Best-selling author, Virginia Heath, tells us why so many of her characters are influenced by her local area

Whereabouts in Essex are you based?

I’ve lived in Chafford Hundred for 27 years. I love being so close to the River Thames and often wonder what that river could tell us if it could talk, because it’s seen everything from the Roman invasion to now. That’s probably why this area features so heavily in my books. In fact, my A Very Village Scandal series is set right on the banks of the estuary. It also tickles me to put a bit of Essex into all my books. I’ve invented a whole host of characters in my 30 books to keep the Essex flag flying – the Duke of Aveley, the Earl of Ockendon, Lady Bulphan, Viscount Hadleigh, the Marquess of Thundersley…

How long have you been writing for?

I’ve been seriously writing since 2015 and have written 30 Regency-based romcom books since, but there have been many highlights in between. Getting my first contract and seeing my first book on the shelf are probably the greatest. Being shortlisted for three Romantic Novel of the Year Awards was fantastic, as was breaking into the huge American market with my Merriwell Sisters trilogy. Seeing Never Fall for Your Fiancée on the front tables of the two biggest bookstores in New York the week it came out, however, is my career highlight to date.

Great British Life: Virginia's latest book is Never Wager with a Wallflower. Virginia's latest book is Never Wager with a Wallflower.

Tell us a little about your latest book?

Never Wager With a Wallflower is, like all my books, a standalone story as well as being part of my Merriwell Sisters series. Venus Merriwell is the youngest of the three siblings and loathes her name because of all the improper connotations she suffers because of it. She volunteers at an orphanage in Covent Garden that is bursting at the seams and believes that the building next door to it will be left to the orphanage once its benevolent owner dies. Unfortunately, that benevolent owner never wrote that bequest in her will so her nephew sells it to the highest bidder—Venus’s arch enemy Galahad Sinclair. The two have history going back five years when she thought he was a burglar and flattened him to stop him escaping. Despite the inescapable family connection (he’s the only cousin of her bother-in-law), they’ve had an uneasy relationship ever since. But there’s also been chemistry there, especially for him, and that always simmers beneath the surface too. When it transpires that Galahad intends to turn the building into a gamblers pleasure palace, Venus and her orphans decide to do whatever it takes to sabotage his lifelong plan…

How many books are you planning for this series?

There are three books in the Merriwell Sisters series. Never Fall for Your Fiancée and Never Rescue a Rogue are already out. However, I do have another new four-book series launching next spring.

You recently organised the annual conference for the Romantic Novelists Association. How did this come about?

I’m proud to be one of the directors of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and have organised their London parties since 2018. When the previous conference organiser stepped down, I took it on and boy has it been a baptism of fire. Figuring out how to put on an educational conference from scratch for 200 delegates in 10 months has been a steep learning curve – but one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

Great British Life: Seeing Never Fall for your Fiancee on the front tables of the two biggest bookstores in New York the week it came out is Virginia's career highlight to date. Seeing Never Fall for your Fiancee on the front tables of the two biggest bookstores in New York the week it came out is Virginia's career highlight to date.

What do you enjoy most about writing romantic fiction?

I think I’ve always enjoyed a good story and a good book, so crafting one from scratch is something wonderful. It’s not an easy thing to do by any means, and I find writing as frustrating as I do rewarding. I cannot plot for toffee. I’ve tried and failed, so for me, every day I stare at a blank page and wonder how to fill it. It’s always all about the characters, so once I have them fully formed in my head (and I know this is going to sound weird but…) they kind of write their own story from that point on. I see them like a film in my head and write exactly what I see and hear them doing. I go where my characters take me and only interfere if they take me down a dead end rather than the happily ever ever they deserve.

I call my books Romcoms first, because I’m one of those irritating people who always find humour in most situations, no matter how dire things are for my characters. I also love the journey you can send two characters on before they realise that they are meant for each other. I also love that readers realise that my leads are soul mates early on in the story and are both cheering them on and wanting to bang the characters’ heads together at the same time. A good fictional love story should be a rollercoaster that takes both the characters and the readers on a great ride.

Do you believe in writer’s block?

I not only believe in it, I suffer from it at least once in every single book! Because I’m a panster (someone who writes by the seat of their pants rather than plot) I frequently write myself into a dead end and the words stop. I usually wallow there for a few days while my brain figures it out, then I reverse back to where the words flowed and off I go again.

Is there anything in your career as a writer that you would still like to achieve?

Oh my goodness yes! I’d love to see one of my stories made into a Netflix series. I’ve always fancied writing a sitcom too. And obviously, I’d love to hit the Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists.

Great British Life: Virginia sews her own costumes to wear at American historical romance reader conventions. Virginia sews her own costumes to wear at American historical romance reader conventions.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I’m very involved with the Romantic Novelists’ Association because writing is such a solitary and cerebral occupation. I’m also an avid traveller. Having your books translated into 15 languages and being contracted to an American publisher gives me the perfect excuse to leave these shores often. I travel a lot for work nowadays doing book signings and reader conferences, which I love and always try to tack an adventure onto them.

I’m also a rabid crafter and love to try new things. I’ve crocheted blankets, made dolls houses, knitted scarfs, sewn all manner of clothes including costumes which I wear at the crazy American historical romance reader conventions. I’ve latch hooked rugs (my current hobby) and I’ve even dabbled with Bob Ross’s joy of Painting. To be fair to Bob, it was joyous experience even if my atrocious daubs in oils were so pitiful they can never be displayed.