All posts by michelezurloauthor

I’m Michele Zurlo, author of over 20 romance novels. During the day, I teach English, and in the evenings, romantic tales flow from my fingertips.

Creating Neal


In a romance novel, the characters are the plot. Their foibles and flaws, wants and needs, drive the action and the way the plot unfolds. For Surreal Neal, I had to come up with a man who was handsome enough to catch Drew and Sophia’s eyes, intriguing enough to keep their interest, and kinky enough to bring something to the table that had been missing.

The other challenge I faced was in making sure neither Drew nor Sophia felt like their relationship was deficient. I wanted the addition of Neal to improve upon what they already had. This is part of the journey Sophia and Drew take as they fall for this imperfect hero.

Neal had to be submissive and a bit of a masochist because Sophia is a Domme and a bit of a sadist. He also needed to be strong because Drew is attracted to strong personalities. He makes the pair work to earn his trust, his submission, and ultimately his heart. He is the first man with whom Sophia voluntarily shares the details of her violent past. He’s a mirror, someone who can help her view her own life through a new viewpoint. Ultimately, he takes her further in the healing process.

Neal is the also first man who awakens Drew’s inner Dom. Until now, Drew had been content to sit back and let Sophia handle the role of Dominant. As he explores this new part of himself, he also gets a chance to see his life and his actions through an alternate lens.

In bringing perspective to both Sophia and Drew, Neal helps them become better people. In turn, they show him that he can learn to trust and love again. That part of his life isn’t over. It’s just beginning.

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The Right Ingredients

One of the questions readers ask is how I come up with a particular storyline. As I read through Surreal Neal, working through edits after having put the manuscript aside for two months, I wondered the same thing. The story flowed, the characters leapt from the page, and some of the wording was quite beautiful–yet I didn’t remember writing it. I remember outlining the chapters. I remember relentlessly revising the outline as characters said and did things that revealed themselves in different ways than I’d originally planned. I remember making tea to sip while I wrote.

The journey of putting together a story at times becomes surreal. Getting into the characters takes the creative process to a new level. I started Surreal Neal months ago. I wrote 20,000 words and deleted most of them. Twice. It wasn’t working for me. Then I realized the problem: The characters needed to speak through me. I had to write the story in first person. Once I made that change, then the process became transformative. I became a vessel for Sophia, Neal, and Drew as I wrote each chapter.

I knew early on that I needed to add a permanent third to Sophia and Drew’s relationship. It seemed sad to continue on the path of having sex with a meaningless parade of people. Both of them deserved more. When I met Neal, I knew he was the man to take them to the next level. He was exactly who Sophia needed to help finalize her healing process, and he was the person who made Drew realize himself more fully as a Dominant. That twist surprised me too.

I had originally planned to continue inserting chapters from other Awakenings characters, but it detracted from the story, so I deleted the single one I ended up writing. It’s chapter 6.5, and it’s available for free download on my website.

Lastly, I had to move the subplot about Elysium along. Sophia, Neal, and Drew each needed to put their stamp on it, otherwise it wouldn’t quite be theirs.

Writing Surreal Neal was a joyful process, and I hope you very much enjoy this leg of their journey.

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Fun Facts about Sureal Neal

1. I took the title from a friend’s fake Neil Diamond cover band. (Funny story there: I was at work talking to another teacher. She commented on the fact that she hadn’t known our friend was a Neil Diamond fan. I said we both were huge fans–I’d skipped classes in college to score concert tickets, and he was in a Neil Diamond cover band. Later my friend came by laughing, said he’d corroborated my story by telling her the band was called Surreal Neil. The other teacher still doesn’t know it wasn’t true.)

2. Neal created himself. I originally had him there as a temporary fling character, but he turned out to be so much more.

3. The scene where Neal meets someone from his past and comes to terms with it was inserted when my beta readers demanded the topic be addressed. They really gave great advice.

4. Hanging On was originally written in 1st person, and I liked it a lot better that way. When I get the rights back, I’ll probably rewrite it back into 1st person before I re-release it. Surreal Neal only worked when I wrote in 1st person. When I submitted Surreal Neal to Siren, I put a note on it that said I wasn’t willing to change it to 3rd person, and that I’d understand if they didn’t want to publish it. They wanted it anyway.

5. The epilogue overlaps with the timeline where the Two Masters for Samantha sequel begins. In Their Hearts is due out from Siren in December 2013. Stay tuned–it’s very different from the first one.

6. While Sophia is loosely based on somebody I know, and Drew is an amalgam of Food Network chefs, Neal is completely my creation. Except his name–that came up in a Yahoo search. I didn’t read the article, but I liked the name, so I used it. I don’t remember what I was searching for…

7. I finally reached a point where I had to create a notebook to hold information on Awakenings characters. I officially have too many characters to keep in my head. It was getting a little crowded in there. (Surreal Neal is book #20 for me, but I’ve written 21, 22, and 23.)

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