Author Courtney Ellis discusses how she went from a sweeping war novel to an intimate family story in her historical fiction debut, At Summer’s End.
Courtney Ellis began writing at a young age, and developed an interest in history from her grandfather’s stories of World War II. After obtaining her BA in English and Creative Writing, she went on to pursue a career in publishing. She lives in New York.
Photo by Kelly Gleason
In this post, Courtney discusses how she went from a sweeping war novel to an intimate family story in her historical fiction debut, At Summer’s End, how writing for fun led to multiple perspectives, and more!
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Name: Courtney Ellis
Literary agent: Abby Saul
Book title: At Summer’s End
Expected release date: August 10, 2021
Genre/category: Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: When an ambitious female artist accepts an unexpected commission at an earl’s country estate in 1920s England, she finds his war-torn family crumbling under the weight of long-kept secrets. Threaded with hope, love, and loss, At Summer’s End delivers a portrait of a noble family–and a world–changed forever by the war to end all wars.
What prompted you to write this book?
I’d been deep in First World War research for a few years, trying and failing to write a sweeping novel set in the era. I realized I was thinking much too broadly, and instead decided to hone in on the personal devastation of war that affected a single family. One of the reasons why WWI fascinates me so much is because of the way it began to reshape society, particularly the roles of women, class divide, and improvements in medicine. It was a sort of disillusionment period, especially for the aristocracy, who struggled financially after the excess of the Belle Époque. I set the book in a grand stately home that is past its prime in order to show a physical representation of that shift.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I began writing At Summer’s End in December 2018, and the first draft was complete by the end of January. I had fun drafting, playing around in the country house setting, and getting to know the characters, but it wasn’t until rewrites that I began to understand what I was trying to accomplish. A loud house party scene was cut, and an antagonist for Bertie was written out completely. Instead, I focused on the idea that Castle Braemore and its inhabitants have been struck from society, and what that means for Bertie, as their hired artist. I wasn’t ready to begin querying agents until summer of 2019. My agent requested to read the full manuscript in August, and offered representation in October. We revised the manuscript together over the holiday season, and gave the book its current title. In January 2020, we went out on submission to editors, and by the end of the month I received an offer of publication. So, all in all, it was about a two-year process.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
I definitely thought that I knew everything there was to know about publishing. But there was so much to learn. Everyone knows publishing is a slow industry, but the thing that surprised me the most was how random it can be. When I got my deal, I thought I would have a set schedule of everything that would be happening with the book from contract signing to publication, but that’s just not how it works. It’s a lot of waiting, and then several things happen all at once. This can be exciting, or incredibly nerve-wracking, depending on the person. For me, it’s a little bit of both, but the “ding” of a new email is usually good news now!
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
Originally, I intended to write the entire novel in Bertie’s first person point of view. But as I began to build the backstory of Lord Wakeford’s family, his siblings’ voices became louder and the scenes I was imagining grew more vivid. When I first wrote Wakeford’s sister Gwen’s point of view, it was only for fun—to put something to paper that was playing out in my mind. I ended up loving what I wrote, and what it did for the story, so figured out a way to work Wakeford and his siblings’ chapters into the structure. Now, they are some of my favorite parts of the book.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope readers will see there is no shame in asking for help, and will be inspired to check on their friends and family often—even those who appear to be doing well. You never know what someone else might be going through if they’re unsure how to talk about it.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Don’t let a bad rejection convince you that you’re not a good writer. The day before my agent requested my full manuscript, I received a rejection for the same book that absolutely crushed me, and made me swear I was going to quit. You will hear often that writing is subjective. For years, I didn’t want to believe this, but I learned through this experience that it is absolutely true. There is someone out there who will fall in love with your voice, so don’t give up!