Burnt Snow, my first novel, was released in 2010 by Pan MacMillan Australia. White Rain, the sequel, is due soon. As part of a trilogy about witches, earth magic, curses, love and revenge, this blog archives my research into the world of the witches - as well as my own magical saga as a new author.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Blank Page

Hello, and welcome to "The Book of the Witch".
I've started this blog as a place to record my experiences as the writer of Burnt Snow. It's my first book, it's about witches and it comes out in September, 2010.
I never intended to write a book. For the past 10 years I've been mostly a playwright, sometimes a university lecturer and variously a medical test subject, newspaper delivery supervisor, community arts mentor, stand-up comedian, transcription clerk, learning support assistant, cabaret MC, screenplay assessor, theatre festival director and home tutor. In between, ahem, *temporary assignments* and plays, I've written musicals and screenplays and radio plays and done bits and pieces for television. Sometimes - and usually at the behest of other people - I've scribbled up articles and the odd chapter of an unwritten book... the idea being that an idea that may not fly for a film or a play might work in prose, but they rarely did.
Then, of course, about eighteen months ago, something weird happened.
I was in my ridiculously small London apartment, half-sleeping in my bed-in-the-ceiling, when I had a thoroughly creepy dream. It was one of those dreams that you know is a dream but can't get seem to get yourself out of. There was something dark and menacing in it - a hooded figure on the edge of my vision. Maybe a crow.
Whatever symbol my brain had conjured in that dream, I knew it meant bad news... but when my phone rang suddenly, and I was shocked out of sleep, I wasn't grateful to be rescued. Because of the dream, because of the weird darkness in it, before I picked up the phone, I knew that it was my mother calling me from Sydney to tell me someone had died. And, sadly, I was right.
Nothing like that had happened to me before, and nothing like that has happened since. What did happen, though, was that I started talking to people about it... and was amazed that everyone I knew had a story about dreams or visions or bigger things, stronger things - clairaudience, telekinesis, weird stuff. An exboyfriend told me his grandfather was a seventh son of a seventh son who had all kinds of unusual, inexplicable abilities. I learned of twins who would often have the same dream. Then people in my family started talking about a relative whose freakish ability to find lost things was actually based on visions.
I found that it didn't matter if people were conservative or liberal, religious or agnostic, or even what religion they were; most people had a story about paranormal phenomena. The explanations differed, but the weirdness was the same.
It got me thinking, about the human world and the natural world and the vast universe of phenomena that we don't understand... and I asked myself: "What if someone DID understand what these forces are, and how they work? What would they do with that knowledge? Would they keep it secret? Would they have to so other people wouldn't come after them?" These questions led to me to thinking about the Burning Times - that ugly period in mediaeval and Renaissance history when vast numbers of women and men were executed as witches across Europe and North America. We know most of the victims were midwives and apothecaries, the socially marginalised and those caught enjoying naughty pagan traditions in austere Christian times. But what if... what if there were "real" witches that the Witchfinders were pursuing - real magicians, with a valuable knowledge of how to manipulate the world around them? If they were around us then, are they still around us now?
Every society on earth believes in witchcraft and magic practise in some form. Even today, Mediterranean cultures whack amulets against the Evil Eye over doorways, traditional Chinese wear red bracelets or belts for the duration of their Fate Year, American Baptists take the "cursed" to exorcisms, the British weave the old pagan Yule wreaths for the Christmas table setting. The witch, the psychic, the fortune-teller, the wise-woman exists in the pages of women's magazines giving advice in the same way shamans or priests are still called in when someone's inexplicable situation requires an apparently improbable solution. Even the patriarchs of the Christian bible sought help from witches when earthly answers were short (1 Samuel 28 tells the whole story).
All of these notions were bubbling though my head when another weird thing happened; I ran into someone from high school at the mall near my parents' house.
I went to two high schools, starting the second one in 4th term of Year Eleven. At my first school, a girls' selective school, I'd been an arty weirdo amongst groups of dedicated nerds. At the second, I was still an arty weirdo but, inexplicably, on my first day one of the girls from the popular group asked me if I wanted to sit with them. I remember the temptation I felt to shed my arty weirdo skin and experience the world of the beautiful and popular, but my self-preservation instincts kicked in. I politely declined and had lunch in the art room alone until I found the other arty weirdoes who were kicking around (they weren't there my first day - they were off being arty and weird).
I'd forgotten completely about all of this until I ran into this girl from the popular group at the mall, and I remembered it because even though I hadn't seen her in 10 years, and even though she was perfectly nice to me, there was still something vaguely arch and condescending about the way she spoke while I was there.
I've had an enviable life - I've traveled, done glamorous and fun things and had relationships with amazing people but ONE SINGLE MINUTE with this girl and I went back to feeling like the old chubby Goth girl who the boys didn't like.
I had witchcraft on the brain at this point and thought, man, this is why societies need to believe in magic; you would grasp every amulet within reach to protect yourself from the withering stare of the popular girls. You would light a hundred candles to be spared. You would seriously consider the practice of Dark Things if you thought you'd get out alive.
Which led to the thought; what if I *hadn't* politely refused that offer on my first day? What if I *had* found myself amongst those girls and their sporty boyfriends? The situation would have been a disruption to the natural order so vast that mountains could have cracked, lava poured through shopping malls, black snow fallen over the NSW South Coast...
And that was it. The thunderbolt. With no idea what I was doing or where it was going, the story poured into my keyboard so quickly that sometimes it seemed that I was typing faster than I could think. Take a nerd from a nerd school and let her join the popular group at her new school in a coastal town. Let her wriggle and squirm as she tries to maintain social status while falling head over heels for the brooding school badboy her new friends despise. Let trouble bubble in family secrets, mysterious warnings from strange girls at school, dark presences at nighttime, unnatural animals, the girls messing at spellcraft and explosions whenever our heroine and the badboy get too near...
And that is the origin of Sophie Morgan, and the premise of Burnt Snow.

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