Elia Maria Wilkinson Peattie was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and moved with her family to Chicago, Illinois when she was young. She left school at age 14 to work in her father's typesetting shop, but continued to read widely. In 1883, she married Robert Burns Peattie, a journalist with whom she had four children. She began contributing short stories to newspapers, and became the first woman reporter for The Chicago Tribune and then wrote for the Chicago Daily News. She became a member of several exclusive Chicago clubs for professional women and made friends with prominent artists and writers such as Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, Edgar Lee Masters, Zona Gale, Kate M. Cleary, and Ellen Glasgow. In 1889, she and her family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where she became columnist and chief editorial writer for the Omaha World-Herald. She also wrote stories, poems, and essays for other newspapers and magazines, including Century, Lippincott's Magazine, Cosmopolitan, St. Nicholas, The American Magazine, Harper's Weekly, and the San Francisco Argonaut.
Many of her writings detailed her experiences as a woman in the west. Some of her popular stories, such as The Mountain Woman, The Shape of Fear, and The Edge of Things, were frequently included in anthologies. Commissioned by a publisher, she wrote a 700-page young people's history called The Story of America (1888) in four months. The Northern Pacific Railroad commissioned her to write a travel guide entitled Alaska: A Trip through Wonderland, which became popular when published in 1889. In her career, she wrote some 30 books and plays, including a series for young readers. She returned to Chicago in 1901 and became the literary editor of The Chicago Tribune.