Maria Imbalzano could be a character in one of her own novels: a divorce lawyer who pens steamy bodice-rippers in her spare time. And, in fact, her first e-book, Unchained Memories, released worldwide on Kindle and Amazon in 2013, does follow a female protagonist—Charlotte Taylor—who works in the legal field as a medical malpractice attorney.
The fact that Imbalzano’s day job at Stark & Stark in Princeton, N.J., presents good material for a moonlighting novelist isn’t lost on her. After all, she says, the key to any good romance is emotional conflict between the hero and heroine. “They love each other, but something is keeping them apart,” she explains. “The conflict drives the romance.”
But back when she first enrolled in Fordham Law School, Imbalzano wasn’t interested in litigation or novel writing. As someone who “always had a head for numbers,” she started her career in tax law—about as unromantic a field as you can get.
After a stint at a prestigious Park Avenue firm, she returned to her hometown in southern New Jersey, happy to plan estates and oversee trusts for the foreseeable future. But when a position for a matrimonial attorney opened and her firm pressed her to take it, Imbalzano decided to give it a shot. She quickly found she was well suited for it: “I’m a very calm person,” she says. “People would come to me very emotional and upset, and I would help them through this difficult time in their life and get them to a point where they could be independent and move on.”
Of course, the job isn’t without its stresses, and for Imbalzano, turning to a romance novel at the end of the day seemed like a good remedy. “It’s nice to escape and read a happily-ever-after story that you know is going to be resolved,” she says. But midway through a book one night, the thought popped into her head: “I could do this.”
Plenty of readers have had that same thought, and Imbalzano had her doubts. “Legal writing is very dry and fact driven,” she says. “It isn’t at all like creative writing, and I didn’t know where to start.”
She began attending seminars and joining writing groups, including the New Jersey Romance Writers. “My first two manuscripts will probably sit in the drawer forever,” Imbalzano says. “But I just kept writing. The more I write, the more I learn, and the better I get.”
Encouraged when her third manuscript won an award at a contest, she started sending out query letters to publishing houses, and using the feedback to retool her manuscripts. “By the time I submit a book, it’s been edited to death,” she says. “I’m always looking to make it better.”
Despite her dedication, Imbalzano’s big break with e-publisher Wild Rose Press didn’t come until 15 years and five manuscripts later. “Finding time to write is still my biggest challenge,” she says. And no wonder—in addition to a demanding full-time job, she’s also raised a family and held down several seats on the boards of local nonprofits. Writing time is precious, squeezed in on evenings, weekends, even vacations.
Fortunately, says Imbalzano: “I love it more because I can’t do it every day. It’s not a chore or my livelihood, it’s something I really enjoy doing.”