8 more witchy reads for autumn

Image by Melk Hagelslag – RoonzNL – Pixabay

‘Tis the season for snuggly sweaters, crunchy leaves underfoot, decorative gourds, apple cider doughnuts, and pumpkin spice everything. I just bought a pumpkin spice bath bomb from A Touch of Magic at the Harvest Days Festival in Dwight, Illinois, and I can’t wait to drop it in a tub of hot water and soak until my toes turn to prunes.

Hot baths are another rite of autumn in my life. Nothing beats sinking into warm water with a scented bath bomb or bath tea and unwinding with a good book. Bonus points when the book fits the fall vibe.

Last September, I recommended three witchy titles to kick off the spooky season. With the calendar soon turning to October, I’ve been turning the pages of more witch-centric novels lately. If you’re on the hunt for some seasonal fiction, here are eight more to add to your TBR pile.

Wild and Wicked Things

by Francesca May, 2022, Redhook, 432 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, 1920s Aesthetic, Sapphic Romance

Summary: “On Crow Island, people whisper that real magic lurks just below the surface. Magic doesn’t interest Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s on the island only to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the most mesmerizing may be her enigmatic new neighbor. Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of Crow Island’s extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world.”

Looking for a dark tale rife with magic? Here it is.

Wild and Wicked Things is what happens when The Great Gatsby mashes with Practical Magic. Set in post-World War I England, this is a story of lavish parties, gorgeous landscapes, dark magic, mistakes, consequences, and love. The witches in this book don’t wear pointy hats or cloaks, but they are definitely witchy and wild.

Small Town, Big Magic

by Hazel Beck, 2022, Graydon House, 416 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Magical Realism, Found Family

Summary: “Emerson Wilde has built the life of her dreams. Youngest Chamber of Commerce president in St. Cyprian history, successful indie bookstore owner, and lucky enough to have her best friends as found family? Done. But when Emerson is attacked by creatures that shouldn’t be real, and kills them with what can only be called magic, Emerson finds that the past decade of her life has been…a lie. St. Cyprian isn’t your average Midwestern river town—it’s a haven for witches. When Emerson failed a power test years ago, she was stripped of her magical memories. Turns out, Emerson’s friends are all witches. And so is she.”

I’m 35 years old at the time of reading this book. Emerson Wilde is in her late 20s in the book and newly discovering she’s a witch. That storyline tends to be reserved for YA fiction, so it’s refreshing to have an adult making the journey into the magical underworld. This is a woman who has a career and thought she was established in her life, and now she has to come to terms with an entirely new aspect of her identity and life.

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One

by Amanda Lovelace, 2018, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 208 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Poetry, Feminism

Summary: “The witch: supernaturally powerful, inscrutably independent, and now—indestructible. These moving, relatable poems encourage resilience and embolden women to take control of their own stories. Enemies try to judge, oppress, and marginalize her, but the witch doesn’t burn in this one.”

I love this collection of poetry.

I picked it up for the title. I return to it periodically for the power and passion of its words.

The poems are divided into four chapters: The Trial, The Burning, The Firestorm, and The Ashes. Despite the doom those headers seem to imply, the title is correct. The witch (in this case, women) doesn’t burn or succumb. She overcomes.

Amanda Lovelace has a powerful, call-to-action voice in this collection. She helps women proudly reclaim the title of witch from those who would use it as a condemnation and wear it as a badge of honor.

Cackle

by Rachel Harrison, 2021, Berkley, 304 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Women Supporting Women, Female Empowerment

Summary: “All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation. Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?”

When Annie’s life is turned inside out by a difficult breakup (been there, done that!), she has to rediscover herself and find a new normal. Her new normal turns out to be a tad abnormal when she develops a friendship with Sophie, the neighborhood witch.

I read a review that once described this book as “chick lit paranormal,” and that’s an apt description. While there are dark overtones, the novel never dives into thriller or horror. At its core, this is a story about overcoming heartbreak, women supporting women, and learning to define oneself as an individual and not as part of a couple. There are some morally gray moments (and Sophie generated a few “hell no’s” from me with some of her actions), but overall it’s an entertaining read.

Uprooted

by Naomi Novik, 2016, Del Rey, 464 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Fantasy, Academic Magic, Rivals to Lovers, Romance

Summary: “Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.”

For readers who want a witch tale in a fantasy setting, Uprooted is a must-read. When Agnieszka is unexpectedly selected by the Dragon – a curmudgeon if there ever was one – to serve him in his tower, she embarks on a magical education and an adventure to save her world from the corrupted Wood. Magic is at the heart of this story and woven into every page, from the evil Wood to the grumpy wizard to Agnieszka discovering she’s a witch and learning to wield her power.

My favorite part of the story, however, is the Beauty and the Beast-style relationship between Agnieszka and Sarkan (the Dragon’s actual name). I’m a sucker for a story with a curmudgeon slowly coming out of his shell and begrudgingly letting himself be loved.

Hour of the Witch

by Chris Bohjalian, 2021, Vintage Books, 496 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Historical Fiction, Witch Hunt Accounts

Summary: “Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four years old. In England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary—a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony—soon becomes herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows.”

This pick is for readers who are looking for historical realism revolving around witch hunts. Set in Puritan New England, Hour of the Witch follows the drama of a young woman targeted in an American witch hunt. The hysteria that developed in this period of history has always fascinated me, and I will always devour a title that humanizes the women who were targeted and gives them a voice.

The novel also explores a woman liberating herself from an abusive marriage. Mary’s father is a merchant who imported a set of three-tined forks and gifted them to her, but her husband and fellow villagers consider them to be demonic “devil’s tines.” Suspicion continues to build about Mary as the community sees what it wants to see and convinces itself that Mary’s actions indicate witchcraft. After all, no moral, God-fearing woman would seek to divorce her husband and spread supposedly blatant lies about him. Mary fights a two-front war against her husband and village, refusing to be misused or accused.

The Near Witch

by Victoria Schwab, 2011, Hyperion Books, 284 pages

Good pick for readers who like: YA Fiction, Fairy Tales, Haunting Bedtime Stories

Summary: “The Near Witch is only an old story told to frighten children. If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company. There are no strangers in the town of Near. These are the truths that Lexi has heard all her life. But when an actual stranger, a boy who seems to fade like smoke, appears outside her home on the moor at night, she knows that at least one of these sayings is no longer true. The next night, the children of Near start disappearing from their beds, and the mysterious boy falls under suspicion. As the hunt for the children intensifies, so does Lexi’s need to know about the witch that just might be more than a bedtime story, about the wind that seems to speak through the walls at night, and about the history of this nameless boy.”

This book strikes the perfect tone for October. There’s the mystery of the fading boy, the chilling bedtime tale of the Near Witch snatching children from their beds, and the pervading evil that lurks on the moon-drenched moors. This is a dark fairy tale that has a palpable atmosphere – I was drawn into the story’s lyrical prose and still shiver at the sensation of wandering after dark in the moors’ biting wind.

We Ride Upon Sticks

by Quan Barry, 2020, Pantheon Books, 367 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Sports, Girl Gangs, The 1980s

Summary: “In the town of Danvers, Massachusetts, home of the original 1692 witch trials, the 1989 Danvers Falcons will do anything to make it to the state finals—even if it means tapping into some devilishly dark powers. Helmed by good-girl captain Abby Putnam (a descendant of the infamous Salem accuser Ann Putnam) and her co-captain Jen Fiorenza (whose bleached blond “Claw” sees and knows all), the Falcons prove to be wily, original, and bold, flaunting society’s stale notions of femininity. Through the crucible of team sport and, more importantly, friendship, this comic tour de female force chronicles Barry’s glorious cast of characters as they charge past every obstacle on the path to finding their glorious true selves.”

This isn’t the usual kind of witch story I pick up – I gravitate toward fairy tale, gothic, magical realism, and historical fiction set during American and European witch hunts. However, this title came with the enthusiastic endorsement of my cousin, who described the reading experience like watching a John Hughes movie.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed We Ride Upon Sticks – anyone who lived through the 1980s will appreciate the many pop culture references. The members of the Falcons field hockey team are willing to try anything to turn around their losing record and make it to the state finals, so they sign their names in an Emilio Estevez notebook as a commitment to the Dark. They pledge to make mischief in exchange for wins on the field. As the stakes escalate in the book, so do the humor and the reader’s bond with this gang of high school girls.

The magic is low-key in this novel, but the story is a fun dive into the universal teenage girl attraction to witchcraft.

Advertisement

The religious background of a writer enchanted by witch stories

Image by Marybeth | msandersmusic | Pixabay

My lifelong fascination with witch tales has drawn a question regularly: What are your religious beliefs? Are you pagan?

The TL;DR answer to the second question is short: No.

The longer answer to the first question is more complex.

I was raised under the influence of the Pentecostal church. During the first two decades of my life, I considered Christianity to be a defining characteristic of who I was. I clung to my religion as a life raft throughout high school and college, trying to live by the conservative edicts laid out in the Bible.

The key word in that previous sentence is “trying.” I failed, repeatedly. And with each shortcoming, guilt hammered at my conscience like a particularly tenacious woodpecker drilling for sap.

When I was alone in silent contemplation with the God whom I worshipped, I felt comfort. Accepted. Loved. But the second I was out among people again, I drowned in the overwhelming sense of judgment and guilt. Organized religion made me feel as though I had failed spectacularly at being a decent human being.

By age 22, I experienced a spiritual identity crisis. In multiple congregations, I witnessed believers casting aside the majority of people as damned. I saw cliques of people huddling within their religious circles and preaching outward at others rather than embracing them in. I saw disdain toward those labeled as sinners, not love.

A guillotine blade crashed down between me and churches, beheading me from the rest of the religious body. As usual, when I was alone in worship, I felt connected to my God. When I was in a congregation, I felt the most disconnected.

In the 10+ years after college, I’ve spent a lot of time soul-searching – and God-searching. I still am.

So what is my religion? I can’t claim a denomination these days. I can only claim my beliefs.

  • I believe in the soul. Science has so far defined life to the best of its ability and understanding, but I think there’s more to the human consciousness than the electrical sparks powering our brain. I hold to the conviction that there’s a deeper sentience within us that continues to exist beyond the point when the body fails.
  • I believe in a higher power beyond our comprehension that ties us to the entirety of the universe and harmonizes with our souls. That harmony is the pathway to how God communicates with us.
  • I believe the extraordinary, beautiful, awe-inspiring planet and universe in which we exist are more than a stunning coincidence. I believe there’s a source, a pattern, a meaning, a destination. I believe in a grand design.
  • I believe the most important biblical commandment comes not from the Old Testament, but from the New. In John 13:34, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” To love — simply that, without judgment or condition — is the message I take away from the Bible. That seems to get lost in translation.
  • I believe I am closest to God not when I’m in a church, but when I’m in the place of his design. When I inhale the woody waft in a cedar grove. When I feel the tickle of grass against bare soles or close my eyes to feel sunlight kiss my cheek. When I hear bees hum, crows cackle, or the rustling applause of leaves in the breeze. When I behold mountains and sand dunes and centuries-old trees, or crane my neck to a sky sequined with stars. In those moments I feel connected. I feel simultaneously part of something enormous and individually small.

Maybe that smacks of pagan influence. But if you trace belief systems and rituals far enough back, chances are you’ll find a point where they blur and tangle and merge.

My religion is simply to be a seeker, to search for God around me and admire the beauty of the natural world he has gifted to us.

Poem: In the Arboretum

Small moments can make big memories. One such small moment flitted past, hummingbird-quick, thirteen years ago. At the time, the exchange lasted seconds. But it has hovered in the peripheral vision of my memory, causing me to glance sidelong at it, time and again.

Photo by Adina Voicu

In the Arboretum

He plunges his nose into a lilac cluster and
inhales,
drinking the scent into his lungs 
the way a marathoner gulps water
a dozen miles into the race, 
as if the dainty petals’ perfume
is the sustenance of life.

He catches my gaze and quirks a brow.
“Yeah, I stop to smell flowers. 
So what?” he says,
words a soft-tipped arrow
fired from a smile’s bow.
He doesn’t realize
he owes no explanation to me,

Because while he admires the flower,
I admire his attention to the bloom.

Poem: Murmuration

Two volumes on my summer reading list included Good Poems, American Places compiled by Garrison Keillor, and Amanda Lovelace’s collection The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One. Both books have inspired me to dabble in poetry again.

As always, I can’t promise my poetry is any good. But there’s joy in the writing.

Photo © Walter Baxter (cc-by-sa/2.0) (geograph.org.uk/p/5991171)

Murmuration

A flock of blackbirds
billowed
over a rural stretch
of Route 23.
Starlings, or grackles maybe,
thousands of
black pixels against
a blue canvas of sky,
shaping into
a half-formed image
before dissolving
like a dream
escaping waking’s grasp.

I pulled my car
to the shoulder to watch
them dance
to the metronome of
my hazard lights,
searching for
meaning in
their pattern as they
swooped, ascended,
condensed, separated.
Eventually they blended
into the tree line, and
I wondered if maybe

the meaning was
never in the pattern,
but only
in the flight.

The vital importance of stories in the human experience

Every so often, I stand in a room full of people where my work ranks least important.

Every artist, writer, and performer encounters it at some point. The conversation turns to careers, and everyone lists their respective professions. Among engineers, health care professionals, educators, construction and maintenance tradesmen, business owners, and others, I take a deep breath and say, “I design magazines and write fantasy novels.”

The reaction varies. Sometimes it’s sincere interest. Sometimes it’s an embrace as a fellow professional. But sometimes it’s that too-familiar smirk and a comment about how nice it must be to have a hobby as a job.

On the one hand … yes, it’s nice to have a creative job that I enjoy.

On the other hand … no. My work is more than a hobby, and it is just as vital to society as buildings, infrastructure, health care, education, and the myriad businesses that comprise a community.

When I say as much to skeptics, there’s a moment of incredulity. But I don’t really believe the books I write (fiction books, no less!) carry the same societal impact as other careers, do I?

Ahem … yes, actually. I very much believe stories are vital to the human experience.

I don’t have to reach far for an example. Just ask Helen Fagin if stories are important.

Fagin died in March of this year at the age of 104, but she left behind a powerful testimony about the power of story. The Holocaust survivor shared how reading Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone With the Wind became a life-or-death endeavor after Nazis forced her and her family into the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a letter published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Fagin shares her experience living in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

“There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.”

An underground exchange of smuggled books circulated the Warsaw Ghetto, and Fagin grasped a copy of Gone With the Wind. Under the cover of night, she would read the novel, and then she would orally retell the story to others.

“As I ‘told’ them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, of Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.”

If Fagin got caught with the text, she risked severe punishment or death. A story was worth dying for.

A story also was worth living for among those imprisoned by Nazis. It gave people relief and escape from unimaginably inhumane conditions.

That’s a lot of worth.

Hear Helen Fagin read the full text of the letter, in her own voice, below:

A Velocity of Being: 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin reads her letter about how books save lives from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

The role stories play in our lives isn’t limited to anecdotal importance. Researchers have linked stories to improving both physical and psychological wellbeing. One study found that hospitalized children who listened to storytellers showed increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol and pain.

“One storytelling session with hospitalized children [led] to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts during a free-association task,” researchers reported. “These multi-modal findings support evolutionary theories of storytelling and demonstrate its physiological and psychological effects under naturalistic stress conditions.”

Fictional stories also help cement a sense of empathy among members of society. When readers/viewers/listeners are introduced to fictional characters, they can build interest and investment in those characters and their circumstances. Fictional people and situations allow the onlooker to vicariously experience the character’s life through their perspective.

When those characters and perspectives are from different cultures, social classes, or backgrounds, those fictional experiences can build empathy and understanding.

“Engaging with fictional stories and the characters within them might help us better understand our real-world peers,” writes Raymond Mar in the abstract to his 2018 research paper Stories and the Promotion of Social Cognition. “Because stories are about characters and their interactions, understanding stories might help us to exercise our social cognitive abilities.”

People build emotional bonds with fictional characters. That, in turn, helps us build bonds with people around us.

Art may imitate life, but it also influences life. Look at the social phenomenon caused by season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things. An emotionally charged scene with Max featured Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” During its original release almost 40 years ago, it broke into the U.S. Top 30; after being featured in Stranger Things, it hit the U.S. Top 5. In June, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200.

Stranger Things also influenced dedicated viewers to seek guitars similar to the Warlock that Eddie uses to play Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the season four finale.

It’s not an unusual phenomenon. People tend to mirror interests when they want to bond with others. If a friend is a fan of a book or a band or a TV show, it’s normal for a person to read or listen or watch. At our core, humans are pack animals. We emulate others to form bonds – even with fictional characters.

Stories help us feel connected. They can make us feel understood and not alone. Stories help us make sense of our place in societies, cultures, and the world at large. They help us relate to one other. They build bonds and break barriers. They entertain.

Through stories, we are able to explore and expand and define our sense of self and our humanity.

Perhaps Helen Fagin said it best in her letter: “There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Poem: The Grade School Rule

It’s been a while since I dabbled in poetry. But the mood struck this morning, and this one flowed out.

The Grade School Rule

In grade school,
teachers always told us
to use pencils.
“Ink is too permanent,”
they would warn.
“Use your pencil.
Especially for math and spelling.”
They expected mistakes
that we would have to remove,
and they didn’t want us
to ruin the page.

Life doesn’t listen to 
the teachers’ advice.
We are handed a pen at birth
to start scrawling our stories.
Sometimes,
maybe,
a chapter can be salvaged
by scribbling out errant words.
But the blemish on the page –
an ugly dark slash of ink – 
remains,
unable to be erased.

Give me your tired, your worn, your ugly books

The tweet appeared in my feed this morning, shared by a fellow book lover:

My first instinct was to agree. After all, beautifully designed and gorgeously bound books are a delight.

But I froze mid-nod. Am I, too, haunted by those pretty editions?

I appreciate beauty – I pull off the road to watch sunsets and stood in awe at art museums. But when it comes to surrounding myself with an aesthetic, I don’t want the adorned and well-kept.

Give me the ugly books. I’ll take the tattered, the dog-eared, the water-warped, the bent-covered, and the spine-broken.

Every year, I follow the used book sale circuit in my city and surrounding communities. I hunt for the books with ragged spines – the ones that have been read repeatedly and well-loved. I don’t mind the cheesy covers of outdated paperback editions, or the wrinkled pages of once a water-logged text, or the disintegrating binding of an aged hardcover.

As long as the ink is still readable, I’ll adopt the ragged editions.

A tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I adopted from a used book sale.

Not that I don’t have a reverence for brand new books. There’s a special kind of joy that comes from holding a freshly printed edition and cracking the spine for the first time, waiting for that satisfying pop of the binding’s glue, followed by that vicarious “ahhhh” as if you had cracked your own back.

But new editions don’t need nice covers for me to buy them and love them. (To be honest, the only editions I dodge are the movie tie-in covers. But if I really want the book and it’s the only edition at hand, I’ll even buy those ugly beasts and love them.)

Friends could always point to my bookshelves and say, “Look at all of the ornate 19th and early 20th century editions on the shelf. You love the pretty editions!”

It’s true. I have hardcovers with gilt edges and foil stamps and leather bindings. Not a single one is in pristine condition. They’ve all been read and slightly battered. Each is past its prime. But still wonderfully relevant, and carrying the character that only age and use can bestow.

They’re the silver foxes of the literary world. Growing more handsome as they age and show a few flaws.

Used books hold an especially dear place in my heart. Not only do they tell stories, but they also have stories.

I once bought a copy of The Little Prince, and tucked in the back was a sympathy card with a touching note for a family who lost a child. There ere no addresses or surnames on the card for me to return it, so after reading the book I tucked the card back inside. It’s part of the book’s personal story now.

I found a box of books in my attic several years after we bought the house, and a copy of Classics for Vocal Expression is stuffed full of loose papers – mostly shopping lists and what appears to be practice correspondence. I left all of those loose pages in place, keeping them tucked between the pages where I found them.

Collectors might cringe at the overstuffed, distorted spine of Classics for Vocal Expressions. The deformity makes it one of my favorites from that discovered box.

Then there was the tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I found at a used book sale, with its detached cover and deteriorated spine and loose leafs. When I reached the front of the line to pay for my stack of treasures, one of the volunteers working at the table lamented that the book shouldn’t have been put out for sale. Another volunteer offered to let me take it for free. But I paid the 50 cents expected for hardcovers, and it has a home now on my living room shelf.

I haven’t read that edition of Journeys Through Bookland, but it’s my favorite. (I have another edition that’s intact; it came from a box of books passed down through my dad’s side of the family.) Sometimes I pull the battered edition off the shelf to caress the cover or carefully turn its frayed pages.

My goal is to be a Statue of Liberty for worn books – let me stand as the symbol of their new home, offering them a place of permanence and acceptance. To paraphrase (and amend) Emma Lazarus’ iconic sonnet: Give me the tired, the poor, the wretched books. Send these, the homeless, to me. I lift my lamp to read them.

Crafting a fantasy world’s system of magic

Worldbuilding is very much on my mind lately.

For several months, I’ve been laying the foundation for the magic system and its lore in The Witch’s Witness, my novel-in-progress about a coven of Vermont witches and the mysterious (and potentially dangerous) stranger who appears in their backyard.

Every time I’m developing a new fictional culture and its inhabitants, my radar starts blipping for worldbuilding in other media. For every page I turn or episode I view, there’s a persistent whisper in my mind: What stands out about this fictional world? What are the creators doing right in this media? How can their method instruct my own work?

My most recent Netflix marathon featured the platform’s two seasons of Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk novel of the same name (which I unfortunately haven’t read, yet). In the Altered Carbon universe, technology has advanced so the human consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack, which is an electronic device installed in the spinal column. If the body dies, the mind can live on and be installed into a new body, or “sleeve.”

The concept of human immortality and the exploration of its impact, limitations, and morality is enough to make the story compelling. 

But what immediately reeled me into the world was the lingo. 

There’s plenty of lingo I can point to. The “stacks,” which store the human mind and are installed in bodies; “RD,” or real death, if a person’s stack gets destroyed; “sleeves,” or bodies in which stacks are installed (and “resleeving” when a person is loaded into a new body); “Meths,” a term based on an abbreviation of the 969-year-old Biblical figure Methuselah, which is used to refer to the wealthy elite who can afford to continuously resleeve and essentially live forever.

On their own, each of these concepts is a solid piece of worldbuilding, but the language of the world elevates these concepts and makes them feel significantly more real. It’s a more immersive experience for the viewer (and/or reader) when we slip among characters who casually and dismissively make references to unique aspects of their universe. They accept all of this as a fact of life in their world; in turn, it helps viewers accept it.

I am infinitely impressed by other creators’ worldbuilding. My hope is to follow in their footsteps and create a believable world in which readers can immerse themselves.

Creating a magical reality

There’s a tricky balance to worldbuilding. On the one hand, I want to establish a setting where the characters accept the way the world functions without overly pondering it. After all, someone doesn’t have to know how gravity works to know that it works. It’s just a universal law. A fact of life. 

On the other hand, I don’t want to create a magic system that is too vague – or, God forbid, has contradictions or plot holes. Nothing is scarier than the idea of a reader screeching to halt and saying, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. There’s no way that works.”

In The Witch’s Witness, the system of magic has a religious-like lore behind it. There’s an existing mythology about the source of witches’ magic (or the “wellspring,” as it’s known in text). 

Magic isn’t widely known or practiced in this parallel version of Vermont. Covens keep a low profile after centuries of European and American witch hunts; they’re more than happy to let the masses believe magic is nothing more than a figment of imagination. 

Except, of course, it’s real.

Witches can either be born with magic (an “innate talent”) or they can learn it as “practitioners.” Witches with an innate talent have an internal source of magic, whereas practitioners have to use external sources of magic, such as natural ingredients or artifacts.

As for the innate talents themselves: A witch can be born with an aptitude in one of twelve branches of magic. [See chart below] 

Main character Heather Barlow is a flora witch who wields influence over the plant kingdom. She has a natural connection to the magical properties of plants and can draw upon their power to enhance her own. While other witches can use plants as tools in their magical practice, she can directly manipulate, communicate with, and control flora. 

Any witch can practice the basics of another witch’s innate talent. A flora witch can use tea leaves to see shadows of the future, while a clairvoyant witch would have the natural ability to see visions without the aid of tea leaves. A practitioner can conduct a seance with symbols and tools to communicate with the dead, while an inspiriter has a direct connection with souls and can summon them without ceremony.

However, there are some skills that only a witch with an innate talent can yield. Summoning “hellfire,” for example. (Note: There is no hell, but it’s the name given to a form of fire that can be summoned from the spirit realm as the sole means to permanently destroy souls.) Only fire elementalists and inspiriters can summon it because fire witches have an innate link to flames and inspiriters have an innate link to the spirit realm. 

The trick now is weaving these types of magic around each other and trying not to tangle any of them … or leave a gaping logic-hole in the tapestry of the story.

Have any thoughts, suggestions, or questions about the magic system in The Witch’s Witness? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

The intimacy of artwork: How art helps creators know a subject on a new level

Several weeks ago, I leaned toward my work computer, eyes intent on the enlarged photo on my monitor. I maneuvered carefully around a pair of hands, which were the subject of a photo cutout for a local magazine.

For a half hour, my eyes never left the contours of those knuckles, the curve of the fingers, the grooves of the skin. I came to know every fine, pale hair and every grain of dirt beneath the nails.

Even though there was no face or name attached, I came to intimately know those hands that afternoon. I had the urge to clasp them in my own, to feel their warmth and the grit of dry soil between their skin and mine.

As a graphic artist working on the photo, I bonded with the subject. Art gives creators an opportunity to see and know subjects with a level of scrutiny and reverence that we rarely afford in the status quo of our life.

I began using art as a means to know people on a deeper level when I was in middle school. A self-guided creative writing program recommended penning character sketches of people in my life. The exercise aimed to teach us to probe beyond simple descriptions of appearance (blonde, brown-eyed, tall, et.) or the usual adjectives used to summarize a person (friendly, clever, outgoing, kind, etc.). The purpose was to write a slice of life about the person that illustrated who they are through words and deeds.

The only unbreakable rule of the character sketch was the length: It couldn’t extend beyond one page.

By nature, I’m a rambling writer who has to whittle and pare words. Capturing a person within a single page turned into a process of writing multiple pages and passages, then analyzing and condensing and reflecting, “Does this anecdote reflect who they are? Will a reader feel a connection with or reaction to this person based on this page?”

At its essence, the character sketch is about attention to detail. It’s about pinpointing the characteristics and eccentricities that make a person uniquely themselves and reconstructing those things in words. Each time I worked on a character sketch, the person I selected as my subject took on a newer, deeper meaning to me.

That’s the beauty of art, be it written, visual, or auditory. For the artist, so much of the creative process involves focus, and focus often fosters appreciation. Perhaps that’s why artists love so deeply. There’s an intensity and intimacy to analyzing a subject through an artist’s lens. It magnifies our knowing and awareness of a subject.

Learning to capture details about real people and humanize them through character sketches has been beneficial to my development of fictional characters. Fragments of people I know are embedded in dozens of fictional characters – a gesture here, a turn of phrase there, or an idiosyncrasy woven onto the page.

In high school and college, I branched into other artistic forms, including sketching and photography. Whereas writing character sketches challenged me to capture a person’s essence through their actions and words, drawing and photography challenged me to capture a subject’s personality and truth visually.

The visual medium proved to be more difficult for me but was infinitely rewarding. In art classes, my favorite subject to draw once again centered around people in my life. Spending time with them in a two-dimensional space allowed me to know them differently than I when I interacted them in a three-dimensional space.

Graphite sketch (left) and ink illustration (right)

During time spent socially with people, my attention would be held by conversation or the activity. On the other hand, when I turned my attention to them as an artist, I saw them a different light (both literally and figuratively). My eye honed in on posture, facial expression, the shadow along a jaw, the furrow of a brow, the tension of muscles in the neck, the shoulder-width stance of legs.

It’s no surprise that visual media such as drawing and photography made me see. As a writer, I value words, but so much of our language and what we say is unspoken. It’s visual. Working with illustration and photography sharpened my attention to those visual cues.

Art is a means of knowing. It is a means of seeing. It is a means of reflecting and capturing and truth-telling. As artists, we get to know subjects in new and profound ways because we’re forced not only to look but also to seek. What is this subject’s essence? What is their truth? Who, or what, are they?

Every time a person (or animal, or object) is the subject of an artistic project, a little of my heart is invested in them. And that, in turn, is reflected in the work.

Pandemic and fiction: Handling a plot in a post-2020 world

The calendar is one of those pesky little details that matters in fiction.

If a writer says Christmas Day is on a Friday, then New Year’s Eve better fall on a Thursday. Or if a full moon occurs in one scene, it better not be a clear moonless night the next week. Otherwise, a reader will inevitably catch the discrepancy.

When outlining The Witch’s Witness, I started plotting around the 2020. The calendar featured an uncommon Halloween convergence: a full moon and the end of daylight saving time. The “fall back” of the clock (marking the end of daylight saving time) at 2 a.m. on November 1 essentially added a thirteenth hour to Halloween night.

That thirteenth hour paired with a full moon was too significant to pass up in a novel about modern Vermont witches. As the outline evolved, those two details became pivotal to the story’s climax.

And then 2020 … well, it happened.

All evidence points to the story taking place in 2020, but there’s an enormous 50-ton purple elephant lurking in the margins, waiting for someone to notice it.

There’s zero mention of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, I tried to pin down a different calendar year that could still fit the major plot points. The most important element was preserving the details about Halloween, so I started by hunting down years when daylight saving time falls on November 1. From 2010 to 2050, that only happens six times (2015, 2020, 2026, 2037, 2043, and 2048).

None of those Halloweens align with full moons – in fact, a Halloween full moon only happens once every nineteen years. The Farmers’ Almanac reports only six occurrences in this century (2001, 2020, 2039, 2058, 2077, and 2096).

With my plot firmly stuck in 2020, I started to worry about that 50-ton purple elephant trampling over the authenticity of my story. What happens if an astute reader points out the calendar that aligns with my plot?

Members of my writers’ group were quick to point out that there are witches and a system of magic in my novel’s fictional Vermont community, so the lack of COVID-19 doesn’t require much more suspension of disbelief. (Or so I hope.)

But the pandemic creates a unique challenge for modern fiction. Not all major historical events have to have an impact on a story’s plot – I could arguably write a book set in 2001 and not include details about 9/11 (unless the book is set in New York City, Washington D.C., or Somerset County in Pennsylvania). Even though 9/11 created an emotional response on an emotional level, it didn’t change most people’s day-to-day lives in the weeks to follow.

The pandemic, on the other hand, continues to have a daily impact on people’s lives. For novels that don’t have the wiggle room of fantasy and magic, it’s difficult to ignore how COVID-19 has altered daily routines. Masks in the grocery store, canceled high school sports seasons, mortality rates, the changed workplace landscape, the impact of isolation …

The more removed we get from the early days of the pandemic, the easier it will be to weave those details into the background while the main story takes the foreground. But for realistic fiction set in 2020, the pandemic is an immutable truth. Even if it’s not the main focus of the story, it’s a fixed part of the setting.

In the alternate Vermont where The Witch’s Witness takes place, I can only hope the magic system is strong enough to make readers believe in a world where the pandemic never happened.