The Big Idea: Kate Elliott

One of the questions that plagues authors is “where do you get your ideas?” The standard answer to this (thanks to Harlan Ellison) is “Schenectady,” but in fact ideas come from anywhere. And I do mean: anywhere. If you don’t believe me on this, then all you have to do is read this Big Idea piece by Kate Elliott, in which she divulges the secret genesis of her bestselling Crossroads series, of which Shadow Gate is the latest addition. If you think you know where this idea comes from, trust me: You have no idea.


My husband and I met in a sword fight.

Because of my time fighting in armor in the Society for Creative Anachronism and my other martial arts background as well as my long-standing interest in history and anthropology, it’s no great stretch to understand why I’ve often explored war–battles, fighting, conflict–in my work.

When I began developing the characters, landscape, and tone for the Crossroads books (Shadow Gate is a follow up volume to Spirit Gate), I knew I wanted to write a book that dealt with the destructive effects of internal endemic warfare on a society and on individuals within that society.

But that’s not my Big Idea.

Let’s go back to the man in the sword fight, the one I eventually married.

He read a lot of fantasy as a teenager, listened to a lot of Yes and early Genesis, played war games and RPGs, and spent many more years than I did in the SCA. He was an idealist, a believer in the concept of justice. A kind of paladin, if you will. Indeed, he worked as a police officer for ten years before going back to school to study archaeology. Friends used to joke that he would leap out in front of criminals and cry, “Halt, evil-doer!”

Those elements in his character came together in an idea he had for eagle reeves: one might describe them as sheriffs in a fantasy land, who get around on giant eagles.

I have to admit, the first couple of times he floated this idea past me, I couldn’t decide whether it was cool or kind of hokey. I mean, if you at all buy the idea of eagles the size of Cessnas who can transport a human being, it’s like the next best thing to being able to fly your very own self. If you don’t buy the idea of eagles the size of Cessnas (etc), then honestly, it is just not going to work for you.

So I wrote my various novels and saw them published and ignored my husband’s Big Idea no matter how much he bugged me about it, until I started seriously developing the Crossroads series. The giant eagles suddenly fit in this universe. Furthermore, the eagle reeves–police officers in a fantasy setting–created a second thematic issue to explore in the books: how injustice manifests in a society and how people combat it; how corruption creates and intensifies and reinforces injustice. Who needs a dark lord when people are themselves capable of manifold cruelties? And what gives people the strength to resist corruption and to fight injustice even at the cost of their own lives?

I decided to use the eagle reeves to help me tell this story, although I had to make a few changes.

Definitely no telepathy or special mental bond between reeve and eagle. And the eagles aren’t specially intelligent beyond regular raptor intelligence (which is nothing to sneeze at). Indeed, they are not special companions, they’re just very very big raptors. There is a bond, of course–how else to explain why an eagle, when cranky, wouldn’t just rip the head off its hapless reeve? In fact, maybe such behavior would happen occasionally, just to add a gruesome drawback to the otherwise awesome fabulosity of having your own eagle to fly around on. And what if the bond were one-sided? If a reeve died, the eagle would just “choose” another reeve, but if an eagle died, its reeve would also die. Part of making a world interesting is in not making things easy on the characters.

And while I love Arthur Rackham illustrations as much as anyone, none of this fairy knight riding on the back of dragonfly business. The only harness that made sense to me (if you’re dealing with eagles the size of Cessnas) was rigging up the reeve to dangle underneath in the manner of a hang-glider. Michael Kaluta captured this in his excellent illustration for the Spirit Gate cover.

So far so good.

I wrote the novel Spirit Gate. And then a second novel, Shadow Gate, published this week, which as you might guess from its title is darker in tone and which digs more deeply into those ideas about justice, injustice, and the consequences of war on a civilian population.

I told everyone who asked that my husband came up with the Big Idea for the eagle reeves because he used to be a police officer on the hunt for justice. I mean, how cool and profound is that?

Not so fast.

About a month ago, I got to IMing with said spouse.

Him: I found it!

Me: Eh?

Him: I found the original inspiration for the eagle reeves.

Me: But I thought you got the idea for the reeves because you were a cop . . .

Him: I never said that! I got the idea back when I was still in high school . . . when I used to listen to this song. It’s so great!!!

I have to admit that my first reaction was: Oh. My. God.

My second was to admire the cheesy goodness of the video. Psychedelic Anni-Frid and Agnetha!

My third was to marvel (as I have before) at how two people with such very different musical tastes can love each other.

But then I realized that this is just part of an even Bigger Idea: None of us come at this from the same place.

Songs, and books, that hold deep meaning for someone else may seem contrived to me, while that tune I adore or that book I love may not work for another. Anyway, I did a lot of dreaming as a teenager, too: it’s why I’m a writer today. That my spouse gave me something that meant a lot to him matters to me as a person. That I messed around with it until it became so much a part of the story that the story could not now exist without it, matters to me as a writer. In the end, the big eagles will seem artificial to some readers, but to others they will appear as an intriguing and exciting part of a fantasy landscape where stranger things may be seen than giant eagles.

Readers (and listeners to music) will decide for themselves. I just wrote the story.

P.S. Remember the sword fight? When I tell people that my spouse and I met in a sword fight, people often smirk and ask, portentously, “Who won?“

We double-killed. Isn’t that romantic?

Read an excerpt from Shadow Gate here. Read Kate Elliott’s LiveJournal here. Kate Elliott also blogs at the group blog Deep Genre.

12 Comments on “The Big Idea: Kate Elliott”

  1. I recall the story, self related, of a man who tried training a golden eagle using standard hawk training methods. He started off with a chunk of meat on a lead, which he swung in a circle over his head.

    The first time the bird did as expected and flew after the meat.

    The second time the animal watched as he whirled the meat around until he got tired and let it drop. At which point the eagle walked over to where the bait had fallen.

    The third time the eagle walked over to where he was standing, sunk his talons into the man’s foot, then flew off to retrieve the meat once it landed.

    After that our narrator worked out better ways to train an eagle.

  2. Can someone tell me what is in the second picture? Work blocks some of the internets and so I’m not getting the big payoff of the story. Thanks in advance.

  3. Justme@3: in case you can’t see any of the inclusions in the page:

    First image, before “One of the questions”: the cover of Shadow Gate. A woman with a bow and arrow riding on a black winged horse.

    Second image, before “So far so good”: the cover of Spirit Gate. A woman harnessed to the front of a giant eagle, carrying a halberd or similar weapon.

    Video insert, before “I have to admit”: The video for ABBA’s song “Eagle”.

  4. ABBA! Oh, that’s just too awesome.

    I read Spirit Gate last month, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a big story with a lot of people in it, and some magic, but so far there aren’t any Destinies or any of that hokum–it’s just people trying to figure out a bad situation, with poor intelligence and often conflicting agendas. I liked it a lot and will definitely be reading Shadow Gate–although probably in paperback, because hardcovers take up too much space.

  5. I’ve been reading Kate’s books for years (even under Alis) and I was thrilled to see her featured on The Big Idea. I’ve had Spirit Gate since it came out, but I haven’t had time to read it. Now I’m going to have to spend all weekend catching up so that I can get Shadow Gate.

    Any idea if the Jaran series will ever have another book? Yeah, I know, probably not anytime soon, but I couldn’t help asking. :)

  6. when can we expect the third book in the crossroads series ? Cant wait ! Tmorow would be soon enough lol!

%d bloggers like this: