The Writer's Practice: Lara Elena Donnelly

Photo credit: Debra Wilburn


Tropical Porachis, complex and intrigue-addled, is economically powered by a thriving film industry that at once dazzles and distracts from real-world political drama. The imagined country serves as stage for Lara Elena Donnelly's Armistice, the second book in her Amberlough Dossier series. On her publisher's website, she describes Porachis as "Golden Age of Hollywood-does-Bollywood, with a side order of In the Loop."

But how do you get to Porachis? Donnelly arrived via character.

"I'm a really character-centric writer and reader," she told Spine. "That is my number one go-to when I'm coming up with a story. Who is this story about?" As with all science fiction and fantasy books, writing her Amberlough trilogy required an immense amount of world building, but Donnelly's characters heavily influenced that act of creation.

Whether they are Porachin, or come from rival Gedda or beyond, each character thinks and acts a particular way, carries and wears and eats particular things, and this not only fills out the reader's understanding of the character, but also about the geographical and cultural space, the specific place they're moving through.

Many of these hints, these character-painting strokes, involve tangible elements of Donnelly's imagined world. But perhaps the strongest swaths of color come through via each person's unique language, expressed in character-specific word choices and idioms, novel turns of phrase Donnelly created for the book.

Sour milk didn't make cats smile.

He endured like a hair-shirted Hearther penitent streaked in ashes.

popping up like garlic mustard.

Mother's tit, of course I'm frightened.

She had to shake like a dog to drop the persona.


Art & Design: Vault49


"Writers are creating in a very similar way to what actors do when they are creating their version of a character. When you create a character that way, you know how they will react to a situation;" How they will react, and what they will say. Once Donnelly identified what a character would say in a situation, what their general response would be, she found an existing English-language idiom that matched that response. She then deconstructed the turn of phrase.

"What's the linguistic makeup of that colloquialism, noun, verbs, etc., and what feeling does that give?" Spill the beans deconstructed becomes "verb + the + plural noun." Feeling under the weather can be broken down to "verb ending in –ing + preposition + the + noun." Once Donnelly identified a colloquial structure she liked, she injected new words that conveyed what her character was feeling to create a new idiom, unique to her universe.

Armistice is a complex book, not only because of Donnelly's intricate prose, but also because there's just a lot going on: several main characters and a cast of secondaries, plus political machinations, personal intrigue, and secrets upon secrets upon secrets upon lies. Donnelly said keeping track of it all, not only across Armistice but across the three titles in the Amberlough Dossier, was really tiring, and difficult, and involved several approaches.

She used software. "I write with Scrivener. It's helpful in outlining and holding on to what's happening in each scene. That's of some help, but it can only help so far.

She relied on friends. "I'm lucky that I have a lot of people willing to listen as I walk myself through these plot threads."

Several systems, and still, Donnelly said, not one cohesive approach to narrative wrangling. "I wish I had a better set of tactics. I somehow juggle it." And by the end of a title, she's spent. "When the book is done, my brain is a rubber band stretched beyond its limits."

Right now, Donnelly's mind is stretched beyond its limits, as she's just finished book three in the series. Amnesty hits American bookshelves next April.

Find Lara Elena Donnelly online at and on Twitter @larazontally.


Art & Design: Vault49


Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.