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!


Arrival of My ARCs

(photo: Diane Magras)

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

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

And it’s exciting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Praise for The Mad Wolf’s Daughter

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

The Power of the Rewritten Word

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

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

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

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

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

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