Love’s Her Job

Love’s Her Job

How Bethesda's Sophia Nash wrote romance into her life

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When Sophia Nash writes a riveting love scene, she doesn’t dim the lights and pour herself a glass of red wine. Instead, the 56-year-old Bethesda resident descends into her home’s “lower salon,” as she calls it, sits at a desk before a large window overlooking her backyard, and fires up her MacBook Air.

The only requirement?

“It has to be night,” says Nash, a trim, blue-eyed woman whose platinum hair falls just below her shoulders. Though Nash writes throughout the day, she waits until her teenage son has gone to bed before tackling passages that might make some readers blush:

He pulled her ever closer to the warmth of his powerful hard frame and she could not stop the small sound which escaped from her throat. He was all heat and restrained strength. His striated muscles rolling under the fine layer of shirt linen made her feel faint with pleasure…

Nash calls her fiction “Jane Austen-esque” tales that go “beyond the bedroom door.” And over the last decade, she has steadily made a name for herself writing romance novels set during England’s Regency era (1811-1820; imagine horse carriages and ballroom gowns).

 The aforementioned scene takes place between two characters in Nash’s latest novel, The Once and Future Duchess (Avon, May 27). Her 11th title, it’s the fourth and final installment in Nash’s “Royal Entourage” series, a collection inspired by present-day pop culture. Like the 2009 film The Hangover and the HBO series Entourage, Nash’s multibook narrative follows the misadventures of a band of mostly men (British dukes and one duchess) who are trying to piece together what happened on one wild, absinthe-induced night—not to mention the amorous entanglements that resulted from it.

Her protagonists’ escapades are true page-turners—like the hydrophobic duke who finds himself tied to a ship that has sailed out to sea. But Nash’s own journey to writing success is an intriguing story on its own.

Born to an American father and French mother who lived in a home overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Nash was raised in a variety of locales, from Jamaica (so her father could scuba dive for a year) to Boca Raton, Fla. (where both parents briefly worked as teachers). Summers were spent at her grandmother’s house in Biarritz, a city along the Bay of Biscay in southwest France, accompanying cousins on hikes or zipping around town on a motor scooter. (“I always say that my heart is in France,” says Nash, who is fluent in French. “But my soul is in America.”)

Far from resenting her serendipitous childhood, Nash reveled in it, pursuing new challenges and adventures with the aplomb of a romantic heroine, including competing on the West Coast equestrian circuit as a teen.

“Sophie always had this very upbeat—not cocky—but very simple sense of confidence and exuberance,” recalls Peter Nash, a cousin who works in D.C. real estate and briefly lived with Nash and her family in Los Angeles. “She just seemed fearless.”

After graduating from the University of Miami in 1981 with a bachelor of science degree in communication, Nash landed a position at a local news station, where she wrote and produced human interest stories, and later hard news.

“It was like being thrown into the deep end,” Nash says of her time at WTVJ (now NBC-6 South Florida). “It was…a grueling job, but I learned about telling stories. If the editors didn’t like a story you wrote, they marked it, threw it back and said, ‘Do it again.’ ”

Romantically, though, not much was happening, thanks to long days on the job. “Romance was the last thing on my mind, I was working so hard,” she says.

After four years, Nash decided to move closer to family. Her parents had divorced, but her father was living in D.C. after retiring as a vice president at Continental Grain, a commodities trading firm in New York. So she moved to the D.C. area in 1985 and soon landed a job as a press secretary for then U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida.

Three years later, Nash was married to a commercial real estate broker—she has since divorced—living in Bethesda and working for the United States Information Agency producing live broadcasts for U.S. embassies abroad.

After four years in the job, Nash went to work as executive director of the Washington International Horse Show, an annual multi-day event at the Verizon Center that features hundreds of horses and top international riders. She held that post for nine years, giving birth to a daughter in 1992 and a son in 1996.

Then, like a character out of one of her romance novels, Nash experienced a life-altering event in the summer of ’99.

“My father was dying of cancer,” Nash says.

Richard Nash had been diagnosed with prostate cancer years earlier, but appeared to be free of the disease. Now, he learned, it had spread to his bones. He was given a year to live.

Having fought under Gen. George Patton during World War II and having lived a colorful life, Richard Nash had always wanted to write a memoir. So his daughter suggested he start before it was too late. “He said, ‘No, I can’t do it, but this should show you how short your life is,’ ” Nash recalls. “ ‘You have to follow your dreams right away or they’ll slip through your fingers. So you’re going to write the book, and I’m going to edit the book.’ ”

That was Nash’s wake-up call. Soon after, she quit her job to begin piecing together her father’s story. But increasingly she felt pulled toward a tale she’d started on the side. A voracious reader who’d devoured Jane Austen, Nash had been a fan of Regency-era romances since her late 20s. Reading Mary Jo Putney’s 1998 book, The Rake, featuring a disgraced anti-hero seeking redemption, made Nash realize that romantic protagonists didn’t need to be perfect; they could be complicated and even troubled.

“I had this image, as many people do,” Nash says, “that romance [writing] is just fluff and things hid under the bed. That story was a story of a hero who was an alcoholic who fell in love and realized he had this horrendous problem and he didn’t know what to do. …That’s when I said, ‘You know, maybe I could do this.’ ”

Nash began working on the story of a 19th-century British widow seeking a second chance at love while caught between two suitors. Before his death in 2000, her father encouraged Nash to press on with the book instead of his memoir.

That same year, she joined Washington Romance Writers (WRW), the D.C. area chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA). The local group provided the encouragement she needed. “I felt like I had found my tribe,” says Nash, a self-described nonjoiner who attended the group’s annual retreat. “I sat down, and everyone was talking about reading, writing, books and stories, and creating.”

Among the 200 or so authors there were some heavy-hitters—including Putney and Nora Roberts, who once lived in Silver Spring. Over meals, the two offered Nash insights into their own creative processes.

“I knew there was something wrong with my manuscript, but I didn’t know what it was,” Nash says. “I can remember one of the two of them started talking about point of view and head-hopping [switching from one character’s thoughts to another’s]. I all of a sudden thought: That’s something I’m doing wrong, and I made a mental note of it. Then they started talking about pacing, that after you finish writing a first draft, you sit down in one sitting and you read the entire book, and you get a much better sense of where parts of your story are too slow, or other parts are too fast.”

Their advice provided the boost she needed. “I would never be published today if I hadn’t met those people,” says Nash, who still attends WRW’s retreat and brainstorms at Starbucks with kindred spirits such as Jeanne Adams, a suspense romance writer from Potomac. 

Indeed, it was her fellow authors who urged Nash to enter her draft into RWA’s Golden Heart Awards, an annual writing competition for unpublished romance authors. Out of more than 1,000 entries, Nash’s novel was named a finalist in the spring of 2002.

Thus encouraged, Nash began bombarding editors with her manuscript. Six rejected it. Then Hilary Ross from Penguin Putnam accepted a call from Nash that June. Ross candidly—and correctly—told Nash her book was unlikely to win the award. But she offered Nash feedback and said she’d publish the manuscript once Nash made certain revisions.

Nash quickly turned around a new draft. And in January 2003, Ross offered her a two-book deal. Nash’s A Secret Passion came out the following year.

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