Interview: Guest lecturer and graduate Elaine Isaak (E.C. Ambrose)

Elaine IsaacE. C. Ambrose will be a guest lecturer at the 2015 Odyssey Writing Workshop. She writes “The Dark Apostle” historical fantasy series about medieval surgery, which began with Elisha Barber (DAW, 2013) and continues with Elisha Magus (July 1, 2014). Other published works include “The Romance of Ruins” in Clarkesworld Magazine, and “Custom of the Sea,” winner of the Tenebris Press Flash Fiction Contest 2012. She is also the author of The Singer’s Crown and its sequels, The Eunuch’s Heir, and The Bastard Queen, published as Elaine Isaak.

An Odyssey 1997 graduate, Elaine quite enjoys her alternate identity, aside from a strong desire to start arguments with herself on social media. She blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at ecambrose.wordpress.com and can also be found at facebook.com/e.c.ambroseauthor or twitter @ecambrose. Under any name, you still do NOT want to be her hero. Learn more at http://www.TheDarkApostle.com

In addition to writing, the author works as an adventure guide. Past occupations include founding a wholesale business, selecting stamps for a philatelic company, selling equestrian equipment, and portraying the Easter Bunny on weekends.


You graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in the summer of 1997, and returned as a guest lecturer in 2011 and 2012. You’ve also taught for Odyssey Online, and you provide feedback on author manuscripts through the Odyssey Critique Service. What draws you back to Odyssey and working with developing writers?

There is so much I wish I knew when I was starting out and even after I published my first couple of novels. The experience of Odyssey was mind-blowing when I attended as a participant: I learned so much not only from Jeanne’s lectures and interacting with the guests, but also from reading and critiquing the work of the other students. So I love being involved with Odyssey as a professional writer both because I can (hopefully) give the students some of the insights I wish I had had, and also because the process of teaching and critiquing writing continues to help me learn.

In preparing to teach or in reviewing a manuscript to write up my notes and revision suggestions, I find that I think more deeply about the writing process, and I need to articulate that process very clearly to convey those thoughts to the students or the manuscript author. I believe that working with developing writers makes me a better writer as well.

In the last few years, you’ve embarked Elisha_Magus-Cover-650px-198x300on a new series–the gritty Dark Apostle series, which follows the exploits of Elisha Barber, a medieval barber-surgeon. Congratulations on the publication of Elisha Magus (the second book in the series, just released in July by DAW). What drew you to this character and this world?

This series actually grew directly from research I was doing on medieval medicine for a scene in my second novel (The Eunuch’s Heir)—and my process of research grew directly from a lecture and exercise that Jeanne gave during the week on Setting when I was at Odyssey. I found myself doing much more reading and study on medieval surgery than was needed for that single scene; then I realized I had the makings of a whole new book. I know that I’m ready to start a novel when I have a person, in a place, with a problem. In the case of Elisha Barber [the first book], I suddenly had a vision, if you will, of a man standing in a sunlit door, blood dripping from his hands, saying “My God, I’ve killed them all.” Who had he killed—and why? I had to write the book to find out. . .

I wanted to write something that took a much more realistic approach to the Middle Ages than I had with my first pseudo-medieval fantasy novels. I also wanted to capture the view from below—a character without rank or privilege, so the idea of working with a barber-surgeon was fascinating. And I got to write off a trip to England for research. 

You use several pseudonyms to publish fiction. How does a writer juggle all those pseudonyms? Do you “become” E.C. Ambrose when you write a Dark Apostle book, and Leah Brent when you write romance, or are they simply names to use to differentiate between the series?

There are a couple of answers to this question. One is purely from a marketing standpoint: the name on the cover is part of the selling package for that book, and you want readers to have an idea of what to expect. If you’re writing something that is very different in tone or genre from your usual work, a pseudonym (even if it’s an open secret) is a strong way to signal that to the reader.

However, I also tend to highlight different aspects of myself and my writing when I am writing to one of those names, and I think the interviews I give for blogs and such reflect that. Leah channels more of my sensuality, probably more humor—I feel a little more light-hearted when I’m writing as Leah, even though there may still be bad things happening in the books. The E. C. Ambrose mindset, on the other hand, is more dangerous. I take a different, maybe more cynical view on a lot of things. With Leah, I know there’s going to be a happy ending—with E. C., you just can’t tell. Everything is on the line. I feel more tense when I’m writing the Dark Apostle books, and I think some of that tense energy is channeled to the page.

I know some writers who literally wear different hats. I have different soundtracks, and I will blog or tweet about different things.

Do you approach writing romance differently than you approach writing fantasy? What changes do you make to your writing process, and what different techniques do you use?

In Romance, the relationship is key. So for Romance, you need to always be thinking about how what’s happening affects that central relationship. My plot points need to take that into consideration more so than I would in a fantasy novel. I’ll be thinking much more about the personal highs and lows of the characters, and of their interaction with each other. With Fantasy, if two characters haven’t met for a while, even if they are romantic partners, it’s just one of those things that happen when you’re busy saving the kingdom—I try to hit the right note when they meet again. With Romance, the hero/heroine need to spend a lot of time on the page together—and thinking about each other when they’re not. That’s ultimately what readers are looking for: the tension between the characters more than any external tensions.

Actually, I’ve come to realize that this is one thing that other genres need to learn from Romance, because relationships are hugely significant to characters, conflicts, and back story—whether they are romantic relationships, friendships, co-workers or what-have-you. I think my romance writing has made me more aware of the nuances of a variety of relationships so that I tend to keep them in mind as I write—not just, what is this character doing/saying/feeling, but how does this other character, with whom he has a history, influence him?

In your blog, you mention being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), and you explain that the idea for the Dark Apostle series grew out of your research on 14th century medieval medicine. Do you have any tips for writers on research? How do you know when you need to do more research? And how do you know when you’re using research as an excuse to avoid writing?

Elisha_Barber-Cover-650px-209x300I think there are three levels of research you need to write a book. First of all, there’s background knowledge. This kind of knowledge usually suggests ideas you want to write about, and you often get it, not by deliberate research, but just by pursuing stuff that interests you: reading the magazines you love, buying non-fiction titles in areas of interest, maybe visiting locations or museums just for fun. For my first novels, being an SCA member and taking a couple of classes about the Middle Ages gave me as much grounding as I needed to feel excited and capable of creating a world with a 12th-century feel.

Similarly, I had that background to apply to the Dark Apostle world. However, I wanted to make the setting more specific and detailed, and I needed specific knowledge about how medieval medicine worked and how people interacted with it. So there was a new layer of research that narrowed my scope and helped me understand enough to inhabit the character and his world. This more deliberate research provided me with ideas about characters and with specific plot points, settings and ideas to include. At this point, I have enough to start writing.

Then there are the little bits that come up as you write. These may include details of a historic setting you’ve decided to use (where were the 14th century boundaries of the Tower of London?) or other kinds of fiddly bits you didn’t know you needed until you reach them in the scene (how were tapestries hung on stone walls? What material would they use to make a fire in my quasi-Steppes world?) Most of the time, you can add this stuff later–and if you are a person inclined to dawdle on the Internet, I highly recommend creating a space-holder that you’ll come back to later–just make sure you actually do. I notoriously once sent a manuscript to my beta readers with a parenthetical that read “Lord’s Prayer in Latin” having forgotten to actually fill that in.

It can be hard to know when you have enough. For me, my typing fingers start itching. Once I have that person/place/problem, and enough research to generate a bunch of plot points, I’m ready to go. [See additional thoughts on plot below] When you have a solid general knowledge of your subject area, and enough specific knowledge of your setting and characters to create strong scenes about them—start writing. You can continue to research for details and to add even more good stuff as you go, but you’ll have the basic characters, conflicts and settings to add it to.

The same goes for world-building, by the way. You don’t need to have volumes on every aspect of your world, nor should you wait until you do to start writing. Unless you’re Tolkien, nobody’s going to read or publish that material–it’s the STORY that your readers want. When you know what the story is, it’s time to write. You can research or generate your world in more detail as you go.

In our previous interview with you, we asked what you thought your biggest weakness in your writing was, and you answered, “Finding the right balance of plot.” Is that something you would say now, having written three more books? If your weakness has changed, what is it and how do you cope with it? And how did you conquer the problem of “finding the right balance of plot”?

Well. . . a few things have happened since then. One is that I became a confirmed and dedicated plotter. When I wrote my first books, I was a pantzer: writing by the seat of my pants from characters and conflicts I knew well enough to run with. The process of developing the Dark Apostle books, along with editorial suggestions to make my concept bigger and bolder, taught me the value of brainstorming plot in advance rather than discovering it as I went. I found that, contrary to my early belief, my first ideas were rarely the most exciting ones. By the time I had a third or fifth idea for the climax, it was *really* exciting, and less likely to be based on all the other books I’ve read or on the most obvious direction to take.

I’ve also started thinking much more about structure and pacing in novels–and I have to say that being a critiquer with the Odyssey Critique Service has been a huge boost in this area because I am often analyzing why a promising manuscript flounders, and that balance of plot thing is right at the heart of it. A book might spend a long time developing a minor scene or character, then gloss over something that should have a critical impact on the plot and on the reader.

Often I need to ask, what is the heart of this book? Then make sure that my plot is developing to reveal that heart—not merely perking along, investigating cool, but possibly irrelevant, stuff.

In your teaching and critiquing, what do you find are the most common problems in the work of developing writers?

Creating and employing character motivation is one of the biggies. Motivation often develops from back story—and many new writers will throw lots of back story at you early on, then fail to relate that to how the character is now, why she makes the choices she does, and what it will mean when she faces the conflict. This same central issue might result in characters who are just pushed along by the plot (or by the author) but don’t take any action, or in characters who behave in inconsistent ways, or in conflicts the reader just can’t believe in. But, *why* would the farmboy suddenly decide to fight an army? Most people would just turn tail and run away.

The other one that comes up over and over is the lack of engagement with scenes. Either there is nothing around the characters at all—including any detail of the characters themselves (“talking heads dialog”), the setting is super-vague (“white-room syndrome”), or there is no sense of characters inhabiting that setting—putting their own stuff on the desk, or moving through the space of their world. You can’t forget about the rest of the world while a couple of characters talk (or worse, while one character thinks about things). Also, the details of setting and culture and how the characters interact with them reveal the world you’re trying to create and ground the work for the reader.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon for you?

I have a couple of books to finish up in the Dark Apostle series, but that’s well in hand. In the meantime, I am drafting an epic fantasy novel set in China around the time of the Mongol invasion, and considering a proposal for some contemporary adventure novels that I think would be a blast to write—but then, all writing is a blast!

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