If there’s such a thing as a straightforward path to becoming a writer, Audrey Coulthurst didn’t take it. “I actually never meant to be a writer,” she admits. While she wrote as a child, her focus in high school was on music and art, and when she entered college, she quit writing altogether. “I started telling myself this story that I wasn’t good enough,” she reflects. “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

After graduating with a degree in music history, Coulthurst moved to Austin, Tex., where—largely out of boredom—she took part in National Novel Writing Month. A year later, she returned home to Oregon and enrolled at Portland State University with the goal of becoming a book designer. Unfortunately, it proved a difficult field to break into, and she ultimately used her master’s degree to get a job in finance—a career she has continued. She never stopped participating in NaNoWriMo, though, and in November 2010, she completed the first draft of what would become her debut novel, Of Fire and Stars (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Nov.). “I wrote it and I threw it in a drawer,” she recalls. “But it just kept nagging at me.”

Of Fire and Stars is the tale of Princess Dennaleia of Havemont; Dennaleia is betrothed to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria as part of an alliance between the two kingdoms, but when she moves to Mynaria to fulfill her duty, she unexpectedly falls for the prince’s sister, Amaranthine. Coulthurst came to realize that she’d written a book she wished she’d read as a teenager—a fantasy in which the protagonist loves another girl, but that’s not the source of the novel’s conflict. “For me, this book has always been about being pulled in two different directions by duty and by your heart,” Coulthurst says. That kind of story is universal, she adds. “Everyone has fallen in love with the wrong person at least once.”

Coulthurst’s lifelong love of horses also helped shape the novel. “A lot of writers will throw horses into their fantasy books without knowing anything about them,” she says. “You can tell when people have learned about horses from watching horse movies.” She has ridden horses for more than 20 years; she wanted to write a book in which horses not only were depicted accurately but also were important to the kingdom and were part of the world building. “It’s for all my horse girls out there,” she says.

In 2012 Coulthurst began revising the book in earnest, and in 2013 she earned a spot at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s retreat for emerging writers, where she had the chance to study with YA author Malinda Lo. Later that year, Coulthurst participated in Pitch Wars—an experience that she calls “instrumental” in getting her manuscript ready to query and in securing the representation of agent Alexandra Machinist at ICM Partners. Coulthurst did some additional revisions with the help of Machinist, who then sold the book to editor Kristin Daly Rens.

Coulthurst credits Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons for her love of improper princesses. “That book really changed me as a reader and inspired me a lot as a writer,” Coulthurst says. And it was Malinda Lo’s Ash that taught her that real-world prejudices don’t have to carry over into fantasy novels.

HarperCollins will release the follow-up to Of Fire and Stars in 2018. Tentatively titled Ink Mistress, the story is set in the same universe as her first book but takes place hundreds of years earlier and in a different kingdom. “It’s about a girl who’s a demigod, and she can change the future by writing in her blood, but only at the cost of her youth,” Coulthurst says. She has also cowritten a contemporary YA novel with friend and critique partner Paula Garner, which will be published by Candlewick Press.

Coulthurst hopes to continue working in YA—a category that she enjoys both reading and writing. “Maybe I’ll genre jump someday,” she concedes, “but I’ll probably stick with YA for a while. I really am drawn to coming-of-age stories.”