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Mel Barber hears voices.

They can penetrate her thoughts at any time — while doing the dishes, while sitting at work or snuggling with her dog. And once they do, they take over her internal narrative, she says, until she's written down their story.

Barber has been writing since she was a kid, she says. Everything from writing epic fantasies, to fan-fiction, to her work as The York Dispatch entertainment editor, and currently food editor, has been an outlet for her creative passion. But about three years ago, Barber says, the voices of the characters she heard in her head were telling a different kind of story — and one that she couldn't let go.

Spark: Her story didn't start as a book, however.

"I had this spark of, 'What if,'" she says. "I heard these characters' voices and could see this scene, and it started this idea of what if they were in this situation ... and she said 'yes.'"

Barber began writing scenes and exploring the characters she had created as a way to entertain a friend.

"She would ask for more, or ask 'What happens next?' and I found I just couldn't stop writing it," she says.

Barber says her writing partner began encouraging her to send her work to a publisher. She sent a query to a publisher another friend was having success with in the fall of 2012 and, she says, expected to get a rejection and move on.

Instead, a letter arrived 13 days later — her book was accepted by the publisher and would be available for sale.

"I was never expecting to publish (the book)," Barber says. "I hadn't even told anyone I was writing it until I found out it would be published."

After the initial "dancing around the room and freaking out," Barber says, she had the task of revealing to friends and family what she had been up to.

"Everyone was incredibly supportive," she says. "It was sort of unexpected, but it's been very nice."

That initial spark of inspiration would become her first book, "Playing the Game," which would grow from that single thought of "What if?" into the Neighborly Affection series spanning three books with a fourth set for release next year.

Steamy series: The series follows neighbors Alice and roommates Henry and Jay in a world of romance with a steamy contemporary streak. Think "50 Shades of Grey" — only racier.

Barber says the acceptance of risqué romance novels, such as the "50 shades" series, helped push her to share her work.

"It wasn't too far outside my comfort zone," she says.

Still, she says, she was nervous no one would read her book because it is so different from other plot-driven romances and because the voice was so different. Barber says she wanted to write an empowered female protagonist that had an inner strength.

"It's more about an emotional journey — getting inside the character's head and looking out through their eyes — than it is about, well, this is what happens," she says. "The books are more character-driven and looking at why do they want what they want? Characters are the core of (the story)."

What's in a name?: Because of the provocative nature of the books, Barber, who writes under the pseudonym M.Q. Barber, says she had a hard time deciding what to call herself. She says she wanted to retain a piece of her personal identity, but was concerned about associating other people in her life with her work by using her newspaper byline.

"It was a big deal finding my name," Barber says. "I wanted to look at it and know it was something I had done."

After several iterations — her initials, the dog's first name and her last name, a family name — she settled on a monicker, for a variety of reasons, she says she really likes.

Since first publishing, Barber's book has appeared on the USA Today bestselling romance list, an experience, she says, that was insane.

Previously only available as e-books, Barber's first two books will now be released in print. A launch party will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, at the Books-A-Million store in Springettsbury Township.

"I still can't believe it," Barber says. "I'm over the moon."

Barber says she isn't sure if more Neighborly Affection novels are in store, but that doesn't mean she's done writing. More of those characters she hears have popped, insisting she hear their voices.

"I'll stop writing when I no longer hear those voices," she says. "When the characters stop, I stop."

Yet, with a side table littered with Post-It notes and cards filled with ideas, it's likely she'll have many more years of stories to tell.

Spice up your bookshelf

Local author M.Q. Barber will be signing copies of her book, "Playing the Game," at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, inside Books-A-Million, 3000 Whiteford Road, Springettsbury Township.

The event will help to kick off the launch of a new line of books, Lyrical High Notes, from Kensington Publishing.

Fellow best-selling Kensington author Rebecca Zanetti will be attending and signing copies of her books.

Free baked goods will be available.

Information: (717) 757-6371.

For more information on Lyrical High Notes, visit http://sites.kensingtonbooks.com/lyricalhighnotes.

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