The weather was bad in Kansas City earlier this month: Humidity lay like a tarp over the heartland. People wandered about in a sweaty haze, dreaming of thunderstorms, vacations at Lake of the Ozarks, and cold beer at Royals' games.

All except for one woman, who sat in a building on the edge of downtown and considered Christmas. She wrote:

"It is a time of beauty, as the earth lies sleeping beneath a snowy blanket ... A time of joy, as the world unites once again in a celebration of love. It is a time to reach out to one another in the spirit that is Christmas ... "

Never mind the heat. Linda Lee Elrod, a senior writer for Hallmark Cards, was spending her time in the holiday spirit, and visions of sugarplums were dancing in her head.

Some external factors helped -- Handel's "Messiah" on her office headphones, books of Christmas scenes, pictures of her sisters and parents -- but, as she wrote dozens of different cards in three weeks, it was mainly a matter of really wanting to get into the mood.

"You've got to remember, we have vivid imaginations in this business," she says. "You have to feel it. Otherwise, it's just going to be 'Have a Merry Christmas, blah blah blah.' I can pretty well put myself in any state of mind."

And she does. "It's like an actress playing a role -- 'Okay, your dog just died, that's your motivation.' If I'm writing a juvenile Christmas card, I think like a little kid -- 'Oh God, it's Christmas Eve! What's Santa going to bring me?' It sounds a little crazy, but it works."

As a full-time greeting card writer, Elrod is one of a select group of craftsmen. At a rough estimate, there are no more than 150 full-timers in the country, along with several hundred more who work free-lance. Hallmark, which controls an estimated 40 percent of the card market, employs 41 full-time writers.

Greeting cards comprise almost half of all household-to-household mail, a situation that puts their writers in an influential position. You send a card to someone, you're asking him to judge you on the basis of the verse and picture that are printed on it. A mass-produced object written by nameless individuals is used to make 7.6 billion private (or even intimate) statements a year.

At Hallmark, the writers don't have too many set guidelines or quotas. Sometimes copy is written to match a piece of art, and sometimes art will be created to match the copy. Editors will make specific requests, but are also interested in whatever a writer spontaneously comes up with.

"You know how you brainstorm with people? I'll brainstorm with myself," says Elrod, 37. "If I'm writing a romantic card, I'll type out a bunch of phrases. But if I get a requisition that just doesn't move me -- 'a thank you to a grandmother; don't use "I"; try and include a compliment; could be for a gift or could just be thanks for being there; two lines; prose' -- there's a lot of temptation just to say what's been said a million times before."

Her "big deal mentally" is "to never bland out. I do it like a puzzle. It's like playing a game with myself -- am I gonna win or lose? I know if I've won, because I say, 'This is a better piece of copy than the requisition was.' "

In retrospect, it seems natural that Elrod ended up at Hallmark, where she's worked for about five years. A late bloomer, she dropped out of college, became a secretary, was a reporter in the K.C. commodity markets ("they kept editing out all my good adjectives"). She had written poems since she was little, and friends suggested she apply at Hallmark.

It keeps her interested. One recent morning she was trying to work on a short, suggestive Valentine card to a husband. She had to match a photograph that was simultaneously being shot -- a bed surrounded by plants, ferns and tropical trappings.

Elrod specializes in suggestive copy, meaning the sex is only implied. "I got in early this morning and wrote a bunch of tries," she says. "Now I've got to cool them down a little."

Since then, Hallmark has picked two cards to test-market. The first is: "Let me show you what paradise is all about ... " And there's the one she wrote "to stretch the boundaries," and didn't expect them to accept: "There's a little piece of paradise reserved for just us two. Where you can pleasure me, and I can pleasure you ... "

Hallmark is the General Motors of the card business. It can afford to develop and encourage a stable of writers. Even for much smaller companies, however, the writing is crucial.

"The verse is 70 percent. I don't care how funny the card or how beautiful, if it's got words on it, the words will make or break it," says Tim Conlan, president of the Vienna-based Capital Ideas.

Capital, which started up early last year, specializes in avant-garde cards. Their hardest task is discovering good writers.

"The problem is not just finding someone who's creative, clever or humorous, but who can write in such a way that you not only enjoy the card yourself, but want to send it to someone else," says Conlan.

"Our biggest mistake is in producing material that a purchaser would like to buy, but not want to send on to someone else."

If you've ever been frustrated trying to find the right card, and dismissed all your choices because they were too sentimental or silly, you may have figured it was easy to do yourself. How difficult, after all, would it be to write "Are you my sweetie pie? Do you miss me when I'm gone?" on a picture of a heart?

"It's much, much tougher to do than you think," says Conlan. "To do it well takes a real talent. A hundred letters a week come in with verse ideas, and I think we have yet to take our first one." (Hallmark, meanwhile, gets 25,000 unsolicited submissions a year, including cards. Less than 1 percent are accepted, and "only a very small portion" of those are cards, the company says.)

Much of the in-house writing at Capital is done by Bill Abbott, the vice president of production and creative design. He's done about 30 cards in the last year. Each one is a process that takes him through several stages. It's a bit like doing a photo shoot.

"Generally I try to get myself a picture of several different people I know personally, and put together a conglomerate of what I perceive their likes in a card to be," he says. Then he zeroes in on "the sending situation" -- whether it's a birthday, get well, friendship or love card.

Next he focuses on developing the relationship between the sender and receiver -- words like "you," "me" and "I" help considerably here. The stronger this bond is perceived to be, he feels, the more effective the card.

Another element is the tone -- humorous, traditional, comic or a little racy. And then, since the overwhelming majority of cards are bought by women, he tends "to put a little bit of a curve on it -- make it a little frilly."

"From there, it's just what every writer does -- write and rewrite," says Abbott, 42. The results, while they lose much of their effect in being separated from the art and bluntly presented, can be as simple as the following effort for a 5-year-old. Filled with stickers, the verse says: "I'm giving you this birthday wish and a page filled up with stickers. Now sneak into your daddy's room and paste them on his knickers."

While Abbott says he doesn't "mean to imply a list of do's and don'ts," his process is somewhat more calculated than another local greeting card writer, Lori Watzman of Kosher Kards.

Watzman, 27, has written about 40 cards in the last 18 months. She does some of the selling herself, and also uses sales reps across the country. Most of her cards use Jewish humor to make their point, like the one with the picture of lox on a bagel that says, "best wishes and loxs of luck."

"You can't just sit there and try to be creative and hope something happens. It has to be more spontaneous than that," she says. "Sometimes, once you start doing it, you start thinking in greeting cards. When different situations happen, it triggers a different idea."

Like the time she was driving to the beach with a friend. They saw some cows and "we started imitating their noise, their moo, and I thought it'd be a real cute idea to have a card for someone moving to new address. There'd be cows on the front, and inside it says, 'We've moooved. Our new address is ...' "

Call it "found humor." Says Watzman: "Greeting cards are popular because they reflect people's feelings about things without making them put it into words themselves. It's a way to say it without having to say it."

So one of her next cards will be based on an idea she had in a Baltimore deli. "They had kishke {stuffed and roasted beef casing}. I thought that would be great for a risque' card, but still have Jewish humor -- 'I want to kishke you all over.' "

Being a greeting card writer might be similar to being a poet, but poets don't have to produce their work on deadline. Nor are their poems produced in editions of 30,000 copies. And, even if some cards have the writer's name on the back, this is still an anonymous profession.

That suits Dean Walley, a 16-year veteran writer with Hallmark, just fine. "Theoretically, a card's supposed to be from this person out there to another person, and I'm not even supposed to be involved." He doesn't get emotionally attached to his work, either. "People have shown me things from five, six years ago that I don't recognize as being my own."

And he wouldn't go so far as to call himself a poet. "I always sort of think of myself as a craftsman with words," he says. " 'Poet' is much too highfalutin. But I'd much rather do this than work for an ad agency. I'd rather write things about friendship than write Tidy Bowl ads."

Walley, 49, has vivid memories of his childhood, which he spent in Hannibal, Mo. -- the boyhood home of Mark Twain. Hearing about Twain so frequently, he says, "gives a kid an idea that being a writer is a pretty neat thing to do."

All in all, it's worked out about as neatly as he's hoped. In a month, he'll write perhaps 150 to 200 cards. (He also does calendars, booklets and plaques.) About one in five will eventually make it into the stores. Overall, Hallmark introduces 14,000 new cards a year.

"It seems to me a very human kind of writing. We're always dealing with love and friendship and death and illness -- the whole gamut of human emotions," he says. "I always think the great trick is to write something that will be broad enough for many thousands of people, and yet personal enough so someone will read it and say 'that's exactly the way I feel.' "

That doesn't exclude what some may feel is sentimental -- "Mother, the first day you left me at preschool I thought you'd never come back. But you did, and I knew for sure I could always count on you" is one of Walley's shorter verses. But, he points out, "sometimes sentimental is what they want for a certain kind of spot -- for the older, more traditional female buyer." Or for people who are really crazy about their mom.

When Walley wants to stay in touch, he doesn't send his own cards. In fact, he often doesn't send a card at all. Instead, he gets out a blank sheet of paper and starts writing.

"That's exactly what we don't want people to do," he acknowledges, but adds, "Maybe because I'm around cards so much, I feel much more like I'm communicating if I write a letter."