The Writing Life: Braver Than You Know, a journey into fiction

A writing journey leads to Braver Than You Know, a love story with a breath of fresh air, a whisper of grace, and an enthralling taste of suspense.


Although I’m primarily a non-fiction writer, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at novel writing. In particular, I’ve always wanted to write a romantic novel. When I’m out walking, or before I fall asleep at night, I envision dramatic scenes complete with intense or witty dialogue. I have file folders filled with character sketches and rough plots for at least a half dozen novels. Twenty years ago, I even got as far as writing a good chunk of one of those novels before abandoning it.


A kick start of inspiration

In 2011, after returning from a year in Australia (where I began this blog!), I attended a one-day workshop presented by Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada novelists, Donna Alward and Michelle Helliwell at Prescott House Museum in Nova Scotia’s beautiful Annapolis Valley. In minutes, I was hooked. My desire to write a romantic novel was reborn.

The following week, I started working on an idea from one of my files. The story, as yet unnamed, would be a “sweet” (no graphic sex scenes) contemporary love story that featured a heroine who was a gutsy wildlife photographer and a hero who was a cattle rancher. I’m an amateur photographer, and I grew up in farming country in Alberta, so these occupations felt like a good fit to me.


Choosing the setting

I decided to set the story in southwestern Manitoba, Canada, on the slopes of Turtle Mountain, a rolling landscape of farming and ranching country intermixed with pockets of forest, wetlands, and native grasslands. I chose that location because my husband, Vilis, and I lived there for three years while he did doctoral research into the hunting habits of striped skunks. I knew the area from personal experience and had photographs, a journal, and notebooks of nature observations from which I could draw to create a realistic setting.

All of that was the easy part.


Fiction writing is hard work

I quickly discovered that I’m not a plotter, a writer who outlines the book from beginning to end. Instead, I write scenes and then figure out how to connect them. I dove in and found it incredibly exhilarating to create characters and conflicts out of nothing. The heroine evolved as Kimberley Colter, and the rancher, as Lincoln Steele. Each day when I picked up from where I left off the previous day, I wondered what words and story threads would come out of my imagination that day. It was like embarking on a journey into the unknown and finding a trail of crumbs leading me word by word into a hitherto-unknown land of endless, exciting possibilities.

Words did appear on my computer screen each day, but writing a novel is hard work. Ideas are easy. The actual craft of writing a captivating, believable story is difficult. Character motivations must be believable. Characters have to act consistently or have a good reason not to. Dialogue must move the story forward and hint at characters’ personalities and perhaps reveal their darkest secrets. The characters must grow during the course of the story, following a realistic character arc that shows how they change between the opening page and THE END. And so on.


Writers need other writers

I honestly had no clue how to do most of this, but I joined Romance Writers of America and its local chapter, Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, and honed my craft through reading books and blogs, and by learning from other writers’ experiences and their willingness to share insights and expertise. No one writes in a vacuum. Writing is a lonely vocation, and I certainly needed and still need the encouragement I receive(d) from writing friends.


Juggling projects

Authors often juggle more than one project at a time, and those projects are generally in different stages of development. Work on a new novel one day might have to yield to making final edits to another project the next day. And if an author chooses the route of indie (independent) publishing, as I have, that adds a whole new suite of tasks (hiring an editor, formatting, hiring a cover designer, marketing) that in traditional publishing would be handled by the publishing house.

In my case, my thrilling journey into fiction smacked up hard against a ton of work I needed to do to complete another major project with a hard deadline: my non-fiction family travel adventure trilogy, Cry of the Kiwi: A Family’s New Zealand Adventure. As a result, the novel languished on the back burner for years. On June 20, 2015, I celebrated the launch of Cry of the Kiwi, and the next day, Vilis and I flew to South Africa. I spent six months birding, hiking, and exploring while Vilis researched big cat movements. The novel mostly rested on the back burner.


The importance of beta readers

In 2017, while again juggling the novel and a non-fiction project (which I’ll introduce in my next post), I finally had a complete novel manuscript that I thought was good enough for someone else to read. I gave it—then titled A Look Across the Sand—to a half-dozen beta readers and asked them to provide suggestions for improvement, which they did: the vocabulary was too highbrow; the timeline was too compressed; a secondary male character was a better choice for the heroine than the hero. There were more comments, too. I quickly realized that the first draft of my book was not as golden as I’d thought. I suspect other writers come to this realization, too.

I revised the novel, addressing all of the beta readers’ comments. Then I sent the manuscript to a second group of beta readers for their input. One of the comments that came back was that the story needed more western community flavor, like a round-up and barbecue. I wrote an entire new chapter to address that suggestion; however I knew when I started it that whatever I added had to be integral to the story itself, not merely a plus to please a reader. That task was tough, but I did it, and the story resonates so much more deeply because of it.


Contest feedback

After I finished dealing with beta reader suggestions, I wasn’t sure what else I could do to improve the novel. So, in early 2018, I entered it in a contest, the Catherine, run by Toronto Romance Writers (see my post: Coping with Hard Situations Through Writing or How a Romance Contest Righted My Upside-down World) My entry (the novel’s first twenty-five pages and synopsis) scored a disappointing 73/100 from one anonymous judge and 75/100 from the other. The gist of the judges’ comments was that the writing was excellent, but some of the characterizations weren’t believable and the hero’s motivation at the start of the story wasn’t plausible.

Ouch! That hurt, but these were professional writers commenting, so I took their feedback seriously. I revised again, addressing their comments to the best of my ability. Again, the story improved, but I still wasn’t sure I’d touched all the bases. There were aspects that I sensed needed change, but I couldn’t pull them out of the air.


A professional edit

This spring, I hired editor Nancy Cassidy at TheRedPenCoach, who told me the novel’s title didn’t work for her (because it didn’t fit the story’s theme) and gently but firmly nudged me to strengthen my characters’ motivations, make the hero and heroine act more consistently, and have them deal with their conflicts more effectively.

Another ouch, but this one came with lots of suggestions and encouragement. It meant more revisions, of course. Nancy gave the book two passes and then announced that my novel was ready to be published or submitted. Hooray! I even came up with a new title, When Heals the Heart.


Title trials

I proudly announced the new title, When Heals the Heart,  to my husband, who hasn’t read the story. To my surprise, he didn’t understand it. My younger son, a beta reader for the novel, understood it but didn’t think much of it. So I scrapped that title, too.

With Nancy’s comment about theme in mind, I thought and thought about the book’s theme and realized—finally—that the story is about courage. It’s about the main characters having the courage to face painful things in their pasts and move forward toward to a place of healing. Excitedly, I skimmed the book for title possibilities. I found what I was looking for more than halfway through the novel, in a line of dialogue spoken by the hero. A fantastic title jumped out at me: Braver Than You Know. In that instant, I knew it was perfect, capturing the essence of the book. My older son, also an early beta reader, commented, “I like the title.” Bingo!


Choosing a pen name

Perhaps even more challenging than finding a good novel title was choosing a nom de plume. I’d decided that I wanted to publish under a pen name to distinguish my fiction from my non-fiction. I thought the pen name Jenny Winters would be perfect, but I soon discovered there were more romance writers with the surname Winters than I would ever have thought. Too much competition there. What about Jen Rivers? Search that, and you come up against heavyweight hitters like Joan Rivers and Francine Rivers. What about Jen Northwood? A writer friend wrinkled her nose and told me the name Northwood made her think of senior citizen care, since a major home care provider in Nova Scotia bears that name. Oops! Scratch that one, too.

In the end, I came up with the name Katie Ardea. I’ve always liked the name Katie because it has a brightness and cheerfulness about it, a sort of approachable, “girl next door” feel to it. As far as a surname to go with it, I tried tens of them without anything feeling right. One day, I sat down with my bird book, hoping for inspiration. Katie Eagle? No. Katie Heron? Already out there. Then inspiration struck.What about the Latin genus name for the great blue heron—Ardea. I liked the sound of it, really liked the sound of it. Katie Ardea. When I searched the name online, the only related result that showed up was Ardea, a scientific journal about bird research. As an avid birder, I figured that was just fine. Katie Ardea, it is.


On to back cover copy

Armed with a pen name, title, and edited manuscript, I decided I would indie publish the novel, which meant that it would require back cover copy (the blurb that hooks the reader), a tag line, and a book cover every bit as good as those of traditionally published novels. I researched writing back cover copy, watched webinars on it, and tried various versions out on my editor, beta readers, and members of a local group of writers. I can’t stress how valuable this testing was to me. The input of potential readers in crafting a killer back cover blurb is priceless.

For example, one writer’s eyes lit up when I mentioned that there’s a love triangle in the story. However, I hadn’t alluded to that—the hook for her—in the back cover copy. Her advice was to put it in, and I did, as you can see below:

She’s hunting her future. He’s got her in his sights.

Wildlife photographer Kimberley Colter wonders if she’ll ever be brave enough to go after dangerous animals again. Part of her died in the Rockies last year when a photo shoot turned into a nightmare. Now she’s trying to resurrect her career and move on with her life. But she’s hiding something.

Cattle rancher Lincoln Steele has lost a lot, including his marriage and chosen career. His top priority is to help his young son overcome an emotional trauma. During a chance encounter with a gorgeous photographer in the forest, he sees the instant connection between her and his son. And he can’t deny that he’s attracted to her, too. Trouble is, so is his best friend.

Drought grips Turtle Mountain and emotions soar as Kimberley and Lincoln come face to face with their painful pasts. The fight to overcome their fears and move to a place of healing takes every bit of courage in their hearts. She must choose where her future lies. Will it be with him?


A catchy tagline

To help me craft a catchy tagline, my husband and I brainstormed for a couple of hours during which I again had to focus on the story’s core theme. Three words kept recurring: love, healing, courage. I juggled them in sentences until a light bulb went on. And there was the tagline: When love and healing are a courageous step away…


A captivating cover

After doing some research into cover design, I hired Kim Killion of The Killion Group and worked with her to come up with a cover that I love and that I believe truly reflects the book’s content and theme. In the process, I checked out hundreds of photos of potential models and tens of possible backgrounds. Kim and I emailed back and forth with ideas until she designed the cover I was looking for.



An excerpt for your pleasure

For this particular fiction journey, I’ve reached the station. Braver Than You Know is now available from major online retailers. If you’re still with me, I’d like to offer you an excerpt. As a quick summary, Braver Than You Know is a contemporary love story that features a strong heroine, a compassionate hero, the Canadian outdoors, inspirational elements, a love triangle, and a good dose of suspense. Enjoy the excerpt!


Excerpt from Braver Than You Know

©2019 Katie Ardea

Chapter 24

Before dawn, Kimberley carried Lexi [her dog] outdoors and then back inside. Her emotions in chaos, she desperately needed to clear her mind, which was why—as always when troubled—she sought the outdoors. She left the kitchen light on, locked the porch doors, and struck out on foot with her Nikon clipped to the camera harness, her pack on her back, and her binoculars around her neck. Anyone who approached the yard would see the light on and her truck parked beside the house and assume she was inside.

Calves bawled from across the ravine—the last shipment. Lincoln would be so relieved.


All night, she’d tossed and turned, her mind racing. A thousand times, she’d relived the events of the previous day. First, Lincoln’s visit and how he’d wanted to discuss their relationship, only to be interrupted by Jake’s arrival. Then, later, Jake’s proposal. She’d stood frozen, caught completely off guard. She’d only met Jake a month ago. In a crazy way, it seemed as though the emotional intensity of Les Misérables had infused her own life.

First light softened the darkness as she descended the slope below the house and hiked south beside the creek bed in the ravine bottom. From earlier study of a topographic map, she knew that the gentle ravine slopes near the house compressed into high walls a mile to the south, creating a narrow gully. On the map, closely spaced contour lines indicated a bluff with a sheer cliff on the gully’s west side. Perhaps the gully and cliff would offer good subject material, and maybe the outing would give her insight as to how she should answer Jake.

Grass swished against her boots as she pondered her heart. She was twenty-seven years old, and although she wanted children—yearned for children—she wanted love, too, the kind of deep, soul-sure love her parents had shared, the kind of love she’d thought she’d found with Bryan. Did she love Jake like that? No, not now. Could she love him like that? In all honesty, maybe with time she could. Did that mean her answer was yes? She didn’t know.

On the south side of the access road, grass gave way to a ribbon of forest. She trod softly among lofty aspens beside the creek, the morning air cool and fresh in the deep shade cast by the trees. She breathed deeply of it, glad to be outdoors with her camera. This is who I am.

She skirted the pool where she’d photographed a beaver reinforcing its dam a few weeks after her arrival on Turtle Mountain. Two blue jays voiced strident alarm calls from atop the ravine edge and swooped into view ahead of her. What had set them off? An owl? A fox? With the awareness of someone who spends hours outdoors on a daily basis, she noted a sudden difference in the feel of the ravine. She froze into stillness in the shade, knowing that as long as she remained motionless, she would be virtually invisible. Her camo clothing and cap were a leaf-and-twig design, and her pack, camera, and binoculars were also covered with camo designs. She’d even daubed camo makeup on her face and hands and tucked her long ponytail down the back of her shirt, heeding Lincoln’s advice to be careful when she was out on her own. Without moving her head, she scanned the ravine banks and creek bed. Her senses pricked. She wasn’t alone.

After thirty seconds, a man carrying a rifle stepped into view fifty yards ahead of her. He picked his way south beside the creek, his back to her, an over-the-shoulder canvas bag bumping against his side. Not Lincoln. She would have recognized his broad shoulders and athletic build instantly. She froze as the figure swung around to look behind him. The face turned in her direction was familiar, as was the paunch revealed in a side view. Phil Johnson.

She remained absolutely motionless while Lincoln’s former employee swept his gaze over the ravine. When he resumed walking away from her, she noted that he wore moccasins rather than the cowboy boots he’d worn on the day he’d mentally undressed her at the wheat field. She slid her cell phone out of her pocket and checked for coverage. Only one small bar. The ravine walls blocked the signal. She texted a message to Lincoln, not knowing if or when he would receive it.

What was Johnson up to? No good, undoubtedly, but what? She envisioned the topographic map she’d studied earlier that morning, and then pictured the land ownership map. A chill ran through her. Lauren’s purebred Aberdeen Angus cows—her black ace, as Lincoln had called them—were pastured south of the old Steele place on land adjacent to the ravine. If Johnson had beaten Lexi, what might he do to those cows? With every sense heightened, she silently followed the trespasser.

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4 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Braver Than You Know, a journey into fiction

  1. Great to hear from you, Darlene! I’m excited about its release, too.

  2. Well, I generally consider myself NOT a reader of romance novels. However, after reading the excerpt you provided, I’m keen to read the whole thing! Well done!

  3. Thanks so much, Laura. Perhaps I’ll see you at the launch on November 30, 7 pm, at the Fraser Cultural Centre in Tatamagouche.

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