Story Bite #19: Building Character Through Sensory Details

Sensory details—of smell, taste, sight, and sound—make a scene come alive and can also make a character feel real. Thinking about sensory details and how someone reacts to them tells you a lot about that person. So even though this may feel like a post on descriptive writing, it’s really about digging deep into who your character really is and showing that through things like…fruit.

Here’s our inspirational image:

Strawberries, brambleberries, and raspberries from the Tay Valley, sold in the Stockbridge Market, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

The pictured berries from the Tay Valley in Scotland and are the best berries I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know if it’s the peat or the moss that flavors the water or if it’s the soil, but I’ve never eaten berries so sweet and with such distinct flavors as these. When a character has a memory of something like this—the best berries they’ve ever eaten—it could well turn into a defining moment. Let’s explore where such sensory details could lead us.

1.  Decide what kind of reaction you want your character to have related to these berries: a positive or a negative one.

Either one could do this job. You could use your sensory details to create tension or to build a sense of security. Think about the feeling you want to convey.

2. Make a list of what made the memory either positive or negative.

Positive: What made your character happy? Were they at home, or on vacation, when they ate these berries? Did they pick them in a garden or just enjoy from a bowl at someone’s house? (Whose house? A grandmother’s?) Who are the people they shared these berries with, or did they eat all the berries themselves? Were the berries served on a special occasion, or were they were simply a small beauty of everyday life, something that made the world feel normal and safe?

Negative: What made your character feel bad? Did these berries come from hard work picking in a field? Does the taste of a berry remind your character of the pressures they felt as an immigrant, or of fear of bias or violence? (Many of our farm workers in both the U.S. and Scotland are immigrants or temporary residents from other countries and, sadly, are not always treated with the respect and kindness they deserve for their expert and important work.)  Did someone shout at your character before they tasted one? Was your character supposed to eat the berries? Does the taste of these berries comfort your character in any way, or haunt them?

3. Describe the berries—and your character.

Write about the scent (and any other scene in the room or field), the taste, the sounds around your character as they eat, and what your character sees. Base all of this on what you wrote before. What is your character’s reaction to eating the berries? What is the reaction of the people around them?

A scene like this can help your reader understand your character a bit more. It provides a window into your character and their joys or fears while setting the scene. If you want, you can even add backstory—the taste of the berries in the present make your character remember the taste of berries in a scene from the past and the mood and situation of that time. Sensory details don’t have to be just ribbons on your story but essential parts of the fabric (and they can still be ribbons).

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it 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.

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.

Story Bite #18: Creating Myths

As I’ve been sheltering in place to help keep my community safe, I’ve been thinking about what stories do for us during challenging times. They can help us look with new perspectives at what surrounds us, sometimes understanding it better or more deeply. They can also help us escape into worlds far from ours. Many people throughout history have used storytelling as a means of doing both.

I know that some people want to look straight at what’s going on while others would prefer to look away, so this Story Bite offers a few options. We’re going to work on a rousing myth. And here’s our image:

This is a classic deer hunting scene carved on a stone from sometime between AD 700 and 850. This stone was found in Scoonie in southeastern Scotland and now is kept by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. (photo: Diane Magras)

Ancient people—and people of today as well—often commemorated events with a sculpture. It might be a carving like this or built from other things (clay, sand, wood, glass, metal, or found objects like branches and leaves or bicycle rims and gears). But the artist is always thinking of the story that a piece will tell. Sometimes, from particularly ancient pieces like the one pictured, the story disappears into the mists of history (especially if there is no written documents for historians to examine as well).

So let’s create a story for this image and start with some questions:

Who does this image depict? Is it an ordinary hunt led by an ordinary person? Or a hunt led by royalty? Or a deity? (And if it’s a deity, is the deity the hunter, the deer, or the dog?)

What does this image depict? What’s going on with the central character? What’s the story that this picture is showing? You’ll want to imagine what happened before the scene depicted as well as after.

What’s the main point the image’s creator wanted to convey? Think of the takeaway, the warning, or the lesson of this story. It can be as simple as a tale meant to depict a character’s bravery and cleverness or a story with a clear moral.

For your Story Bite (pick one), write one paragraph or more:

1. Answer the three questions above with the pictured stone in mind. Create your own myth around it (though you can set your myth in your area or any place you like).

2. Draw a picture or build a sculpture depicting a mythical scene that you imagine. (Are there swords? Had to ask…) Answer the questions and create a myth for that scene.

3. Think of a story that describes something going on today and draw a picture or build a sculpture depicting it. Then answer the questions above and create a myth for today.

4. Pick a work of art from one of the amazing museums sharing their collections online these days (here’s the Getty Museum in Los Angeles as one resource) and answer the questions about that work.

If you want to go a step farther, give your myth a title. It can be as simple as “The Deer Hunt,” for instance, or be your takeaway point in a few words.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it 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.

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.

Story Bite #17: World Building and History (Today)

For this Story Bite in a time of global social isolation, I’m going to delve into one of my favorite parts of writing: research that helps a writer to understand a world. This post will also connect to the incredible historical situation we all find ourselves in today…but more on that in a bit. (By the way, keep in mind that all of the below is useful for fantasy and sci-fi as well. But stick with the concept of history for now, and certainly at the end. You’ll see why.)

The fundamentals of research allow you, the writer, to know your time and place—not just what people ate, and wore, and how they traveled (and if they traveled), but what issues were facing people’s lives. Some important questions to ask about another time or place as a writer—so you can recreate it—might be: What was life like? What did people care about? What mattered most?

Here’s our photo, some detail about an important historical site in Edinburgh, Scotland, that shares a bit about how people thought and what mattered in 1886…and in 2007:

About Well Court, Edinburgh. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s the Part One of our Story Bite:

Write a series of questions that you would ask someone from the past—or from a fantasy or sci-fi world— to get to the bottom of what life was like for them. Would it be a medieval person from the time of knights and castles? Someone who lived in 1886 as Well Court was being built? A world where faeries and goblins lived alongside humans?

Here are some questions I might ask:

  • What was normal for people to eat? What was special? Where and how did they get their food?
  • What did people do for medicine? Did they do anything special to keep healthy? What was considered “healthy?”
  • What did kids do during an average day? If they could do anything they wanted, what would they do?
  • What were some of the crises that their families dealt with? How did their family, community, or world deal with regional, national, or global challenges?
  • What did people worry about? What made people scared?

Go ahead and use these questions if you like or come up with your own.

Do you have your list now? Fantastic.

Here’s Part Two:

Answer your questions yourself: about your world right now.

You are living in a historic time right now. With the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s world across the world is being disrupted. Recording what’s going on around you is important. It provides what’s called a primary source document, which shows to people in the future what the world was like now according to people living in our world and time. These are crucial in understanding events and lives of the past, but many of the past leave gaps: Few primary source documents that were written by children exist.

Your voice matters. Imagine what your documents would be like for people to read a hundred years from now. This is your chance to tell part of a big historical story.

Part Three (optional):

If you were disappointed to end with current history and really want to write about the past or an invited world, please go right ahead! This is world building, a crucial part of writing any story, and you’re just creating your primary source document for your fiction world. Have a bit of fun with it and think about what kind of character would be filling this out. You can tell a lot about a character by their answers…just as someone can tell a lot about you by yours above! But pay a lot of attention to the final question. What made people worried? And maybe add this one: How would your characters react to a world like ours?

Further Directions:

I always invite young writers to share their Story Bites with me; I love to see what you come up with. For this one, with your permission and a guardian’s permission, I’ll keep a record of what you send on my website, linked to this post. As I wrote above, your voice matters. I want to keep a record of what kids are thinking right now.

If you’d like to share your Story Bite, please submit it through your teacher (I know a lot of you are working with Google Classroom!) or through a guardian and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. I hope this is helpful.



Story Bite #16: It’s All About Perspective

Perspective—the voice that tells a story—can entirely change a story’s meaning, purpose, and feel. Here’s an example: When I was four years old, I was invited to the birthday party of my older brother’s best friend, Aaron. There was a chocolate cake in the kitchen while activities went on outside. I grew bored with the activities and, when no one was watching, crept into the kitchen and licked off a good quarter of that cake’s frosting. I tried to join the crowd again without revealing what I’d done, but the evidence was pretty obvious all over my face. From my perspective, the experience had been something I had always wanted to do, and, even with the very angry scolding I received from my mother, it was worth it. From my mother’s, it was a huge embarrassment, and she felt bad for Aaron and his mother. From Aaron’s mother’s perspective, I was the kid who ruined her son’s birthday party (she forgave me eventually, but it took over a year). From Aaron’s perspective, it was hilarious, and there was plenty of cake still (he was always incredibly nice to me). Thus, the story of the frosting theft could either be one of triumph, humiliation, despair, or humor.

We’re going to play with perspective in this Story Bite. Here’s our picture:

Borthwick Close, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

This is a “close,” a narrow passage between houses, in one of my favorite places in the world: Edinburgh, Scotland. There’s a busy street, the Royal Mile, at our backs as we step into the close. Everything becomes quieter. The walls smell of damp stone and are cold to the touch. We’re going to write about a walk down to the end of Borthwick Close from three different perspectives.

Choose Your Voice
Let’s try out a few different types of voices. Pick a character from each category below, or create three of your own voices.

1. A nervous voice: someone who’s looking for their family, or is running away from a bully, or has followed a child or sibling or parent down the close (and the person they’re following has just disappeared beyond the sun)

2. A confident voice: someone who’s eager to explore, or lives in the building at the end (so it’s normal to walk down this close), or is hot and tired and being in the close is a relief

3. An angry voice: someone who lives in the building at the end but wishes they lived somewhere else, or is a visitor and has been lost in the city and is getting more and more frustrated, or is the sibling or parent or child following a family member above and is about to lose their temper

Have you picked your characters for each kind of voice? Now write a paragraph (around four lines, but it’s your choice) of this action in the first voice you chose:

Your character walks into the close, brushes against the rough and damp stone wall, feels their footsteps against the hard stone tiles on the ground, and hears a noise at the end beyond the sun.

Use first person (“I walk into the close”) or second person (“She walked into the close”) and whatever tense (present: “I walk” or past: “I walked”) you like.

When you’re done with the first voice you picked, write exactly the same scene—brushing the wall, feeling their footsteps, hearing a noise (you decide what that noise is)—from the second voice you’ve chosen. And do it again with the third.

Read over what you’ve written. Which voice did you enjoy writing most? Which do you like most now? Did any one of them feel like a good start to a story? If so, this could be a great beginning: You’re starting right in the middle of an action with tension and a secret with that noise at the end.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share this Story Bite with me, please submit it 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.

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.

Genre Fiction for the Classroom

From You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Tom Gauld, 2013

In the world of literature, there’s often prejudice against genre fiction. This becomes especially pernicious when it’s applied to children’s fiction: Students’ love of reading can ebb when they’re told or showed that the things they love to read aren’t “good” or worth reading.

Not all children love genre fiction (in fact, teachers have shared that many students who aren’t regular readers love realistic fiction because it’s often shorter and easy to jump right into). Yet for those who find their interests awakened by worlds with magic, special powers, kid-led adventure, romance, action, and more, it can be easy to assume that their favorite genres aren’t valued when they don’t see it in their classrooms. And it can be hard to sustain a habit of reading when much of after school reading is assigned books that you don’t care about.

I see that as a wasted opportunity: So much children’s genre fiction is rich with big ideas and powerful themes, transcending the label. Its authors want their books to please on the surface but also provide opportunity for discussion and deep exploration underneath.

I know some teachers don’t read a lot of children’s genre fiction and may not be aware of the depth of literature out there in that field. In September 2019, I put out a call on Twitter for recommendations from teachers, librarians, and authors. With the incredible response I received, I’ve begun a list of genre fiction for the classroom.

These are stellar examples of middle grade and young adult genre fiction, most recommended by teachers and librarians. Where I could, I included themes and links to teachers’ guides. The purpose of this list is to spread the word of how genre fiction can transcend genre and, I hope, give teachers and school librarians a few more options to add their book group selections for the kids who would prefer this kind of story.

This is a working list for elementary through high school teachers. It’s not even close to being a complete resource, and I plan to keep expanding it for as long as I have time. Please comment on this post if you have middle grade and young adult titles you’d like to suggest. Share the author, the title, year of publication, genre, and themes (not what the publisher defines as themes, but themes that would apply specifically to a classroom’s use of that book), and a link to any discussion guide or Teachers’ Guide. And if you’ve used this in your classroom, please share some of the topics or themes that you’ve discussed (you’ll see I have some teachers who did so on the list). Thank you!

One last request: Please share this post in your schools and on your own social media so that we can add to this list and reduce some of the hesitation people may feel about using genre fiction for serious purposes. I hope we can ensure that children in our schools always have a broad selection of books to choose from. Imagine a world where deep work of genre fiction is the subject of essays—and also the book read for pleasure late at night.

Story Bite #15: Writing Action (Part 2)

In our last Story Bite, we wrote an action scene. We focused exclusively on the path and the obstacles facing our character, but mostly the journey itself. Those scenes are fun to write. For many authors, they just flow onto the page: We’re narrating what’s going on and that’s often not too hard to write about.

But here’s something to think about: A really good action scene isn’t just the action but the feeling behind the action. It reflects why the action is happening in the first place. It includes the stakes (why it matters that the character reaches the end of the action). If you keep that in mind when you’re revising, you can add a whole extra layer to the scene.

Here’s your picture for this post: a close-up of tower of Abbotsford, the house that’s the destination for your character’s action scene.

Photo: Diane Magras

For this Story Bite: Take the action scene you wrote before (Story Bite #14).

Ask yourself: Why is it important for my character to reach the house? What will happen if they don’t?

Look for places to add a few lines to show that. It can be your character thinking about why it matters, and despairing when things start looking bad.

Here are a couple of examples of the kinds of lines I might use for my action scene:

“I have to reach the house, I thought. My family needs me. I dodged the cat’s next blow, my heart almost still.”

“The noisy machine was too close. In seconds, it would eat me. I would never see my mother again. But it was hopefully. I could never pass the green with that metallic beast.”

You may have guessed this by now, but this Story Bite is all about revision. I hope it will help you find ways to make your writing even richer and more emotionally powerful than before with just a few lines.

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share this revised Story Bite with me, please submit it 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.

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.

Story Bite #14: Writing Action (Part 1)

Writing action scenes can be a lot of fun. They’re energetic and your character is truly doing something. They can move along the story, end or begin a page with power, and hook your reader. For a lot of people, they’re easy to write—because it’s just movement. And that’s a great place to start. For this series of Story Bites, I’ll share some tips about writing action—and how we get our minds around the different kinds of action that a truly great action scene needs to have.

Here’s your picture to start:

Photo: Diane Magras

This is Abbotsford, a mansion that looks like a castle in Melrose, Scotland. It was built in 1824 by Sir Walter Scott, a historical novelist and poet. This is going to be the setting for our action scene.

Your character’s goal: to reach that house.

Who is your character? It’s important to know this before you begin. Choose one quickly: Is it you? The crow in the picture? A mouse or vole? A person (kid or grownup, and figure out the approximate age)? An animated carrot? A broken robot? An enderman? Any kind of creature at all!

What’s in the landscape? We have tall grass, an opening in a hedge, and what look like earthen fortifications. What else do you see?

What will be your character’s path? Draw a rough map showing how your character will reach their destination. What features of the landscape will they cross? What features will stand in their way?

How can you make your character’s path even more difficult? We’re talking about physical action in this post, so focus just on that. Make a list of all the things that could make your character’s journey to the house more challenging. For example:

  • Weather (torrential rain? poison rain? snow or sleet? hot sun?)
  • Insects and other such tiny beasts (bees? mosquitos? midges/blackflies? monstrous dragonflies? beetles? spiders?)
  • Larger beasts (guard dogs? cats? murderous crows? eagles? dragons? monsters?)
  • Mechanical (robots of various sizes? machines? projectiles? sensors?)
  • People (guards of various ages? the house’s owner? kids playing?)

Think about what would make this hard for your character specifically.

When you’re done, look over that list. Pick what you’d like to keep, and what you’d like to set aside to use only if you need it. Sometimes it’s fun to hit a character with literally everything, but that can be hard for you as the writer because your job will then be to figure out how your character succeeds. Sometimes it’s easier—and just as interesting—to pick only one or two challenges.

An Everything Approach
I might pick a mouse as my character. The landscape itself will be a challenge. My mouse is also dealing with hot sun, a nest of bees in the ground, a cat, a lawnmower, and kids playing. But my mouse is fast, smart, and tough. She’s young, but she’s dealt with infiltrating houses before. And she just needs to reach a tiny crack in the lower stones of that house. While writing this action scene, I’d have her hide in the shade from the hot sun but then have to deal with the nest of bees; and when she escapes from them, the cat is waiting for her. And then it becomes a chase through everything else, dodging the lawnmower and the kids. She loses the cat at times, but then it finds her again, and just barely makes it.

One Character, One Conflict
I’m still with my mouse as my character, but I’ve chosen to have only one challenge in the field: moving sensors. The mouse’s whole goal is to avoid the sensors (if she doesn’t, they’ll trap her). This action scene will involve a lot of problem-solving as my mouse figures out how to get above, below, and around the sensors. Oh, and how to hide from them.

Special Powers?
Want to give your character a special power or talent or advantage? You might have noticed that I did that with my mouse: She’s fast, smart, and tough. What does your character have within themselves that equips them for this challenge? Think also what they have on the outside that would help (a wand? Mechanical wings? A tiny weapon? A spray bottle? A bodyguard?). Come up with a list.

Now get to the scene. Start writing in the middle of an action. Something has just happened and your character needs to run. Make sure that your character encounters the problems and worries at least once (ideally twice or three times!) that they won’t make it.

Active Words
When writing an action scene, it’s crucial to use active language. If you’re having trouble thinking of active verbs, grab a thesaurus and make a list of synonyms. Describe how your character moves (do they bolt? sprint? pound? scamper? leap?). Think of how your character’s body is reacting (Is their heart pounding? Are they sweating? Are they cold with fear? Are they faint with terror?). What are the landscape and the challenges doing around your character?

Have fun with this scene! This is all about writing external action, so it might end up looking like a video game (in fact, a lot of external action often does). Absolutely use that inspiration if it helps!

In my next post, we’ll think about internal action. So keep your piece on hand!

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it 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.

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.

A New Year, and Looking Back

Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you all a joyous, peaceful, warm, and creative year filled with the light you need in your particular lives.

For me, I’m looking forward to editing a new book that I’m very excited about. More on that when it’s closer to publication.

Today I looked back on some of my favorite memories of 2019. A big one was the trip my family took to Scotland. When I do research on the ground, I cast my net wide. I usually visit four or more castles and thoroughly explore them, hunting for details that will be useful in my settings. But in 2019, with my husband and son backing me up all the way (as they always do, kind souls that they are), I decided that I’d do a deep dive into the history, people, and architecture of my favorite city instead: Edinburgh. Here’s a taste of that.

We begin, of course, with a castle.

At Edinburgh Castle

My son prefers not to have his photo shared on social media and the like, so you won’t see him in this post, though he was a wonderful companion on this trip. However, you will see the other important gentleman in my life: my husband Michael. He’s kindly posing for me at Edinburgh Castle. He enjoys castles and history, but isn’t obsessed the way I am. Yet he never shows any hesitation to go off to visit any castle or historical sight to which my obsession leads me.

Edinburgh Castle is a fascinating place. When rediscovered in a state of disuse in the 1800s, it was envisioned by many as a crucial historic site (which indeed it is), leading to its enthusiastic preservation. But remember: Medievalism was quite fashionable and romantic then, and a frequent subject in works of art that paid more attention to beauty than accuracy. The good 19th century preservationists of this castle also reinterpreted much it, rebuilding with a 19th century idea of what history looked like. Those parts  aren’t historically accurate from a medieval or Renaissance sense, but they feel like walking into a pre-Raphaelite work of art, and are fascinating as such. And the ground hold a wonderful modern-day museum of the war history, which include the periods when it was used as a POW camp during the American and Napoleonic wars (those are thoughtful and beautifully accurate). That’s why I love this castle: Its many reincarnations are represented, which is something you don’t often see in castles.

And, to loop back to what I was writing at the start, it’s lovely being married to someone with whom I can discuss this kind of thing as we visit such sites.

Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle

I always visit the Scottish National War Memorial when I’m at Edinburgh Castle. This is an incredibly powerful place. Built in 1927 by Sir Robert Lorimer, it holds printed books with the names of every Scottish man and woman who died in service in conflicts from WWI on. It’s a moving place that doesn’t allow photos inside, which is s good thing; it’s a place to reflect and honor of those who died in armed conflicts, especially the  many, many of WWI. You really understand the impact of that war if you look at any one of the regiments’ books of names.

Borthwick Close

The Royal Mile, an important road in the Old Town, goes all the way up to Edinburgh Castle. And of course, lots of people wander down it from the castle. When you’re wandering the Royal Mile, you’ll notice all sorts of interesting bits of history if you look carefully. Here’s one of them: Borthwick’s Close, one of the many narrow passageways between the historic buildings. Borthwick’s Close was once one of the crucial byways that helped people get around what was a fashionable place to live in the early 17th century. Houses were huge, towering, and tight, and the streets were long. Closes like this led to other streets, and sometimes courtyards or other houses. These days, most closes lead to restaurant back doors or are places where residents put their rubbish (trash, to those of us in the U.S.). Borthwick’s Close now leads to an apartment complex, but we can still imagine the history of this spot.

A basket-hilted broadsword…


…and its blade

You knew there’d be a sword picture, yes? Well, this is a beauty. It’s a basket-hilted broadsword, c 1715, which greeted me as soon as I walked into the National Museum of Scotland’s gorgeous and insightful exhibit “Wild and Majestic”. This weapon is from the Highlands, and looks as if it received some use (see the second pic). A sword of this era could stand up to the nicks you see a bit better than the swords in my books (which are from 500 years before). By the way, a lot of people think my books (which are set in and around the Lothians and the Scottish Borders) take place in the Highlands, which is an understandable mistake. This exhibit brilliantly explains why the common perception of Scotland is of Highland Scotland.

The New Town

Onto the New Town, with a picture of the street where I stay when my family visits Edinburgh. The New Town isn’t known much by tourists, as there aren’t many attractions of the kind one finds in the Old Town (the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle, etc), but it’s one of my favorite places to wander because of this: rows of Georgian houses in crescents and “places” with parks in between. These were built during the early 1800s when the city was as a hotbed of intellectualism and culture and decided to clean itself up a wee bit to compete with elegant cities in Europe. James Craig (at only age 26) was the architect who designed the New Town, down to and just past Princes Street.

Now, let’s wander to a different part of Edinburgh, past the New Town, into what was once a difference town altogether. Dene, as it was known in the 11th century and on for a bit, was a village with a powerful tradition of milling. That it’s on the Water of Leith, a lovely burn that snakes through Edinburgh, makes a lot of sense. The Water of Leith goes right by St. Bernard’s Well.

St. Bernard’s Well, with Hygieia, goddess of health

St. Bernard’s Well is a lovely spot on the walk to Dean Village, an ornate structure with Gothic columns. People came here for the mineral waters, and in 1760, this well marked the site of a purported healthful spring (though one person described the taste of the water as being like “the washings from a foul gun barrel”). In the 1940s, it was closed due to things like arsenic in the water.

Dean Village

A few pictures above, I mentioned the village of “Dene.” These days, it’s called “Dean,” and this was my first visit to it. Dean Village was its own separate village until it was sold to an Edinburgh provost in 1826. Here’s a very famous view.

Well Court

In Dean Village, one of the most historic places is Well Court. This is a series of buildings built in 1886 to provide good, affordable housing for local people and to encourage community with common spaces. It fell to ruin over the years but was renovated in 2007 with a similar aim. This is the courtyard, and while we were there, we heard a wisp of Scottish folk music playing from upstairs in one of the flats, pots clanging as someone was cooking in another one, and people chatting with friends. This would be a lovely place to live.

Dundas House

Back in Edinburgh proper, and to St Andrew Square, where this gorgeous little mansion sits. Dundas House was built in 1774 by architect Sir William Chambers for Sir Lawrence Dundas, a businessman who worked with the British during the Jacobite wars. It became the Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters in 1825. When you start learning the players in history here (especially during the period of the Jacobites), you’ll find that everything starts to connect. And buildings like this tell their own stories. (By the way, it’s still a Royal Bank of Scotland.)

St Stephens Church

As you can tell, I was really drinking the history of buildings in Edinburgh. Here’s another building that I passed often and absolutely adored: St Stephen’s Church, which dominates the start of Stockbridge near the New Town. It was built in 1827 and 1828 and is one of the masterpieces of William Henry Playfair, one of Edinburgh’s renowned architects of that era (he did monuments too). Its use as a church declined more recently, and it was purchased in 2014 by a private owner and now is a performance space. I’m grateful that a commitment has been made to keep this stunning landmark intact.

At Foogs Gate, Edinburgh Castle

I’ll end this post with one of my family’s traditional photographs. Each year, my husband or son takes a picture of me beaming at Foogs Gate, a 17th century part of Edinburgh Castle. I love being here, and Foogs Gate was once an entry, and a checkpoint. It’s a place where I always pause to soak up the history and reflect on how happy I am to be there.

Inspiration with a Cuppa: Memories of Eileen Curran

I was going through my files recently, and noticed a tribute I’d written for a very dear friend I had during my early career here in Maine: Eileen Curran (born 1927), the Victorian scholar, who I’d met in 2004. Every once in a while, I’ve found that I meet people with whom I have an instant bond. Eileen was many years my senior, but she came into my life as I was researching the Victorian period for a historical novel I was writing. Back then, I was fascinated mostly with England (Scotland was certainly an interest, but not the obsession it is today—it became that shortly thereafter). My interests at that time made my meeting Eileen quite advantageous, in many ways, and for both of us, I think. Here is the tribute that I spoke at Colby College’s Special Collections in October 2013 for the Maine Humanities Council board. (I thought it might be fun for readers who know only my attention to Scottish castles to see that I’ve had other influences.) —Diane Magras

Columbine and chives in Eileen’s Cottage Garden. (Photo: Diane Magras)

Each summer, Eileen Curran’s garden was the most colorful on her street: with pink lupine, ivory scabiosa, white violets, and golden gloriosa daisies among the most outstanding. Other perennials wove between them, creating a 19th-century tapestry of color and texture, like the gardens that had inspired the very concept of English cottage gardening. It made perfect sense that such a garden would surround Eileen’s home, or that you’d find further evidence of a Victorian life inside, where illustrations from Punch hung on the walls over William Morris “Willow” patterned wallpaper.

The first time I met Eileen in 2004, on a sunny early July day when her massive hedge of lilacs was the most striking thing in bloom, I had no real idea that I would be stepping into the home of a person who would inspire me so thoroughly. I’m one of those Americans who looks longingly at Anthony Trollope’s world: at the sense of adventure laced with certain good manners—not to mention the long country walks over a verdant English countryside and, yes, that abundance of boldly-patterned skirts—and I didn’t have many people in my life who were quite as obsessed about these things as I was.

Eileen, however, was. And obsessed with far more.

Eileen was like the Victorians she researched: while honoring the past, she embraced new technology, to the point of exclusively publishing her work online in The Curran Index of Additions to and Corrections of the Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals. Biographies of Some Obscure Contributors to 19th-century Periodicals, published on the Victoria Research Web, expanded the Curran Index’s content. These resources delved into the prolific world of Victorian men and women who published their articles, stories, poems, and essays with their real names, pseudonyms, and anonymously, but whose identities help researchers today weave together the booming industry of letters. (Dickens’s famous Household Words was only a small part of the picture.)

This is one of Eileen’s passport photos. She’d saved many from many years of primary source research in England, Ireland, and Germany.

The most obscure of these writers—writers who never published more than a few articles, those who were never sufficiently established, or those whose anonymous paths seemed to peter out in old parish registries—were Eileen’s special delight. She believed in the important contributions that anonymous writers made, and was like a private detective in seeking their identities—a detective who parsed through birth, death, and marriage records in small country churches, online, by phone, through microfiche, and through mail, to find all these “Obscures.” When I first met her, she had already mapped out hundreds of families in Britain. In my many visits to her house, with my cup of loose leaf Lapsang Oolong (Eileen’s favorite) and the most wonderful homemade biscuits outside of England, I heard stories of her “Obscures,” their families and their aliases and who they might have been but really were (as far as she knew; she was always open to corrections that might come up in future research, and never made assumptions without being clear that they were just that).

We also talked Victorian literature, but in a way that I certainly had never talked it before. Eileen spoke in casual conversation about the great Victorian authors and their characters as if they were old friends, often in present tense. And she spoke in gorgeous sentences, the kinds that these authors had written, composing in her head as she spoke. I don’t know how she did it (I need paper to build such sentences). She rearranged how one would normally speak a sentence, roll out a clever and unusual verb, and end with a punch line that caught you a second or two after you heard it. Eileen never laughed at her own jokes; she hardly waited to see if I caught them, though once in a while she’d pause with a slight eyebrow arch.

I spent the whole day with her on my visits. During those rewarding hours, Eileen also told me stories of her family, of her parents’ upbringing and her own. She was a precocious child (of course) who surprisingly didn’t speak until she was three years old, but began speaking almost at once in complete sentences. It was as if she had waited, listened, and learned. She had many opportunities to listen: her parents included her in conversations about educational theories, business, and WWII. They respected her mind. She graduated from Cornell University, where she also earned her PhD, and also was among the first graduating class of Cambridge’s Girton College in 1948. She experienced Austerity firsthand, living with a Cambridge family in town, and shared the care packages sent from home with them: packages of sweets, tinned foods, chocolate, and cigarettes (an excellent currency, she said).

This is an early passport photo when Eileen was still a student.

We went out to lunch in Waterville most days that I visited. Once, in the private dark corner of a busy restaurant, hearing a story about her independent, free-spirited, curious, and intellectual schooldays, I felt a powerful connection: I had been exactly the same at my school nearly fifty years later, reading big books for fun in the corner of the library, finding few like spirits around me. If time and place had somehow put us together in the same town, I suspect we’d have been best friends. And she’d have probably egged me on to become a Victorian scholar, too.

The last time I saw Eileen, her eyesight was nearly gone—a huge blow for a person whose life was built around her scholarly research—but she was still able to see some of the walk we went on. I pushed her wheelchair around the oceanside path of her assisted care facility, up to the fading rosebushes and cold chrysanthemums. She spotted in the distance a yellow flower and though her distance vision was quite impaired, she opined its identity. I darted into the grass and fetched one for her. She was right. It was goldenrod, a weed in America, Eileen told me, but a fine addition to a cottage garden in England. We found a cup for a vase in her room.

Eileen died on April 22, 2013, at the age of 85. It’s been hard for me to drive past her house, but the last time I did, that massive hedge of lilacs was in bloom.


Historical Novel Society Review

The Historical Novel Society is a great resource. On their website, aficionados of historical fiction may learn about what historical novels are out in the English-speaking world, or research ones from the past. I’ve gone to their website many times to look at reviews. It’s especially nice because the people reviewing are as big on history as I am (or are actual professional historians!).

So imagine my delight when an editor of the Historical Novel Society emailed me this review of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter! I especially like the ending, where the reviewer notices how Drest’s reliance on her brothers’ voices shifts to a reliance on her own.

Book critics don’t write reviews for authors, and authors really shouldn’t read reviews with their author brain switched on. We’re not the audience. And that’s fine. But that truth doesn’t take away from my pleasure in this review as both an author and someone who loves historical novels.