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.
a chapter can be salvaged
by scribbling out errant words.
But the blemish on the page –
an ugly dark slash of ink – 
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.

The legend of La Befana, the Christmas Witch

When it comes to holidays with a good witch story, the natural one to come to mind is Halloween.

But it turns out Christmas has a famous witch, too.

Magic and lore have a long camaraderie with the Christmas season. In the centuries before electricity, the shortened hours of daylight and cold weather drove people indoors in the evenings. An oral tradition of spinning spooky stories evolved, which eventually exploded into a written tradition of Christmas ghost stories in Victorian England.

The season also has lighter fare of magical tales – the most enduring story in the United States is the story of Santa Claus, his flying reindeer, and his North Pole toy-making operation.

I’ve long been familiar with stories of Santa and the specters of Victorian England, but it was only this year that I encountered the tale of La Befana.

La Befana, 1821, Bartolomeo Pinelli. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen.

La Befana is a figure from Italian folklore. Artwork and written accounts depict her as an elderly woman who rides a broomstick and carries a sack of candy to deliver to children. She enters children’s homes by shimmying down the chimney on Epiphany Eve. Like Santa Claus, her gift-giving is based on a naughty-or-nice list. The well-behaved children receive candy or a toy, and the misbehaving children receive coal, onions, or garlic.

Children also should make sure to be in bed and asleep with La Befana comes. Any little scamps who try to catch a glimpse of her may be in for an unpleasant surprise, according to Nikki Crowell in an article about La Befana featured in The Culture Trip: “The children are told that she will give them a swift thump from her broomstick if they try to see her when she arrives, but the tradition could just be to keep kids in their beds.”

As a bonus for Mom and Dad, the story goes that La Befana sweeps the floor of each home before she leaves. She is a legendary housekeeper in Italian folklore.

Instead of setting out milk and cookies for La Befana, families set out a glass of wine and a Christmas treat, such as a slice of a traditional holiday cake like pannetone or pandoro.

La Befana in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. She brings gifts to children as well as good luck and blessings for the new year.
Naturpuur, Wikimedia Commons

The link between La Befana and Epiphany is a tale about how the Magi (or the Three Wise Men) stopped at her home on their way to Bethlehem. The kindhearted witch gave them food and a place to rest. In return, they asked her to accompany them on their journey to honor Jesus. La Befana declined, but after the Wise Men departed she decided she would make the journey after all. She gathered food and gifts to offer Jesus, but she never found him. Instead, she began distributing her treats to all of the children she met.

The feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 in Italy to mark the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. On Epiphany Eve, it’s still traditional for children to set out shoes or stockings for La Befana to fill with sweets. Several cities in Italy also mark the occasion with festivals celebrating La Befana.

Despite going by my maiden name of Stroebel (which hearkens my German roots), I married into a family with strong Italian heritage, and La Befana’s lore has found a home in my household. If she wants to cross the Atlantic on her broomstick, she’s welcome to come down my chimney and sweep my floors on Epiphany Eve. I’ll have a glass of wine and a slice of cake waiting for her.

3 witchy reads for autumn

Today is the first day of astronomical fall.

You know what that means. Mugs of hot beverages. Pots of soup. Pumpkins on the porch. Warm, fuzzy sweaters.

And curling up under blankets to read.

As daylight wanes and nature prepares itself for a dormant season, it’s the perfect time to spend more hours indoors with a good book. (As if there’s ever not a good time to spend with a book …) This is also the season when the witchy vibe resonates the strongest, and that’s often reflected in my choice of titles from September through November.

Listed below are three of my favorite witchy reads from the past few autumns.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

by Katherine Howe, 2010, Hachette Books, 384 pages

Summary: Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie’s grandmother’s abandoned home near Salem, she can’t refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest – to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.

Katherine Howe knits together the past and the present in this work of historical fiction. Although the book is light on fantasy and the magic is mild, it offers a glimpse into the Salem Witch Trials and an academic pursuit to find the “receipt book” (or recipe book, essentially a grimoire) belonging to Connie’s ancestor.

Storylines that blend magic and academia rank high among my favorites, as well as those that weave magic into our everyday lives and world. Not to mention the Salem Witch Trials have been a historical obsession for me since high school. If any of your interests tick the same boxes, this would be a good book for you.

The All Souls Trilogy
(A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, The Book of Life)

by Deborah Harkness, 2011-2015, Penguin Books, approx. 590 pages each

Summary: Historian Diana Bishop has denied her magical heritage, instead focusing on her academic research into alchemy. But when she stumbles upon a bewitched alchemical manuscript at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, she draws the attention of witches, vampires, and daemons alike. There’s no ignoring her magical past, nor can she ignore geneticist and vampire Matthew Clairmont as he becomes her unlikely ally in discovering the mystery of the manuscript known as Ashmole 782.

Magic is front and center in this trilogy, which also happens to be a trifecta of fantasy, academia, and romance. Rooted in our modern world, this series introduces us to a world of magic that hovers at the edge of our peripheral vision.

Despite Matthew Clairmont’s possessiveness of Diana driving me crazy, I enjoyed the romance of the trilogy. Plus there’s time travel, globe-trotting, and escalation of magical power as the series progresses.

The Heretic’s Daughter

by Kathleen Kent, 2009, Back Bay Books, 332 pages

Summary: Sarah Carrier Chapman narrates how she survived the Salem Witch Trials that killed her mother. Sarah and her family arrive in a New England community gripped by superstition and fear more than a year before the trials begin. As the family witnesses neighbors and friends pitted against each other, the hysteria escalates, until more than two hundred people have been swept into prison. Among them is Sarah’s mother, Martha Carrier. In an attempt to protect her children, Martha asks Sarah to commit an act of heresy – a lie that will condemn Martha but save her daughter.

This isn’t a novel in which you’ll find cauldrons or incantations – instead, you’ll find monsters among men. This piece of historical fiction sticks close to reality as it explores how the hysteria and accusations could mount against neighbors during the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. Even though the trials occurred during a bitter Massachusetts winter, the chilling history of Salem makes this a worthy pick for fall reading.

The (literal) nature of research

Writing fiction requires authors to ferret out a lot of facts.

On the surface, it seems like a paradox. Massive swaths of the story are pure fabrication straight from the author’s imagination. Why would a writer – particularly a fantasy writer like me – need to delve into research?

Ah, because the devil – as he so often tends to be – is in the details.

Those wide swaths of story that we conjure from our imagination need to be grounded in a bit of reality so readers can relate to it. The tiny grains of fact and detail that we sow into our writing give the words a sense of authenticity.

Sometimes my novel research is as simple as a quick trip to Google. (By “quick trip,” I mean the actual time it takes to find the answer … I inevitably tumble down a rabbit hole of reading articles and checking social media afterward. By the time I resume writing, at least twenty minutes have passed.)

Often research involves keeping a stack of reference materials nearby. Other times, it involves reading 400 pages of nonfiction or waiting for interlibrary loans to arrive.

A stack of reference materials I keep on hand while writing The Witch’s Witness.

Then there’s the firsthand research. For The Witch’s Witness, this has been my favorite kind.

Much of the plot centers around Heather Barlow, a flora witch with an innate skill to manipulate the inherent power in plants. A significant portion of the story happens outdoors and relies on describing the sounds, scents, and sensations of Heather’s surroundings.

Black was not the color of death. To Heather, it was brown.

When she had last seen the beech lying prone in the glen, the sawtoothed leaves had still held the vibrant, healthy green of summer. Even though she could no longer sense the steady beat of life in its wide trunk, the green still gave a veneer of immortality. 

The illusion was broken now. The leaves were withered brown husks, flaking away from the branches like curls of dead skin. Their crunch under her boots made her flinch with every step, as though she walked barefoot on crushed glass. Had the tree fallen in autumn, the scene would not have been so jarring. The color of death would have blended well with the color of seasonal sleep as the plant world went dormant. But here, in the vibrancy of July, it was as stark as blood on beige carpet.

– Excerpt from The Witch’s Witness

To capture the nuances of nature, I can’t sift through the pages of a book. I have to immerse in nature itself. For that reason, much of my research lately has involved abandoning the keyboard and tying up the laces on my hiking shoes.

A beech tree at the Morton Arboretum

The beech tree mentioned in the excerpt above plays a significant role in Heather’s life. I grew up on five rural acres with an assortment of tree species – oaks, Scots pines, balsam firs, spruce, pear, apple, cherry, walnut, euonymus – but no beeches, so last summer I ventured to the Morton Arboretum to experience a beech grove. I wanted to know firsthand details, such as what the texture of its bark felt like against the skin of my palm, or how its branches sprawled and spiraled.

Getting out of the house and absorbing the world through my own senses is the best research I can bring to my desk.

Another thought on firsthand research for writers: A great way to replenish inspiration and find new ideas is to put yourself into new situations. I’m a notorious wimp during Midwestern winter weather and rarely leave the house if I don’t have to, but earlier this year I went on a winter hike along the Illinois & Michigan Canal trail. It gave me the chance to experience a familiar place in a new season. The trees grow thickly along the canal, and for the first time I heard their barren branches grating against each other with a sound like a rusty door hinge. It’s a detail I’ve squirreled away in my mental log, ready for whenever I need to add a bit of color or authenticity to a fiction scene.

Which came first: The writer or the witch?

All of my life, I’ve been a daydreamer. I’ve never been sure if I pass more of my hours navigating real life or wandering my imagination.

That’s why Halloween always has been near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the rare days in the U.S. when we merge our daily routines with our daydreams. It’s a day when we let imagination take the lead.

In my youngest years, I chose the typical costumes associated with a feminine aesthetic – one year I’d want to be a ballerina, the next I wanted to be a princess. In third grade, I was a pink, glitter-covered fairy that garnered the praise and attention of my teacher.

But there was one costume I adored above all others. One that I began to request year after year. Eventually, my mom stopped asking, “What do you want to be for Halloween?” and instead started asking, “Do you want to be a witch again?”

Dressed as a witch for Halloween and holding my cat, Panther

The idea of magic – and particularly the women who yielded it – captured my imagination early on. Images of women huddled around bubbling cauldrons, soaring in front of the moon on broomsticks, and living uninhibited lives deep in the forest strummed a chord in my heart. To me, witches symbolized control over their own lives and power over any situation. A witch wouldn’t be scared of the dark – she could summon flame to chase shadows. A witch wouldn’t be afraid of a wild animal – she would tame and befriend it.

When I pulled on my pointy black hat and swished my tattered skirt every Halloween, I felt fearless and powerful.

While Halloween stoked my love of witches, popular media fanned the flames. I was six years old when Disney released the movie Hocus Pocus. It’s a miracle our VHS cassette lasted as long as it did, because from August through October each year, I watched it multiple times a week. Even though the Sanderson sisters were the villains who sucked the souls from children to stay eternally youthful, they were my favorite characters. What little girl wouldn’t want to brew potions and browse the thick vellum pages of a spellbook and enchant the world?

(Not to mention they could fly on those iconic besoms.)

Hocus Pocus | Walt Disney Pictures | 1993

Then in 1996, along came the TV series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch starring Melissa Joan Hart. I was nine years old, and every Friday night I spent a half-hour watching a regular girl discover her magical powers and use them in a modern world. Not only was the witch the hero of this story, but she was young and modern and relatable – a witch who listened to Britney Spears, wore butterfly hair clips, and weaved through the minefield of school drama.

* * *

Before I even started school and learned to write, I declared I was going to be an author, so it was a natural progression that I penned (or rather, penciled) tales about witches and dragons and fantasy worlds during my grade school years.

That changed as I got older. Although my reading diet remained full of the fantastical – The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Harry Potter, and The Prydain Chronicles, among many others – my writing shifted toward realistic fiction as I entered junior high. I had reached an age when my classmates wanted to muse about boys and who would make the girls basketball roster and which pop band was the best. No one wanted to conjure wild games of make-believe anymore.

Me at age 12 (seventh grade) dressed as a witch for Halloween. My sister holds the end of my wig in front of her face and says, “Look, I’m Cousin It!”

Not that I stopped conjuring witches and magical artifacts and dragons in my daydreams. But I kept them carefully to myself. The exception came once a year on Halloween, when I could transform into a witch and daydream aloud without the risk of judgment.

Fantasy and lore still called to me, but I didn’t write it down. Instead, I went through the teenage rite-of-passage of scribbling angst-ridden poetry and hormone-fueled journal entries and experimental stories that seemed deeply profound at the time but make me cringe today.

Throughout high school and college, I felt an increasing pressure to write meaningful work – something that could be a Pulitzer contender or deemed “the Great American Novel.” I started and failed to finish multiple pieces of literary fiction that were full of themes and meaning and symbolism but lacked an important ingredient. I didn’t care about them.

It wasn’t until I wrote a fantasy tale for my nieces as a Christmas surprise that I felt truly engaged in my writing again. The mist that had clouded my inspiration for nearly two decades finally lifted, and I embraced a simple truth: I am a genre writer. As much as I appreciate literary and realistic fiction, my heart belongs to first and foremost to exploring paranormal and fantasy stories.

Working cover of The Witch’s Witness

I’ve spent a lifetime consuming media about witches and imagining what a world with magic would be like. Now I’m recording those musings on paper. After all, life is too short to waste on stories that don’t feed the flame inside us.

* * *

My debut fantasy novel The Witch’s Witness will be the first installment of a three-book series (name of trilogy to be announced) about a coven of witches in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Release is tentatively set for summer/fall 2022.