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In my new YA fantasy novel Everdream, in the middle of the land of Tyernas, on a hill overlooking a wide river, stands its capital—the home of the king, Castle Cairdrist.  Aside from the odd rare trip with his father, Cairdrist is the only place Kynan has ever known.

At first glance, Cairdrist looks much like any late medieval castle, but there are some important differences.

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Every hero has an origin, and it would be impossible to understand Ann MacLean without knowing where she came from.

She was born on the shores of Loch Dunvegan, on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  But at her core she was really a child of two worlds.

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My upcoming YA Fantasy novel, Everdream, takes place in a magical realm where dreams are real.  But it has another important setting, too—a backdrop to the dangerous magic of Everdream.  The Kingdom of Tyernas.  Here’s what I know about Tyernas so far.

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The log church at St. Elmo, built by William McKillican

This past weekend I made a pilgrimage.  It’s become an annual thing for us—to travel to the land of my forefathers and soak in the extravaganza of Scottish heritage that is the Glengarry Highland Games.  But this year is a special year.  This year marks the 200th anniversary of a different kind of pilgrimage.  200 years ago, William McKillican uprooted his family and followed his congregation to Canada, where he eked out a farm in the backwoods of Breadalbane in Glengarry County, as told in my book Across the Deep.


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Everdream, my upcoming young adult fantasy novel, centres around a magical realm where dreams are real.  It’s pure imagination, but it has its roots in a real life video game.

Beautiful Realistic Minecraft Castle

My kids are obsessed with Minecraft.  They love the limitless possibilities, the raw creativity, the partnership, and even the danger.  Watching them play it, I can easily see how someone can get lost in it for hours.

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If you’re writing a novel, you need a setting. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, your setting needs to be an epic world. Whether you’re writing fantasy, historical fiction, or even something in your own backyard, you need to immerse the reader in that world without drowning them. There are a lot of novels that achieve this, and lots more that don’t. The ones that do work seem to follow these five guidelines:

At the time of my Alba novellas, the structural landscape of Scotland was just as diverse as its people.  I thought I’d give you a visual taste of some of the buildings you might see if you wandered into my books.  😉




These weren’t much in use at the time of Daughters and Sons of Alba.  But plenty of them remained from older times, most of them in ruins.  I put a ruined broch in Dun na Cloich Leith:  Aigneis, Ealasaid, and Eithne’s home.  Like many of these circular towers, this one was likely plundered for its building stone over time.  Brochs were made by the ancient Picts for defence and consisted of a double wall of unmortared stone.


An intact broch


A ruined broch like the one in Dun na Cloich




The average Alban lived in a dun – a hill fort with an earth wall, populated with round, thatch-roofed stone houses.  Although the duns are gone, the marks of their presence remain, ringing hilltops across Scotland.  Here’s one like Dun na Cloich Leith.





With the influence of the nearby Saxon and Norman cultures, castles were a new thing in Alba, but not unheard of.  Castles of this time were very simple – not the pretty, airy things that came along later.  As with duns, there are virtually no untouched examples of castles in Scotland from this time.  They are all either ruined or replaced.  This is somewhat how I imagine castles like Allt na Cathrach or Sgain.




The Vikings brought with them a different style of building – long, low rectangular houses with an A-frame roof covered in thatch or sod.  Here’s how I pictured the houses in Thorsbjorg.




Ecclesiastical architecture is another unique class.  Borrowing from earlier Roman influence, the monasteries of the Irish Gaels had rectangular common buildings such as churches and libraries, narrow round watch towers, and little beehive-shaped huts for the monks’ cells.  Here’s a monastery much like Cill Linnhe.



Sacred Sites


The Celts from ancient times had an affinity for the spiritual, and loved to mark these places in various ways: Standing stones, springs, and cairns can still be seen everywhere in Scotland.


Some impressive standing stones


A Saint’s spring like the one the Daughters of Alba bathed in


A burial cairn




Though none of my characters live in a crannog, this distinctly Celtic building form bears some mention.  These were floating villages built on wooden pilings out on a loch, much like the round houses of the dun, but built of timber or wattle and daub instead.

I hope this little virtual tour of medieval Alba has helped inspire your imagination as you read Daughters and Sons of Alba.  🙂


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Writing historical fiction has changed a lot over the past decade.  I know this because I wrote Daughters of Alba ten years ago with only the benefit of a handful of books from my local library.  Now that I’m writing Sons of Alba, I’m finding a plethora of information on the web that simply wasn’t there before.


I write a lot about Scotland.  Never been.  It’s on my bucket list, you might say.  But as an author there’s nothing like being able to stand in the middle of the place you want to describe.  Kind of a limitation when you’re sitting in your Canadian living room.  I mean, I have a great imagination, but it’s not perfect.  😉

So here are a few of the things I’ve happily discovered that have helped me with my research:


Wow!  If I’d had that ten years ago … well, let’s just say my research would have been a lot easier.  I find wikipedia useful for getting a broad overview of a place, person, or time.  The most frustrating thing about historical research is wondering if you missed something.  Skimming a wikipedia article helps me to see what the important points are, and I can focus my research from there.

Google Searches

Yes, we had Google ten years ago.  But Google searches are different every few days as material on the web changes and grows.  While I was writing Legacy of Faith, I kept searching my ancestors’ names every few months to see if anything new had popped up.  I found a lot of new things, not least of which was an archived portrait of my 4X Great Grandfather that had been lost to our family.  Talk about a treasure trove.  Just because you’ve searched your topic once doesn’t mean you’ve found everything there is to find on the web.

Google Maps / Google Earth

Unbelievable!  This is the single most valuable resource I’ve found for describing setting.  By switching the map to terrain, and using Street View, you can literally place yourself in the middle of your exotic location without leaving your desk chair.  If your budget doesn’t allow travel, then this is your best friend.  Like I said, I’ve never been to Scotland, but I have virtually stood in the field where John Mackilligen served communion in 1675.  By dropping yourself into your setting, you might notice things that stand out in the landscape or find a building that works its way into your story.

Now that you’ve found out all you can about your location, you do have to get off the web and start writing.  Don’t forget to let imagination fill in the gaps!