I nearly spat my coffee out when the 2021 Aurealis Award Announcement came through via email last week. My novella ‘The Little One’ is a finalist in the Best Fantasy Novella category!
This amazing news came on the back of ‘The Little One’ making the shortlist for an Australian Shadows Award in the Long Fiction category.
I’m thrilled this dark story of a young girl’s sacrifice for justice has resonated with readers and judges. The shortlist for the 2021 Aurealis Awards is truly outstanding, and I’m so honoured to be on it. These works underscore how vibrant and exciting Australia’s speculative fiction landscape is. You can view the shortlisted works here.
I’ve had some happy publishing news to kickstart 2022! I’ve just signed a three-book deal with IFWG Publishing Australia for my middle grade fantasy trilogy, ‘The Irrawene Chronicles’.
The first novel in the series ‘Jonty’s Unicorn’ will be galloping its way towards readers everywhere in late 2023.
Of all the things I’ve penned to date, ‘Jonty’s Unicorn’ was hands down the most fun, free-flowing fully-formed story to write, and I’m delighted to be continuing the narrative over two further books with IFWG Publishing Australia
I hope you’ll all love Jonty’s adventures as much as I do. You can read the official acquisitions announcement from the publisher here.
Here’s what you can expect:
In the quiet hamlet of Blaxby in the Kingdom of Irrawene, twelve-year-old Jonty Fairskye’s mother is gravely ill. A tonic from Dagatha, the fearsome witch who dwells in the dark heart of the Terrenwild Woods may be her only hope, but everyone knows Dagatha’s cures cost dearly—both in both gold and regret.
Determined to save her mother, Jonty resolves to enter the King’s Annual Horse Race on her beloved horse, Onyx. The prize, a pouch of gold—more than enough to pay Dagatha. When Jonty discovers an injured unicorn trapped in a hunter’s snare during a woodland training session, she is thunderstruck—there hasn’t been a unicorn sighting in Irrawene for over a century. To ensure its safety Jonty knows she must keep the unicorn hidden. She names it Rose, and smuggles her back to her barn to recover.
As the great horse race draws closer, disaster strikes when Onyx suffers an injury of his own. He is barely able to walk, let alone race. Jonty is crushed…until Rose insists that Jonty enters riding her. Jonty is torn—she knows once Rose is seen, it will be the end of her freedom, yet Mamma grows frailer by the day…
The decision Jonty makes will impact the lives of everyone she loves, spreading ripples throughout Irrawene. Danger and betrayal lurk around every corner, and Jonty will learn that the true meaning of kindness and bravery comes down to how much you’re willing to sacrifice.
Today on the Writing and Moonlighting couch, my special guest is Danielle Hughes, Australian author of The Lost Unicorn, and the soon-to-be-released first book in her middle grade fantasy trilogy: Mystica. I had the privilege of being an advance reader of Mystica Book 1—a terrific fast-paced adventure for the young, and young at heart. If you turn and return to classic children’s fantasy (think The Neverending Story, Narnia Chronicles et al), Mystica is going to feel like coming home. In this interview, we learn a little more about the world and characters Danielle has created, and talk everything from worldbuilding and weaponry to winged horses and writing retreats….
Danielle, welcome! Thanks so much for appearing on my blog. Firstly, congratulations on the forthcoming release of your debut novel Mystica! Mystica is Book 1 of a fantasy adventure trilogy steeped in myth and magic. Can you tell us a little more about what Mystica is about, and the characters readers will meet along the journey?
Thank you so much for having me, Beck! Mystica tells the story of Adelle, a 14-year-old girl, and Jack, her younger foster brother, who crash land on a mysterious Island called Mystica. When they’re taken in by one of the island’s tribes, Adelle’s sole focus is being rescued, but when Jack is kidnapped by the tyrant ruler of Mystica, her goal quickly changes.
Having been let down by people their entire lives, Adelle will not abandon Jack. Her journey to save him, with newfound friends, Reve, Kyla and Brek, is paved with danger, and Adelle soon learns there is more to this strange land than what she first thought. When Adelle discovers her own fate is tied to Mystica, she must learn to overcome self-doubt, let down her walls, and accept help from strangers—including an eccentric Mage and a warrior tribe—if she has any chance of saving Jack.
Mystica taps into tropes readers of the genre have come to love and expect: The Chosen One, The Hero’s Journey, Stranger in a Strange Land, Good v Evil etc. It’s clear you have a genuine love and understanding of fantasy. Can you recall what first triggered your love of the genre?
Honestly, I can’t remember ever not loving the fantasy genre. I grew up reading Enid Blyton, loving her stories of magical adventures from The Magic Faraway Tree, to the escapades of the Famous Five. I loved anything Disney, especially Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid. My favourite movies included The Neverending Story and Labyrinth which I watched on repeat.
Oh, yes. I grew up on Enid Blyton too, and can also clearly recall the first time I saw The Neverending Story and Labyrinth. Landmark moments! Danielle, let’s talk more about fantasy worlds… While Mystica is populated with familiar characters from fantasy and folklore: Mages, winged horses, dragons, etc, we also meet some very interesting creatures of your own creation. The Cormoki, for example, are a fearsome simian-like band of savage forest-dwelling creatures no traveller would want to meet without a good plan, strong weaponry, and a trusty steed! What did you enjoy most about the world building process for Mystica? And what were your biggest challenges?
Mystica is the kind of world I imagined myself living in when I played make-believe as a child. It was easy to create because it already existed so vividly in my mind. The challenge was getting it out on paper so the reader could imagine it for themselves, as a real place.
I loved creating the creatures, especially coming up with their names. I research names and words of specific meaning in other languages and merge them together as part of my inspiration. Adelle’s horse, who is really a Seranelia (winged unicorn), is named Ishkur which means ‘thunder’, because he arrived in a thunder storm. And Seranelia is a mixture of words meaning ‘light, unicorn, and Pegasus’.
That’s a great approach, and helps add those extra underlying layers of connotation and nuance. I can certainly relate. I take a similar approach to character names as well, and sometimes spend far too long down the name-meaning research rabbit hole! Okay, how about some more on character, Danielle…
Adelle, your main character, finds herself transported from Earth to Mystica under traumatic circumstances. From the moment she hurtles to ground, she’s faced with ever-increasing stakes, exacerbated by the disappearance of her younger foster brother, Jack. I really enjoyed Adelle’s arc as she struggles with her inner conflict of self-acceptance, self-belief, and her need to constantly maintain control of her life. No spoilers, but I dare say we’ll see even more growth from Adelle as she moves through more trials in Books 2 and 3 of Mystica? What can readers expect in Adelle’s continuing adventures? I sense danger and betrayal ahead!
Adelle’s biggest challenge to overcome is her own self-doubt, which is a continuing theme throughout the trilogy. To defeat the true threat to Mystica, Adelle needs to learn to trust herself, her decisions, and her power. She is a very capable and courageous young lady. It helps having friends who believe in her and challenge her to be strong in the face of her self-doubt. We see Adelle’s confidence grow throughout the trilogy, which was always an important theme for me, especially as a message for my intended target audience (readers 10+).
Absolutely, Danielle. Overcoming self-doubt is a great theme for middle grade readers to tap into, and Adelle’s journey is a well-suited vehicle to carry this theme. My favourite character from Mystica Book 1is the intriguing volcano-dwelling dragon, Malandra! You did such a great job capturing his presence and personality. I’m looking forward to more of his wit and wisdom. If you had to pick just one, who is your favourite character, and why?
Hahaha that’s like asking me who my favourite child is! Obviously, I love them all for different reasons. I do like Thoud, the Mage who lives a life of solitude, for his kookiness. He plays a larger part in Book 2. Apart from Adelle and Reve, Thoud was one of the first characters to pop into my mind, even though he doesn’t appear until half-way through the first book. And I have a special spot for Kale, a member of the warrior Sarkis Tribe, who plays a bigger role in supporting and challenging Adelle throughout the trilogy. His role surprised me the most during the writing process.
Oh, yes. I liked Kale a lot too. I had a feeling there’s more going on with that young man than meets the eye. I’ll look forward to more reveals about Kale with interest! So, with pre-release sales officially open your excitement must be mounting! Delivering your ‘book baby’ into the hands of readers is such an exciting time. I know you spent a number of years bringing Mystica to life. Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey, Danielle? When did you first start on Book 1, where did the idea come from, and when do you expect Books 2 and 3 to be released?
It has been an immensely long journey which started twelve years ago. In my full-time job before kids, I travelled a lot, both by car and by plane interstate, and usually by myself. So, I spent a lot of time in my own head.
The idea for Mystica first came to me while on a plane, flying through clouds, and gazing out at the dense, white expanse as we flew over them. I imagined an island hidden in those clouds and the story grew from there. In my initial rush of excitement, I penned the first five chapters, and the scene in the forest with Thoud, and then hit a wall. While I had always loved writing stories throughout school, I had never taken it seriously, and new nothing of the craft or discipline of writing. Mystica ended up hidden away for a few years before I found it again when I decided to start writing as a hobby—something for myself, once my first two children came along. They were little and while one was at pre-kinder and the other napping, I needed something productive and creative to do. I pulled Mystica out again, and wrote another few chapters. It was amazing how the whole story was still in my mind, years later. But again, I hit a wall half way through, and started on another idea, more in the YA/supernatural genre, but didn’t get far with that either.
I learned of a writing retreat by chance (who knew such things existed?) and my mum and husband encouraged me to go. And it was the best thing I ever did. The biggest lesson I took from that retreat was to finish something—finish draft one, no matter what. A friend I met on that retreat encouraged me to stick with Mystica, as she saw potential in it. So, I set myself a goal to finish the draft within the following twelve months, which I did! Plotting the remainder of the story out in dot points helped immensely. (A suggestion from the brilliant John Marsden who I met at the retreat)!
I’m hoping to release Book 2 in the first half of next year, and Book 3 in time for Christmas 2022.
Wow, John Marsden *fangirl squeal* That must have been quite the retreat. It certainly sounds like it was instrumental in getting you over the ‘first draft’ line with Mystica, as well helping you move forward with confidence with your writing career. That said, writing a trilogy is no mean feat! There’s much to think about when it comes to continuity, tying off plot threads and character arcs… What’s one piece of advice you’d give to writers embarking on a trilogy?
I always knew Mystica would be a trilogy. I had a pretty clear vision from the beginning that there needed to be more than one book for Adelle’s story to be told. I think that if it feels organic then it’s the right way to go. Don’t try to force it. And if you’re thinking a trilogy, or more, then you need to have an idea of where the story is heading from Book 1. Work out which ideas or plot points belong in Book 1, and which can come later. While writing Book 1, I would get ideas for Books 2 and 3, and while writing Book 2, I would get ideas for Book 3. I would note these down in a separate document, and refer back to them when it was time to write Books 2 and 3.
That’s great advice, Danielle. I agree, that note documentation is very important, especially when you’re dealing with multiple characters, world building elements, and plot threads.
Now, your junior fiction publication The Lost Unicorn was released earlier this year—a beautiful production filled with enchanting illustrations. What was the inspiration behind The Lost Unicorn, and can we expect more tales set in Maywood Forest in the future?
I originally wrote The Lost Unicorn as a present for my six and nine-year-old nieces for Christmas last year. I was working on Mystica Book 2 at the time, but also undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and found my attention and energy wasn’t always up for Mystica.
The Lost Unicorn was the perfect side project, it was a good distraction from what was going on. My beautiful and talented sister-in-law Molly O’Shannassy of MoshArts agreed to do the cover and illustrations to make the story more special for our nieces. We made a few copies using a Photobook program, and they turned out so well we decided to remake them and self-publish them using IngramSpark, which has been a really positive experience so far. We definitely want to bring more stories to life from the enchanted Maywood Forest. There are many characters and secrets yet to be discovered!
Danielle, you’re also a talented author of short-form fiction, with several of your stories published in recent anthologies. Do you stick to speculative fiction in your short stories, or are you equally happy to write outside your genre?
Great question! I never thought I could write outside my fantasy genre until an opportunity came up through the writing retreat I mentioned earlier (Rainforest Writing Retreat), to submit to an upcoming attendee-only anthology.
I had missed submitting to the first one (fantasy genre, can you believe it?!) as I was pregnant with my twins, and not in the right head space for any form of writing. I’d also never written a short story before. When the next opportunity came around, I realised I had to give it a chance, especially as it meant being a published author if my story was chosen. You never know unless you give it a go. The theme was ghost stories, easily able to twist fantasy themes into that one! The piece I wrote was accepted, and I was ecstatic. It gave me the confidence to write more short stories and submit them. I’ve written two Sci-Fi stories and a Mystery/Detective story, all of which have since been published, and all for adult readers.
It must feel extremely rewarding to see your writing ambitions become a reality, especially considering your recent battle with cancer (which, I’m beyond happy to say you won). You fulfilled another long-held dream this year with the launch of your independent press, Four Moons Publishing. When your Mystica trilogy has been launched in its entirety, what can readers look forward to next from Four Moons?
Sooooo many ideas and stories I want to tell. Lockdown has made it super hard to find time to write with four young kids at home. I can’t wait for school and kinder to go back to normal. I have a supernatural YA series I’ve been desperate to write for many years, it’s been percolating for as long as Mystica and has been hard not to drift into, but I wanted to see Mystica through before I started it, as it will be a big project with lots of research required.
I also have another idea penned for a middle grade series called The YesterKnights, which I’ve been collaborating ideas on with my two eldest boys which has been super fun. They weren’t too happy when their cousins had a story written for them before they did. It will be full of mythical beasts and two courageous brothers fighting to protect the secret world of Yester.
And Molly and I would love to bring to life more stories from the Enchanted Maywood Forest.
Wow, they all sound amazing! It’s the old conundrum isn’t it? So much to write, so little time! Lockdown and homeschooling have been such a gamechanger when it comes to creative output. I’m wishing you all the best in settling back into a writing routine in the coming months, Danielle. In the meantime, thanks so much for your time, and for sharing more about Mystica and your writing process. Finally—just for fun—what has been your favourite read/s of 2021 so far? And what’s currently sitting in your “to be read” pile?
I did read your intriguing collection of short stories, Coralesque, which is very, very good. My favourite story is The Little One. If that was an entire novel, I would buy it right now. (Oh, thank you! That’s so kind of you. I’m glad you enjoyed it)
I’ve also been reading Cassandra Clare’s The Last Hour’s trilogy and have just started on her The Dark Artifice’s series. I’m looking forward to reading Liane Moriarty’s Apple’s Never Fall and Sally Hepworth’s The Younger Wife too. (I love Liane Moriarty too! No one does suburban drama and observation quite like her. Apple’s Never Fall is on my tbr list too).
Congratulations, once again, Danielle, I’m wishing you every success with the launch of Mystica, and looking forward to the next book in the series!
Mystica Book 1 will be officially released on 14 November, with pre-sales now open! See below for more information about Danielle Hughes and her work, including where to purchase Mystica and The Lost Unicorn
Danielle is a busy mum to four gorgeous kids, married to the wonderful Derek, living in Melbourne’s south-east suburbs. A lover of fantasy fiction, Danielle enjoys writing fantasy-adventure stories for middle-grade readers, and supernatural fantasy for YA readers. Danielle also has several short-stories published in various anthologies for adult readers. Her favourite books include Harry Potter, the Shadow Hunter novels by Cassandra Clare, and anything by Kate Morton.