(This interview was originally written for The Romance Reader in 1996.)
“Watching a story unfold is such a rush that it should probably be illegal,” says bestselling author Elizabeth Elliott.
Hailed as a terrific new talent upon release of her debut novel, the medieval The Warlord, this author is not content to rest on her laurels. Ever-eager to feel that rush, but at the same time knowing that “each time I start a story, it’s a little daunting to know (what) lies ahead of me,” she says. “I wouldn’t give up writing for anything.”
Since her debut, this author has published Scoundrel, an intensely rewarding historical (given five hearts by this reviewer) set during the Regency, and currently is hard at work finishing revisions to Betrothed, her sequel to The Warlord.
Elizabeth turned to writing after years in the medical and computer fields because, as a fan, she couldn’t find enough books to fill her habit as a reader. Her tastes vary widely — among her favorite books are the contemporary Perfect by Judith McNaught, the Americana Sweet Liar by Jude Deveraux, the unusual time-travel Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and the regency-set Lion’s Lady and Sherbrooke Bride, by Julie Garwood and Catherine Coulter respectively.
She says, “I started writing to give myself something new to read, and enjoyed the writing process so much that I decided to turn it into a career. This is the most fun, challenging, and rewarding career that I could imagine.”
After hearing Elizabeth describe her method of writing, one is left to wonder how she could possibly find it fun. Rather than scheduling certain hours for writing each day, she completely buries herself in her writing.
“When I immerse myself in a story, I start writing about 6 a.m.,” she says. “I’ll take a break around 6 p.m. to say hello to my family and take care of the kids’ daily ‘mom’ requirements, then I go back to work around 10 p.m. and work until … my forehead keeps dropping onto the keyboard. I can keep up that pace for three to four days. Then after I sleep, I trim down to 12-14 hour schedules for a day or two to read over the scenes and make revisions. At the end of that cycle, I take a day to catch up on all the non-writing projects that stack up each week. I am not a pretty picture after about a month or two of this schedule, but that’s when I do my best writing.”
Elizabeth’s work as a writer requires her to do so much research that her time spent reading romance has been tremendously reduced. However, while she admits that real history is fascinating, she adds, “It takes every ounce of energy I possess to resist the romance books that fly off the shelves at me and stockpile them until after the deadline.”
As she gains more and more experience, she has discovered that she is able to write more quickly. Elizabeth devoted nearly three years to writing The Warlord, while the Scoundrel was completed in slightly more than a year. Her upcoming release, Betrothed, has taken about 10 months to complete. Betrothed and the books to follow are sequels to The Warlord and Scoundrel. As such, their characters (or relatives of characters) are easier to flesh out because they have already existed in her mind for some time.
Strong characterizations are crucial in this author’s stories and in her own mind’s eye. She says her stories all begin for her with the unfolding of a single scene that plays itself out like a film clip. These very incomplete but compelling visions create a starting point. Elizabeth then fleshes out the details – the physical characteristics of her characters and the settings. And while she tries to sketch out in advance where she intends to go with a book, when completed the plot has generally forked off into a different direction than initially intended.
The characters in The Warlord, for example, were so real to Elizabeth that, “By the time it reached its final draft, the story belonged to Tess and Kenric, and they were the ones writing it. In many of the final revisions, I found myself little more than an innocent bystander who could type. For example, the prologue was one of the very last scenes that went into the book, and I didn’t write it as much as take dictation.”
These vivid characterizations have stayed with Elizabeth. When asked how she decided that the heroine should be treated as a prisoner after a supposed betrayal, she responded, “Oh, locking Tess up was Kenric’s idea, not mine.”
Elizabeth’s creation of such strong characters create a lasting impact for her readers. Strongly suspicious, her heroes find it difficult to trust in her heroines. Strong in their own right, her heroines do not make it easy for their heroes to trust. The resulting tension propels the stories, though her characters do not engage in the all-out warfare between heroes and heroines as is found in many a romance.
The Warlord is more traditional in this respect, as Kenric, the hero, does imprison Tess, his heroine, after she is involved in what appears to be an act of betrayal. In Scoundrel, Elizabeth approaches the romance from a very different angle. Lily, the heroine, is overheard by Remmington (at the start of the book), her hero, admitting her infatuation with him. And, in neither instance does she engage in the overworked plot contrivance where the lead characters despise each other for most of the book, yet apparently cannot resist falling into bed with each other, again and again. Of such stories she says, “They argue every minute before and after, and sometimes during sex. It’s exhausting. The average book takes me 6-10 hours to read. I’ve never had a 6-10 hour argument in my life. Emotions are the spice of life. Too much of any one ingredient can spoil the pot.”
This author prefers to focus on the mixing of good and evil rather than love with hate. “There has to be a little good in every evil, and a little evil in every good,” she says. “Balancing the two is the key, as well as the challenge. In The Warlord, Tess knew that the “evil” in Kenric would result in her people’s slaughter, yet she couldn’t help herself from seeing the good in him.”
She adds, “When she betrayed Kenric, it was a little evil of him to cut her out of his life completely, but the good in him made him suffer for the evil. With Scoundrel, the lines were a little blurrier, because the love/hate thing wasn’t going on.”
While both The Warlord and Scoundrel are based on strong characterizations, Elizabeth believes Scoundrel to be more plot-driven. I tend to disagree, although I do agree with her assessment that the stronger characterization in Scoundrel is found in Remmington. The author believes this to be the case because his character had farther to go in terms of his “rediscovering the power and innocence of absolute trust”.
Elizabeth says the voices of her characters didn’t speak as loudly to her in Scoundrel as they did in The Warlord. She believes that is a likely reason for the mixed reaction among readers and critics to Scoundrel. Scoundrel is also less obviously emotional, although I certainly found it to be intense and full of depth.
“If I had to guess about the differing responses to the stories, my guess would be that it has to do with emotions. Lily and Remmington didn’t allow me to intrude quite as often into their psyches as I did with Tess and Kenric,” says Elizabeth. “I believe what readers respond to most in a story are the scenes where the characters take control of the narrative and tell the stories themselves. There are quite a few of those scenes in Scoundrel, but even more in The Warlord.”
Continuing in her reflective mood, Elizabeth recalls what she has learned since beginning her journey as a novelist. After having written The Warlord, she was certain she had written a wonderful story. Her publisher didn’t quite agree.
“I thought point of view had to do with where someone stood on an issue, conflict took place in the Middle East, and tension could best be applied to a rubber band. The manuscript went through three major rewrites, and dozens upon dozens of smaller rewrites before I finally got it right.” *
She persevered, however, as did her editor, who heard Elizabeth’s “writer’s voice” from that very first submission. She and her editor worked to identify the story’s weaknesses, chief among them the overuse of sex. In its original form, The Warlord had much more sex than in its final incarnation (which is at the PG-13 level). After she was told how common it is for new writers to rely heavily on sex, she realized that many of her love scenes did not advance the story, and, in fact, slowed it down.
Elizabeth says she is in awe of those writers who can capture a reader with a fairly tame love scene so much that the reader’s imagination sees more than what is written. She says love scenes should always “serve some purpose in a story, aside from sexual gratification for the hero and/or heroine. Sex can deepen their emotional bond, and be the source of all sorts of realizations and revelations. Sex for the sake of sex does not hold my interest. I include the sex scenes that I feel are important to illustrate the characters’ change, growth, and/or development as it relates to the plot.”
Elizabeth’s success in this highly competitive field has been astonishing, especially to the author herself. She openly acknowledges that, “there are several authors that I chat with regularly on-line, and I doubt I would be published without the knowledge they so willingly shared. I am especially thankful to Diana Gabaldon for the advice and guidance she offered at critical points in my career.”
After having signed a standard two-book contract with Bantam, she was unprepared for its immediate success. She says that when The Warlord was released, her agent called to congratulate her. Upon being told that The Warlord debuted at number 18 on Ingram’s (the largest book distributor) list, and number 33 on Barnes & Noble, she still didn’t quite get it.
“My immediate assumption was that she referred to local bookstores, probably in close proximity to a large cluster of my friends and relatives. Even after she explained that the numbers meant the book was a bestseller, it didn’t seem quite real. Just how many copies did that crazy mom of mine order, anyway?”
She now has a new deal with her publisher, which included her participation in an anthology, and three additional full-length novels. As such, after Betrothed, we can look forward to the anthology during the summer of 1997, than shortly thereafter another sequel to The Warlord. And at a time yet to be determined, the sequel to Scoundrel will be published.
Elizabeth prefers to keep her private life just that, but she offered a few details about her background to The Romance Reader.
Several years ago she and her husband moved from Minneapolis-St. Paul to a rural lake-filled region far from the maddening crowd. “We knew there had to be more to life than frequent flyer miles and happy meals, so we quit our corporate jobs and moved here to devote more time to our family and lower our blood pressure.” In true pioneer style, they designed the house, cleared the land and did as much of the physical labor as they could.
She and husband Bill initially met while she was still a teenager, and Elizabeth claims it was an old-fashioned case of love at first sight. As is so often the case, opposites attracted. She is Oscar to his Felix (he named her car the “traveling trash can”). He likes to rough it — her idea of camping includes room service. He likes to work with hammer and nails — the only work she does with nails involves polish. And while he is gregarious by nature, she prefers the solitude of rural Minnesota. Their storybook life today includes extended family — after their retirement, her parents moved in next door, which means the kids get to stop by their grandparents’ house for cookies, milk and hugs on their way home from school each day.
This funny, determined woman has turned her love of romantic fiction into a blossoming career. Though her take-no-prisoners style of writing doesn’t leave much time for romance, she still manages to find it in the most mundane of situations, letting it slyly slip out that, “We had a romantic moment just last night. He opened a Hercules-sealed jar of Ruffles low fat chip dip, while I took copious mental notes on the sheer male beauty of bulging arm muscles. Then he washed the dishes left over from-my-lunch. Call me sick, but I find the little things in day-to-day life just as romantic as a dozen roses.”
* For greater detail on the sale of Elizabeth’s first book, her editor has written a segment in the recent Writer’s Digest Romance Writer’s Sourcebook. The segment is called Anatomy of a First Sale: THE WARLORD, and “gives an editor’s perspective on what she looks for in query letters and manuscripts.”