To celebrate the release of Buried Heart, the last book in the Court of Fives trilogy, we have Kate Elliott here today, talking about the decisions she has made as a writer.
How does a story get to be the story you and I read?
Over my years of writing it has become clear to me how many aspects of any story I tell could be (and often are) changed during the composition process. As I write I am constantly making choices about characters, about setting, about plot points, and about details. The final form of a published story is the accumulation of a series of decisions on the writer(s)’s (or packager’s) part.
A general, or even very specific, idea for a story emerges from some strange mire, I know not whence because I honestly don’t know if anyone can quantify the creative process that is part and parcel of all human beings (even if people don’t express it in the same ways). Maybe I want to do a retelling of The Ugly Duckling in a science fiction setting in which a lost or abandoned personage (human? alien?) is raised by members of another species. Maybe I want to create an entirely new secondary world in which lightning-wielding grandmothers who don’t get their power until menopause fight marauding demons.
Foundational concepts like this are only the beginning of the story building process. One reason that a promising concept might founder or turn sluggish is when the flood of decision-making becomes overwhelming. In any part of our lives, when we have too many decisions to make we will often protect ourselves from stress by returning to our old habits or most familiar routines and choices.
Every time I make a decision as a writer, however small, I’m using up a bit of mental energy. This is true of writing fiction as well. It’s why it’s so easy to fall into over-used patterns and tropes, why it’s easier to grab for familiar plot choices than to really stop and think about less culturally visible options. What’s particularly interesting about the decision making process in fiction is how often the “easy choice”–the one that mainstream fiction often repeats some variation on–may or may not be the best expression of “realism.” Rather, it may reflect current Hollywood trends, or the distorted history I learned in school, or it might be an expression of “received wisdom” that isn’t as “true” as we’ve been taught it is. A further side effect, of course, is that readers also are burning energy to read, and not every reader wants to work hard enough to fully absorb an unexpected detail or character choice when they could have a more familiar one instead.
So how did that affect my writing of the Court of Fives trilogy? Is there anything I can look back on now that I’m done? Can I even be trusted to view the history of the story’s genesis and development in an honest manner and not fictionalize parts of my memory of it? Probably not, but I’m going to try anyway. Here is an example of my decision making process as I first started working on the story and how it influenced the story that eventually was published.
(If you have read the first book nothing in here is a spoiler. If you haven’t read Court of Fives don’t feel I spoil anything beyond introducing the characters you will meet immediately anyway. In fact, if you haven’t read book one, what are you waiting for? The entire trilogy out now out! No waiting for the next installment!)
When I first starting sketching out ideas for what came to be called Court of Fives I knew I wanted to write an epic fantasy style story about four sisters. I also knew the setting was a country with a ruling class who were conquerers and indigenous inhabitants who had been conquered but who once ruled themselves. I based this in part on the history of Greco-Roman Egypt: At this time, a little over 2000 years ago, Egypt had been conquered by the (hated) Persians and when the Persians were conquered by Alexander the Great, he then annexed Egypt as well. After this death, one of his generals, Ptolemy, made himself king and pharaoh over Egypt and his descendants ruled for almost 300 years (the last pharaoh of Egypt was the famous Cleopatra). During this period of Macedonian (Greek) rule, many Macedonians, Greeks, and other foreigners came to Egypt to serve as soldiers or otherwise make their fortune. It’s this dynamic that interested me and which I used as the foundation of the setting, although the setting is not meant to be a “fantasy Egypt”–it is its own secondary fantasy world.
I also decided to very loosely model the sisters on the four sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic ,em>Little Women as a tip of the hat to that iconic American novel. Court of Fives isn’t a retelling of Little Women but four sisters is a lot to juggle, especially in a YA novel, and the familiar sisters, well known personalities, and names also gave me a template to hang my hat on. This is why the four sisters in Court of Fives have names that begin with the same letters as the four sisters in Little Women (Meg/Maraya; Jo/Jes; Beth/Bettany; Amy/Amaya).
I decided at the beginning of the entire process that the father was an often absent military man and therefore from the ruling people, the Greek analogues (here called Saroese or Patrons). In order to make the most of the colonialism of the setting, it made the most sense for the mother to be of the indigenous people, the Egyptian analogy (here called Efean or Commoners).
My first attempt at an opening scene was this:
My sister Bethani and I were kneeling on stone in the stable yard trying to wash our mother’s bright red blood out of the good linen when our older sister limped into view. Seeing the tears on her cheeks and the way her hand shook on her crutch, we knew it could not be good news.
Not that we expected good news.
This looks familiar! A dead or dying mother is one of genre’s most popular tropes.
One of the notes written beneath this opening snippet reads:
father declares her barren (unable to deliver a male heir) and divorces her for cause
And I got stuck there.
It’s so easy to fall into over-used patterns and tropes. It’s so easy to grab for familiar plot choices and harder to really stop and think about options that have been less visible in our cultural narrative. And that’s especially true when, as a writer, I’m already (or have already) made multiple decisions and am getting decision fatigue.
But something about this opening rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t want to write this story, so I had to come up with a different way of telling a story within a conquered/conquerer dynamic, that included patriarchy and four sisters. I had to dig deep into my decision making and start asking myself questions from different angles.
What if the mother isn’t dying and didn’t die as the opening piece of the story? What if she is alive and vital and present and central?
Mother sits on the marriage couch, the plushly cushioned double-chair that she and Father share when he is home from the wars. A gauzy silk gown spills over the huge expanse of her pregnant belly. Her slightly unfocused stare in another woman might be described as vapid but in her it simply means she is thinking of Father. All is harmonious and peaceful, just as she likes it. [from Court of Fives, chapter one]
What kind of woman would have that sort of presence in the household of a military man from a conquering culture? And who would he be? His choices would seem clear: after four daughters, all now in their late teens, and no sons in a culture that values sons more than daughters, why is he still with this woman instead of replacing her with a different one who could give him a son?
Father appears. He is still wearing his armor, dust covered from days of travel, and holds his captain’s whip in his hand. It is how he always arrives home, wanting to greet Mother before he does anything else.
“Beloved,” he says.
He passes the whip to the Senior House Steward who dogs his heels, then strides across the expensive marble pavement to Mother. Taking her hands, he examines her face as if to assure himself that she is well and healthy or maybe just to drink in her remarkable beauty. [from Court of Fives, chapter two]
Suddenly two secondary characters exist whose history together is complex and nuanced enough to create significant and painful conflicts for the main character, Jes. In addition the interaction between the parents becomes a way for me, as the writer, to reveal the world in which they live through the disparate ways these characters understand, live in, and react to the situations in which they find themselves.
This new way of seeing the parents’ relationship ended up changing the trajectory of the story and thus of the journey taken by Jes, and it plays a major role throughout the trilogy and especially in the events of the third book, Buried Heart.
Kate Elliott is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the Novels of the Jaran and, most recently, the Crossroads fantasy series. King’s Dragon, the first novel in the Crown of Stars series, was a Nebula Award finalist; The Golden Key (with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson) was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Born in Oregon, she lives in Hawaii.
Buried Heart is out now.