Category Archives: Wildwood – Writing

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

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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.

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.

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!

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. . .

Sprite Sense II

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Sprite Sense – Part II

A warm welcome to all of those just discovering Raven’s Wand! Readers frequently tell me how much they adore thunder-sprites, and so I thought I’d post a series of short articles about these wild but popular creatures. Tonight we look at Lifespan, Distribution and Flight. More to follow – enjoy!

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . LIFESPAN

Witches and thunder-sprites have partnered up for untold thousands of years. They remain a pair from the day the witch finds a thunder-sprite and proves their worth, until either the witch dies or their lightning-staff is broken. Breaking a staff is never deliberate, as no witch would wish to be parted from their sprite, this only happens by accident or in battle. Sprites then return to the thunder-heights and their Lord, Silver-fist, where they become part of the endless cycle of rain and storm once again. They might be born again as another bolt in another place, but with a new name and likely no memory of their former life or witch. Although covens are found in all corners of the world, sometimes lightning strikes in very remote places, and the sprite will go his whole life and never see a human, let alone a witch. In these instances, he will live happily inside his tree until the day it dies, which could be many centuries, or just days if the lightning-bolt was too severe, but the line between a living tree and a dead tree is surprisingly fuzzy . . . When the tree is nothing but rotten mulch, it can be clearly argued as being ‘dead’, but some trees are cut for timber to make furniture and houses, and they can last for many centuries after the tree was felled – as can any sprite still living inside them. Skald and his fellows speak fondly of one such sprite, named Torn. No witch came to claim him, and eventually his tree was felled to make a large four-poster bed for a grand hall. Sleepers in that bed often woke in the middle of the night screaming in terror, claiming an ‘imp’ had been scuttling through the canopy. Torn might not have found a witch, but he kept his sense of humour!

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . DISTRIBUTION

When Clovis crossed the star-sea to come to Kolfinnia’s aid, he (not surprisingly) had a lightning-staff and thunder-sprite of his own, named Torrent. Torrent lived by the same laws, and even spoke the same language as thunder-sprites here on Earth, even though he was from light-years away. He even looked identical, although his feathers were more emerald than sapphire. Here on Earth, animals quickly evolve into subspecies if separated by only a short distance, so how can creatures from light-years apart be so similar? The answer is that thunder-sprites are born from natural laws that are universal – the power of storms and lightning. There’s lightning on Jupiter just as there is on Earth and it obeys the same laws of physics. Torrent might be from a long way away, but in every sense he is a brother to Skald and every sprite on Earth. The only difference is that on Torrent’s world (which for the record is Vega), the thunder-heights are commanded, not by Silver-fist, but by a different Lord. In thunder-sprite legends, these Lords were always journeying to other worlds to meet strange creatures and even visit their sleeping dragons, just like Hethra and Halla.

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . FLIGHT

The reason witches and sprites originally formed working partnerships is one of those stories that’s so old nobody can get to the truth of it, although it seems every coven has its own legend explaining the origin of the witch/sprite union. One theme that remains common in every legend however, is the sprite’s love of flight. According to thunder-sprites, there’s nothing like the initial rush of streaking down from a thunderhead at supersonic speed, burning hotter than the sun’s surface, and then crashing into the earth below. It is the ultimate thrill ride. Sadly, for such action-loving creatures, if they strike a tree they’re committed to living in that tree until the day it dies (unless of course the bolt kills it), and that could be many, many years. Working with witches allows the sprite a chance to escape the confines of their tree and fly frequently, and gives a witch an invaluable ally and a magical tool in the form of a lightning-staff. Thankfully for sprites, the witches that come looking for them are at that pre-adolescent age where they feel ready for anything, and are only too happy to fly hard and fast. Some things never change . . .

Sprite Sense

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Sprite Sense

A warm welcome to all of those just discovering Raven’s Wand! Readers frequently tell me how much they adore thunder-sprites, and so I thought I’d post a series of short articles about these wild but popular creatures. Tonight we look at Silver-fist, Names, and Birth-signs. More to follow – enjoy!

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . SILVER-FIST

Thunder-sprites, like the elemental forces that give birth to them, are virtually immortal; being born as a lightning-bolt and then returning to the skies when their time here is over, to be reborn as another bolt in another place and time. Silver-fist is their Lord, and he was born from the very first lightning that struck the Earth (or The Blue Orb as sprites and witches know it) epochs ago when the world was a seething, primordial mass. Thunder-sprites have the utmost respect for their Lord, who is both brave and just. As The Dark Raven Chronicles continues to expand, Silver-fist makes appearances in many of the legends thunder-sprites tell of their home in the skies, and you’ll also see how his wisdom is crucial to helping witches here on Earth, along with his greatest general, who lives in a coven alongside a witch but keeps his identity a secret.

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . NAMES

Sprites, as most readers will know by now, take their names from whatever devastation was wrought by the storm that birthed them, and not always the individual bolt that carried the sprite to earth. Annie Barden, one of Wildwood’s young witches, has a sprite called ‘June’, much to the amusement of his fellow sprites. His full name is ‘Snows-in-June’, named after a huge summer storm dumped three inches of hail on the high fells, resembling snow. Annie elected to name him ‘June’, although ‘Snowy’ might have been a better choice! Sand-Fired-To-Glass (or just Glass) is another good example, named for a lightning strike that left a beach with a dendrite of melted sand, turned to glass by the incredible heat. Sprites love the complex names used to honour their storms, as well as their shortened version (apart from June perhaps), but they also have special storm names that only other sprites know, and they never reveal them to humans, not even their witches. Every sprite’s name tells a story, and one notable one is Jump-the-Cross, named for a lightning-bolt that hit a church spire, rebounded and struck a tree in the churchyard below.

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . BIRTH-SIGNS

Most of us know our zodiac sign even if we’re skeptical about the future being written in the stars. Thunder-sprites have their own birth-signs, but based on trees and seasons. First comes the tree, then comes the time of year, but sprites have different names for the seasons than we do; winter is ‘sleep’, spring is ‘rise’, summer is ‘charge’ and autumn is ‘weep’. Skald was born in an ash tree in the spring time, and so his birth-sign is ‘rising-ash’. But there’s an added twist – sprites add the moon phase to their birth-sign, and again these are known differently. Waxing is ‘singing’, wanning is ‘falling’, while a full moon is known as a ‘glory’ and a new moon is called a ‘lost’. Hence, Skald’s full birth-sign is ‘rising-ash of the singing-moon’. Gale, Kolfinnia’s sprite, has a birth-sign of ‘weeping-ash of the falling-moon.’ A sprite born in summer, in an oak tree and on a full moon would be born under the sign; ‘charging-oak of the glory-moon’. Simple! I’ll leave you to work out the birth particulars of a sprite with the sign; ‘sleeping-yew of the lost-moon’ . . . good luck!