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PROFILE : Writer's Retreat : Romance novelist Stef Ann Holm immerses herself in the past--until her child- care duties bring her back to the present.


When Stef Ann Holm puts her youngest daughter down for her afternoon nap, she embarks upon a journey of fantasy and high adventure. That's because the 32-year-old Simi Valley resident and mother of two is a historical romance writer, with two published novels to her credit and one more on the way.

Balancing the everyday world of diapers and Tinkertoys with the passion of frontier life would seem to be a formidable task, but Holm takes it in stride. At 1 p.m. each day, she tucks in 21-month-old Kayla, and with 4-year-old Whitney playing nearby, retreats to her workroom.

"It's my escape," she said at home during a recent interview. "In the morning I'm with the kids, doing mom things, taking them to nursery school, then doing marketing and housecleaning, and in the afternoon I know I can go into my office, and I'm in a different time period."

A time period she has to slip in and out of quickly, since Kayla awakens two hours later.

"That's really easy to get you motivated," she said, "knowing that you'd better hurry up because your baby will be crying at 3 o'clock."

The house of Holm could be a setting for a contemporary romance--from the pink geraniums sprouting in the planter attached to the mailbox to the knitted coaster under a visitor's drink. Holms resembles a romantic heroine with her wide green eyes and lilting voice. Completing the picture is a husband with a name befitting a romantic hero--Barent Jerome Holm--and a daughter named after a character in a soap opera.

Appearances aside, Holm is practical about her writing and considers it hard work. "Writing is not easy, and you have to be really disciplined. It's just like any other job," she said. "You may not be in the mood to do it, but you have to do it because it's work time."

All the hard work seems to have paid off--Holm has signed a two-book contract with her second publisher. "She really has a flair for dialogue," said Caroline Tolley, associate editor of Pocket Books, who bought Holm's latest book on the strength of three chapters.

"To capture a reader's attention in a romance novel, the first thing you want to do is get them interested in your hero and heroine, and she did that right away with the very first line of the book," Tolley said.

Holm began writing short stories as a teen-ager in the San Fernando Valley, but she didn't think about romance writing until she read a book by well-known romance author Kathleen Woodiwiss. That, she said, "got me hooked."

From then on, she said, "I just grabbed every historical romance I could find and read every one." Immersing herself in the genre, Holm began her first effort, which she says now "was pretty bad."

Meanwhile she had married Barent, a carpenter, who, impressed with her work, encouraged her to take a writing class. Enrolling in a class at Everywoman's Village in Van Nuys, Holm learned the nuts and bolts of novel writing. By handing in a chapter a week, she completed two manuscripts.

Believing that the second was good enough to be published, Holm quit the class and embarked upon a yearlong struggle to get it published. She contacted publisher after publisher and encountered, she said, "rejection, rejection, rejection."

Finally, an editor at Leisure Books seemed interested--until she read the manuscript. She wouldn't buy it, Holm said, "because the punctuation and grammar were horrible."

"I was devastated," said Holm, who immediately got in touch with a fellow writer to proof the manuscript. She sent it back to the publisher, and a couple of months later the editor made an offer.

Expecting a huge sum, Holm was a bit disappointed.

"When I got the call, I thought, 'Wow, $10,000,' but it wasn't nearly that much." Still, she reasoned, "it was a foot in the door, and I could always say I had a published novel."

"Silver Desires" was published in 1987, "Firefly" in 1990. Soon after, she acquired a New York agent who negotiated her present deal with Pocket Books.

Although Holm enjoys the romantic aspects of her books, insisting that "you have to believe in romance to write about it," it is clearly the research that fires her imagination.

"I like to dig into the past and learn things," she said, explaining why she prefers historical over contemporary romance.

Of course, it's not all rummaging through dusty bookstalls. Holm relies on personal experience as well. For "Silver Desires," set during the 1876 Silver Rush in Nevada, she twice visited Virginia City, Nev., and even rafted down the Truckee River to be able to describe it more accurately in her book.

Despite the "violence and poor hygiene," Holm said, "I still think it was a more romantic time period."

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