Keeper of Tales Trilogy Timeline
If you’re interested in my creative process or how the trilogy came into being, you’ll get insight into both on this page.
I’ve tried to avoid spoilers whenever possible.
In college, for an alternative assignment in a Women & Literature course, I wrote a fairy tale about a kingdom where women were not allowed to read. A year later, it was published in Louisiana State University's Gumbo Magazine under the title, "I, Eve." Read it here.
Summer 1993 - Winter 1996
I thought the fairy tale had some potential to expand into a children's or young adult novel. After I graduated from college, I dabbled with it on and off. All of the characters from the fairy tale remained—including Eve, her parents, Prince Ian, Old Woman, and the scarlet-breasted dragon—and new ones appeared. Notably, a side plot started to form about a woman named Aoife (pronounced ee-fah) who was somehow distantly connected to Eve.
At some point, I realized I had no clue what I was doing as a novelist, stopped working on it, and stored the files in a closet.
Long story short... I wrote a short story for a fiction writing class I took for fun in 1999, entered Louisiana State University's MFA program in 2000, turned that story into my thesis, and completed the last draft of The Mercy of Thin Air in 2003.
The novel released September 13, 2005 and was sold to 10 other countries.
January - October 2006
As I settled down after my first book's release, I returned to a short story I wrote while I was in the MFA program, intending to turn that into my second novel. The narrator amused me, and I was interested in the subjects that came up—the Vietnam War, urban development, and ecology. But no matter how much I wanted it to take off, it wouldn't.
One morning, I decided to dig out some essays I'd written in graduate school with hopes I could polish them up and send them to literary journals. Classic procrastination technique. I found the old computer I'd used in school and before. Among the folders was one I hadn't opened in a long time, which held the files for the fairy tale and the novel-in-progress I'd set aside a decade earlier. I skimmed some of the writing, then remembered I'd kept all of the drafts and notes in a box, in a closet. So I dug that out.
I still can't describe what happened during the two days I read through every page in that box. Whatever the story had been was now transformed—I could feel this—and I knew, in a very deep way, this would be my second novel. (Keep the "second novel" tidbit in mind.)
The photo above is the first page of my notebook. On page four, I have notes that the story would include some kind of plague.
My creative process for The Mercy of Thin Air repeated itself for this project. What I call my research and incubation phase (which is actually cyclical and continues for years) is a period when I keep a giant notebook of what streams through—images, bits of dialogue, fragments of an event in a character’s life, random linkages—and notes on everything I read which somehow has a relationship to what I’m working on. Months, usually years later, I’m able to sketch out the entire arc of the plot, beginning to end. By then, I already know “what” happens, and I’m often writing to discover “how” those events unfold and connect.
With Novel #2, intuition led me, more than intellect, to what I'd research. The first book I started was An Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism. Talk about a plunge into the deep end...
Just like it had been with The Mercy of Thin Air, as I read and took notes, I was getting "flashes" of the story, which I jotted down among and next to my research notes. Sometimes, I would see images, and I usually had some understanding of what the images meant on either an emotional or a "fact" level. Other times, I'd get a snippet of dialogue or a few sentences.
By now, I'd re-read and made notes on the fairy tale and novel-in-progress, which was evolving into Novel #2. I could sense the characters were shifting, taking on dimensions they didn't have before.
The first one to make a leap was Eve, the narrator. Both her name and appearance changed, noted on November 27, 2006. Readers will recognize the refrain in Books 2 and 3, "eyes the colors of night and day."
As the end of 2006 drew near, my notebook contained 124 pages—front and back—of notes about the story itself and from my research. Much of my reading focused on archetypes (I’d delved into C.G. Jung and his proteges) as well as myths, folklore, and fairy tales.
I’ve often said of my first novel, I didn’t choose it—it chose me.
With what I thought would be Novel #2, I felt the same way. I had no clue what this “choosing” would demand of me for the next 10 years.
There is nothing linear or explicable about my process. I have no say in what I receive, or when it comes. I write down as much as I can, although sometimes, it’s only a formality because some things I won’t forget.
On January 12, 2007, I jotted down what came to me, again, in a flash. A bird flew into someone’s chest and died in that person’s hands. I didn’t know who the person was, but I knew, without a doubt, what I’d seen was essential to the story. Readers of The Plague Diaries will remember this moment, which happens on the king’s coronation day. I cannot explain why I drew a swallow that day; it was too soon for me to know that swallows would be important to the story.
Not only do have no control over what I receive or when, I also have no control over where. In February 2007, I was in an evening yoga class when the first image of the Myths of the Four, well, erupted. I saw a dragon spiral through a mountain, forced up by fire. At the time, I didn’t know an entire myth cycle would be part of the story. But eventually, that came, and I wrote the cycle in two sittings in late November 2010. The entire cycle appears in The Chronicle of Secret Riven’s appendix.
Another thing I have no control over—how much. When it rains, it pours. My notebook bears witness to the periods when I was getting inundated with information. (There would almost always be a dry spell for days or weeks afterward.) The day after I got the dragon image, I was pondering some other aspect of the story, and I suddenly scrawled the question, “Was Aoife an early cartographer?” and then immediately had an image arise in relation to that. In an instance like this, that’s a firm YES. And for the next few days, I read everything I could get my hands on about mapmaking.
Readers of The Mapmaker's War will remember the tower Wyl has built for Aoife.
Late Spring – Summer 2007
An inevitable crash stalled me. It was a matter of exhaustion (the intensity of the work was getting to me) and a reckoning with one of the novel’s darkest themes—betrayal. Although I didn’t have many details, I knew the story would deal with betrayals within governments, societies, and family relationships. I would not comprehend the full extent of this for years.
A feast period.
In the notebook, I have what I think is the first drawing of the symbol (readers, you know what this is). I have a torrent of information for that month.
On January 3, 2008, when I was reading about symbols of power, I wrote in my notebook’s margin, “As intuitionally driven as this process is, there is no escape from actual work. I might be led to a book but then I have to read it. Discovery comes in a detail—like that tiny mention of a rock quartz magnifier [noted in the book I was reading]. On some level, I’m expected to LEARN, which gives working on a novel more depth. Certainly more satisfying than just being ‘given’ an answer.”
By late January, I had a preliminary plot mapped out on my corkboards. At this stage, I had most of the main points, beginning to end, but the gaps were still huge.
Too huge to start writing yet. There were far more pieces to come.
Almost two years after I knew the novel would involve a plague, I learned how it was transmitted.
October 2008 – June 2009
Through the end of 2008 and the first months of 2009, I had to put the novel aside. I was forced too deep into the story at this point. Those who read The Mapmaker’s War and know how Leit got his scar—when the full knowledge of what happened to him and the child came to me, it was devastating. What I felt from those involved was almost beyond my endurance.
By Spring 2009, I was back at work, but I struggled with frustration, anger, and resistance for this project that would not ease up until the final year of writing the trilogy’s last book, which was 2016.
At this point, I still thought I was writing one epic novel—not two.
Certainly not three.
July – November 2009
Although I had a few scraps of Novel #2 written, it wasn’t until July 2009 that a burst came through. And it certainly wasn’t in the way I expected. Aoife—whose story was a sparse subplot in the novel-in-progress I’d started 16 years earlier—wanted to tell her side of things. She required me to purchase some letterpress-quality paper, and I was to write by hand. Every word.
Which I did. Within 11 days, I wrote 26,000 words—a copious spew that had no chronological order and left me with as many questions as I had answers. The majority of the handwritten text had no punctuation other than dashes separating thoughts. I typed up everything as it was, declared it absolute crap, and shoved the manuscript pages in a box.
The photo above is of the first handwritten manuscript page. Readers of The Mapmaker’s War will recognize the book’s opening sentences, almost verbatim.
In November, I pulled up the electronic file, replaced the dashes with periods, and realized there was a voice. Her voice. I cut up the typed manuscript, spread the paragraphs and sentences on my office floor, and spent the next few weeks putting her life in order and discovering where the gaps were. Because Aoife wanted her story told in second person, I made corrections to anything written in first or third.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I was still under the impression Novel #2 was going to be one epic book. Aoife’s narrative got longer, even though I told myself it would get edited down to about 5,000 words or less and included within the overarching story that belonged to Secret.
I continued to get pieces of Secret’s story, but the writing for her was blocked.
In September 2010, I went away to North Carolina for a month to write. The first chapters of what would become The Chronicle of Secret Riven were written in a converted barn overlooking a horse pasture and woods in the distance.
I'd say that month was when the writing "officially" started. The pattern I had for The Mercy of Thin Air repeated itself. When the writing kicks in, I work full days, six to ten hours a day, usually five days a week, but it’s not unusual for me to work on weekends. When the energy runs out, I’ll take a break, sometimes to do more research and thinking, sometimes because I’m exhausted.
What was different, though, was writing by hand, mostly in pencil. I wrote all of The Mercy of Thin Air on a computer. That would not be the case for this book. Well, books.
That October, I read C.G. Jung’s The Red Book—the handwritten, illustrated manuscript which recorded his earliest explorations of archetypes. What he described in that work mirrored, to a frightening degree, what I was experiencing to write my novel. I borrowed his technique of drawing mandalas to help contain and calm what was happening.
I drew the first one, “Emergence,” on December 18.
Through the first months of 2011, I spent most of my time on Aoife’s narrative.
Finally, in May, I admitted it was a separate book. So, I had what I thought would be a prequel (The Mapmaker’s War) and a sequel (tentatively titled Lead Us Whole, Beautiful Child).
In June, I sent The Mapmaker’s War to early readers. After a few tweaks to the manuscript, I sent it to my agent.
My agent approached my editor for The Mercy of Thin Air with a two-book deal—the full manuscript of The Mapmaker’s War and the first 100 pages and proposal for the sequel. At this point, I knew the entire arc of Secret’s plot and how Aoife’s story fit into it. I expected to finish the sequel by the end of 2012.
The two-book deal was finalized in November.
The work NEVER got easier. In fact, it became harder. The emotional intensity from the people of these books seemed without limits, especially from Secret. Also, the experience was different in that, with The Mercy of Thin Air, the characters came TO me, and I had some degree of agency to enter their space. With this project, they came THROUGH me, with little to no regard for my wish to be spared what they wanted me to see, hear, and feel for them. I've compared it to being caught in a dream from which you can't awaken as well as to an act of possession.
I understood, very clearly, they wanted something from me. They wanted their stories told. As much as I wanted to stop writing—and I really did—I knew that wasn’t an option. I had to see something to the end.
On February 8, the twelfth mandala I drew, “Contents Under Pressure,” hints at the gravity of the circumstances. (There's a circle drawn in pencil on this page, but what I drew isn't within the boundary, so it's not really a mandala. Several of my mandalas have content outside the circles.)
By that summer, The Mapmaker’s War went through minor revisions and final copyediting.
Through the rest of the year, I worked on Secret’s story. How very, very long it was. . .
The notebook entry for January 28, 2013 speaks for itself.
During the final weeks, I wrote with hardly a break. Those last days, I was working 14, 16 hours a day, and there was one 23-hour stretch before my exhilarated/exasperated declaration shown here.
The draft was 238,582 words. Which is, of course, insane.
On March 5, 2013, The Mapmaker’s War released. Those who have hardcover editions will notice the front cover has a triangle with the words, “A Legend.” Had the timing of things been different, it would have read, “Book 1.”
The synopsis. . .
In an ancient time, in a faraway land, a young woman named Aoife is allowed a rare apprenticeship to become her kingdom’s mapmaker, tasked with charting the entire domain. Traveling beyond its borders, she finds a secretive people who live in peace, among great wealth. They claim to protect a mythic treasure, one connected to the creation of the world. When Aoife reports their existence to her kingdom, the community is targeted as a threat. Attempting to warn them of imminent danger, Aoife is exiled for treason and finds refuge among the very people who had been declared her enemy. With them, she begins a new life surrounded by kindness, equality, and cooperation. But within herself, Aoife has no peace. She cannot share the grief she feels for the home and children she left behind. She cannot bear the warrior scars of the man she comes to love. And when she gives birth to their gifted daughter, Aoife cannot avoid what the child forces her to confront about her past and its truth. On this most important of journeys, there is no map to guide her. In this tale—her autobiography— Aoife reveals her pain and joy, and ultimately her transformation.
(I say it's Margaret Atwood meets "Beowulf.")
That Spring 2013, after my editor skimmed the behemoth beastie that was the sequel, she called to ask me if I’d consider splitting it in two. Thus, a trilogy. There was an obvious break in the manuscript—the moment Secret learns of the prophecy—so it wasn’t hard to do. At the time, I thought it would take much more effort to revise the manuscript as it was than to split it, so I agreed. In retrospect, I think I was wrong.
While I waited for my editor's comments on Book 2, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, I re-read and contemplated Book 3. I realized I had an unusual opportunity—to create a trilogy that could be read in any order. The books would work in relationship to each other, one amplifying the meaning of the others. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
The first significant change I made to Book 3 was the point of view. The third person voice in Book 2 no longer worked. I had to switch to first person, which I expected would be easier to manage. Instead, that intimacy forced me to go far deeper into the story than I ever wanted to or thought possible.
The Chronicle of Secret Riven: Keeper of Tales Trilogy, Book 2 released on May 20, 2014.
The synopsis. . .
One thousand years after a great conflict known as The Mapmaker’s War, a daughter is born to an ambitious historian and a gifted translator. Secret Riven doesn’t speak until her seventh year but can mysteriously communicate with plants and animals. Unsettled by visions and dreams since childhood, she tries to hide her strangeness, especially from her mercurial father and cold mother. When her knowledge of an esoteric symbol brings unwelcome attention, gentle, watchful Secret finds acceptance from Prince Nikolas, her best friend, and Old Woman, who lives in the distant woods.
When Secret is twelve, her mother, Zavet, receives an arcane manuscript to translate from an anonymous owner. Zavet begins to suffer nightmares and withdraws into herself. Secret sickens with a fever and awakens able to speak an ancient language, discovering that her mother is fluent as well. Suddenly, Zavet dies. The manuscript is missing, but a cipher has been left for Secret to find. Soon, Secret will have a choice to make: confront a destiny tied to an ancient past or deny it, never to know its whole truth.
(This one is Charles Dickens meets A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond.)
So then. . . Book 3, yet untitled, was due that summer. I missed the deadline. But, really, how much longer could it take?
Oh, the agonies. The gut wrenching, soul crushing labor. The writing and re-writing. This book was the most grueling of the three.
In November, I submitted the final manuscript of The Plague Diaries to my editor. I knew Part III still needed work.
Two rounds of revision, the first more intensive than the second.
Four days before my copyediting deadline in early December, I received the final piece for the trilogy—a revelation about Secret. It required me revise five or six sentences. That's it. And for me, that transformed the energy not only of the last book but also of the entire trilogy.
Ten years, one month, and 13 days from the date I started this project (or, depending on how you look at it, about 27 years and seven months), it was finally done.
The Plague Diaries: Keeper of Tales Trilogy, Book 3 releases August 29, 2017.
The synopsis. . .
Secret Riven—the mystically gifted heroine who now represses her uncanny telepathic power—works for the mysterious magnate Fewmany as an archivist in his private library. There, she stumbles upon the arcane manuscript that had vanished following her mother’s untimely death. She suspects the manuscript contains a profound secret, and she is yet unaware of its link to a thousand-year-old war and her own family’s legacy.
The tasks before her are clear: Secret must finally learn what Fewmany wants from her as well as the meaning of a strange symbol she’s dreamed of since childhood. At last, she must confront the questions haunting her and depart on a quest to find the truth about herself, her dead mother, and her fate—to unleash a Plague of Silences meant to destroy, and transform, the world as all have known it.
A dazzling, genre-bending masterwork, The Plague Diaries illuminates the power of our choices, the scars they leave, and the wounds they heal.
(It's Angela Carter meets A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.)
*sigh* It's been a long , strange journey. I am glad it's over. In spite of everything, I am immensely proud of the books.
They are my magnificent beasties.
They are miracles.
They are works of alchemy.
My hope is they transform you, as they have transformed me.
All good wishes,