Internationally best selling novelist and screenwriter Nicholas Sparks has heartstring plucking down to a science. His romantic formula has brought us Kleenex-mandatory love stories such as Message in a BottleA Walk to RememberDear John and a bunch of other movies your merely mortal boyfriend refused to see with you. Most importantly, we can thank Sparks for setting up Ryan Gosling with every woman’s imagination via The Notebook.

The relationship has been going strong for 9 years since we first heard the immortal line: “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.”

Next up for the romance-writing machine is the suspenseful love story Safe Haven, starring Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel. The movie hits theaters on Valentine’s Day, just in time to remind you that your own love life pales in comparison to a Sparks-created fantasy. Impossible expectations of romantic grandeur aside, Safe Haven will no doubt draw crowds. It’s got everything: danger, romance, cute kids, a gorgeous setting, and exceedingly attractive love interests.

We talked to Sparks in his hometown of Southport, North Carolina on the set of Safe Haven about his formula for delivering crowd-pleasing love stories, his creative process, and how his latest film will stack up with what we’ve grown to expect from the man who’s perfected on-screen boat rides and kissing in the rain. If you’ve ever dreamt of making your own heartrending blockbuster or simply wondered, while watching The Notebook for the 75th time through teary eyes, how anyone thinks of these things, here’s some insider information.

How to write like Nicholas Sparks

On His Golden Rule for Successful Stories: “A story needs to be three things: interesting, original, and universal. That goes to the theme of the story, the journeys of the characters, but also the specific elements in the book…It’s easy to do two of those three. Original and interesting, and you get Hannibal Lector. But he’s not universal.”

On Conceptualizing the Themes: “It’s always love and something. You can have love and mystery, love and forgiveness, love and loss…Safe Haven is love and danger because it’d been a long time since I’d done one like that.”

“A story needs to be three things: interesting, original, and universal.”

On How to Appeal to EVERYONE: “The age of the characters is the first thing I make a decision about in any novel. What age group are the main characters that fall in love? I try to vary it from book to book because most people like to read about people they relate to, right? I look back on my past.  I said, “Well, I had The Last Song, and that’s teenagers.  I had Dear John.  They’re in their 20s.

“So I said I’ll do 20s for Safe Haven or whatever.  But, then I said, “Oh, my gosh, where’s my middle-aged people?”  So, here comes The Best of Me characters in their 40s and 50s.

“And so, then what you do is say, ‘Ah, but everyone wants to enjoy these.’  So, in my teenage story, I also make it a father-daughter story.  And in my 40- and 50-year-old story, they had a love story as teenagers.

“So, believe me, all of that is done purposefully to keep everybody happy.”

On Developing Characters You Fall in Love With: “What you want is someone that you feel like could be your brother, your sister, your kids, your neighbor, your friend from college, your friend from high school, someone that you know and like, someone that you work with, right? Because the simple fact is that nobody walks around being perfect. And so you don’t want to create a character that’s absolutely perfect. They have to have flaws.  And yet, for the most part, most of my characters are created with my own worldview: I think that 80 percent of the people 80 percent of the time try to do the right thing… Everyone makes mistakes.  But, I tend to see the glass half-full when it comes to humanity.”

Safe Haven Case Study: Alex Wheatley, the hunky single dad of your dreams

“Alex, he gets frustrated. He’s lonesome. He has problems, right? He’s got his own baggage. He tries to be the best dad that he can and run his business. And you know, you’ve got the guilt of bringing someone new into your kids’ life. And what if they’re not the right person, you know?”

On Turning Novels into Movies: “A novel is a story told with words.  A film is a story told with pictures.”

“I’ve written both screenplays and novels and it’s a different thinking. [With movies,] it’s the picture first.  And if you have a scene of introspection that you can’t capture in a quick picture, sometimes you have to invent things or put things in or take things out to make it work.  That’s just the nature of it.”

“There’s always differences with the transition from novel to film. So, you have to pick the important details. So, what was the most important characteristics about Kevin? He scares her, right? He’s dangerous. He’s a very good cop and she knows that if he ever finds her, she’s in big trouble. He’s got a drinking problem, etc. So, you pick the big things and you make them work.”

On Getting it on the Page: “When I sit down to write—and it’s not everyday—but when I actually sit down to write, it’s 2,000 words. Any more than that, I find, and the writing gets poor.  Anything less than that, and I lose the pacing of the novel. So, how many days is that?  Well, let’s say it takes me 150,000 words to get the 100,000 I’m going to keep and I’m editing as I go, take out a paragraph here and there.  So, that’s 75 days of writing.”

Safe Haven Case Study: Kevin Tierney, the abusive, introspective, paranoid husband

“There’s always differences with the transition from novel to film. So, you have to pick the important details. So, what was the most important characteristics about Kevin? He scares her, right? He’s dangerous. He’s a very good cop and she knows that if he ever finds her, she’s in big trouble. He’s got a drinking problem, etc. So, you pick the big things and you make them work.”

On Getting it on the Page: “When I sit down to write—and it’s not every day—but when I actually sit down to write, it’s 2,000 words. Any more than that, I find, and the writing gets poor.  Anything less than that, and I lose the pacing of the novel. So, how many days is that?  Well, let’s say it takes me 150,000 words to get the 100,000 I’m going to keep and I’m editing as I go, take out a paragraph here and there.  So, that’s 75 days of writing.”

Final Words of Wisdom: “Make it original. Make it original. Make it original.”