Inspiration through Collaboration

by Scott Westerfeld

The Leviathan trilogy was inspired by the adventure books of a century ago, which all had illustrations, whether they were for adults, teens, or little kids. When I ran across the amazing work of Keith Thompson, I knew I had the right artist. He can draw cool creatures, great characters, and amazing machines, all of which populate the world of Leviathan.

For the series, Keith created a sort of “Victorian manga” style based partly on magazine illustrations of 1914, and partly on manga. Here’s an example that shows how he blended these two styles:

At first we were only going to do about fifteen images per novel, but the tale grew in the telling, and we wound up with fifty (50!) pieces of art in the first book alone. Normally the writer sends the text to the artist when it’s done, who then does the illustrations. But we were doing too many for that to work, so I sent Keith text every few chapters. Then he sent me back sketches, after which I would often change the writing to match them. Sometimes ideas bounced back and forth several times before the story settles at the intersection of text and image. And, of course, when Keith draws something really cool, it tends to appear again later, whether I’d planned for it to or not.

It’s kind of like doing a TV series, where the writers are influenced by the actors playing the parts. If an actor gets really popular, for example, they can put that much more of that character into the story, whether they had planned to or not.

There was one point in the writing of Leviathan when Keith caught up to me, and he didn’t have anything to draw. So I said, “Something’s going to chase Alek in a few chapters, so, um, draw something that looks kind of fast.” He come up with this awesome illustration of a four-legged-mechanical-horse walking machine.

I liked these contraptions so much that I added them to a later scene. That, in turn, changed the story, which wound up giving Keith more cool stuff to draw.

For the second book in the trilogy, Behemoth, the characters go to a new setting, Istanbul. So Keith wound up creating a whole new look based on the style of the Ottoman Empire, but also using elements from the world of the series. Here’s an example what it looks like:

Seeing the world that the characters inhabit makes a HUGE difference when I’m writing the story.   Of course, it’s also cool to see how my readers imagine the story. So I also love fan art set in the world of Leviathan. It’s great that Keith’s work can be reinterpreted, as in this total-manga-style picture of Deryn and Alek by Allison B. Thomas.


Of course, you may not have your own artists (or fan artists) to help you create your worlds and characters. But you can still use images to help you. Just do image searches on the places, objects, and types of people you want in your story, and check out what pops up. Sometimes a picture can generate a thousand words.

Best of luck with all your writing!

Scott Westerfeld is a critically acclaimed author of five science-fiction novels, including the bestselling Uglies series. In 2009 he released Leviathan, the first installment of a steampunk trilogy set during World War I, illustrated by Keith Thompson. Today he releases the second book in that series, Behemoth!

2 thoughts on “Inspiration through Collaboration

  1. My teacher tried to attribute a story about a horse in World War II to Scott Westerfeld today. I thought, psht! If by horse, you mean steam-powered machine and by World War II you mean an epic battle between nature’s and man’s creations? Then yes.
    It was some other story.
    I was disappointed.

  2. lol i might be a little too old to read your books but i kinda liked leviathan and behemoth. I cant wait for goliath. ive also tried to read some of your other works like peeps but whenever i check them out i always never find the time to do so.

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