Ilima Todd’s journey toward publishing her first historical romance, A Song for the Stars, out April 2 from Shadow Mountain, unfolded much differently than did her previous publishing experiences.
At the 2012 Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference, Todd, then an unpublished author, mulled over the assignment her workshop class had been given: Write the first page of something you have always wanted to write. The story she wanted to tell had come to her immediately, and it was far from her chosen niche, very different from the young adult sci-fi that would become her first published novel.
Still, it was just an assignment, an exercise devoid of the usual audience expectations or need for author branding. When Todd sat down that day to complete the assignment, she wrote the beginning of a story she had always wanted to write: the tale of a British sailor and a chieftess in late eighteenth-century Hawaiʻi.
As she read the words she had written aloud to the class, tears welled in her eyes. Why such an emotional response? The couple whose story she had begun to write were not just a British sailor and a Hawaiian princess; they were also Todd’s fourth-great grandparents.
Although the assignment stirred something inside her, Todd never thought of publishing it. “It was so different from anything I’d ever done before, so I tucked it away,” she explained. “But I never forgot it.”
Over the next five years, Todd became a successful young adult sci-fi author with her novel Remake and its sequel, Resist. Time and time again, she also revisited the story she had tucked away. Whenever she had writer’s block or needed a break from her current project, she would add a scene or develop the characters. “It was just for fun though,” Todd noted. “I didn’t really see it going anywhere.”
Then, to her surprise, Todd’s editors approached her with a proposal. “They asked me if I would be interested in writing a romance with a British soldier in eighteenth-century Hawaiʻi.”
At this point, Todd had already written about 10,000 words imagining the meeting and eventual marriage of her ancestors — an almost perfect match for the story her editors had suggested. “It freaked me out a little bit,” Todd admitted. “But I was excited to finally have the opportunity to plot the story out and finish it.”
Todd explained that her usual writing process looks much different than the one that gave shape to A Song for the Stars: “I usually outline the whole book so I know exactly what’s going to happen before I get started writing, but because this one started differently — as an assignment — I never really created a plot for this book when I started it.”
Instead, from that original 2012 assignment grew a scattered collection of scenes and character studies, and then a full-fledged novel detailing a romance for the history books. In A Song for the Stars, Maile (mah ee-leh), the daughter of a Hawaiian royal chief, finds her world turned upside down when sailors from far-off England arrive on her island. After a deadly clash between the sailors and her people, Maile takes translator John Harbottle prisoner. She soon discovers that her enemy — John — might not be the malicious man she thought him to be, and she reluctantly accepts his friendship. She even agrees to teach John the art (and science) of wayfinding so he can sail back to England.
“Wayfinding” refers to the ancient Hawaiian navigational method of reading the clouds, stars, and water to navigate on the ocean. But it is so much more than that. Maile describes it best; when John asks her how her people are able to navigate from island to island if they have no maps, she replies, “We use the stars. The weather. We sing of my ancestors and where they are buried. I can tell you of my father’s father and his father and on and on for hundreds of years. Stories of where my people originated from. How they came to be.”
Not only was wayfinding a vital part of ancient Hawaiian culture, but it is also pivotal to the plot of A Song for the Stars. As such, Todd paid special attention to her navigational research. “I knew a little bit about the navigation stuff beforehand, but my sister-in-law had taken a class on ancient Hawaiian navigation. As a part of that class, she was able to sail on a replica of an ancient Hawaiian canoe and learn all these ancient techniques. She kept a journal for the class, which she loaned me, so I had all this information that you probably can’t find on the internet or printed anywhere, information that was verbally passed on to her. I was able to get a little deeper into the navigation through that first-hand experience.”
Although Todd was used to delving into complex topics and doing research as an author of science fiction, the research for this novel — as with many other steps in her writing process — differed from her norm. In addition to having a wealth of first-hand knowledge and experience to draw on — something sci-fi research rarely offered — she found the research process to be different in another way. “This was a lot easier than science fiction for me. I did have to do a lot of research, but I thought it was fun, and I already knew a lot of the Hawaiian culture stuff, so that made it easier.”
With A Song for the Stars sailing onto bookstore shelves on April 2, Todd hopes to begin her next project and continue exploring historical and sci-fi stories alike. She is especially excited about crafting more novels set in Hawai'i.
Professional editor and proofreader. Lover of all things SF/F. Avid supporter of other women.