If, like me, you’ve never been to Scotland or to Medieval times (excluding that jousting/dinner joint), but would like to visit for a few hours, I have the ticket for you! The only catch is that you’ll have to journey with a girl who, against all odds, is trying to get to a faraway castle to save her captured brothers and father before they’re executed. Oh, and she may have to battle her own inner demons, too.
If this sounds like your kind of trip, I highly recommend Diane Magras’ new middle grade debut, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Kathy Dawson Books), just out this month! Drest’s journey from wee lass to legend is not one you’ll soon forget. I caught up to author Diane Magras to learn more.
Me: Can you sum up The Mad Wolf’s Daughter for the uninitiated?
Diane: The Mad Wolf’s Daughter takes place in medieval Scotland, and is the story of Drest, the youngest in her father’s ferocious war-band. When enemy knights invade her remote headland home and capture her father and beloved brothers, Drest escapes, but then goes after them to free them from the castle prison where they’re being held. She takes along with her an abandoned wounded knight from the other side to serve as guide and captive—she plans to trade him for one of her family. She has six days before her family will be hanged, and a journey through a land she’s never seen before her.
Me: What sparked the creation of your book?
Diane: Drest was actually a minor character in another story I’d been thinking of writing. I was trying to understand how she had reached the point of that story, and began thinking back into her history. I had an image in my mind—of a girl and her old warrior father by a bonfire on a rocky beach—and suddenly I knew that I wanted to tell her story, and not the other one.
Me: The obvious and not-so-obvious influences on your book are…?
Diane: My publisher compares The Mad Wolf’s Daughter to the Song of the Lioness and Ranger’s Apprentice books, and lots of people have compared Drest to Arya Stark. I can certainly see all those comparisons, but none of them were in my mind when I was writing this. My biggest inspirations in the beginning were Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur and Kelly Barnhill’s The Witch’s Boy. Though I can’t point to specific themes or character models as influences, I’ll point to the feel of those books and how each author wrote (respectively) a brutal world that was still beautiful in parts, and a story rich with secrets and meaning behind the tale.
Me: Can you share about your creative process?
Diane: I come up with a skeleton of an idea—so the beginning, middle, and end, more or less—and then I figure out who my main characters are. I spent a lot of time researching names since I want them to be historically accurate (sometimes I take liberties, though, but I try not to!), and also any other aspect of the world that I don’t know about. I research the historical aspects of my novels before I write, and then dip into specific questions as I’m writing. And then I whip through a first draft. My first drafts always come quickly, but I also always rewrite them multiple times. I need to have the novel in front of me before I really know what I’m doing with it, and so this rapid first draft followed by layer upon layer of revision is the manner in which I’m most comfortable working.
Me: What’s the most surprising thing about your publishing journey?
Diane: This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but I remember the moment when it really hit home that this novel wasn’t just mine anymore. I was so accustomed to having my writing be just me in my writing nook at my computer with no one else caring all that much about it. It’s a lot like when a child first goes to school and you realize that you alone are not responsible for every aspect of your child’s education, growth, and relationships. In the same way, it’s a bit scary, hoping that people on the outside (in the novel’s case, readers) will like my wee bairn and treat my bairn well.
Me: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Diane: I read a lot of middle grade fiction, and also research books, casting about for an idea or detail to help with a future novel. I also love exploring woods and trails with my husband and son, and just hanging out with them. (I also have a day job, so that takes a lot of my non-writing time!)
Me: Any advice to kids who like to write? And to adults who want to write for kids?
Diane: My advice for both kids and adults is pretty much the same:
Read a lot, and never stop reading a lot. Pay attention to what you read. Write down after each book what you liked or didn’t like about it. Copy your favorite sentences; that will help distill what kind of writing you love most and what you notice.
Then write, and write a lot, and never stop writing. Figure out a schedule of when you’ll write, and keep to it. Becoming a good writer means practice. But have fun as you practice. Write what you love most, your own ideas from the start or fan fiction based on something else that you love. Just get your own writing, your own conception of the world, out on paper.
Know yourself as a writer. Do you write for the pure pleasure of it? Then just write, and don’t worry about nailing down the perfect draft. Do you want to go farther and get published? It’s a much harder path, and just be sure that you want it. There’s no shame in only writing what you want to write just because you want to write it.
If you want to get published, take your time. Be patient with yourself. There’s a long path, and it includes your constant evolution as a writer. You’ll never stop learning.
And one more thing that’s crucial to writing a strong piece of fiction: Revision is an essential part of the process. If you find it also fulfilling, you’ll be well on your way to publication.
An additional note for adults writing for kids: Read books from your genre. Pay close attention to how other writers find their fictional voices. In addition, listen to kids. Respect them too. You’re not there to teach your audience the ways of the world, but to engage and inspire them.
Me: As an illustrator who works on my own covers, I’m always interested in learning an author’s involvement in and reaction to their own cover?
Diane: My editor asked me to think about what I wanted to see in my cover, what kinds of things I felt strongly about, and what I envisioned. Because I work at a nonprofit that takes listening to its audience very seriously, I put together a focus-group approach and asked librarians, teachers, parents, and kids of my audience’s age what they thought made a good middle grade adventure cover. My librarian friends were able to explain very specifically what kinds of cover art circulate most, and students gave me really thoughtful reactions to sample cover art I shared with them to get a sense of their tastes. My biggest wish for the cover was to have my protagonist front and center, her face visible, and not smiling. She couldn’t look too feminine (that’s not who she is), and I wanted her to look real. My editor and I looked at many, many pieces from different cover artists’ portfolios, trying to find the perfect approach. And then we came upon Antonio Javier Caparo’s work, and instantly knew that we’d found the one we wanted. Fortunately, he had time in his schedule to work on this. I’m grateful that he did. He read the book and understood its feel, who the characters were, and, most importantly, how to depict Drest, my protagonist. He did an incredible job. I saw sketches throughout the whole process, so I knew what was coming, but when I saw the final cover, I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. I also want to mention Maggie Edkins, the designer at Penguin Young Readers, who worked with Antonio on the cover’s particular design. I think my cover is truly a work of art.
Me: What’s next for Drest and her family?
Diane: There’s a sequel in the wings. I don’t want to give too much away, since it ties with some of what’s revealed at the end of Book 1, but let’s just say that Drest has more of a chance to develop her legend, and the story continues.
Me: Thanks so much, Diane. I’m wishing you and Drest much success!
All things medieval fascinate children’s author Diane Magras: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of medieval Scotland, where her stories are set. Her middle grade fantasy adventure The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin Younger Readers) is her debut novel.
To learn more, visit Diane’s website at: https://www.dianemagras.com/