Story Bite #2: On Setting

I hope you enjoyed last month’s story bite writing prompt. For October, let’s talk about setting. The setting is where your story takes place, and it’s ultimately description, but there are a lot of ways to show it.

Craigmillar Castle, Edinburgh (Photo: Diane Magras)

Take this castle, for instance. The picture shows the wall that leads up to the inner courtyard and then the keep of Craigmillar Castle. Let’s just focus on this wall. What does it look like?

That’s a question without an easy answer. What this wall looks like depends on who’s looking at it.

A medieval historian might look at this wall and think, “Aha, 15th century!”

A kid in a school group might look at the wall and shiver with delight at the thought of stepping through into the courtyard.

A different kid in the same school group might shudder with unease.

How you describe a setting depends on who is experiencing it. For some people, a castle wall would be a magnificent structure, filled with history. For others, it’s a grim and unpleasant reminder of past wars. And for others, it’s a canvas scattered with stories and life good and bad.

Choose a character. It can be you. Or it can be that medieval historian I mentioned before, or the kid who’s excited about seeing the castle, or the kid who finds it creepy and intimidating.

Now go back at look at that first castle picture. (Go back as many times as you need to.)

What draws your eye when you look at this picture? The looming wall? The sun or the grass? The color of the stones? The stains? The doorway? Something else? Everything? (If everything, name them.)

What does it feel like to approach the castle? How does the grass feel under your feet? Is there a wind? Are you cold or hot? What does the air smell like?

Do you touch the castle wall? What does the stone feel like under your fingers?

How do you feel looking at this castle and knowing you’re about to step through that doorway? Eager? Excited? Nervous?

What do you think you’ll find on the other side?

For this story bite, answer as many of these questions as you’d like, or come up with your own questions and answers about the castle. Write a paragraph (it can be just two sentences if you want). Remember how you or your character is feeling. Put your mind in the scene.

And have fun!



Submit your story bite to me through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Each month, I’ll post a story bite that I’ve received the month before and say a few things that I like about it.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Vlog Review of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter!

I have my first review, and in the form of One Minute Books, a librarian’s vlog that recommends YA and MG novels for patrons. It’s pretty amazing to hear someone other than my beta readers or my agent or editor talk about my characters!


Arrival of My ARCs

(photo: Diane Magras)

Advanced reading copies. The famed ARCs. Also known as galleys, these are the first appearances of a novel into print.

ARCs are used to introduce a book to reviewers, awards committees, and readers (with an eye to publicity and future purchases). But at their core, they share an author’s fictional world with a selectively chosen few prior to the publication date.

And it’s exciting.

Picture for a moment the years that go into a book’s creation, starting with writing (draft after draft), then revision (usually more than once), then querying (first for an agent, then for an editor), then editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Authors spend many hours on a manuscript throughout this process, early mornings and late nights. We’ve only only seen our words in the sterile confines of a file on a computer monitor or on 8 x 11-inch pages printed from that file.

And suddenly it’s a book. The author’s own words that once lived exclusively within a digital file now fill the pages of a real book.

Here The Mad Wolf’s Daughter‘s ARC nestles between some of my favorite books. (photo: Diane Magras)

My ARCs arrived late last week and I have a plan for every one of them. My readers (husband and son) will get one, and also my critique partners and various interested parties: librarians and teachers and a fellow author who sent me the ARC for her novel last year. My publisher is sending out others—many—to reviewers, awards committees, and readers. A number of ARCs will be appearing at New York Comic Con next month.

The ARC is when a book first starts going out into the greater world. It’s both exhilarating and a bit terrifying (because of course you want everyone to love your wee bairn). But it’s also an important milestone in an author’s life.

My next milestone is in five months and 11 days: the publication date. I’ll share more reflections then.

Early Praise for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter

Getting a blurb is a big deal for a debut author. It’s an early validation of your book and your talents, and it’s one of the high points in the months before the publication date. When a debut author received blurbs from established authors she admires (or adores, or worships), the resulting emotions are immense. I’ve been holding off on announcing my blurbs, which made me beam all day. These have now appeared in my advanced reading copies (the ARC, which is an uncorrected version of the book shared with reviewers and readers before the publication date). My wonderful editor suggested I add them to my website, so they are now on the Books page, but I wanted to share them here, too. Thank you Kristin Cashore and Karen Cushman for reading my debut novel and sharing such kind words about it.

The Power of the Rewritten Word

One of the hardest things for young writers to remember is that a work of writing isn’t finished when you reach the end of the paper or file. Revision, that frightening word, is next. But that can be hard to appreciate. For many students, writing is simply hard, and rewriting an agony. In elementary and middle schools across my region of Maine (which are about to begin the 2017/2018 school year), students will starting new writing projects and many will be working on revision.

I know from my own experience as a young writer how challenging this can be. I remember the satisfaction I felt when I had spell-checked and printed a piece of writing. It was done, I thought. It took me years to understand that the end of a first draft of fiction or nonfiction is only the beginning.

An illustration of what I gladly throw away during the writing process. (photo: Diane Magras)

I’m doing what I can as an author to help students learn that revision is both necessary and not something to fear. In one of my favorite parts of my author presentations, I talk about revision and rewriting. I share approximately how many  pages I threw away in writing my debut novel and I show students a stack of pages (prompting various sounds of surprise or horror from the audience). I explain the kinds of things I changed, what aspects stayed the same, and how good it felt to make those changes and see the novel grow. And I tell students what to look for in their own writing, and the importance of accepting constructive criticism.

I’m hoping that with this part of my presentations, I’m encouraging students to feel okay (or even good) about revising their writing, and to start seeing it as a crucial—and wonderfully fulfilling—part of the writing process.

That stack of paper, by the way, remains on view throughout my entire presentation. In my upcoming ones, it will sit beside the final product: a printed book. What better way to show what the result of revision can be.

Story Bite #1: Focus on Character

Bayeux Tapestry – Scene 51 (extract)- The Battle of Hastings: Norman knights and archers.

In this story bite writing prompt, let’s talk about character. Characters are the very first step in making a story come alive.

Think of this statement: In 1066, the Battle of Hastings determined England’s fate. Men from France battled men from England and won a decisive victory.

Okay. That’s a fairly accurate statement. But now let’s try this: On October 14, 1066, the fierce and crafty William of Normandy landed on England’s southern shore, determined to take this country for his own. He did so after a swift and fierce battle, in which his army felled the desperate and exhausted English King Harold Godwinson—with an arrow into his eye, legends tell.

In the first statement, we have facts. That’s fine, but in the second, we have not only facts, but also two characters, a battle, and some personality. Yet it’s only the start of those characters: We can go a lot farther.

So let’s go farther. Let’s put yourself in this story. William of Normandy has just landed on a sandy beach on England’s shore and is organizing his army to set forth and conquer.

You’re not William of Normandy, however; you’re a rat that’s just run off from William’s own ship and is panting on the beach with William’s army pounding around you.

Maybe a rat like one of these? This is an image from the Pontifical of Guillaume Durand, Avignon, made before 1390. The manuscript is at Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, ms. 143, fol. 77v.

What is the rat thinking? What does the rat want?

What does the rat see, feel, and smell?

What is the rat about to do? What happens when the rat does it?

What does the rat look like? What color is its fur? Does it have all its whiskers? Does it have its full tail?

Is the rat alone, or with another rat? How does that—being alone or having someone else—make the rat feel?

For this story bite, write a paragraph about that rat. Use any or all of the questions above, or create and answer your own. And go ahead and give your rat a name if you’d like—or not. It’s your character.

Happy writing!

And once you’re done, please share it with me!


Story Bite Submission Directions:

Submit your story bite to me through your teacher, with your school email address, or with a parent’s home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or if you’re homeschooled, write “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Each month, I’ll post a story bite that I’ve received the month before and say a few things that I like about it, and I’ll credit the author. (Let me know when you submit if you’d prefer to be anonymous; then I’ll just use your grade, town, and state.)

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work. 



Book Recommendations for Back to School

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for a reason to give a book as a gift. They’re perfect for every holiday—and happen to be an ideal way to celebrate the first day of school for your child. I’m departing from my usual list of medieval (and pre-medieval) book recommendations with some of my favorite books of the recent past, ones that my son (aka the Lad, a middle grade book enthusiast) and I recommend for 9 to 12-year-olds keen on great narratives and deep adventures. (These are also perfect read-alouds for the younger crowd.)

We start with:

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl (2016, Usborne)

A genius inventor, loyal robots, and a deadly search for the most fantastic creation of all draws two children into tragedy and flight tragedy in this fast-paced Victorian steampunk adventure. Lily Hartman lives in a world of mechs—thinking, feeling humanoid (or animal) machines—with the mechanical fox Malkin, a wise-cracking pet, as her most trusted companion. Malkin witnessed the disappearance of her inventor father in an airship crash, and soon thereafter, Lily finds herself in the middle of a search for her father’s secret masterpiece: the perpetual motion machine. With murderous thugs and a greedy housekeeper willing to destroy anyone or anything for this machine, Lily flees, inadvertently drawing Robert, a clockmaker’s son, into her desperate bid to survive. Not all is what it seems (very little is what it seems, in fact), and soon Lily finds herself in mortal danger for an invention she carries much closer than anyone but her father ever knew. Courage, loss, sacrifice, and resilience are key themes of this swift-paced tale, topped with a nail-biting climax in Big Ben’s clock tower. Enjoy each mech’s distinct personality, hold your breath through the action of the story, and bask in the peace found by the characters at the end. A worthy read.

Let’s dip into a fairy tale world, though not the kind you might usually expect, with:

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill (2014, Algonquin Young Readers)

In the first chapter of this powerful novel of magic and loss, Sister Witch’s twin sons, Ned and Tam, are parted when Tam dies in their attempt to sail. Sister Witch, a crucial but under-appreciated member of her village, secures Ned’s life through magic—a dangerous resource that seems to have a complex life and personality of its own. It’s an act that leaves Ned with a stammer and his brother’s voice lingering in his head. Sister Witch’s magic is dangerous, but contains unmistakable power. A stranger to the town sees it, and wants it for himself. This is the Bandit King, who has had a taste of magic and knows what it can do. He tries to steal it when Sister Witch is gone, and Ned takes the magic onto himself. This is no gentle, obedient, fairytale magic: it’s painful in every sense. This magic sears into Ned’s flesh, skittering a web of words over him. Now it’s not just Tam’s voice in his mind, but the magic’s multiple voices: taunting, teasing, and commanding Ned, even as he begs it to desist. Pursued by the Bandit King, Ned ends up deep in the woods and outside the Bandit King’s own home—and in the longbow sights of the Bandit King’s daughter Àine. A resourceful girl haunted by her mother’s death and fearful of what her father will become if he gains the magic he so deeply desires, Àine knows she must keep Ned and his magic away from the Bandit King. Ned and Àine escape the bandits sent by her father within a forest of changing paths to a collection of ancient stones where the magic is more powerful than ever, and to a final choice of self or sacrifice. Read this if you like your fairy tales dark, your characters conflicted, your plots tense, and your prose rich and precise. A powerful story.

Onto a historical laced with magic (and with rooks! I love a novel with corvids, even if they’re not quite heroes):

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox (2016, Viking/Penguin Young Readers)

It’s WWII, and Londoners Kat Bateson and her siblings Robbie and Amelie travel to a boarding school in a creepy Scottish castle to flee from the Blitz. You’d expect to find ghosts at Rookskill Castle with its maze of rooms and hallways that seem to disappear, but there’s more: grinding and screeches sound from a secret room, and sounds of a radio. This seems clear evidence of a German spy. But something much darker is at foot: a being that seeks all children in the castle and will take their lives and souls for a purpose unknown. The children at the school disappear one by one. Kat’s quick thinking protects her, but so does a secret she carries: her great-aunt’s chatelaine, a silver ring of charms on chains—a pen, scissors, and a thimble—that may be the way to defeat the powerful creature that seeks her life. The Lad and I loved the fast pace, haunting atmosphere, and splendid writing of this book—but also the narrative sections from the villain’s perspective, which help the reader understand, if not wholly side with, the tormented Leonore.

These fun, thoughtful middle grade novels from the not-so-distant past would be fabulous gifts to ring in the new school year for any student.

Penguin Classics and Me

Part of the home library I began as a young teenager. I was more careful with some of these bindings than others!

When I was 14 years old, I began writing seriously. I loved to read and write and knew that I wanted to be a novelist. My parents took that dream seriously. While I was always free to read anything I wanted, they suggested that I also read the classics. I don’t think they planned for me to learn Great Themes of Life and Literature—that wasn’t quite how they thought—but they’d read somewhere that to know how to write, you needed to read the important books of the past. To encourage me, they offered to buy me any classic I wanted from our local bookstore and start my own serious home library.

This was my first taste of Tolstoy and my favorite novel.

I knew two things: that I had clear tastes in literature (I had always loved Susan B. Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and was getting into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern), and that we didn’t have a lot of money. So I was careful with what books I picked, looking for engaging descriptions and a price as close to $5.99 as possible.

Penguin Classics paperbacks helped me start my personal library (hence the theme of the first picture of this post). And my local bookstore carried a generous selection of them. To foster my loyalty to those slick black-and-beige volumes, many included a list of “Other Books You Might Enjoy” in the back, sharing “new” classics that, indeed, I did enjoy.

Read the classics. Read texts that span cultures, countries, and histories. That’s a good place for a writer to start.

I never could decide if Conrad was a feminist or not, but I loved the mystery at the heart of this novel.

I’m glad my parents gave me that advice and encouraged me to build the foundation of my own home library in this way. And not for any lofty reason, but simply this: I loved classics. I thrived on those complex sentences with layers of meaning; those characters who suffered to the bottom of their souls (and questioned if they had souls in the first place, if love could be pure, if they had any chance standing up against the grinding wheel of Fate); and those incredible stories (talk about conflict and stakes). I knew these authors well before my high school began teaching them, and had my favorites: Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Emile Zola (notice a trend of drama, gloom, angst, and bleakness?— that was candy for adolescent me).

I didn’t understand everything I read, but I read (including the forewords and afterwords), kept special notebooks for my quotes and reactions, and reread voraciously.

It certainly did affect my writing. I wrote fiction throughout my teenage years, trying out Big Themes and archetypal characters. I experimented with grim stories, staggering drama, and—yes—overblown prose.

I loved books like this. Insanity! Desire! Hatred! Despair! Repeat.

In my post-teen years, I broadened my definition of “classic” to reach farther across the world and into non-European pasts, but I’m grateful to those great European novels I began with: They built the foundation of my writing. In my 20s, you could read it not just in my fiction but in my letters to family, my email messages, and occasionally my verbal conversations. No doubt it crops up in what I’m writing today.

After I signed my contract for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, I happened to notice the line of penguin-adorned foam green spines on one of my bookshelves. I began to muse about my reliance on Penguin Classics in my formative home library, and how apt it is that my beloved debut novel is with Kathy Dawson Books, which is part of the glorious world of Penguin.

Thank you Penguin, and especially Sir Allen Lane, who founded Penguin Books and began those distinctive paperbacks in a bid to get good books out to the masses.

(Photos in this post are all my own.)

Medieval Book Recommendations: Here Lies Arthur

An orphaned serf disguised as a boy rides with a fierce warlord and his men. The Romans left Britain a generation ago, but the island still faces rapid changes. Legends are rich and stories make history. So learns the girl as she watches the rise of one of the greatest stories of all: that of Arthur.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve is not medieval, but it’s a precursor to the world I write about (and it’s a book that always inspires me). In this magnificent novel, we see who the real Arthur (not a king in this retelling) might have been—a sixth century brutal warlord who pillages holdings and towns to forcefully take his kingdom. It’s also a profound narrative about the power of stories. Told by Gwyna, a young girl we meet as she flees the fire and blood of Arthur’s attack on her lord’s holding. The wily bard Myrddin discovers her “cold as a ghost, wet as a drowned dog…trying to hug some warmth back into my juddering, shuddering limbs,” and rescues her. He asks her to play a role in the legend he’s building around his master Arthur, and after that successful outing with a sword in a pond, Gwyna becomes Myrddin’s servant—and, with the appropriate clothes and a haircut, a boy named Gwyn. With Gwyna/Gywn, we see Arthur from the ground: his bullying, invasions, battles, and manipulation. It’s all to secure his place in the present, and in history; in this world, the stories that are told of you are more important than any of your actual deeds.

The landscape of this novel is bleak but beautiful in subtle ways, and always feels real; Reeve’s historical research is stellar. Expect gentle humor as well as grim survival in this powerful retelling of a legend.

Here Lies Arthur won the Carnegie Medal in 2008.

Medieval Scottish Castles: Looking In

Medieval castles dominate Scotland’s landscape, and they’re practical structures for their times. Most start off as giant stone boxes with incredibly thick walls (sometimes square, sometimes rounded, depending on when they were built), copious trimmings to help with defense (say it with me: “crenelated battlements!”), and all sorts of openings with murderous purposes. Many also have gatehouses (which can stand up to battering rams and also provided defenders with a platform from which they could dump truly awful things on the people below), towers (for prisons or pleasure), and, of course, curtain walls to hold everything in. From the outside, even a ruined castle can look pretty fierce.

I’m a bit obsessed with the entrances to these forbidding buildings. While I certainly photograph the whole exterior, I also take pictures of gatehouses, doorways, or whatever the entry is; I like to imagine what my characters would feel when they’re just about to walk in. Here’s a wee tour of a few of my Scottish favorites and their most impressive features.

We’ll start with Caerlaverock Castle. This Dumfries beauty, first built in 1270 by the order of Sir John de Maccuswell (the family known as the Maxwells), boasts a formidable gatehouse with its right tower from the 13th century and its left tower and actual entry from the 15th. The door itself is a nice example of a two-centered arch, a type of doorway that was very popular in castles in the early- to mid-medieval period. As you approach Caerlaverock, the front of the castle seems to bellow its power through its mighty presence. And it had to: this castle was on a prime spot in the border between Scotland and England.

Caerlaverock Castle

In 1300 during the Wars of Independence, the English king Edward I brought an army of over 3,000 men to siege Caerlaverock. Despite the significant defense of its entry and moat, the castle, with a garrison of only 60 men, surrendered in two days.

Edinburgh’s Craigmillar Castle didn’t need to worry about sieges too much, though it has a massive curtain wall. For show? Because any self-respecting castle would have one? Just in case? First built by Sir Simon Preston (or his son, also named Simon) in the 14th century, this was a well-fortified home. And it stayed in the family for a long time. Sir Simon Preston IV was a keen supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, and Craigmillar served as a peaceful refuge for her during a particularly troubled time in her life (though it was also the place where the Queen’s advisors developed a plan to end her unpopular marriage to Lord Darnley by murdering him). Okay, so there’s the gossip. Let’s just focus on its beautiful entryway, a semi-circular arch, built in the late 15th century.

Craigmillar Castle

Past the timber doors, you see a cedar tree, one of two that dominates the inner courtyard. Defense was important, but comfort was, too, and this doorway shows that clearly.

Blackness Castle’s entry has a certain grandeur, but does not promise comfort. It’s a no-nonsense doorway, and you’re meant to be kept out. This West Lothian fortress on the Firth of Forth may have initially been a residence, but soon became entirely a defensive castle. It was built in the 1440s when Sir George Crichton, Admiral of Scotland, was lord. The Crichtons were enemies of the famous Black Douglases, one of the most powerful Scottish families, and this castle was strategically important for all sorts of reasons. The Crichtons held onto Blackness for many years, until Scotland’s King James II wanted it and invaded with a successful siege against Sir George’s son. Blackness soon passed into royal hands for good. (By the way, Sir George’s cousin William was the one who set up the murder of the young Black Douglas heir at Edinburgh Castle; see my post for more on that.)

Blackness Castle

A vast collection of shells now marks the entrance, just out of sight of this picture on the left. I wondered if that’s always been the case, and, if so, if their crunch provided a sort of doorbell or warning.

Because defense was so important at Blackness Castle, a yett would have been part of the entry. An iron gate of woven strips, a yett would have been very difficult for an invader to take down. It also gave defenders enough room between the iron weave to fire back.

Blackness Castle--yett

Note the design: two horizontal strips are melded onto the vertical strips, a pattern that repeats throughout the yett.

Dirleton Castle, a grand East Lothian residence, has a dramatic façade. A fixed bridge now stands where the drawbridge once was, and the gatehouse has many layers you must walk past before you reach the courtyard. Dirleton was built in the 13th century for Sir John de Vaux as a fortified residence more than a fortress, and that fine: there was peace between Scotland and England, and he had nothing to worry about. But it was a good thing he’d built Dirleton as a castle; peace ended when the English king Edward I decided to invade Scotland and, in 1298, sent Bishop Bek of Durham (yes, bishops led armies back then) to capture Dirleton. Bek succeeded, though the Scots won it back at some point around 1306—and gave it a powerful gatehouse. You have to imagine its barriers these days, but they were formidable: a combination of portcullis, wooden doors, and yetts.

Dirleton Castle

This was one of the strategic castles that the Scottish warrior king Robert the Bruce destroyed rather than risk its falling into English hands again.

One defense that you wouldn’t see upon entering Dirleton is this small chamber above the gatehouse passage. Here lurks a murder hole, called that because such openings were extremely useful for defenders to use in pouring dangerous substances (or throwing rocks) on invaders.

Dirleton Castle--from above--murder hole

Think for a moment of what a rush of burning hot sand could do to a knight: it would trickle into his armor’s chinks, through his chain mail, past his padded tunic, and against his skin…).

A castle’s exterior is the first glance that you get of these behemoths of defense, but the door itself tells much of a castle’s intent: if it was meant to rebuff, or welcome, or perhaps just intimidate. A castle’s entry shows what a castle is all about. And, thanks to Scottish preservation organizations, we’re able to go through so many of them in Scotland today.

(The images in this post are my own photographs. Many thanks to Historic Scotland Environment, which owns and manages these properties and whose fascinating souvenir guides helped me with my dates and historical details. And thanks also to Malcolm Hislop for his How to Read Castles, a wonderful handbook that I look to whenever I need to remember an architectural note.)