Reluctant Cassandra

Why I Write

Last week, author Stephanie Verni challenged five authors to share five reasons why we write. That was a really good challenge--it took me a week to decide on my top five!

Even though I've been writing stories in one form or another for most of my life, the "why" behind my writing changes from time to time. Here are just five of the reasons I love to write:

Why I Write || from the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

1. Writing turns tiny, fleeting thoughts into something real and permanent

I almost always have a blank book going where I can jot down anything that crosses my mind. Some years of my life are pretty well-recorded with diary entries for every week, if not every day. Other years, my blank books are mostly a collection of doodles, story ideas, dreams I want to remember, and other bits and pieces of my life. Occasionally I go back and read through these books, either to remember some real detail of my own life or to dig up an old story idea--both are equally likely.

For the same reason, I keep all the old drafts of my books (Just to give you an idea of how much paperwork that is, I have nine drafts of the book I'm working on currently, plus notes). I reference these old drafts all the time, just in case I find I've edited out some character background or something like that. It's fun to see how much the story has changed over time, too!

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect." Anais Nin || from "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

2. Writing is an adventure of self-discovery

Sometimes I think my books know more about me than I do.

I may think that I know how I feel about a certain issue, like healthcare, or criminal justice, or even just small-town politics. Then I decide to write about it and I realize how much I really don't know. By the time I finish doing my research, I can guarantee I've learned something. By the time I complete the final draft, I've learned a lot!

One interesting consequence of writing the Time Wrecker Trilogy has been learning more about a variety of issues. For example, I hadn't spent nearly enough time considering how criminal justice really works in America. I hadn't thought as much about the concept of healing before, either, both from intended and unintended injuries. I'm curious to see how I'll feel about these issues by the time I'm done writing the third book! 

"The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe." Gustave Flaubert || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

3. Writing is all about possibility

The first time someone called me a science fiction writer, I thought they'd mistaken me for someone else. I didn't feel like I was making up very much about the physical world in my stories, and compared to many science fiction authors, I really don't. The worlds I write about are only slightly different from this one. Take a small town in southern Virginia, and add a woman who can see the future: now you have Reluctant Cassandra. Take Washington, DC over the past decade, but make it possible to use time travel for criminal rehabilitation: now we're in the Time Wrecker Trilogy. I love taking these tiny steps outside reality. And according to one of my favorite authors of all time, that is science fiction. (Thanks, Ray Bradbury.)

"Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn't exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible." Ray Bradbury || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

4. Writing is my creative outlet

I've dabbled in just about every creative hobby out there: music, sewing, paper crafts, crochet, baking...but I always come back to writing.

There is something in me that needs to create. I can hold it over by doing little projects around the house, like cooking dinner or practicing the piano. But eventually, I'll need to sit down and carve out time just to be creative. I love working as a freelance writer because it allows me to fill that creative need so often, but I balance it with fiction writing, too. Of all the ways to be creative, writing is the one that suits me best.

"And the idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for awhile is just bliss." J .K. Rowling || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

5. I have to write. There's an idea that just won't let go.

This is my very favorite reason to write. Sometimes I'll have a story idea percolating in the back of my mind for months (or years...) and then suddenly it becomes a story I have to tell. That's the really fun part, when I'm racing to my notebook or my computer to write down some little scene I just imagined, or I'll be driving and suddenly figure out a plot twist. If I had to pick one reason why I write, this would be it. I know the story is already there: I just have to write it down.

"An idea in the head is like a rock in the shoe; I just can't wait to get it out." Phyllis Reynolds Naylor || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

June 2018 Book Giveaway Winner!

I've got to say, the giveaway contest from last week might just be my favorite ever! Over the past week, I've had emails, Facebook shares, comments, and messages from pet-loving readers who wanted to share stories and pictures of their pets. I loved it! 

However, there was one Facebook comment that definitely stood out as my favorite. Erin Lloyd's memory of her adorable cat Precious made my day--and so did the picture! Congratulations, Erin! You're the winner! Your signed copy of Reluctant Cassandra is on its way!

Congratulations Erin/ June 2018 Giveaway Winner|| Erin won a signed copy of Reluctant Cassandra for sharing her favorite pet story

Congratulations, Erin, and thank you to everyone who contacted me to share their stories last week. Readers are the best!

A Girl And Her Dog

Although we often hear dogs called "man's best friend," I know plenty of women that couldn't live without their canine sidekicks. There's no bond quite like that of a girl and her dog. Personally, I would love to have a dog to share walks through the park, the occasional (okay, frequent) game of fetch, and nights curled up in front of the fireplace.

However, due to some seriously unfortunate allergies, the furriest pet I can have is...well, a goldfish. Yep. As much as I would love to have a dog of my own, I have to live vicariously through friends, neighbors, and, of course, books. Here are a few of my favorite stories about a girl and her dog.

A girl and her dog--a few stories about woman's best friend: Little House, Solomon's Oak, and Reluctant Cassandra | from the ellensmithwrites.com blog

Jack from the Little House series

One of my favorite fictional dogs is Jack, Laura's faithful bulldog in the Little House series. I loved Jack for his protectiveness of the family. In the first chapter of Little House in the Big Woods, Laura recounts how Jack kept watch by the front door of their little log cabin, listening to the howling of the wolves just outside. However, Jack is also Laura's playful companion and her first friend: 

Jack laid his nose on his paws and waggled, he jumped out on the path and looked back at [Laura], smiling with his ears, begging her to come out.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder, "On the Banks of Plum Creek"

Edsel from Solomon's Oak

I'm also a huge fan of Jo-Ann Mapson's novels, which frequently feature beloved pets as integral characters. In the novel olomon's Oak, grieving widow Glory Solomon draws comfort from the horses and dogs she and her late husband rescued over the years. Even as Glory is trying to reimagine her life without her husband, caring for the animals--and allowing them to care for her--keeps her grounded. All the dogs in this story help Glory in their own way, but one Italian greyhound, Edsel, is my favorite:

Everyone who met Edsel fell in love with the ten-pound comedian who made Glory laugh at least once a day.
— Jo-Ann Mapson, "Solomon's Oak"

Thor from Reluctant Cassandra

In addition to reading about dogs, I like to write about them, too! The main character in Reluctant Cassandra, Arden McCrae, has a canine companion--and honestly, he's one of my favorite characters! Thor, Arden's Boxer puppy, is playful, mischevious, messy, and always there to protect and comfort Arden. Between dealing with her premonitions of the future and facing her father's rapid decline due to Alzheimer's disease, Arden definitely has moments where she needs some comfort. I love that Thor is always there for her.

Thor leaps up next to me, and for once, I’m too exhausted to remind him he doesn’t go on the furniture. I’m going to start bad habits, I think, but then Thor rests his chin on my knee and I decide I don’t care.
— Ellen Smith, "Reluctant Cassandra"

So many stories just wouldn't be the same without the beloved animals that populate the pages. Who's your favorite fictional pet?

P.S. I'm giving away a signed copy of Reluctant Cassandra on Goodreads! You can enter to win here: http://ow.ly/muhe304XcJz

Naming Fictional Characters in 3 Steps (or Less!)

I’m a name nerd.

True story: in college, I spent hours compiling data for a study on the attractiveness of male and female names. I mean, hours. I remember a lot of long nights crunching data. Amanda? Very attractive. Mildred? Not so much. Ken was more attractive than Keith, while Liam was about as attractive as Levi. By the end of the study, I had an Iliad-length research paper and a major caramel-macchiato addiction.

Ah, youth.

Believe it or not, even after all of that research, I still get excited to dream up the perfect names for my characters. There’s something about finding just the right name that makes the character start to take shape in my mind. Since I have a tendency to get stuck on finding the perfect name (Maura or Mara? Lila or Lily?), I try to break the process down into just three steps.

Naming Fictional Characters in 3 Steps (or Less!) from the ellensmithwrites.com blog It's easy for authors to get caught up in finding the perfect name for each character. Ellen Smith shares the three most important considerations for naming fictional characters: meaning, culture, and practicality.

Meaning

For my main characters, finding a name with the right meaning is a great first step. I like for the character's name to have a meaning that reflects something about his or her personality. Even if most readers don't know that Bridget means "strong" or Arthur means "noble," finding a name that encompasses a key element of the character helps me stay focused as I'm developing the story.

In my current work-in-progress, for example, I actually have two main characters: a newlywed husband and wife. While I was pre-writing, I knew that each character would have very different inner conflicts. The husband would be driven by his desire to protect the people he loves. I flipped through a baby book and discovered that William means “the determined guardian.” That's a great description of the character I had in mind, so I decided to call him Will.

The wife character’s conflict was slightly different. I knew she was someone who would struggle with how she reacted to the roadblocks in her life. She would want to think positively and believe that everything she faced made her a better person, but truthfully, she would struggle with feeling bitter. That reminded me of a line spoken by a character in the biblical Book of Ruth.

Call me not Naomi (meaning pleasant) but Mara (meaning bitter) for the Lord has dealt very bitterly with me.
— Ruth 1:20

Even though my female protagonist tries so hard to stay positive, I knew that she would connect with that deep feeling of bitterness. Mara was the perfect name for her.

Sometimes I put the cart before the horse and choose the name first, then derive elements of the story from the name’s meaning. This is what I did with Arden, the main character in Reluctant Cassandra. When I was taking a class in Shakespeare (again, college) I stumbled across the name Arden in the play As You Like It. If it’s been a while since you’ve read works by the Bard, most of this play takes place in the Forest of Arden. I thought Arden would be a beautiful name for a girl: strong but sweet, unusual but not weird. When I first envisioned a down-to-earth character with a fantastical gift of prophecy, the name Arden immediately sprang to mind.

Although I chose the name based on my own personal taste, I went ahead and looked up the meaning while I was pre-writing. It turns out that Arden actually means “valley of the eagle.” Voila! From there, I had the name of Arden’s fictional small town: Eagle Valley, Virginia.

As much as I love diving in to name meanings, I can't do this for every single character of every story. Even if I skip the step of looking up a name's meaning, I always make sure to think about how a character's name reflects their culture.

Culture

My characters might be figments of my imagination, but I hope that they feel like real, authentic people to the reader. In real life, a person's name generally reflects their parents' taste, cultural expectations, and even family traditions. Children are usually named when they're babies, so parents are more likely to be inspired by their own hopes and dreams for their child instead of the child's looks or personality. Nicknames usually come later and are more likely to reflect personality or individual traits. When I choose a name, I try to think about both the larger culture the character lives in as well as their smaller, family culture.

Think about the sisters from Little Women: Margaret, Josephine, Elizabeth, and Amy. It’s totally believable that these are the names of girls who were raised in America in the 1800s. They’re classic, traditional English girls names that fit the time period and the region.

The smaller, family culture comes through in the nicknames that some of the girls have. Margaret, the oldest and a mother hen, is called the practical nickname Meg instead of a spunkier version, like Maggie. Elizabeth, the gentlest, most sensitive sister, goes by soft, sweet Beth. And best of all: the tomboy sister that struggles with anything fussy and feminine is never called Josephine, just Jo. Since the girls are young adults (er, little women), we can imagine that these nicknames evolved over time because of their personalities.

(Amy is the only sister in Little Women who didn’t get a nickname, and it’s always bugged me. Was her first name just that perfect, or did Louisa May Alcott run out of nickname ideas? Thoughts?)

A little research into popular names for a certain region or time period helps generate believable names for a range of major and minor characters. For Reluctant Cassandra, I looked up names that are frequently used in the South to fit the small-town Virginia setting. For my current work-in-progress, I looked up popular American baby names for the 1980s to fill in the names of Will and Mara's friends. I was born in the 80s too, so a lot of these names were very familiar to me! They fit the bill for twentysomethings living in D.C. in the early 00s.

Several of the characters in my current work-in-progress aren't originally from America, and their names have cultural significance as well. For example: Nayana, a traditional Indian name, was a good choice for a woman whose parents expect her to live and work in America but stay connected to her Indian roots. On the other hand, a Japanese-American family in the story name their daughter Laura after the pioneer girl in the Little House series. Laura's family constantly pushes her to be more "American," and that's reflected in the name they chose for her.

Even if a name has a great meaning or suits the culture of the setting perfectly, there's one more nitty-gritty step I have to consider: practicality.

Practicality

This is the part where my name nerd hat comes off and I put my writer hat on instead. Some name choices that would be very realistic just don’t work in books. For example, many of us have had the experience of being in class with three Zacharys or growing up in a neighborhood with Madelyn, Madeline, and Madeleine. That’s true in real life, but it’s confusing for the reader if characters have similar-sounding names.

Recently, I had to change the names of several of my minor characters because I realized they all sounded too much alike: Justin, Jessie, and Kevin. Jessie was a female character with a much different personality than Justin, so I didn’t think it would matter that both names started with J. However, whenever they got into an argument, the whole back-and-forth Justin-said-Jessie-said part got really confusing. Justin and Kevin were too close, too. Even though they started with different letters, they’re two-syllable names that rhyme with each other. When I re-read their pages aloud, I kept getting confused about which one said what.

My naming process may have only three steps, but it can be pretty time-consuming! Just considering meaning, culture, and practicality can keep me on my toes throughout the prewriting stage. These are a few tools that help me while I'm naming characters:

  • The Social Security Administration

Did you know the Social Security Administration releases a list of the most popular baby names in America every year? Now you do. If you need to get your hands on popular American names from any year from 1879 to present day, this is the resource for you. When I’m looking for characters that just have a small role, I’ll usually pick from the top ten list of the year or decade they were born.

  • Nameberry

Nameberry is a really neat website where users compile lists of their favorite names and give feedback on the names they like and why. There's even a Writer's Corner forum specifically for authors looking up character names!

  • Nymbler

If a name I love just isn't working, nymbler.com is a fun tool for finding similar names. You can enter up to six inspiration names and the site will generate a list of names that reflect the same general style, origin, or popularity. Bonus: if there's a name you absolutely won't consider, you can add it to your "blocked names" list.

  • Baby names book

I like the type that simply lists all the names and their meanings. You can probably find one at the grocery store checkout line or something. I have a few from the 1990s and early 00s. I'm also a fan of the books by Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Satran, who are the creators of the Nameberry website. Their most recent book is Beyond Ava and Aidan, although I got mine back when the current book was Beyond Jennifer and Jason.

Are there any other name nerds out there? What are some of your favorite character names? Leave me a comment and let me know!

 

5 Ways I'm Nothing Like My Main Character

Authors often get asked whether their stories are based on their real-life experiences. After spending over a year writing Reluctant Cassandra from the perspective of my main character, Arden McCrae, I can say that we definitely live very different lives. For me, taking an imaginary walk in Arden's shoes was sometimes surreal, sometimes heartbreaking, and always offered a different way of seeing things.

For your reading pleasure, I give you...five ways I'm nothing like my main character.

Let's start with the one you've probably already guessed:

1. I actually can't see the future

...and I wouldn't want to, either. Arden's ability to have visions of the future causes her a lot of anxiety throughout the story. Who can blame her? When she senses that she's about to have a premonition, she's consumed by wondering what she might see and how things might change.

There’s nothing I can do to make a premonition break before it’s good and ready. Nothing I can do to change the future once I see it, either. I know that from experience, too. So I do what I’ve learned to do best. I settle in and wait.
— Reluctant Cassandra

2. I can't see the past, either

Now here's an ability that could be a lot of fun! I'm a big history buff. When I'm reading about something that happened long ago, I usually find myself wondering what life was really like during that time. I also love antiquing and finding one-of-a-kind pieces. Wouldn't it be great to know who owned each of my antique finds and how they were really used?

Arden is able to sense the truth about an object's past just by holding it. As a savvy antique store owner, she uses this ability to tell her customers a little about each piece she sells.

Lucky for me, I always know the story behind a piece. Unlike visions of the future, which hover and hesitate and shift at random, visions of the past are clear. If I brush my fingers over a piece, I’ll get a hint of the stories it holds, the same way I could get a whiff of old varnish or a glimpse of a worn patina.
— Reluctant Cassandra

3. I'm not so great at refinishing furniture

That's not to say I haven't tried. Every so often I'll see a chair or a little table that looks like it just needs a coat of paint and a little TLC. Correction: what it needs is someone who knows what they're doing to give it a coat of paint and a little TLC. After several failed attempts, I am confident in saying that I am not that someone.

Arden, on the other hand, has an entire basement stocked with antiques that need to be refinished. She also saves broken items she can make into something new.

I hate throwing out broken things. If all I have to do is replace a finding or mend a fastener, I can save a whole piece.
— Reluctant Cassandra

4. Remodeling a house is also not on my to-do list

I love watching shows on HGTV that turn run-down fixer-uppers into gorgeous restored homes. I've even been known to imagine tearing down a wall or installing new floors in my house. Fortunately for the other members of my household, I don't go any further than imagining drastic home makeovers. I'll do simple household repairs and even paint the walls (under duress), but believe me, everything else is best left to the professionals.

With her spot-on ability to sense a troubled past and her talent for making old things new again, it's only fitting that Arden remodeled her one-hundred-year-old house entirely on her own. By the end of the book, it's still a work in progress (as most houses are), but I feel like she's up to the task.

Now that most of the big things are done, it’s starting to feel more like a home and less like a never-ending project. On the inside, that is. The outside is about as awful as the day I bought it. Maybe even worse.
— Reluctant Cassandra

5. Believe it or not, I don't know anyone personally who has Alzheimer's

Which is exactly the reason why I was able to write about it. Many, many people, myself included, have lived through the reality of having a loved one diagnosed with a progressive illness. However, Arden's experience with her father's Alzheimer's diagnosis is entirely her own. She has a particularly hard time admitting the reality of the condition - even to herself.

We don’t come out and say “Alzheimer’s” in our family. That’s not how McCraes handle things. We say he’s “absent-minded” or “feeling his age” or “having a hard time.”
— Reluctant Cassandra

Writing this novel was similar to taking a very long walk in someone else's shoes. At the end of the trip, I was glad to take them off - after all, I definitely wouldn't want to have premonitions like Arden. It also left me with a deeper understanding of others who are on Arden's journey and have loved ones with Alzheimer's. After writing Ghosts of Eagle Valley, a companion short story collection to Reluctant Cassandra, I published it on Channillo for Charity so that all proceeds from Ghosts of Eagle Valley would be donated to the Alzheimer's Association. If you'd like to join me in supporting research and support and care programs for those living with Alzheimer's, I hope you'll consider checking it out!

Now it's your turn. Although I like writing about characters with different experiences than my own, I'm willing to bet that other authors have different approaches. Are you a writer? How are you different from your main character? Leave a comment and let me know!

First Book Anniversary: 5 Things I Learned in my first year as an author

This June marks one year since I published my first novel, Reluctant Cassandra. Making the leap from "aspiring author" to "published author" was a completely different experience than I imagined. Here are five things I learned along the way:

1. Connecting with readers is my favorite part of the job

As a reader, I've sent quite a few e-mails over the years to authors whose books I enjoyed. I never guessed how much fun that would be from the other side! After spending so long with this story living inside my head, it's neat to see how other people have connected with it. Some people read Reluctant Cassandra because they have a loved one with Alzheimer's disease. Others connected with the setting in small-town Virginia. Others have told me about premonitions they've had or about a relative who had a "sixth sense." Based on their own experiences, everyone had a slightly different perspective on Reluctant Cassandra.

It's true what they say: the author starts the story, but the reader's imagination finishes it. I love hearing how different readers have "finished" the story!

2. "Marketing" isn't as scary as it sounds

If you ever want to scare an introvert, tell him or her they're going to be responsible for marketing something. I didn't even like selling Girl Scout cookies when I was younger, and those are possibly the easiest things to market on the planet. There's a pretty dedicated customer base for cookies. The idea of marketing my own work to people who had never even heard of me before was a lot more daunting.

As it turns out, marketing wasn't nearly as scary as I thought. I love talking about books. I love talking to other book lovers. It's not a huge leap to talk to other book lovers about my book. Bonus: some of my readers have written books too, and if not, they have great books to recommend. My to-read list has grown exponentially in the last year.

3. I still have a lot to learn

I used to think that after I'd gone through the publishing process once, I'd have this whole writing-and-publishing thing down.

*cue riotous laughter*

Experience helps a little. I have a better idea of where I hope to publish next time, how to plan out my budget and marketing strategy, and the people I'd like to work with when I've finished drafting my next book. At the end of the day, I'm still the same person, sitting at my desk trying to figure out how to get the story in my head out and onto a blank piece of paper. There are a lot of false starts. There are a lot of ideas that don't pan out. There are a lot of times I look back on what I've drafted so far and wonder what in the world I was thinking.

That sounds frustrating, but I like knowing that fiction writing still has plenty of surprises left in store for me. I hope I'm still learning as much when I'm writing my fiftieth book as I did when I was writing my first.

4. Connecting with other authors is essential

Thankfully, one of the things I've learned this year is how to connect and learn from other writers. I'm lucky to work with fantastic critique partners. If I'm stuck on a scene or struggling with a sub-plot, I know that they can help me figure it out and get back on track. I look forward to their critique submissions the same way I look forward to downloading a new book for my Kindle or picking up a paperback from the bookstore. Watching their works-in-progress go from "rough draft" to "polished novel" is an incredible experience and I love being part of it.

The Internet has been another great place to find support and guidance from other authors. After signed up for the Plotting Workshop, I joined the Ninja Writers Facebook group, also led by Shaunta Grimes. The group includes lots of opportunities for authors to ask each other questions, seek out support, and share what's going on with current works-in-progress. 

I also joined the Curiouser Author Society, which launched just a few weeks ago on May 17. I've followed the president, Shayla Eaton, on social media for a long time because of her incredibly valuable insights on editing, indie publishing, and the writing life. The author society has been a great resource and a great place to connect with other indie authors.

Even though my actual writing process is solitary, it makes a big difference to connect with other authors for insight and support. Everyone needs a community (or three) and I'm glad to be part of mine!

5. Being an author is even more fun than I imagined

I've been dreaming of being an author since I can remember. I still have spiral notebooks and binders of story ideas that I scribbled down in elementary school. (Most of my early stories were about princesses and dolls that came alive, FYI). When I visited a library or a bookstore, I used to find the books written by authors with my last name, put my finger there, and promise myself that someday, I would have a book on that shelf.

LNBarnesNoble.jpg

Making that happen was worth every second.