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15 Secrets of Genealogists

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Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and a billion-dollar industry, but few people know what actually goes into tracking down ancestors—let alone putting information about them into any kind of context. Mental Floss talked to three professional genealogists to learn more about their increasingly in-demand profession, and discovered why they love weird last names, why they’re indebted to the Mormons and the Quakers, and how television is making their job more difficult.

1. MOST OF THEM DON’T HAVE DEGREES IN THE FIELD.

There’s only one accredited four-year genealogy degree program in the U.S.—a bachelors at Brigham Young University in Utah. Those who can't make it to Utah can enroll in certificate programs, such as the one offered at Boston University, where Melinde Byrne teaches. “A lot of people sign up [at certificate programs] thinking it’ll be simple,” she says. Unfortunately, lots of people then fail when they discover how much work the program really is. Learning how to use databases, evaluate evidence, document research, locate and search public records, and define genealogical terms is essential knowledge for genealogists-in-training. Other course offerings may teach about ethics in DNA testing, how to read historical documents in multiple languages, and the best methods for writing historical narratives.

But those who don't want to commit to a whole certificate can take advantage of other, less formal options, such as classes in conjunction with library science programs, lectures offered by historical and other societies, and week-long intensives at institutes around the country.

2. THEY'RE BOUND BY PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TO CONDUCT "EXHAUSTIVE" RESEARCH.

Unlike, say, doctors or lawyers, genealogists don't need a specific qualification to practice. But they're still guided by professional standards—including the five Genealogical Proof Standards developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a non-profit in D.C. The five standards are considered best practices for coming "as close as possible to what actually happened in history," and include 1) "reasonably exhaustive research," 2) "complete and accurate source citations," 3) "thorough analysis and correlation," 4) "resolution of conflicting evidence," and 5) a "soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence."

Professional researchers may have differing opinions about what constitutes “reasonably exhaustive” research, but most agree that it means visiting archives and making sure to cover all the bases—for example, looking at not just a death certificate to confirm a name and age, but census, birth, and burial records as well, to build a fuller picture and to corroborate it. "If you don’t do all the steps in the genealogical proof standard, then the conclusions aren’t convincing," Byrne says.

3. THEY OFTEN DISCOVER THEY HAVE A KNACK FOR GENEALOGY WHEN THEY'RE INVESTIGATING THEIR OWN FAMILIES FOR FUN.

Byrne, for example, looked into her family’s history and discovered that “my own father and mother would never have met if my great grandmother in Alsace-Lorraine hadn’t had a goiter.” This medical condition led her to circumvent Ellis Island’s rigorous physical exam in favor of entering the country via Boston, setting a whole new family history—and her parents’ eventual meeting—in motion.

Genealogists will often continue to use their research tools on their own families later in their careers, too. Lee Arnold, who oversees the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), has used them to research his family’s past. “One of my ancestors fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War,” he says, and service records indicated that he’d “lost his horse.” To Arnold, who grew up on a horse farm, “That meant, I fell off my horse and he beat me back to the barn.” He later learned that the phrase actually meant that a person’s horse had been shot out from under him. These are the kinds of details that get people hooked on genealogy, according to the experts—“how their lives compare to mine, how … the things they did and didn’t do helped to form me,” Byrne says.

4. SOME OF THEM CHARGE MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR.

Genealogists in archive examining archival materials
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Genealogists are often hired by families who are curious about their past or hoping to join lineage societies such as the Colonial Dames; by specific libraries or archives; or by companies such as ancestry.com, who have genealogists on staff. Fees generally vary by experience and project, although they tend to start around $20/hour (for simple record searches) and go over $100/hour, with a mid-range of around $55 per hour.

Arnold says there are three levels of genealogical research he’ll personally take on: research limited to HSP’s holdings; research that takes him anywhere in the Philadelphia area; and “our Cadillac version, where we’ll get nana to talk to us about her life in the shtetl.”

5. THEIR RESEARCH SOMETIMES UNCOVERS FAMILY SECRETS.

Be careful what you wish for when you decide to go deep: “I always tell prospective clients, ‘This can be life-changing,'" Byrne says. "'You may find half-siblings and other relatives you never imagined existed.’”

HSP’s director of research services, David Haugaard, says that clients can be stunned to learn about family members who were deliberately kept hidden. "Within so many families there are people who are written off ... somebody might have [had] a mentally ill sibling who was kept secret. It's less common today than it was, so when people are doing genealogy, it's not uncommon to learn about people in fairly recent history [who were ignored]. You start to learn that the family was more complex than realized."

6. BIBLES CAN BE UNEXPECTEDLY USEFUL.

Genealogists use plenty of sources you might not suspect would be helpful. Family bibles, in particular, can offer a wealth of relevant tidbits, since they were once often used to record births, deaths, and marriages. Scrapbooks, tax and church records, land deeds, and the 1870 Census (the first to list African Americans after emancipation) can also be goldmines. So can letters, whether provided by the family or found in manuscript collections, which might causally mention a family member’s birthday or offer snippets about day-to-day existence. “You can gather lots of information from them in a real-life kind of way," Byrne says.

7. THEY OFTEN FIND MISTAKES IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.

List of 19th century births used for genealogy
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Genealogists know it’s key to consult paper sources—and to give a critical eye to the “facts” they offer. Arnold recalls a colleague becoming confused when an ancestry site listed her grandfather as white and from North Carolina, when she knew he was black and from Louisiana. “I was able to go into the original documents and see that they had been transcribed wrong,” Arnold says—a common occurrence for sites outsourcing work to other countries. (Another common transcription error: mistaking a florid handwritten 17th century S for an F.)

That doesn’t mean paper sources are error-free, of course. Sometimes mistakes were made in the original documents themselves: Census workers may have misspelled names or miscounted children; priests may have mis-marked birth dates on baptismal certificates. Pros know how to cross-reference all that, too … with more documents!

8. THE WEIRDER YOUR LAST NAME, THE MORE THEY LIKE IT.

“I often tell people we’re like private investigators looking for dead people—we know your ancestors have to be there; you didn’t just hatch from an egg,” Arnold says. “The problem is, it’s so labor-intensive for a common name; you could spend hours looking at the wrong Smith. It’s better if you have an obscure last name.” Names like Brown, White, Jones, and Johnson are especially tough—although matters can be made easier if family members had a distinctive first name ("Napoleon Jones" will be easier than "John Jones," for example).

9. THERE'S A WHOLE FIELD THAT DEALS WITH LEGAL CASES.

Forensic genealogists—like Byrne—apply genealogical tools and principles to cases with legal ramifications. In the process, they often solve mysteries. Byrne might track down a next of kin for someone seeking the heir to a family fortune, or to repatriate the remains of a soldier killed in action. One of Byrne’s colleagues helped a woman prove that the man who kidnapped her as a girl was not her father—and was in fact a grisly serial killer. Another forensic genealogist discredited a woman who claimed she was raised by wolves and that she killed Nazis while hiding out in the woods. Sometimes, Byrne says, the tip-off comes just from talking to relatives; in the wolf case, for example, “Her first cousin was still living and he basically said, ‘Misha always had such an incredible imagination.’”

The man thought to be the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist was also caught using forensic genealogy strategies. Police compared DNA found at the killer's crime scenes with DNA test results from an unidentified genealogy site, and found a match with a user of the site. The user wasn't the killer himself, but by going through their family tree for potential suspect who matched clues in the case, police found their man. "The techniques used to find the Golden State Killer combined solid police work with genetic genealogists’ principles," Byrne says. "This is done routinely to reunite children and birth families, to identify the remains of KIA or MIA soldiers, and increasingly to identify John Does, Jane Does, and Baby Does."

10. THEY’RE GRATEFUL TO THE MORMONS …

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A good number of online records exist thanks to the efforts of Mormons. For years, they’ve been sending missionaries to HSP and other archives to scan hundreds of thousands of family histories, usually in exchange for a royalty and free access to the scans for the society’s patrons. What’s their interest? Posthumous baptisms for the family members who weren't Mormon—so they can stay together in heaven. Genealogists agree the scans are a tremendous asset to researchers, with a caveat: Not even close to everything is scanned, and mistakes are also common. “You still need to use as many different paper sources as you can,” Haugaard advises.

11. … AND THE QUAKERS.

Some things make genealogical research a snap—for example, if your ancestors were Quakers. According to Haugaard, that’s because the Quakers were always issuing certificates; when someone moved, say, to use as an introduction at the Quaker Meeting in a new town, and also when they were kicked out of the community. “Lots of [mid-18th century] Quakers got in trouble for fighting, or drinking, or marrying out of unity, then were disowned,” Haugaard says. What that means is, “Basically, they kept great records.”

12. GENEALOGY SHOWS DRIVE THEM NUTS.

Producers and participants of "Genealogy Roadshow" speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Producers and participants of Genealogy Roadshow speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Grudgingly, Arnold admits that TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow have “introduced people to genealogy and made it really hot—I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ancestry.com commercial.” But the shows have also given people unreasonable expectations about what genealogy can and cannot do. Byrne says, “People don’t understand that [the history] is not all laid out in front of you" as it typically is on TV. Arnold says he fields requests from patrons who ask him to “‘Tell me about my ancestors, just like that guy on TV did.’ They think it’s easy and quick.” In fact, what Arnold calls those “ta-da” moments offered by hosts like Henry Louis Gates Jr. are actually made possible by professional genealogists hired to painstakingly research ancestry over the course of days, weeks, months.

13. IT'S EASIER FOR THEM TO RESEARCH YOUR ANCESTORS IF THEY WERE RICH.

Ancestors with less money—who maybe didn’t own property or pay taxes—can be less likely to leave a paper trail. But employment agency, almshouse, prison, and orphanage records can get the research ball rolling, as can advertisements offering rewards for runaway indentured servants. Haugaard explains that charity society records also frequently provide details: Society workers would visit families and “make records indicating the woman of the household’s name, how many people were in the household, what religion they were, and what charity they received, like coal or groceries.”

14. PERSECUTED GROUPS CAN BE A MAJOR CHALLENGE.

Research files being used for genealogy
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Three groups of people looking for their roots make Arnold steel himself for some rigorous research. If the case involves African Americans, Native Americans, or Jews, “I know this is going to be a tough one,” he says. That’s because their records are often scant or nonexistent. Slaves often weren't allowed to marry (or their marriages were never recorded); Native Americans didn’t traditionally write their histories down; and Jews fleeing Europe during World War II often had all family records destroyed as synagogues and villages were torched. Sometimes, their papers were falsified in order for people to survive.

These factors make picking up someone’s trail difficult, if not impossible. “I had one woman come in to a talk I was giving and say, ‘How do I start? All my ancestors were killed in the Holocaust,’” Arnold remembers. “And I said, ‘Alright, then your ancestry starts with you. Document your life for your [descendants].”

15. THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO THINK TWICE ABOUT DNA TESTING.

According to Arnold, DNA test results can be sketchy. His own experience with DNA tests from seven companies yielded seven different results, some of them “bizarre”: “One said my family was from Tuscany, but I’m paler than a Presbyterian. Another said I was 5 percent African American. Another said I was Swedish—and that probably means that they found a gene from some randy Viking pillaging the Scots Irish 1000 years ago.”

Part of the problem is that DNA test kits are dependent on data from other people who have taken the tests, which means they are more accurate for some well-represented groups than others. (For example, an American with Irish background taking the test may get a more reliable result than someone whose ancestors were of Middle Eastern descent, since people from the Middle East tend be less represented in the database.) Also, different companies are working with different data sets, and using different algorithms—which can produce different results.

Haugaard also says that DNA testing may tell you some things you don’t want to know. He recounts a story about a man who connected deeply with his Irish heritage, yet DNA testing undertaken by his family showed he was Jewish, switched at birth with an Irish-American baby. “He passed away before he could learn that,” Haugaard says.

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15 Secrets of Commercial Divers
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Imagine some of the most physically demanding jobs available—supply line installation, construction, welding—and then imagine doing them underwater. That’s the life of a commercial diver, a rigorously trained professional who undertakes everything from bridge repairs to oil line maintenance. To get a better sense of this often difficult and dangerous work, Mental Floss spoke to several commercial divers for their thoughts on everything from the perils of decompression to swimming in sewage. Here’s what they had to say about a life in flippers.

1. DIVING DEEP CAN PRODUCE EUPHORIA (AND A WEIRD VOICE).

Commercial divers receive specialized training—either in the military or at diving instructional schools—to learn how to function hundreds of feet below the surface. The lower a diver goes, the more water pressure increases, and the greater the challenges. Jeremy, a commercial diver out of Louisiana who repairs and installs equipment for oil companies, says that working in such conditions can lead to physical exhaustion, pulled muscles, and a feeling of pressure on the lungs.

Plunging to a depth in excess of 100 feet can also result in nitrogen narcosis, which some refer to as "raptures of the deep" or the "Martini effect." It's caused when divers receive a higher concentration of nitrogen from their air supply due to the effects of the water pressure on the gas. (The air systems that commercial divers use allow them to breathe normally by providing air at a pressure equal to that of the water, but the lower they go, the denser the gas gets, and thus the higher the concentration.)

“It makes you feel drunk or euphoric,” Jeremy says of the narcosis. “The solution is to switch from a nitrogen-oxygen supply to helium and oxygen.” That cures the over-inhalation of nitrogen, but when a diver comes back to the surface or to a decompression chamber, their voice will be altered. “It’s an Alvin and the Chipmunks thing,” Jeremy explains. Some diving teams will use voice augmentation to de-scramble the high-pitched squeals when divers are communicating with the surface.

2. ABOUT HALF A DOZEN OF THEM DIE EACH YEAR.

A diver works with a cable on an underwater construction job
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Most commercial diving is centered around underwater construction—often repairing or replacing infrastructure that facilitates water, oil, or electrical supplies. Divers are frequently charged with digging trenches to bury electrical lines using high-pressure water blasts to excavate the ocean floor. If these trenches collapse, it can result in a catastrophic situation; the cave-in can trap and bury a diver, clogging their regulator or causing them to take off their helmet in a panic, which eliminates their air supply. Jeremy says a number of divers die every year in such cave-ins.

If divers can avoid that fate, they still have to worry about a number of other ways they can meet an untimely end. “We use cranes and those can fall or drop their load on you,” Jeremy says. Cutting into “live” pipelines can also cause explosions, as can using tools that displace hydrogen from the water. In an enclosed space like a ship or supply pipe, that collected hydrogen could catch a spark and explode. “That could blow your helmet off or into pieces,” he says. All in all, 25 commercial divers died on the job between 2011 and 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; another 310 suffered nonfatal injuries or illnesses.

3. THE DEEPER THEY GO, THE MORE THEY EARN.

Diving jobs vary in pay according to risk, duration, and other variables, but generally, a diver’s base pay is usually supplemented with “depth pay.” The further down they go, the more they can make.

“It’s basically about a dollar a foot,” Jeremy says. “After 150 feet, the price can double to $2 a foot. Added on to regular pay, a 12-hour day can add up.” A diver working at 300 feet might net $1000 in a shift. Saturation divers, who can go 1000 feet down and are required to live off-shift in a chamber pressurized to the surrounding water in order to avoid decompression sickness, or the “bends,” can make even more.

4. SOMETIMES THEIR SUITS ARE HEATED.

Going deeper into the water means enduring more frigid conditions. To offset plummeting temperatures, divers need a way to keep their suits warm. “Below 80 feet, it gets cold,” Jeremy says. “We either pump water into a wet suit or wear a hot-water suit.” The former allows water to come in and make contact with the diver's body, typically from a heated source at the surface; the latter has water channels throughout the suit that branch out and keep divers from getting too cold. Because hot water suits can maintain a more consistent temperature than delivering warm water from above, they are most often used at 200 feet and lower depths.

5. THEY CAN WIELD FIRE UNDERWATER.

Most tools meant for underwater use are hydraulic (involving the use of water or other liquids), since they’re largely unaffected by water pressure. Fuel-powered or pneumatic tools (those that involve the use of gas) don’t really work, but divers can still make use of jackhammers, chainsaws, and other devices you’d find in an above-ground construction job. Others, however, need to be adapted.

“In my opinion, the most interesting adaptation is the BROCO torch,” says Brian, a diver based in New England. The BROCO torch uses direct current to ignite a magnesium rod and oxygen mixture that burns at approximately 10,000 degrees and can cut through metal like butter, even underwater. (A/C, or alternating current, is what we use in our homes—but because the direction of the current reverses many times a second, Brian explains, it can freeze the diver in place while electrocuting them, making it too dangerous for underwater use.)

6. THEY MIGHT FIND DEAD BODIES.

A human skull sits half-buried in sand
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According to Jeremy, many recovery dives for people suspected of drowning fall under the purview of local law enforcement. Still, commercial divers can encounter someone who’s wound up in a watery grave. “I’ve done helicopter recovery jobs,” he says, referring to crashed aircraft that can harbor passengers. Once, while working on an oil rig, he stumbled upon a dead scuba diver. “It was more of a skeleton in a scuba suit,” he says. If a diver does find a corpse, they're unlikely to ever know the history of how the body got there; such discoveries are required to be passed on to the Coast Guard for investigation.

7. THEY CAN WIND UP FEEDING FISH.

A school of fish swim in the ocean
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“We encounter marine life all the time,” says Mike, a commercial diver who now works primarily in and around the Great Lakes. “When working the ocean, if we are cleaning off marine growth, sometimes you will get some fish that come up and eat what you are cleaning off.” Mike says that commercial divers frequently spot sharks, barracudas, and other potentially dangerous sea dwellers, but the animals generally don't care much about humans. They’re even less likely to approach if the workers are using torches.

8. THEY SOMETIMES SWIM IN UTTER FILTH …

A common component of commercial diving, HAZMAT (hazardous material) diving involves working in contaminated water. That could mean anything from a lake affected by nearby lawn chemicals to checking equipment at a nuclear reactor. If it could kill or poison you, a diver has probably swum in it.

This kind of work requires a special approach. Brian says that those who venture into higher-risk HAZMAT diving usually wear a positive pressure diving helmet; since the pressure inside the helmet is greater than the pressure in the water outside, the helmet helps keep hazardous material from entering. HAZMAT divers also wear a rubber dry suit that fully seals the diver's entire body, unlike normal wet suits, which allow water to make contact with the wearer. Support staff will also decontaminate the HAZMAT diver after the job, scrubbing their suit free of harmful materials before the diver undresses.

9. … INCLUDING SEWAGE.

An overhead shot of a sewage treatment plant
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Those stories you may have heard about people diving into sewage treatment plants to repair equipment? Those would be commercial divers, who occasionally brave the psychological challenge of being submerged in poop. Because it's usually impossible to see in a sea of feces, divers will study reference photos of empty tanks before going in. They'll suit up in sealed dry suits and typically will weigh themselves down in order to sink through the dense liquid; once they're in position, they work by feel. “Both the sewage jobs I dove on, it was repairing a masticator blade,” Mike says. “Picture a giant blender that makes solids less solid. I don't do it anymore because of the health risks.” A rip or tear in a diver's suit can introduce a litany of dangerous bacteria into their body: In addition to your standard Salmonella and Cryptosporidium parasites, such vile muck can also harbor hepatitis, Norwalk virus, E. coli, and assorted fungi [PDF].

10. DAWN SOAP IS A LIFESAVER.

Dawn dishwashing liquid is a must-have on diving expeditions. It can get diving suits and skin free of oil, and can even help divers cope with parasitic pests. When Jeremy was working on a mile-long pipeline near New Orleans, the shallow water resulted in workers getting infested with parasites carried by nutria, a semiaquatic rodent. “The hookworms will dig into your skin, die, and leave a big red mark,” he says. Splashing Dawn soap gets rid of the itch immediately. (If irritation persists, divers might need to seek anti-inflammatory treatment from a dermatologist.)

11. THEY WORRY ABOUT BEING SUCKED INTO A VACUUM OF DEATH.

Divers are frequently in violation of the laws of nature. Humans, after all, were never meant to thrive (or survive) underwater, particularly at more pressurized depths. Many divers fear encountering Delta P, or differential pressure—a vacuum that’s far higher in pressure than their current environment, and is created by intersecting water bodies as a result of opening a channel like a pipe. “Delta P is vacuum-like suction much like you would imagine from when the cabin of an airplane ruptures, but at a much greater magnitude,” Brian says. “It can be very difficult to detect until you are already too close, and can trap the diver at depth or even kill them instantly.” The unfortunate crab in the video above is an example of how differential pressure can ruin your day.

12. THEY SOMETIMES GO DIVING INSIDE WATER TOWERS.

Those water towers you see in populated areas that stand on stilts hundreds of feet up in the air? Townships need to periodically check them for sediment levels to maintain water quality. That’s when they call in a commercial diver, who needs to add "not afraid of heights" to their skill set. “You have to climb all the way up, get into your wet suit, measure the sediment with a ruler, and clear it out with a [suctioning device called an] airlift." Jeremy says. And that's not the only lofty prospect for a diver: Jeremy notes that some oil rigs stretch 100 feet in the air. Divers without seniority may be expected to carry out repairs or work at or near the top, instead of actually diving.

13. THEY CARRY KNIVES.

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No, it’s not to duel with sharks. “While diving, I carry a razor-sharp knife for emergency purposes only,” Brian says. In an urgent situation, it could be used for "cutting anything from old fishing line to my own dive umbilical—the air hose and lifeline.” The latter rarely happens, unless the diver gets it snagged or it becomes compressed. In the event of a hose failure, divers have a "bailout bottle," a supplemental tank they can switch to in case of emergency.

14. THEY CAN BE UNDERWATER BUT NOT ACTUALLY IN THE WATER.

A diver works with a torch underwater
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Not every dive requires divers to swim while working. For jobs that require meticulous attention to detail for repair or where welding is required, diving teams can set up positive pressure habitats that isolate the problem area and allow the diver to work out of water. “You use air pressure to push water out of the habitat, which is in two pieces,” Jeremy says. Inside, a diver would trade their helmet for a welding mask. Because it can take a day or more to set up the habitat for a job that might take only one or two hours, habitat work is used only in cases where there aren't any other options.

15. THEY STILL GO SWIMMING FOR FUN.

Like anything done recreationally, diving can begin to seem routine if it's performed on a daily basis. While some divers get their fill of water by working 12-hour days for weeks at a stretch, some still enjoy going under in their free time. “While my career has definitely diminished the novelty of being in such an alien environment, I still love to dive recreationally,” Brian says. “Commercial diving is exhausting work, typically in dark, low-visibility water with a particular task in mind, while recreational diving is often more about exploration and sight-seeing. I would argue that the difference is not unlike a professional runner going on a beautiful hike in their free time.”

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11 Secrets of Romance Writers
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Some readers may snicker at book covers featuring aerobicized men and titles like The Firefighter’s Woman or The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby. But if it weren’t for the steamy, escapist fantasy of romance novels, a healthy portion of the publishing industry would cease to exist: According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romantic fiction brings in $1.08 billion annually and accounts for 13 percent of all fiction sales in the marketplace.

What keeps readers coming back for more? We asked some of the genre’s top authors for insight into the “secret baby" trope, why pen names are necessary, and the one rule of romance that can never, ever be violated.

1. THEY WEAR PERIOD CLOTHING.

Novelist Shelley Adina (A Lady of Resources, A Lady of Integrity) writes historical, Amish, and steampunk-themed fiction, just a few of the many sub-categories that appeal to niche audiences. To better understand her characters, Adina dresses in period outfits to gather what she calls “tactile details.”

“I like to feel how a heroine would feel in the clothes,” she says. “I’ve been laced into a proper corset and you realize what kind of dance steps you can do, or why a lady’s back never touches a chair—a tight corset won't allow it."

2. THE REASON THEY USE PEN NAMES ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Covers of two romance novels by Shelley Adina
Shelley Adina

The authors of romance novels don't use pen names out of embarrassment. Adina (a.k.a. Adina Senft) says that pseudonyms—many authors have more than one—help readers compartmentalize writers who generate multiple series. “People who read Amish fiction may not read steampunk,” she says. Another, bigger reason: Bookstore software can use “kill orders” on authors who don’t sell a certain number of titles. If they fall below parity, retailers will automatically stop ordering more copies from that author. “If that happens,” she says, “you have to reinvent yourself with a new name.”

3. THEY’LL DIGITALLY REVISE THEIR WORK AFTER PUBLISHING IT.

The analog publishing model has traditionally been one of permanence: Once a book is in print and in readers' hands, there's no going back. But romance novel readers are a very particular clientele with certain expectations about how they’d like their protagonists to behave—and the self-published digital distribution model that's popular within the genre allows for a little customization. Author Heather C. Leigh (the Famous series) found that out when her first books featured a heroine who was a little too acerbic. “My first three books sold well, but there were critiques that my female lead was too sarcastic,” she says. “I understood and took it out. I don’t mind making work better based on feedback.”

4. COVER MODELS OFTEN LOSE THEIR HEADS.

The covers of two romance novels by Heather C. Leigh
Heather C. Leigh

Despite seeing hundreds of new titles published every month, the romance genre still manages to find new ways to visualize their shirtless male protagonists. In many cases, though, the beefcake winds up getting decapitated. “A lot of times, the man will be turned away or cut off at the forehead,” says author Eliza Night (The Conquered Bride series). “Readers want to imagine his looks in their own mind.” Grooming is also a necessity. “I had a cover with chest hair once. My readers did not like it.”

5. THEY HAVE BONUS SCENES.

Self-published authors (who make up about two-thirds of the total romance e-book revenue on Amazon) spend much of their time marketing their work. To help maintain interest from their existing readership, some send out email newsletters with updates on new titles and include exclusive passages that can enhance the experience of a previous book. “My first book was about an actor who had to do a love scene with a woman he hated,” Leigh says. “It was never going to be in the book because that was from his girlfriend’s point of view, but I got a chance to write it as a bonus.”

6. THEY WANT READERS TO BECOME WRITERS.

While resources for aspiring writers of all genres are plentiful, the romance field makes an exceptional attempt to recruit new talent. Industry interest group RWA doubles as a conduit between established writers and novices, hosting conferences and panels on the best ways to break in. “We don’t live in a competitive hierarchy,” Adina says. “There are so many readers with so many diverse tastes. It’s a big community where we support one another.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM THE AMISH.

An Amish woman walking in a field
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While the Amish sub-genre has received media attention for its peculiarity, Adina doesn't believe it's so unusual: She says readers are attracted to a pastoral environment “without having to leave their wired-up house.” For accuracy’s sake, the author has enlisted an Amish reader to vet her titles for details. The popularity of the books “mystifies them,” she says. “They don’t understand the interest. They just hope the books might be able to point people to God.”  

8. THE “SECRET BABY” TROPE IS A READER FAVORITE.

Readers like resourceful women and skilled, wealthy love interests—and they especially like it when the former keeps their baby a secret from the latter. “The trope is that the hero and heroine have an affair, she gets pregnant, never tells him, and he comes back around five, 10, or 20 years later and finds out,” Adina says. “Reunion stories are popular. It’s the appeal of a responsible man.”

9. THEY’RE HISTORY GEEKS.

The cover of a romance novel by Eliza Knight
Eliza Knight

Knight cringes at the idea romance authors do little more than transcribe their own lurid fantasies. A self-described “history geek,” she travels frequently for research into Scottish history. “Most of us who write history nerd out on it,” she says. While once writing about a zeppelin-riding heroine, Adina jumped into one that offered rides over Silicon Valley to see how it would feel. She also got her motorcycle license for the same reason. “We’re serious about it,” Adina says. “We’re not sitting around in housecoats with barking Pomeranians.”

10. THEY’D APPRECIATE NOT BEING ASKED ABOUT THEIR SEX LIFE.

Many romance authors have at least one story to tell about people in their private life finding out they write for the genre and subsequently losing any sense of boundaries. “Strangers have asked me, ‘Do you test out scenes before you write them?’” Leigh says. “It’s like they lose a filter. It’s not real life. J.K. Rowling isn’t a wizard.”

11. THERE’S ONE RULE THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN.

While writing instructors invariably have all kinds of techniques for nourishing a story, the romance genre spells it out in an unequivocal manner. According to the RWA, nothing can be considered a “romance novel” without a central love story (naturally) and what authors have come to refer to as the Happily Ever After ending, or HEA. “Romance is a courtship story,” Adina says. “Readers expect the bond will be created at the end of the book. If not, it’s Nicholas Sparks or Romeo and Juliet. It would be like having a mystery where the detective doesn’t solve the case.”

This story originally appeared in 2016.

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