Tag Archives: Steve Hutton

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!

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.

Just a big fairy!

morgus-copy

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

destroying-angel

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

independence

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!