Writing a Slow-Burn Romance

If you're looking for a little instant gratification, fiction is a good place to find it. I watch police procedurals where murders are solved in forty-five minutes and read books that chronicle life-changing epiphanies in only two hundred and fifty pages. It's so satisfying to see fictional problems resolve quickly--plus, it's a lot more entertaining when we can cut out the weeks of waiting for test results and months of planning and rescheduling before a court date.

There's one place in fiction where it's more fun to slow down rather than speed up: romance. A lot of our favorite fictional couples start things off at a snail's pace. After ten chapters (or ten seasons) of tantalizing will-they-or-won't-they romantic tension, the moment when we see a couple finally get together is that much more satisfying.

Like Harry and Sally from When Harry Met Sally.

Temperance Brennan and Seeley from Bones.

Luke and Lorelai from Gilmore Girls.

Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary (and Anna and Mr. Bates...and Tom Branson and Lady Sybil...and Carson and Mrs. Hughes...okay, pretty much all the romances) from Downton Abbey.

See what I mean? These are the couples we agonize over. I spent all ten seasons of FRIENDS crossing my fingers, hoping that Ross and Rachel would find a way to make things work. I wanted Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley to end up with each other from the beginning--even though it took several books before they got together for good. A long-running romance requires a lot of commitment and a lot of emotional investment from the audience. Takes a fair amount of tears and vicarious heartache, too.

When it comes to writing romance, it's hard to fight the urge to speed things up. I love my characters and I want them to live happily ever after, but I can't let them have it right away. In my current work-in-progress, it's a constant battle to keep the characters' love for each other at a slow burn, without letting things flare up or fizzle out.

Writing a Slow-Burn Romance ||

Although many love stories focus on the couple finding each other and falling in love, romance doesn't end after the vows are said and rings are exchanged. Happily-ever-after is a journey, not a destination (click to tweet!). There are ups and downs along the way. We hope that our favorite couples will have smooth sailing over the waves, but there are waves nonetheless.

In my work-in-progress, the story begins after the main characters are already married. Mara and Will have already survived so many struggles together--a tragic shooting, permanent injuries, chronic pain, and PTSD, just to name a few. Still, they have more challenges ahead of them: when they're offered the chance to go back in time and un-do the shooting that changed their lives, it shakes up their marriage in a big way. Giving the shooter the chance to go back in time and make things right feels like justice at its finest, and why wouldn't they jump at the chance to re-live their lives without the tragedy? When Will and Mara start to pick apart all the ways this shooting shaped their lives--and guess who they might have been in another timeline--it reveals the good and bad of who they are and how they came to fall in love.

I can't promise that Mara and Will are going to get it right or that they'll make the same decisions I would make in their place. Some things in their story move fast--faster than Mara or Will (or I!) were ready to handle. But when it comes to romance, their love for each other burns long and slow.

Stay tuned :)

Behind The Scenes of EVERY LAST MINUTE

Happy Valentine's Day!

Since I'm currently editing Every Last Minute, the first novel of my time travel romance trilogy, I thought I'd give you a peek behind the scenes. Will and Mara Sterling are newlyweds and the main characters of my story. Here they are in one of my favorite scenes from Chapter One:

Behind the Scenes: Sneak Preview of a Scene from EVERY LAST MINUTE ||

Will had already set out dinner on the coffee table when Mara emerged from the bedroom. Even though she was ninety-eight percent sure Will had been kidding earlier, Mara was still a little relieved to see a cup of tzatziki sauce on each of their plates.

“We’re not just eating out of the containers tonight?” she asked. “Fancy.”

“Only the best for my girl,” Will said, offering her a paper napkin. “Now get ready—there’s something playing on TV I think you’ll like.” He pressed the power button on the remote.

Mara squealed when the familiar Spanish-style mansion appeared on the screen. “They brought it back for another season?”

“I cannot believe you got me to start watching this,” Will said, as the words “Engaged or Enraged,” appeared on screen. The voice over began:

“While most engaged couples are shopping for wedding gowns and picking out favors, these ten couples are taking the ultimate challenge. They’re putting their marriage to the test before they take their vows. Will extreme sports, team challenges, and unbelievable drama bring them closer together? Or will their relationship shatter under pressure? It’s an all-new season of ‘Engaged or Enraged!’”

The theme song began and Mara hummed along. Each of the ten couples appeared in turn, dancing a little and pretending to shoot each other with fake bows and arrows when their names flashed up on the screen.  

“Every time I watch this crap, I die a little inside,” Will said.

“We don’t have to watch this,” Mara said, shooting him a mischievous grin. “I did say you could pick anything you wanted.”

“No, I know you really like it. I don’t mind,” Will said.

“Uh-huh. Plus you’re the one who looked up spoilers for the finale last season because you couldn’t wait to find out who won.”

Will pretended to be too busy eating his dripping gyro to respond.

Mara nestled back in the deep sofa cushion. On screen, the couples had been issued their first challenge. They were going to play some type of capture-the-flag game on an obstacle  course complete with fences, rope courses, and rock walls.

“There’s one more twist,” the host said, pausing over each word for dramatic effect. “One partner in each couple will be blindfolded.” The couples groaned as the host passed out bandanas emblazoned with the show’s logo.

“We’re going to win this, no question,” said one man as his fiancée nodded happily beside him. “Our communication is on point. We’re just like…I’ll be talking and she’ll just know…”

“…exactly what he was going to say!” the fiancée finished sweetly.

Mara nudged Will’s leg. “Hey. How come we never finish each other’s…”

“Fries? Don’t mind if I do,” Will said, hovering a hand over her plate. Mara swatted him away and he grinned.

The show switched to a commercial. As a businessman deplored the effects of his chronic dry eyes—just in time to discover a drug that could help—Mara took the first bite of her gyro. Good. Better than the ones that were served by the sub place that catered their last company luncheon. Not nearly as good as the ones she and Will used to get from the food trucks when they were in college.

“So how much grading are you going to be doing tomorrow night?” she asked Will.

“I’ve got two teacher workdays. I have plenty of time to get grades in.”

“You’re going to be up working all night tomorrow, huh?”


The dry-eyes commercial ended and the next began. As the camera panned over a dimly lit room, Mara watched Will from the corner of her eye. The foreboding music came to a crescendo and there it was—a sudden flash of light, a blood-curdling scream, and a half-hidden ghostly figure. The voice-over intoned the title of the horror movie due out in theaters next month.

Will kept nonchalantly eating his fries. If he was triggered by anything onscreen, he didn’t show it. Hopefully that meant he really was okay. Even after eight years, it could be hard to tell with Will.

Mara reached over and squeezed her husband’s hand. He squeezed back.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“How much money people have to get paid to be on reality shows.”

“Probably not much,” Mara said. “Some people like the spotlight.”

“Fair enough. I’d need at least a million to consider it.”

“Only a million? There’s not enough money in the world to convince me.”

The commercial break was over. As the camera panned in on the couples lining the obstacle course, Will nudged her. “Your turn. What are you thinking about?”

“That if we were on this show, you’d be wearing the blindfold,” Mara said. “I give better directions.”

“Not a chance,” Will said. “I’m not banging my head on every dang obstacle because you can’t see around me. Tallest guy plays navigator. Always.”

Mara laughed and tucked her legs up under her. They fit together so neatly, his arm around her, her head on his chest.

All in all, it had been a good day.

Scratch that.

It was a good life.

I'm still editing Will and Mara's story, but I'm planning to release the trilogy later this year! If you'd like to receive news and updates, sign up for my mailing list in the blue bar at the top of the page!

First Aid for Novel-Editing Emergencies

At the beginning of this month I started the long, arduous process of editing the trilogy I wrote last year. It's been fun to go back to the beginning and revisit these characters where their story starts--but I'd be lying if I claimed it's been all fun and games. I've actually run into all kinds of issues that plague authors in the middle of an editing project: lack of motivation, character inconsistencies, and wobbling plot lines, just to name a few. Sometimes I feel less like I'm editing and more like I'm putting out one fire after another!

So what have I learned from this process, one month in? I don't have a finished project yet, but I have come up with a first aid kit for novel-editing emergencies.

First Aid For Novel-Editing Emergencies ||


Editing and rewriting isn't nearly as fun as drafting the story for the first time. The biggest challenge is just getting my head in the game.

I'd love to have a pithy answer for what it takes to get motivated, but honestly, I drink coffee. A lot of coffee. Judging by an informal survey of my author friends, they drink a lot of coffee too. Why re-invent the wheel? If I need motivation, coffee is always a good choice.

Research Binders

Back when I was planning out these novels, I assembled entire binders with character sketches, D.C. maps, job descriptions, and apartment layouts--just about everything else I could possibly need to know about living and working in D.C. Despite my organized approach, I abandoned my binders completely about halfway through the rough draft. I got so carried away by the story that I just kept typing. 

Throwing out your notes and pounding the keys is great if you're trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days. When you go back and start editing...well, let's just say there are some inconsistencies. For example, one of my main characters changed height five times. The apartment he lives in changed floors even more often than that. So frustrating--until I remembered that I already figured out how tall my characters are and where their apartment is. Back to the notebooks!

Whew. Fact-checking crisis averted.


The editing process is so slow and nit-picky that it can be hard to remember exactly what story I'm telling. Instead of "can't see the forest for the trees," it's more like "can't see the overarching theme for the plot holes." Some novelists have told me they stay on track by trying to relate every part of their story to one word, such as "redemption" or "justice." I go back to the song that inspired the story idea in the first place:

When I first heard this song, I wondered, "But...what if the road hadn't been broken? Would they have met anyway? Can you be both sad and grateful for a painful life story...or do you have to choose between bitterness and joy?" Voila! A story idea was born. Every time I listen to this song, it brings me back to those questions and reminds me how my characters are feeling.


Editing is a long process (so says the author who has now gone over the same chapter three times...) Along the way, it's important to celebrate the successes. Sometimes it's a big win (like getting the whole book ready to send out!) Sometimes it's a little victory (like finally nailing a tricky line.)

Some authors reward themselves with stickers or checking off their progress on a list. I prefer chocolate. Like coffee, chocolate is always a good choice.

Creative Distractions

If you see my Instagram feed, you know that I've been dabbling in making origami models. I got the idea from one of my main characters, Mara, whose love of precision makes her perfectly suited to this kind of hobby. I have a perfectionist side, too, but it's a real challenge for me to focus on getting every fold just right--one wonky corner early on can throw off the whole model!

I started doing origami in order to give myself a creative break that didn't take me too far away from the storyline of my novel. They don't take more than ten or fifteen minutes to make--I can do some in less than five--and it's a refreshing change from staring at the computer screen. Plus, taking up the hobby of one of my characters gives me a little insight into who she is and how she approaches problems. Win/win.

Remember the Dream

This is probably the biggest motivation of all to push through the editing process and finish the books. I don't want this story to live forever in my head, or on my computer, or on the bookshelf. I want this story to get in the hands of a reader who will love it as much as I do. (tweet this). So that's what's fueling my latest editing marathon. It's going to fuel the next one and the one after that, too.

Oh, and coffee. A lot of coffee.

First Aid for Novel-Editing Emergencies ||

Curious to know more about this story I'm editing? Sign up for my newsletter for news and updates! (Sign up is in the blue bar at the top of the page)

So It Begins...{again}

I've mentioned before that my current work-in-progress centers (loosely) on the concept of time travel. The main characters are given the chance of a lifetime: to go back in time and undo the crime that changed their lives.

I think I know how my characters feel. The process of writing this story makes me feel like I'm doing a bit of time-travelling myself!

So It Begins...{again} When writing a novel about time travel feels like...well...time travel! | from the Ellen Smith Writes blog

When I first started writing this story (back in 2011...) it was one book. When I went back and tried my hand at writing it again, I realized that it should really be three books: a trilogy that explored three distinct time periods in my characters' lives. Despite my better judgment, I blasted through drafting all three books this year. I needed to really go through a rough draft of each book in order to get a sense of how the characters thought and felt about each twist and turn.

So that's what I did in 2016. I just wrote. No stopping to re-read, edit, or tinker with character development. Now that I've reached the end of Book 3, there's only one thing to do: go back and start re-reading Book 1.

Let me tell you, it’s rough. There are abandoned characters dangling over plot holes, loose threads flapping in the breeze, and a veritable highway of run-on sentences. It’s a mess out there. I'm plowing through it slowly but steadily, correcting and rewriting as I go.

This is the messy part of writing, but it's a hopeful kind of mess. With the end in sight, I have a pretty good idea of how the characters talk and act at each point in the story. I’m hoping (but not holding my breath) that I’ll reach my goal of publishing the trilogy in 2017.

I just have to keep working through many times as it takes.


National Novel Writing Month (please send coffee)

Last week I shared that I was going to undertake the National Novel Writing Month challenge and write 50,000 words between November 1 and 30.

Prepped for the challenge: notes, computer, and my favorite Alice in Wonderland coffee mug.

Prepped for the challenge: notes, computer, and my favorite Alice in Wonderland coffee mug.

In order to write 50,000 words in 30 days, I need to write about 1,667 words per day. I've shared previously that I typically write 2,000 words a day--so what makes the NaNoWriMo challenge different? Since I'm a freelance writer as well as a fiction author, that typical 2k-a-day routine covers a lot of freelance work and some (but not much) fiction writing. So in reality, between freelancing and working on the NaNoWriMo challenge, I'll be writing over 3k words a day this month.

(Yikes. This feels like a good moment to refresh my cup of coffee.)

Joking aside, there are a lot of benefits to taking on a challenge like this one. The biggest and most important one is the camaraderie. Writing can feel a little lonely sometimes unless I make a point to reach out and network with other writers. NaNoWriMo makes that easy. Writers can connect with their local region online, attend local write-in events, and add writing buddies from all around the 'net. Have a crazy writing buddy? Need a crazy writing buddy? Either way, NaNoWriMo is a good way to meet up.

NaNoWriMo is also good for accountability. Now that I've announced all over the Internet that I'm planning to write 50k words in November...I kind of have to do it. If it was just a private goal that I would have the book drafted by Thanksgiving, I could easily give myself an extension and no one would be the wiser. I'd have plenty of perfectly reasonable excuses, too: I have lots of freelancing to do, it's time to start shopping for the holidays, the closets need to be cleaned...

Telling someone (or in my case, everyone) that I'm committed to this goal makes me much more likely to see it through. So far, it's working. Yesterday (Day 1 of the challenge) I wrote 2,021 words on my novel. That's a pretty good start.

Today is Day 2 of the challenge. Good luck, NaNoWriMo writers! Ready or not, here we go!

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this month? Feel free to connect with me on the site- my handle is Ellen Smith Writes.

2017 Writing Goals

In 2016, I had two major writing goals: marketing Reluctant Cassandra and writing the rough drafts of my trilogy-in-progress. Since we're five-sixths of the way through 2016 (how did that happen?) I'm going to go ahead and say I'm happy with where I am on both goals. 

So, what are my goals for 2017? I hadn't thought much about it until I saw the topic for Julie Valerie's October blog hop. It was a good reminder to start making goals now--especially since it looks like 2017 is going to be just as busy as 2016!

2017 Writing Goals from | shared on the Oct 2016 Fiction Writer's Blog Hop hosted by

Finish the Trilogy

There it major goal for 2017. I already have the first two books drafted and I'm planning to have the third drafted by the end of this year. Side note: I'm actually planning to do a good bit of that draft during National Novel Writing Month in November. Are you doing NaNoWriMo? My screenname is (obviously) Ellen Smith Writes. I'd love to connect with you so we can support each other through this crazy 50k-words-in-one-month challenge! The camaraderie is the best part of NaNo!

Anyway, if/ when I finish the rough drafts for all three books by December 31, 2016, what does that mean for 2017?

It means I have to edit. Bleh.

In all seriousness, I'm pretty excited that the end is in sight for this story. I've been working on it in some form or other since 2011. I even had a full-length novel that I shopped to various agents before realizing that it just wasn't ready. So I gave it a rest, wrote and published Reluctant Cassandra, and started rewriting the story as a trilogy.

This story idea centers around one big question: If you could go back and change one event that shaped your life, would you?

Despite spending the last five years walking my characters through this exact question, I'm still not sure what I would choose. I don't want to give too many spoilers, but here's a synopsis of the first book in the trilogy:

Newlyweds Will and Mara Sterling have already faced "for better or for worse."  They had barely met when a shooting changed both of their lives forever. Mara has had countless surgeries to reconstruct her right shoulder and she suffers from debilitating chronic pain. Will saw what really happened that night and he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite their injuries, they've never let the actions of one gunman define who they are. They're healing, happy, and ready to start a new life together as husband and wife.

A new initiative from the Justice Department offers Will and Mara the chance of a lifetime. The shooter has been rehabilitated and his crime qualifies for an event modification. With the consent of all the victims, they can travel through time back to the original scene of the crime, giving the gunman a chance to put things right.

It sounds like a dream come true, but both Will and Mara have their doubts. Is it moral to change time for the rest of the world, just to undo one crime? Is it moral to deny the gunman a chance to correct his past crimes? And what if this one ripple means that they never meet...or fall in love?

After spending so much time thinking about this conflict, writing and re-writing the plot, and getting to know the characters, it's hard to imagine my writing life after this story is done. However, I'm equally excited to finally see the story where it belongs--in the reader's hands, not mine.

That's enough to make me pretty excited for 2017.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:


Story Research: Visiting the Supreme Court

Every so often, doing research for a story requires me to ask some pretty odd questions:

How long does it take to paint the outside of a 950 square foot bungalow?

How did small farm owners in southwestern Virginia feel about the Revolutionary War? Were they for or against independence?

How long does it take to drown?

Fortunately, finding out answers to questions like these just takes a little Google-sleuthing. Other times, doing research for a story requires me to go a little further. As I'm plotting out Book Three of my trilogy-in-progress, I had one burning question:

What is it like to actually witness a Supreme Court argument?

Google will get you pretty far with that one, too, but I decided I needed some first-hand experience. Yesterday I hopped on the Metro and went into D.C. to visit the Supreme Court.

From the blog: Story Research: Visiting the Supreme Court

Supreme Court arguments are open to the public, but seats fill up fast on a first-come, first-serve basis. The arguments are so popular that the Court actually has two lines for public attendees: one for people who want to attend a full argument and another for people who want to sit in the back for three minutes. Lines start forming hours before the Court actually opens. There's no guarantee that everyone who waits in line will get in, either. I decided to aim for the three minute line to increase my chances of getting in to the courtroom.

Yesterday, the Court was actually scheduled to have three arguments: one at 10:00, one at 11:00, and one at 1:00. I wasn't particular about which court case I heard, but I did want to go on a day where there was an afternoon session so that if I was running late, I'd still end up with a chance of getting in. That turned out to be a good idea. I got to Union Station at around 11:00 and hoofed it down First Street to the Supreme Court. I was in line on the Court's plaza by about 11:20 and got to the front of the line at 1:15.

View of the Supreme Court from across First Street. See how long the line outside is? That's not even half of it!

View of the Supreme Court from across First Street. See how long the line outside is? That's not even half of it!

Spending two hours waiting on the plaza gave me plenty of time to take notes on the scenery, the building's architecture, and the city around us. I ended up filling up a small legal pad with notes while I waited. The building itself is so ornate that it seemed everywhere I looked, I noticed something new. The Supreme Court and the plaza outside are made of marble, which is cool to the touch (even with the sun overhead at high noon.) As we inched closer to the front of the line, I could see the chandeliers through the glass of the main doors and the carvings on the ceiling.

That's when it really became exciting. The closer I got, the more I could imagine my main characters coming to the courtroom themselves. In my story, the characters are very invested in the outcome of the argument they come to witness. How thrilling would it be for them just to stand on the steps outside the building where the whole matter would finally be decided?

At the front of the line, I was given a red ticket and directed in through the visitor's entrance. The security is understandably pretty tight. We went through the first metal detector and upstairs to the hall outside the courtroom. There was a very small locker room for our bags, which cost a quarter to lock. Originally, I'd planned to bring my small notepad and a pen in with me, but the guards asked that we not bring anything at all. We went through security again before lining up outside the doors to the courtroom.

The website and guides are very clear that those of us in the three minute line might not have a good view, but we would be able to hear everything. We were directed to three rows of chairs in the back section, which was separated from the main courtroom seating by enormous pillars and red velvet curtains that had been pulled back.

I was lucky that I was directed to a seat in the front row of this section, midway between two pillars, so I had a pretty good view! I could see all eight justices (rest in peace, Justice Scalia). The 1:00 argument was Manrique vs. the United States. During the time I was there, the attorney for Mr. Manrique was presenting his argument to the justices. I was pretty impressed with the attorney's public speaking skills--I get nervous speaking in front of groups of people, so I can only imagine presenting a case before the Supreme Court.

The courtroom is entirely made of marble and decorated with carvings, pillars, and more red velvet curtains, in keeping with the rest of the building. I was fixated on a large gold clock that hung in the center of the front wall, above the justices. Our five minutes were up very quickly, and we were quietly escorted out so the next group could come in.

After retrieving my bag from the locker room, I left the building through the large main doors that looked out over the Capitol building.

The view of the Capitol from the front steps of the Supreme Court

The view of the Capitol from the front steps of the Supreme Court

I took a moment just to soak it in. I've been to D.C. a million times, but I rarely stop and think about how many decisions happen here. D.C. is so intimately involved in the laws and justice of our nation, and yet at times it all feels so far away.

So close to justice and yet so far away. Sounds like a good idea for a novel.

The Six Question Character Challenge

Are you reading Hannah Heath's blog? if you don't already follow her, you should- she's hilarious! I always look forward to her posts! Last Friday, Hannah tagged me in the Six Question Character Challenge. I loved reading about the characters in her work-in-progress, The Stump of the Terebinth Tree. Thanks for tagging me for this challenge, Hannah!

The Six Question Character Challenge asks these questions of each of your characters:

  1. A contradiction within the character (the positive kind of contradiction that shows character depth)
  2. The character’s Myers-Briggs type
  3. Favorite color
  4. How would they slay a dragon? (It doesn't matter if there aren't dragons in your book. Just use your imagination. I assume you have one, otherwise you wouldn't be a writer)
  5. What is their darkest secret?
  6. Where do they see themselves in ten years?

I've dropped hints here and there about what I'm working on these days, but today I'll share a little more detail! I'm working on a trilogy of short novels called The Lifemap Trilogy. Here's a synopsis of the first book:

Newlyweds Will and Mara Sterling have already faced "for better or for worse."  They had barely met when a shooting changed both of their lives forever. Mara has had countless surgeries to reconstruct her right shoulder and she suffers from debilitating chronic pain. Will saw what really happened that night and he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite their injuries, they've never let the actions of one gunman define who they are. They're ready to start a new life together as husband and wife.

A new initiative from the Justice Department offers Will and Mara the chance of a lifetime. The shooter has been rehabilitated and his crime qualifies for an event modification. With the consent of all the victims, they can travel through time back to the original scene of the crime, giving the gunman a chance to put things right.

It sounds like a dream come true, but both Will and Mara have their doubts. Is it moral to change time for the rest of the world, just to undo one crime? Is it moral to deny the gunman a chance to correct his past crimes? And what if this one ripple means that they never fall in love?

The Lifemap Trilogy - Can one ripple in time erase their love story? To-be-released #Sciencefiction #romance novel by Ellen Smith. Learn more at

The story is told from the perspective of both protagonists, Mara and Will Sterling, so I answered the questions for each of them.

Mara Gaines Sterling

Contradiction: Outwardly, she appears to have it all together: she's ambitious, smart, and fiercely independent. However, she often struggles with feeling inadequate, lost, and even a little scared of what her future holds.

Myers-Briggs type: ISTJ

Favorite color: light blue

Dragon slaying: Mara would spend most of her time refusing to believe that there is any need to slay a dragon because dragons don't exist. Once she's finally convinced that dragons are real and they actually pose a threat, she would find the most logical method of dragon-slaying, plan out the attack, and dispatch the dragon as quickly and humanely as possible.

Darkest secret: When she was a teenager, Mara's father was caught up in a very public political scandal. Since then, she's always feared being in the news for any reason, good or bad.

In ten years: Mara would love to find a treatment that finally helps her chronic shoulder pain (a debilitating result from her injury) and she hopes her husband will find relief from his recurring nightmares about the shooting. However, she always sees herself happily married to Will, the love of her life.

Will Sterling

Contradiction: Will is very protective of his family and friends. If somebody is hurting, scared, or just needs a little help, Will is always there. However, he refuses to accept the help he needs for himself, specifically in getting treatment for his PTSD.

Myers-Briggs type: INFP

Favorite color: red

Dragon slaying: Tell him the dragon is threatening someone he loves and the dragon will be gone in a matter of seconds. Planning isn't his strong suit, so he'll probably race in to confront the dragon and then figure it out as he goes along. Kind of like the prince in Sleeping Beauty battling Maleficent.

Darkest secret: After the events of his childhood, Will secretly fears that the people he loves will leave him.

In ten years: Like Mara, Will hopes that in ten years Mara's shoulder pain and his recurring nightmares will have subsided. His only real vision for the future is that he and Mara will still be happily married.

Fun challenge! Thanks for tagging me, Hannah! Now I'm tagging Sandra R. Campbell in the Six Question Character Challenge. Sandra is the author of several novels about monsters, mayhem and more. It's always fun to read about her characters!

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 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.


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.


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.


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, 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!


Left-Brained Writer, Right-Brained Author

I'm a writer by profession and by passion. For the past three years, I've been working as a freelance education writer. I love freelancing. I get to work with lots of different educators, business owners, and administrators on a variety of projects. Plus, part of my job is keeping up-to-date with current trends and the latest news in the education world. What could be better than reading and writing about my favorite topics?

When I'm off the clock as a freelancer, I'm still writing. Writing novels and short stories is my passion. Even after a long day writing blog posts and curriculum plans, my favorite way to unwind is by planning and drafting my next novel.

With a writing schedule like that, you'd think I'd get burned out after a while. Actually, I think these two distinctly different forms of writing keep me balanced and excited about what I'm doing, whether it's for work or for fun! I've started thinking of myself as a left-brained writer and a right-brained author. Kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only less sinister and much wordier.

Freelance writing is almost entirely left-brained. When I'm working on a piece for a client, my writing process looks like this:

If I could take this approach to fiction writing, I would produce a LOT of novels.

If I could take this approach to fiction writing, I would produce a LOT of novels.

Fiction writing, on the other hand, is different every single time. When I get a story idea, my left brain totally disengages and it's all creativity, all the time. This is the part of my writing life that wakes me up at two in the morning with a gotta-write-it line for my work-in-progress. For some pieces, I re-read and edit as I go. My current project has me galloping through the rough draft at breakneck speed, with no time to look back at what I wrote yesterday. When I get to the end, I'll go back, re-read, and start editing. I have a feeling there are going to be a few plot holes to contend with, but that's okay. I'm writing for the sheer joy of it.

I think my freelance clients are glad I leave this approach to my fiction writing instead of my work!

I think my freelance clients are glad I leave this approach to my fiction writing instead of my work!

Recently, I tried to add some left-brained thinking to my right-brained creative writing. Using a plotting strategy or specific outline has always fallen flat for me when I'm writing fiction. Somehow, after writing the plot out, I felt like I'd lost the urge to tell the story. After all, the whole plot was already down on paper, even if it was just in shorthand.

Then I tackled my latest work-in-progress, and I realized that my right brain was going to need a little help telling this story. I'm writing a trilogy that involves time travel, so making up the story as I went got really confusing really fast. Fifty pages in to the first book, I realized that my creative process had led me down a rabbit hole so deep I wasn't sure I could dig my way out. For the first time, I wasn't enjoying fiction writing without a plan.

Enter The Plotting Workshop, created and led by author Shaunta Grimes. I first heard about the workshop in this interview with Shaunta by author T.M. Toombs. As soon as I visited her site, I knew that learning this approach to plotting was the answer to my dilemma. I signed up, got my first e-mail the next day, and spent eight weeks doing the impossible: bringing my left brain into my right-brained world.

It worked.

My plot board: Left brain, meet right brain.

My plot board: Left brain, meet right brain.

I'm now a quarter of the way through the second book in the trilogy. The plotting method Shaunta teaches did the opposite of killing my creative spark. With my plot board propped up on my desk, I'm more anxious than ever to get to work on the next scene of my story.

This little experiment with my fiction got me thinking: what if I added a little of my right brain to my freelancing work? I've started keeping a journal where I spend ten minutes a day freewriting ideas and random thoughts about education issues. It hasn't changed my core process for my freelance writing, but I've noticed a big difference in how quickly I can generate new ideas for articles. Even better: now I start my work time excited about what I'm writing and why. It's a passion for education that got me started as a teacher and then as a freelance education writer. Reigniting that passion each morning makes me a happier writer and, I hope, a better writer too.

There was a time when I thought the key to balancing my freelancing and my fiction writing was in keeping each process distinctly separate. To an extent, I still think that's true. My freelance work requires a lot of focus and my fiction needs a lot of freedom. However, it's been fun to learn how crossing over my left-brained and right-brained skills have added more excitement, more inspiration, and more productivity to both sides of my writing world, fiction and freelance.