I had a lot of fun writing this guest post for the great website MG Book Village, which is dedicated to celebrating middle grade fiction. Here are the opening lines:
“Most authors have some sense of who their audience will be when they write a novel, and I certainly did with The Mad Wolf’s Daughter: I wrote it for me, for my son, and for middle graders who wanted a fast-paced adventure to make them almost miss the bus in the morning.
The Mad Wolf’s Daughteris the book of my heart. It stars Drest, a scrappy 12-year-old girl who takes swordplay, cliff-climbing, and swimming through dangerous seas as her daily exercise. When her warm and loving family—a notoriously brutal father and five vicious brothers—are captured by enemy knights and shipped off to a castle to meet their doom, she goes after them, hauling along a young injured knight as guide and hostage. On her journey, she follows her family’s war-band codes of honor, but also develops her own codes. Oh, and she rescues pretty much everyone she runs across.
Let’s start with why I wrote this book for me.…” Read more
(By the way, only five more days until Drest is out on bookstore shelves…)
I’m a week out from the publication of my debut novel The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. And I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, and what it’s meant.
Here I am, in my element at age 18, in Paris on a trip with my mother. I’m standing beside one of my beloved grotesques. I’ve always loved sites like Notre-Dame. Photo: Patricia Harrison
I’ve been writing novels since I was 14 years old. My early novels were fantasy adventures, and I had my characters do things that I dreamed I could do:
Stand up to people who claimed they were stronger than you.
Communicate by telepathy with wild animals.
Carry ornate daggers or swords, and know how to use them.
Travel to unusual worlds.
Back then, I wrote as voraciously as I read. Novel after novel, story after story. I always had a new idea. Everything gave me ideas. Everything inspired me. I always felt like writing.
I did not, however, always feel like revising. Back then, I didn’t even know what revision meant. Spell-check, read it through, and then it’s done, I thought. And I liked it that way: I always had time for my next idea.
It may come as no surprise that I remember very little about those novels. In fact, I remember fragments of only four of them. (The descriptors in the earlier list are it.) I think of these novels as things that were somehow ethereal, like flowers: beautiful for the moment, then fading. And I didn’t mind because there were new blooms that would then be replaced in an endless pattern.
While that was a comforting pattern to be part of as a teen and a young writer—each future novel meant more than the current one, each idea was ready to build on the last—I’m very glad that I grew out of it and learned to revise. Revision really is the secret to any good work of fiction. And there’s an art to it. Revision is a crucial part of writing, a part that I now love. It’s a process of discovery, of lifting a layer to find a new one that you hadn’t known existed, and doing that more than once.
A writer needs help with revision. It’s unrealistic to expect that you can think of all the possibilities that are behind the mists of your work by yourself. Critiquing readers are crucial, and so is an editor. Mine have helped me to catch errors, improve my telling of the story I wanted out there, and polish everything until that electronic file of words turned into a novel reaching far beyond what I had originally thought possible.
Revision isn’t the only way to attain publication, but it’s an essential part of the journey. There’s also the basic ability to spin a story well, and luck.
And here I am in my element at Tantallon Castle, North Berwick, Scotland, at the time that my novel was accepted by Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin Young Readers in 2016. Photo: Diane Magras
And there’s being in the right place at the right time. I’ve dreamed of being published for many years, but I’m glad it’s happening now and didn’t happen before. I have a family, and I understand what that means more than I had ever understood in the past. I’ve experienced great joy and great loss. There are scenes that I wrote with tears in my eyes because I understand in my core how it feels to have a beloved family member die, to know when you’ve found the truest friend of your life, to love your child with all your soul.
And I know what it means to find happiness in small things—the warmth of the sun, the taste of good food, the sound of birds in the trees—and in big things too, such as having a childhood dream fulfilled.
And I know that, like my characters at the start of my book, that this is just the beginning of my journey as an author.
This is Part 3 and final installment of a series of posts about how I’ve been inspired by Scottish castles to create scenes in my novels.
We visit Dirleton Castle in Dirleton, East Lothian for this one. Here I introduce Lord Faintree’s solar:
From Dirleton Castle. Photo: Diane Magras
The solar is where the lord, lady, or master of a castle lives. It’s the bedroom where they sleep, wash up (a basin on a table, and there’s usually a garderobe), and keep their chest of linens and clothes. This bedchamber appears briefly in The Mad Wolf’s Daughter in a battle scene. I imagined this vaulted ceiling and walls lined with tapestries. The stones beneath the hangings would be painted white and patterned with blue decoration. (You can even see traces of the old whitewash on these stones.)
And this is a window that I adapted for that scene (in my scene, the window is a bit wider and the space shallower):
At Dirleton Castle. Photo: Diane Magras
I’ve taken considerable fiction license here. This is actually Dirleton’s expansive Lord’s Hall, a room meant to impress guests and visitors. But that’s what I wanted for this chamber: a dramatic, vaulted-ceilinged space much larger than most lords would need for their bedroom.
I did this for a reason: The Lord Faintree who had this castle built saw his solar as yet another way to exert his power. He’d hold private meetings and his own lessons for his son here and use this room to enforce his authority. That Lord Faintree knew how to use space to intimidate. When you read the solar scene, go ahead and think of that.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these examples of castle-to-fiction scenes in the first book of Drest’s adventures.
If you’ve met me in person, you’ve probably heard me go on a bit about Scotland. (And if you know me on social media, you’ve seen that too.) So, with my book placed in 1210 on the Scottish lowlands (most the Borders and the coast), it should come as no surprise that I was hoping that the audiobook of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter would feature a reader who could speak with a Scottish accent. Now, of course, that wasn’t the only item on my wish-list. I also wanted someone who could tell the story well, who would delve into the adventure element the way a master storyteller would, who’d be able to convey its legend and mystery, the excitement of the historical aspects, have a rich voice for the narration, and be able to capture all the characters’ voices convincingly (that would be Drest, Emerick, her father and her brothers, Tig, the villagers, the knights)…it’s a bit of a wish-list.
Imagine my excitement when I heard an audition for this narration that captured all of this very nicely…and then notch that up a few levels when I heard the final recording of the first chapter. Which captured all of it perfectly.
A special book was waiting for me at home on Friday after work…and was quite an incredible surprise. I saw the book-shaped padded envelope from my publisher, had a pretty good idea of what it might be, and asked my son to open the package. His grin grew wider and wider as he did. He’s been my reader all this time, my critic, and also my biggest fan, and it meant the world to share this with him.
Here’s my first book, displayed on a saltire (the Scottish flag) with a claymore, a Scottish sword (wrong century for my book, but it’s what I had on hand). Photo: Diane Magras
As explored in a past story bite, setting is a crucial part of any story. It’s the world in which your characters live, and can be a character itself. Any world is made of a variety of features, from landscape and weather to buildings and roads. For this story bite, I want to look closely at ways that you can build a setting through details.
As always, here’s a picture to start with:
Abbotsford, seen from the garden. Photo: Diane Magras
This is Abbotsford in Melrose, Scotland, the home of the great 19th century author Sir Walter Scott. Largely responsible for the creation of the historical novel, Sir Walter Scott built this home to be his own personal castle.
A setting like Abbotsford offers many fascinating details, but let’s have your story begin in this picture, at the top of the garden looking down at the house. And for this story bite, let’s focus on exactly what you see. We’re working on setting description and, specifically, details.
What do you see?
That can be a hard question to answer, so let’s delve deeper:
When you look at this picture, what’s the first thing you notice?
What can you say about that thing?
What color is it?
What shape? What texture?
What other things do you see, and what colors, shapes, and textures can you describe?
What’s the overall feel you get from this picture? Does it make you comfortable? Happy? Sad?
How do those colors, textures, and objects lead you to feel that way?
When you’re writing a setting, details like this help the writer evoke emotions in the reader, which is a great way to prepare a scene for action. Details can have special meanings too: repeating throughout a work, or as something a character remembers later on.
Give this description a try. Your story bite assignment is to write what you see in that picture, sharing as many details as you can imagine. Paint the scene with words. Make this a paragraph—or write more, if you feel inspired to.
I’ve written many scenes of places I’ve never been, relying on photographs or paintings to give me a sense of the setting. If I write a scene at Abbotsford in a future book, I’ll certainly look at this and other photographs to spark my imagination. This is taste of what it’s like to write a description based on something you’ve never actually seen. (And if you have seen Abbotsford, then by all means use what you remember!)
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.
Thank you to everyone who has shown interest and enthusiasm for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. It’s so exciting (and a bit unbelievable) that my wee lass’s tale is so close to being in print. Its publication date, March 6, 2018, is coming right up!
I’m offering a special preorder thanks/giveaway with various tangible objects related to The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Here are the details:
Share a picture or scan of a preorder receipt for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter from any bookseller before or by March 5, 2018 (email that to me, along with your mailing address), and I’ll send you a swag package that includes:
One sticker of Drest, the tough wee lass who leads the story
Three pins, one each of the characters (the tough lass Drest, the injured knight Emerick, and the village boy Tig with his crow Mordag)
A mangonel pencil sharpener (a tiny working siege machine)
A howling Celtic wolf charm
A wee golden castle
A Leuchtturm1917 notebook and a Staedtler Triplus Fineliner pen, exactly what I use when sketching out my notes for all of my writing. (This is my favorite kind of notebook and pen, and I hope they inspire whoever wins this prize!)
One person will win each of the First and Grand Prizes.
Again, to enter, send a picture or scan of a preorder receipt for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter before or by March 5, 2018 (email it to me, along with your mailing address). I’ll do the drawing shortly thereafter.
This is the second post in a series of how I’ve discovered crucial details within the castles of Scotland to inspire a scene in my fiction.
Today’s post is about doors.
Tantallon’s front door. A cheerful entry, yes? Photo: Diane Magras
This door is from Tantallon Castle near North Berwick. I like the solid wood of it (oak, I assume, as my castle’s door is), and the fact that it’s pitted with iron nails. This is something easy to find in research books, but it’s quite the feeling to run your hand over a slabs of wood smoothed by the years and finger those cold iron lumps—and think about all the weapons they must have dulled!
And here is a finger of metal to create a hook, built into the castle where a bar might have held the door shut. Note the grooves carved into the stone: That shows where the original door lay.
A hook, possibly for a bar, and an opening below where a bar would have fit nicely. Photo: Diane Magras
The scene with the castle door occurred near the end of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. My protagonist was helping to block the door and slip a piece of wood into a slot. If someone was trying to enter, you’d need to hold the door shut with your weight as you put it in the bar, which would be difficult if the people trying to enter were pushing with their weight. In my scene, a heavier person was helping my protagonist keep the door shut.
That may sound exciting—and I certainly meant it to be—but you won’t find that scene in my book now; I ended up rewriting that chapter several times to create earlier dramatic moments, so the battle-to-keep-the-door-shut scene no longer was relevant. In fact, I don’t even mention the door in the final draft! But there really is a nail-studded door like this one—I promise. You’ll just have to imagine it yourself in the current scene.
Much novel research is like this: Learning details, having a clear image of a setting in your mind, and sharing only a little bit of it with the reader (or sharing a lot and then deleting it all when you revise). I like to get my details just right, even if I do cut their actual mention in a novel itself for the sake of tight prose.
Many thanks, as always, to Historic Scotland Environment for all its work to keep heritage properties like Tantallon Castle in great historic shape, as well as public for all of us to enjoy.