Writers are busy, distracted beasts.
There’s never been a time in my writing career that I’ve had less than three manuscripts going at once. That’s not to say I’m writing them all at the same time—they’re always at different stages, from concept to drafting to editing to publication (for a peek at some of my strategies at each of these different stages, check out My Strategic Author Shoebox). This was true in the very early stages of Woodwalker, back in 2015 when it was just a baby manuscript looking for an agent. That year, I was a park ranger in Yellowstone querying my first book, drafting my second, and plotting my third, when a brand new character popped into my life. Over the past four years, that character has sprouted a whole world and duology around her, with book one, Sunshield, debuting on May 26, 2020.
The Outlaw Road duology has three narrators, but at the heart of the story is a single character, and it’s her alias that gives book one its title. Head below the jump to read about her origins and the story that grew around her, along with her visual development!
Meet the Sunshield Bandit.
To most people in the Ferinno Desert and beyond, the Sunshield Bandit is a legendary outlaw, armed with a sword and mirrored buckler that she uses to turn the harsh sunlight into a weapon while robbing unlucky stagecoaches. But to the ragtag group of runaways and orphans in remote Three Lines Canyon, the Sunshield Bandit is simply Lark, their world-weary—and increasingly desperate—guardian.
Lark first appeared in my pocket sketchbook during that summer of 2015, while I was running around the geyser steam of the Old Faithful district. I was querying Woodwalker at the time and writing Ashes to Fire, and diving deeper into that world meant I was starting to think beyond the Silverwood Mountains and Lumen Lake. There were whole other countries I had written but hadn’t yet explored—the hills of Winder, the coasts of Paroa, even the far-flung island of Samna. Lark, then unnamed, first appeared in my notes as a pirate (I think I’d just finished reading Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo).
I’ve always had a thing for seafaring stories, but it’s pretty intimidating to write one—ships are hard and sea epic fans are notoriously detail-oriented. I’m working through this fear with another manuscript, but at that time, I didn’t feel ready to write a pirate story. So I turned this new character over in my head, wondering how I might approach her story. It didn’t take long—only a day or two, as I recall—for Yellowstone’s sagebrush flats to shake some sense into me. I might not have experience sailing a tall ship, but I’ve been stomping around the desert southwest and Colorado Plateau for a significant portion of my adult life… this new character wasn’t a pirate—she was an outlaw. And she wasn’t on the seas off of Samna, she was in the slot canyons and mesas of a country I’d already established—Alcoro.
My love for westerns almost matches my love for sea epics, and I was excited about the idea of approaching a classic desert bandit with the gender balance and ren-faire tech of Creatures of Light. Lark started taking shape right away, from her fleet of tattoos to the eyeblack smears on her face to her rangy coyote-mutt. Instead of a revolver, I gave her a crossbow, but the real weight to her character came when I handed her the small, mirrored shield that she’d use to blind her targets, thus leading to the name plastered on bounty posters across the Ferinno: The Sunshield Bandit: Wanted Dead or Alive.
All this happened just days before one of my query letters made it through the slush pile of my now-agent, Valerie Noble of Donaghy Literary. Once she and I connected and joined forces, Lark had to be put on hold while Woodwalker suddenly became a publishing reality. It wasn't until the next summer in my ranger hat, this time in Great Smoky Mountains, that I was able to pick Lark's story back up. During that time I got to know more of her personality, her troubles, her joys, and her tenacity.
Now Sunshield is in its final months of pre-publication, and I'm putting the finishing touches on its sequel, seeing Lark's story through to its conclusion. I've drawn a lot of strength from this character since those early days--she's put up with everything I've thrown at her, powering through them even when I wasn't sure how she'd do it. She's shown me her toughness and her softness, her grit and her kindness. And she's led her co-protagonists on the adventure of a lifetime.
Sunshield is set twenty years after the Creatures of Light trilogy, and features a few children of characters readers of CoL will recognize (though the series itself is standalone--you don't have to have read Creatures of Light to enjoy The Outlaw Road). I'll share more about them, along with other goodies from the plot, as we move closer to the release date.
Excited? I am. Want to be part of Lark's journey? Here are some ways to get this adventure started off with a bang:
Want to get started on the Creatures of Light trilogy in the meantime?
November Art Round-Up
A new profile picture, a gif to celebrate the release of Kwame Mbalia's Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, some illustrations from favorite authors at Yallfest, and a sketch of Mae on the walkwire in Woodwalker.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator