‘Realize how magical it is here’: Meet 6 local authors with romance novels set in Minnesota

A collage with book covers
There are several books coming out in 2024 by Minnesota authors that take place in Minnesota.
Courtesy images

Romance is having a moment right now. Library patrons wait months to read an Emily Henry book, viewers swoon at Bridgerton and BookTok is the new place for recommendations. 

In our neck of the woods, Minnesota is nurturing a community of romance writers and readers. For Valentine’s Day, MPR News spoke with six Minnesota authors about their upcoming romance novels, all set in our favorite state. 

Prepare to shout from the rooftop of the IDS building: “I love romance novels!” Because what could be better than a love story with the backdrop of our state (including a hockey romance, a meet-cute at the Mall of America and a fantasy romance in West St. Paul)? Not much.

Ellie Palmer, ‘Four Weekends and a Funeral’

No, Hugh Grant will not be in this book. Ellie Palmer’s debut “Four Weekends and a Funeral,” set in St. Paul, arrives in August. 

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Palmer, originally from Detroit, has lived in Minnesota for the last 15 years. While preparing for a prophylactic mastectomy, Palmer had a lot of time on her hands. She wasn’t sure how her story was going to end, but she knew what she wanted to read — happy endings. 

“I just wanted to read books where I knew everything was going to end well,” she said. “I wanted good things to happen to good people, and it was such a wonderful place to escape to during that time.”

During National Novel Writing Month, she got to work. She wanted to see a heroine like herself reflected on the page: someone who had a mastectomy and was beginning their journey of love. She was not sure how publishing worked and briefly considered going door to door like Jo in “Little Women.”

Penguin Random House picked up the tale and the tagline: “The right guy at the dead wrong time.”

In the novel, Allison Mullally arrives at her ex-boyfriend’s funeral to find out no one knows he dumped her. She agrees to play along, even when she is forced to spend time with her ex-boyfriend’s best friend, Adam. Could this be a new unexpected romance? 

Jenny Holiday, ‘Canadian Boyfriend’

Canadian and Minnesotan-at-heart Jenny Holiday (she lived in Minnesota until she was 23; we will forgive her for moving away) has her 26th book, “Canadian Boyfriend,” coming out in April. It is about a not-so-unfamiliar storyline. 

“Yeah … my boyfriend actually lives in Canada.” Sound familiar? The not-so-real Canadian boyfriend or girlfriend was a trope many used to bolster coolness. When Holiday was in junior high, her friend met a boy from Winnipeg at the Mall of America. They had one day of an almost romance, became pen pals and nothing else happened. 

Enter “Canadian Boyfriend,” the novel. The book tells the same story: The main character met a Canadian hockey player at the Mall of America once upon a time, and for years said he was her “Canadian boyfriend” (he wasn’t). Years later, their paths cross for real. 

Being a romance writer, Holiday says the “literary snobbery” that looks down on her genre is always present. And in the current climate of 2023, which was dubbed the year of the girl, the subject is even more topical. 

“I think we are getting to a point where culture is starting to push back a little bit on this dichotomy of serious art made by very important men and frivolous art made by women,” Holiday said. “It is just a simple case of we still live in a patriarchal society … a romance novel is usually about a woman going on a journey to find love and becoming a better version of herself, sex might be a part of it. So my question is, why do we consider that a guilty pleasure?” 

Mary VanAlstine, ‘Rend Me the Wayward Knight’

A fantasy romance set in West St. Paul? We are seated! Mary VanAlstine is a writer and therapist in Minnesota. Their second book, “Rend Me the Wayward Knight,” recently came out. It is the second book in their “Heartwood Trilogy.”

In this LGBTQ+ romance, Andrew and Micah have enjoyed two years in a fairytale relationship. But when Andrew’s depression overtakes him and leaves him with unanswered questions about his mother, Micah is left wondering what he did wrong. 

Some may ask, is West St. Paul really the ideal background for a fantasy romance novel? VanAlstine argues yes.

“As Minnesotans, we don’t see ourselves in action all that often,” they said. “We have ‘Fargo’ and some other movies that were randomly set here but in general, we are not represented that much. I wanted to create a space for us to realize how magical it is here.” 

As a new author, VanAlstine has said they have felt immense support from the local romance community, including the upcoming romance bookstore Tropes and Trifles.

They also use influence from their day job as a therapist in their writing, such as working through mental health struggles. VanAlstine says it is important that their readers can escape in their writing, but also resonate with the work at the same time.

Abby Jimenez, ‘Just for the Summer’ 

Founder of Nadia Cakes and Food Network star Abby Jimenez put the mixing bowl down and entered the romance game in 2019. 

While Jimenez is from California, she landed in Minnesota several years ago. Many of her books, including her upcoming release “Just for the Summer,” take place in the state.

She says in the early stages of writing, an editor told her to place her books in New York or California to be more relatable to the reader. She thought if those states can be seen as the epitome of romance, why can’t Minnesota? 

“It is so much easier to write what you know,” she said. “I don’t have to do any research here. I think Minnesota is a beautiful backdrop for my books. It is the strongest market for all of my sales … the romance community here is so rich. I love my local readership.”

Like other authors, Jimenez expands her books to go beyond relationships and tackle issues such as anxiety. She says having characters face “real life” issues such as a sick parent or family and job issues results in novels that feel like watching a love story of someone you know, something more attainable, maybe even for your own love story. 

Three of Jimenez’s books have also made it to the New York Times bestsellers list, proving, she says, that romance novels deserve a seat at the table. 

“I think for a really long time romance was undervalued and sort of dismissed,” Jimenez said. “It is really thrilling for me to see more people picking it up, or men picking it up because I think it is such a great way for our partners to better understand us. Honestly, I am just thrilled to be a part of the entire movement.” 

“Just for the Summer” comes out April 2 and features a cottage on Lake Minnetonka. Justin and Emma, cursed by love, get together and break up, hoping their curses will cancel each other’s out. But this time, it may just be love. 

S.J. Tilly, ‘Hans’ — Alliance Series

All 13 of S.J. Tilly’s books are based in Minnesota. With stories that include coffee shop romances, summers at the lake and the classic attractive hockey player, Tilly has embraced Minnesota in her romances. 

“Hans,” book four in her “Alliance Series,” is a … wait for it … mafia romance in St. Paul that came out in December. In her “Sleet Series,” there are, of course, hockey players (the main character is the daughter of the Head Coach of the Minnesota Sleet; yes you can order merch online, and Tilly is currently writing the fourth book of that series.) In the “Darling Series,” there are nods to Caribou Coffee and Chaska’s Scream Town. 

Each of Tilly’s books has two covers: The paperback is what she calls “the sexy man cover” and the hardcover is a more discrete option — think roses, fire, butterflies, mittens, etc. The subject of covers can be a difficult conversation as the industry moves toward more illustrated covers, but Tilly says the issue is complex. 

“There are many people living in situations or communities where they can’t have the ‘sexy man cover,’ there’s a stigma around romance, which is complete bull , but understandable,” she said. “This gives people options, whatever they like … romance is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is the biggest genre worldwide.”

Whatever the cover, Tilly just wants readers to enjoy her books. She writes with her readers in mind, especially Minnesotans. Even the language is Minnesotan: A mention of the Science Museum, the use of “pop” instead of “soda,” and a “hair-binder,” never a “hair-tie.”

Jenna Miller, ‘We Got the Beat’

While reading the romance genre, it isn’t hard to notice that many heroines are blonde, thin, straight women. When Jenna Miller started writing, she knew that representation would be key in her work — but she did not want the book to only be about that. 

Oftentimes she says when characters are not stick-thin, that becomes the only plot of the book. 

“I wanted to do romances with characters who have larger bodies but it is not the plot point,” Miller said. “Maybe it comes up a few times, but they don’t hate themselves, or cater to diet culture. Like myself, my characters are always fat and always lesbians. I want characters who are comfortable and people who love her and these things are just a part of who she is, they’re not causing issues for her in any way.”

Miller’s first book, “Out of Character,” and her upcoming “We Got the Beat,” are both Young Adult books. The first is set in Minneapolis and the second is in a fictional town, “Davenport,” which is essentially Duluth. 

“We Got the Beat” comes out on Feb. 20, and follows Jordan Elliot and Mackenzie West, telling a star-crossed sports journalism story that follows the friendship … or … soon-to-be relationship between Jordan and Mackenzie.