Dragons, giant elk, and magical harps. How on earth did that combination come about? It’s fascinating to look back and see how it all developed - even for me, the author! Read on to find out how it all came together in Fire Maidens: Ireland.
On Location in Ireland
Usually, characters come to me first and I base the plot around those key elements. In my stories, setting is always a character in itself, driving the action, mood, and pace of the story. That’s especially true of his book, so I’ll start with that today.
Originally, I was thinking of setting more of the action in the Republic of Ireland (which makes up the bulk of the island nation, all except that portion in the northeast that forms Northern Ireland). However, I was so drawn to the iconic scenery of the north that I ended up setting the story there instead of in and around Dublin. The picture-perfect villages, the striking coastline… Who wouldn’t want to be Grace and inherit a seaside cottage there?
My interest in Northern Ireland started years ago when a friend showed me a picture of the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. So that was a priority when I planned my research trip to Ireland. That and other great sights along or near Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast gave me all the locations an author could ever desire! Evocative Dunluce castle became the real-life inspiration for Ballyfianna’s ruins, and I changed perspective on the rock formations at Giant’s Causeway to be seen from a dragon’s eye view. The moody Dark Hedges (the amazing tree tunnel used as Kingsroad in Game of Thrones) doubles as the driveway to Barley Hall, and the tiny fisherman’s cove at Carrick-a-Rede takes center stage in the final battle of this story.
Like Grace, I started my trip in Dublin, where I visited the Long Room at Trinity College and saw the fifteenth century harp that is a symbol of Ireland. That harp was the inspiration for the one Grace plays in this book. You can see pictures of all those locations on the pinterest board I created for this book.
Ballyfianna, by the way, is a place that only exists in my imagination, but it’s like a lot of small Irish towns. Bally means place of and fianna is Gaelic for deer (as in, giant deer/elk). I don’t think there’s actually a Ballyfianna in Ireland, but there are loads of Bally-other-things: Ballykelly, Ballylinney, Ballymoney, Ballyrory, and dozens more!
You’ve heard of the “cute meet” right? (The circumstances in which the hero and heroine first meet.) Well, I had a real light bulb moment when hubby and I had dinner with friends who mentioned an interesting magazine article on how people look for meaning in coincidences. One of the coincidences in the article was the real-life story of a young couple who discovered their paths had crossed twenty years before they met and eventually got married. When they shared family photos, they discovered the husband (then a toddler) in the background of a picture taken of his future wife (also a toddler, also unaware that her future husband was right there) who was visiting at Disneyworld with her parents and siblings that very same day. I fell in love with that idea and made a similar childhood meeting the foundation of Finn and Grace’s relationship.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and say the foundation for many of the characters in this story was laid back in Book 2 of the series. In Fire Maidens: London, Eamonn Barley appears at the meeting held in London of all the UK Guardians. So it was already established that the giant elk rule Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Finn was a dragon, as established in Book 4, Fire Maidens: Portugal, and I always pictured him coming from a noble family. That led to the idea of an alliance between the ruling elk and their friends the dragons. And since magic plays so heavily in this story, that brought in witches too. But how would those three come together?
Well, in part, those three elements come together in a great heroine like Grace. I loved the idea of a petite spitfire, who is partly based on a friend of mine who is super smart, beautiful, wears glasses, and never lets anyone push her over. Love that combo! That friend, like Grace, is a POC, although I tweaked things to move Grace’s mother’s roots to St. Kitts. I’ve been to that lovely, quiet Caribbean island, and while I didn’t witness any magic there, Obeah (spiritual/occult practices) is still practiced by some.
But that background is just one side of Grace. Another is her passion for helping others. That angle was inspired by my brother who restores houses, like Grace’s dad. My brother has lots of anecdotes of skilled craftsmen among his crew who can’t always come to work due to problems with money, the law, and/or relationships. They’re good at heart, and they do their best, but they had tough starts in life. Like Grace, I’m incredibly grateful to have parents who us kids the basics of saving, studying, and avoiding financial scams - basic skills that some people never get exposure to. So that formed part of Grace’s character as well.
Finally, I’ve been itching to write a story with magic in the form of music for a long time, and Ireland was my chance to finally bring that in. That got me to thinking about harps (a symbol of Ireland). But I had to connect that to Grace’s mother, a music teacher. In my research on African-American harpists, I stumbled across the Cass Tech Harp Program in Detroit, a true gem of American pubic education. So bit by bit, all those elements came together in Grace!
Finn, meanwhile, is a hero I’ve kept in the back of my mind for a long time. I love that idea of him being the fourth of seven children - easily overlooked as a kid, but not content to follow in family members’ footsteps. It takes a lot of character to do what Finn did - leave home, proves himself in the military, then returns to his tiny home town, where he remains incredibly humble. Then, circumstances arise in which he gets to shine before the very townspeople who have taken him for granted for so long. I love that character arc. He has been a hero all along, but only now gets the chance to be recognized as such. To me, that makes the happy end of Fire Maidens: Ireland even happier!
Usually, when I write a story, I start with a pretty firm idea of the basic who/what/where/why. This time, other than location and characters, I was a little stuck. So I turned to my amazing Plot Wizards fan group and asked them to throw out ideas. One thing that came up was dragon treasure and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. At the same time, my research trip to Ireland had made me think about harps, which fit with an idea I had for a long time - incorporating some type of magical music. And bit by bit, it all came together.
I also get a lot of indirect inspiration from current events, and I follow US news and news close to where I currently live in the European Union. I’m not a political person, but I can’t help but be dismayed by the partisanship in politics around the world. Apparently, not everyone’s moms taught them to get along, share, and play nice - concepts that are just as important for peace and prosperity around the globe as they are on a playground.
So that brought me to the overarching external conflict in this story: resistance to change and fear of anything new/different - fears that are stoked by some for personal gain. Now more than ever, I appreciate leaders who calmly base their decisions on reason, expertise, and facts - leaders whose bottom line is to serve everyday people, not mega corporations. I put all that into play in Ballyfianna not to be political but to make my story world reflect the real world. And thus the rest of the story elements developed, with people like Reuben who mistake Eamonn’s willingness to listen and learn for ineffective leadership, and people like Orla who try to exploit such “weakness” for their own gain.
All that helped me weave a fresh, unpredictable story full of action and suspense in which it’s hard to tell unlucky breaks from evil on the move. Of course, the threat of the Lombardi dragon clan drives much of the external conflict in this series, but I wanted to push that to the background in this story, and I think I succeeded with this focus on local issues.
Oh - one last real-world element that made it into the story is the Hole in the Wall Gang. Yes, that’s a real thing, as my family and I discovered. We drove through a town in Northern Ireland the morning after the Hole in the Wall Gang stole the local ATM in exactly the manner described in the book! So, it’s true - even beautiful, sleepy places have a hidden dark side. My imagination takes little tidbits like that and layers in shifters - and, boom! Another fun little detail from real life enriches the fiction!
My favorite scene
Naming my favorite scene is always the hard part! But I’ll go with the very first scene at the castle ruins as one - or maybe the scene Grace flashes back to from there, when she and Finn first met as kids. I love the sweet innocence of that scene and the beautiful location. I hope you, like me, can practically feel the grass sway around your legs and sniff the salt in the air!
Another favorite scene is Grace and Finn’s first trip to the pub. The setting is so lively and full of detail, only a fraction of which actually made it onto the page. I love the sparks between Finn and Grace, and I love how they both jump up and help serve the onslaught of new customers. I actually helped out in a similarly spontaneous way in a different part of the world, and it really was my ticket to feeling accepted by locals.
How about you? What are your favorite scenes?
Biggest change from early drafts to final edition
This story chanced significantly from the first vague thoughts to final product. Originally, I was imagining a story based around a waitress working in a pub in the Temple Bar area of Dublin. So moving the setting to Northern Ireland was one big change for sure! But I was so drawn to the rope bridge and the iconic scenery of Northern Ireland that I couldn’t resist moving the action to there.
Very early on, I was also thinking of making the hero a wolf shifter! But I needed a dragon who could help his friend Marco by flying around Madeira, the setting for Book 4, Fire Maidens: Portugal. So that changed early on. Funny how that works!
Otherwise, my trip to Ireland pulled the rest of the story together in my mind - that and the great suggestions made by my amazing Plot Wizards team. I didn’t use all their ideas, but they definitely made my imagination move in exciting new directions.
Cross-links with other series
I’ll finish this with one final note on cross-links with other series. As mentioned before, the evil dragon clan that drives much of the action in this series is actually first mentioned in Aloha Shifters books! But one element with an indirect link to another series is the bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. I love to adventure in exotic locations, both for real and in my mind. Way back in 2015, I wrote Entangled, Book 2 in my Serendipity Adventure Romance series, which features a rope bridge over a gorge in a Central American jungle. (If you haven’t read the series, you should check it out - the stories are lots of fun, especially for fans of Romancing the Stone!) So you can tell, I have a thing for precarious rope bridges, and all that was inspired by my friend and her photo of Carrick-a-Rede. There’s really no telling when an idea from real life comes to fruition on the pages of one of my stories!
So, there you have it - the “making of” Fire Maidens: Ireland. Up next is Fire Maidens: Scotland, featuring Lachlan and a spunky heroine who turns his carefully ordered, logical world upside down. Ireland contains a lot of little hints about the rest of the stories in this nine-book series. Did you pick up on them? Make sure you stay tuned and you’ll see how many you spotted and how many catch you by surprise. For now, thanks for reading, and enjoy the rest of the Fire Maidens series!