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Beyond Her Goals: Elaine Cunningham on Writing a Pathfinder Novel

Posted on March 2, 2012 by Flames

The Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch by Elaine Cunningham and Dave Gross tells the story of Declan, a magical mapmaker, and Ellasif, a diminutive barbarian from the Lands of the Linnorm Kinds.

“Some people are born knowing what they’re meant to be,” said Cunningham. “Ellasif is one of them, and from a very early age she was determined to become a fighter despite her apparent physical limitations.”

Together, Declan and Ellasif search for a missing child and in the process discover a lot about what it means to be a hero.

A veteran of shared world settings, Cunningham has written extensively in the Forgotten Realms. Her Realms work includes the Songs and Swords pentalogy, Starlight and Shadows trilogy, and the Counselors and Kings trilogy, as well as Evermeet: Island of Elves and City of Splendors: a Novel of Waterdeep (with Ed Greenwood). Her Realms stories were collected in The Best of the Realms, Book III: The Stories of Elaine Cunningham. She contributed Dark Journey to the New Jedi Order series set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Much of Cunningham’s backlist has been released in e-book format, including her creator-owned Changeling Detective Agency novels Shadows in the Darkness and Shadows in Starlight. Her new e-original series, Tales of Sevrin, follow the adventures of Fox Winterborn and his companions through a clockwork world of sorcery, secrets, and suspicion.

It is a grand time, indeed, to be a fan of Elaine Cunningham’s fiction!

Below, Cunningham and I talk about Golarion, unusual magic, and the nature of heroism.

What drew you to the world of Pathfinder? And how’d you come to write a Pathfinder novel?

    Oddly enough, I was first drawn to Pathfinder by the idea of writing serial fiction. Not long before, I’d outlined a six-part novella for a project that I decided not to pursue, but I liked the format and the narrative scope of a 30,000-word story. So I was already thinking in these terms when James Sutter approached me with the idea of writing a story for the Pathfinder Journal feature of the Legacy of Fire adventure path. The result was Dark Tapestry, a novella about a kick-ass, half-elf druid, a water witch in the desert land of Osirion. I had fun writing Channa Ti’s story and I liked working with the folks at Paizo, so when I heard they were planning a fiction line I pitched several story ideas.

    What’s the coolest thing about Winter Witch?

      Declan has an unusual magical ability, something that comes from the sorcery in his bloodline rather than his training in wizardry. This particular bit of magic lies outside of the Pathfinder game rules, but the editors decided it fit well enough to include.

      And what’s the coolest thing about the world of Pathfinder that does not appear in your novel?

        The notion of a country settled by retired heroes. I love this idea, not only because it offers so many possibilities, but because I’ve not run across this concept in any other game setting.

        Where does a novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, event, somewhere else altogether? Where’d Winter Witch start? And how’d you develop the novel from there?

          Different novels start in different places. Sometimes it’s an idea, or the juxtaposition of ideas. Two unrelated facts in the Old Gray Boxed Set–King Zaor of Evermeet died around the same time as an elven settlement in distant Evereska was reinforced—got me thinking about possible cause-and-effect scenarios. The result was Elfshadow, my first novel.

          For Winter Witch, I suppose that setting was the first step. I pitched story ideas set in various corners of Golarion, but given my Slavic ancestry, I was particularly interested in the elements of Slavic folklore that went into the land of Irrisen.

          Did you and Dave Gross already know each other before you collaborated on Winter Witch?

            I met Dave at Gen Con about 14 years ago, but we’d worked together before that. He was the editor of Dragon Magazine and Star Wars Gamer during the years I was writing short stories for both publications. Dave stepped in to finish the novel when I was unable to do so, so it wasn’t something we’d planned from the beginning. I was very happy to have him on the project, though. Dave’s a very good writer.

            What makes Ellasif tick? What does she learn about herself by the end of the novel and what did she teach you by the end of writing the novel?

              Ellasif was accustomed to overcoming obstacles and achieving what she set out to do, and she’d come to believe that she could do anything she set her mind to. To people of formidable will and drive, it can come as a shock to realize that sometimes you . . . can’t. Accepting help from others doesn’t come easily to people like Ellasif. More importantly, she needed to learn that her goals aren’t the only things to consider. She needed to learn to relinquish control and let other people choose their own paths.

              How does the interaction between Ellasif and Declan develop their individual characters? What spin do you put on the buddy fantasy?

                Dave put it very well when he observed that in this story, Declan is the maiden who needs rescuing. That’s a bit ironic, since Declan desperately wants to be a hero. He takes care of his childhood friend and her daughter, and he drops everything to rescue an apparent maiden in distress. When he and Ellasif start their journey together, Declan really doesn’t have a clue. Ellasif is the backbone and the muscle of their duo, but the power dynamic shifts toward a new balance as Declan begins to accept his magical abilities, and Ellasif begins to understand and respect them.

                All in all, what is the (or one of the) central question(s) at the heart of Winter Witch?

                  The nature of heroism is an underlying question in many fantasy stories, and this story focuses primarily on the “rescue” aspect of heroism. If you’re a hero, you save people. That’s the accepted definition. But Winter Witch questions that assumption on several different levels.

                  What’s next for you? Any plans to return to the world of Pathfinder?

                    I’m currently writing Word of Honor, the third book in the Thorn Trilogy. This is the introduction to Tales of Sevrin, a direct-to-ebook series of short fantasy novels. The first two, Honor Among Thieves and Honor Bound, are available online.

                    As for Pathfinder, I’d like to write a short story that picks up after “The Illusionist,” a short story published on the Paizo site as Web Fiction. I liked the interaction between the two characters—Bonali Kwazeel, a serious and somewhat naïve student from the Mwangi expanse, and Jamang Kira, the smarmy, strutting little villain-in-training who outwits him. It seems to me that a rematch is in order.

                    Any parting words of encouragement, caution, or mischief for aspiring novelists out there?

                      Take risks, be flexible, create characters you care about and put them in the sort of stories you want to read, and never, ever miss a deadline. If you don’t take risks, your stories will be predictable. If you aren’t flexible, working with editors will result in frustration and writing in a shared-world setting will make you batshit crazy. If you don’t love your characters and enjoy spending time with them, why should anyone else? And if you miss deadlines, nothing else matters.

                      Interview by Jeremy L. C. Jones

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