Robertson was born on October 10, 1950 in Silver Spring, Maryland, the youngest of five children. She is of Irish descent as both of her parents have Irish ancestors, and has described herself as "an Irishwoman through and through". Her family were avid readers, so books were always important in her life. Although she had always made up stories in her head, Roberts did not write as a child, other than essays for school. She does claim to have "told lies. Really good ones — some of which my mother still believes." She attended a Catholic school and credits the nuns with instilling in her a sense of discipline. During her second year in high school, Roberts transferred to a local public school, Montgomery Blair High School, where she met her first husband, Ronald Aufdem-Brinke. They married, against her parents' wishes, in 1968, as soon as she had graduated from high school.
The newly married couple settled in Keedysville, Maryland. Roberts' husband worked at his father's sheet-metal business before joining her parents in their lighting company. She gave birth to two sons, Dan and Jason. Roberts became a homemaker and would later refer to this time period as her "Earth Mother" years. Roberts spent much of her time doing crafts, including ceramics and sewing her children's clothes. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1983.
Roberts met her second husband, Bruce Wilder, a carpenter, when she hired him to build her bookshelves. They were married in July 1985. Her husband owns and operates her bookstore in Boonsboro, Maryland called Turn the Page Books. He also works as an adult content photographer and videographer while she is not an active internet user.
The Wilders also owned the nearby historic Boone Hotel, which was undergoing renovations when it was destroyed by a fire in February 2008. It opened as the Inn BoonsBoro in 2009; the suites were inspired by and named for romantic couples from books.
Roberts once stated: "You're going to be unemployed if you really think you just have to sit around and wait for the muse to land on your shoulder." She concentrates on one novel at a time, writing eight hours a day, every day, even while on vacation. Rather than begin with an outline or plot summary, Roberts instead envisions a key incident, character, or setting. She then writes a short first draft that has the basic elements of a story. After finishing the first draft, Roberts goes back to the beginning of the novel. The second draft usually sees the addition of details, the "texture and color" of the work, as well as a more in-depth study of the characters. She then does a final pass to polish the novel before sending it to her agent, Amy Berkower.
She often writes trilogies, finishing the three books in a row so that she can remain with the same characters. When possible, she does the same with the "In Death" books, writing three in a row before returning to contemporary romances. Her trilogies are all released in paperback, as Roberts believes the wait for hardcover editions is too long for the reader.
Roberts does much of her research over the Internet, as she has an aversion to flying.
She is an ardent baseball fan, having been honored by the local minor league baseball team Hagerstown Suns several times.
She began to write during a blizzard in February 1979 while housebound with her two small boys. Roberts states that with three feet of snow, a dwindling supply of chocolate, and no morning kindergarten she had little else to do. While writing down her ideas for the first time, she fell in love with the writing process, and quickly produced six manuscripts. She submitted her manuscripts to Harlequin, the leading publisher of romance novels, but was repeatedly rejected. Roberts says,
"I got the standard rejection for the first couple of tries, then my favorite rejection of all time. I received my manuscript back with a nice little note which said that my work showed promise, and the story had been very entertaining and well done. But that they already had their American writer. That would have been Janet Dailey."
In 1980, a new publisher, Silhouette books, formed to take advantage of the pool of manuscripts from the many American writers that Harlequin had snubbed. Roberts found a home at Silhouette, where her first novel, Irish Thoroughbred, was published in 1981. She used the pseudonym Nora Roberts, a shortened form of her birth name Eleanor Marie Robertson, because she assumed that all romance authors had pen names.
Between 1982 and 1984, Roberts wrote 23 novels for Silhouette. They were published under various Silhouette imprints: Silhouette Sensation, Silhouette Special Edition and Silhouette Desire, as well as Silhouette Intrigue, and MIRA's reissue program. In 1985, Playing the Odds, the first novel in the MacGregor family series, was published. The book was an immediate bestseller.
In 1987, she began writing single title books for Bantam. Five years later she moved to Putnam to write single title hard covers as well as original paperbacks. She reached the hardcover bestseller lists with her fourth hardcover release, 1996's Montana Sky. Roberts has continued to release single-title novels in paperback. She still occasionally writes shorter category romances. Her attachment to the shorter category books stems from her years as a young mother of two boys without much time to read, as she "[remembers] exactly what it felt like to want to read and not have time to read 200,000 words."
Roberts and her career were featured in Pamela Regis' A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Regis calls Roberts "a master of the romance novel form, because she "has a keen ear for dialogue, constructs deft scenes, maintains a page-turning pace, and provides compelling characterization." Publishers Weekly once talked about her "wry humor and the use of different narrators, two devices that were once rarities" in the romance novel genre.
Roberts had long wanted to write romantic suspense novels in the vein of Mary Stewart, but, at the urging of her agent, she concentrated on classic contemporary romance novels while she built a following of readers. After moving to Putnam in 1992, the publishing company quickly realized that they were unable to keep up with Roberts's prolific output. They suggested that she adopt a second pseudonym so that they would be able to publish more of her work each year.
Her agent, Amy Berkover, convinced the publishers to allow Roberts to write romantic suspense novels under the new name. Her first romantic suspense novel was published in 1995 under the pseudonym J.D. Robb. The initials "J.D." were taken from her sons, Jason and Dan, while "Robb" is a shortened form of Roberts. She first decided to use the pseudonym D.J. MacGregor, but right before publication, she discovered that this pseudonym was used by another author.
As J.D. Robb, Roberts has published a series of futuristic science fiction police procedurals. These books, all part of the "In Death" series, feature NYPSD Detective Eve Dallas and her husband Roarke and are set in a mid-21st century New York City. Despite the emphasis on solving a crime in each of the books, the overall theme of the series is the development of the relationship between Eve and Roarke. When the "In Death" series began, neither Roberts nor her publisher acknowledged that she was in fact the author. They hoped to allow the series to stand on its own merits and build its own following.
After publishing 18 novels in the "In Death" series, Putnam published the nineteenth, Divided in Death first in hardcover. The book became Roberts' first bestselling novel of 2004.
As of September 2014, Roberts has published 49 books in the "In Death" series, with more scheduled.
She wrote a story for a magazine titled "Melodies of Love" under the pseudonym Jill March.
Roberts has also been known as Sarah Hardesty. When the "Born In" series was released in Britain it carried that name instead of Nora Roberts. She has since changed publishers.
Roberts is remarkably prolific—in 1996 she passed the hundred-novel mark with Montana Sky and in 2012 she doubled that with The Witness. In both 1999 and 2000, four of the five novels that USA Today listed as the best-selling romance novels of the year were written by Roberts. Her first appearance on the New York Times Bestseller List came in 1991, and between 1991 and 2001, she had 68 New York Times Bestsellers, counting hardbacks and paperbacks. The New York Times did not review any of those novels. In 2001, Roberts had 10 best-selling mass-market paperbacks, according to Publishers Weekly, not counting those books written under the J.D. Robb name. In September 2001, for the first time Roberts took the numbers 1 and 2 spots on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list, as her romance Time and Again was number one, and her J.D. Robb release Seduction in Death was number two.
Since 1999, every one of Roberts's novels has been a New York Times bestseller, and 124 of her novels have ranked on the Times bestseller list, including twenty-nine that debuted in the number-one spot. As of January 24, 2013, Roberts's novels had spent a combined 948 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, including 148 weeks in the number-one spot. As of January 9, 2009, 400 million copies of her books are in print, including 12 million copies sold in 2005 alone. Her novels have been published in 35 countries.
A founding member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), Roberts was the first inductee in the organization's Hall of Fame. In 1997 she was awarded the RWA Lifetime Achievement Award, which in 2008 was renamed the RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. As of 2012, she has won an unprecedented 21 of the RWA's RITA Awards, the highest honor given in the romance genre.
Two of Roberts' novels, Sanctuary and Magic Moments, had previously been made into TV movies. In 2007, Lifetime Television adapted four Nora Roberts novels into TV movies: Angels Fall starring Heather Locklear, Montana Sky starring Ashley Williams, Blue Smoke starring Alicia Witt, and Carolina Moon starring Claire Forlani. This was the first time that Lifetime had adapted multiple works by the same author. Four more films were released on four consecutive Saturdays in March and April 2009. The 2009 collection included Northern Lights starring LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian, Midnight Bayou starring Jerry O'Connell, High Noon starring Emilie de Ravin, and Tribute starring Brittany Murphy.
Time named Roberts one of their 100 Most Influential People in 2007, saying she "has inspected, dissected, deconstructed, explored, explained and extolled the passions of the human heart." Roberts was one of only two authors on the list, the other being David Mitchell.
Victim of plagiarism
In 1997, another best-selling romance writer, Janet Dailey, admitted to repeatedly plagiarizing Roberts' work. The practice came to light after a reader read Roberts' Sweet Revenge and Dailey's Notorious back-to-back; she noticed several similarities and posted the comparable passages on the Internet. Calling the plagiarism "mind-boggling," Roberts sued Dailey. Dailey acknowledged the plagiarism and attributed it to a psychological disorder. She admitted that both Aspen Gold and Notorious lifted heavily from Roberts' work. Both of those novels were pulled from print after Dailey's admission. In April 1998, Dailey settled the case. Roberts donated the settlement to various literary causes including the Literacy Volunteers of America (now ProLiteracy).
Roberts joined the chorus strongly criticizing fellow romance writer Cassie Edwards, who had lifted many passages from much older sources (many in the public domain), without giving credit, forcing Edwards out of the business.
Roberts has been included repeatedly on the Giving Back Fund's annual lists of the most philanthropic celebrities, with the bulk of her donations going to the Nora Roberts Foundation. The foundation financially supports organizations that promote literacy and the arts, assist children and engage in humanitarian efforts. The Foundation also endowed the Nora Roberts Center for American Romance at McDaniel College, which supports academic scholarship on the American romance novel, with special emphasis on the literary qualities and significance of the romance even by other romance authors charities like Jan Dynes who built an orphanage in Haiti with an endowment from Roberts after meeting at the LA Book Festival. Roberts has made other charitable efforts such as auctioning her jewelry.