Monday, May 7, 2012

Where do you get those wonderful ideas? A guest post by Katie Stewart

Let's all welcome back Australian fantasy author Katie Stewart. Previously I interviewed her about her debut novel, TREESPEAKER. Today she's here to tell us about one of her newer YA fantasy works, MARK OF THE DRAGON QUEEN.


Kira has led a sheltered life, brought up by her widowed father, whom she adores. When he is arrested and imprisoned for a murder he allegedly committed 18 years before, she is devastated. So when she overhears an ex-student of her father's planning to visit the prison, Kira decides to go, too. However, the student - Arun - is not who she thinks he is, and she soon learns that her father has not always been the man of integrity she has known for fifteen years.

Caught in a rebellion against the Lord High Councillor who would return the country to Wizard Rule, Kira finds that there is one more lesson she has to learn - about herself. Success depends on her, but is she willing to make the sacrifice it will require? 

Something many readers seem to want to know is where an author got the idea for a particular story or novel. As a writer, I’ve learned that ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere - from major events to tiny things that might stay for years as a seed in the mind, until the right novel begs to be written. As Neil Gaiman puts it:

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.”

In my "real" life – the one where I’m not pretending to be a writer – I work in the library of a small, private country school. It’s a great job, with a lovely crowd of people, and even if all my books were suddenly to become best sellers, I wouldn’t quit work entirely. In fact, my third book, MARK OF THE DRAGON QUEEN actually owes its existence, in part, to my job.

Two years ago, the school, along with the rest of the world, went through a financial crisis. Budgets were cut, including the one for the library. We had no money to buy books. No new books meant that there was little to do beyond the regular book changes with the children and shelving. So I found myself sitting for many hours, re-covering old books just for something to do. To ease the tedium, I listened to my iPod; more specifically, I listened to the musical, Les Miserables, which I’d just discovered and fallen in love with (I know, I’m a little slow on catching up with these things). As I listened to the story, I began to wonder what would happen if, instead of trying to escape from gaol for years, a man had to try to avoid going into gaol? What if he was given the chance to stay out of gaol, simply (or not so simply) by not doing what he had done wrong, ever again – with the punishment being death if he did? So, for example, what would happen if they’d killed with their right hand and were never allowed to use their right hand again? I mulled that over for a while and MARK OF THE DRAGON QUEEN, in which the protagonist’s father has managed not to use magic for eighteen years, was born.

Of course, the novel didn’t come together as a whole right there. It took a long time of what Ursula K Le Guin refers to as "composting" before the whole plot began to gel. Characters had to be found in the image library of my brain, a whole lot more what ifs had to be thought of and worked into a plot. It was like my first efforts at knitting as a child – it generally hung together, but was full of holes. In fact, I’d written quite a chunk of the first draft before I worked out exactly how the story would end. I’m definitely not a planner.

It seemed the more twists I put into the story, the harder I made it for myself. To start with, I had a main character who was very much concentrating on her father’s problems. That made it difficult to keep the perspective on target. Often I found myself slipping up, letting the father become the main focus and I had to rewrite whole sections. There was a prophecy which seemed to say one thing, but of course, there’s always a twist with a prophecy. That was tricky. Worse, it meant doing something horrible to one of my characters, a character I was very fond of, forcing me to write a scene that I hated myself for. I think it would have been easier to kill him off. On the other hand, his plight does give me a stepping stone into a sequel*.

To compost properly, you need the right tools. The ingredients have to be stirred and turned over. This was done with the help of members of my favourite critiquing site, Critique Circle . A hardy group of four to six other writers read my book, chapter by chapter, telling me what was good and what didn’t work. They encouraged me and chastised me for not writing quickly enough. Normally a writer wouldn’t have someone critique a first draft, but I tend to edit as I go, so what they read was reasonably edited, even if I wasn’t always entirely sure what I was doing! Then, when I’d completed the first draft, those same wonderful people read through the second draft. I don’t think I’ve ever been enthused about writing quite as much as I was with this book, and it took less than a year to get it completely written and edited. Actually getting it to the publishable stage took longer, because I’m not fond of the nitty gritty of e-publishing. I procrastinated wherever possible – designing the cover, working on the next book. However, I did get there in the end and MARK OF THE DRAGON QUEEN was published on New Year’s Day this year.

I never know what the theme of my book is going to be until it’s written. My books tend to be about relationships, and this one definitely is, with the main character’s love of her father being pivotal. It’s also about judging people on who they are now, rather than who they used to be, and about the opposition between love and power and how the two can’t exist together.

*I’ve had quite a few people asking me for a sequel to MARK OF THE DRAGON QUEEN and it will come – in time. I’m tentatively calling it ELLYETH'S HARP. At the moment, I’m working on the sequel to TREESPEAKER, which I hope to have out by mid-year. I’m also working on a children’s story which I originally wrote as a short story for my adopted son. It’s about a little Korean adoptee who finds an imugi – a Korean mythical serpent - which has come to Australia to discover the crystal that will allow it to become a dragon. That’s taking a bit of research, but I love research. It’s my favourite procrastinating tool.


Thanks, Katie.

You can find more Katie at:


Christina M. McKnight said...

Great post J.A.!

Elizabeth said...

Great posts.

Stopping by from the list for the tour of SHADES OF MURDER. I will stop back when you have your review done. I have read the first two books of Lauren Carr's. You will love the characters and the storyline.

Nice to meet you.

Stopping by for a look around.



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