By Giovanna Breu
Updated February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

She sank deeper into her black bathtub, one toe caressing the gold-plated faucet. She thought about Christopher Seton, broad-shouldered and alive in every raging masculine fiber of his being. Lean, russet-haired Christopher Seton, who said things like “My desire for you was hard-driven, Erienne. I saw you as a man craves to see his wife…in the bath…in the bed…always so close under my hand, and so damned beautiful, it became torture for me just to look at you. I was soundly caught in a trap.”

A year or so later, out of the bath (and a word processor nicknamed Maynard) arose Kathleen Woodiwiss’ latest best-seller, A Rose in Winter (two million copies in print). Most of the characters who have emerged from Woodiwiss’ steamy think-tank sessions, understandably enough, adore baths. But all similarities end there. Woodiwiss, 43, is a mild-mannered Minnesotan who cooks pig-in-a-blanket breakfasts and makes the beds before settling down to the pinkish-purple literary effusions that have made her one of the biggest-selling authors in the $200 million paperback romantic novel industry. Nearly 18 million copies of her five books—including Shanna and The Wolf and the Dove—have been printed since Woodiwiss first began writing over a decade ago.

Her forte is the erotic epic, filled with sword fights and snuffboxes and set against such romantic backgrounds as the Civil War, 18th-century England or Saxony in 1066. Her heroines are buxom adventuresses who suffer great travail keeping mind and bodice together. In the end, the put-upon maiden usually receives the just rewards of virtue: a castle, vast wealth and a young hunk to boot. “These books are fairy tales,” says Woodiwiss. “They are an escape for the reader, like an Errol Flynn movie.”

At first her sexy swashbucklers did not sweep the publishing community off its feet. In 1968 Woodiwiss sent her first manuscript off to hardcover publishers and piled up rejection slips. Next, a literary agent told her the 600-page tome needed more sex and less bulk. Undaunted, she decided to try the paperback route and mailed it to the first name on her alphabetical list: Avon. An editor of the house, Nancy Coffey, happened to pluck Woodiwiss’ opus out of the slush pile one day. A short time later Woodiwiss was $2,500 richer, and 500,000 copies of The Flame and the Flower, her 19th-century saga about the breathtaking romance of Heather Simmons and Captain Brandon Birmingham, were hitting the stores.

Woodiwiss says she’s always had a romantic bent. Born Kathleen Erin Hogg in Alexandria, La., the youngest of eight children of a disabled World War I veteran and his wife, she began dreaming up plots at the age of 6. “It was very restful,” she recalls. “That was the way I went to sleep.” At 16, the plot thickened. She met 21-year-old Air Force Second Lieutenant Ross Woodiwiss at a sock hop, and eloped a year later. The couple lived in Japan and then Topeka, Kans., where Kathleen began secretly drafting her first romance novel while sons Sean, now 22, and Dorren, 20, were in school. (Youngest son Heath, now 12, was born three years later.) “It was something I was embarrassed to admit,” she says . “Writing a novel seemed farfetched.”

A decade later she has more than made peace with her work. Although she won’t discuss her earnings, royalties from her book sales probably exceed $2 million. She spends her days serenely writing at Tanglewood Manor, the family’s 100-acre farm in rural Princeton, Minn. Husband Ross, 48, now retired, oversees building projects on the property, including a new barn for the 30 Morgan horses they recently purchased.

Over at Avon, where the stable of romance writers includes Rosemary Rogers and Laurie McBain, editors say the horse connection isn’t coincidental. “Horses are central in romantic fiction,” points out Walter Meade, the company’s president and editor in chief. “And Kathleen is also a wonderful dancer, another romantic trait.” Woodiwiss, however, denies she wears her characters’ shoes, dancing or otherwise. “I am a housewife,” she says, heading for her bath, “but housewives are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for.”