The seeds of Kristan Higgins’ writing career were sown when, at the age of 13, she swiped Shanna—a notorious bodice ripper by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss—from her grandmother’s nightstand. Woodiwiss has been called “the founding mother of the historical romance genre” and has inspired a whole generation of writers, Higgins among them.

“I was hooked,” Higgins says. “For several years, I controlled the black market for romance novels at my Catholic girl’s school, and now they actually carry my books in their library, which I find shocking!”

Higgins began her writing career as an advertising copywriter right after college, and worked until her first daughter was born. Then when a second child came along, and the two kids started napping simultaneously in the afternoon, the young mother had a couple of hours to herself for the first time.

“I wasn’t one of those people who carried a notebook around and wrote down everything,” Higgins recalls, “but I was a reader. And since I’d been reading romance novels for decades at that point, I thought I’d like to see if I could write one. The jump from ad copy to fiction wasn’t too hard,” she says with a laugh.

When Higgins finished her first novel, Fools Rush In, she shipped it off to an agent who immediately took her on as a client. “I was really lucky,” Higgins stresses; “the timing was right, and the agent was willing to take a chance on a new author, and she made a sale.” She advises other aspiring writers to keep working, make sure you know what you do well and hone that skill. “Keep your head down, work hard and never be satisfied,” she says.

Apparently Higgins took her own advice. Her second book, Catch of the Day, won the 2008 Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award for best contemporary romance. Next came Just One of the Guys in August 2008, followed by Too Good to Be True in February 2009.

Her latest offering hits bookstores this month, just in time for Valentine’s Day. As in Higgins’ past books, family relationships are the stars of the show. The Next Best Thing is a multi-generational, heartwarming tale of lost love, broken hearts and second chances set in a small New England town, peopled with plenty of funny, quirky folks to provide some timely comic relief.

The heroine, Lucy, works in the family business, Bunny’s Hungarian Bakery, as a bread baker who secretly yearns to create desserts. Her mother and her aunts Iris and Rose all share the same maiden name—Black—and all were widowed by the age of 50. As a result, they have been dubbed the Black Widows, and five years ago, 24-year-old Lucy joined their ranks when her one true love, her husband Jimmy, died in a car accident. Now, Lucy’s very pregnant sister, Corinne, lives in constant fear that her husband Chris is next.

So Lucy has decided that it’s time to get on with her life, find a husband and have children. Ethan, a friend with privileges, is immediately ruled out because he is much too attractive and their relationship is way too complicated. Lucy wants someone more mundane, secure and safe and, dare we say, boring—somebody she won’t ever love too much. Lucy’s learned her lesson: Love hurts, especially when the one you love is gone.

After going through a series of false starts, Lucy may have found a promising candidate. But to date, no Black Widow has ever remarried, and the fact that Lucy has supposedly made up her mind doesn’t stop her aunts and Jimmy’s parents from doling out more unsolicited advice than Dr. Phil. Soon Lucy is yo-yoing back and forth between her head and her heart, trying to make a decision—and making everybody else crazy in the process. A pseudo-psychic offers guidance from Jimmy on the other side, but will Lucy be able to interpret his message before it’s too late?

Much like the extended family in The Next Best Thing, Higgins herself grew up in a large, tight-knit Hungarian family. “All my heroines are involved with their family, sometimes to their detriment, because nobody knows you and can torment you as effectively as your family. But hopefully no one loves you and accepts you as much as your family.”

Higgins’ three great-aunts and her mother, all widows, inspired the fictional Black Widows. “Unfortunately my aunts have all passed away,” she says, “but I hope somehow they’ll know that they’ve been immortalized.”

Although Higgins says she tries to focus on universal ideas and concerns, writing about the death of a husband is not a common romance theme. She handles the issue with grace and humor and strikes emotional chords by putting into words what is in the hearts and minds of many who have lost loved ones.

“My dad died unexpectedly when I was 23,” she explains. “Losing someone like that re-creates your world; it’s suddenly different and you have to learn how to negotiate that landscape.” The plot of The Next Best Thing revolves around Lucy’s struggle to accept the fact that her life with Jimmy is over—and that she still has a lot of living left to do.

“Being widowed young is something I live in fear of because my mom was widowed when she was 46, and my husband’s a firefighter. So if he’s late coming home from work, all these worried thoughts go through my head. You never trust the fates in the same way as someone who hasn’t been through that experience.”

Although not every real romance has a happily-ever-after ending, Higgins doesn’t think those endings will ever go out of style in fiction. “It’s about the quest to find the one person to share your life, help carry your burdens, celebrate your triumphs and love the real you. Romance novels are a promise to the reader that love makes you stronger and life better, and you’re going to feel good at the end of a book.”

 “I want to write big memorable love stories about regular people,” Higgins says, “like me or my best friend, or my sister. Not everyone is rich, famous, beautiful, psychic or immortal.” On her website there’s a quote that sums it all up: “Real life, true love and lots of laughs.”

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