At Edinburgh Castle

Naturally, any visit by my family to Scotland includes a stay in Edinburgh and a stop at my beloved Edinburgh Castle. Rebuilt considerably over the centuries, the fortress in Scotland’s capital has a rich history with many fascinating stories. “Castle at War,” a new exhibit in Argyle Tower, was spectacular, a dramatic multi-media display with incredible artifacts and videos, brilliantly introducing visitors to some of the stories of this castle’s role—and changing hands—during the 14th century.

One of my favorite parts was this video, which illustrates a story that I love: In 1314, when the castle was being held by the English, a small Scottish force of 20 led by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, climbed up the castle’s crag on a path known by a local guide. Moray and his tiny force defeated the whole English garrison in a very successful stealth attack. How Scottish! (Note the great animation, from the Scottish invaders climbing the cliff, then in the background the English guards watching, then being overwhelmed.)

Real Medieval (and pre-Medieval) Scottish Weaponry!

In my school talks, I chat a wee bit about the weaponry mentioned in my books. And after a visit early this summer to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (my favorite museum ever, by the way), I’ve some wonderful examples of medieval weaponry and armor that link nicely to my books.

First, here’s a piece of pre-medieval chain mail to get a sense of what Emerick‘s wearing early in Book 1. Remember that hauberk that Drest helped him remove? This weave of metal rings would have been what she was touching. They were a bit more densely patterned in the time of the novel (1210), but this gives you a nice close-up of what chain mail was (and now imagine the intricate work of blacksmiths who created it).



Next, I was thrilled to see this Viking-era sword pommel. While it’s a ceremonial one that was likely never used in battle, it’s similar to the one I envisioned for Borawyn (based on a pommel in the collection of the British Museum). This is such a gorgeous, ornate treasure. Frankly, I’m always in awe (and in envy!) when I see this museum’s amazing collections!



Next, this sword is almost a perfect match of Tancored’s hilt, from The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. And this is exactly the right style and era (which makes me very happy, as I had not seen a sword I was using for this book, and just made it up based on research)! The only difference from Tancored is that the pommel of Drest’s sword is square, not circular. (But she gets one with a circular pommel later on.) This sweet hilt is a bit careworn, but that comes with being a 13th century piece of metal.




Last of all, I figured I owe the kids at my school talks who ask me about my sword pin a picture of what that sword really is. Here’s a real claymore, which comes from the 1300s, which is about 100 years too late for the Drest books.

But a claymore could very well show up in another book…

Book Review: TIN by Pádraig Kenny

It’s not much, really, but the orphan Christopher is pleased to be the only “real” boy among his companions in Mr Absolam’s scrapyard, a place where mechanicals—boys with some human parts but mostly metal ones, parts joined by magic—train to be as real as possible for the human families that will, they hope, one day buy them. It’s a bleak existence made bearable by the warmth between the mechanicals and Christopher, and Estelle, a human girl whose artistry can make what it metal look very human. But an accident reveals a gut-wrenching secret. Then a very talented mechanical-maker who has plans to make a new kind of mechanical, an illegal kind that would change the world, kidnaps Christopher. It’s up to the denizens of Mr Absalom’s scrapyard to rescue him.

This is Pádraig Kenny’s Tin (published February 1, 2018, in the U.K.; March 26, 2019, in the U.S.) a warm, swift-plotted, steampunk tale of rescue, coming to terms with the past, and what it means to be truly human—and what it means to be a family.

In the very beginning, Kenny presses on that last theme powerfully. Christopher and Jack, his best friend among the mechanicals, are going with Mr Absalom to present Jack as a potential new “son” to a family that has just lost their son. Christopher’s memories of his dead parents still hurt, and when he learns why Mr Absalom had picked this family, he “tried to dampen the hot, sickening anger he felt.” The market is for mechanical servants, but Mr Absalom has discovered a niche. But Christopher knows that it’s simply wrong. A family can’t just be purchased.

But a family can be formed by love, trust, and even sacrifice; Kenny smoothly sets that theme in motion as soon as he introduces the reader to the cast of rescuers. There is Rob, the mechanical who wants to be human and wants most of all to whistle; Grabber, whose language is muffled but understood by his friends, and whose immense body and strength ensures that he will never be mistaken for human; Jack, who questions the world and demands justice very much like certain middle grade kids we all know; and Estelle, the one human, who is dogged in her determination to rescue Christopher, and has her own family secrets.

A brilliant, crusty, selfish old inventor with ties to Christopher plays a crucial role in the story, as does a cast of broken mechanicals, depicting a “family” built on dependence and hope. Their first scene shares intricate details, fantastic invention, but a tragedy pulls at it, since none of these masterful mechanicals quite work. And this is one of the emotions that runs through the book: the sadness of life. This is not a steampunk tale thrilled with its own marvelous creations, but one that feels distinctly real.

Even with that reality, that tinge of melancholy, the story is rich with warmth. Jack is nearly always upbeat and confident. Estelle is serious and fiercely determined, and they’re emotional foils for each other. Rob is a wonderful comic presence, always trying to do what’s right and not always quite understanding what that means. And Grabber—far more machine than human—has a beautiful sweetness, even as he’s tearing apart an impassive metal fence to let his companions through.

And Christopher, as he learns about his identity, his past, and determines his presence, his brave, fallible, and utterly real.

Teacher’s Guide: Update

With the school year about to begin (and having already begun in some parts of the country), I’ve finally got around to updating the Teacher’s Guide for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter to include some new resources, as well as discussion questions for The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. I realize that sequels are rarely used in classrooms as a primary study text, but are often used in classroom book groups, and so the discussion questions will, I hope, be useful in that context. It was a lot of fun to look back over the original guide and imagine how this might have been used in classrooms.

Enjoy! And if this Teacher’s Guide has had a place in your classroom, please let me know if it’s been useful.

Story Bite 11: This Builds Character!

How many times have you been forced to do something that wasn’t a lot of fun and were told, “It’s good you did that! It builds character!”

I think this is pretty common, whether it’s going for a hike in the pouring rain, going camping when the ground is frozen, having to speak in front of a crowd and being ready to pass out or throw up…and while none of these things are necessarily fun in real life, they create fantastic problems for your characters.

When you’re writing fiction, one of the most important things you need to do with your story is ensure that your character has something very basic and human that causes problems. Call such things “challenges” if you like, or “conflicts,” but at their core, they’re problems that have the potential of making your character miserable.

Time for a picture:

Model of Walter Scott and his nursemaid Janet

This is part of a display at Smailholm Tower, a wee castle on the Scottish Borders. This case shows a scene from the life of Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist who popularized the genre of historical fiction. He visited this region as a child. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s a model of Sir Walter Scott as a boy when he was visiting his grandfather’s farm, back in the early 1800s. Young Walter had been quite ill, and the thought was that he’d feel better being in the fresh air of the Borders, and well outside of Edinburgh (cities during that time had pretty foul air). I read that young Walter got tired easily and had trouble getting around. I’m going to imagine a bit more: Perhaps he couldn’t eat a lot without getting sick, and so he was pretty weak. And perhaps one day his Aunt Janet went for a walk with him and forgot him on the hillside when she drifted off to meet a friend. There he was, sick, needing a crutch to get around, faced with the task of having to get back to his grandfather’s farm on his own. And then it started to rain.

Does this build character? It creates drama and tension. And loading the problems upon poor young Walter will show a lot about the kind of person he was.

Will he curl up on the ground and wait for someone to come looking for him? Will he try to get back to the farm? If he tries, does he walk carefully—and does he get soaked and even more sick as a result?—or does he try to rush back—and does he fall down and get badly hurt?

Try this:

Write about either young Walter or a character of your choice. Put that character into a situation, and think of how to make their life difficult.

  • Are they alone? Are they with people they don’t like—or who don’t like them?
  • Are they on a hillside? In the woods? In a city? In a boat on the water? Do they know where they are, and is there something wrong or dangerous about the place? Or are they in an unknown place?
  • What’s the weather? Sunny and hot? Rainy and cold? Spring? (My husband is allergic to grass pollen, so being in a field in early summer can be a big problem for him.)
  • How are they feeling? Did they not have enough sleep last night? Do they have a cold? A fever? Are they just nervous?
  • What happens? What’s a little thing that could occur to make your character uncomfortable or nervous? (For instance, a dog starts barking nearby.) What’s a bigger thing that you can add onto this? (The barking dog starts snarling, and gets loose.)
  • How does your character react?

Your story bite should be a paragraph to a page, describing your character’s situation, then an action, and then a reaction—what your character does in response to the action.

I’ve seen in some of my recent school visits that writing a paragraph can be hard, so I’ll let you in on a trick that a lot of professional writers use: Try drawing this scene instead: as a comic, a single panel, or something else. (Stick figures can do a lot!)

When you finish, ask yourself: Has lobbing problems at your character helped you build them?


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.

Student Book Awards

I love student book award programs: They encourage kids to read, and especially to read books they might not have discovered on their own. When I volunteered in my son’s elementary school library, I shelved the Maine Student Book Award (MSBA) nominees and admired the wide variety of choices the committee picked. These weren’t only the wonderful issue-driven realistic fiction that populates most lists, but also adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, and quirky books. I shelved MSBA books in a big clear plastic bin—or on the Hold shelf. From when I was querying my first book to agents to when it had first come out in print, I dreamed a wee bit about seeing Drest’s face in that bin (or on that Hold shelf). But you never know if such things will happen.

Well, they did happen! The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is officially on the Maine Student Book Award list, and I could not be more chuffed! And then to make life even sweeter, I heard that Drest’s first adventure is also on the the 3rd through 5th grade master list for the Kentucky Bluegrass Award!

I don’t have a picture of the clear plastic bin (or Hold shelf) at my son’s former elementary school library, but here’s a snap I took at the Maine’s Reading Round Up conference in April of the whole MSBA collection (which includes some of my favorite recent books):

Drest is five rows down…you can just see her glaring eyes. And she gets to sit next to Frances and Prince Sebastian!

Being an Award-Winning Author

There are some lovely huge moments in an author’s life: the moment you hold your first book, the first time you read from your first book aloud to an audience, the first time a student tells you how much your work has meant to them…and sometimes formal recognition of other kinds as well. I had one of those huge moments of formal recognition on April 25, 2019, when the Maine Library Association awarded my debut novel, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, with the Lupine Award. This is Maine’s big award for children’s literature. I received it for the Juvenile/Young Adult category.

And so now, I’m officially an award-winning author! This is a very meaningful award for me, being from my home state, and I’m deeply touched and honored.

Here I am receiving a hug from Jill Hooper, a school librarian who chaired the Lupine Committee. Photo: Maine Library Association

Story Bite 10: On Finding Your Idea

At a school talk I gave last month, I asked students to tell me their thorniest writing problems. What made writing hard for them? Was there anything I could do to help? One student told me that she loved writing but always had trouble starting: She struggled to find what to write about. She had a poetry unit coming up, and wanted to be able to launch right into it.

My last story bite was on how to write that very first line, or few lines, of your work. In this story bite, we’re going to step back for the student who asked me that question and for any others who look at a blank page during Writing Workshop and feel completely helpless. We’re going to talk about how to find your first idea.

Here’s a pic to help us all relax: a library, a place full of the potential for ideas.

Jesup Memorial Library

This is one of the balconies at the Jesup Memorial Library, Bar Harbor, Maine, a place where I conjured ideas—and the beginnings of several novels— as a tween and teen writer. credit: Diane Magras

An idea needs to interest you most of all. Yes, you’re writing for readers (usually), especially if you’re doing writing for school. But when you’re starting, march into your velvet throne room, close the door, and take your bejeweled royal seat. You’re the one who matters most at this moment. Forget the others.

Now pick an idea-finding technique.

One: The Stream-of-Consciousness Technique

Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Try to relax.

Open your eyes. What’s the first thing you were thinking about?

  • Minecraft? Fortnite?
  • A book you were reading or vid you were watching before school?
  • A friend who’s angry at you?
  • Wanting to go to sleep in your bed?

There are potential ideas in every one of these.

For the first, start with a description of what you saw in the game the last time you played (or your skin and armor). And then say what’s going to happen. Tell the story of your game. And tell it like a story. (For instance: “NightMage23’s diamond sword broke just as the zombies swarmed upon her. There were spiders and husks coming closer. Skeletons were shooting in the distance. She had only three hearts left. It was just a game, but NightMage23’s heart was pounding. Not just a game. ‘Anna! Dinner!’ called Dad from downstairs. That’s not my name, NightMage23 thought, and quickly switched her diamond sword to a lava bucket and watch the gelatinous bright orange lava flow out around her character, boiling the zombies. It was a good thing she was wearing fire-resistant diamond armor.”)

Use a similar technique for one of the others thoughts: Describe something that’s going on right then, link it to how you’re feeling, and then let your mind wander and write whatever comes to mind. (For example: “I picked up a pencil, then put it back down. I had no idea what to write. My friend wasn’t talking to me, and I wasn’t about to write that. But what if I wrote about him as a three-headed snake sitting in his chair, and suddenly everyone noticed that he was a giant green snake and not a kid? Okay. So he’s a giant three-headed snake with venom dripping from his fangs. And he had no idea, until people began looking at him strangely.”)

For something like sleeping, describe what it feels like to be in your bed. Do you have more than one pillow, and is your pillow or are your pillows soft or firm? Do you have blankets or a comforter or both? Does everything mound around you in bed? Do you feel warm? Comforted? As if you’re in a den? As if you’re protected from all the world? Now think of something that could interrupt your sleep, and what you do, and how you feel. (An example: “I’m in bed. My bed has four pillows, and they’re soft. It also has two blankets and a quilt, and they’re warm. I feel safe and sleepy, and I’m about to drift off…when I hear something at the window. A tapping. It’s dark out. I don’t know who—or what—it could be. Should I  get out of bed to find out? Or should I wait here mounded in all my blankets? I grab my gecko flashlight with the mouth that opens and pinches, and start to get up. I’m pretty angry at whatever that is tapping at the window because I want to sleep.”)

For the stream-of-consciousness technique, let your mind wander and write whatever you’re thinking. Know that you can go back and cut, add to, or change it. Just get the idea out. Sometimes you’ll have a writing prompt to start with. Think beyond the obvious. (One prompt that my son had earlier this year was “Write about something exciting that happened to you.” He wrote about going for a walk and seeing a porcupine in his path, and how he had to decide: to go on and try to avoid the porcupine, or turn around. I loved the way he described his feelings—and also the porcupine itself, its quills and its nose—in this piece.)

Two: The Place Technique

When I’m about to start writing a scene, I ask myself: Where am I? (Or, rather, where are my characters?) I need to know the setting, the time of day, and the weather to start. But sometimes I start with an image, and I weave characters and stories from that. Here are two options for you to consider.

A view from the top of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island. credit: Diane Magras

The top of a mountain can be an isolated place. Any part of nature can prompt that feeling too. When you have a picture of nature to start with, ask yourself how it feels to be there: Lonely? Cold? Hot? Happy? Scary? Give yourself permission to imagine how bad things could be. Or how beautiful.

You know how you feel. Now who is your character? Someone who’s climbed the mountain and has paused, exhausted, to look out at the view? (Is it a kid? Was the kid dragged along by a parent? How does the kid feel? Happy after being reluctant for the hike? Resentful and hungry and tired?) Is it a kid who’s wandered away from their family, seeking a moment of quiet? (What is their family like? Is someone unkind to them? Smothering? Just too loud? What does the quiet mean?) Is the character a villain with an nefarious plan, and this is a view they’re looking at before they go off to do their deed? (Is this peace important to help the villain ground themselves before they do something unkind? Is there something in this scene that’s part of the villain’s plan? What’s about to happen, and how is the villain thinking about it?)

Nature is full of potential ideas.

Here’s another picture to spark a different kind of idea:

salvage tug

This is a model of a salvage tug named Bustler. The original ship was built in 1942 in Leith, Scotland, by Henry Robb Ltd. This model is at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. credit: Diane Magras

A salvage tug’s purpose provides an instant story: It’s a military boat that tows damaged ships, rescuing them in situations of war. Bustler was built in 1942, which would put its use directly during WWII.

Picture how this boat might have been used. What was the captain thinking, motoring out to rescue a ship? What about a young person working on the tug? Were they scared? Were they focusing? Were they worried about not finding the ship? What did they think when they found the ship that needed help? What did it look like? Was it sinking, with the water churning, slick with oil around them? Did Bustler put down its rescue boats for people in the water?

Your story could also take place in the National Museum of Scotland. A kid could be standing in front of this model, thinking about stories they heard from their great-grandfather about being on Bustler or another salvage tug, or being on a rescued ship. What does the kid feel, looking at this model? What stories does the kid imagine? Does the kid feel annoyed at the people who rush past the exhibit without looking at it? Or does the kid feel sad, knowing that most people aren’t thinking about how this tug affected many lives?

When you look at a picture to give yourself an idea, ask yourself these questions: Who is in this picture, and why are they there? What are they feeling in general? What is making them uncomfortable? That should start an idea, and, with any luck, you can fill in your idea with description and more ideas will follow.

Good luck! I hope these two techniques help inspire your ideas.


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.


Blurbs are a lovely part of an author’s life: Another author reads your work, and writes something kind about it. It’s especially meaningful when the blurbs are from authors you admire. And these two for The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter (which will be out on March 5 this year) are incredibly meaningful to me for that reason (hence I arranged them on cool backgrounds):