ROMANCE NOVELS have evolved over the years from straight "bodice-rippers" to stories with more independent heroines.

So how do romance writers buff up their skills and keep the writing fresh?

The Romance Writers of America's annual national conference offers 150 or so workshops including everything from writing tips to crime scene forensics (in case a heroine runs into a sticky situation).

And of course, there are workshops with titles such as "Writing the Hot Historical" and "Sexy Grammar ... Who Knew?"

"Everyone knows what it is to fall in love or want to fall in love, to find someone to make that commitment, to have that sexual buzz," said Nora Roberts, who has been attending the gatherings since they began in 1981. "And these books celebrate that connection to another person and that relationship."

But whether characters live in England in the early 1800s or are modern people trying to crack a murder mystery, they all revolve around a central love story — and a steamy sex scene is bound to ensue.

At the sexy grammar session presented at this month's four-day conference in Dallas, giggles and guffaws broke out as passages were read from love scenes that seemed forced.

Presenters explained that a love scene should be used to reveal more about the characters and move the plot forward, and definitely shouldn't be awkward.

During the question-and-answer period, discussions ranged from the correct usages of "lay" and "lie" to where to find creative euphemisms to use as a scene heats up.

A workshop called "Layering in Lusciousness" guided novelists in how to use all five senses to spice up the book.

Even with all the spicy workshops, the conference was really about serious writing, said Jill Limber, president of the 9,500-member group based in Houston.

"I think the best thing a writer can come out with is to go home and write," she said.