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INTERVIEW: Kelli Estes Says Write the Story That Needs to be Written

Welcome to the Tuesday Author Interview with Christina Boyd for the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

My writer friend Kenneth G. Bennett, who I worked with on his eco-thriller Exodus 2022, was a beta writer for my manuscript. Ken suggested I read Kelli Estes's novels as she writes dual era novels with ties to the Pacific Northwest. I immediately downloaded The Girl Who Wrote in Silk. I fell in love with her prose and vivid settings. Imagine my delight when I met her at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference in 2022 and she signed her most recent novel Today We Go Home. Ever since, I've followed her social media, waiting for her next book.

CHRISTINA: Do you listen to music while writing? Do you make up Playlists for your books?

smiling blonde woman signing a novel with book and autographed cover page in the insets
That time I met Kelli Estes at the PNWA conference, and she signed "Today We Go Home."

KELLI: ​I do listen to music while writing, but it must be instrumental and can’t be a song to which I know the words, because I’ll get pulled out of my story and into the story of the song. For my next book, set in Scotland, I did create a Playlist filled with Scottish Pop and traditional Scottish Gaelic songs that fit my story and that I’ll share on socials and on my website when that book is published. I enjoyed the process immensely and will probably make a playlist for all future books I write.


CHRISTINA: That is a fantastic playlist. I look forward to listening to it while reading your next.

What comes first, plot, or characters?

KELLI: ​Each book varies a bit, but overall, I’d say that characters come first for me. With The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, for example, I learned a little about the anti-Chinese atrocities of the 1880s and knew that my protagonist would be a Chinese American girl living in Seattle. From there, the true history of an anti-Chinese riot in Seattle informed the plot. When it was time to write the present-day storyline in that book (I write dual timeline novels), I had to think of a character that would compare and contrast with my historical girl, and then her plot grew out of that. Since I start my books with a historical event or situation, the plot is the obvious starting point, but my story doesn’t get any legs until I know my character and how she’ll interact with the world around her.

book cover with white text in color bands of dark orange, tangerine orange and teal
The Girl Who Wrote Silk by Kelli Estes. Published July 7, 2015.

CHRISTINA: I loved that book. Loved. I admired the thoughtful worldbuilding and respectful treatment of the characters and historical events.

If you could tell your 21-year-old-self anything, what would you share?

KELLI: Great question! Here’s what I would say to her: Dear girl, it’s okay to disappoint people sometimes if that means not disappointing yourself. Everyone is making it up as they go along and, though it feels like there is a “right” choice or one that others would judge you more for, choose what is right for you. Listen to that quiet voice deep inside who knows you best and proceed from a place of love. Sometimes the right choice for you means disappointing someone else, but it is still the right choice. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up. You will make mistakes. You will hurt others and you will get hurt. That’s being human. Say sorry when you mess up. You are good enough just as you are. You don’t need to earn love. Nurture your friendships more. Exercise. Go outside. Keep a journal. Go on adventures. Choose joy.


male and female standing on grassy hill with mountains behind. Grey clouds in sky.
Kelli and son Riley standing at the site of an ancient Pictish fort called Dun Deardail overlooking Glen Nevis (where the Quidditch match was filmed in Harry Potter, as well as some scenes in Braveheart).

CHRISTINA: Gosh, if only when we were twenty-one we would take time to do all that. So wise.

What is your current project or latest release?

KELLI: My next book, a dual-time line, tentatively titled, ‘Twas There That We Parted, will be released spring 2025. It is about two mothers walking with their sons on Scotland’s West Highland Way, one in the present day and one in 1801, and the difficult journeys – physical and emotional – each must face. It is a story about mothers and sons, letting go, and finding strength you never thought possible. I adore this book so much and I hope readers will, too! One thing that has been super fun in writing this book is that I got to incorporate Scottish Gaelic, the learning of which has been my passion the last few years.


CHRISTINA: Goodness, I am impressed you are learning the language.

Do you hide any secrets in your novels only a select few might know?

KELLI: Not necessarily secrets, but I do like to put in what I think of as Easter eggs for my loved ones. For example, in my last book, Today We Go Home, I put in some David Bowie and Doctor Who references because those are what my two boys were into at the time. Someday, when they feel like reading Mom’s books, I hope it makes them smile.


CHRISTINA: I love knowing that. That makes a lovely gift.

How did writing your first book change your writing process?

KELLI: ​My first published book was actually my sixth completed full-length manuscript. Writing that book changed my process in numerous ways. I learned to write the story that needs to be written, rather than focusing so much on genre conventions or my perceived idea of what would sell. I also learned to let the writing take as long as it needed to take. Early in my writing years, I listened to the advice that “a successful writer writes at least one or two books a year.” I had to let that go to find my own success because I need the process to take longer in order to write a quality story. I now take as much as four to five years to write a book, and I’m okay with that. I also feel like it took until that sixth manuscript before I really learned how to do the hard work necessary to create a quality story. This means doing as many rounds of revisions as it takes, deleting whole chapters that simply don’t belong, becoming brave enough to interview experts to more fully understand the subject myself, and more. Writing is so much harder than non-writers know, but it’s so rewarding.


Kelli standing in front of rocky ruins. Clouds in the sky.
Kelli at the ruins of Tigh-na-sleubhaich on Lairigmor (between Kinlochleven and Fort William.

CHRISTINA: All of that. Just wow. Thank you. But especially, "Write the story that needs to be written, rather than focusing so much on genre conventions." As I revise my first again, I needed to hear someone say that to me.

Have you gone on an author pilgrimage or research trip? Where and what was the most memorable moment?

KELLI: ​I adore research trips and live my life as though it’s research for a book. Every museum I visit, every conversation I have, every new skill I learn, are all fodder for a future story. But the one research trip that stands out the most in my mind is the week I walked ninety-six miles with my sixteen-year-old son on Scotland’s West Highland Way as research for my next book (and because I love walking and Scotland). On the day we walked for miles along the shore of Loch Lomond, it was in the upper eighties (Fahrenheit) and midges were swarming. For those who don’t know, midges are tiny mosquito-like insects that bite and are easily inhaled and tangled into eyelashes. My arms and legs were covered with the black dots of midges that had died in a slurry of sunscreen and midge spray. Another day, in Glencoe, rain was blowing sideways, and we’d forgotten our waterproof rain trousers back at our accommodation. Water ran down my legs and puddled inside my waterproof boots to squish between my toes. I was so happy to reach a warm shower that evening!

CHRISTINA: Such funny stories. The swarming midges. The horrors. I can totally see that. Great memory making to last a lifetime!

Thank you for sharing your time and insight. I love your writing process. And you said so much that validates my own writing journey and struggles to publication. I look forward to meeting you again. Best wishes on the next book. Sounds amazing!


smiling blonde woman wearing a denim jacket and red blouse
USA Today bestselling author Kelli Estes


Kelli Estes is the USA Today bestselling author of THE GIRL WHO WROTE IN SILK, which has been translated into eleven languages and was the recipient of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Nancy Pearl Book Award and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Star Award (Debut). It is also currently under option for film/TV. Her second novel TODAY WE GO HOME was the nationwide Target Book Club pick for September 2019. Kelli is passionate about stories that show how history is still relevant to our lives today. Her next book, ‘TWAS THERE THAT WE PARTED (Spring 2025), was inspired by her love of Scotland and her own long-distance hikes in that country. Kelli lives in Washington State, where she can often be found boating on the Salish Sea.

You can connect with Kelli via Website,


I've added The Girl Who Wrote in Silk to my TBR list; it looks like an amazing novel. Thanks for bringing it to my attention through this great author interview, Christina! I really appreciated Kelli's thoughts on character-driven writing and not being afraid (or too afraid) of choosing what you think is right over others' expectations. Thanks!

Replying to

Ooh, I hope you like it as much as I did.

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