CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Bingo nights at the nursing home. Answering phones at the Methodist church.

The routine of everyday life might seem like an unlikely route to publishing a romance novel, but the strategy has worked for local author Carol Opalinski, pen name Carrie Nichols. At age 62, she has sold her first romance novel, “The Marine’s Secret Daughter,” to Harlequin, the largest publisher of romance novels in the country.

Harlequin editors liked the book so much, they contracted with Opalinski to write a second book. Meanwhile, her agent had sent another manuscript to Entangled, a romance digital line for Macmillan. It also sold, and Entangled signed her to write two more books. Contracts for five books in the same week.

“I guess I’m a late bloomer,” says Opalinski, laughing.

“The Marine’s Secret Daughter” hit bookstores around the country Jan. 16. It will be available in stores everywhere Harlequin is sold, including Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Walmart. In February, the book will be released in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Years have passed since Marine Sgt. Riley Cooper last held his best friend’s sister in his arms. Bound for Afghanistan, he believed walking away from Meg McBride was the kindest thing he could do. Now that he’s home, he doesn’t blame Meggie for hating him. But she hasn’t told him everything. And he hasn’t met the little red-haired girl whose gray eyes so resemble his own.

She describes it as a book about second chances. The plot unfolds with the story’s hero having a romance with his best friend’s younger sister, then breaking off the relationship because his military duty calls him to war in Afghanistan. He feels guilty after seeing her when he returns because he broke the “bro code.”

“You don’t mess with your best friend’s sister,” explains Opalinski. And he doesn’t know she gave birth to his daughter.

Opalinski’s rise as a nationally recognized author started in 2016 after “The Marine’s Secret Daughter” won first place in a Romance Writers of America competition. One of the judges was a Harlequin editor, who expressed interest in publishing the book.

Opalinski explains that winning the Golden Heart Award, bestowed an unpublished author, is like a first-time actor winning an Oscar.

The same year, Opalinski signed literary agent Lisa Marsal of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency to help place her work.

The agent says Opalinski’s strong point, other than writing great characters, is being willing to work hard.

“She’s an incredibly talented writer, and she does an amazing job of taking characters and making them come to life on the page,” says Marsal. “She’s an incredibly hard worker, and she’ll do as many revisions as it takes.”

After brokering the two-book deal with Harlequin, Marsal wanted to quickly get the new author’s name out. When Marsal asked if there were any other manuscripts, Opalinski produced the copy that won her first place in the 2015 Maggie Award offered by Georgia Romance Writers. Marsal sold that book to Entangled, and then Entangled signed her to two more books.

Opalinski says she received an advance in the thousands of dollars and will receive royalties from sales.

“It feels like it all happened at once, but it took me, you know, several years to get to that point,” she says. “They say the hardest thing is getting your foot in the door.”

She imagines that people will be more receptive after her agent says she writes for Harlequin.

Until her book sold in 2016, she had spent 14 years as secretary of White Oak United Methodist Church in Red Bank.

Opalinski says her pen name, Carrie Nichols, was her great-great-grandmother’s name. She chose it because it’s easier to pronounce than Opalinski, she explains.

She enjoys reading romance novels but didn’t pursue a career in it until the end of 2013 after her youngest son left home. Then she joined a writers group in Atlanta and drove once a month to Atlanta to attend meetings. She also took online classes to hone her craft.

Opalinski says she is as surprised as anyone by her burgeoning success as a romance novelist. The mother of two adult sons lives in Hixson with her husband of 42 years. She married just after high school. She has no college degree. She’s been a stay-at-home mom and worked for a while at Chattanooga State Community College. Before coming to Chattanooga, she was a features writer at a small-town weekly newspaper in Ludlow, Mass.

She describes herself as the reporter who “did all the stuff that the other reporters thought they were too good for,” she says. She took pictures of children during school events and was the writer who nursing homes called to highlight winners when they had bingo night. The task seemed menial, but Opalinski credits it with laying the groundwork that got her a book deal.

“I think it helped me because I interviewed a lot of people, listened to their stories and wrote about them,” she says. “So I think that helped when I came to create my own characters.”


Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com