VALIANT by debut author Sarah McGuire


Here’s a magical tale spun with real emotion and believable characters.  Sarah McGuire is pretty magical herself, teaching both math and creative writing at the high school level (Who does that? Smart, creative people!).  Please join me in celebrating her book birthday here and in person at Over the Moon Bookstore, Crozet, VA at 2 pm on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

First, the book blurb and some get-to-know-you questions:

Reggen still sings about the champion, the brave tailor. This is the story that is true.

Saville despises the velvets and silks that her father prizes more than he’s ever loved her. Yet when he’s struck ill she’ll do anything to survive–even dressing as a boy and begging a commission to sew for the king.

But piecing together a fine coat is far simpler than unknotting court gossip about an army of giants, led by a man who cannot be defeated, marching toward Reggen to seize the throne. Saville knows giants are just stories, and no man is immortal.

Then she meets them, two scouts as tall as trees. After she tricks them into leaving, tales of the daring tailor’s triumph quickly spin into impossible feats of giant-slaying. And stories won’t deter the Duke and his larger-than-life army.

Now only a courageous and clever tailor girl can see beyond the rumors to save the kingdom again.

Tea or coffee? Flavor? Milk or sugar?

Coffee with cream and sugar. If I’m working late at night and can’t risk the caffeine, green tea with honey

Favorite season?

Fall– because of the crimson leaves and those first cool days when you smell woodsmoke in the air.

Can you deal better with wind or rain?

I like wind. It makes me look up.

What’s always in your fridge?


Favorite comfort food?

Chocolate. Box mac n’ cheese. Fresh-baked bread.

Chocolate or some lesser nectar of the gods?

See above. :)

Food you’d rather starve than eat?

Peanut butter. I already have. I hate the taste. Not even chocolate can redeem peanut butter. (I’m looking at you, Reeses!)

Flats or heels?

I’m on my feet all day. Flats or really comfortable heels

Jeans or fancier?


Short hair or long?

Long, though I often twist it up.

Ideal evening?

A quiet one! Time to read a book I like.

Ideal vacation?

Last summer, I went on a walking vacation along Scotland’s West Highland Way. I LOVED it.

(Sarah, I’ll go with you next time! — Kathy)

Country you’d most like to visit?

There are so many! But I’ll say Switzerland because I’d like to hike the Mont Blanc trail in the Alps for my next walking holiday.

Favorite musical instrument?

Cello- it has such a golden, molten sound to it

You’re going on a book tour: Plane, train or automobile?


Topic you’d most like to write about?

I don’t really think of stories in terms of topics. Is that weird?

(Nope. — Kathy)

What most surprises you about our current culture?

The lack of empathy

Some favorite books?

Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, Andrew Lang’s colored Fairy Tale books, Lord of the Rings. Those were the stories that shaped my childhood.

Thanks, Sarah!  Now for some specific writing questions:

How do your ideas come to you?

I don’t think it’s a question of how the idea comes to me, because we all (writers or not!) have so many ideas. I think it’s more picking one out of all the ideas swirling around.

For me, it’s a case paying attention to my own pulse and then taking the time to fully explore and expand that idea. I think many people know that moment when you can feel your pulse quicken– your heart rise– to meet an idea or scene or character you stumble across. I think the key is paying close attention to the things that call out to you. Writing isn’t easy, and it isn’t a short process, so you’d better be starting from a place of passion and pay attention to your pulse.

But for me, once I’ve found that idea or character I care about, the worst thing I can do is to immediately start writing that story or scene. I’ve learned to trust that if a scene or character is capable of moving me, I can afford to keep it inside me for a while and brood over it. (I don’t mean brood in the way we often think of it– a brooding hero wandering a forsaken moor somewhere.) I mean brood in a nurturing sense: a hen broods over her eggs, and then over her chicks. She warms them and protects them with her own body. In the same way, I personally need to keep the story-seed near me for a while and let it grow. I don’t have to pin it to the page immediately.

And while I brood, I have time to explore those aspects of the story that mean the most to me, that continue to move me. Characters and scenes (and conflicts!) become clearer. The story’s world will expand. By that time, I can jot down the story’s bones and begin to write.

(I need to say again that this is how it works for me. For the time being. Just because I write this way doesn’t mean that anyone else should!)

Valiant, and a few other stories I’m working on, are fairy tale retellings. For me, it starts with a fairy tale that quickens my pulse, one I can’t not think about– for good or bad reasons. Normally there’s at least one aspect that stands out to me, something I have to explore. With Valiant, I knew early on that the tailor would be a girl, and that I didn’t want the giants to be stupid.

So I tried to figure out why a girl would dress like a boy . . . just to sew. I researched what tailors might have argued about so many years ago. As far as the giants, I knew that in western culture at least, our stories about giants paint them as stupid, brutish, and easily fooled. So I kept thinking about how a giant might be easily fooled, and yet not be stupid.

I really like exploring these ideas within the frame of a fairy tale. I imagine it’s almost like meter and rhyme pattern might be for a poet. In a crazy way, those restrictions allow the poet to be even more creative than she would be without them– she can’t use any word, it must be a word that communicates the heart of the matter and works within the poem’s structure. In the same way the preexisting structure of the tale forces me to dig deeper and travel further through the story than I might otherwise, even if I’m changing the story as I go.

Do you have a favorite quote or bumper sticker?

“Art is fire plus algebra.” Jorge Luis Borges

I love it because it embraces both the passion and the craft of writing. And because I’m a math teacher.

What are you working on now?

More fairy tales! But I’m brooding over those stories for a little while longer.

McGuire, blog hop

Sarah McGuire loves fairy tales and considers them the best way to step outside of everyday life. They’re the easiest way, at least: her attempt at seven to reach Narnia through her parents’ closet failed. She lives within sight of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where she teaches high school creative writing and math classes with very interesting word problems. Valiant is her first novel.

Thanks, Sarah, and congratulations on Valiant!  You can get to know Sarah better via the following links:





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A Page from a Writer’s Notebook (with explanations)

Picking up a notebook this morning I noticed it was already used — pages of notes from an unfinished novel as well as from THE BADGER KNIGHT. I thought it might be fun to explain a page from my notebook. This one is late in the process of THE BADGER KNIGHT, a draft nearly complete but with various elements to clarify:











Starting from the top….

What is his greatest fear? This is a question I ask about all my characters. Sometimes there are multiple fears or I’m still thinking about which one is the greatest.

Insert Donald trying to give him/them oatcakes from his bag. (The page numbers indicate a couple of scenes where this could be inserted.) This was an anecdote to reveal his kindness.

What is Adrian going for? How is he different at the end of the novel than when we first meet him? What is the psychic change in him and how has it come about? These are overall questions that require my reading through the entire draft in order to check if the answers are there.

What does Adrian want? And why? What is he scared of? And why? These are constant reminders to myself to be aware of what’s driving my character.

Hugh could bring oatcakes from Donald to bank of stream OR p. 197 D tries to give them oatcakes + they have awkward realization he’ll need them for battle. (Again, page numbers indicate scenes for possible insertion.)

Work thru the final phase: A+D going to Scotland for the climax. At this point in the process I obviously hadn’t finished Adrian and Donald’s journey.

keeper/warden  Need to explain about warden/marches  Decide whether Sir Reginald is a keeper or a warden? Has Donald heard of him? Does he know he’s corrupt? Here I knew I had to explain the way the border areas (marches) between England and Scotland were governed in 1346, the time of the novel. I wanted to keep consistent language and decide if Sir Reginald (a bad guy) was a minor governor (keeper) or major (warden). I also had to decide if Donald knew that Sir Reginald was corrupt (he does).

whistle/flute  vellum/paper  shoes/boots  These are notes to myself to search the document for these terms in order to be consistent about usage. If I called Donald’s instrument a whistle at one point, I don’t want to refer to it as a flute later or it’d be confusing.

 make clear that D is hit on back of head / in the arm (bleeding) in battle scene Here I had to decide what his injury was.

need to insert SOMETHING more about lepers–that unholy 3 stone Thomas  Since Adrian disguises Donald as a leper in an attempt to get him through enemy lines I needed to keep the theme of lepers present by having the bullies in Adrian’s village (the “unholy trinity”) throwing stones at their local leper, Thomas.

hears wind + it sounds like it’s saying “Ailwin,” telling me I’m as useless as that poor man  Sometimes I slip into the voice of my character when I’m writing my notes.  :-)

add: otherwise, Good Aunt is right and I really should’ve died in that plague  This refers to the opening of the novel when he remembers his (not so good) aunt saying he should’ve died in the plague rather than his mother and sister

When I completed a task, I checked it off or crossed through it.  Sometimes, I don’t use all the ideas so they may be left unchecked. Or, if it’s the last element on the page that I’m actually going to incorporate into the story (like making clear where Donald’s injury is) then I don’t bother crossing it off because it’s time to flip to the next page of notes.

Every writer’s process is a little different but we all have to work through edits and revisions. That’s what helps to perfect a story so it can make it to the printed (or electronic) page. Happy writing (and revising)!

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The Imitation Game — It’s the bomb!











Really!  Great movie, but also the “bombe” was the name of the machine designed primarily by Alan Turing (aka Benedict Cumberbatch in the film, The Imitation Game) to help break the Nazi’s Enigma code.  It was crucial because breaking Enigma saved millions of lives — maybe including ours because some of us might not be here today if it weren’t for the work done by code breakers like Turing at Bletchley Park, England.


Station X, or Bletchley Park, the British code breaking site, was called “the hush hush place” by locals.  Nobody in the tiny town of Bletchley knew exactly what was going on there although they likely didn’t believe the stories of an upper class hunting club or the “cheese and chess society” despite the fact that Bletchley Park was a beautiful estate.  To their credit, they kept it to themselves.  It’s hard to imagine that kind of silence in today’s social media age, but maybe if you were in fear of imminent invasion–in fact your country’s outer islands were already occupied–you might be inspired.  The workers took pains to keep the secret, too, some of them getting off the train at nearby Milton Keynes and walking to the site so as not to raise eyebrows at crowds pouring off the train in little Bletchley.  Even those who worked at Bletchley Park had little idea of what was going on in the next hut. And they couldn’t talk about what they were doing to anyone.  They were dedicated code breakers these men and women, more women, actually since the men were in battle.


One group was breaking the Nazi code  in a building that previously was the apple and pear stand.  Led by the quirky but brilliant Alan Turing, they eventually succeeded, yet had to keep that fact secret so that the Nazis would not abandon that code method and come up with a new one.  Their actions opened shipping channels in the Atlantic and helped with the D-Day invasion and many other battles, probably shortening the war by two years.














(Photo of Turing’s office, showing how he chained his mug to the radiator so no one would take it.)

A sad — no, horrifying — part of the story is what happened after the war, to Turing.  For the “crime” of homosexuality he was given a sentence of either imprisonment or chemical castration (basically, taking estrogen to supposedly curb his desires).  He was vilified, his reputation attacked, was likely under surveillance, and died an early death, deemed a suicide, at 41.  A very sad end indeed for someone who probably saved our lives.  He was officially pardoned by Queen Elizabeth last year. (!)


I visited Bletchley and if you can get there, go.  It really feels like you’re traveling back in time — even the exhibits are endearingly presented with typed index cards in keeping with the times.  If you see the film, you’ll recognize the places and feel like you’re following in the footsteps of The Imitation Game crowd.  Here are some striking takeaways:

–using what we would consider rather primitive tools and methods (including carrier pigeons) they managed to win the war

–self discipline (work ethic, absolute secrecy, even surviving on very limited rations of food) was inspiring

–we are now appropriately embarrassed at the treatment of Alan Turing (judging by the tenor of the exhibits)

–in times of crises we can manage to put aside the things that don’t matter (like sexual preference or sexual stereotypes)



More info, if you’re interested:

The Seven Highly Productive Habits of Alan Turing

An explanation of The Imitation Game

Bletchley Park (including an exhibit on the movie)



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Ubuntu, the facts and the heart


scan0143 - Version 2August 26 is a bittersweet day.  My fifth book will publish (sweet) but 18 years ago to the day I lost my mother.  She was warm and wise, witty and fun, brave and beautiful.  And she’s the one who inspired me to pursue a writing career although she never knew it.  While she was proud that I became a lawyer and would always be able to take care of myself, I think she would’ve loved to read my books (whose mother doesn’t?) and been a proud supporter (like my sister, who has already ordered 30 copies of The Badger Knight for friends, whether they want it or not).

My mother was an excellent writer herself and I think dreamed of writing the Great American Novel but ran out of time.  Growing up, homework was our responsibility but she couldn’t help looking at papers we wrote with a critical eye.  Like a reporter, she wanted to see the facts supporting the argument but like the novelist and woman with heart that she was, she also wanted to know the “why” of everything.  I can still see her … “Yes, but why?”  “This is lovely but why is it important?”  Or simply, “Mmm-hmm”– the paper handed back — “and why?”  In fact, we heard “and why?” so often that my sister and I would tease her with, “AND why!” in all sorts of situations.  But she was right.  And it made me a better writer — both the facts and the heart.


She encouraged us to find what inspired us and do it the best we could.  Go after whatever you want, she said, work hard, study hard, do whatever it is to achieve your dream and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.  You can.  She got her pilot’s license at age 15, even before her driver’s license.  But — and this part was important because I can still see the seriousness in her face — pursuing your dream is never at the expense of others.  In fact, you should be helping others at all times. In her words, the world is our community and we are put on this earth to help each other; otherwise, really, what is the purpose?   It’s the African concept of ubuntu.  Maybe she learned it while we were living in South Africa but I suspect she was just born that way.  Of course she gave much money and even more time to charitable causes, but what I remember most is her sitting with an elderly or disabled person and just talking, smiling, laughing until they did, too, or stepping into a situation to diffuse the tension, or standing up for someone or something even when it wasn’t popular.  Everyone deserved equal treatment and kindness.

Here’s Nelson Mandela explaining ubuntu:

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When she finally had a chance to retire, she battled cancer and ran out of time, on this earth, at least.  It made me realize that writing, which I’d planned to do when I retired, couldn’t wait.  I had to start.  And I had to do it well as a tribute to her and to my community.  So I try always to get the facts right, check my sources, do the research.  And then I think about the why, which takes a lot longer because it’s at the heart of every story.  Why did something happen?  Why did someone act that way?  Why are we here?

And that’s why I write.  To bring meaning to my life and to try help young people make sense of this world.  Sure, people can laugh that I gave up a job as a lawyer to write for kids (“Can’t she even write for adults?”) but for me it’s the right choice.  It’s not hard when you boil it down to the essence, to the why.  It’s to try to bring something good into the world.

Thanks, Mom.  Thanks for teaching and embodying ubuntu.  Thanks for making me think of the why.

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Close, Erika Raskin


Close.  What a great book title!  Fellow local author Erika Raskin’s novel (for adults) comes out in a couple of months and here’s the very engaging opening to pique your interest:

Sometime the dread was just a light tapping on the edge of awareness. Other times it was a howl in that dark space between anxiety and terror.

I love it! Here’s the synopsis:

Single-mom Kik Marcheson is doing the best she can. But effort doesn’t seem to count for much in the parenting department.

Her oldest daughter, Doone, is swimming in the deep end of adolescence. Casey, the middle-child slash good-girl is fraying along the edges and Tess, a quirky kindergartner, has installed an imaginary playmate in the family abode.

When Doone falls in with the wrong crowd, a TV therapist offers to help. And things do start to look up. But only for a while.

Erika obviously has a way with words and has earned quite a few accolades since she followed in the family business, as she puts it (love that, too), and became a writer.  To get to know Erika a little better (and she is a very fun person) I hope you’ll enjoy this light interview:

Tea or coffee?  Coffee.

Flavor?  Instant.

Milk or sugar?  Definitely doctored.

Favorite season?  I love the colors and sweater weather of autumn (before the leaves drop) — as well as all the impending celebrations. I also love spring when the gardens put on their party ensembles.

Can you deal better with wind or rain?  Wind. Unless I’m wearing a skirt. Then I get a little frantic.

Deciduous or evergreen?  Evergreen. Barren trees bum me out.

What’s always in your fridge?  Carrots.

Favorite comfort food?  Watermelon.

Chocolate or some lesser nectar of the gods?  In a perfect world I’d eat a watermelon and Dorito diet.

Food you’d rather starve than eat.  I’m a vegetarian…

Cat or dog?  Dog.

Flats or heels?  Heels I plan on retiring them, though, as soon as I get just a little taller.

Natural fibers or synthetics?  I like cotton – but seem to have a lot of the other stuff.

Jeans or fancier?  Jeans. And make-up.

Short hair or long?  In between.

Ideal evening.  Hanging out with my husband after a productive workday, bingewatching TV.

Ideal vacation.  Big beach house with everyone I love inside.

Favorite board, card, or computer game?  Scrabble.

Favorite sport or form of exercise?  Ballet barre.

Language in which you’d most like to be fluent.  Spanish. Still.

Country you’d most like to visit.  Ireland.

Skill you’d most like to acquire.  Being able to sing without scaring small children.

Favorite musical instrument.  Guitar.

You’re going on a book tour: Plane, train or automobile?  Depends on the distance. (Are we there yet?)

Topic you’d most like to write about.  I love writing and exploring different families.

Topic you think most needs writing about.  Social justice issues.

Author you’d like to meet.  Anne Lamott.

Question you’d ask that author.  How did she get so fearless.

What / who gives you spiritual guidance and inspiration?  Different writings, different authors. Sometimes no more than a line can change my path.

What most surprises you about our current culture?  The general acceptance of a loss of privacy. Totally creeps me out.

Some favorite books?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Mockingbird, Angela’s Ashes, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Traveling Mercies

Some favorite movies?  To Kill A Mockingbird, Terms of Endearment, Good Will Hunting, Little Women.

To learn more about Erika and her writing, please visit her website or her author page on Facebook.  Happy reading!



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Walter Dean Myers






“As a writer, I absorb stories, allow them to churn within my own head and heart — often for years — until I find a way of telling them that fits both my time and temperament.” — Walter Dean Myers

I am still reeling over the loss of this caring, smart, funny, determined and very accomplished man — the kind of man who responds to a boy who wants to write a book with him, and does just that (Kick), the kind of man of goes into prisons to talk with young people there, not just talk about the glaring lopsidedness of poor and minority kids in prison, the kind of man who is gracious and thoughtful, hoping to catch a cup of coffee sometime or discuss writing with me over email (while I took breaks between emails to hop-skip around the house, shouting, “Walter Dean Myers emailed me!  Walter Dean Myers emailed me!” and then sat back down again to try act like a grownup), the kind of man who never acted impressed with himself, although he had every reason to.  He’s such a famous author, there’s even fiction that includes him as key character (Love that Dog by Sharon Creech).

He didn’t just contribute to the body of literature — and a critical contribution since his work tended to focus on (often ignored) minorities and their families and neighborhoods — but to the body and soul of who we are.  As National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature his motto was “Reading is not optional.”  It’s not optional because reading is power.  Reading puts us on a higher level.  Reading anything — the directions on a household cleaner, a prescription bottle, a job application — can have serious implications for one’s individual future.  And, as a society, who will we become if we don’t forge those neural pathways that lead to reading, which includes distinguishing shapes, translating shapes into sounds, and shapes and sounds into meaning and understanding?  There is no video game or even audio book that will substitute for that brain training.  Don’t let a kid tell you that reading isn’t important, isn’t worth it, isn’t necessary, or is too much effort.  Tell him that if a kid from the Bronx with a speech impediment who carried books in a paper bag so no one would see he wasn’t “cool,” can read, he  can, too.  He or she might even become a writer, and write over a hundred books in a variety of genres, and maybe become the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.  But most importantly, they will learn to think and feel, to empathize, to experience the wider world, leading to understanding of others and themselves.  Reading will bring them a sense of humanity and humility, something we should all strive for so the world can have more Walters.

Authors, editors, book sellers, and book buyers will, I hope, strive to continue his calling.  He wrote, most recently in a New York Times editorial this year, about the need for minority kids to see themselves in literature, recalling what James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” did for him.  He said, “I’ve reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life’s work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue.”

Thank you, Walter, for all you’ve done for us.  You have long strides for us to emulate and try follow.  But we will.  Because it’s not optional.  And, as you said, “There is work to be done.”





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The Secret of Writing, Revealed

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People often ask me how to write for children, how to get published, how to be successful.  For me, there was one magic elixer that turned my writing life around.  It taught me to really know my audience as well as the industry.  It took my writing and raised it to a higher (publishable) level.  And it’s always there to keep recharging me whenever I need it.  No, it’s not coffee or chocolate or even a loving husband.  It’s something available to all:  the Highlights Foundation.  Sure, they provide that magazine you might’ve had as a kid but it’s much more than that.  It’s a foundation that nurtures writers for children, in any aspect of writing not just magazines (and if there’s some niche you can’t find covered, let them know and they’ll likely add it).  What makes Highlights the magic elixir?  Hmm, well here are some facts:

–experienced and generous faculty

–craft lectures and exercises

–one on one mentoring

–the synergy of other writers

–a nurturing environment (gourmet meals, your own cabin, a serene woodland with stream, yoga, drinks and snacks 24/7)

–most importantly, you’re TREATED as a writer and you’re EXPECTED to be a writer

That last point cannot be underestimated.  How often do we doubt ourselves as writers?  How often do we put our writing at the bottom of the list, below work and family and laundry, etc.?  At Highlights, you are treated seriously and as an equal — so much so that you start believing what you should’ve believed all along:  I’m a writer.  I may have much work to do yet but what I have to say is important.  And I will be published.

Those are the facts.  There are the intangibles, too — the kindness in the air, the support that surrounds you, the incredible creative energy (at the event I just returned from, Patti Gauch called it “lei lines,” or lines of magic that cross right there at Boyds Mills, site of the Highlights Foundation workshops).  I honestly don’t know what it is exactly but I can tell you this.  In the fall of 2003 I attended a Highlights workshop and the following summer I went to Chautauqua, a Highlights conference that’s now held at the same place as the workshops in Boyds Mills, PA.  As a direct result of those two experiences, I published my first novel, Quaking in 2007 and Mockingbird in 2010, and several more since.  They have all done pretty well.  I’m proud of them and proud of my writing.  But mostly I’m grateful to that magic elixir that enabled me to fulfill this dream, and keeps filling me up whenever I need it.

It’s out there waiting for you.  It really is available to everyone (there are scholarships or you can do what a writer at the last workshop did — start a GoFundMe page).  Set your goal.  Write.  Write well.  And then publish.

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