Author Archives: Steve Hutton

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Writing for real – part I

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I knew the heart of Flowers of Fate was going to be a supercharged take on Goldilocks; about a golden-haired witch and three rampaging berserks, but in order for Sunday to find those cursed warriors I had to get her to the land of such heroes (or villains as the case may be). The last we see of her is in Britain, and so somehow I had to get her ‘up north’ into Viking lands. How I did this I’ll let the story tell, but I selected one northern land I knew well enough, and this is where Sunday begins Flowers of Fate. The beach of black volcanic sand is real and can be found at Vik, along Iceland’s southern coast. Having walked it a few times I felt I could conjure it effectively enough for the reader. I almost always base fictional locations on real places – with a few twists of course. I find the key to convincing and enjoyable writing is to observe. I keep a note book and record anything that catches my attention. Looking through it recently I found this note, written after a bout of snowy weather: ‘The snow’s all but gone, except for behind the dry-stone walls, where it looks like lines of white dust-sheets rolled away after a decorating job’. One day it might find a place in my books, or maybe not, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is taking the time to notice these things, and in doing so you’ll be sharpening your imagination.

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Shield Maiden

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This is my most recent piece of artwork, finished only this morning and entitled ‘Shield Maiden’. It’s the summer solstice and many have gathered for the special day, but typically it’s raining! At last the clouds part and the sun breaks through, and Meredith (the girl in the picture) finally gets her chance to take part in the solstice celebrations. I love contrasts in pictures, hence Meredith’s protector is a fierce (or not so fierce) wolf. All of my work is coloured pencil and it was a challenge to draw rain, wet grass and a rainbow with such a potentially heavy medium. I dug out an old photo of mine of such a rainbow and stormy sky I’d taken years ago, and drew just what I saw. Picture’s often benefit when ‘less says more’, and I first drew the sun just showing through the clouds above Meredith’s head, and then reconsidered and removed it because her expression and eye-line do the job for us, as does the glint on the shield’s rim. Often, it’s what we don’t see that has most impact upon us.

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Relics

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Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Today – a closer look at ‘Relics’

If you could have sailed around Britain’s coast two centuries ago, there’s a chance you’d have seen large, flightless, black & white seabirds known as Great Auks. They effectively lived an identical lifestyle to penguins, but by 1844 (according to records) the last one was clubbed to death and eaten. This crime was committed in Iceland – but wait, there is a challenge for the killing of the last Great Auk from the nearby Faroe Islands. Think about it – what kind of accolade is genocide? What person or nation would argue that credit for a certain genocide belongs to them? And here I’m not singling out Iceland or The Faroes, all nations have exterminated one spices or another, and often, many species. The true madness of this is its banality: a species was exterminated – so what – it happens – next. The same sort of thing happened to Britain’s wolves, with the last one being killed in the 17th century according to most sources. ‘Relics’ was drawn with these facts in mind. Look closely and you’ll see not just flesh and blood wolves, but wolves hidden amongst the rocks and trees. Witches hid them there to save the last of them, and to me this is what witchcraft is truly about – respect for living things. I say ‘to me’ because there are many interpretations of what witchcraft is, but one thing’s for sure – it wasn’t a witch that battered that lone Great Auk to death in 1844, but hey – so what – it happens – next.

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For the love of crocodiles

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When I illustrated the story of Peter Pan a few years ago, I spent the best part of 10 months working solidly on Peter’s world: Neverland. Day after day I’d get out of bed and face hours of intensive work at the drawing board bringing J M Barrie’s famous story alive.

I must be one of the very few people who’s never seen the Disney version of Pan, and my first real introduction to the story was reading it in readiness for illustrating it. Immediately it struck me that Peter wasn’t the youthful hero I’d always imagined, but rather a spoiled and distinctly selfish brat. As the weeks and months dragged by and the portfolio of images grew, I came to dislike Peter more and more, and instead find a growing sympathy with his nemesis – Captain Hook. Hook is the far more interesting and complex character. Peter is often obnoxious because he ‘feels like it’, while with Hook we glimpse a reason for his fall from grace. And before anyone berates me for my harsh comments about Peter, remember – amongst other things – he tries to shut the window and prevent Wendy and Co returning home so he can keep her forever, and it’s only the look of despair on the sleeping Mrs Darling’s face that softens his heart. Hook’s bitterness stems from his resentment of Peter’s bravery (or recklessness to be more accurate – he faces off against a pride of lions just to impress his new friends) and more importantly, his ‘cockiness’. That’s when Hook and I became partners – I can’t stand our new age of arrogance that’s replaced modesty, and where those who shout loudest simply must be the best because, well. . . they’re the loudest. When Hook attempts to poison Peter’s drink, he relents and the better part of him thinks twice, but it’s the ‘cocky’ smile on the sleeping Peter’s lips that inflames him again, and so in goes the poison! Sadly – Tinkerbell came along and ruined it all by drinking the poison draught to save Peter’s life. (And remember how Tinkerbell encouraged the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy down with an arrow – to kill her and ensure she didn’t have a rival for Peter’s attention? Twisted, eh?)

When it came to drawing Hook falling into the crocodile’s waiting mouth I felt the story had lost its most intriguing character, and to some extent its heart. If my nemesis had been a selfish and arrogant little boy who infuriatingly always got the better of me, I’d have become a twisted villain like Hook too. And so – Captain James Hook, scourge of the cocky everywhere – I salute you!

Just a big fairy!

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One of the great joys of writing is the freedom to reinvent traditional themes. In Raven’s Wand we meet witches for the first time, and instead of the ugly crones of propaganda we find that witchcraft is a peaceful faith, and its followers include men, women and children alike. Also, out go flying broomsticks and in come lightning-staffs and thunder-sprites. For me, reinvention is a cornerstone of fantasy art and writing. Why should every dragon look the same? Fairies get the same treatment. Out go fairies as mischievous magical folk, and in come animalistic nature spirits who escort the dead to Evermore.
Fairies take a lead role in the final novel of the series, Lion of Evermore (published this autumn). This test-sketch shows a scene from the book’s climactic battle – when entire fairy nations have to fight for survival against a vast plague of their infected kin. Morgus is not just a magma-fairy, but the leader of his nation, and he battles valiantly against a horde of infected iron-fairies.

He’s certainly more than just a big fairy, but is even Morgus strong enough to stop the iron infection . . ?

Destroying Angel

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Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Week by week, I’ll post my thoughts and comments on the forthcoming cards. This week – ‘Destroying Angel’

Destroying Angel is the first novel in the successor series to Raven’s Wand, and tells the story of Freya Albright’s boat-full of witches that fled Wildwood-coven, but subsequently vanished . . .

I wanted Freya’s story to remain part of the Raven’s Wand world and its Victorian setting, but still to have its own unique feel. Freya and her crew of nine are a tight-knit bunch, and their camaraderie is as often touching as it is earthy and amusing – and it needs to be considering what they face. Paying homage to a favourite of mine, Beowulf, the first story sees a remote northern outpost under siege from a powerful and destructive entity. This creature came not from a dark cave or the depths of an icy lake however, but from the blackness between the stars – in fact it is the blackness between the stars. A tale of isolation, suspense and deception unfolds, as the tiny mining town of Lokk bars the gates, and looks to a rabble of unknown soldiers to protect them from they believe is the Devil himself, but they find other allies too. It’s here that Freya and her crew prove their worth when they’re forced to fight alongside Illuminata mercenaries in an attempt to defeat an entity as old as the universe and as desolate as the vacuum of space.

I had a lot of fun with Destroying Angel, despite its dark tone and (gosh!) a sex scene or two (I told you it was different to Raven’s Wand!) and whereas characters take their turn in the spotlight in Raven’s Wand and its sequels, the focus remains on Freya and her crew throughout this new series. In doing so, I’ve been surprised by just how protective I’ve become of Freya & Co, as if they’re family. When they laugh I laugh with them, and when they’re in danger I’m anxious for them, but they do have a mysterious (and often stern) guide and protector . . . he’s dead, but that doesn’t cramp his style, and while he’s not known for his sense of humour, it’s thanks to him that a certain ‘Clovis’ found a certain door marked ‘Rowan’, and if he hadn’t, well, Raven’s Wand might have had a totally different ending. You’ll have to wait and see . . .

The story of a drawing

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2018 sees the release of The Raven’s Wand Oracle Deck, featuring 44 pieces of my Wildwood art. I thought I’d give readers a look at what goes on behind the scenes during the creation of these works . . .

‘Can you draw me a man, but like a tiger?’ I can’t recall the exact wording but that’s how this character, Tiber, came to be. The brief was just that – brief – which suits me fine. And so I set out to draw a ‘tiger man’. At the time I was in the middle of a major commission elsewhere and had to break off for a week to complete this, which really put the pressure on. I kept looking at the clock, knowing I couldn’t afford to run over. I opted for a Siberian tiger, because I knew I wanted snow in the background, and I had great fun inventing Tiber’s little caravan. Despite all of this enjoyment, the pressure racked up. I remember it was January, and storm after storm rolled in, and the electric was on and off, and without light (and my trusty stereo) I can’t work. At one point the electric was off for 36 hours, and still the clock was ticking. I’d also just moved house, and the new place was grim and unwelcoming, and I was itching to get on with some DIY and make the place ‘mine’. So in the end, with all the odds against me, it’s something of a miracle that the image manages to capture the sense of stillness I was lacking when I drew it!

Happily Evil

 

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Something the Dalai Lama said long ago stays with me – that every human soul, regardless of nationality, culture or gender, seeks to live a life of happiness, free of suffering. And he’s right. What people define as ‘happiness’ is wildly variable, however. Some find their ‘happiness’ only through material riches or domination of others. When this is the case it’s easy to see that what they’re seeking isn’t really happiness at all, but the alleviation of their own fears, jealousies or insecurities – which in turn makes them feel better – which in turn conveys a twisted sense of ‘contentment’. See how easy it is to cause mayhem in the name of happiness? This doesn’t undermine the Dalai Lama’s wisdom but it does give a startling insight into human behaviour.

When I write my characters I ask myself, ‘what’s this character after – how do they find their contentment, and what lengths are they prepared to go to?’ With characters of high morality it’s easy. Kolfinnia’s happiness is knowing Wildwood-coven will always be her home. Valonia’s happiness is seeing her witches thrive. Moral characters have the shortest and most direct routes to happiness. Then there are ‘grey’ characters such as Hathwell, whose ‘happiness’ is the challenge to find his courage and make amends for serving an organization he doesn’t fully believe in, but having aided their crimes.

Beyond ‘grey’ characters we have the true villains, usually surrounded by a host of ‘greys’ who excuse their actions as merely ‘following orders’. True villains require perhaps the most sensitive writing of all. Their route to happiness is often very convoluted and troubled, although this won’t show on the surface.

Of the three chief villains of The Dark Raven Chronicles – Samuel Krast, Victor Thorpe, and Sef – each of them is plainly destructive and immoral, but look closely and you’ll see the real tragedy; there is redemption waiting below the surface. These villains might be immoral, but not amoral. They know that their actions destroy the sacred quest for happiness in others – and very rarely the reader will see them struggle with this. It might be just one sentence amongst hundreds of pages, such as Victor Thorpe’s brief twinge of conscience in Flowers of Fate, but it is there . . . and for those readers who’ve enjoyed Victor’s company and wonder where this devil’s moral moment went to, look carefully at his initial reaction to the terrible choice laid before him by his bullying grandfather, Barlow . . .

When the pitch-black of a villainy is garnished with a speck of white or grey, it provides the reader a toehold – something that they can identify with in an otherwise alien and opposing mindset. If done right, we might end up actually developing some empathy with our villain (I only say some empathy, not a whole lorry-load!).

Lion of Evermore will be published later this year, in the autumn. Sef takes the role of chief villain, and although the pages and strewn with his depravities, always remember that all he is seeking is a state of ‘happiness’ – just as we all are.

Night & Day

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As I write, the summer solstice isn’t far off (well, for those of us in the northern hemisphere) and although all the celebration around this festival points to light and energy, I personally can’t help but start to think of the darker nights. ‘Tomorrow, the daylight will be a fraction shorter,’ I tell myself. It isn’t as gloomy as it sounds, because on December 21st I always begin to think the opposite; ‘tomorrow there’s a fraction more light!’ I think this even when it’s still dark at 4pm and the weather is locked into days and days of endless rain (I say rain because it seems to snow very little here in the UK anymore).

In honour of the solstice I drew this illustration entitled ‘Night and Day’. The young woman in the picture is of course a witch, but her striking look is only intended for the big day itself, and she won’t get up every morning of the year and spend hours applying her ceremonial face paint. I like to think of the witches I write about as being practical, humble and very down to earth. Drawing faces is challenging but always rewarding – when they come out right – and on occasion I’m lucky enough to work one-to-one with art students. Recently I was working with one GCSE student, strengthening her figure drawing skills, and we moved onto faces and portraits. Rather than draw with a pencil, I broke out the oil paints and chunky brushes and we had fun painting all the blocks of colour that comprise a human face. My own approach has become totally instinctive over the years, and I don’t stop to think consciously about how I go about drawing or painting a face, but with someone sat beside you and watching your every move, you suddenly have to justify every dab of the brush or squeeze of the tube.

I think I surprised my fellow painter when I started adding greens and blues to the flesh tones, and talked of ‘warming colours up and cooling them down’. In fact, hearing it aloud I even surprised myself. There are no such things as ‘black people’ or ‘white people’, and nobody’s skin tone remains the same throughout the day. The way the light plays across a face, or the way surrounding objects influence colour all change what the viewer sees. As we get older our faces change (usually not for the better!) and we accept this without question, but we stubbornly stick to the idea that our skin can only be one colour. As an artist I find this merely amusing, but from a social-political viewpoint it becomes very divisive.

So, when the summer solstice rolls around in a week’s time, remember those miserable sods like myself, who start to brood over the dark nights ahead, and remember it’s not all light and happiness, just as the wider world isn’t black and white – even though things would be simpler if it were. On June 22nd, our witch will scrub away her striking face paint and go back to having skin that is wonderfully but subtly multicoloured, but only if you learn to see it right. . .