It is not about the sex.

With 15 books to her credit, the most recent in its second printing, Sterling romance novelist Donna Kauffman spends a good deal of her time explaining to friends and acquaintances the intricacies of her industry.

So much time, she said, that she has developed a few pat answers to the pat questions--including, "When are you going to write a real book?" Her favorite response is borrowed from a fellow writer who pointed out that no one ever asks Willie Nelson when he's going to write an opera.

"It's entertainment," she said. "That's what I want to do." Besides, she added, romance books are a billion-dollar business annually--and "who has to defend that?"

Kauffman, 39, said she prefers to educate rather than defend.

Take, for example, the love scenes.

Contrary to popular belief, she said, it's not as simple as "getting naked. . . . What they're doing isn't as important as what they're thinking." A lot of the romance audience--teenage girls and women older than 30--"will skim if it's only sex" without the interior monologue.

This weekend, Kauffman will be one of the speakers at the Washington Romance Writers conference at Greenbelt Library to kick off the year for new, old and prospective members. She will talk about how to sell a romance novel.

The key is networking, said Kauffman, who literally bumped into the editor who helped her publish her first novel while attending a similar conference almost eight years ago. The group was staying in a creaky old hotel in Harpers Ferry., W.Va., and the editor, startled by a loud noise, "came barreling into" Kauffman in the hall.

She helped the woman investigate (the noise had been made by a handy man on his appointed rounds), and the two became fast friends. "She was a good person to save," Kauffman said of the woman who is now deputy vice publisher at Bantam Books, which still publishes her books.

Like success in romance, she said, success in publishing "is about putting yourself in situations where good things can happen to you by chance."

In a romance, good things are required to happen.

"One tacit agreement we have with our readers is a happy ending," she said, adding that mystery novelists have a similar arrangement with their audiences. "You can't get to the end of a mystery and say, 'I don't know who did it.' . . . What's exciting is how complicated you make it and how you solve it."

Her most recent book, "The Legend MacKinnon," is her first single title--one that isn't part of a series. For this one, she went for a high degree of difficulty, weaving together the fates of three couples.

The 300-year-old ghost of Duncan MacKinnon, a tall Scotsman, is wearing a kilt "and nothing else" when he first startles our heroine, Maggie.

Writing "Legend" presented many challenges, both creative and professional, Kauffman said.

For one thing, it was her first experience with paranormal themes--an increasingly popular gambit with readers, said Jo Ann Ferguson, president of Romance Writers of America. Kauffman usually sticks with mystery or suspense, and as a contemporary--rather than historical--romance writer, she had to work hard for the suspension of disbelief.

"The heroine has to have reactions we would have," she said. (Maggie's first reaction to Duncan is to faint, then to question her sanity and, finally, after gathering enough evidence, to accept.)

"Scotland is a huge favorite" among romance readers, Kauffman said, although she isn't sure why. Whatever the reason--the fierce clan loyalty or the Celtic mystique--"they'll look for anything with plaid on the cover," she said.

The cover of "Legend" was carefully designed to attract a cross section of readers, Kauffman said. There is the requisite plaid--a scarf with a gold key dangling from it--to attract fans of the movie "Braveheart." And although the novel is set in modern times, it does have some time travel. So, the lettering on the cover has a medieval flair as a come-on to historical readers.

There is little crossover between the two groups, a barrier Kauffman has attempted to break. Your preference depends on how far away you want to get when you want to escape--and whether you want pick up a little historical knowledge on the way.

Kauffman used to read only historical fiction until the early 1980s, when she found herself at her former mother-in-law's house with nothing to read but contemporary romances. After several careers, including hairdressing and competitive body building, Kauffman wrote her own contemporary romance, "Illegal Motion" (a football reference), while she was pregnant with her second child.

The plot for "Illegal Motion" involved drug testing in the National Football League. To research how drug tests are handled in the NFL, Kauffman tapped a friend of a friend who worked as a trainer for the Green Bay Packers and also interviewed several people in NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's office.

Researching her books is as much fun as writing. For "Legend," she traveled to Scotland. She said she often spends months researching topics to make her books more believable. Kauffman met her own romantic adventure while researching a book, never written, about an escaped convict.

In 1996, Mark Jean, who works for the Fairfax County Sheriff's Department, answered an Internet request that Kauffman had posted asking for an expert in law enforcement. At the time, she was newly divorced, living in Sterling and caring for her two sons, now 9 and 11.

For several months, she and Jean exchanged e-mails, never revealing anything too personal, but having wonderful conversations nonetheless. Finally, Jean invited Kauffman, a cop's daughter, to a SWAT competition. "If you live anywhere near the mid-Atlantic, it's at Quantico," he wrote.

Being curious ("I am a romance writer," she laughed), Kauffman went, and it was only then, months after they met online, that they divulged where they lived. "He lived in Ashburn," Kauffman said, raising her right hand as if to say, "I swear I'm not making this up."

She and Jean and their three sons (he has a 9-year-old from a previous marriage) have lived happily since, Kauffman said.

And though she believes in romance, Kauffman is not one to leave everything to fate. With several other Bantam Books authors, she is putting out an anthology in October titled "Yours 2 Keep," featuring couples who find themselves in romantic situations as a result of year 2000-related computer glitches.