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An Eye for Detail: An Interview with Kate Elliott
by Moira Allen

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When Kate Elliott tells a story, she doesn't merely craft a tale. She builds a world, complete to the smallest detail. Her cultures are rich, fascinating -- and believable. Indeed, it is sometimes easy to forget one is reading a work of fantasy (e.g., the Crown of Swords series, which includes King's Dragon, Prince of Dogs, The Burning Stone and Child of Flame) or science fiction (Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, The Law of Becoming). Instead, one might suppose one is reading a travelogue (with a mighty good plot) that crosses the boundaries of time and space.

This isn't too surprising, when one considers that Kate Elliott travels extensively in both time (metaphorically, at least) and space to research her novels. The daughter of a history teacher and the wife of an archaeologist, Elliott has explored the ruins of the Minoans, Myceneans, Greeks, Crusaders, and Turks -- piecing history together literally from the ground up. She also holds a brown belt in Shotokan karate and can wield a medieval broadsword with credible skill. When she puts down that sword and wields a pen, readers can be confident that she knows what she's talking about.

Where Fantasy and Reality Meet

"Of course I make everything up," says Elliott. At the same time, nearly every detail in her books is based on some element of "reality." For the Jaran novels, for example, Elliott assembled a host of details about the nomadic cultures of the Steppes. "Anatoly Sakhalin's pursuit of the king of Habakar was inspired by an actual historical event in the Mongol conquests, while some of Bakhtian's speeches are broadly paraphrased from speeches or letters historically thought to have come from Mongol khans, portraying those khans' [and Bakhtian's] attitudes toward the world, god, and the cosmos."

To determine what a jaran woman might carry on her person, Elliott drew upon her archaeological background -- specifically, a study of grave goods. "Many pre-Christian cultures buried their dead... with symbolic items that must, presumably, have mattered in the spiritual life of the culture. In addition, some cultures buried practical items with the deceased in the expectation that the dead would use those items, or some shadow of them, in the afterlife. Such goods can give insight into what people used in their daily life, and how they thought about the cosmos."

For The Golden Key, a 1997 World Fantasy Award finalist co-authored with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson, "we stole copiously from Spanish and Italian history, culture, and landscape, but made a kind of salad of it." To help give "local color" to the city of Meya Suerta, Elliott spent time in Puebla, Mexico, photographing the city's famous tiled buildings and courtyards. "We each made an effort to describe the clothing and interior decor of our respective periods, so that the reader could see the cultural change over time."

In The Crown of Stars, Elliott turned to medieval Germany for inspiration -- and to create a "Europe that never was." To describe the types of meals that might be made by a foraging refugee, she referred to Jane Renfrew's Food and Cooking in Prehistoric Britain; for examples of laws and customs, she quotes from Karl Leyser's Communications and Power in Medieval Europe. Nor does she rely on books alone; Elliott haunts museums, consults experts, and often discovers that "special detail" serendipitously. "I love living history exhibits," she notes, and on one such tour she gleaned yet another nugget for The Crown of Stars: "The ranger knew a bit about the history of writing... I discovered that scribes would sometimes have a rare and therefore valuable pen taken from a species other than the goose. That detail found its way into the book by way of giving Rosvita an eagle's feather quill pen, a gift to her from the king as a mark of his favor."

Once she has gathered a "basketful" of details, Elliott then adds her own twist. "I alter them, if it suits my purpose, and it usually does." For the Jaran novels, she posited a culture in which women had genuine political authority, outweighing that of the men within the tribes -- though even this detail is modeled on a real culture, that of the Hurons of North America. Women in The Crown of Stars also have considerably more power than their counterparts in historical Europe. Elliott devises this elegant combination of fact and fantasy "in part to amuse myself, and in part because I imagine that familiar reference points give readers a sense of depth that a completely made-up world might otherwise lack."

Culture-Building 101

One doesn't necessarily have to travel the globe or join an archaeological expedition to become a world-class culture-builder. One does, however, have to become a keen observer of the details of daily life. "Everything in human behavior is of interest. Everything can be observed. If anything, developing a realistic culture in speculative fiction depends on recognizing those details that will give the most definition per word, so to speak."

Elliott likes to draw an analogy between "culture" and "cultivate," two words that spring from the same root. "When a writer creates a culture, she starts with untilled ground, a kind of blank slate. The ground has to be prepared, tended, formed, refined. Likewise, a culture must show arts, beliefs, institutions, technologies, and roles. In the role of 'cultivator,' a writer doesn't simply impose her own notions onto that developing culture, but gives it a little room to evolve naturally in the course of planning and writing the novel."

To build a world, Elliott suggests finding a "starting point" and going from there. Elliott herself likes to explore "cultural ecology," the interaction of culture with environment. "In any given culture, the landscape will determine what is named and in what detail it is named." Eskimo, Inuit, and other northern tribes, for example, have many different names for ice and snow. "That these names matter to their survival tells us a profound truth about their culture."

Elliott recommends seeking out similar "profound truths" in the culture one is attempting to create. "What matters to the survival of this culture, both physically and spiritually? These details don't have to be prominent in the story, but they must be evident in the cultural landscape and in the behavior of the main characters, who are, presumably, affected by their immersion in, or alienation from, the culture or cultures through which they move."

Searching for truths means asking tough questions, and shunning the easy answers. "Do warriors use swords, or are spears still the primary martial instrument? Who inherits the land? Who inherits the movable goods? Is it necessarily the same child? Who can speak to God and who can't? Why? Where does the food come from? How is it distributed? Are there sumptuary laws that prevent some people from wearing clothes and jewelry deemed to place them above their station, or is the social structure fluid? What about class? Gender? Plumbing?" The list of questions can be infinite, but Elliott cautions that a culture is more than a list of attributes. "Nor is it a notebook of clever details prepared beforehand." While Elliott does keep lists of such things as trade goods, weapon styles, wedding customs, names of gods and dates of festivals, "these things develop over time as I write, just as human culture changes over time."

Another way to search for "truths" about a culture, and to determine what would be important to someone living in (or entering into) such a culture, is to "think about daily life in a time very different from ours, especially considering factors that may be marginal to daily life today, or so taken for granted that we no longer give them much thought." To determine how life might be lived in a culture with a much different level of technology, Elliott recommends studying a book on the life of a pioneer woman, or spending time in a developing country to observe how people live.

A mistake writers often make, in Elliott's view, is "overlooking diversity, dissonance, and contradiction in culture. No human society is monolithic. Any society that is all one thing or all another, whose people are uniformly bad, or good, or left-handed, or who all believe in exactly the same way about their god(s), is not a realistic society."

Culture, says Elliott, is like character, and can be developed and written in much the same way. "Flaws are as interesting as strengths, and the richness of culture lies in the ways flaws and strengths interact. Just as character can be revealed through interaction [with other characters], culture can be revealed through the ways the characters see their world, their comrades, their duties; through their assumptions about life; through ornament and building and festivals; through the contrasts thrown into light, or heat, by one culture meeting another.

"If you've set up your culture believably enough, eventually the characters will simply begin to act 'in character' to their society. You may even hit moments in the writing where an unexpected clash of character and culture appears before you, and you hit yourself over the head because you didn't see it coming -- but it was, in fact, implicit in what has evolved."

Details, Details...

The danger of doing all that research is the desire to make sure the reader "sees" all the information one has gathered -- usually in undigestible expository lumps. "Too little detail doesn't create enough of a fiction," says Elliott. "However, too much detail becomes a mass of undifferentiated background that blurs into a porridge in which nothing is highlighted."

Characters can serve to introduce readers to the writer's world. As characters learn about the culture surrounding them, the reader can learn about that world as well -- as it becomes important to the character and to the story.

One approach is to "imagine oneself as an infant and attempt to see the imaginary world and learn to define it by those things that will most enable the world to spring out and come into existence. Or, imagine the reader as an infant, who must have things defined, not necessarily all at once, but gradually over the course of the narrative. Otherwise, the world is unintelligible."

A character Elliott uses with great effect is "The Outsider." This person "comes into the culture temporarily or permanently, deliberately or by accident. As a writer, I can introduce the culture bit by bit to the reader as the Outsider comes to know and understand, or misunderstand, the society." In the Jaran novels, Elliott uses the very different characters of Tess and Jiroannes to highlight the culture from both perspectives. "Tess is the obvious example of an outsider who comes to know and love a new culture; as she gets to know the jaran, the reader gets to know them as well. In The Law of Becoming, Jiroannes' culture-blindness adds an extra layer, since his misunderstanding of jaran culture also reveals a great deal about his birth culture through the assumptions he makes, the way he dresses and has himself cared for, and through the people he surrounds himself with and how he relates to them."

In The Crown of Stars, on the other hand, Elliott uses a "reflective" character, Sister Rosvita, to "reflect at times, and within her own culturally constrained boundaries, upon the society she lives in, and to reveal its history to the reader in (I hope) small enough doses." Reflective characters must be used carefully, however, "lest they drone on, giving the reader a convenient but unwieldy, and extremely dull, history lesson."

Another option is "The Ignorant Young Person, who can be used to question, observe, be awed or scared at the appropriate moments, and to gawk at all them strange creatures and/or pretty baubles and/or strange customs and/or mystical powers, so that the Wise Old Ones can Inform and Educate." Such characters should also be used with caution, however. "Otherwise they become so creaky that one can hear the gears turning behind the scenery."

Determining which details a character should observe is as important as determining the observation character in the first place. "Words are precious, even in a huge tome. Use only what you need, and make sure each phrase and detail counts," says Elliott. For example, if Bob the Outsider is about to be sacrificed on an altar, "is the knife made of stone, bronze, iron, or steel -- or is it an axe? Is he tied with velvet ropes or rusty chains? Is he treated like an honored guest or a criminal? These details matter, because they reveal something about cultural expectations, assumptions, the level of technology, the political system, and so on."

Similarly, characters should observe appropriate details about other characters. "Does it matter that Elipsia, the high priestess who is about to plunge the knife into his heart, has raven locks that curl voluptuously about her scrumptious curves? Or is it more important that, like all girls called to serve the goddess, she has only one working eye, having put out the other with a hot poker as part of her initiation ceremony when she was thirteen?"

Such well-placed details, says Elliott, will reveal far more about your world (and your characters) than a raft of "garden-variety, house-brand Bits, thoughtlessly drawn from the cauldron of generic stew."

When Details Go Awry

Not surprisingly, Elliott has a few "pet peeves" about writers who haven't done their homework, and whose details are drawn from that "generic stew." One such peeve relates to the economy of speculative worlds. "I can only get so far in a story once I've realized that the inns work as grocery stores, the marketplaces as malls, and the horses as trucks." (She admits, however, that she has been guilty of all these errors herself at some point in her writing life.)

A second peeve relates to "villains as slobbering bad guys, or as Dark Lords whose only Goal in life is to Eradicate all Good and crush the world under their boot-heels. I find this tiresome because all I have to do is pick up a newspaper to discover that human beings are perfectly capable of inflicting all kinds of damage on their fellow human beings for a variety of reasons, some seemingly grand, some insane, and all too many banal, greedy, or selfish. There's plenty of fodder for conflict in human behavior we see and read about every day."

Finally, Elliott confesses to being bothered by writers who "don't seem to be thinking about why another time and place would produce people with somewhat different assumptions about the world and their place in it... Otherwise, the setting could just as well be a weekend meeting of the SCA in the 1980's." At the same time, one doesn't have to look too far for areas of commonality: "All [human beings] mourn, lust, laugh, and get angry. Finding the common emotion in any situation gives an immediate sympathy to any character, no matter how different that character's culture may be from our own."

The Bottom Line

Despite the care with which Elliott blends factual detail and speculative fiction, she does not believe that fantasy writers are writing "history." A writer's goal should not be to attempt to literally recreate another time and place, as this goal is impossible. "I'm not sure we can ever truly know how a person in the past thought or acted; we can only make guesses, or assumptions, based on our own reading of the evidence -- or we can speculate based on nothing much at all."

The attempt to create imaginary worlds -- whether based upon a realistic past or upon a guess at the future -- "is always a matter of juggling 'then' and 'now' and coming up with something that's neither truly 'here' nor 'there,'" according to Elliott. "We are none of us really writing about history, but about our own time. What we write speaks to us today, and a few books -- those that touch on some universality in the human condition -- will continue to speak to people who read them a hundred, five hundred, and even a thousand years from now.

"What we can do as writers is try to create cultures that provide a window onto another way of looking at the world, so as to reflect ever so slightly back some element of our own -- or to create worlds that simply exist for the pleasure of existing."

Visit Kate Elliott's website at http://www.kateelliott.com/.

Related Articles:

What's in a Name? An Interview with Kate Elliott et al., by Moira Allen

Copyright © 2000 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared on Phantastes.

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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