My first impulse when entering a place that is wall-to-wall books is to visit the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. It’s my favorite kind of genre fiction and I will often pluck books off the shelves like fruit then bring them back to a tiny nook tucked in the corner and peruse them all searching for something to sink my teeth into.
During one such excursion to the local library I happened upon the works of Kate Elliot. Among the large stack of books piled high on the desk was Spirit Gate, the first in the Crossroads trilogy of books written by Elliot. Epic fantasy is usually not my thing. I love the worlds, but don’t have the patience to find things like character and story buried beneath so much minutiae that it takes three chapters to tell me everything about a craggy mountain range.
It took a chapter or two to get hooked on Spirit Gate and over the next few months I finished off the other two books in the Crossroads Trilogy Shadow Gate and Traitor Gate. The books were true to its genre with a universe filled giant eagles, political intrigue and great battles to satisfy the most ardent fans, but it was also felt different than the others.
Perhaps the best description of the Crossroads series comes from the author in a brief description on her website:
I wanted to write an epic fantasy series with the complex and dense interpersonal relationships I was watching (at the time of writing) in great tv shows like The Wire. Also: giant justice eagles (eagles the size of Cessnas from which reeves–like sheriffs–dangle hang-glider style in order to patrol the countryside). — Kate Elliot
The Crossroads trilogy built a world that felt realistic and showed complexity in the way characters interacted with each other and the society they live in. It examined those in power and those that weren’t and showed how they were intertwined. It’s very much like The Wire, a show that explores the drug trade in the mean streets of Baltimore and how both cops and traffickers aren’t all that different from each other. Both The Wire and Elliot’s books have this in common: both are grand in scope and handle interpersonal relationships within their respective worlds with a level of nuance I don’t see very often.
Since finishing off the Crossroads trilogy, I’ve read a lot more of Elliot’s work and became became an ardent enough of fan to visit Borderlands Books in San Francisco to get a book signed by the author herself. I did end up getting my copy of Cold Magic, book one in the Spirit Walker trilogy signed by the author, but also got a lot more than a brief conversation and a signed book from the encounter.
It eventually led to a lengthy interview and a profile here on The Art & Business of Creativity.
I have a soft spot for fiction authors because it’s a profession that this writer had dreams of doing, before journalism got its hooks in me. The biggest reason for this post is to answer a lot of my questions about what it takes to be a writer and possibly help someone else interested in writing fiction to make an informed decision.
So here are some lessons from a woman who has done this before and continues to do it. My hope is that you come away inspired and find yourself thinking that a writing career is possible.
Where you came from and being a writer
Writing is deeply personal for Elliot, that much is apparent. The profession is so much apart of her identity that she would, “cut off an arm and a leg rather that stop writing.” Needless to say, that type of passion struck a chord with me.
[I] Never felt there was anything else I could as passionately. I took piano lessons, but it didn’t take me more than two or three years to realize I wasn’t willing to work the way you had to work. Writing is the one thing I am willing to work 16 hours a day for.
Being a successful writer doesn’t happen by accident, it’s a product of choices that are sometimes conscious and other times not. Choosing a profession is deliberate, but it is often guided by the things that hold weight and meaning in the personal life. Values differ for each person, but it plays a role in choosing a career. Perhaps there is an alternate universe version of Kate Elliot that is a piano player, who knows, but writing is the thing she couldn’t stand to live without.
Passion is a good starting point when choosing a career. While it may not be the end-all-be-all, when it comes to paying the necessary cost to doing it well, best to choose something you’d be willing to lose limbs over (metaphorically speaking.) Now some can separate the personal and professional. People make the choice all the time to find work that is financially fulfilling and find personal fulfillment elsewhere, but for someone like Elliot the two sides are completely intertwined.
Elliot grew up in rural Oregon and spent much of her time outdoors and amongst nature. She was a self-described “outdoor child” and a reader. During our interview she spoke of drawing maps and writing stories constantly as a child and while those moments are small ones, it’s an experience she holds dear. Boil it down to its simplest elements and really the most important work in fiction is just that — writing stories. When the most important parts of the profession carry emotional weight, then there is an investment in the work and a sense of satisfaction that goes beyond a paycheck. Now that’s not to say personal and financial fulfillment are mutually exclusive, people value work purely for the financial stability it brings (or simply don’t have the option to choose,) but boy does it feel so much better when the two are one in the same.
The past can inform the present profession in a more nuanced way as well. Elliot’s mother was a Danish immigrant that came to the US at an early an early age and that had a big influence on her career. Elliot said that even though she was born here, she was privy to an experience and way of living that people embedded in the US can’t see. She would continue to explore other cultures later in life by travelling to other countries and forcing herself to confront differences and see a wide range of human experiences.
The cliché phrase write what you know bears out in her work. The Crossroads is a series that deals with clashes between large civilizations and really examines what happens when different parts of those societies come in contact with each other. The Spiritwalker trilogy is a much more personal story, but the big conflict is still one between cultures.
Elliot’s professional aspirations originate from her experiences growing up and many of her strengths as a writer are also born from the life she has lived. The decision to pursue a career in writing is one made out of an emotional connection to the art and that passion can be traced back to childhood.
Writing, like any other artistic endeavor, is about expression and pursuing it as a profession requires a fundamental desire to communicate. Anybody that writes for a living recognizes the impulse to be heard and to know that what gets put into words is understood and recognized by those who read them. To take the leap and call it a career requires the answer to a more fundamental question — just how much does writing mean to me?
When writing is something that you can’t live without then the decision is an easy one.
The Nuts and Bolts
Kate Elliot sets herself apart because she builds fantastic places that are still familiar. There are instances where I feel that other authors in the genre get lost in the worlds they build or the ideas they bring up. I don’t pick up a work of fiction to read a polemic essay or a thinly veiled geography lesson, but to read about people in a world that feels lived in and real.
World building is no easy task, especially when it involves so many fantastic elements. Things like magic and giant eagles obviously don’t exist, but in a fictional world their presence and function need to feel real. What gives the worlds Elliot creates weight is the way society and culture operates in conjunction with so many of the fantastic elements in her novels. Her worlds inevitably feel grounded and carry a sense of history.
I wanted to get a sense for how Elliot does this so we discussed world building and the process of creating these complex fictional places. The process begins with a careful and thorough self-examination.
The first thing is try to be aware how easy it is to grab general common knowledge and generic things we see out of Hollywood and half-baked knowledge of the past. A lot of times people have erroneous as in shallow views of the past.
Stereotypes are quick and easy, but also lack the depth to be truly meaningful. Now it’s easy to confuse depth with minutiae or disguise depth with spectacle. Giving the most accurate description of what something looks like or imploring the reader to look at that awesome mystical creature is not depth. What she is referencing are the people living within that world. Having a flat or erroneous assumption about society and the people living within it (even a fictional one) will inevitably lead to a caricature of one on the page that a reader can see through right away.
A good start to getting beyond stereotypes is cleaning up the lens that you look at the world through. That means taking inventory of personal biases and recognizing the things you don’t understand. I am a man and person of color and that impacts the way that I see the world and other people. That will differ from the way that a white woman or a gay man would see the world and it’s important to recognize the way other people may see certain choices within a work of fiction and account for them.
So what does this have to do with world building?
It’s recognizing that the author is not a passive participant in the world they create. They bring all the baggage of their upbringing and worldviews to the table and being ignorant of them means there is a blind spot that could impact the way a character or fictional society comes across to the readers. A fiction writer can’t be partial to parts of their world. They have to be in tune with all of it and that means understanding how the ghastly and unsavory parts of society think and operate just as much as the virtuous and right. It also means stepping back and becoming aware about how those depictions will come across to the reader. Now that doesn’t mean making changes based on whether or not it will upset the reader, but it’s better to step into a pile of poo willingly than suddenly find it all over your shoes.
Realism depends a great deal on how characters interact with the world and acquiring a level of understanding necessary to begin writing depends on the author. There is no magic bullet or correct method to do this, but exploring the line of thinking that went into the worlds that Elliot created takes some mystery out of the process.
The Spiritwalker series takes place in a steampunk universe where science and magic are at odds with each other, but its also alternate version of European history. Her aim was to write about a Europe that is much more demographically and ethnically mixed. She didn’t just turn to academic writing for insight into european history, but examined several layers before starting to write.
What I often do is start with well-written children’s books. They often give basic information to situate yourself. Once you can situate yourself you can look for more. The next layer of history is popular history. Once you become familiar with this topic then you can start moving into the really academic books and cultural reading.
Elliot said that she does take notes and creates notebooks, but much of the world building happens in her own head. She described it as hitting a certain fill line and once she got there it was time to start writing.
Her novels also tend to have a large cast of characters. In addition to a deep understanding of the culture she creates is an approach to characters that is focused on their relationships. There are often a lot of characters, some major and others minor, but all of them memorable in some way. Kate said that she keeps track of characters not by individuals and traits, but by their relationships to each other because in real life people are band animals and that is how they process relationship.
I use a rubric where I hierarchize characters. There are ones whose stories drive the plot and there are secondary characters that get a lot of screen time and often have their smaller story arc. Then there are tertiary characters and I try to make them memorable.
World building is as much about people more so than anything else and the best ones have a keen understanding about that. It’s important to create an accurate setting, but properly situating the reader within a fantastic world requires a keen understanding of relationships. World building has everything to do with the character’s relationship to each other, their land, society and their culture.
Return to the familiar and a new venture
This is a big year for Elliot who has already released one book and is poised to release two more by years end. A collection of her very best short stories appropriately dubbed The Very Best of Kate Elliot released in February. While primarily a novelist (she quipped about writing twice as many novels as short stories,) the collection is an excellent introduction to her works.
The summer brings the book Court of Fives, which is slated to release on Aug. 18. The novel is her first foray into the Young Adult genre. The impetus for writing this novel is a little bit more personal to her.
I get tired of debates in epic fantasy whether women characters should be in there. I didn’t get many adventure stories when I was a girl and I wanted to write the kind of book I wanted to read at 16.
Having a woman protagonist is not new in her novels. The Crossroads Trilogy had Mai and Spiritwalker revolved around Cat, but the difference in Court of Fives is in the age and focus of its narrative.
Spirit Walker is a college age story about [a woman] fighting who she is. Young adult has a teen protagonist. I had to write something that is very focused on the main character and how she saw the world.
The story shares traits with many recent forays into the genre as of late, but it also looks to have a little bit of her flare as well. Jessamy is a young woman of mixed race who escapes her station within a restrictive society by participating in an intense athletic competition called The Fives. She of course falls in love and has to deal with jealous nobility threatening her family. The intriguing part about this is that the novel still feels like epic fantasy despite the genre promising to explore themes of class and privilege.
This fall marks her return to epic fantasy and a familiar universe. Black Wolves is tentatively slated for a release this November and marks a return to The Crossroads trilogy universe. Fans of the series will remember a reference to the Black Wolves in Traitors Gate, the final book in the series. Elliot said that the book takes place after what happened in Crossroads, but it is written in a way so that it functions as a standalone novels.
She wouldn’t divulge and details but she said, “Yes, you will see characters you will recognize.”