How Amie Kaufman turned her visit to Iceland into a fantasy novel for young readers

Amie Kaufman Writing Process

Amie Kaufman is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of young adult and middle grade fiction, including Unearthed and the Starbound trilogy with Meagan Spooner and the Illuminae Files with Jay Kristoff.

Elementals: Ice Wolves is the first book in this exciting new middle grade series, so we asked Amie to shed some light on her writing process. It turns out that her research involves meeting real wolves, searching for magical items, and standing perilously close to icy rivers!

One of my favourite parts of diving into writing a new book is discovering the world, a process which I undertake much as I would if I were exploring a part of our world — that is to say, I wander about to see what I find, and then follow whatever interests me.

How do you do that in a fictional world? Well, if you’re me, you find one thing that you know would belong in your imaginary world, and then give that thread a tug to see what happens. When I started hunting for inspiration for the world of Vallen, it became clear to me straight away that there were two particular threads that were going to play a large part in this story.

The first thread was my research about wolves — I needed to learn not just their general habits and behavior, which I’d been reading up on for years, as I’ve always loved them, but also their little idiosyncrasies. I needed to learn the tiny details that would bring my wolves to life. That was what took me to a wolf sanctuary in upstate New York.

Amie Kaufman wolf research
The picture here is of me hanging out with one of their ‘ambassador wolves’, Atka. Meeting Atka was incredible, because he completely controlled the encounter. There was a fence between us, and he had a huge enclosure he could have vanished into at any time. Instead, he chose to stay with me, to lead me up and down the fence, and let me get to know him a little over the course of a full hour together. It was a very special chance to experience a unique connection, and I’ll never forget it.

The second thread I followed took me all the way to Iceland, and though I could write a whole book about the weeks we spent travelling around the country (no, wait, I more or less did!), I’m going to share three pictures I took that ended up making it into the book.

The first is of an incredible river at Þingvellir National Park. Two tectonic plates meet in this park, and the river you see here runs in the gap between them. It’s wild and lovely, and as soon as I saw it, I knew it would end up in my story. And it does, showing up for a perilous river crossing and a pivotal moment!
Þingvellir National Park Iceland

The second is of a chalice I found at a museum in Reykjavik — again, I took one look at it, and thought it was definitely magical. I knew it would make its way into my story, and sure enough, it ends up playing… well, you’ll have to read the book to see the role it plays!

Chalice, Reykjavik

The third is a picture I took looking across the plains at the mountains one finds all over Iceland—though the sun shines here, they’re often shrouded in cloud, and are made up of dark, forbidding volcanic rock. The wolves in my story run across a plain just like this toward mountains just as you see here, and when I stood in front of them in person, I found it incredibly easy to imagine dragons wheeling in the air above me.
Icelandic mountains

The opportunity to research for this book in person was incredible, and I’ll never forget the trip I took. But if I have one piece of advice for aspiring writers, it’s this—you can research from anywhere. Whether it’s visiting your own local national park with fresh eyes, or using Google street view to walk through a foreign city, or watching a documentary you’ve never seen before, there are endless ways to explore for your own book!


Images: lead image – Christopher Tovo; body images – supplied by Amie Kaufman

Ice Wolves

Posted on June 25, 2018 by

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