taught me the ways and rules to write a romance novel,” she said.

“Smoke and Ashes” marks her debut on the “Intrigue” suspense line for Harlequin — the publisher whose name is practically an adjective for romance novels, a genre unto itself.

There’s something of a stigma attached to romance writers, even though Winters’ books never delve into R-rated behaviors.

“‘Oh, you write smut. You write porn.’ I probably get it at least once a week,” she said.

However, the bulk of the criticism of “Smoke and Ashes,” which she said has sold some 21,000 copies in the last month, has focused on the character’s morals: Heather begins a relationship while still married, albeit to an AWOL abusive husband. One magazine article called Heather “morally ambiguous,” a trait that’s usually a point of pride in literary fiction.

“It’s causing some backlash. People are saying ‘I couldn’t even look at this book, it disgusts me,'” she said.

More important to Winters were the issues of domestic abuse, which she said she’s experienced in other periods of her life.

“As a female, if you’re raised in a situation where you are abused and believe you have less value than a man, less self-worth, and told you’re fat and ugly and stupid and never going to do anything with your life, then you look for a relationship later in life that is similar to what you already know,” she said.

It typically falls upon the victim to break the cycle, a point she’d rather raise with the character’s marriage.

“Why aren’t we celebrating her strength, and her ability to finally see the situation for what it is?” she said.

Writing life

Winters estimates she spends about 30 percent of her time managing her writing life. There are social media accounts to maintain, newsletters to produce and marketing plans to develop, all while writing up to 3,000 words a day.

There are at least two more books in her fire inspector series. Another series set in Ireland is being shopped to television.

And she has another western Montana series in the works, this one set at Dunrovin Ranch outside Lolo, famed for its osprey nests and accompanying osprey cams. As popular as the cameras are, osprey fans should be warned: Winters said her readers are more interested in horses.

Like “Smoke and Ashes,” the series will have some law-enforcement characters, and she’s going to do some research. This time, it’s at a sunnier locale than the police station.