Interview: Graduate & Guest Lecturer E.C. Ambrose

Elaine IsaacAuthor and Odyssey graduate E.C. Ambrose will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She writes knowledge-inspired adventure fiction including The Dark Apostle series about medieval surgery, The Singer’s Legacy fantasy series (as Elaine Isaak), and the Bone Guard international thrillers (as E. Chris Ambrose). Her latest releases are Bone Guard Two: The Nazi Skull, and The King of Next Week (Guardbridge). In the process of researching her books, Elaine learned how to hunt with a falcon, clear a building of possible assailants, and pull traction on a broken limb. Her short stories have appeared in Fireside, Warrior Women, and Fantasy for the Throne, among many others, and she has edited several volumes of New Hampshire Pulp Fiction. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Elaine has returned there to teach, as well as at conventions and writer’s groups across the country. She has judged writing competitions from New Hampshire Literary Idol to the World Fantasy Award.

Elaine dropped out of art school to found her own business. A former professional costumer and soft sculpture creator, Elaine now works as a part-time adventure guide. In addition to writing, Elaine creates wearable art employing weaving, dyeing, and felting into her unique garments. To learn about all of her writing, check out RocinanteBooks.com.


As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

The most important thing about your first works are to FINISH THEM. We tend to obsess about where to start, how to start, how to handle this or that thing, or (heaven forbid!) which publisher or agent to send this book to when it turns out to be brilliant, because of course it will be. Or we fret that it just won’t ever be good enough and polish the same three chapters over and over every time we feel we have leveled up as a writer. But here’s the deal. You can’t level up until/unless you finish things. The only way to really learn how to write a story arc is to complete one. Then another. Then another, then get feedback on them and write another one. Then study some of your favorite stories with your newly jaundiced writer’s eyes, then write another. Finish things. The first ones won’t be great things, most likely, but they will teach you how to middle and how to end. Learning how to middle and how to end will help you understand where and how to begin. Focus less on polishing and revising and more on delivering words of story on the page. Bonus: when you finish a thing, it feels really good!

Your books are rich in historical detail. How much time do you spend researching before you start writing? What have been your most reliable resources for research?

KingNextWeek-cover-w600pxMany of my recent works have begun with historical research where I come across some cool little detail and expand that into a concept. I have written an epic fantasy novel that began with a footnote in another book! So the research phase often begins long before I know I’m working on a book. When I am zeroing in on a novel concept, I start to gather materials probably a couple of months before I start drafting the work. I look for academic and expert sources, tracking down master’s thesis projects about very narrow and obscure topics (your interlibrary loan librarian is a wonderful person to reach out to). When possible, I go for original sources—the stuff that people actually wrote during the time or place I need to know about. I also look for archaeological sources, where I get a sense for how people really lived, what they made, what they used, what materials they had access to. That kind of material culture helps me to envision the world of the characters.

Specialist museums are a great source and often have information online for their exhibits and collections, including videos, walkthroughs, layouts for historic rooms (or ships, like the U-505 submarine I was researching), and links to even more specific and detailed sources.

The best sources though? Going there. If it’s possible to be in the place you’re writing about, even if it’s a different time, you get a sense of the landscape, the weather, the light, the natural resources in a more powerful way than you can from the web. Often, you’ll find smaller local resources—like the town’s historical society, where they store clippings, letters, and photos, or artifacts and local items to interrogate.

You’re known for being tough on your characters. What advice do you have for writers to make things harder on their characters and raise the stakes?

I often custom-make conflicts to push the buttons of a particular character. What will make this person really uncomfortable? What, based on their own fears/hopes/background/goal, would be the worst thing to happen to them? Part of it comes down to, “Why is this the right protagonist to confront this conflict?” Specificity is key. I’m also looking for collisions between internal and external conflicts—getting the character into a position where they must choose between two priorities or values, both of which they believe they can’t compromise. To that end, I brainstorm large and small conflicts on several levels: internal, personal, interpersonal, local, regional, societal, national, epic, existential. Then I interweave them through my outlining process.

What is a novel you read recently that stood out for you? What elements worked well?

I had the chance to read The Light Years by R.W.W. Greene for a possible blurb (which I did), and the book is now available everywhere. This is the story of a bespoke bride from a poor area and, simultaneously, the young man on a spaceship whose family paid for her birth, upbringing, and education. It asks probing questions about ethics and human potential, and I enjoyed the contrast between the two very different perspectives.

At some point, all writers experience writer’s block. How have you dealt with it?

bone guard two version copy 2If it happens in the middle of a project, writer’s block is usually an indicator that I’ve just made a wrong turn in the manuscript. I made the wrong choice, forced the character to do something counter to their goals or motivations, or simply failed to confront the harder or more engaging option. I take a walk, weave a yard, do something to exercise my body and creativity in some other way, and return to the project. If I re-read the last chapter or scene, I will likely see what’s not working and trim back, then rewrite from the part that works.

But it has also happened between books, or when I was between agents or contracts and began to lose hope that I would sell another book. I grew despondent, thinking that it just didn’t matter if I ever wrote again. I had a friend in a similar circumstance, so she and I became accountability partners. We agreed to write at least 100 words a day and email each other when we were done. At first, it was painful, and every word took an eternity, but I kept with it and before too long, like a train picking up speed, I was writing 300 or 500 words, and finally back to writing at my own pace. I have since become accountability partners with several other writers, and it can make a big difference to feel that someone else is counting on you.

Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson has collected 750 rejection slips over the course of his career. How many rejections have you received on a single story? What is your philosophy about rejections?

In terms of short stories, I tend to give up waaaaay too quickly. Six? Eight? It took me too long to recognize that some of those were, in fact, personalized rejections. Editors don’t have to say, “Please send more.” So the takeaway there is, don’t self-reject! Send again. When I moved on to novels, I became more persistent, perhaps because the stakes were higher and it was more important to me to succeed. My Dark Apostle series sold to the one publishing house I hadn’t tried to approach yet, when I began to think I was running out of places. I have two novels on submission right now that I keep thinking have run out of options, but new options arise all the time—and it only takes one. There’s a quote that I first heard attributed to the Girl Scout who holds the world record for cookie sales (who is now a sought-after marketing consultant). You’ll see a number of variations of this, but the one I like says, “Some will. Some won’t. So what? Who’s next?”

You can’t control the marketplace, or who will respond to your work (or when!), or what readers are excited about now (or what editors think readers will be excited about next year). What you can control is your own writing approach. Keep going. Try something new in terms of marketing or writing. Keep improving, and keep trying.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

Always!! Right now, I am working on the next volume of my international thriller series, Bone Guard (about a former special ops intelligence officer who starts a private firm protecting historical and cultural resources). I am researching for my next historical novel, so I am excited about that. I also have two novels that are waiting for re-reading and revision. Oh—and maybe pitching a game company. So, yes, always!!

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