“The Secret of the Old Clock”

In the previous post, we reviewed the machines of war that influenced my novel. In this post, something about clocks.

In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, Kat Bateson is a logical girl who idolizes her father. His hobby is clock-mending, and Kat spends her time with him learning about the inner workings of clocks, including the moment when he lets her help with a clock repair:

Her hands had trembled a little as she started, but after she’d disassembled the first layer of the works she grew bolder, and her father watched her, interjecting only a little. She’d cleaned and oiled the parts, and reassembled them, tightened the screws and adjusted the balance, and then set the clock to running. It gave a satisfying tick-tick.

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Medieval clock in Salisbury Cathedral

Kat’s skill with clocks is a crucial element in the story.

Mechanical clocks may be an anachronism in the age of streaming time and digital watches, but they are also satisfying – and are resonant with meaning. Time travels in one direction. Time waits for no one. Time can be your friend, or your enemy.


My cuckoo clock

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is a story that is at one level about time and its passage. Kat and her friends live during World War 2. The castle itself is ancient. Scotland is a country rich in history through the ages. The clocks of Rookskill Castle break down in the face of magic. The number 12 figures both in the hours of the clock and in the children of Rookskill (more on that in an upcoming post.)

When you open up the back of a mechanical clock, you’ll see a beautiful assemblage of wheels and gears all working synchronously. Mechanical clocks need mending, but they can work for centuries (unlike most things digital). In fact, the oldest mechanical clock is in Salisbury Cathedral in England. You can even make a mechanical clock yourself!

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Nancy Drew and her clock

I love clocks. Our family has made a collection of clocks over many years, some inherited and some we’ve picked up along the way. All are mechanical, some chime, some just tick – and one, in my office, is a cuckoo clock, which can drive our guests crazy.

One of my favorite books as a kid was Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. I wonder now if it had a subconscious influence on my work. As a writer, I love playing with the concept of time, and what better way to suggest this than to use clocks in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle both physically and metaphorically?

In my next post, I’ll talk about the inspiration of jewelry.

The Clandestine Machines of War

In the last post I talked about the United Kingdom during the Blitz. In this post, I’ll talk about other influences on the content of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. For example, a short-wave radio plays a major role:

When Father brought a short-wave wireless home a couple of weeks before leaving, he’d shown it only to Kat. “Here, Kitty. Have a look. I knew you’d be interested. Just keep it under your hat.”

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A short wave radio

During World War 2, clandestine stations broadcast news from the Allies into Nazi-controlled Europe, and those stations could be accessed through short-wave radios which access transmissions by way of skip (off the Earth’s ionosphere) propagation. Long-distance communication using shortwave frequencies is often the recourse of governments or individuals seeking to transmit to foreign nations because it’s difficult to censor. I imagined what might happen if a short-wave radio was part of a spy’s tool kit in Rookskill Castle.

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Enigma machine

Another physical war-related item that appears in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is an enigma machine. Some models look a bit like a weird typewriter. They use rotors attached to the letters of the alphabet in several combinations in order to form encrypted information that can be transmitted. Enigma codes used mathematical cyphers as a product of permutations which made them especially hard to decode. The Germans used enigma machines with great success until code breakers were able to find the correct cyphers.

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Women working in Bletchley Park

One of my inspirations for Kat was the number of young women who worked at the UK Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. You may be familiar with the work of Alan Turing through the movie The Imitation Game, but some 80% of the personnel who spent time deciphering code were women. They were not permitted to discuss the nature of their work, even after the war, yet without them the enigma codes would not have been broken.

The British were constantly monitoring the coastlines during the war, concerned that a German submarine, or U-boat, would allow for a landing and invasion, even if by a small company of spies. Abandoned fortifications remain along the coasts today.war fortifications

I had a great deal of fun weaving these war-related details into the spooky mystery around Rookskill Castle. In my next post, I’ll talk about how clocks play a role in the story.

In my next post, how clocks play a role in the story and in my life.

The Blitz: “Keep Calm And Carry On”


St. Paul’s stands tall in the face of the Blitz

In the previous post on the backstory behind The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, I introduced the opening of World War 2 in Great Britain. This week, we’ll review the early days of the war.

In The Charmed Children, Kat and her brother and sister are shipped out of London, as were many children, in an attempt to escape the Blitz in the fall of 1940:

The cab splashed through deep puddles and rain pelted the roof. They passed mounds of rubble, men in their clinging wet work clothes clearing flattened homes with picks and shovels and barrows. They passed St. Paul’s, rising stately and seemingly untouched from the ruins around it. Pride surged in Kat. The bustle of London—motors and buses and black umbrellas—continued as if there was no war. Londoners described the bombings as “blitzy,” as if they were some kind of nasty weather.


Londoners hunkered down in the Underground as the bombs fell.

This fall marks the 75th anniversary of the Blitz.

The Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) was a relentless bombing campaign waged by the German Luftwaffe on Great Britain and especially on the city of London. The Blitz was Adolf Hitler’s attempt to break the British spirit. But the British refused to be cowed by the German campaign, and the Royal Air Force was able to defend the homeland.

While many families sent their children to live in the country – and even to live in the United States – to escape the bombing, the British prided themselves on standing firm in the face of tragedy and deprivation.

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Children who left London as evacuees.

One of the favorite sayings of the time was “Keep Calm And Carry On”, used on a poster. This and other similar morale boosting posters were created by the Ministry of Information at the behest of the British Government. The crown of King George VI, the bold colors, and the straightforward font were used consistently. (While most of the original posters were destroyed at the end of the war, you can order your own replica – and even make up your own saying! – here.)

downloadThe British did not falter even in the face of food shortages that required the government to introduce rationing. Meat, cheese, and eggs were among the foods rationed. Cottage gardens sprang up to combat the shortages, and ration books were the currency of the day.

The British held on with a “stiff upper lip” despite the great odds and the shortages until the United States, which had held an isolationist position despite its alliance with Great Britain, entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In the next post: how the secret machines of warfare operated in life and in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.

Meet Me at the Crossroads!

This week I’m participating in a Halloween event…the Crossroads! It’s perfect for the spooky stuff that I’ve got going in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.


A collection of authors with creepy/spooky/horror/mystery books like The Charmed Children is hosting the Crossroads blog tour and giveaway. I’m on Judith Graves’ blog today, and you can follow the tour path from there. There are lots of fun answers to questions, and a nice bonus if you win the prize at the end. So tag along, have fun, and good luck!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

England’s Entry Into World War 2

This is the first in my series on the backstory and other fun stuff about The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.

In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, Kat Bateson faces change in the early days of World War 2:

The pieces that made up Katherine Bateson’s world were scattered across the landscape and over the ocean, far and wide, blown about by the winds of war. Kat herself felt like one of the clocks in Father’s workshop, all wheels and plates and springs and pins strewn across the table, waiting.

 But she squared her shoulders and told herself to hold her wits together. That’s what her father would want, and what her brother and sister needed. Especially given the urgency in Father’s letter to Mum, the letter sending the children away.

England’s entry into World War 2 was forced by the non-stop aggression of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. England formedwar map the western front line against the German offensive; if not for English bravery and the entry of the United States into the European campaign, Germany might have taken Great Britain.

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The evacuation of Dunkirk was hasty and dreadful.

In late 1938 Great Britain was led by Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. He was anxious to avoid another World War, and when Adolf Hitler’s Germany began an aggressive campaign in eastern Europe he cosigned the Munich Pact, giving Germany the go-ahead to invade Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, this Pact didn’t halt German aggression into the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by the German invasion of Poland.

The British had pledged support for Poland, and on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany.

Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940, and Churchill proved to be a charismatic as well as more aggressive leader. Later that same month the Germans staged a massive offensive, and the British Expeditionary Force had to evacuate Dunkirk in haste. Belgium and France fell to the Germans and the war wargained terrible momentum.

In the summer and fall of 1940 Nazi Germany, with its deadly Luftwaffe (air force), engaged the British in the Battle of Britain. German pilots assailed Britain with almost nightly bombings, especially over the city of London. These bombings were known as the Blitzkrieg (German for “lightning war), or Blitz.

Nazi Germany was determined to rule all of Europe.

Next post: “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle – Preview

My next novel, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle (out from Viking 3/15/16), is a middle grade mystery that’s part fantasy, part historical fiction. It’s set in Scotland in 1940, although it also contains a parallel story in a much earlier timeline. I thought it would be fun to run a series of blog posts on both the historical context of the novel, and the setting itself, as well as some of the fantasy aspects of the story.charmed

Here are some of the topics I’m hoping to cover in upcoming posts, all of which play a role in the story:

  • the London Blitz and other aspects of the early years of World War 2
  • some early history of Scotland, plus landscape, mythology, culture
  • spies, U-boats, enigma machines
  • mechanical clocks, mathematical algorithms
  • chatelaines

These are just a few of the possible subjects. For this post, I’d like to give you a small taste of the story. Plus…I’m running a SWAG giveaway!

First, a little teaser from the novel:

Kat stepped forward, hesitant. She unclasped the chatelaine and held it up. The three items—pen, scissors, thimble—swayed as they dangled from her fingers.

 Aunt Margaret leaned toward Kat, her lips close to Kat’s ear, and dropped her voice to a whisper. “It’s quite magical, you know.”

 “I’m sorry?” Kat whispered back. “Did you say magical?” Oh, goodness. Kat saw worry in the set of Mum’s face.

 Aunt Margaret straigcharmedhtened. “Yes, my dear. I shall explain. But do remember this: be careful with magic.” She fixed her eyes on Kat’s. “Do you hear me, Katherine? Magic is tricky. There is always a price to pay for its use.”

If you’d like more, and you haven’t already subscribed to this blog or my newsletter, there’s a longer excerpt waiting for you as a gift for subscribing.

Now to the giveaway! If you pre-order a copy of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle from my local indie, Country Bookshelf, you’ll receive*

  • a signed/personalized copy of the book
  • a necklace with charm (*while supplies last; one per customer)
  • a rook temporary tattoo

You can also preorder the book from your own indie, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble; the giveaway is only through Country Bookshelf. (But watch this space…there will be more giveaways as pub date draws near!)

In my next post I’ll talk about the early war years of World War 2 in England, including the London Blitz.

Kent Davis and A RIDDLE IN RUBY

I’m so pleased today to welcome my friend – and critique partner – Kent Davis. Kent’s debut middle grade novel, A RIDDLE IN RUBY, is out now and is a terrific page-turner, imaginative and loads of fun.

Here’s the description from his publisher, Greenwillow Books: “Ruby Teach, daughter of a smuggler and pirate, has been learning how to swindle and steal and pick the most complex locks for as long as she can remember. But a collision with aristocratic young lord Athen sends her spinning into chaos. Little did she know that her whole life has been spent in hiding from nefarious secret societies and the Royal Navy . . . who are both now on her trail. In this debut middle grade adventure, Kent Davis weaves a rip-roaring tale through an alternate colonial Philadelphia. A world where alchemy—that peculiar mix of magic and science—has fueled the industrial revolution. With this highly original setting, a cast of fully rounded characters and rapid-fire, funny dialogue, A Riddle in Ruby will call to mind fantasy greats like Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.”cover A RIDDLE IN RUBY

And now, here’s Kent!

You’ve created a fascinating world. I know you were inspired by an image that popped into your head. Can you describe it, and tell us a bit about how it guided your research and the direction of the book?

Sure! Well, believe it or not, this all started out with that image: a girl in a tricorne hat in a barrel with metal ostrich legs. Not the most heroic image, I’ll grant you. But it stuck with me and eventually I had to investigate. I mean, that picture would just not shut up! So from there I wound my way into an alternate history Colonial America (tricorne); a brave, impatient, apprentice thief full of pluck and gumption (girl), and magic that sums up as high-end chemistry that you can give a nudge with your personal mojo (ostrich legs): cobalt gearbeasts, alchemical automatons, living purple goo. You know, standard kind of stuff.

Ruby is a great character, very three-dimensional. Do you have any favorite ways of getting into your characters – any techniques that help your process?

Thank you! I do, actually. My professional training is as an actor and improviser, so a big part of my process is creating extremely difficult emotional or physical obstacles, then plopping the character down in the middle of the troubles, plopping myself into their head as an observer, and then just watching how the heck they’re going to try to get out of this one. To your point about three dimensions, I love characters that fail before they succeed. Failure is how we learn to fly, and the more spectacular failure, the better!Kent

This plot really moves. Is that fast-paced plotting something that comes naturally to you or is that a result of revision? Do you tend to cut more or add more – or both? And…are you a pantser or a plotter.

I have to cut! I think the original manuscript to the published version is lighter to the tune of about 20%. More than that, though, I try to think of each chapter as a mini-play, and momentum is as important to me on that narrower level as much as it is in the grand scheme. My goal is to hopefully end each of those little plays in a way that propels the reader forward!

I’m so happy that Kent came by! Here’s where you can find a copy of his book: Country Bookshelf, Amazon




FAITHFUL and the Yellowstone Volcano

Beneath my fingers, the ground was alive. It rumbled, creaked, and groaned – with each spray, the earth heaved. And as I sat there helpless and trembling myself, I began to sense the rhythm of it, just as the sea had a rhythm that I knew. I geyser roared and ebbed and roared again, like the ebb and flow of tides. I pressed my hand onto the ground and felt it shudder.


Old Faithful

I cringed as another jet of water shot skyward, but the water caught the sun. It glittered and sparkled like a million diamonds, while the air roared and the ground trembled, and then the magic of Yellowstone caught me, and I was lost to it forever. (FAITHFUL, page 185)

My protagonist Maggie in FAITHFUL, like other early tourists in the Park, were struck by both the beauty and the deadly power of Yellowstone National Park. They nicknamed the Park “Wonderland” mostly for its many thermal features and variegated-color rock formations. With more than 10,000 thermal features, Yellowstone contains the world’s largest concentration of geysers, hot springs, steam vents, and mud pots. The reason for all this geologic activity and the varied rock types is that Yellowstone sits atop a giant volcano.

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Sinter terraces at Mammoth

Beneath Yellowstone is a large magma chamber, which lies at a level shallow enough that scientists consider Yellowstone to be an active super volcano, which is the surface expression of a hotspot. Periodically, the volcano erupts; the last time the volcano erupted it erupted explosively, creating the caldera which now forms the rims of cliffs within the Park.

Cracks and fissures in the earth’s crust allow water from rain and snow melt to penetrate to the hot rock below. This water is super heated and returned to the surface, creating the geologic features like the geysers and hot springs. The white sinter that forms at the surface around geysers and in areas like Mammoth is precipitated silica that dissolved in the water as it traveled back up through these natural plumbing systems.


Hot spring at Norris geyser basin

While the last major eruption of the volcano was 640,000 years ago, as recently as 70,000 years ago Yellowstone volcano experienced minor eruptions and lava flows. And while the volcano is almost certain to erupt again one day, there is no indication at the moment that this will happen in the near future in human terms. Scientists constantly monitor the many small earthquakes and changes in Yellowstone.

Rather than fearing the volcano, Maggie – and we – can appreciate the beauty and power of this remarkable natural feature, the like of which is found in only a few places on earth.

Check out my previous post on the “wild” west; this is the final post in my Yellowstone series.

The Wild, Wild West

“Four men straddled the road, barring our way. They wore scarves that covered their faces except for their eyes; they carried what looked like long sticks. I shook, trying to clear my head of confusion. Four horses, tied to a nearby tree, whinnied anxiously. Then I realized that the men were carrying rifles, not sticks, and the rifles were pointed at the carriage.” Pages 176-177, FAITHFULon the Grand Tour in the west

Previously, I gave you a look at some of Yellowstone’s tourist attractions. This is the wilder side of the West.

As recently as the early twentieth century, highway robberies took place in parts of the western United States, including Yellowstone National Park. A number of robberies took place on coaches making their way on the Grand Tour (for more on the Tour, see this post.) Passengers were relieved at gunpoint of their money and valuables: watches and jewelry.

The last of these robberies – possibly the last in the continental U.S. – occurred only 100 years ago, in July, 1915. One of the victims, far from being frightened, found it so exciting that he claimed, “It was the best $50 I ever spent.”

outlaw in the westAnimals, of course, were and are one of the chief attractions of Yellowstone. In the early days of Park tourism the unfortunate decision was made to feed the bears nightly by hauling garbage out behind the hotels. This practice became such a draw, but also such a problem, that by the 1930s feeding was restricted to the Canyon area, where a seating platform was erected behind a chain link fence. Tourists would watch fifty or more bears congregate – many of them grizzlies. Bears became so habituated that they would beg by the side of the road for handouts from passing cars. This practice was banned in the 1950s when the consequences (bears breaking into campsites with the result that “a fed bear is a dead bear”) became clear.

Bison in winter

Buffalo, or American bison, once numbered in the tens of millions in the western U.S. By 1884 there were only 325 animals, 25 of which lived in Yellowstone. In Yellowstone, because bison numbers were so small at the turn of the last century, the animals were held in pens, one near Mammoth and one on Dot Island in the Lake. Poaching in the Park at that time had become a serious threat to these animals. The near extinction of bison was halted in the nick of time, and small numbers of the animals held by individuals were bred until the bison herd held on public lands today numbers about 25,000, and many more are privately owned in ranches and on reservations.

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A wolf I photographed in Montana

Wolves in the western U.S. were also driven to near-extinction, but they were never so popular as bison, and were hunted out of Yellowstone such that by 1912 it was reported they were effectively gone. Wolves are canny creatures, however, and it’s likely they never disappeared entirely. Wolves were reintroduced in a managed fashion into the Yellowstone ecosystem in 1995. I’ve seen and heard wolves in the years since and they are beautiful and intimidating and are an important part of the landscape.

The West was – and remains – wild. Next up: geysers, hot springs, mud pots – evidence of a volcano.