Kate Elliott Talks About Adapting History to Fiction in Her AMA!

Kate Elliott has been a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, a nominee for the Andre Norton Award, and a seven-time Locus Award nominee. She is the author of multiple series, including The Spiritwalker Trilogy, the Crossroads series, the Crown of Stars series, the Court of Fives series, and the fantasy series beginning with Black Wolves, which won the RT Reviewers Choice Award. (Not sure where to start? Check out her very handy blog-post on this very topic.)

Her most recent book is Unconquerable Sun (available now from Tor Books), which she describes as “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in spaaaace. Space opera? Space epic? Space adventure? Space campaign? You tell me.” This week, she dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked Alexander the Great research, writing sci-fi vs. fantasy, tips on genre-blending, tips on plot and conflict, favorite tropes, Slow TV, and much, much more. Here are the highlights!

[Editor’s note: Questions and responses may have been edited for length and clarity.]

What’s the coolest thing that happens in Unconquerable Sun?

The coolest thing that happens in UnSun is sea monsters. And ukuleles. Also a couple of great plot twists. But overall, sea monsters.

As a long-time epic fantasy writer, what aspects of plotting and writing fantasy translated neatly to writing sci-fi, and which areas were new for you while writing Unconquerable Sun?

The Alexander the Great story could easily be written as an epic fantasy with magic, and it has that same sense of multiple kingdoms or countries fighting each other, the faster than light Beacon system is clearly a form of magic that could easily be translated into some form of magical travel, and most importantly the big cast of characters in a web of political intrigue and war.

The technique used in weaving together multiple stories is for me pretty much the same if not exactly the same between an epic science fiction space opera and an epic fantasy. What’s different is the setting, but space opera can also be an epic landscape created and written about in a similar way.

The biggest difference that can’t be gotten around is the huge distances between star systems. There is really no analog, not even with sea journeys, although those might be closest; I don’t know. So I have had to make decisions about how to deal with interstellar distances while still creating an action packed plot. I don’t mind a little hand waving to get the result I want.

Of all the Alexander the Great research you did, what were your favorite books?

Arrian, OBVIOUSLY.

I hugely recommend Donald Engels’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army because it is so clearly laid out.

I found Carol Thomas’s Alexander the Great in His World to be incredibly useful to setting Alexander in the context of his time. He was who he was because he was the right person at the right time, and it’s important to understand how people function within their context. Characters (people) aren’t interchangeable widgets.

A. B. Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire.

And of course Elizabeth Carney’s Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. Everyone should read it. So illuminating.

How did you decide which bits of your Alexander the Great research to put in?

Sometimes it was purely glee — the scene that book one is focused around is the wedding banquet, which is cribbed from the history. It’s too good in a gossipy, dramatic way to miss. I just had to adapt it.

So there are things I could work in such as the relationship between Sun and Eirene (Alexander and Philip) and things I couldn’t figure out how to work in, like Aristotle, because it would have taken too much time and not figured strongly enough into the main plot, in an already long book.

In book two I have to make some of these same choices. The plot is already stuffed full so I had to let go of things that would have taken it down a tangent that couldn’t be wrapped around the main plot. Next week on on my blog and in a Discord I will open up a conversation for people who want to talk with spoilers but I don’t want to go into too many details here.

The last thing I’ll say is that Alexander, Philip, Hephaestion, and Olympias all have fairly straightforward analogs in the story. There are some other fairly direct character analogs, while there are also some characters who I combined elements of because otherwise there are just too many people in the real history to keep track of in a novel format.

And if you ever wonder why I write trilogies, this three-part answer should tell you everything you need to know, including the fact that I had to break it up into three parts.

How do you get your ideas for plot and conflict? 

People run entire courses that are just about plot and conflict and how to create them and how to express them in a story. So this will be a very short discussion. But I think for me personally as a writer I seek to embed conflict in the spaces where characters come into conflict with other characters, and where characters come into conflict with the culture that they are in either because it’s the one they grew up in and now they’re in conflict with something inside it or because they’re outsiders.

I personally am less interested in what I’ll call outside mechanistic plot conflict, in which say two characters have to cross the desert in 10 hours before the sun comes up, although that Riddick sequence was great, and more on the idea that two characters have to figure out how to cooperate because of conflicts due to their personalities or their rank or their cultural backgrounds when they are crossing the desert in 10 hours before the sun comes up.

When a character has depth and a landscape has a depth, and by landscape I mean cultural background or geographical setting in which people have lives, then the wants and needs and fears of your characters will help create conflicts that they have to deal with or overcome.

And honestly I will always believe the best conflicts are those when two characters want something that is opposed to each other in some way or in conflict, and in which we as the reader understand why each character wants what they do.

What trope do you like the most?

Probably:

Found families.

Also:

Sisters forever (female friendships). Is that a trope?

Forced marriage (features in all my series except the new one!)

Napoleon analogs. I have no idea why.

How do you approach writing social settings involving cultural or social oppression, particularly when you aim to humanize those in positions of social privilege without flinching from their complicity in said oppression?

Crossroads was to some extent influenced by The Wire. Not the events or plot or characters of the show specifically but rather the sense of the inherent complexity of the world, how there aren’t easy answers or simple ways to define people.

By placing Crossroads in a fully secondary world (that is, one with no analog or alt-history ties to Earth’s history as with Crown of Stars), I felt I could distance the explorations I wanted to make from our history in a way that would help contextualize the elements I wanted to explore. For example: what does civil war do to a society? What happens when the people meant to guard you, prey on you? Who is the hero? Why do we tell that story? I think it’s easier to take people down that road with that little bit of distance, because the names and situation aren’t exactly taken from our own history with all its terrible repercussions and ongoing poisons.

In addition I deliberately played early on with what I guessed would be reader expectations, hoping readers would make certain assumptions. Note which characters are never given a point of view, so we only see them from the outside. By seeing them from the outside, then our view of them is colored by the emotions and assumptions of the characters who ARE viewing them (and we are viewing them through those characters’ imperfect lenses). That again influences what we see, and what we miss. Because we miss what the POV missed.

In the case of a character with social privilege like Mai, I went with honesty. Most people (all people?) see some or many parts of life through a filtered lens, whatever it might be. I think a writer can be blunt about that, and I think readers will recognize that if it is depicted with honesty. Not pretending otherwise. People are not perfect. I believe most people understand that, and are willing to walk a long way in a story with imperfect characters if they trust that the writer is being honest with them about human frailties as well as human resilience.

Aside from the basics (reading and writing), what advice do you have for aspiring fantasy authors? 

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Write things and don’t worry about whether or not they any good, not at first, because writing is teaching yourself. It’s that long line of practice through which you will get better by doing and see yourself getting better.

I would also recommend that people not focus at first immediately on the idea of publication but rather on the idea of writing because you want to tell a story. To begin with, write in order to write. Thinking about publication can come later, and it’s fine to have that goal, but it’s also important in my opinion to have the goal of writing.

The last thing I would say is be aware that learning to revise is crucial, but that it is okay as a beginner to work on writing first drafts. The more you write the more you will be in a position to start learning how to revise. When first drafting, just write. Don’t look over your shoulder at your words. Just write.

What book would you recommend for learning how to write better?

Ursula K Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.

Do you have any advice for blending sci-fi and fantasy?

I would say: understand what is the core element of the two or more genres you’re aiming to blend. Say you wanted to write a fantasy romance; to be a romance it needs an HEA. If you don’t want an HEA (Happy Ever After) then it isn’t really a genre romance — it could be something else, though! Be clear about what you are combining and respect both/all elements within the text.

What are your thoughts on the distinction between the two genres?

I’m not dogmatic about this. So sure! Some SF doesn’t feel at all like fantasy to me, for example. And that’s cool. But I came of publishing age in a time when some people wanted to claim that science fiction was SERIOUS LITERATURE while fantasy was blah blah girly garbage or boyz wish fulfillment about kings, so I may be a little skeptical when differences are described in ways that become hierarchical. Not talking about you, obviously! But ultimately I think stories with fantastical elements are the original fiction. So I could argue we are all fantasy writers! :)

So what books are you reading currently?

Pandemic brain means I’ve been reading much less fiction than usual, which makes me sad but which also means I’m reading a fair amount of non fiction.

Here’s what is on my side table right now:

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse: ARC of a forthcoming epic fantasy whose landscape is drawn from pre-Columbian history. You’ll want to get this in October!

Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis: literary fiction about five women (cantoras is slang for lesbians) who create a family among themselves as they struggle to survive the Uruguayan dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. Beautifully written and observed.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee: I don’t read a lot of mystery but sometimes when I’m struggling to read my fave genre sff I switch to historical mystery. I’ve just started this one, set in 1919 Calcutta, and narrated by an English officer just arrived in India to work for the police. This is so smartly written. The MC is sympathetic and yet SO MUCH is going on between the lines that comments on his ignorance about India and the colonial situation. The second lead is a young Indian man who acts as his sergeant in the force, and I expect him to become the other major character.

As for non fiction, here are a few:

The Alexander the Great research [Editor’s note: See above for a list of the author’s favorite books. A more detailed list of recommendations can be found in this thread.]

A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things (A biography of Alexander von Humboldt) by Maren Meinhardt. This is really interesting and digs into things I hadn’t known in the life of this once world famous 19th c naturalist.

I’m reading Ian Toll’s history of the naval war in the Pacific, currently on book two, The Conquering Tide.

The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara by Richard Salomon because, I don’t know, why wouldn’t you want to read about the Buddhist literature of ancient Gandhara????

And what are your top 3 favorite fantasy/sci-fi series?

I don’t really have a top three, more like a top 25. But for the purposes of this answer I’ll mention

Martha Wells’ Raksura series (love them, they are comfort reads because they are about found family)

Tolkien (formative)

Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman series which everyone should read since books 5 and 6 may be coming out sometime in the next few years I hope.

Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles series — world building OFF THE CHARTS, so well imagined.

That’s four — sorry. Tolkien was the extra because, you know, Tolkien.

What show could you watch for hours?

Slow TV, the Norwegian channel that is a camera placed at the front of a train going through the countryside.

And finally, are you planning to return to any of your previous settings?

I have long been sitting on a “hundreds of years later” trilogy set in the Crown of Stars universe. By “sitting on” I mean, in my head, not written.

I really want to finish the Jaran sequence.

I’ll say those two. I love the Spiritwalker universe and I would like to finish a set of about 16 short stories (half already written) set in the universe, but I don’t know that I have another trilogy in that universe.

I have so many stories, and I wish I could plug myself in for like three years and just write without stopping.

Oh, wait, and I have a novella I want to write set in the Court of Fives universe, about what happens to the character Talon.

Head on over to r/Fantasy for the full AMA.

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