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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
It doesn’t take new acquaintances long to learn two things about me: I’m an introvert, and I’m a homebody.
When stay-at-home orders first were issued at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, my life didn’t change much. I couldn’t go to the movie theater anymore, and I had to wear a mask to the grocery store, and there were a few days I tried to avoid using the bathroom until I really had to go so I could conserve toilet paper.
Other than that, my routine remained status quo.
I didn’t think I would mind hunkering down for a while. Even before the pandemic, I liked to spend my free time around home – reading, writing, bingeing a Netflix series, doing a little yard work. Quiet days at home give my thoughts time to roam. I can daydream at my leisure and explore ideas for stories.
In the past, I’ve found an abundance of writing inspiration in corners and crannies around my house. For example:
Reading Jane Goodall’s Seeds of Hope helped inspire part of my work-in-progress, The Witch’s Witness. (In fact, most nonfiction is a good source for inspiration when the well runs dry … truth isn’t always stranger than fiction, but it can certainly kindle it.)
The harebells blooming wild in my backyard are also called witch’s thimbles, which help put me in a spooky mood to write about witches in high summer.
A trip to my attic uncovered three dusty boxes left by the previous homeowners. Further investigation revealed a treasure trove of 100+ year-old books.
An evening on the porch swing listening to cicadas, bird calls, kids shouting down the block, and distant train horns sparked a sensory poem.
But as much as I value and cherish being at home, spending the past year and a half in my house finally began to replete my fiction-writing resources. I reached a point where I wanted to tear up my introvert card and fling myself among people. I longed to refill my cup of ideas, to people watch for ideas about body language quirks and dialogue tidbits. I wanted a long road trip where I could see new scenery of the United States, hear new accents, taste new regional flavors. I especially wanted to book a cabin in Vermont, where The Witch’s Witness primarily takes place, so I could authentically capture what it’s like to breathe the air in the Green Mountains and walk those trails.
But COVID-19 safety precautions kept me home.
Writing can be a solitary endeavor at many stages of the process, but I never realized how often I need to break out of my introvert shell for the sake of a story. Suddenly I couldn’t go to the library for research. I couldn’t visit the coffee shop or park for people watching. I couldn’t experience life beyond the borders of my home-work-grocery store bubble.
By December 2020, writer’s block descended. I thought endless hours at home would mean the most productive writing months of my life, and at the beginning that was true. But as weeks piled up into months and then mounded into a year, I learned the value of being among people to write about people. I missed encountering other places to help envision settings and bring them to life.
In 2019, all I wanted was more time around home, to be left alone to write. I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me staying home in 2020 eventually would hinder my writing more than help it.
Now that it’s 2021, I’m grateful to be experiencing life beyond my front door and outside city limits again. Home is still my recharging station (and believe me, extended time outside my house still depletes my batteries), but this introvert is happy to be entering society again.