The first half of 2022 has brought an end for four notable YA multi-book narratives that were written, at least in part, during the ongoing pandemic, including contemporary fantasy duologies by H.E. Edgmon (The Witch King) and J. Elle (Wings of Ebony) and fantasy trilogies by Joseph Elliott (Shadow Skye) and Crystal Smith (Bloodleaf). We asked each of the authors about the origin of their series, the writing experience throughout, and what comes next for them.

H.E. Edgmon

This May, The Fae Keeper will conclude H.E. Edgmon’s duology that began with 2021’s The Witch King. The novels star Wyatt Croft, a trans teen witch who flees faery realm for the human world after losing control of his magic, leaving his traumatic past and royal fiancé, Prince Emyr, behind. In the second and final book, Wyatt and Emyr return to the faery kingdom of Asalin where opposition from within threatens to destroy their kingdom.

Do you remember your original inspiration for the Witch King duology? Where did it all begin?

The original inspiration began from two places. I grew up on fanfiction and with a love of fanfiction tropes, but I had never seen a traditionally published series that used those tropey, fanfic romance plots involving a trans main character. So, in this duology, you’ll find tropes like friends to enemies to lovers, and there only being one bed, and the arranged marriage trope—which is obviously a big one for this story. I had also seen a lot of fan art with fae aesthetics in fandom spaces. I hadn’t read the series it was referencing, but kept seeing it and thought, I want to do something with this… but I want to make it so gay.

When did you realize that this story was best told as a duology?

I always imagined it as a two-book arc. For me, book one really deals with the main character’s personal journey to deal with the trauma that he has experienced existing in society as a marginalized person. Whereas in book two, he’s still going on that journey but it’s also so much bigger than him. He’s tackling the systemic issues and history behind the way he and others like him have been and are treated. I always knew that I wanted to address both of those things and I didn’t think it could be done in one book.

How long did it take you to write The Witch King in comparison to The Fae Keeper?

The Witch King was my first published book and it took me about three months to write; and The Fae Keeper took me six weeks. But, again, that’s because by the time I sat down to write, I knew everything that was going to happen. I hadn’t totally perfected that process when I was drafting The Witch King.

What was your process to maintain character details and plot threads across multiple books?

There was a lot of going back and rereading The Witch King as I was working on The Fae Keeper! And it’s interesting because these books are written two years apart, but they take place pretty much at the same time, with The Fae Keeper picking up just a couple weeks after the events of the first book. It was exciting to sit down while I was writing the new book and see how much my writing had already changed in the year since I’d written it.

What stood out to you?

When I wrote The Witch King, I knew the kind of story that I wanted to tell and the emotions I wanted to evoke in the reader, but I wasn’t as effective at doing it as I feel like I am now. I’m very proud of The Witch King and I love the story, but the craft of writing a book is different than the craft of telling a story and I’ve gotten better at writing a book since The Witch King.

Were there times you had to pivot to accommodate unexpected plot turns or character developments?

Yes. Without giving any spoilers, there are a couple of characters who started off as one thing when I sat down to write The Witch King. It wasn’t until I was writing the end that I realized, “Oh, you’ve been hiding your true identity from me this whole time!” That doesn’t happen so much anymore because I give myself a lot more time to sit with the characters and ideas, but having to go back and make sure that characterization stayed the same throughout the book made the drafting process much longer.

Did the reader response have an impact on the second book or books you’ve written since this duology?

Reader response has had a huge impact on me. I was drafting The Fae Keeper really close to the time that The Witch King published, so I got to see a lot of people’s thoughts and feelings as I was working on book two. That was difficult, but not for the reason I expected: there was an overwhelmingly positive response to The Witch King. People have had some amazing things to say, and I’ve been blown away, but I now live with this anxiety about disappointing people. When you publish your first book, no one knows what to expect, but now there’s an element of expectation.

Is there a constant that connects the stories you feel drawn to telling?

I have always maintained that my stories are written a) through an Indigenous lens, b) to center trans experiences, and c) to give voice to the experiences of survivors of trauma. Those constants pop up throughout everything I write, whether it’s explicitly part of the plot or part of the way that the words are put down on paper. Also, there’s a dog in basically everything I write.

Best moment since The Witch King was published?

Finding out that I had made a couple best of the year lists! I was not expecting that at all! I knew those lists existed, but it felt so far out of the realm of possibility that I wasn’t even paying attention. Then an email showed up! Knowing that the book has resonated that much with someone blew my mind because this is a book that I thought would be too niche and only find a tiny little audience.

Worst moment or part of writing this duology?

Something I hadn’t anticipated, though I should have, is that I’d have moments while writing The Fae Keeper where I’d realize that, if I’d have done something slightly different in book one, it would have had a better payoff. Everyone feels that way, I think, but, once a book is out there on the shelf, it’s completely out of your hands! That has been difficult to come to terms with, but also universal.

How do you feel as you close the chapter on these characters?

I feel that this story is the one that I needed to tell first. It’s very foundational for the rest of my work and sets a tone for the kind of author that I am and the stories and characters that are important to me. The ending is the best ending that I could give to these characters and this world. It is not all wrapped up with a bow, but there is a sense of closure that I hope will resonate with readers.

What is your hope as this final book reaches readers?

I hope that it leaves people with a sense of community. That might seem like an odd thing to say, but so much of the story is a metaphor for trans experiences and much of the main character’s experiences in the first book are very isolating. There’s a more intense focus in the second book on the history of Wyatt’s community and how they’ve gotten to where they are. I wrote this series for trans people before anyone else, so I hope they walk away from the duology feeling a connection to their own community.

What’s next for you?

In the fall I have a YA fairy tale short story coming out in Dahlia Adler’s At Midnight anthology. I tackled “Snow White” and it’s pretty gruesome for a contemporary setting. It’s also my first contemporary story ever published! In 2023, I have my next YA series starter, Godly Heathens, which is another contemporary fantasy about a Native non-binary teen who lives in a tiny rural town in the South and discovers they are the reincarnated god of magic whose past selves were terrible. My middle grade debut, Flicker, is a post-apocalyptic story publishing in 2024. It deals with climate change and climate dystopia and despair from an Indigenous point-of-view, which focuses on hope. Well, apocalyptic hope.

J. Elle

In January, Ashes of Gold, the second book in J. Elle’s bestselling contemporary fantasy duology that began with Wings of Ebony, completes the story of 17-year-old Houstonian Rue who, after her mother’s abrupt death, is taken to a hidden island of magic users thousands of miles off the coast of Madagascar. There she meets her father, discovers her half-magical heritage, and investigates why she and her father are the only Black people on the island. In this final book, Rue must embrace her true identity and wield the full magnitude of her ancestors’ power to save her East Row neighborhood from the same evil she found lurking in Ghizon.

Do you remember your original inspiration for the Wings of Ebony duology? Where did it all begin?

The initial inspiration was an image in my head of my main character: Rue, standing over a body bleeding on the pavement. I didn’t know what was happening—there was no context—but I could tell that she felt incredibly sad and powerless to stop this person from dying. That was in September 2018. I started typing, trying to figure out what the story was and what she had to say. All I knew was that I wanted to write something that would put the power in her hands.

Was this your first attempt at writing a novel?

It was the beginning for me. I joined Twitter in June 2018 at the recommendation of a YouTuber who said that, if you wanted to write books and were looking for the single best platform to join, it was Twitter. I did some research and found a community hashtag that was used by writers all over the world to run writing sprints and then swap pages. I jumped right in, with no idea of how to write a chapter or how to compose a scene and no understanding of pacing or story structure. I just wrote what occurred to me, practicing for two or three months. I was writing adult characters at first, but then I sat down and started considering the young adult space. That was when Rue came to me. I wrote the first draft in 34 days and then started revising, but there was a steep learning curve. I’m a quick learner, which worked in my favor, and I learn by doing, so I revised the story something like 19 times.

When did you realize that this story was best told as a two-book arc?

I felt that it could have been stretched to a three-book structure, but I had heard early on that publishing was particularly interested in duologies and I wanted to give my book its best chance. When I started to think about how to set up the narrative, I decided to split it so each book focused on one of the two main antagonists.

Were there times you had to pivot to accommodate unexpected plot turns or character developments?

Oh completely! When I was on sub, I received an r&r from a publisher that I didn’t end up selling to. The editor gave me fantastic feedback and some suggestions to make some cosmetic changes, but the reality was that those cosmetic changes were rooted in my magic system. So, while what she was telling me seemed like a surface revision, I needed to start over. With that revision, the book took on a whole new shape, which is very much the version that is on shelves now. As I was writing that version, I thought the message of my story was the same as the old one, just more grounded in the contemporary world than the paranormal world, but there was a point where I got to the middle and I realized that Rue would need to tell her best friend everything that she had discovered. Her best friend comes from an entirely different worldview and experience, so when she finds out, the information impacts her in an entirely different way. I realized that, not only was the book exploring racism and colonization, but it was also going to have to address allyship and privilege.

Did you do any research before creating the language in the book or jumping into worldbuilding?

I would never create a language this way again! If I had a re-do, I’d do it with much more intentional grammatical? and phonetic structure. I created placeholders as I was writing, then I’d research different languages, blending the words together and then putting my own spin on it, based on how I wanted it to sound. I told myself that, when I finished, I’d go back, put the words in a document, and figure out the grammar, but I never went back. Of course, this was all back when I was a pantser!

In terms of the other worldbuilding, it was all borne out of the history of the island and its origins. Once I knew where the island came from, I considered what it would look like generations in the future. What would the people who live there believe? How would they live? For the contemporary settings, I wanted Rue’s neighborhood to be steeped in the inner-city world where I grew up, so I worked hard to bring the sights and smells to the page with lots of sensory details.

Did the reader response have an impact?

There wasn’t really time for that to happen due to the publishing schedule and because I already knew what needed to happen at the end of the second book. Who Rue would end up with from her love triangle was a big question and I knew from reader response which character most readers seemed to gravitate towards, but I wanted to make the decision independent of that and true to what Rue would do. I’m not spoiling anything, but I promise the decision was made in a vacuum, with my head down to purposely ignore reader preferences.

Is there a constant that you feel connects your stories?

Self-discovery is at the heart of the stories I tell. I love character-driven stories, so while the worldbuilding is cool and there will always be magic, what I really desire is to write stories that take my characters on a journey that readers can get behind. My books will always make readers cry, whether it be with happiness or grief; I’m going to dig into your emotions.

On a story level, there will always be marginalized characters at the center of my stories and there will always be a variety of experiences represented. Rue’s best friend is not marginalized and she’s coded white. I think it’s important that there is a tapestry of representation, but there will always be magical Black kids in my stories.

Best moment since Wings of Ebony was published?

This past weekend during the North Texas Teen Book Festival! It was the first time that I was able to meet readers in person and it was emotional and so wild. Debuting during a pandemic has been such a different experience, so I didn’t know what I was missing! There have been many silver linings of doing things virtually, like partnering with authors from all over for launch events, but I was parched for the sense of community in-person events with other authors and lines of readers provide. It felt like everything finally came full circle!

Worst moment or part of writing this duology?

It was hard to draft book two. It was due at the end of the summer of 2020, when the world was on fire. I was so physically, emotionally, and mentally drained, but I had a book to write. I will never forget giving my first draft to my beta reader before handing it over to my editor, who told me that it was good plot-wise, but that there was no emotion. And I agreed because I had nothing left to give. I was dry.

How do you feel as you close the chapter on these characters?

Someone asked me the other day if I would want to tell more of Rue’s story and I won’t say no, but I don’t know that I would because there is something beautiful about her story feeling just finished enough for the book, but not finished completely. Part of the reason I love that so much is because yes, she’s a fictional character, but she’s also so many people. There are readers who identify with her in very real ways, and I love that people add on to her story by living their own lives. The inspiration she gives my readers to go conquer the obstacles in their lives is beautiful.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing more YA and will have more news about a new series soon! In the meantime, I have a middle grade series that is launching this year, with the first book, A Taste of Magic, publishing August 30 from Bloomsbury.

Joseph Elliott

In January, Elliot said goodbye to the characters introduced in 2020 with The Good Hawk, the start of his Shadow Skye trilogy, which stars Agatha, a neurodiverse heroine who can communicate with animals. The Burning Swift, the final book following 2021’s The Broken Raven, sees the three central characters of the trilogyAgatha, Jaime, and Sigridcoming together to unite the people of Scotia as war comes to the Isle of Skye.

Do you remember your original inspiration for your trilogy? Where did it all begin?

It all began with Agatha. I had this clear image of Agatha looking out to sea against a misty, airy landscape. I knew how she sounded and her character traits; it was her voice that led me into the book. I wanted to know why she was there and why she was on the lookout for danger. I just started writing and as I went, she told me the story.

Was this your first attempt at writing? What was your journey to writing books?

I’ve always loved reading and had a secret ambition to write a book one day, but I had no idea what shape or form that might take. I’m an actor, so I started writing for myself as a performer early in my career. As I did more television work, I worked on scripts for things I was in and for different shows, and I wrote one book before The Good Hawk that was more of an adult, magical realism story. With The Good Hawk, I knew I wanted to write a book like the YA and teen fantasy that I’d always enjoyed as a reader.

When did you realize that this story was best told as a three-book arc?

As I was writing it, I thought I was writing a standalone, which I did have some notion might be easier to sell. As a reader, I prefer when books are self-contained within a trilogy, so I wanted it to work as a full story, but because of all that happens in that first book, I could see all the repercussion of things that had happened, and I was itching to discover more. By that point I’d totally fallen in love with the characters and couldn’t let them go.

How long did it take to write books two and three in comparison to the first book?

It took me two and a half years to write the first draft of The Good Hawk. Book two, The Broken Raven, took about three months because of the deadlines and other work commitments, but then we spent a year editing it. I remember, at the time, my editor said to just get it out and down on paper. With book three I knew that deadlines would be looming, so I left myself a bit more time and wrote the first draft in six to eight months, with a year of editing after.

Were there times you had to pivot to accommodate unexpected plot turns or character developments?

One thing that I’m always struck by is suddenly realizing a character is going to die. I’ll be in the middle of writing something and I’ll know. It can be very exciting, but it does sometimes throw a spanner in the works and, on the flip side, sometimes you kill a character off in one draft then realize you’ve got to bring them back because it’s not quite working. So that keeps me on my toes.

Did the reader response have an impact?

I very deliberately didn’t read Goodreads or any reviews because I think if you read something negative, it can be hard to shake it. Because I was writing a trilogy, I didn’t want my vision for the narrative arc to be impacted by anything I might read. In the very early days I read a comment, not even a criticism, that really got into my head. It was just one person with one opinion, so I knew I had to distance myself immediately.

You mentioned trying your hand at writing adult characters, but you ultimately landed in the YA space. Is this where you feel you want to stay or are you interested in writing for older, or even younger, readers?

I’m interested in all sorts really, I just love being creative. When I started writing this trilogy, I had been writing for younger people for television and comedy. Now that the trilogy is finished, I’m open to the possibilities, but I think my instinct is to stay focused on children and young adults.

Best moment since The Good Hawk was published?

A woman messaged me on Twitter to tell me that she is the mum of a nonverbal daughter who has Down syndrome. She said she read my book and felt like she was hearing her daughter speak for the first time. Little moments like that, when readers share how book has impacted them in profound and special ways, are wonderful.

Worst moment or part of writing this trilogy?

The edits for The Burning Swift! This comes from my dark past of being a pantser, but book three was tough to perfect. I was so adamant that I wanted it to be the best possible version, but there were some sticky things that I went back and forth with my editors on. As usual, they were right. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but we got there eventually.

How do you feel as you close the chapter on these characters?

It’s like saying goodbye to your best friends. They’ve been such a huge part of my life and I’ve put them through so much, which I do feel some guilt about, but they feel real to me. Finishing the books is like wishing them well and sending them on their way. I’m delighted and proud to have finished the series exactly as I wanted to, but at the same time, there is a slight melancholy to letting go of the characters. I guess one of the wonderful things about being an author is that they’ll always be around, in other people’s imaginations and when they discuss the books.

What is your hope as this final book reaches readers?

One of the ongoing themes of the trilogy is feeling different or being judged for those differences but ultimately embracing and accepting yourself. Throughout the trilogy, Jamie has been questioning his sexuality and, in the third book, it’s time to face that head on and recognize that it’s part of what makes him great. I hope that message of loving oneself and accepting who you are is something my readers take for themselves.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been working on a new book that’s for slightly younger readers! After the finishing the trilogy, I went back to my comedy roots because I wanted to work on something completely different. The book is set in a fantasy world, but it’s much more lighthearted and whimsical and is told from the perspective of an 86-year-old grandmother. I found her voice and loved it, so I’m running with it and am going to see what trouble she gets up to.

Crystal Smith

Smith’s Bloodleaf trilogy, a dark fantasy series that marries fairy tales and a murder mystery, began in 2019 with Bloodleaf, then continued with Greythorne in 2020. This April, the series will end with Ebonwilde, which follows a cast of secondary characters seeking Aurelia, who, after surviving an assassination attempt and starting a new life in book one, has been left lost and lonely by the end of book two.

Do you remember your original inspiration for the Bloodleaf trilogy? Where did it all begin?

I had wanted to write a retelling of “The Goose Girl” since middle school because it was my favorite of all the fairy tales. Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl came out just as I was graduating high school—almost 20 years ago!—and I remember being jealous that someone had beat me to it! So the idea was percolating for a long time, but I didn’t sit down to try to write the book until 2011 and 2012, after the birth of my second child. It took a while, not to finish the book, but to make it a good book. I rewrote it probably five or six times before I found an agent for it, but, after all of that writing and rewriting, my agent took it on submission and sold it within a week.

What was your journey to publication like?

I come from a family of readers and writers. I have several sisters and a brother, and we all love writing, but I’m the only one who has so far decided to put themselves through this process of rejection. It’s like having a built-in writing group, so they helped me with each revision. Eventually, I sent it out to agents, with the first time being in 2012. I received a lot of responses saying that the agent liked the concept, but that the writing wasn’t quite there. I rewrote it from scratch and then sent it out again to some of the same people who had shown interest, but it still wasn’t quite ready. After that attempt, I wrote something else and queried it, but after more rejections, I was running out of agents to try. Pete Knapp, who is now my agent, was relatively new when I was querying that second book, but the rules of the agency meant that I couldn’t submit to him after being rejected by another agent there. When he moved agencies, I took the opportunity to send him Bloodleaf. He liked it and made an offer. It’s always going to be the last agent you query who ends up being your agent, but in my case, he really was the last option and I lucked out because he’s such a rockstar!

That sounds so frustrating, but it seems to have worked out well in the end.

It did! And I think it prepared me for reviews, too, because I learned that you can’t make everyone happy. Once you’ve gotten a no so many times, you already know that you aren’t for everybody and that’s fine.

It also made me a better writer because every time I rewrote it, I had more experience behind me and a better ability to delve into the depths of the story.

When did you realize that this story was best told as a three-book arc?

When you’re querying, you have to put everything into the first book. You’re told not to write the second book until you’ve sold the first book because, if book one doesn’t sell, you don’t want to have invested so much time and effort into the world and characters. I still thought of what I might want to see over the course of a series, but I didn’t really let myself go there fully; I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket, but I had written a standalone but with the potential for more. But Pete had the idea of pitching it as a trilogy and that’s how it was picked up. I’d spent so much time writing this one book over and over that when I came to write the second, I didn’t know if I knew how to do it! It felt a little like walking down the aisle with someone you’d just met. It was a new story that I’d have to put my heart and soul into and, even with characters I knew, it was an unfamiliar experience. The one thing I had and that I held on to, was that just as I always wanted the first book to be “The Goose Girl” with ghosts, I’d envisioned the second as “Sleeping Beauty” meets Sleepy Hollow. Though all the details changed across the writing of Greythorne, the original concept helped carry me through the very quick turnaround despite not being able to give six to eight years to it like I had the first.

Was there a concept for Ebonwilde?

There was, but it changed a bit more! I had originally thought it would be zombies, but without the gore because that’s not really my thing. It ended up being “Snow White” meets Midwinterblood, which had really resonated with me—more of a star-crossed lovers across the ages reincarnation story with touches of Adam and Eve and vampiric lore.

Were there times you had to pivot to accommodate unexpected plot turns or character developments?

The first draft of Ebonwilde that I turned in wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but I didn’t know what I needed to do to make it work. My editor read it and asked if I’d ever watched Memento. I had heard of it, but hadn’t watched it, so I watched it and got what she was saying. The first draft was a very typical start to finish timeline, but because of the way I ended book two, there’s some time that passes between the end of Greythorne and the beginning of Ebonwilde. I wanted to tell the story or what happened in between without having to talk about it explicitly, so I reshaped the narrative to flash back and forth between what happens at the end of book two and the people dealing with the aftermath. Book three has five different points of view, so things ended up getting very tangled, but I think that, overall, when it came together, it worked well and gave each of the supporting characters their own stories and pieces of the narrative.

Did the reader response have an impact on how you ended the trilogy?

There’s always a little bit of an impact, but I can’t point to anything specific except that I did have people at the end of the second book who said they wished they had the opportunity to know certain characters better. So, in a way, the rewriting of the last book did feel like I was doing something that the readers might appreciate because we got to explore those other characters’ points of view.

Have you found that your process changes depending on what project you’re working on, especially in relation to the audience or the number of books planned?

It’s funny that you ask because I have two projects that I feel are pulling for my attention. The first is a gunpowder fantasy with a Western vibe that’s different than Bloodleaf and could potentially be a duology or a trilogy. The other is a standalone gothic horror. I have to say that the idea of writing a standalone—and knowing that it’s just one book—is appealing, but I love spending time with characters so stopping at one book is always hard. I even have a companion novel to the Bloodleaf trilogy that I’d love to write in the future!

Best moment since Bloodleaf was published?

The pinnacle is always opening the box and pulling out your book in hardcover for the first time and seeing your name on the cover. The second is walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelf next to other amazing titles. It’s impossible to describe, especially if you grew up like me idolizing authors! It doesn’t feel real.

Worst moment or part of writing this trilogy?

Writing the third book during the pandemic was excruciating. I’m used to taking my laptop to the library or a café to mix things up, but when everything locked down it was just me and the voices in my head in the same place, every day. Adding in the stress of everything else happening in the world made it feel like a marathon. I am so glad that it’s over in terms of that specific experience, even though the pandemic isn’t over, because it was hard to draw on my creativity in what felt like a vacuum.

How do you feel as you close the chapter on these characters?

I feel like I was able to give each of these characters a good end to their story and I hope readers feel the same way. The trilogy probably doesn’t end how they expect it to—there are still some twists—but I’m a big fan of bittersweet endings.

What’s next for you?

My agent is tapping his fingers waiting for me to send him something, but I’m excited for whatever ends up being next!