Finding Beauty in Small Places

Sometimes the world can feel overwhelming. Illness (our own or that of loved ones), alarming happenings around us, or disappointments of professional or personal kinds can each drag us under the border of happiness like an undertow in the sea, and keep us down. This year has been a challenging one for many people for many reasons. For me, it’s been a powerful mix of excitement (seeing the final cover, blurbs, and first review of The Mad Wolf’s Daughterand visiting Scotland with my husband and son) and frustration (U.S. and U.K. politics). Every day, as a means to ground myself, I’ve made sure that I find something small to notice and appreciate. It has been a pattern in the early autumn ice, the changes I’ve detected in my son’s laugh as he nears age 11, a crow’s antics with a crust of bread outside my writing nook window, the pungent taste of the bittersweet chocolate I received as a gift. Finding ways to appreciate the little things of life can help us all feel comforted, and sometimes even strengthened. Intentionally finding those small glimpses of beauty in everyday life is something my mother taught me by her example in 2015 as she found ways to enjoy the life that ALS was taking from her.

Here’s my hope to all of you for a good year ahead, filled with many beautiful things large and small.

A tiny beauty: this minuscule plant growing in Craigmillar Castle’s curtain wall. Photo: Diane Magras

My First Trade Review

It’s thrilling to have my very first trade review for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter out into the world, on Kirkus’s website:

A screen shot of said review from Kirkus

And here’s the full thing!

Castle Scenes: Part 1

The great medieval castles of Scotland have always inspired me and helped me create my fictional worlds. In this series, I’ll share pictures of castle bits that have directly led to specific scenes in my novels.

For this post, let’s talk castle stairs.

I always knew that castle stairs were narrow, and spiral, and designed to make it hard for right-handed sword-bearing invaders to go up while right-handed sword-bearing defenders were going down*. I had a battle scene I was writing near the end of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter that I’d set in a hallway to give my characters room for dramatic sword moves. But when I saw these stairs at Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh, I realized that I was missing an opportunity.

An inspiring wee stairway at Craigmillar Castle. Photo: Diane Magras

What if my characters didn’t have space to use their masterful swordplay, but were crushed on the sides of the stairs instead? What if my characters were the ones going up, facing a disadvantage? How easy would it be to battle on those tiny, narrow steps? Some practice moves on these steps in my hiking boots helped me experiment with what my characters might do. (I was a bit more careful than they would have been, though; my life wasn’t depending on it, and I really didn’t want to fall!)

You can find that scene late in the book, and you’ll know the stairs it came from!

Many thanks to Historic Scotland Environment for maintaining and keeping public so many inspiring properties like Craigmillar Castle.

* Apparently, lefties faced discrimination during medieval times, and might even have been charged with accusations of witchcraft, so I think it’s safe to assume that people training to be knights would be taught to fight with their right hands. That said, anyone who could fight with the left hand (as does Drest, the protagonist of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter) would have quite the advantage! But religion entered into this discrimination, and, with the holy vows knights took, most knights probably fought the way they were trained.

Making the Rounds

November is the month for a couple of important conferences: one for school librarians and one for English teachers, adults who I hope will have a chance to read my book and recommend it to their students. I was delighted to see that Penguin Young Readers had included advanced reading copies of my book at these events:

First, at the American Association of School Librarians conference November 9 through 11 (third shelf down, on the far right):

Photo: @PenguinClass (from Twitter)

and later at the National Council of Teachers of English convention November 16 through 19 (fourth shelf, on the far left):

Photo: @PenguinClass (Twitter)

I’m very honored that Penguin Young Readers is treating The Mad Wolf’s Daughter as a lead title in this way, and thrilled to know that school librarians and English teachers—some of the most important people in my childhood—will have an early peek at my debut novel.

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter on Sale!

Things change suddenly in publishing, and one thing that has just come up for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is the many bookstores where it’s suddenly on sale. My husband and I have had fun checking out our favorite indies from around the U.S. and seeing if they have my book for preorder (so far, they all have!). It’s flattering, breathtaking, and a bit unreal.

Here’s the link for IndieBound if you want to try this too!

Story Bite #3: On Food

Last month’s writing prompt was about setting. I hope your mouth won’t water too much over November’s prompt, which is about…food!

For this month, write either nonfiction or fiction. Write as yourself, or pick a character (create your own alter ego, or go ahead and pick someone from your favorite book).

Here’s a visual to start:

Afternoon tea, made by eteaket Tea Room in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Diane Magras

This, friends, is an extravagant afternoon tea. Pastries at the top, scones in the middle, and Brie and pesto tomato sandwiches at the bottom. It was one of my favorite meals in Edinburgh this summer (and no, I did not eat the whole thing).

Now ask yourself or your character the following:

What was one of your favorite meals? What was the occasion? (A birthday? A holiday? A celebratory occasion? A certain person you were sharing the meal with?)

What did you like most about the meal? What were the different foods and what did they taste like? What made the food or drink special?

Was there anything you would have liked to have changed? Do you have any regrets about what you ate, or didn’t eat?

What do you want others to know about this meal (the kind of food, how it was made, or the experience)?

And did you play a part in making it, or just eating it?

As usual, answer as many of these questions as you’d like. Write a paragraph (it can be just two sentences, or a whole page).

I hope you have fun with this prompt.


If you wish to share your writing:

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.

If I have a moment, 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.

Cover Update

The world of publishing can be a complicated business, a special journey with paths that a debut writer could not easily foresee. As I’ve said a few times when I meet new situations, I’ve learned a lot. And one thing I’ve learned recently is that a cover you love can change.

But before you freeze or cry out in shock, just relax for a moment and know that it often happens for the best.

If you’ve followed me on Twitter or here on this blog, you’ve heard me gush about the magnificent work of Antonio Javier Caparo. With input from Penguin’s brilliant designer Maggie Edkins, he created my first cover, which you can read about in another post.

With input from Maggie, he also created my newest.

I am honored to have his work in this new cover for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. The focus is exclusively on Drest, my young wee lass of a protagonist, so there’s no doubt who the book stars. As much as I loved the dark intensity of the last cover, I love the openness and light of this one. In this, Drest and her beloved sword stand out clearly, and Faintree Castle, her destination, is distinct.

Detail is this artist’s forte: Note that gloriously fierce expression in Drest’s face, one that challenges the viewer. There’s no sneer, but there’s a trace of humor in her narrowed eyes. And her grip on her sword shows that she’s ready for anything. And those fingernails are perfect for a lass who grew up where she did.

Some of the other characters will appear on the back or the jacket flats of the printed cover. But for now, meet the new cover. And meet Drest, front and center, with her sword Borawyn, just as she appears in the printed page.

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!