Elia Wilkinson was the daughter of Frederick and Amanda (Cahill) Wilkinson. She was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but moved with her family to Chicago when she was young. She stopped attending school when she was fourteen, but kept up a reading habit. In 1883 she married Robert Burns Peattie, a Chicago journalist. She began writing short stories for newspapers, and became a reporter with the Chicago Tribune and subsequently the Chicago Daily News. In 1889 she moved to Omaha, becoming chief editorial writer on the Omaha World-Herald. She wrote for magazines including Century, Lippincott's Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, St. Nicholas, Wide Awake, The American Magazine, America, Harper's Weekly, and San Francisco Argonaut.