If you recently discovered the charm of Big Sky romantic-suspense author B.J. Daniels, better stock up on your bookmarks: she has over 100 more adventures under her pen name to enjoy. That said, the story behind her real-life ascent up the New York Times bestseller list is every bit as jaw-dropping as the twisted cowboy mysteries she creates.
In her latest work, “Restless Hearts,” which marks the debut of her “Montana Justice” series, private investigator Blaze McClintock must return to the family ranch when her estranged father is accused of murder. To solve the mystery, Blaze must work with the one man in town who doesn’t consider her Dad a bad dude: her teenage boytoy Jake Horn. Friction sizzles when the two team up, for better or worse.
Montana figures prominently in Daniels’ work, and for good reason. Born in Texas, her family moved to the West Yellowstone area when she was 5.
“We had a cabin up the Gallatin Canyon, and then we got the lake house at Hebgen Lake, so there were always a lot of adventures,” she recalls. “When I was in high school, we didn’t have a high school in West Yellowstone, so they bussed us down to Ashton, Idaho every day - 65 miles down and 55 miles back - to go to high school. It was great growing up there. I was really lucky.”
Although she dreamed of writing from age 8, her access to books was limited. On the plus side, she learned young how to spin a tale.
“My dad had a fifth-grade education and my mother had an eighth-grade education and we didn’t have books in our house,” Daniels says. “But my parents were storytellers, my whole family. Storytelling kind of got me going. I was going to be a writer because of the stories I overheard around the campfires as a kid. If you can get somebody involved in your story for a few hours or a day or whatever and not put it down, that’s the big thing. That’s the art to it – telling a story well enough that they just keep turning the pages.”
Most of the writing in her youth remained in her head as her spare time centered on more physical chores.
“My dad was a masonry contractor. He built stuff, and when his hod carriers didn’t show up, he’d wake me up and say, ‘Come on, you gotta carry hod today because nobody showed up to work,’” she recalls.
As rough as the chore was, it still beat one of her early jobs: cleaning aluminum arrows.
“That was a short job and a really bad one,” she chuckles. “They wanted me to learn to fletch (feather the arrows) but I never got that far. I was thinking, ‘Come on, I can do better than this.’”
The frustrated storyteller majored in English at Montana State University but fell just shy of graduating.
“Actually, I ran out of money and I was on loans and it was a time when they cut a lot of the loans, so I went three and a half years. I was majoring in English, but I had realized at that point that there was no way I wanted to teach; I wanted to write books.”
Her bad-luck turned around when she stumbled on a job writing feature stories for the Bozeman Chronicle.
“I’d written a couple of stories for the school paper in high school but I really didn’t get into it until I was 30, when I went to work for the newspaper,” Daniels recalls. “I had taken a night class at MSU on writing for the newspaper, and after I wrote a couple of articles and the Chronicle published them, I asked for a job. And at that time, the publisher thought that was kind of ballsy, because I’d written two stories and I knew nothing about it, so he hired me. I was a stringer for a while, and I ended up getting on the newspaper staff and wrote features and all kinds of stuff.”
Sure, newspaper writing beat hod carrying and arrow scrubbing but fortunately for readers, it did little to vent the story buildup that she’d lived with forever. “I’ve always made up stories in my head and I just assumed everybody else did. I was shocked when I found out that people didn’t always have a running story going!
“But for me, stories are just there. I’m one of those people who, when I go out at night to get in my car, I always look in the back seat and I always expect the worst. Because this is what I write,” she explains.
Newspaper writing, which she would go on to do for the next two decades, laid the groundwork for her high dive into writing romance fiction. “The nice thing about writing nonfiction is, it’s all there for you; it doesn’t take much to put it together once you learn how it’s done,” she admits.
“I credit the newspaper because I learned how to write fast and short and to get it done on deadline, and I sold my very first book (“Odd Man Out”). That’s not real common, I don’t think. A lot of writers have more (unpublished books) under their bed; I don’t have any under my bed, which is really sad.”
Right out of a romance novel, the young reporter fell for her Features Editor at the Chronicle, an articular-bird hunter known as outdoors columnist Parker Heinlein. Now residents of Malta, they live in a 100-year-old home with Springer Spaniels galore.
The author’s penname “BJ” stems from her maiden name, Barb Johnson, while the “Daniels” part is from her daughter, Danielle. Once the nascent novelist began turning out books for Women’s World, Harlequin Intrigue and HQN, a somewhat awkward realization emerged: she didn’t exactly write romance novels.
“I kind of stumbled into romance. I had no intention of writing romance. A lot of my friends write romance and I don’t. You read my reviews and they say, ‘Well, there was a little romance, but mostly it was a murder mystery,’ because that’s what I really love, the murder mystery part.
“But murder mystery authors have a harder time making a living than romantic-suspense writers do. I learned that early on, and I thought, ‘Huh, well this is interesting.’ The first things I sold were to Woman’s World, so I had to kind of add some more romance to make those sell, and I sold like 42 of them.
“So I was kind of ready to go into this genre if I could get away with not writing too much romance. My friends write such great, very emotional stuff and I don’t think I do. I like killing people,” she adds with a laugh. “I really enjoy it.”
Fortunately for Daniels, publishing is king in the romance genre.
“The publishers want as many books as possible,” she agrees. “I really lucked out. A lot of people go through a lot of editors, and I got my editor (Denise Zaza) on my second book, and she is now the senior editor at Harlequin Intrigue and HQN, so I’ve been with her basically 25 years.
“I always feel like I’ve snuck in and then I’ve kind of fooled them all this time. I love a romance in the summer, something fun, but I like the murder mysteries. Years ago, my editor was trying to explain what I wrote, and she was having a real hard time, but for some reason, they started selling. I thought, if I can do this and survive but as it turned out, things just took off, and I was like, wow, this is cool!”
When her romance career caught fire, the Heinleins faced a family decision.
“It was like 25 years ago. I was still working at the newspaper, so I was only doing one book a year, then I did two, and then I think that at my fourth book, I decided that this was what I always wanted to do, so I quit the newspaper and jumped into it,” Daniels recalls.
“It was a crazy time for us, because we had both gone through divorces, we had no money and I quit a good job to write. It was really like jumping off a cliff. Parker has been behind me since day one. He always said, ‘I don’t want to stand in your way. Do your thing, and don’t stay at a job that’s going to keep you from doing your thing.’ So I quit, and it all turned out good. And pretty soon, you’re writing six books a year, because the thing about the romance market is, the readers would like one every week! They have an appetite; it’s always like ‘Write faster!’”
So how does a writer turn out six books a year?
“I have one friend who says, ‘It all comes from outer space and all we do is type,’ and there are days I feel that’s how it works. I’ve never been interested in teaching writing because I really don’t understand it!” she laughs. “You don’t know where it comes from” and then you get goosebumps; you’re just, ‘Oh my gosh, is that what’s going on?! Holy cow!’ It’s hard to explain.”
What is it about Montana cowboys that empties the bookshelves?
“Women love strong men!” She says. “Cowboys are obviously the strong, silent type, but in the books of course they do more than grunt. They’re not real. I feel like I know men, so I can write a guy; I have no trouble writing guys. But my daughter, who grew up in Montana, said, ‘Cowboys are not like that at all. They’re not.’
“It’s a symbol. Here are guys who are so able to do things. My husband’s like that: he is so capable. He can ride a horse; he can load a pack mule. I mean, he can do all that stuff because he’s done it. There are so many guys anymore who can’t even hammer a nail. So there definitely is that appeal.”
Daniels spends most days in her writing studio, the charming century-old former headquarters of Moore Telephone Company in Malta. How many books does she turn out a year?
“I think the most I’ve ever done is seven,” she says. “I’ve done six books, but I’ve cut back now to five; I do three big ones and two small ones. It’s a fulltime job. My husband says I write all the time and I do, but I’m happy doing it. I love to write this time of year, when we have about a half a foot of snow out there because then I can play with our 13 grandkids in the summer, because I love summer and being on the water.”
“It’s funny, because I’ve reached goals I never thought I had,” she reflects. “Recently when I sold my 100th book; I bought myself a Mini-Cooper convertible! I couldn’t help myself because everyone I knew thought, ‘Oh, I went to Paris, or I did this, or I bought this bracelet, and I was like, ‘No, that’s not me.’ So I told my husband that I want a Mini-Cooper convertible, and he said, ‘Well that’s a really practical thing to have in Montana.’ So I ordered it, we went out to Portland on the train to pick it up and it’s a blast; he likes it as much as I do.”