Jaran, the Highroad Trilogy, Labyrinth Gate on Open Road Media, & what happened to the whitewashed cover?

Open Road Media (henceforce ORM) specializes in e-books and among other things has been bringing into ebook format out of print books that ten and twenty years ago would never again have seen the light of day.

On Tuesday 30 July 2013, eight of my early novels will be released in e-format by ORM. These are: The four Novels of the Jaran (published from 1992 – 1994), the Highroad Trilogy (all 3 volumes published in 1990), and my first published novel, The Labyrinth Gate (1988).

Two comments, and then we’ll get to the whitewashing.

1) I have done no revision of these novels. Their strengths and flaws remain as they were when they were published. In all cases there are some things I would have done differently and other elements I would not change. I think it is instructive to see a career unfold over time.

2) The Highroad Trilogy and The Labyrinth Gate were originally published under the name Alis A Rasmussen but are being re-published here as by Kate Elliott, to go along with all the rest of my books.

Open Road Media creates their own covers. As far as I know they do not re-use old covers and old illustrations. For one thing, there are additional costs involved. For another, print covers don’t always translate well to the small thumbnails frequently seen online. For a third, cover aesthetics change and what looked great in 1990 isn’t necessarily right for design today.

So I want to talk about whitewashing, which is commonly defined as depicting a non-white character (on a book cover or on screen) as a white character. There’s been a lot of talk about whitewashing, a lot of frustration, a lot of pushback. So maybe you wonder, sometimes, if anyone in publishing or Hollywood is listening?

In June my agent forwarded me the eight preliminary covers, which he had just received from ORM. The art department had chosen a unified look for the covers: An upper half that is a landscape (for Jaran) or a space scape (for Highroad), and a lower half that is a close up of the heroine’s face. Each cover is then washed with a different color filter to further differentiate the individual volumes. I think they’re strong designs that look good and show up well as thumbnails also.

But there was one problem.

While the Jaran covers are fine, the Highroad covers they sent featured a generic white girl whereas the main character is mixed race East African/East Asian (the story is set in the future and not on Earth so Earth ethnicities don’t quite pertain).

I wrote back immediately to my agent: “PLEASE GOD DO NOT PUT A WHITE GIRL ON THE COVER.”

My agent immediately replied: “that’s a critical point — I won’t allow any compromise on this.”

But you know what? I didn’t need the caps, and there was no attempt at compromise. The INSTANT the art department was alerted, they found a different model. A new draft of the covers arrived THE NEXT DAY.

Here is the cover for The Highroad Trilogy, Volume One: A Passage of Stars.

Elliot_Passage copy

So while there is still a long way to go, some people are definitely listening.

Two Spiritwalker Questions, Answered (Names, and Endings)

As promised, I’m working my way through all the Cold Steel Giveaway questions. If you asked one (here, on LJ, or on Tumblr), it will get answered.

Both these questions came from Tumblr.


pretendtofly asked: Were you completely satisfied with the end of the Spiritwalker Trilogy? Do you think there could be more to the story or did you choose to tie up all the loose ends so to speak?

The actual written ending is exactly the ending I was headed for, so I am completely satisfied with the end of the book.

As a writer I tend not to “tie up all loose ends” just because in my experience of life the big conflicts and drama and politics and so on aren’t neatly tied up, ever. I like endings in which some elements are well satisfied and others are left a bit open, just like in life.

Could there be more of the story?  SURE.

There is a lot left to write about in the Spiritwalker universe. In fact, as a medium term project I hope to write some short fiction set in the world (some prequels and some sequels to the trilogy) and publish it as a collection. This isn’t something that would come out soon, however, as I’m currently working on a YA fantasy (aka Little Women meets Count of Monte Cristo in a fantasy world inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt) and a new epic fantasy trilogy (not related to Spiritwalker).

However, the Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (with illustrations by Julie Dillon) is in production and I’m hoping will be available by mid to late August.


 sparklyslug asked: The names Beatrice and Catherine made me think of the two awesome heroines from Much Ado About Nothing and the Taming of the Shrew (because I’m a dork for Shakespeare, it’s true). Was that your intention in naming them? Did you have any specific idea behind giving them those particular names?

So you are quite correct.

The characters started life as Cat and Bee. I always knew that Cat’s name was Catherine and for a while Bee was Bianca because of The Taming of the Shrew.

However, one of the common etymologies of Bianca is that it derives from ‘blanca’ (‘white’) and that simply wouldn’t work for a girl of North African/Phoenician ancestry.

By contrast, two common etymologies for Beatrice are that it comes from “beatus” “happy” or “blessed” and/or from Viator which means a voyager. Those both seemed far more appropriate while still leaving Bee as her nickname.

Catherine is generally understood to come from a Greek root, meaning “pure,” but there is another etymology that suggests the name comes from the goddess Hecate who is, among other things, goddess of the crossroads (and thus someone who leads people to the afterlife).

For more about the inspirations for the trilogy, and how The Taming of the Shrew figures into it, read this post I wrote on “Inspirations and Influences” at review blog The Book Smugglers.

Penultimate Update on The Secret Journal Of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (maybe)

The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal

Words by Kate Elliott

Illustrations by Julie Dillon


The layout and design is basically complete and proofed. The printer is out of town next week but a proof will be run the week after next and then a printing. Our hope is that the perfect bound (not stapled) 36 page 6×9 chapbook will be available in mid to late August.

At the time it is available I will post here and everywhere and direct you all to an order page (the distributor is Crab Tank). Domestic US and International orders will be taken.

The print version will cost $7.00 US ( + postage).

An e-version will come out soon after. A price of $3.99 has been bandied about and I think that is likely to hold.

worldbuilding top to bottom (Q&A)

Many months ago on Twitter I asked people what world building questions they had that they would like me to answer. Several of the questions seemed to me to fall into a set that was more about the mechanics of how to organize and approach world building and less about specific world building choices.

How early in the story do you need to know the world? Before you start, or as you get to pieces you need? (Colleen W)
I am curious about the level of detail to start out with vs. what is filled in later? (Stephen M)
Your fave method top>down vs. bottom>up. How detailed is enough? (Sunny K)
Is world building an inductive or deductive process? (Paul W)
Any ideas about developing a society and culture & keeping track of it as it evolves. (Christine F)

In many ways I am not an orderly world builder. I do not sit down and fill out notebooks of material before I start writing. I do not build my world first and then put a story in it. At the same time, I do not wing it from the start, writing into the unknown and making things up as I go along and as they seem necessary or appropriate.

I have no objection to either of these ways of doing things for the same reason that I believe every writer has to figure out her own process. Other writers have other ways of working.

I do not believe in or promulgate “one true path.” I talk about my process because it is what I know. You have to figure out what works for you.

How do I world build? Where do I start?
For me, the world and the story develop together.

Generally (and with some exceptions), my process works like this.

I get an almost filmic image of a character, in a scene, and the character is doing something, interacting with someone or something; but regardless the scene itself has a focus around that character.

In Crown of Stars, that initial image became the scene where Alain walks across the ridge as a storm comes in off the sea bearing with it a woman in armor, whom he meets. In Spiritwalker, the initial image was a young woman seated beside her cousin and looking out through a paned glass window as a carriage arrives outside.

The initial image/scene gives me some information about the world. Crown of Stars had landscape with the feel of medieval Europe. By the evidence of the type of window and the carriage, Spiritwalker wanted to be set in an equivalent of the 18th or 19th century.

At this point I will usually write an initial version of the scene. This first and rawest draft will never be published anywhere or seen by anyone except me. I may push a little past that scene into writing bits and pieces of other scenes or I might write notes or sketches of what could happen next.

As I do this I am continually making decisions about small details. These details start creating the bare-bones framework that the world will ultimately be built on because details tell you a great deal about the social and physical landscape.

For instance, if I introduce a character as a girl who is selling fruit in the marketplace, that means she lives in a culture where girls and women can sell goods in the market and in fact it may be both common and accepted for them to do so; that tells you something about Mai’s home town in the Crossroads Trilogy.

A boy (Alain) dreams of going to war as a soldier, an enterprise he believes to be glorious and noble and good, but he is also sure that because of his humble birth and isolated village he is fated for a more mundane life (Crown of Stars). The details of his daily life and his dreams set the stage for what follows both in his choices and in the sort of world he lives in and what its cultural markers are.

Small details that slowly accrete as I write and thereby become woven into a larger whole are only one aspect of how I build up a world.

There comes a point where I have to stop writing snippets and scenes, where I have to stop focusing on details and step back to consider the big picture, the overarching geographical and cultural elements. Some of these big picture issues I may have considered in advance and simply not referenced yet.

For example with Crossroads I had a map very early on while with the Spiritwalker books I knew that the ocean would be lower (and thus the continents and islands larger) but I did not, for example, draw the map for the Americas until I started working on book two (Cold Fire) when I needed it.

Sometimes an entire element of culture, landscape, technology, or what have you simply may not be important enough at that point that I need to delve into it (it is also confusing to reference landscapes, cultures, and details that don’t pertain to the immediate plot). When it becomes important, then I stop to think it through because now it matters within the plot and informs the forward momentum of the story.

Additionally, if I have to do a huge amount of research I find I have to pace myself; I can’t do it all at once nor can I intellectually absorb several different strands of research at the same time. So for example in Spiritwalker I concentrated in book one on the Mali/Mande, Celtic, Phoenician, and Roman elements (a truly vast amount of material to become even marginally familiar with) and left the situation the Americas fairly vague (using Cat’s relative ignorance of the Americas as my cover), and then delved more deeply into the setting of the Americas once the narrative moved to the Antilles.

In general I prefer to know as much as possible about background and landscape as I write, but there are times (as above) when I literally cannot take in that much information all at once so I focus on one element or region of landscape and culture knowing that I’m going to get to another one later.

Other times it is preferable for me to wait because unexpected ideas or synchronicities can emerge as I work. In fact, some of the best twists evolve organically out of an evolving landscape that would and could not have shown up if I had sat down beforehand and worked it all out before I had started writing the story and living in the world through the characters.

I have learned to be patient, that it is sometimes important to sit back and not over-prepare, to let things come to me out of the aether. It is always amazing to stumble across exactly the thing I need, in the strangest place, the last place I would think to be looking. This process of suddenly finding a piece of information that illuminates a plot complication or a character or cultural question in just exactly the right way to complement the story happens again and again. I don’t know how to explain it.

Yet I do also do a great deal of targeted research and landscape creation to order to build up as grounded a reality as I can manage.

SO: I build a basic scaffolding (the big picture) and enough details to give me a fundamental sense of place. From that point forward big and small develop in tandom. The map reveals the territory. Details limn the culture.

For the Crossroads trilogy I put together several 3-ring binders with lists and lists of details, things like a list of the names of plants and foods, information on the gods and the cosmology, and even a cost of living table (so useful!). [A wiki would serve the same purpose.] By having them available for easy reference, it is easy to make things consistent and to build on what has come before.

As well, these details really do illuminate the larger culture in a way a long chronology of the land’s history would not (although I usually have a version of that, too). I find that material culture and the religious, cosmological, and artistic sensibilities of a place are crucial to the way I write. I want to know how they grow food and how exchange works in the culture, not just a list of kings or wars.

Characters have an identity that has to do with who they are, where they live, and who their ancestors are/background is. People do not live in a vacuum; they are influenced by their surrounding culture(s) and by their interactions, by their upbringings and their assumptions and elements such as their basic material well being and their understanding of how society and the people around them view them and what their space may be or should be in society.

My goal is always to create an architecture of a world that has both the frame and the ornament, if you will. I have to have a sense of what I want to build before I can truly start but I also have to leave myself open to the unexpected discovery. For me, the heart of world-building lies in that balance.

Update: “The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal”

I wanted to post another illustration but WordPress isn’t letting me upload anything here and I don’t at the moment have time to figure out why.


The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal is in production.

The 29 black and white illustrations by Julie Dillon are in and they are FABULOUS.

The layout has turned out to be more complicated than expected which is why there is a delay, but it is getting closer to being complete, after which the material will be proofed and then taken to press.

I do not yet have a link to an order page (we’re doing this all ourselves so my apologies) but I will link to it here as soon as I do.

I’m hoping that publication will be in August 2013.


The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal

Words by Kate Elliott

Illustrations by Julie Dillion

Layout and cover design by Joseph Eichstaedt

Editing by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein

Printing by ColorHausPDX

Distributed by Crab Tank Press
First Edition, 2013


How do cold mages cook? (Q&A)



garputhefork asked: I can’t remember if this was addressed in book 1 (and I’ve been hoarding book 2 until the last book was released), but how the hell do cold mages cook anything? (Not that one would actually lower him/herself to take a turn in a kitchen…)

Thank you for the excellent question!

The kitchens of mage Houses are separate from the main part of the house where the cold mages live. House members who aren’t mages may work/live in areas heated directly by fireplaces and stoves, and they would certainly be assisted by servants (who would like do the scullery work, etc). These separate buildings are where the cooking is done (then transferred to the main house eating hall for meals). The hypocaust systems warm the main house (with the furnace sourced far enough away from the cold mages that their magic won’t put it out). Also, cold mages feel the cold less than non-mage people do, so they don’t need it quite as warm as you or I might.

This is addressed tangentially in book one and directly in book three.

Also, regarding cooking: I postulate that, based on my reading of cultural aspects, cooking is almost exclusively done by women and is a highly respected skill. A woman born into the House who has no mage ability but who is a good cook and a good “house administrator” (remember the mage Houses might have anywhere from 50 – 300+  members) would be respected and valued within the mage House and could attain additional status through her cooking and administration efforts. Again this is touched on tangentially in book three, and in book two as well (although in book two it’s not within the context of a mage House).


NOTE: When I held the Cold Steel Giveaway, I received many many questions, here on this WordPress site, on Livejournal, on Tumblr, and a few on goodreads. Over the next two months I’ll be answering the questions one or several (related ones) at a time, under the tag #Q&A

This question came from Tumblr and was originally answered there.

Cold Steel Signed Copies

If you’re interested, there should be signed copies of COLD STEEL (and some backlist) at Powells (Portland), Mysterious Galaxy (San Diego), and University Bookstore (Seattle). Borderlands (San Francisco) has some backlist but they sold out of Cold Steel at the signing.

I encourage you to support indie bookstores if you can. Any of these stores can take your order for a signed copy and ship the book to you. They all host wonderful events and I thank them for hosting me and my co-eventers (Katharine Kerr, Andy Duncan, and Lilith Saintcrow).

Doing Research (D.B. Jackson with advice for writers)

I was recently asked if I had any advice on how to do research (for writing fiction), and it seemed like the best way to answer the question was to ask a writer who has a lot of experience doing research (he has a PhD in US History) to talk about how he does research.

Fortunately my query to D.B. Jackson coincided with the release of his latest novel, Thieves’ Quarry (Tor Books), the second of his intriguing historical fantasy series the Thieftaker Chronicles, so he readily agreed, and I am excited to be able to offer this guest post on doing research.



Doing Research for Fantasy Novels

By D.B. Jackson

After writing epic fantasy for more years than I care to count, I have taken a new path in my career, combining my love of fiction and magic with a long-standing passion for history. The novels of my Thieftaker Chronicles, THIEFTAKER (Tor Books 2012) and the recently released THIEVES’ QUARRY, have allowed me to blend fictional elements of storytelling — a cast of imagined characters, murder mysteries, a magic system — with real-world historical events that occurred in colonial Boston during the years leading up to the American Revolution. The result is something I have called Historical Urban Fantasy, or alternatively, “Tricorn Punk.”

The historical details that I’ve sprinkled throughout the books are the fruits of a great deal of research, some done specifically for the books, and some done years ago, when I was getting my Ph.D. in U.S. history. Research is one of those things that writer’s talk about a lot, but never really explain. Many of us assume that if we know how to click a mouse or read a book, we know how to do research. That’s not always case. And in today’s world, where there is a nearly unlimited number of potential sources, it is more important than ever to have a game plan in place before we begin our research. So with that in mind, I thought I might share a few suggestions that I have found helpful while working on the Thieftaker books.

1. Start with questions: This is perhaps the most important thing I do to facilitate my research, and it’s something I start on before I open a single book or visit a single web site. I generally don’t begin my research until I have some sense of what my book or series is about and where I want my narrative to go. So I suppose technically THAT would be the starting point. The point though is that I want my research to be directed. I hear all the time from aspiring writers who tell me that they started researching a book and got so involved in the research that a year later (or two, or three) they still had not written the book. Yes, for those of us who proudly fly our Geek Flag, research is fun. But we’re writers, and ultimately our research has to have a purpose.

When I started researching the Thieftaker books, I knew that I needed to know certain things. My lead character, Ethan Kaille, spends a lot of time in the streets at night, investigating murders. So, did Boston have street lamps in the 1760s, when my books take place, or were the streets dark? (They were dark; street lights were put in place in 1774, with Paul Revere leading the effort.) How many people lived in Boston at this time? (15,000) What industries thrived in the city and its environs? (Shipbuilding, distilling, ropemaking, among others) Obviously, I had more questions than this. And that list of “Things I Needed to Know” was the starting point for my work. Now, to be clear, as I began my research nearly every answer I found led to two more questions. But that was okay. Often the key to learning is figuring out first what you DON’T know.

2. Use books first: One hears jokes all the time about the unreliability of information available on the web. In a moment I’ll address this, but for now let’s just say that while there is a good deal of valuable information to be found online, there is also some sketchier stuff. Traditionally published nonfiction books tend, on the whole, to be better sources, for the simple reason that the information they contain has been vetted. It has been looked over by editors; authors have had to assure their publishers that their facts are . . . well, factual.

Clearly we can’t find everything we need in books. There are so many published monographs out there, and our chances of finding the exact ones that will answer every question we have are slim, to say the least. I turned to a friend in the field — in this case, a historian at the local university — who suggested a number of titles. Our friends know stuff that we don’t. It makes them interesting; it can also make them quite handy to have around.

Yes, the web is fast, it’s convenient. But books are the most reliable starting points. With the Thieftaker novels, I read, or at least spot-checked (using the indexes to find specific details) more than two dozen books and articles. Some I used far more than others. A few became something akin to bibles; others were good for one or maybe two little details. But I was starting with sources I trusted and that was important to me.

3. Be discriminating when using the web: There actually is a great deal of accurate and valuable information available online. The secrets are knowing where to find this information and being smart about what you trust and what you double-check. Sites connected with universities (sites ending in .edu) tend to be reliable, although not all of them. Sometimes these sites will contain the work of established scholars. Sometimes they will contain the work of undergraduates writing a term paper the night before it’s due. Use your judgement. Sites established by historical societies or even private historical enterprises proved invaluable during my research. I went to the web sites of the Bostonian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Colonial Williamsburg (which isn’t near Boston, but which has lots of information about everyday life in colonial America).

But not all sites will be so obvious in their qualifications. That doesn’t mean you have to ignore them. It just means that you should be careful. I found a document online that was written by an architecture firm that does historical renovations. I never would have thought to look for it, but upon finding it I knew immediately that I could trust it. On the other hand, in researching Boston’s political history, I found several sites that had obvious ideological agendas relating to today’s politics. I didn’t trust the information on these sites unless I could find confirmation on non-polemical sites. Use common sense. Use your judgment. Don’t be in so much of a rush that you blindly accept the first thing you find.

4. Know when to stop: This might well be the hardest thing to do when it comes to research. As I’ve said, research is fun, and those of us who are geeks tend to lose ourselves in the research process. That’s why having specific questions to answer is so important. On one level, the easy way to know when to stop is simply to answer all the questions and then quit. The problem is, there are always more questions. But when I’ve reached a point where I am repeatedly spending entire days of research on only one or two questions, that’s when I know I need to stop reading books and searching the web, and start writing my novel.

I will have more questions as I work my way through the book. I know this because it happens with every book. At certain points I will have to stop writing and do a bit of spot-research to find those answers. That’s fine. As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of the creative process. But I am a writer. I get paid when I finish a book. So, the sooner I start writing, the better off I am.

I could say far more about researching the Thieftaker books, but that can only help you so much. Each one of us has unique research needs. What I’ve offered here are starting points, things you might want to consider as you begin to research your next project. But perhaps you have your own ideas of what works best for you. How do you begin your research? What steps do you take to stay focused and not get lost in the process? Let’s discuss it.


D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasy, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, came out in 2012 and is now available in paperback. The second volume, Thieves’ Quarry, has just been released by Tor Books. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.