Meet Author Heather Kassner

Author Interview, Misc.

Meet Heather Kassner.


Heather Kassner -  Cameron Straatsma (1).jpg

Welcome Heather! Thanks for joining us today. Tell us a little about yourself

Heather Kassner loves thunderstorms, hummingbirds, and books. She lives with her husband in Arizona, waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the rain, photographing hummingbirds, and reading and writing strange little stories. Her debut novel, The Bone Garden, will be published August 6, 2019 by Holt/Macmillan.



The Interview.

The Bone Garden gives me the shivers from the title to the summary! How did you pick this particular title? How important are titles to you – meaning do you need to pick one before or after you start writing?

Shivers? Perfect! Titles are important to me, but unfortunately, settling on just the right one is hard! While writing, I had a working title, but not one that I liked. The title for THE BONE GARDEN only came to me after the book was finished and I was polishing it for querying. I added a line of dialogue with this phrase and finally found my title! It was such a relief.


You play with darker aspects of magic, dealing with odd creatures and creations and all the rules that go with it. What setup do you have for the magic system for The Bone Garden?

Miss Vesper made Irréelle from dust and bone and dark imaginings, so at its most basic, this magic system is one of creation. However, Irréelle’s biggest fear is that she’s not real, not in the same way as other children. One of the things Irréelle sets out to do is to understand this magic. So, while I can’t go into much detail about the system without spoiling what Irréelle finds, I can say that the reader learns more about it as she does. And there are some very unexpected (and creepy) discoveries!


Did you ever find yourself struggling with your main character Irréelle in a sense she didn’t quite fit in a particular place or scene as she came to life?

Irréelle is a sweet crooked-boned girl who feels as if she belongs nowhere. Fitting in is one of her greatest challenges. So, to some degree, she had to fight her way into every scene. But in the sense that I struggled with writing her, she was not the one who gave me the most trouble. It was another character entirely who initially entered the book too late and needed an earlier introduction, which I tackled during revisions.


How did imagination give birth to The Bone Garden from its infancy to the final manuscript to publication?

Before I knew anything else, I knew the very first line of THE BONE GARDEN, which has remained unchanged through revisions.“She descended into the basement, tasked with collecting the bones.”

I imagined the whole story around this one sentence, starting with questions as simple as: Who is she? Who tasked her with this chore? And what are the bones for? It was so fun thinking of all the possibilities, and I let my imagination run wild, sitting there with my eyes shut, envisioning this girl, and the house she lived in, and the bone garden itself. As I began drafting, I tried to keep those initial visions in mind and transfer them to the page.

During revisions, I needed to add some tricky scenes, and while I knew that this one thing needed to happen, I didn’t know exactly how to make it happen. Again, the thing that finally sparked my imagination was visualizing everything before I even attempted to write a word.


As a middle grade novel, did you have to remove scenes at any point that perhaps were too intense for a younger reader? For that matter, what called you to write for the middle grade level?

There are definitely dark moments in THE BONE GARDEN, both what Irréelle experiences emotionally and what she encounters magically. However, no, I didn’t remove any of those scenes. In fact, when working on revisions with my editor, the book twisted even darker. My hope is that younger readers will embrace the darkness, much as Irréelle does, and through it, find what makes them shine brightest.

As for what drew me to middle grade, it was this feeling of possibility. I wanted to see the world as I did when I was younger. I was so excited to write something fun. Something hopeful. And also, something a little strange and creepy. And I just hope readers enjoy the story!


Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers today?

Maybe this goes along with your question about imagination, but music always inspires my writing too. My husband is a musician and he wrote a little something for me for THE BONE GARDEN that fits the mood so perfectly (and means so much to me).


Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

Thank you! It was so fun. 🙂



The Bone Garden is out August 2019!

Celebrate by pre-ordering this spooky MG tale!

Guest Post: “Why I Write Middle Grade” with Author Tara Gilboy

Guest Post

TARA GILBOY HEADSHOT.jpegMeet Tara Gilboy.

Tara Gilboy’s debut novel, Unwritten, releases on October 16. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and teaches for San Diego Community College District. She lives in Southern California with her husband, daughter, and dog, Biscuit.

Social Media Links:
Twitter: @taramgilboy
Facebook: Tara Gilboy


The Guest Post.

Why I Write Middle Grade


The first novel I ever wrote was a middle grade novel.


I don’t know that you could actually call it a “novel,” since it was probably no more than fifty pages. But it had chapters, and a beginning, middle, and end. I was eight years old, and I wrote it in a blank hardcover journal that had a picture on the cover of a girl in a pioneer dress feeding chickens. So I started the story with my main character, ten-year-old Martha, feeding chickens. Then she went west in a covered wagon, and nearly everyone died. Only Martha, and her sister, Nan, made it to Oregon.


Only recently, I stumbled across a copy of the book Seven Alone, one I’d read as a child, and realized I’d stolen nearly the entire plot of my novel from it. But that’s beside the point. The reason I mention my pioneer novel is because it was the first novel I ever completed, and it was a middle grade story. Middle grade is where I started out writing, mostly because I loved reading middle grade books. I was writing the kinds of books I liked to read.


Around this same time, my parents went on vacation to Florida and left my brothers and me in the care of our grandmother.


I was very excited about this because it meant finally I was going to have the opportunity to get away with something my mom had forbidden. For the most part, my mom indulged my bookish dreaminess, but she drew the line when I wanted to go to school dressed as my favorite book characters. My friend, Jenny, also a bookworm, and I had been planning this for a while, but my mom, probably worried I’d be teased, said ‘no.’ My grandma, on the other hand, who usually gave me my way, didn’t mind at all.


For my character costume, I dressed as Samantha Parkington from the American Girl books. I wore a Victorian dress, but lacking the high-button shoes I needed, I wore tights and snow boots. I paired this with a shawl my mom had worn to her high-school prom. Jenny would be Kirsten Larson, also from the American Girl series. Jenny wore a pioneer dress and styled her hair into looped braids like Kirsten’s.


That day, while we were at school, dressed as our characters, Jenny’s house burned down. Though no one was hurt, it was still a terrible loss for her family, but what spooked Jenny and me most was that the same thing had happened to Kirsten in her book. Kirsten’s house, too, had burned down. We were convinced something in the story had come to life and set fire to Jenny’s house.


Twenty-five years later, I would write a novel about stories that came to life, though this is not where I got the idea for my novel. But I think mine and Jenny’s belief that the story had come alive is probably not a unique one. Middle grade readers accept wonder in the world and in their stories in a way that adults may not. I don’t mean that they are naïve or unsophisticated. I just mean that they are able to suspend disbelief and allow themselves to be fully immersed in, as Mark Twain would say, “a good story, well told.” As Lisa Cron reminds us in her brilliant book Story Genius, we are hardwired to immerse ourselves in stories. The same parts of our brain light up when we are reading about a character experiencing something as would light up were we actually experiencing it ourselves. Doesn’t this mean stories are real on some level? But we lose this ability to suspend disbelief a bit as we get older.


As I grew older, writing kind of slid to the backburner. When I was ready to seriously pursue writing again, in college, I turned to adult fiction, which after all was literary and serious and “important.” I decided I would write the great American novel. I penned lots of stories about serious subjects like marriage and relationships and feminism and social class, the kinds of stories I read in my literature classes. Some of them I even published. But I wasn’t having fun.


Then I started my MFA, which seemed the logical next step in my writing journey. I think I was worried if I didn’t complete an MFA, I might not have the discipline to keep writing. Perhaps this should have been my first warning sign – after all, if I loved writing as much as I said I did, I shouldn’t have needed to take classes to force myself to keep writing regularly. My first year of the MFA, I started working on a very serious historical novel that required lots of research. Every sentence was like pulling teeth. I couldn’t care about my characters, their financial problems, their marriage troubles, infidelity and in-laws and the struggles of raising children. Even though the teacher was fabulous, I couldn’t wait for the class to be over so I didn’t have to work on this book anymore. Writing was becoming a chore.


At the same time, I was taking a different class on children’s books and rereading all my old favorites and lots of new ones as well: Holes and Ella Enchanted and The Tale of Despereaux and Tuck Everlasting and RL Stine. They were filled with adventure and magic and excitement. These were the kinds of books that made me fall in love with reading (and writing) in the first place. They were filled with story, pure and simple. As I read them, I couldn’t stop thinking of story ideas. I wrote stories about witches who threatened to chop off heads. I wrote stories about dolls who came to life. I wrote stories about ghosts, a haunted antique shop, an orphan in Victorian London, pirates, mermaids, fairies, and yes, even pioneers. I could write in any genre I wanted – there weren’t any “rules” other than telling a story that would resonate with child readers. I realized I did my best work when I was having fun. Once I returned to writing middle grade, the stories that had first made me a reader and then a writer, I never looked back.


Middle grade readers care about the “ emotional truth” in stories. There is more truth in Charlotte’s Web, with all its talking animals, about friendship and love and sacrifice than in many thousand-page, extensively researched and no doubt, poetically written epic tomes about, say, war. Adults read and admire these long, literary adult novels about what are no doubt important issues, but we’re not going to stay up until one in the morning, reading under the covers with a flashlight. We’re not going to dress up like characters in these stories or think about what would happen if they came to life. We’re not going to fall in love with these stories, befriend them, make them real in our minds, the way we do as children. We do this with middle grade novels.


I write middle grade because they are the stories that made me a reader. They are the stories that first stirred me to write. And they are the stories that inspire me to love writing anew every single day.


Tara Gilboy’s debut, UNWRITTEN, is available for purchase!

Visit her site for more details!

Author Interview With Jack Henseleit

Author Interview, October Spooky Features

Meet Jack Henseleit.

JACK HENSELEIT was born on a winter evening in 1991, just after the stroke of midnight. When the weather is dark and stormy, he writes fairy tales – real fairy tales, where witches and goblins play tricks on unwary girls and boys. Not all of the tales have happy endings.

Jack’s debut horror series for middle-grade readers, titled The Witching Hours, was first launched in Australia in 2017, with a US edition of book one (The Vampire Knife) releasing in September 2018, and with a US edition of book two (The Troll Heart) set to follow in 2019. When Jack isn’t writing scary stories, he can be found exploring forests, playing board games, or wrestling with his cat, Teddy, all in (and around) Ballarat, Australia.

Social media links
Instagram: @jack.henseleit
Twitter: @jackhenseleit

The Interview.

Hi Jack! Thanks for joining us today. Tell us a little about yourself.

Hello Rae, and hello blog readers! My name is Jack, and I write scary stories for children. Prior to writing my first book, I studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne for five years, where I shivered my way through countless cold, rainy nights. Luckily for me, the constant bad weather was very inspiring, and it was those rainstorms, coupled with my rediscovered love of the Brothers Grimm, that eventually motivated me to plot out my first novel. Melbourne may not be a perfect match for the wilds of Transylvania, but writers are always told to write what they know, and I’m certainly very familiar with being caught in the elements!

An author. A vampire. Tell us about your writing life and how your stories come to life.

My writing life changes enormously depending on where I am in the writing process. The best days are when I’m planning out a new idea, allowing my brain to entertain itself as it fleshes out the story, chasing inspiration through books, movies, Wikipedia articles, YouTube videos, and whatever else I can find to keep the story going. The more difficult days come when the story actually needs to be written down, and I have to spend hours sitting at my computer, trying to choose the words that will make a reader see the same mental pictures that I do. Those days are fun as well, but they’re not quite as exciting as the brainstorms that came before.

In the specific case of The Vampire Knife, I spent the months leading up to the writing phase reading The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and watching a whole bunch of vampire films, while also learning as much as I could about the Romanian countryside. Then, when my notebook was bursting with ideas, I began to write 1,000 words of the story every night, and I kept on writing until I reached the ending. The most exciting days during that writing period were when a new spooky scene would spring up out of nowhere, and suddenly my characters would be running away screaming from a peril that not even I had expected. These unexpected interludes can be incredibly worthwhile – although in some of the later books, some of those surprise scenes have been at risk of derailing the plot entirely!

How would you describe horror (description and expectations) in terms of a middle grade understanding rather than adult?

This is a good question! People often look confused when I tell them I write horror stories for kids, but for the most part, I think horror stories can provide a valuable release for both age groups. For me, horror exists at the intersection between danger and curiosity, which are concepts that are universally understood: both adults and children understand the wisdom of avoiding a dangerous situation, because neither party wants to come to harm, but at the same time, both audiences can remain deeply curious about what might have happened if they’d made that riskier decision. What would have happened if they’d crept outside that night? What would have happened if they’d walked past that crocodile? And so we send our fictional heroes into those situations instead, and naturally, bad things happen – but the audience’s good decision making is validated, and their curiosity is finally sated.

Interestingly, if we look at the horror stories being told a hundred years ago, I don’t think there was much distinction between adult and middle-grade horror at all: a child in 2018 is unlikely to be terribly scared by any of the old Universal horror films, like Dracula (1931), or The Mummy (1932), or Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). But then slasher films became a thing, and all of a sudden horror fiction for adults became bloody, and visceral, and unrelenting – and that’s the shift that children’s horror cannot, and will not, ever make. Children’s horror is allowed to be scary, but the story needs to be threaded through with hope and moments of respite, so that the child reader can maintain a level of control over the experience. Bad things can happen, but the (mostly) happy ending always needs to be waiting around the corner!

How does the writing – editing – publishing process of your current novels differ from your first, The Vampire Knife?

Last month I finished writing the fourth book in The Witching Hours series, and regretfully, the experience of writing book four was a lot more difficult than writing book one. When I wrote The Vampire Knife, there were no expectations whatsoever: nobody knew I was writing a book, and so I felt a great freedom to write whatever I wanted, taking the story in whichever crazy direction would amuse me the most. Now, three years later, I’m lucky enough to have a real audience, and a team of real (and brilliant) publishers supporting my series – and I’m terrified of letting them down! I really want each new book to be even spookier and more exciting than the ones that came before it, and as a result I’m constantly second-guessing myself, shifting the scenes around to try and make them as entertaining as they can be. I’m still having a tremendous amount of fun, but it’s fair to say that the learning curve for writing sequels was more challenging than I expected. (But also, now that the story is done and dusted, I feel confident in saying that book four is the scariest story yet!)

Write a one sentence fairy tale – goblins and all!

“The goblins doused their torches as they snuck into the treasure cave, slipping through the shadows; but the dragon saw them coming by the greed glinting in their eyes, and he waited for them in the dark, gobbling them up one by one.”

“For only the bravest readers.” Why do you think it is important to have horror reads available for younger readers?

As well as providing a safe way for child readers to satisfy their morbid curiosities, I think horror stories are always terrifically entertaining – and in an age where books are having to compete with YouTube and iPads to gain a child’s attention, I think it’s great for booksellers and librarians to have an easy selling point to try and lure in a reluctant reader. “This one has a vampire in it” is a good hook at any age!

Tell us a little bit about your series, The Witching Hours. Do you have a favourite book, character, scene or all three?

The Witching Hours series follows heroic siblings Anna and Max as they travel around the world, encountering a whole menagerie of terrifying magical creatures in each new country they visit. The books are written according to modern sensibilities – the cliffhangers come thick and fast – but at the same time, the core stories are heavily inspired by traditional fairy tales, and so aim to encapsulate a very old-school approach to magic and adventure. It’s also a writing philosophy of mine that children shouldn’t expect to battle with monsters and come away unscathed, and so readers should be warned that Anna and Max may not escape their first adventure entirely intact…

In terms of having a favourite book, character, or scene, I always tend to be most in love with whichever piece of writing I’ve been working on the most recently! When I’ve just finished writing a scene with Anna, I’m always enamoured with her courage, and her kindness, and her boundless curiosity; but then I’ll write a scene with Max, and be impressed with his good sense, and his humour, and the lighter touch that he brings to proceedings. Having said that, I’ll always be beholden to the fifth chapter of The Vampire Knife (titled, appropriately enough, “The Witching Hour”) which is the first scene I ever wrote for the story, back before I even knew I was going to write a novel. It’s a lovely little horror story in its own right, and provided me with a solid foundation on which to construct my first book – and, indeed, my first series.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers today?

I’ve got nothing else to share, except to thank your readers for giving this article a click! If anything I’ve said here has sparked your curiosity, I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy of The Vampire Knife, to see what terrors lie within. Happy Halloween, and happy witching!


Thank you Jack!

Happy Halloween everyone!

Author Interview With Melanie Sumrow

Author Interview

Sumrow_Melanie.jpegMeet Melanie Sumrow.

Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying world religions. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a lawyer for more than 16 years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. Melanie lives in Dallas with her husband, her daughter and one very spoiled dog.

Social media links:

The Interview.

What made you decide to aim your focus on the MG level for your first novel?
The Prophet Calls is actually the fourth manuscript I’ve written, but my first MG novel. The first three manuscripts I wrote were YA novels, and the first and third ones have never seen the light of day (and probably won’t, at least in their current form ;)). When I had begun the editing process on my third book, my agent called and asked if I would be interested in writing for an upper middle-grade audience. The thought intrigued me (especially given the heavier subjects I tend to deal with in my writing), but I soon fell in love with writing for this age-level.
TPC SignatureShare with us the backstory for The Prophet Calls.
My second YA book centered on a girl who was drawn into a religious cult, and it was the book that landed me my agent. It was well received by publishers, but ultimately did not find a home. Fast-forward a year, and I was working on my third novel (unrelated to religious studies) and guest teaching a class on religious radicalism. For that class, I had updated my research on various religious sects, including the polygamous community known as the FLDS. Within that same time period, my agent called me and indicated an editor had contacted him (sort of as a shot in the dark), saying she was interested in polygamous communities and wondered if he happened to know anyone who could write about that subject for a middle-grade audience. Of course, my agent was very excited because he knew I possessed the knowledge, even though I’d never written MG. I started from scratch on an entirely new story and submitted a synopsis and the first three chapters of The Prophet Calls. My amazing editor fell in love with my proposal, and my debut novel will soon release on November 6, 2018!
From Religious Studies to being a lawyer to writing. What do you think has been the most influential in your writing to date?
All of it and more. These three things don’t exist in a vacuum for me. I believe our experiences as a whole mold us as writers. My religious studies background gave me the knowledge I needed to write The Prophet Calls, but I couldn’t have written it without the organizational skills and discipline that the practice of law gave me. And of course, I’m told writing is like a muscle. The more you use it, the better it gets (at least, that’s what I’m hoping).
Do you write full-time? If yes, how did that change your perspective on writing as a career vs. writing as a hobby?
Thanks to the support of my family, I now have the privilege of writing full-time. But the shift from hobby to career didn’t really change my intensity when it came to writing. Mainly, it altered the time of day I draft and edit. While I was still working as a lawyer, I would awaken around 4:00am to get in the day’s writing or write after my daughter went to bed at night. Now, I write during daylight hours, and I definitely treat my writing as a job (but a fun one!). When I’m drafting or editing, I’m usually at my desk by 8:30am. I take a short lunch break and work for a few hours in the afternoon before picking up my daughter from school.
Is there a certain religious story or figure you hope to portray in a future novel? If yes, or no, why?
I take one novel at a time and, for the time being, I’m taking a break from writing religious themes. But never say never!
Is there any new project you’d like to share with the readers today?
I’m incredibly excited to share that I recently turned in my second upper middle-grade novel, The Inside Battle, which is set to release in the fall of 2019. It is the story of a boy struggling to win his father’s approval, but when the boy follows his dad inside a racist, anti-government militia group, he has to choose what’s more important: his father’s approval or speaking up for what is right.


Thank you Melanie!

The Prophet Calls comes out November 6, 2018!

Get to Know Elly Swartz

Author Interview

IMG_9578.jpgMeet Elly Swartz.

Elly Swartz loves writing for kids, Twizzlers, and anything with her family. Her debut novel, FINDING PERFECT (FSG 2016) is about twelve-year-old Molly, friendship, family, OCD, and a slam poetry competition that will determine everything. In her second book, SMART COOKIE (Scholastic, 2018), you meet the spunky and big-hearted Frankie. Frankie’s all about family with a dash of mischief and mystery! And then in 2019, say hello to Maggie in GIVE AND TAKE (FSG). Elly lives in Massachusetts with her family and beagle named Lucy. If you want to connect with Elly, you can find her at on Twitter @ellyswartz or on Instagram @ellyswartzbooks.

Social media While on my site, be sure to check out the downloadable activities and curriculum guides for Finding Perfect and Smart Cookie.
Twitter @ellyswartz
#BooksintheKitchen web series with author Victoria Coe




The Interview.

A fellow Pennsylvanian! Greetings! To cure that boredom, *sigh* which I still face, did you come up with stories as a child?
I loved writing stories and poems as a kid. Not as a cure for boredom, I did a lot of bad baking for that, but simply because I loved story. The way the words wove and the characters sprang to life. In my stories, I could do or be or feel anything. And everything. I truly believe the seeds were planted during those years for Molly Nathans, the 12-year-old vulnerable and loving slam poet in Finding Perfect, and Frankie Greene, the feisty and big-hearted strong girl in my newest mg, Smart Cookie.
How did your diverse studies from psychology and law, shape you as a writer and a children’s books author?
Great question! Funny how each path we take informs the next. Often incidentally. Psychology gave me a foundation for understanding mental illness and how it manifests and impacts people’s lives. It showed me the importance of empathy and compassion and feeling connected. Books and story are a gateway. A mirror and a door. A wonderful platform for readers to learn and understand about themselves and others. Story is a way for me to, hopefully, allow kids to see themselves on the page and educate others about challenges many face. As for the study of law, it taught me the value of research and analysis, the malleability of words, and the importance of viewing life through many different lenses.
Why kid lit as your genre of focus?
I am pretty sure I have a twelve-year-old girl broadcasting from inside of me! Honestly, middle grade chose me. When I started writing, that was the voice that found its way onto the page.
A gum wrapper that was a fortune too – “You have the ability to become outstanding in literature.” What advice do you have for aspiring children’s writers?
Honestly, I still can’t believe I got that fortune in my Bazooka bubblegum! As for the advice I’d give – Read as much as you can. Write because you love it. Dream big. Work hard. And embrace the journey!
What topic challenges you the most when writing your novels for a younger audience?
For me, the most challenging part of writing was creating the scenes in Finding Perfect and Smart Cookie where my main characters felt emotionally raw. They either went to that dark place or felt a deep sense of loneliness. To truly capture those moments authentically, I also had to go to that emotionally raw place. And that was hard. But, it was the only way I could truly connect with the heartbeat of those experiences.
Tell us about your experience writing and publishing Finding Perfect. How did that journey differ from your other works?
Finding Perfect was the 5th book I wrote and the first one to be published. I worked on it for 8 years. I felt a very strong connection to Molly, the main character in that story, and to her struggle with OCD. I was never willing to let this story go and was determined and committed to becoming the best writer I could be so that Molly’s journey could find it’s way into the hands of the readers who really needed it.
When I got the call from my agent that Finding Perfect had found a home at FSG, I cried. Big happy tears. It was truly a dream come true. And, most gratefully, that dream continued when Smart Cookie found its way to Scholastic and then into the world this past January. I fell in love with Frankie, the main character in Smart Cookie, the moment she came to me with her big heart, love of family, and all that spunkiness.
Truly, I love my job. Writing stories and connecting with readers! The best!
Is there anything you’d like to share with the readers today?
Thank you for reading! Stay tuned, because in 2019 you get to meet twelve-year-old Maggie in GIVE AND TAKE. Maggie has a big heart and a hard time letting go. Of stuff. Of people. Of the past. With the help of her turtle Bert, a baby named Izzie and the almost all-girls trap shooting team, she begins to understand that people are more than the things that hold their memories.
And, be sure to check out and subscribe my new web series #BooksintheKitchen with author Victoria Coe, where we talk books and whip-up treats.

Journey Through Scotland With Diane Magras

Guest Post

Meet Diane Magras



Photo credit: Michael Magras

Diane Magras grew up on Mount Desert Island in Maine. She spent much of her childhood reading and writing, but also outside: racing on seaside granite slabs, darting through birch-lined marshes, and hiking mossy forests. She is the editor, writer, and chief fundraiser for the Maine Humanities Council. She volunteers at her son’s school library, and is addicted to tea, toast, castles, legends, and most things medieval. The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is her debut novel.








Guest Post

Setting a Scottish Historic Fantasy Take a lass with a sword and an injured knight and send them off on a tense journey together to save her family (his enemies) from being hanged. That’s a snapshot of the premise of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, my debut novel, which was published on March 6. When I set The Mad Wolf’s Daughter in medieval Scotland, I didn’t pick the Highlands, that glorious land of hills, glens, coasts, and mountains. I claimed the Lowlands (also a glorious land of hills, glens, coasts, and slightly smaller mountains), which is not what people usual think of when they think “Scotland.”

This region (scribble a line through the lower part of Aberdeenshire, cross over above Stirling, and loop up over Dumfries and Galloway to the coast) is simply the rest of Scotland. In the Southern Lowlands during the early 13th century (when The Mad Wolf’s Daughter takes place), the region held a population with a sense of Scottish identity but also many Anglo-Norman cultural influences (not so much in Galloway, which had its own distinct Scottish warrior vibe).

It’s that not-Highland-but-still-Scottish identity that I was interested in, and also the region dominated at times by England. The landscape, which includes the main battlegrounds of the Scottish Wars of Independence nearly a hundred years after my novel takes place, show identity through its castles.

Both the Scots and the English built these magnificent fortresses. Most castles changed hands, changed back, and many were destroyed by Robert the Bruce as a means to prevent these valuable bastions from falling into enemy hands again (battles and life were that uncertain). In only a handful of cases were these castles rebuilt. My obsession with castles and my interest in the medieval conflict between the Scots and the English (not to mention the Scots and other Scots), but also the similarities between the people of the region, was one reason I wanted to set my novel in the Lowlands.

That’s the history behind my novel’s Scotland. Or least a wee bit of it.

Ready for the fantasy part?

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is technically historical fantasy because the conflicts I describe didn’t happen—and the landscape isn’t entirely real. Well, it is, but as a combination of elements of historical Lowland Scotland that I combined for a coastline and woods that suited my story’s needs. While you can’t quite follow my wee lass Drest, and Emerick, the wounded knight, on their adventure in Scotland, I can tell you a few places in the Southern Lowlands that will give you a sense of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter’s world.



St. Abbs Head.SRae.jpgCaption: Scotland, UK (St Abbs Head (from Pettico Wick looking northwest)) via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with the headland where Drest grew up and where the novel begins. Scotland is full of dramatic coastlines that would fit nicely for this setting, so I had my pick. One region in the Borders fit my needs nicely: St. Abbs Head in Berwickshire. This is a coast of jagged cliffs with nooks and crannies, rocks strewn in the sea below, and a rugged character, just the kind of place where my tough wee lass would grow up to be strong. Imagine what the rest of the world would feel like if this landscape was the one you knew best!

Wood of Cree.jpg

Caption: Iain Thompson, via Wikimedia Commons

Drest knows her cliffs and stones, and knows a bit of what woods are like from the trees in a ravine on the headland. The woods she encounters on her journey are unfamiliar and often frightening. I wanted to use a landscape of ancient woodlands filled with moss, oaks, and pines. And a perfect match for my needs was the incredible Woods of Cree in Galloway (it’s managed by the RSPB—Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—a U.K.-wide charity). I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, but the pictures I’ve seen (such as the one above) helped me build the world I’ve tried to create. It’s also helped that I’ve lived in areas of Maine with similar forests, so I know what such woods smell, feel, and sound like. (And my copies of Complete British Birds and A Handbook of Scotland’s Trees have kept me accurate to my chosen region.)


Caption: Dirleton Castle isn’t quite a historic match for Faintree Castle, where Emerick lives and where Drest’s family are taken to be hanged, but it’s a castle in more or less the right region. And a beauty! Photo: Diane Magras

Picking a representative castle is the hardest part of this post. Most Lowland castles that would have fit Faintree Castle were destroyed in the early 14th century by Robert the Bruce, as mentioned above. And any surviving castle built in the era of my novel (Faintree Castle was built in the mid 1100s) would be, thanks to the ravages of time, in complete ruin by now. So picture this as a Norman castle, square-towered, built quickly but well, with two gatehouses, on an earthen promontory with cliffs below and cliffs all around it…all right, all right, like many castles in fiction, this may be the most fantastical part of my novel. Still, I encourage readers to visit just about any ruined castle in the Lowlands to get a sense of what being in a castle might have felt like.  That’s a brief snapshot of the Scotland of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour!

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Art: Antonio Javier Caparo


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