Wildwood’s Regal Guest

the chapter-by-chapter review of raven’s Wand continues – this week, chapter six: Wildwood’s Regal Guest

One character appears in the book thanks entirely to an earlier illustration. As previously mentioned, I began the project as an art venture. The girl lifting the huge bumble-bee into the air was meant to look appealing and cute, and nothing more, but chance seemed to have its own ideas and when Kolfinnia had to rescue something from the barghests I knew it would be that enormous bumblebee: and Lilain the hive-empress was born. As she recovers at Wildwood, Lilain’s needs are tended by a witch called Annie Barden, who’s able to communicate with animals, but the last thing I wanted was Annie and animals talking directly. I wanted animal consciousness to remain a mysterious dimension, so there’s never direct dialogue between Annie and Lilain, or Valonia and captain Jerrow (the crow) or between Kolfinnia and the trees she’s able to gather memories from. I feared that the story might become a little too fairytale if I had talking trees and creatures.

Chapter six was also my pleasure to introduce Valonia’s Wards, and I split them up by season and outfit and made sure each had a distinctive character to hold them in the reader’s mind. I also added the joke about Rooter running off with Lana’s bloomers to make the group’s entry memorable, and OK, it’s not refined but it made me laugh, so what the hell (and it’s another example of down to earth witchcraft).

I frequently don’t know for sure what I’m going to write until I get to that part of the story, and such is the case with the truth about Rowan’s special gift **SPOILERS COMING UP** Rowan can read the mind of the universal consciousness that witches refer to as The Patternmaker (and others might call ‘God’). He knows everything, therefore Rowan knows everything, only she doesn’t know that she knows everything – she’s only just six after all! I tried to avoid writing of God/god because the name has so many meanings associated with it. The Patternmaker is felt rather than seen or heard, and maybe just as well, because in sequel books we come to find that he is a stony being; difficult to understand and tormented in his omnipotence, and with little liking for witches. But why? There is an answer later down the line, I promise. . .

A Golden Dilemma

 

 

 

A chapter-by-chapter insight into Raven’s Wand. This week – chapter five: A Golden Dilemma

Chapter five has to move the story along like any chapter, but it also has to impart some seriously magical concepts. Krast and the cabinet ministers have to untangle the thorny issue of ‘first-dawn’, and we learn of the Illuminata’s cutting-edge experiments into matter transformation, that witches would recognize as the process of alchemy. Now alchemy is so synonymous with turning lead to gold that I steered away from using the word too much, and instead gave it a more witch-orientated slant. Valonia’s witches understand alchemy as the channeling of the will to affect matter, to change it from one form to another, for example in Kolfinnia’s feat of turning buds into hazelnuts in seconds. Witches believe the opposite of science – that mind creates matter, not the other way around. This is heavy stuff to convey and explain, and at the same time keep it visual. That’s why I added those golden fleas beneath the microscope, and the sinister black box containing human remains. I wanted the first-dawn machine to feel like a presence in the room, and to haunt the rest of the book just as the name ‘first-dawn’ has haunted Valonia most of her life. This machine vandalizes the natural order of the world, and of course witches aren’t going to put up with that. . .

The first signs of the Illuminata’s tampering come when Kolfinnia is confronted by three spectral hounds known as barghests, which are not my inventions but are a genuine part of folklore. Here I was blending established tales with my own storytelling. I made barghests part of Ruination, which is the strange and dark – but not necessarily evil or bad – universe that parallels our own. I explained Ruin in manageable little chunks through the book, so I’ll spare you a lecture here about it, but basically the dragons Hethra and Halla dream life and animation, while Ruination dreams death and decay, and the two are inseparable. I got the name ‘Ruination’ from a walking map of all things. Marked upon it was a place in West Yorkshire called ‘Top Withens’ (popularly associated with the novel Wuthering Heights). Having spent the night at Top Withens alone once and detecting a very sinister vibe from the place, the map label ‘IN RUIN’ beside the name of the dilapidated farmhouse took on a new meaning. It didn’t just mean a collapsed building, but something totally different. IN RUIN became Ruination, to remind myself of that unnerving night I spent there long ago, and it became the perfect name for the realm of death and change. Ruination presented such a writing goldmine that I explored it much deeper (and darker) in the sequel novel, Flowers of Fate. I love the way that characters and places take on their own life and almost demand to be heard. Ruination did just that.

 

The Devil at Home

Our chapter-by-chapter review of Raven’s Wand continues with chapter four – The Devil at Home

Of all my characters, Samuel Krast has travelled furthest from his roots. To begin with he and his Illuminata kind were far more mystical; they wore robes and their headquarters was a palace-fortress as grand as The Vatican; they went by the name of ‘logicians’ and observed strict codes and rituals. But consequently the Illuminata grew too remote and overblown, which is why I reworked them and stationed them at Hobbs Ash; a dirty, unused railway station in the heart of London. Now here was a base of operations that the reader could picture and get a sense of, and Krast went from a hooded, quasi-priest, to a severed-suited, cold-hearted but believable man with some major skeletons in his closet. At this point I felt I knew him and could write him convincingly. All it took was a change of clothes and a railway station. Likewise the Illuminata infantry are mostly just ‘men doing their jobs’ which is always a terrible excuse for doing terrible things, but people only require excuses when they know deep down that they’re doing something wrong – minuscule but compelling proof of conscience. Most of Krast’s staff, such as the devisers and Knights, are more entrenched in their bigotry, and those that aren’t (such as Hathwell) keep tight lipped about it. Krast was originally called Karg, by the way, (which sounds much meaner) until I found out that Dr. Karg’s is a popular brand of wholemeal crackers – ah well.

In the same way I deflated Krast and his kind, bringing them a little further down to ground level, I also made sure not to paint Valonia’s witches as too spiritual to be true. When Esta Salt leads a magical ceremony on the beach, note how it doesn’t go according to plan and all the witches can do is try to see the funny side. I wanted witches to seem humble and credible characters; sometimes they’re tired and don’t want to say prayers, and sometimes they’re fearful and wonder if the dreaming gods they honour give a damn about them or even know they’re there? It’s in this chapter that one of the witches reveals, to my mind, the most profound lesson about witchcraft in the entire book. It comes from seasoned gardener Ada Crabbe as she’s telling Rowan why magic is so powerful and therefore so corrosive to government control. She rightly tells Rowan that humble gardening is the key to freedom, and with a little magic, Ada and other such witches can keep a coven fed and self-sufficient all year round – they have no need to work in mills or factories, and poverty and hunger are unknown to them. ‘Fed ‘n free’, says Ada, ‘they’ll never make slaves of us, and THAT’S why they hate witches so much.’ And she rightly knows that if magic gained widespread acceptance, then none of Britain’s working class would be wasting their lives down mines and in factories to keep the ruling classes afloat. There’s as much politics as magic in Raven’s Wand.

Chapter four is also the first time we see the term ‘first-dawn’ in a context other than Valonia’s personal life. The folders Krast takes to his ministerial meeting are all marked ‘first-dawn’, and the mystery begins to deepen and grow more sinister, after all, Valonia believes ‘first-dawn’ is an omen signalling the end of her life. . .

Way-beware

 

The chapter-by-chapter insight into Raven’s Wand continues. This week, chapter three ‘Way-beware’, and we take a look at names. . .

‘Kolfinnia’. This is a rare variant of a little-known Scandinavian girl’s name that I found in a book of baby names from a bargain bookshop. I chose it because I liked the sound of it and also because I liked the shape the word made on the page. As to its meaning, one source said it meant ‘white’, while another claimed it referred to coal and therefore black. Either way Kolfinnia has a lot of light and dark in her life.

Kolfinnia’s the glue that holds the story together and so she had to be an every(wo)man character that the reader can relate to. She’s almost eighteen and worried about her future. I remember leaving full-time education and having to find work in the ‘real world’ at last, and I think Kolfinnia faces something similar but more extreme; she isn’t job-hunting but avoiding capture and execution, but both feel just as stressful sometimes. Originally Kolfinnia was the grand, old coven matriarch (which became Valonia) and she was recounting her youth and adventures with Raven’s Wand from the vantage point of old age. . . but the split time periods (young Kolfinnia in early Victorian Britain, old Kolfinnia in the late 1800s) seemed too cumbersome and ultimately pointless. So I split the character in two, keeping Kolfinnia as the young woman we know and creating Valonia to take the role of the coven’s chief – but they began life as the same woman!

That Valonia originally came from Iceland is due to my numerous trips there, meaning I could write about the place with conviction. Valonia, by the way, is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘from the valley’, and if anyone out there knows of a different meaning please keep it to yourself! I also owe thanks here to the Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery in Holmavik, Iceland. It was in this charming museum that I learned of Iceland’s own brand of witch trials in the middle ages, and that oddly, most witches were men; there was no mention of wizards or warlocks etc, and this in turn gave me the idea to call anyone who holds faith in magic ‘a witch’, with no gender distinctions. (Check out the museum’s revolting ‘Necropants’, you won’t be disappointed).

I like to have real places in mind when I write, just to anchor them. Wildwood-coven’s Appelier Bay is based upon Morecambe Bay where Lancashire meets the Lake District, and I think Flora’s adventures on the Bay’s treacherous quicksands will have tipped off a few sharp-eyed readers. Most of the place names are made up; Chertfield, Rothwaite, Leadchester and Thornlee were all plucked from the air and if these towns do exist then I hope their inhabitants don’t mind ending up in my book by accident. Other place names are real, of course, and sprinkling the real next to the assumed helps create an air of credibility. To this end I compiled long lists of names, both personal and places, and draughted a short profile for every one of the fifty-two witches at Wildwood, whether we meet them or not, and that includes the name of their thunder-sprite, and I also drew all fifty-two of them, so I could ‘see’ who they were. Actually, I drew them twice – as my drawings went from the children’s style I’d practised previously and became more realistic, I discarded the earlier drawings and re-drew them, learning along the way. This is the depth of commitment and complexity I invested in Raven’s Wand and subsequent novels because I wanted it to be ‘right’, and I hope readers find this dedications adds to their enjoyment of the story.

A Witch’s Duty

 

To mark the publication of Raven’s Wand’s second edition, plus the exciting features of augmented reality it now boasts, I’ve begun this chapter-by-chapter review of the book. Like the director’s commentary on a DVD I’m going to take you through the book one chapter at a time, week-by-week, revealing things nobody knows but me.

Chapter Two ‘A Witch’s Duty’

After the fury of the opening chapter there was a lot to setup in chapter two introducing the main characters and the witches’ world and their beliefs, not forgetting Skald and the thunder-sprite race. All of this had to be done ‘on the move’ so to speak; keeping the story going while laying out facts and back-story. Talking of introductions, this is where I introduced the concept of magic. I’ve always disliked magic as a story device to explain anything and everything, such as ‘a broomstick flies by magic’. It seems an unfinished and unsatisfactory explanation. Thunder-sprites became my logical-magical explanation as to how a witch’s lightning-staff flies, and it gave each witch a character they could play against and so keep the dialogue going, even when they were alone (a witch is never alone when they have a thunder-sprite!). As most of my cast were female I made sprites all male because I liked the contrast; giving sprites a more rational approach to life and making witches more intuitive. As an aside here I’d like to stress that the reason for the largely female cast isn’t to appease modern politics or entice a particular readership. Wildwood-coven began life as a portfolio of witch characters drawn as a personal project and nothing more (or so I thought at the time). As a children’s illustrator I’d long been pigeonholed drawing villains, monsters and craggy characters. My gallery of witches grew out of my simple desire to draw some likable female characters for a change, and these are the characters that evolved into the book characters and that’s all. Interestingly, the name Wildwood came later and the coven was originally called Apple-Eye but I changed it, although the name lived on, morphed into the name of the coven’s river: Appelier. At this time when I began writing I was living near Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. I took the name ‘Wildwood’ from the wooden house I was living in at the time, and I would walk the surrounding forest and visualize Valonia’s coven, its huts, walkways and aerial dwellings built around the trees, providing material for writing and drawing alike.

Returning to the concept of magic, chapter two’s most important task was to explain the purpose of magic and witchcraft, and that is to honour the serpent twins Hethra and Halla. These sleeping dragons symbolize the very Earth, and in protecting them the witches’ faith protects the natural world. Although there’s a lot of reinvention of traditional themes in Raven’s Wand, one thing I made sure to keep is witchcraft as a benign force, although I reinstated it as a belief system with a moral code shared by all witches to put it into a more formal framework. I hope my efforts resonate with modern day witches out there (-:

 

Captions to photos:

Photo 1 Wildwood-coven began life as a portfolio of witch drawings. Many of these earliest pieces no longer exist and were replaced as the project matured.

Photo 2 Wildwood-coven took its name from the wooden lodge I was living in at the time, in the Scottish Highlands.

Seventeen Shillings

 

To mark the publication of Raven’s Wand’s second edition, plus the exciting features of augmented reality it now boasts, I’ve begun this chapter-by-chapter review of the book. Like the director’s commentary on a DVD I’m going to take you through the book one chapter at a time, week-by-week, revealing things nobody knows but me. We start, of course, with The Prologue ‘Delicate Threads’ and Chapter One, ‘Seventeen Shillings’.

Prologue ‘Delicate Threads’

The reason The Timekeeper is a spider in an hourglass is due to the black widow spider’s infamous hourglass marking on its abdomen. I just took the visual prompt and inverted it, putting the spider in the glass rather than the glass on the spider – simple! A lot of my writing begins with pure imagery, perhaps because I was an illustrator before I became a writer. The Prologue sets the time period (‘a great revolution of coal and steel’) and confirms a sense of mystery. I’ve always been interested in the concept of freewill or fate; is it one or the other, or a blend of both, and if so who decides fate? The Timekeeper offered me the chance to explore these questions through a physical character, and I selected a spider because the concept of ‘webs of fate’ is a very ancient one.

Chapter One – Seventeen Shillings.

I wrote Raven’s Wand in 2008 and it was published eight years later. That gave me plenty of time to refine it (the original book was over 30% longer!) and this opening chapter wasn’t added until 2012. I felt the book needed a more explosive opening (it originally began with what is chapter two, and Valonia in her tree house) and so I wrote an account of the battle of Solvgarad, turning it from just a name that was uttered occasionally through the book into a significant moment that still haunts survivors of twenty years later. Since 2008 my writing style had become more streamlined (I’d written both ‘Flowers of Fate’ and ‘Lion of Evermore’ by now) and I liked the new opening chapter to Raven’s Wand so much that I edited the entire book to reflect this new pace and style. It’s still one of my favourite chapters, and note how poor Davey Warner fares on his 18th birthday and compare that to Kolfinnia’s 18th – perhaps eighteen is an unlucky number after all. . .

Next week – Chapter Two: A Witch’s Duty

Less Says More

 

This is one of those images that came out totally different to my original idea, which was to draw a non-commercial, scary picture just for the hell of it featuring a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten: sometimes I’m just ‘bad’. But you might be wondering what changed; after all it’s a picture of a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten, is it not? Well, strictly speaking, no it isn’t. The original image I had in mind was of a child-fairy screeching in terror as the huge and very hairy spider plunges it fangs into her helpless little body (I never said I was a nice guy) but although that would have made a satisfying shock-joke image it would have lacked drama: the fairy gets eaten – end of story. Being someone who loves to draw and write too, it seemed a shame not to draw a picture with a narrative rather than a foregone conclusion, and so the image changed. . . I made the fairy older, to give her more of a fighting chance, and rather than draw the spider already tucking in, I pushed it further into the background, and then to add more impact and suspense I veiled it in a sheet of web, leaving just a pair of probing legs to tantalize (and perhaps revolt) the viewer. Lastly I offered my fairy a slim chance of survival in the shape of her fallen wand illuminated by a shaft of light, and combined with the title ‘Katrina’s Wand’, the question is will she or won’t she reach it in time? I leave that to you, but for fairy fans out there who see Katrina flitting away to fight another day, remember that spiders need to eat too. . . perhaps I ought to draw the reverse picture; of mum spider sobbing in her kitchen surrounded by starving spiderlings. Those blasted fairies!

No such book. . .

troll-busters

Here’s an illustration from a story called ‘Troll Busters’ about the three billy goats gruff setting up their own troll-control agency, except this book doesn’t exist. The same goes for stories such as ‘It’s Raining Chocolate’, ‘The Haunted Classroom’ and my own particular favourite, ‘Dinosaurs in Doughnut Land’. They sound (I hope) like exciting children’s stories, although they exist only as titles. For many years I’ve worked in primary schools running illustration workshops and these fake book titles along with others have been a staple of my presentations, except here’s another twist – I don’t drawn them, the children do. I give the class a choice of three titles and encourage the children to pick one and draw whatever image it conjures for them. What happens every time, and delights me no end, is seeing the children not only draw their picture but begin to tell a story to go with it, even if it’s just a verbal explanation of what’s happening. Suddenly, and without really trying, each child has a narrative to go with the title, no matter how scant, or as is often the case, crazy!

I recall walking around a class of year 4s once, seeing how they were getting on (without lingering and looking over shoulders) and one girl was busy illustrating a title called ‘Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Hedgehog’, and I gazed at her work and saw a Godzilla-sized hedgehog chasing after three helpless rabbits fleeing on a skateboard. Curious, I asked why she’d elected to draw rabbits in a picture with ‘pigs’ in the title, of course being careful not to say if it was wrong or right, and she answered; I can’t draw pigs, but I can draw rabbits, and the rabbits are in a gang called ‘The Pigs’. I told her that was one of the most creative solutions I’d ever heard and left her to it, and I still cite this example of lateral thinking in schools to this day.

The ‘Troll Busters’ illustration above is one that I drew just to show in schools as a primer to get the children excited about the drawing task I’ve just described, so you could call it a demonstration piece. Each title is like a door into an unknown room, and sometimes that room is just a broom cupboard and other times it’s palatial, and on rare occasions it isn’t a room at all but another world. One title I used to employ was ‘The Witch That Couldn’t Fly’. I decided to draw a demonstration piece to go with it, like Troll Busters above, but something unique happened. In drawing a few practise witches I became fascinated with their story, and they quickly got their hooks into me. This is how a fake title for a children’s book evolved into the complex and rich Dark Raven Chronicles, the fantasy series I continue to expand and have spent over ten years writing. Sometimes I’m left wondering if the words inspire the pictures, or is it the other way around. I like to let the children decide.

 

Writing for real – part I

another-try-copy

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.

Shield Maiden

shield-maiden-pin

 

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.