Romance author Lenora Bell was shopping for a birthday present for her nephew in a Milwaukee bookstore when she noticed that Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a lot in common with reality TV show hit The Bachelor. “This rich man, he needs an heir, and so he needs to bring in a bunch of candidates.” That germ of an idea became the plot of her first romance, and “blending pop-culture tropes with literary classics” became her niche as an author, she explained to Kirkus in a recent interview. 

Bell enjoys planting allusions and references to the source material in her novels but was thrilled that readers loved it, too. Her readers enthusiastically noticed yellow carriage wheels were a nod to the yellow brick road, and Bell knew she was onto something, “I wanted to keep doing it!” In her second series, School for Dukes, Bell used beloved movie characters—Mary Poppins, Indiana Jones, and Miss Moneypenny—as inspirations for her heroines. 

In the third book in the series, One Fine Duke, which is out this week, the heroine is Mina Penny. She was orphaned and has lived for the past decade with her Uncle Malcolm, a British spymaster. Mina became quite an expert in spycraft while working as her uncle’s assistant, but her gender prevented her from joining his cadre of spies. The book begins when Mina, tired of life on the sidelines, sets out on her own to take down Le Triton, the villain who murdered her parents. 

There have always been working women in historical romance—and no shortage of governesses, nurses, or writers. But Bell’s series surfs a recent wave of books in which the heroines long for what, to modern readers, looks less like a job and more like a career. Bell says, “Historical romance authors have to be mindful of historical accuracy, where the career paths for women were limited.” However, Bells notes that it’s possible to work within those confines to subvert those stories and “to show the evolution of a woman becoming more self-actualized, more autonomous, and to gain both emotional and financial freedom.”

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One Fine Duke Bell’s hero, Andrew, Duke of Thorndon, also struggles against the weight of society’s expectations. As a teenager, Drew was kidnapped and held for ransom. As an adult, he has difficulty sustaining emotional connections with others. Bell’s research on PTSD was helpful, but she wanted a deep dive into his psyche. She needed more: “I had a psychologist do a work-up on the traumatic effects of kidnapping and how that would affect someone. I wanted to talk to a pro about how it would affect his relationships.” That information allowed Bell to portray Drew in a way that respected the impact of trauma but that also showed him as a good match for Mina.

Looking at her development as an author, Bell notes that writing conflict is a work in progress. “It’s hard for me!” she says. “I’m still working on developing villains who are well rounded and not just stock characters. I’m working on creating strong, believable conflicts that are not easily resolved.”

The stronger and more intense the conflict, the more likely readers will see the happy ending as hard fought and well earned. She says that romance is “not just for a certain type of person; it’s the promise that love is for everyone.” She explains, “I am sick of watching and hearing about serial killers. I don’t want to talk about young girls being murdered, raped, tortured....There is something unique about romance: the possibility that love can win, that good can triumph over evil. It’s not reductive to say it’s important to make people feel good.”

Jennifer Prokop is the Kirkus romance correspondent and co-hosts the romance podcast Fated Mates