Dear Readers: A Letter from Elizabeth Moon


From the Desk of Elizabeth Moon

Limits of Power

Dear Readers,

When I was in college, my mother started knitting again after many years of not knitting. She had even forgotten how to cast on (the first thing you forget if you quit knitting). She was a talented and creative knitter, and eventually I asked her to teach me to knit.

The result was that my mother continued to knit beautiful sweaters, amazing sweaters–and hats–and afghans and a pair of slacks for herself, and two pairs of socks for me. I knit flat things. Scarves, mostly. I loved the socks she made me–they fit better than any socks I’d ever had, and made hiking much more comfortable. But I looked at them the way a second grader would look at a calculus book…hopeless even to try. When my husband and I moved back to a hotter climate, I quit knitting. I didn’t need more sweaters (or even the ones I had) and socks were beyond me.

Yet when I started the first Paksenarrion books, there was someone in the background, knitting. It fit the setting, after all: pre-industrial. And they knit…socks.

Two years ago, over twenty years after my mother died, and over forty years since I’d knit anything, I started knitting again. Knitting relaxes my hands from typing. I knit some flat things, scarves for friends. But I really wanted socks. After a year of shying away from the idea, I finally started a pair of socks. Decided I would rather make crooked, weird-looking socks than die without having comfortable socks on my feet…so if the attempt made any sort of closed tube that would go over my foot, I would call it success. Then I could refine them.

I did not have a pattern. I did not stop to do a gauge swatch. I figured I had the feet the sock was supposed to go over…and a pretty good idea (thanks to YouTube and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s book Knitting Rules) how to go about it.

You may be wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about my book or my writing process. I just did.  I realized, in the thrill of knitting my first pair of socks, that I was going at making socks the same way I had gone at just about everything in life: dive in, figure it out as it happens, deal with surprises as they come up, keep pushing toward whatever goal it is.

It used to drive my mother wild that I didn’t read directions and follow them step by step. She was an engineer; to her, organization and orderly processes were the only way to a good outcome. Fine, I thought, if you had directions for what you wanted, but what if you wanted something else? Like a story you were dying to read that no one had written…and for which no directions existed.

So when a story rises out of the depths like a landscape rising from the sea…I don’t send over a satellite to photograph it from above, or a survey team to map it on the ground. I land on its shore as an explorer/anthropologist more interested in who lives there, and what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it…than anything else.

And the stories always surprise me. Including the new one. Limits of Power is the fourth book of Paladin’s Legacy. By this time I thought I had the characters nailed and knew pretty much what was going to happen. But the story had better ideas. Stories often do. The characters–some of whom I have been writing or thinking about for over 25 years–have developed their own ways of startling the writer.

Paladin’s Legacy has at its root the consideration of change. Forced change. How do different people handle change and what are the implications for those around them?  If they’re in power, rulers or commanders or in any kind of political or economic power, what are the implications for those who depend on them?

Since publication lags writing by months to years, I hadn’t started knitting socks when I finished Limits in early 2012. At this point, I’ve finished a dozen pairs of socks and almost worn out the first pair…as well as finishing the last book, Crown of Renewal. Socks are basically a tube with one end closed, just as a story is basically a narrative with a beginning (where the reader enters) and an end (where the reader is forced to stop.)

But socks made to fit a given foot are not straight boring tubes like the ones you buy in a big-box store. They have a shape; they have parts; they are a color or even multiple colors; they have a turn about midway that could be a metaphor for a story’s turn toward its inevitable end. A good sock can be worn over and over with the same comfort, the same pleasure. A good story that fits a reader’s desire…well, you know what I’m thinking. Though a story can shock, surprise, hurt, and heal…and a sock is just a sock.  (My feet don’t agree!)

Happy Reading,

Elizabeth Moon