Essential Magic


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Essential Magic – The Fay of Skye, Book One

A woman driven to excel. A man ashamed of his past. A desire that could lead them to bliss…or peril.

Etta Mae Cook, a mountain witch from Appalachia, arrives in London in 1895. Her goal: to study magic. But she steps off the train and into a dangerous world of politics, decadence, and power. Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, and the Fay Clan are waging a silent war. In the balance: the future of spellcraft in the kingdom. Etta’s lineage and magical power make her an asset – or a threat – to all three formidable forces.

Her choices skew when she meets Malcolm Seward, a mage of the Fay Clan. He once held a prominent role in society, but a tragic mistake forced him to flee into obscurity. His attraction to Etta draws him back into the fray, but though she’s drawn to him in return, she didn’t come to England for desire.

Despite her intentions, their passion flares, and Malcolm falls for her. Now, Etta must choose: love, or ambition? Either path could mean the renewal — or the destruction — of British sorcery. If she follows her heart, will she doom their magic?

Essential Magic released on June 23, 2016.

I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it!


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I was going to post a cover reveal for A Theft of Magic this week and announce the release date and pre-orders, but my grandfather died on Wednesday and I have spent the last several days existing in a sort of numb haze and not getting much work done.

This is the grandfather who grew up on Roan Mountain, where Etta (the main character of Essential Magic) is from. In fact, Etta Mae Cook is named for his mother, my great-grandmother–Ella Mae Tipton Cook. Much of Etta’s past is based on my own family history (magic and duchesses aside), and my grandfather was a living conduit to that history that is now forever closed.

I don’t know what to do with this grief that suffuses me. I can avoid it, can distract myself by reading books or redecorating my bathroom (I did that yesterday), but when I sit down to write, I can’t. I can write when I’m tired, and I can write when I’m depressed, and I can write when I’m happy, but I’m having trouble writing when I’m lost. The creative well of emotion I have to access is mired in sorrow.

Perhaps if I were working on a different project, or at a different stage of this one, or writing poetry that allows me to more directly channel that anguish into words, I would be more successful. But I’m working on the final revisions for A Theft of Magic and that requires both an analytical eye for details and a sense of the overall emotional arc of the story. I can’t quite achieve that mix of dispassion and connection right now. All I want is to disconnect, to not feel.

The funeral is tomorrow. I am hoping that will help, will force me to engage with the yawning chasm that I have managed not to stare into so far. But it is going to hurt, and once I fall down there I am going to have to find my way back up.

But maybe the truth is that I’m already falling, and I’m just not opening my eyes to see the edges rushing past, or the jagged pieces already tearing at me as I go, or the sharp rocks awaiting at the bottom.

I will manage to climb out. I always have before, and I will again. But I am going to need a little while to move through this before I can focus on my story and helping my characters through their pain toward their happy ending.

Making Time to Take a Break


This week I’ve been pushing hard toward the end of the second draft of A Theft of Magic. I turned in the draft to my editor on Wednesday and now have a few days off until she comes back with the next round of notes. It’s also the last weekend before my son goes back to school, so we’ve decided to slip away for a short trip to the beach.

I love going to the ocean. My favorite thing to do is rent a house right on the beach for at least a week, so that I can go down to the sand and the surf whenever I want. This year, my family and I can only manage a long weekend at a hotel, so I won’t have that same sense of spontaneity available, but it will be nice to be there all the same. I need some time away from my story and away from my desk to recharge my creative batteries.

This brings me around to the inverse principle of “make time to write,” which I promoted in my Making Time blog post a while back. Because, as important as it is to take a break from any job, taking a break from creative tasks is almost necessary. After a while of pouring bits of your heart and blood and soul into your art, there’s nothing left inside you.

And, at the same time, you can never really take a break from your creativity. I see it as a sort of input-output relationship. Those times you spend away from your keyboard (or easel, or dance studio, or onstage, or INSERT YOUR ART HERE), whether you’re going on a hike or relaxing with a book, are refilling your creative well.

There are also people who can’t stand the thought of not doing something with their art every day. Nora Roberts famously writes for at least several hours a day, even on vacation. And if that’s you, great! But if that’s not you, don’t worry. Find the pace and the balance that works for you, that keeps you on track with your long-term goals.

While you’re taking your breaks, don’t forget to consume your art, as well as producing it. If you’re a writer, read. If you’re a dancer, go watch other people dance. If you’re an artist, go to a gallery or browse online. If you’re a musician, listen to music. If you’re an actor, go to plays. If you make handcrafts, go to a craft show. If I haven’t mentioned your art here, you know what you do! Go look at some other people’s examples in your field.

And then go cross-pollinate yourself with all of these other art forms just to broaden your horizons.

Then get back to work and make good art!

Good Mistakes

Good Mistakes Blog Post

I made a pretty silly mistake in my August newsletter. I pulled average temperatures from a weather website for Scotland, and the original temperatures were listed in Celsius. Most of my subscribers are American, so I decided to convert that number to Fahrenheit. Only, when I changed the digits, I forgot to change the label. So I just claimed to my newsletter recipients that the average daily summer temperature in the Inner Hebrides is 136°F!

I immediately posted a status update to Facebook about the gaffe, half because I wanted to make my subscribers aware that I do know the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit, and half because I think it’s silly and sometimes it’s good to poke fun at ourselves. I will also mention it in the September newsletter, for similar reasons.

Mistakes happen all of the time, but it’s how you handle the error that matters. The best thing is to own up to the mistake as soon as you know that you’ve made one. It’s OK to be wrong, and it’s OK to fail. It’s part of being human. Sometimes your mistakes will be embarrassing, and sometimes you will inadvertently hurt someone. Admit you’re wrong, say you’re sorry, and do better next time. And when you fail, try again.

We should all also be a little more understanding of other people’s mistakes, as long as they are open to change and to fixing whatever they got wrong.

My kids and I like to listen to “Try Everything” by Shakira from Zootopia when we go for car rides, because the message of the song is the same as this blog post. Try things. Fail. Make mistakes. Make new mistakes. Try again. Be open to the universe and possibilities, and don’t be afraid to change.


Evolution of a Book Cover

Independent Publishing Blog Header

In traditional publishing, authors have almost no say in what goes on the cover of their books. On a few occasions, they can correct outright errors or misrepresentations, but often by the time authors see the cover image, it’s far too late in the publication process to change more than superficial details. This lack of control is one of the reasons I chose to publish my series independently (although, as I’ve noted before, I would very much like to be a hybrid author-I’d give up some of my authorial control for bigger distribution and bookstore presence!).

Many independently-publishing authors choose to purchase ready-made covers, or commission an artist/designer for their covers. Others make their covers themselves. There is something of a stigma against doing the cover yourself, because the product tends to be…bad. Most authors aren’t graphic designers or artists, and the results of their efforts, while well-intentioned, look unprofessional because they aren’t trained to do that kind of work. For anyone who is in that position, I suggest that if you really want to do your own cover, you get lots of feedback from people you trust to give you an honest opinion before you move forward with the cover. And if it doesn’t work, you can always go buy a ready-made cover for $50. Chances are, that cover won’t capture exactly what you had in mind, but it’s possible to find one that matches the spirit of your book.

Fortunately, I have a background in art, design, and graphics, so I’m coming from a stronger position in terms of creating my book covers. But that doesn’t mean I get everything right from the beginning. My experience is entirely in digital art and web graphics, so I was shocked when the first proof came back and my cover looked like it had gotten a wash of red paint.

And even before I got to the proof-copy stage, I had trouble settling on a design that I liked. My first one looked like this:


You’ll note that some of those elements made it through to the final design. The stones in the background are still there, and the text elements are in pretty much the same positions (although the fonts have changed). I’d played with the text and settled on this layout before I even saved the first file.

But there were some problems with this version, so I played around with minor additions and changes, trying to get it right.

I added a shadow effect to the text, and the swirl of magic, but it still wasn’t working. My husband said it looked like a Star Trek cover, and that the model had too much makeup on for the look I wanted. A few other people noted that the fact that I’d faded out her body (which happens often on book covers—take a look at a few, especially in speculative fiction, and see what I mean) looked weird. So I went on a hunt for a new Etta stand-in.

That brought me to this version:


I never intended this as a final cover, but it was a proof-of-concept version that showed the layout, text, and basic design premise was sound. It went through MANY versions after this, where I tried a whole bunch of things to make it look less like a few layered photographs and more like a composed image. First I played with vignettes. Then I tried blurring the images to see if that helped. I also found fonts that I liked better. Finally, I ran the cover through one of Google’s new picture tools to texturize the image and found that it gave me an awesome, almost painted look, and really made the background pop with depth and shadow.

The next few versions don’t look very different to the untrained eye, so I won’t put them up, but I did clean up some of the edges, played with the magic effects, and fixed a few details on the model. I tried one version where the model’s dress was obscured to make it look more late-nineteenth century (because I had zero luck finding an appropriately-garbed woman who wasn’t completely wrong for Etta). But that version just looked wrong, so I decided that it was good enough to have the high collared blouse and I would just pretend that the overdress was something ceremonial handed down in the Fay clan.

Then I had two “final” versions. The only difference is the font for “Magic.”

My test audiences preferred the cleaner look of the version on the left, so that became the final cover design!

Then I sat down with a print layout template and made the print cover.

I decided to do a partial wrap-around for the spine based on a survey of trade paperbacks I have on my shelves at home. I thought about adding a different image onto the back cover, but honestly by that point I didn’t have much time left before the book needed to go to proof, so I used a technique I’ve seen in lots of romance and SFF books, and just copied a slice from the cover and put it on the back. Then I input the cover copy, put in two versions of my publishing company logo (Stars and Stone Books), the ISBN, price, and a blank spot for the barcode.


Ta-da! Except for the redshifting, my work on Essential Magic’s cover was done!

I hope everyone likes it as much as I do. And if you want to get the first look at the cover for A Theft of Magic when it’s revealed in my newsletter August 1st, now’s the time to subscribe. Everyone else will have to wait until mid-month, so sign up now!

Book Soundtracks – A Theft of Magic


My first post about book soundtracks was more of a “what a book soundtrack means to me” or “how I craft my book soundtrack” type of post. From here on out, the posts in this series are going to be specifically about songs from the soundtracks.

I should probably start with Essential Magic, since that’s the book that’s available now, but I just finished the first draft of A Theft of Magic and music was a big part of the drafting process, so I’m excited to talk about it!

Early on in the outlining stage, I was driving around, listening to music, and brainstorming. I was a little late to the Sara Bareilles party because I didn’t really like “Brave,” and that was the only thing that pop radio played of hers. (Note that I love the message and lyrics of “Brave,” but the melody/production quality is not my favorite).

But then when Outlander the TV show was announced, fans started cutting together pieces of the trailer to music, and I saw this:

And I thought, “holy shit, that’s an amazing song. Who sings that??”

And then I went on a journey through Sara’s albums and found many, many amazing songs that will never be played on a top-40 station because they aren’t “pop” enough. But that’s fine with me! “Breathe Again” still hasn’t quite made it into a novel, although I did outline a story that meshes with the lyrics.

When I started brainstorming A Theft of Magic, at first the only thing I knew about the story was the main romantic pair. Sorcha, my heroine, has a magical affinity to light, and is the kind to fall in love deeply and only once. Ronan, my hero, has an affinity to water and at the start of the story had deliberately altered his personal magic into something that is more like salt water, but not the kind in the ocean. His is more like what you’ll find in Utah, or the Dead Sea- so salty nothing can live in the water.

So I’m driving, and on comes “Islands” by Sara Bareilles. Here it is if you’ve never heard it:

The actual song is about the end of a relationship with someone she loved but who was no good for her. But when I gave some of the lyrics to one character, and some to the other, it suddenly fit with the story. In a romance, there is a story beat called “The Breakup.” Sometimes, it’s a symbolic breakup, where the characters are on different sides of an issue or can’t reconcile something about their relationship. But often it’s a literal breakup, and that’s what happens in A Theft of Magic. So while I wrote that part of the story, I had this song on endless repeat.

Islands and isolation are a big theme in the story. The book takes place in the British Isles, particularly on Skye in Scotland and then in London. Sorcha lives alone on Skye, and while Ronan works with other people, he has isolated himself emotionally from almost everyone in his life. It is difficult for either of them to change those habits and look forward to a future where they are no longer alone.

But this is a romance, so through trials and difficulties, of course they do!

That’s where the second song, also by Sara Bareilles, comes in. It’s called “The Light.”

Again, some of the lyrics would be from Ronan’s perspective, and some from Sorcha’s, but this song was the one on repeat when I got through the climax and into what Gwen Hayes in the book Romancing the Beat calls “Whole-Hearted.” (Note – If you are just starting out as a romance writer or want to add a romance plot into your book, you should totally buy this book).

As I mentioned above, Sorcha has an affinity for light. Ronan repeatedly refers to her as “a solas,” which is Irish for “my light.” The song also talks about love being transformative, and how we can change and become better people because of love. That is definitely what happens, on both sides, for Sorcha and Ronan (but more dramatically for Ronan).

There are other songs on my soundtrack for A Theft of Magic, but those are the two that spoke most closely to the plot, characters, and themes of the book.

Next week, I’ll be back to talking about Essential Magic with a discussion of the process of creating the cover art!

Goodreads Giveaway for Essential Magic

I’m hosting a Goodreads Giveaway for Essential Magic!


There are 10 copies of the paperback version up for grabs, so enter for your chance to win!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Essential Magic by Cara McKinnon

Essential Magic

by Cara McKinnon

Giveaway ends July 31, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


The contest runs through the end of the month. If you just can’t wait, the eBook edition is only $2.99. You can get it from any of these retailers:

Amazon | iBooks | Kobo | Nook

Here’s a little teaser to whet your appetite:

The act of unpacking and the guileless chatter helped Etta ignore the prickles of excitement and apprehension that sparked over her skin when she thought about what would come next.

Or when she pictured the marchioness’s very handsome son. Lady Hazelby clearly had not wanted Lord Malcolm to interact with her more than necessary, and yet he’d ignored the unsubtle hints and showed her kindness anyway.

When he’d first entered the room, he’d filled it with a magical presence so strong and fresh that she’d felt hope for the first time since meeting Lady Hazelby. She’d been relieved to see the distinct silver streak in his hair, and to feel his magic, bright as a summer’s day, with hints of cool streams and full of the refreshing flavor of a glass of lemonade.

But as they’d talked, he’d pulled his magic inward, locking it away from her, until he was as contained and controlled as his mother.

She couldn’t help the surge of disappointment, then or now. The house was so cold, magically-speaking. At home, her mother would have three or four different spells going all the time, or even a dozen during harvest season when they were always busy. Here, everything they’d done with magic in the mountains was accomplished using machines. They had electric lights strung in the public rooms on the first floor, and water closets on every story. Beth said there was even running water for the baths in the family wing, and dumbwaiters to move food and other items between floors.

Where was all of the magic? She’d passed through a weak ward right outside the house, and there was a stronger ward down a floor and to her right, which she assumed was the family wing. Maybe the marchioness had a private study there, where she did her spells.

How could anyone live like this? Etta’s power was untrained, but it was an active part of her—a constant, comforting embrace. It interacted with the world around her, giving her bits of information, and offering more if she opened her Sight. Even now, with her Sight closed, she knew that where this house stood, a Roman couple had once made love in the grass. No one was alive who knew them, but the earth remembered.

She wanted desperately to turn her passive gift into active magic. But there wasn’t much active magic to be found in this house. She sighed and thanked Beth, who curtsied and dashed off to help in the kitchens.

(c) Cara McKinnon 2016

Why Happily Ever After Isn’t Always “Prince Charming”

Today on the blog I have Andi Adams, author of The Girl in the Glass Box! This is an awesome YA novel that re-imagines the Snow White fairy tale with a fresh perspective. Part of that change is moving away from the traditionally-defined Happily Ever After. Now, in romance, we have a fairly rigid definition of HEA/HFN, and it has to be based on romance (no matter who the partners are or how many). But that’s not the only way to be happy, and Andi talks about other paths you might take, both in writing and in life!


When I was writing this book and constructing the plot from start to finish, I spent a lot of time dissecting what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale. Basically, we all know that it boils down to the heroine always finding her happily-ever-after (HEA), most often in the shape of a brawny lad who whisks her away to a far away castle to be a housewife or arm candy or something like that. Now this works for a lot of stories and certainly has its place in genre fiction, but I spent a good deal of time considering this convention in the scope of my own story and how it should/shouldn’t function in the plot.

I know, as I was growing up, I envisioned that my happiness too would come in the form of a Prince Charming. But why should our happiness be derived only by the presence of someone else in our lives? Don’t get me wrong, companionship and friendship and marriage are all wonderful things that can add such joy to a person’s life. We see it play out in romantic fiction and film as a fulfilling, though sometimes trying, characteristic of a well-rounded life. But why are we being taught at such a young age that this happiness is dependent on another person? You see the difference? It shouldn’t depend on anyone but ourselves and that is one of the core themes I wanted to emphasize through this novel. And I think good romance addresses this idea as well. The most gratifying romance stories is how the individual hero and heroine are improved by the presence of the other, but not necessarily made by the presence of the other. That distinction is paramount when considering complete character arcs and thoroughly-formed characters.

Both Agrippine (the Queen) and Genevieve (Snow White) are both greatly influenced by others, and the presence of others in their lives is essential, but their happily-ever-afters, though non-conventional, are of their own making. To me, it is important to demonstrate that we have that power and that choice regardless of who may or may not come into our lives. At the end of the day, a happily-ever-after is yours to create. And if you think about it, that’s pretty darn empowering. That means that no one can rob you of it. No one can diminish it. No one can stand in your way of attaining it. (How ’bout them apples!?)

And most importantly, I believe that happily-ever-after is a relative term and is all a matter of perspective. For many, the traditional idea of marriage and raising a family is the realization of achieving an HEA. But for many others, it’s not. Maybe success in a career is someone’s idea of an HEA. Maybe being a positive influence in someone’s life is a person’s ultimate HEA. Maybe being able to travel around the world meeting new people and learning new things is someone’s greatest HEA. Who knows? The possibilities are endless and that’s exactly the point. It doesn’t just boil down to the idea that marriage = perfect life, or that the inclusion of one charming dude is enough to make all problems disappear. That’s simply unrealistic. I just think it’s necessary to articulate that, unlike in the portrayal of most Disney films, we shouldn’t need someone else in order to find our life’s greatest fulfillment. We should have the ambition and drive and self-worth to find it in ourselves.

And if a studly, Chris Hemsworth look-a-like should come to sweep us off our feet, so much the better. But if he doesn’t, I’m pretty sure we’ll be just fine.


Author Bio:

Andi Adams writes, teaches, gets excited about performing random acts of kindness, invents words, and talks with strangers, as often as she can. She loves learning about the world, about others, and about herself, and uses that knowledge to write realistic fiction – everything from YA Fantasy to Women’s Lit. She has a passion for travel, for all things Harry Potter (of course!), and for her two dogs, who are also incidentally her biggest fans. The Girl in the Glass Box is Andi’s first novel.


All About Andi

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