It was hot, steamy hot in the way this city becomes hot and stays hot. And what they were talking about -- in their sea of Qiana and rhinestones and Seven & Seven -- was very hot, too. Almost too hot for a cocktail party for 500 women.

They spoke of "sensuality," of languishing kisses and strong embraces, of dark, handsome heroes and the maidens that attracted them. They spoke of the profits, the astounding $100-million literary romance pie and their hunger, their almost torrid hunger, for a slice of it.

Most were not the stuff of which romance heroines are made -- at mostly 40 and 50, they were less coquette and more mother-of-the-bride. But under the shiny cocktail dresses beat hearts filled with romance. And under those gray and platinum-blond hairs were heads filled with plots. This was the first convention of the Romance Writers of America, and what would happen here would have a strong flavor of fiction itself.

Romance novels are hot, but not always steamy.

They can be the 60,000-word standard category romance, the Harlequins, the Silhouettes, the more erotic Second Chance at Love or Dell's Candlelight Ecstasy series, the longer superromance or saga. (Historicals, bodice-rippers and Gothics are not doing well.) Put together, the happy-ending romance formulas account for a large percentage -- some say half -- of the paperbacks purchased by Americans.

"It's like eating potato chips," explained longtime editor Gaye Tardy, now executive editor at Pinnacle Books.

The 10 to 15 million fans (estimates vary) each consume 30 to 40 of the books every month, and it is as if there were two separate Americas, with the Other America a land where time and emotion are given over to romantic novels.

It is hard to keep up with the demand, and that was one strong impetus behind the gathering at a convention center outside Houston last weekend, with writers hoping to make better contacts and editors hoping to add to their stable.

Vivian Stephens had helped a group of Texas women put together Romance Writers and the conference, and she, along with a handful of other editors in workshops and meetings, was busy trying to explain just what her particular line of books called for.

"I tell them no polyester, no fake fur, no fake nothing," she explained. (There was a noticeable absence of natural fiber at the conference.) In a giant dining room of white and mainly middle-aged women, Stephens, both black and New York-stylish, talked, and the work of the conference pressed forward.

"Women younger than 30 can't write romance. They haven't had it. They write about sex," she said. In her workshops, she urged writers to go into Cartier's, to Tiffany's to "feel real jewels against your skin . . . burn an Estee Lauder candle . . . take a bubble bath, buy a bath sheet, wrap yourself in velour."

Candlelight, and now the more erotic Candlelight Ecstasy, turns out eight 58,000-word books a month under Stephens' supervision.

In the "categories," the formula is down so pat that a buyer knows exactly what she is getting -- how much sex (never four-letter words), how much travelogue, how much history, and even the age of the heroine. And editors at the conference were extremely specific.

"I want very sensuous love scenes. Kisses described in depth. I'd like to know about the warm interior of her mouth," Stephens explained.

Her stories are somewhat different from the rest of the genre in that nonwhites are occasionally featured. All of her books, she believes, fulfill "the daily fantasy, the only outlet of true romance."

And sex as well as romance is now permitted, even oral sex, when "it is so well done it is not offensive," she said.

Sandra Watt, sitting nearby, pointed out that "Cosmo has been writing about sex -- oral sex -- for years, and these are the same women who read Cosmopolitan."

A southern California agent for some 30 romance writers, Watt said the current generation of women has problems, because "they don't know what sensuality is . . . these young women know only one-on-one sex. What is erotic is what happens before and after."

For Harlequin books, started back in 1949, it was always only the before. And it is still that way, the dozen new romances churned out each month, with at least 40,000 copies of each mailed directly to North American subscribers.

"You never see returns," explained Kate Duffey, marveling at the numbers. Now a senior editor at Pocket Books, she founded its Silhouette line. She came up with the idea of Silhouette when she saw the bottom dropping out of the Gothics, and mysteries not selling.

"You only fail if you don't give them quality manuscripts," she said.

She believes that a typical romance reader reads more than 365 romances a year, "and there is no reason to apologize for this to anybody."

In Washington: "Overall, the romance novels do sell well, but they're not really the best sellers," said Tony Bell, manager of the Crown Books store at 1710 G St. NW. "There's a lot of different titles, and few sell really strongly. Occasionally one will become a best seller. But there's usually a steady stream of buyers.

"We don't sell as many as the suburban stores, but we have people who will buy maybe five or six at a time. Anytime a new one comes out by a particularly best-selling author, let's say Rosemary Rogers, Helen Van Slyke, or Barbara Cartland, people buy them without even reading reviews or anything."

The workshops were varied: "How a Cover Is Born," "The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make," "Love Down Through the Ages," or "Quality Passion."

But the real goal of many would-be and already-published authors (about half of the conference members had sold at least one book) was to catch the eye or the arm of an editor.

"I'm bruised," one senior editor complained on Sunday afternoon, rubbing her upper arms. She, like the other New York publishing people, had looked over a dozen or so plot descriptions submitted by the conference attendees before the weekend and she was not meeting wtih prospective authors -- few of whom, she said, would make it.

Writers were grabbing her in the hall, she explained, all telling her that they had a great plot. For a woman, a woman from Texas or South Carolina or Florida or Orange County, Calif., there are just not a lot of chances to make a million dollars. Not a lot of ways to pick up $5,000 (a typical author's advance). The fantasy, then, among devoted romance fans, is to write one, or a string, of the novels. And most of the American writers of the genre started out not as writers, but as readers of romance.

There is, though, the constant pressure of somehow winding up in the right church, but the wrong pew.

"I wrote a regency," said Betty Henrichs, whose book comes out in early 1982. Regencies are a particular class of romance, having to take place during the Regent Period of England, 1811-1820. They have their devotees, but, apparently, not enough of them.

"I love regencies," Henrichs complained, "but the market is soft right now."

Having one book published, however, was not a guarantee of success. Many of the conference attendees had sold a Harlequin three or four years ago and were going from workshop to workshop in an almost frenetic attempt to find out how they had hit it once and missed it since.

For all of them, it was the refrain, "I read romances, lots of them and then, I thought, 'Gee, I can write one of these.'" The publishing houses, in most cases, make that fantasy even easier by sending out careful outlines of what constitute the theme in their "categories" or formula books. Can the lovers have sex (of course, always with the promise of marriage)? Can they be married before? Must they be Americans?

The revolution in sexual attitudes has affected both the readers and the writers of romance. There were spirited mealtime discussions that the newest lines were taking away what had made romances appealing in the first place, pure and simple and "just romantic" love. Some of the more successful authors, though, had another idea.

"Females like we [sic] are now allowed to think about sex," said Parris Afton Bond, the author of one saga, four large historicals and one Silhouette.

Females are also aparently allowed to think about money, or, as Bond pointed out, "I make more than 90 percent of American men . . . advances are what's important."

Could a romance writer be a millionaire? "Very easily," she said. Of course, "I would still be doing it if I didn't get anything, but I sure do like it when the money comes in . . . Money is a gauge."

Throughout the conference, a constant complaint was the problem a fan had in obtaining the monthly issue of formula books. Many of the conference attendees had horror stories of what happened when their local bookseller did not call them when the shipment of Ectasies or Silhouettes came in, and so, when they checked the next day, the supply for that month was gone.

Pinnacle this fall will bring out "Love's Leading Ladies," a who's who of women romance writers, and they expect large sale with a ready-made market of readers who want to know what other names their current favorite writes under. That's how important it is to the fans.

"What we're really dealing with is secondhand romance, but in some cases, it's not a lot better than the real thing." Pinnacle's Tardy said.

The dinner featured the presentation of the Golden Heart award to Janet Dailey, a former secretary who married her boss, retired with him in 1974 and now, at the age of 37, has sold some 80 million books. (Her husband-researcher Bill Dailey agreed that the couple had made at least $15 million from books in the last five years.) Janet Dailey was the "first lady of romance" at the convention and one of the few women with a man along.

But first, a prayer, pointing out that the conference participants were grateful for the creative gifts that "enable us to communicte a sense of adventure, romance and pleasure . . . gifts of insight and emotion."

Then, from a prepared text, Dailey, with Margot Kidder gestures and a Jane Fonda voice, related the tale of an interviewer who said she was offended by one of Dailey's novels. "I knew right off I had a feminist on my hands," Dailey told the crowd.

In a somewhat defensive way, she made a strong defense of romance novels. People who complain about the lack of subplots or secondary characters don't understand that such things must be pushed aside, she said, "to get on with the juicy part between the hero and the heroine."

Women's liberation and the feminist movement did make it "suddenly all right to do your own thing." she said. "We are not bothered by other people's opinions -- our husbands, our male associates. We feel allowed to go into the bookstore and buy a romance novel."

The reason for the tidal wave of romance, Dailey said, is "an economic one. You might even describe it as greed. The publishers have discovered there's money in it."

But none of her success, she told the audience, would be important without the love and support of her husband.

"Whenever questions arise about the love scenes in my books, Bill is fond of saying that we've been practicing them for 18 years, so I ought to know what I'm writing about.

"He's a very patient man. He's promised that we'll keep at it until I get it right, too."

The book room, on the conference center's second floor, had a large hand-lettered sign, warning that only three free books could be taken by each conference attendee.

"This is money," said Sondra Stanford, as she looked at a pile of her latest book, "And Then Came Dawn," a Silhouette romance. A former confession short-story author who has now written 12 romances and is contracted for seven more, Stanford admitted that "for the stars, it gets very lucrative.

"People may put down these romances, but it's what supports the publisher."

A woman approached Stanford. "My husband is the writer Samantha Lester for Candleight," she introduced herself. "In September, it will be his 11th book."

Her husband was in reality L.V. Roper, who, keys hanging from a large chain on his pants, came to visit his wife later that afternoon as she sat on a stool, making sure that no one took more than three books.

Down the hall, in one of the many writer-editor conferences that took place, Silhouette editor Karen Solem met with Dana Terrill of Salt Lake City to tell her that she liked the synopsis of her book, "Man of Steel, Man of Velvet," and that she had submitted it for an award and was interested in buying it.

To refresh Solem's memory, Terrill reviewed some of the plot. "It's a New Zealand story and I have been to New Zealand. I went because of Harlequins [almost always set in foreign locales]," Terrill explained. "I started out [the book] in England, but I have never been there."

She did, though, she said, write the book before going to New Zealand, and then used her trip to check up on locations. One mistake, she said, was in orginally misplacing the Outback.

"I wish I could get my New Zealand writers to write about New Zealand," Solem said. Then she asked, "How sensuous is the book?"

"It's quite," Terrill replied. "I think I've got the formula down." She went on to describe one scene in which the heroine, married in-name-only for some convoluted convenience, watches her "quite athletic" husband do a gymnastic routine and "begins to wonder how it would be."

Solem, who will edit four separate lines at Silhouette starting in January, was straight with the author. "I'm not buying the book. I'm interested in buying an author," she said.

The romance fan and writer knows conversationsal byways foreign to the rest of the world. Some snatches:

"It's so hard to find a new location. That's why I'm concentrating on Tampa," confided one writer over a dinner, describing the constant search for new locales.

"It's very special," said an agent describing a new heroine. "She's a matador."

Rita Estrada, the head of Romance Writers of American, talking about the organization: "I hope that in the one year to come, we'll be able to supply all our needs."

"In my book," one editor said, "the girl has to have a real commitment to the man she goes to bed with and, as they say, it has to be in good taste."

"Is that a no-no, having them to go bed in the second chapter?" The youngish, southern woman was finishing her meeting with Carolyn Nichols with a last question. Nichols, the editor of Berkeley/Jove's series, Second Chance at Love, was reassuring.

"No," Nichols said, second-chapter lovemaking was okay, "as long as they're going to get married."

Nichols, a former producer for "Washington Week in Review," brought the idea of more mature heroines and stories to Berkeley/Jove last year, stories that show us "inching forward into the 20th century. They take into account that not every woman is able to identify with a trembling, 18-year-old virgin," she said.

The first three books, out in June, sold out their 175,000-each printing. Constantly, the romance editors talk in terms of hundred thousands. And, since each category line brings out at least three now, and is planning to go up next year like Second Chance or Silhouettes, the numbers get very big, very quickly.

For a Second Chance, the money up front is larger ($5,000 compared to other categories from $2,500 and up) but the 2 percent royalties are below the 6 percent and higher offered by Harlequin and Silhouette.

Some things remain the same. The heroines are not virginal, but they are also not promiscuous. "If they love the man . . . and they realize just before or just after [going to bed with him] that they really love the man," sex is okay, Nichols said.

In January, Second Chance will have six books out a month, Candlelight and Candlelight Ecstasy will be still issuing eight, Pocket Book's Silhouette will be issuing books in four separate lines, including "Young Love," and the prolific Janet Dailey, and all will be supplemented by the longer sagas, superromances, and other longer tales that keep coming. But what does an average writer, not Janet Dailey, really make? And what does she have to do to make a good living?

Barbara Lowenstein, a New York agent who handles man nonromance writers, said that a romance author turning out "four or five books a year could make a very good living, $50,000 perhaps, after two or three years," but only if she produced four or five.

For most Harlequins the printing is 800,000, and other editors pointed with envy to the marketing system that has Harlequin reissuing old titles -- selling them on a revolving basis.

Harlequin's vice president, Fred Kerner (who insists that Harlequin is now a generic term), said romance readers were coming out of the closet. Harlequin readers were not "braburners," Kerner said, and his company did a lot of research to find new readers.

Women came up and stood beside him in the hall, ready to shoot him one quick question as soon as he paused. Throughout the conference, any editor engaged in a conversation had one or two or three prospective authors waiting at elbow's length for a chance at a chat.

Kerner was talking about packaging and mass market research, something at which his competitors admit he is a genius.

There were in-pack and out-pack freebies included with products: packed in plastic with Ivory Snow, and Hefty bags and "one of the rollons" and "in pack with Kotex."

"We're quite content," he said, to include a Harlequin with paper goods. "It provides exposure to people who might be a little embarassed to buy one."

June Casey, from Anaheim, is one of Kerner's new authors (an American still being a rarity, with the English writers holding sway). Writing under the name Casey Douglas, she penned her first romance using the Harlequin guidelines. It was a regency, but from now on, she will stick to the contemporary market. After all, he echoed, the market on regencies is very soft.

Pamela Brown was standing on the conference center steps, waiting for her bus to the airport.

She loved meeting the other authors, she said, and seeing face-to-face editors and writers she had read.

She read romances all the time, she explained, and had one coming out soon.

In Hartsville, S.C., where she's from, she said, "there's not too many virile, handsome men, so I read a lot."