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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of NASA Mission Controllers

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Films such as Apollo 13, Armageddon, and The Martian depict NASA’s Mission Control Center as a place of high stress and nail-biting suspense. But what’s it really like to work there? We got the inside scoop from several current or former flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center's (JSC) Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas—NASA’s primary Mission Control Center for human spaceflight. (You might know it by its radio call sign “Houston.”) There, flight controllers are responsible for ensuring the safety of astronauts and spacecraft, monitoring the International Space Station (ISS), and providing constant operational support from the ground.

1. “FLIGHT CONTROLLER” IS A GENERAL TERM.

There are a variety of roles that are essential to making Mission Control run smoothly, and “flight controller” is an umbrella term that encompasses many of them. For each mission, a group of engineers, scientists, managers, technicians, biomedical engineers, quality control inspectors, and designers all work together to ensure the safety of astronauts and spacecraft. According to Ben Honey, a NASA ADCO (Attitude Determination and Control Officer) flight controller, team sizes vary from a skeleton crew—the minimum is six people—to more than a dozen individuals.

“A busy day (say, a vehicle docking or spacewalk) could have a full team of at least a dozen people in the front room and many more in support rooms,” Honey tells mental_floss. A skeleton crew, meanwhile, consists of six roles: Flight Director, Ground Control, ETHOS (Environmental Control Systems), SPARTAN (Power Systems), ADCO (Navigation Systems), and CRONUS (Data and Communications Systems), Honey says. But no matter how many people work in Mission Control at any given time, the ultimate responsibility is in the hands of the flight director, who manages the team of flight controllers.

2. THEY’RE YOUNG.

According to NASA Vehicle Systems Engineer Holly Griffith, who worked as a flight controller for the Space Shuttle Electrical Power System at the Johnson Space Center from 2004 until 2012, people are often surprised to learn how young most flight controllers are. “I was 25 when I started, and the majority of my colleagues were similar ages,” she tells mental_floss. Even during Apollo 11—the 1969 NASA mission that landed the first two humans on the moon—the average age in the control room was just 28 years old.

That youth can be a big asset when it comes to working the long hours required of the job. As Griffith points out, young flight controllers who lack the added responsibilities of marriage and children are often more willing (and able) to work nights, weekends, and holidays. (It’s not so much that NASA specifically recruits young people for the job, interviewees say, as that young people are more likely to apply.)

3. GETTING THEIR JOB IS NO EASY FEAT.

Flight controllers at NASA come from a variety of educational backgrounds, but most earn degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics). Some flight controllers earn additional degrees in business or communications, which may help prepare them for the job’s high level of cooperation and demanding team management responsibilities. After completing their education, grads who want to work in Mission Control may apply to a NASA internship or work for a NASA contractor that provides personnel to NASA.

Once they get their foot in the door at NASA, aspiring flight controllers must complete up to a year of rigorous training. Depending on the team they want to join, most new hires take classes, get tested on what they’ve learned, and take part in simulations that help them practice how they would respond to surprises such as malfunctioning equipment, a debris strike, depressurization, or a fire. They’re also observed by supervisors while they learn to carry out tasks. The end result of the training process is certification, which is highly individualized depending on which role a flight controller is aiming toward. Once certified, the flight controller is responsible for carrying out their job duties without a supervisor watching over them.

4. COMMUNICATION SKILLS CAN MAKE OR BREAK THEM.

Forget the stereotype of a nerdy scientist who doesn’t speak or interact well with others. While flight controllers are first and foremost engineers, responsible for applying an enormous amount of technical knowledge, good communication skills are equally important.

“For a job in engineering, communication was just as much a part of the job as technical knowledge,” Griffith explains. “We were set up in the room by our systems, and if something in the power system fails that cuts power to a fan in the environmental system, I may need to be able to explain higher-up electrical concepts to the environmental person and they will need to tell me why it's important that we get the fan back ASAP.” The ability to communicate accurately and succinctly with colleagues, especially under pressure if a major failure occurs, is vital. “Much of our training is spent on good communication and our communication skills are a huge part of our feedback and could even fail you in the certification flow if not good enough,” Griffith says.

5. THEY SPEND A LOT OF TIME DOING PAPERWORK.

“Much of a flight controller’s job is paperwork and the integration and coordination that go along with that paperwork,” NASA flight controller Robert Frost writes on Quora. When Space Shuttle missions were still running (the Shuttle retired in 2011), that paperwork could start years before a mission. Even today, tiny changes in the technology or software used aboard the ISS can involve multiple international stakeholders, all of whom need to be kept informed via paperwork.

Once a mission begins, flight controllers are also "sitting console”—being perched at a large desk with multiple monitors receiving data from equipment in space. Their job is to continuously monitor that data, and make sure each piece of equipment is working as it should be. That way, Mission Control on the ground stays connected to what’s going on up above.

Even then, "we're always doing paperwork—we're constantly keeping a log," Griffith says. "We have a Word template that logs MET (Mission Elapsed Time) and GMT of every call/action from/to the crew, other flight controllers, the Flight Director, etc. We log everything and the other team reads this during handovers."

6. THEY DON’T GET MUCH VITAMIN D.

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Because the ISS is a 24/7/365 operation, Mission Controllers are used to working in a dark room, seeing only the artificial light emitted by their monitors. “Most of us have engineering degrees so are already used to working nights during college or in labs doing research, so this part [of the job] doesn’t really take much adjustment,” Honey says.

But while they might miss seeing sunlight stream through the windows, Mission Controllers do have ways to get some Vitamin D. “We don't have to sit inside Mission Control for our nine hour shift without leaving," explains Honey. "On most shifts (but not all), there are times we can take a break, and I will often go for a short walk outside to get some sun if it is a day shift.”

7. BAD WEATHER IS ONE OF THEIR BIGGEST CHALLENGES.

If a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes Houston and shuts down power to Mission Control, NASA has a backup control center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. According to ISS flight controller Pat Patterson, who works at Marshall but is part of the Mission Control team in Houston, one of their greatest challenges is dealing with weather. “Since our control room operates around the clock, 365 days a year, and we are in Alabama, even snow and ice can result in issues getting to and from work,” she reveals in a Reddit AMA. “When hurricanes shut down Mission Control at JSC in Houston, key flight controllers came here to use a backup control room.” And if that backup center in Huntsville loses power or undergoes major maintenance, flight controllers have yet another backup location in Huntsville they can head to. “It’s small and only has enough space for a bare-bones team, but it works,” Mason Hall, another ISS flight controller, writes on Reddit.

8. COFFEE AND SNACKS KEEP THEM GOING.

With limited breaks and long shifts, people who work in Mission Control turn to caffeine and snacks to help them stay alert. “As with any 24/7 ops facility, food and coffee are a big part of what keeps us going,” Honey says. “People often bring in lots of goodies for big events. Sometimes we will have a special cake for a crew’s undocking day, for example. But we also just like to stock snacks at the consoles to get us through the night shifts.”

9. THEY’RE INTIMATELY ACQUAINTED WITH ACRONYMS.

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To work in MCC at NASA, you’ve got to be good with acronyms. Flight controllers speak (and think) in abbreviations, such as FDO (Flight Dynamics Officer), EECOM (Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager), PDRS (Payload Deploy Retrieval System), and MMACS (Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm, and Crew Systems). Flight controllers even have acronyms on their consoles, which describe the function they’re associated with (and sometimes the call signs by which they're known).

Do all the acronyms ever confuse laypeople? As Hall says: “I have a friend who misreads my ‘ISS’ tweets as ‘ISIS’ every now and then, and it makes me laugh!”

10. GENDER IS LESS OF AN ISSUE THAN IT ONCE WAS.

All flight controllers at NASA were male until 1972, and all flight directors were male until 1991. But today NASA makes an effort to be diverse. According to Griffith, who has had four female managers, gender was fairly mixed during her time at mission control. “I feel like I’ve been so lucky at NASA—at one point our group was 50/50 men/women.”

“Could we be doing better?" she asks. "Yes, but that brings up another question—overall fewer women tend to go into things like mechanical engineering (in the U.S.). When I graduated women were 20% of engineering grads … that number isn’t much different now.”

11. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE MOVIES THAT DEPICT THEM.

Mission Controllers are divided about movies that depict them and their colleagues, arguing that some films are accurate in their portrayals while others are laughably inaccurate. “Honestly it depends. The Martian was fantastic and Andy Weir did an amazing job researching before he wrote the book. Apollo 13 was also great,” Griffith says.

Her take on Armageddon? “Nah. I mean I liked the film but if what you’re going for is realism I wouldn’t pick that one,” she says.

12. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN CREED.

Given the huge responsibilities they shoulder, flight controllers take their job seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they have their own creed, which is posted in Mission Control. Besides pledging to strive for discipline, teamwork, and toughness, the flight controller’s creed acknowledges the privilege (and burden) of holding people’s lives in their hands; they pledge “To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.”

13. THEY MARVEL AT HOW INCREDIBLE THEIR JOB IS.

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Working for NASA is a normal job with coworkers, bosses, and a paycheck, but the surreal nature of supporting space missions does hit flight controllers from time to time. Besides helping to advance our understanding of science, technology, and space exploration, flight controllers have the privilege of communicating with humans who live and work approximately 250 miles above the surface of Earth.

“Sometimes, it’s really crazy to think about what we actually do for a living,” Hall writes. “Sometimes we go outside and watch the ISS fly over at dusk. We see it soar across the evening sky like a really bright star, and then we can go inside our control center and watch live video from inside that bright point of light and see the astronauts floating around and performing science experiments. It really blows your mind!”

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15 Secrets of Commercial Divers
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Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

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
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

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.

A diver straps on a knife
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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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