Inside Choices is a behind-the-scenes blog from the Pixelberry team!
With Choices nearing its one year anniversary, The Crown & The Flame trilogy has come to an end. It’s been an epic year-long journey for Kenna, Dom, and the rest of their ragtag crew. As one of the first books to launch with Choices, the team behind TC&TF started work on it long before August. Months later, saying farewell to one of our first series feels like saying good-bye to an old friend.
The team has weathered marathon brainstorms and late-night writing sessions, and celebrated epic plot twists and awesome character art. With the final chapter in the rearview mirror, the writers of TC&TF took the time to reflect and reminisce…
The Crown & The Flame trilogy is over, and it’s been quite the journey. How do you feel?
Kathleen: Super weird. It kinda feels like graduating from college, actually. Like, you’ve been immersed in this cool new world for so long and surrounded by these people you’ve grown to love (even though Val’s always stealing your food and Dom wants to party all the time instead of doing homework), and you get so attached that you kind of forget there’s a world outside. Now graduation is looming and half of me is like “oh thank goodness” but the other half is going “WAIT, NO, I LIKE IT HERE, AAAAA”.
Eric: So many feelings! Sad because I’ve dedicated so many hours to TC&TF, and it’s like saying goodbye to close friends. Happy because we were fortunate enough to get to create this whole world from scratch! Proud because I feel we’ve brought the series to a satisfying conclusion. And of course grateful for the fans, whose passion for it made Books 2 and 3 a reality.
Since we’re at the end, why not talk about beginnings? How did TC&TF first come about? What were the early days like?
Kathleen: Lot of brainstorming, LOT of revisions. The first story that we outlined was much more focused on courtly intrigue, less so on the action. It looked totally different from the version of TC&TF that exists today, but there are a few relics from that first version that we kept because we loved them so much. For instance, Sei Rhuka was one of the first characters we created for that earlier story, and she survived the move to TC&TF pretty much unchanged (because what would you change? She’s perfect).
There were some late nights, and times when I definitely thought I was gonna crack under the stress. Fortunately I had Eric and Kara, two heroes of legend, fighting by my side.
Kara: The first draft of TC&TF was written under so much pressure and at such a frantic pace that it was nothing like the book that ended up being released. To give you an example of how much things change, Val Greaves, everyone’s favorite mercenary, was originally a male character just named Mercenary. Kathleen had the idea of making her a woman, and then the character of Val really started to emerge as the snarky, mean voice that the cast was currently lacking.
Another thing that came about because of that time was just the incredible trust between the writers. On most products, there’s a more formal process of logging changes, but because we were so short on time, we were just actively editing each other’s work, and I think we managed to get through that without killing each other, so it really says a lot about how well we work together! Sometimes you write your first draft and you don’t realize how much better it can be until you take a step back. I wrote a scene once where Dom is carrying a sack of flour down the castle hallway, and I thought, this is boring, I’ll add in a choice. Oh, I’ll give the choice a timer! Then I realized I’d just made a minigame about carrying a sack of flour. So I cut the whole thing. But sometimes it isn’t until you write the scene that you realized you’re going down a bad or boring path. The early days were a lot of that.
We rewrote a lot of things together, but it was such a privilege to work with Kathleen and Eric on creating this world. It was amazing when we reached a point where we’d revised and revised and revised and finally felt like we’d burned away everything that was boring or not working and all that was left was even stronger than it had been before.
Eric: Hectic! It’s one thing to write a book now, knowing what Choices looks like, but back then we were writing with placeholder art (everyone was Queen Adriana!) and we just had no idea what was going to work and what wasn’t.
Also, I echo everything Kara said above about trust. So many times I wrote a thing and thought, “Oh gods, I’m a fraud! I’m a terrible writer!” and then had either Kara or Kathleen or Jessica swoop in and turn my garbage into gold. Having the safety net of a great team makes standing on the tightrope a lot more fun.
Strong world building is crucial to any good fantasy story. That ranges from history and culture to what you yell when you stub your toe. What was the worldbuilding process like for the Five Kingdoms?
Kathleen: You start super general (place names, general time period/level of tech, climate), then build your details on top of that. Every detail comes from somewhere, everything is the way it is for a reason. In those early stages it helped us to give each of the kingdoms a “thing” that they’re known for. For Fydoria, it’s knowledge and art, for Thorngate, it’s trees and archery, for Lykos, it’s jerks and backstabbers, lol.
That gave you a jumping off point for what these people would be like, and how they relate to the other kingdoms. We were also very deliberate about what colors and styles of clothing the different kingdoms would wear, which I was really into. It’s great to look at a character and immediately know whose team they’re on (or whose team they want you to think they’re on…)
Then you take your pages and pages of notes to the artists, and they do some kind of beautiful magic that turns your dreams into something real you can look at. We work with some AMAZING artists. I have the Aurelian castle set as my computer’s wallpaper because I like to stare at it all day.
Eric: Ditto what Kathleen said. The incredible art helps tremendously with this process. Sometimes we’d get a piece of art back and it’d be SOOOOO good that it’d inspire us to go in a new direction. That kind of moment (like with Val) is really special.
What did you consider the most challenging part of writing TC&TF?
Kathleen: Not making every chapter 5,000 lines long, haha. I have issues with writing these super long, flowery dialogues, but thankfully Eric is there to keep me in check. It can also be hard to find a character’s voice sometimes, especially if you and that character don’t have a lot in common.
Eric: Keeping Kathleen in check. HA! Seriously, though, we had a HUUUUGE cast, and all of the characters have compelling backstories and fun voices and fans on social media. Trying to make sure everyone got ample screentime (while still telling a good story) was tough.
Going off of that, what were your favorite scenes to write in TC&TF? (Spoiler alert!)
Kathleen: Oh man. I’m a mean person who loves writing the super intense emotional climaxes where everyone is crying and screaming at each other. So basically the whole Whitlock/Hex arc. One of my favorite writing moments though was when I was working on that kraken scene in book 2 and I had to turn to my boyfriend and say “Hey, what sound does a kraken make?” Boyfriend: “<kraken sound>” Me: “Yeah… but like, how do you spell that?”
Kara: My favorite scene to write was a dream sequence where Kenna and Dom get married, because I got to jump around in different scenarios and it felt a lot like fan fiction in the best way. But my second favorite was when Val has to pretend to be a handmaiden for Zenobia Nevrakis. I loved the idea of getting to see from Val’s point of view as she has to infiltrate this girly world of gowns and bodices. She’s usually a character who’s seen it all and can handle anything, so it was fun to get her out of her element for once.
Brandon: I had a major blast with the entire final battle, but I have a special place in my heart for the scene between Luther and Kenna in Chapter 13. I love when you get to shine the spotlight on a bad guy, in a way that makes you almost sympathize with them…but not quite.
Eric: By far, the action scene where Dom turns into a dragon for the first time. I was actually writing from my apartment, and I was like, “If I turned into a dragon, what would be the most fun, badass things I could do?” (Cut to me flapping my arms through the air as I run around my apartment breathing imaginary fire on unsuspecting Nevrakis boats…) It was silly, but I did get some good stuff outta that.
TC&TF is filled with so many different villains, heroes, and everyone in between. Who was your favorite character to write?
Kathleen: I have a soft spot for terse warrior types who just have no time for your nonsense, so writing Sei is always super fun. She behaves the way we all sort of wish we could, except she can get away with it because she’s crazy strong and can light you on fire with her mind.
Brandon: Oof, tough choice. I think we all have a lot of fun writing Val (because who doesn’t love that character who gives the bad guy the finger?). Personally, though, my favorites to write have been the Nevrakis, specifically Luther and Zenobia. Zenobia is just so annoyed and out of place most of the time, which is fun to play with. She’s like, “Ugghhh, dragons? Really? Whatever.” It’s like she stepped in off the set of Mean Girls. And Luther is just such a fun jerk. He’s got sort of a cynical wisdom, but also has zero self-awareness and is totally unapologetic for any of the ruthless stuff he’s done. That is a character I really love to hate.
Eric: Severin. I felt like his art asset was really imposing, and his character represented this first challenge for Kenna on this impossible path. It was fun to make him this physical, monosyllabic, gruff presence that couldn’t be reasoned with. She’d have to eventually fight him in combat to prove herself. Plus, he’s kinda dumb, and I love writing dumb characters. Alas, no one seems to care much for Severin…
In a way, TC&TF lives on in The Royal Romance. Olivia in TRR is a descendant of Zenobia, for one thing. If Kenna and Dom and the rest of the crew were around now in present day Cordonia, what do you think they’d be like?
Kathleen: Kenna is super responsible and runs her Kingdom like a proper adult, but when she gets frustrated with politics she dreams of running away to tour with Val and Sei’s metal band (Damsels of Destruction). Kailani just won like, 12 olympic medals for weightlifting and martial arts. During the off season she and Noa split their time between running a gym and touring with Cirque du Soleil. Whitlock runs one of those tech companies that does supersonic maglev trains and smart dishwashers and stuff. He’s totally gonna colonize Mars. This is fun, I wanna do this all day!
To write fantasy, you had to know the fantasy genre pretty well. What makes the fantasy genre special to you? And what are some of your favorite books?
Kathleen: I was raised on a diet of Grimm fairy tales and Greek legends (which probably explains a lot about me). I love the fantasy genre because you take these wild, magical worlds that look completely different from anything we know, and use them to explore themes that are really close to home (coming of age, sacrifice, family, etc). Fantasy is a dramatic metaphor for real life. Because I’m a huge nerd, I dig fantasy books that have logical, internally-consistent magic systems. Sabriel by Garth Nix is hands down my favorite book, but the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede was the first series I got super into. Arglefraster!
Eric: When I was little, I wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons with the older kids in my neighborhood, but they wouldn’t let me play. That led me to this one book (I don’t remember the name) that was basically like single-player D&D. It had a page where you kept track of your hit points, potions, etc. It was incredibly nerdy, but also the awesomest book I’d ever experienced. Little did I know it was paving the way for my career.
Pixelberry was the first place where I really felt comfortable letting my inner nerd loose. I finally got to not only play D&D (we ran a campaign after hours), but to write something within a similar world…
What’s next for The Crown & The Flame team? Can you give us a hint about what you’ll be working on after this?
Kathleen: *Evil cackling, hands rubbing together in glee* Ahem. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that I seem to have been typecast as a genre writer and I am 100% okay with this.
Eric: No hints. We’re definitely not planning something for Halloween.
Ooh, intriguing… To all the fans of The Crown & The Flame, thank you for coming with us on this epic journey! Check back every week for more Choices adventures!