Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Witches on Wednesdays 1: Introduction. Why did I write these books?

Over the next three months the Taskill Witches books are being published, and  I decided to run something special here on the blog— a series of posts for readers who have an interest in Scottish history, the history of witchcraft, or for anyone who is simply interested in the background to my writing and how I came to write these books.

First and foremost my novel length writing is erotic romance, but when we write these kind of stories we know that everything about a character's life from their background to their physical location will influence the way they interact and have relationships. I love exploring relationships and I also love the challenge of meshing external and internal conflict for my characters. I can spend hours thinking about the problems that setting and motivation can bring to a budding love story! Writing about love affairs during passionate, turbulent times in Scotland during the early 1700s was perfect for me. Running alongside the troubled history and the uneasy union with England is the history of persecution for witchcraft. In other words, there was a hell of a lot going on! Danger came in many forms during those times, and that big picture filtered down through my imagination forming into intriguing individual life stories.

The three Taskill novels, THE HARLOT, THE LIBERTINE and THE JEZEBEL, and one previous stand alone novel, RAMPANT, were all inspired by visits to Scotland and learning about the history of witchcraft and persecution there – particularly in the Lowlands. My interest in sexuality and eroticism meant I grabbed the chance to write about characters who might explore sexmagic—the belief that the vital life energy inherent in physical and emotional love can be channeled and used in magical ways.  (Yes, there will be a whole post about that later on. ;)

Why the Lowlands? The more enduring image of Scotland in fiction is the rugged, romantic Highlands. Ultimately that's because the trials went on in the Lowlands. Anything with a mystical or paranormal aspect was much more readily accepted in the Highlands. Distance from the seat of government and the deeper connection with the land and the elements no doubt led to a more whimsical acceptance of the unknown. However, in the Lowlands of Scotland society was more developed during the period I am writing in, and the laws of church and king defined the culture in a much more tangible way.

I visited the East Neuk of Fife around 8 or 9 years ago. I'd visited the cities and Highlands before, but there was something about the Kingdom of Fife and the East Neuk in particular that really captured my imagination. Of course I was already a published writer by that point. In fact part of the reason for the stay was to write while my Real Life Hero went off mountain biking. We stayed in a tiny fisherman's cottage right on the seafront and I quickly abandoned the project I'd taken with me in order to make notes about my surroundings, together with ideas about the people who might have lived there. Whilst in the area I investigated the local history and the folklore, something that always interests me. That in turn led me to the history of persecution that still burdens Scotland today.

In 2008 a petition was presented to government requesting the pardon of over 2,000 individuals who were tortured and put to death in Scotland's history for practicing witchcraft. (You can read about the petition here at the BBC) Those people were often buried in unmarked graves after being put to death, deaths that were justified by confessions that had been elicited from them via cruel torture and deprivation. Later on I'll explore some of the artifacts that have been salvaged from the time of the witch trials. It's a dark history, and that together with the wild, beautiful landscape inspired me to write about fictional characters who found ways to survive and scrabble a living—to live and love and pursue the goal of escaping their fraught history.

While I was in Fife and afterwards my mind ran with questions. What if you were a gifted healer, knew a few things about herbs and how best to treat someone with an illness? Instinct leads people to mistrust and fear what they don't understand. The church cast a long shadow over gifted healers, relating it to evil, satanic ways. And of course it's a handy mechanism for a cruel person to get rid of the hated neighbour, point the finger and say that you saw them cursing the cow's milk making it turn sour. Yes, people were put to death for the most insubstantial things being seen as evidence of evil and witchcraft.

Being a writer my "what if?" manner of thinking soon led me to a whole scenario where people who were *really* gifted with the craft lived in fear of being discovered. Beyond healing, the fictional characters I write about pass down ancient Celtic and Pictish magic from generation to generation – secretly. It was the secret nature of the characters and the world I wanted to write about that appealed to my editor at Harlequin.

The first "witch" character I wrote about was Annabel McGraw, who appears in a historical backstory in the contemporary novel RAMPANT. Annabel was inspired by that fishermen's cottage that we stayed in the East Neuk of Fife! :) Really, I stood at the window looking at the harbor and I thought to myself "who lived here?" This line then popped into my head out of nowhere. "She used to stand here looking out at the fishermen hauling in their catch. She watched their muscled arms work while she decided which of them she would win away from his wife that night." Of course, I had to write it down. :) The cottage we stayed in became the haunted house, Her Haven, in the novel. 

Before we'd even left Fife Annabel was fully formed in my mind. Although she's not the heroine in RAMPANT she is the catalyst for the whole story. She's a very bad girl in many ways, but ultimately knows she's done wrong and she has a good heart. I fell so in love with her story that I wanted to write about more characters who might have lived in that historic world – where the fear of persecution rules you, where everything you do and think can be held accountable because you are gifted in ways that people around you do not understand.

That's how I came to write about the Taskill witches, starting with Jessie in THE HARLOT. (This is the UK cover shown on the right.) The more I read about the witch trials and what had gone on, it made me wonder what if a woman was put to death and she had children? What happened to her children? Would they forever be shamed, perhaps even marked out as potential tools of Satan? What would their lives be like, haunted by the memory of their mother's persecution and death? What if they were split up and had to hide their skills, alone and frightened, to survive? Would they grow up angry, stubborn, or afraid? How would they earn a living, and how would they ever find each other again, in a world where suspicion was rife? Yes, the "what if?" mind of a writer can take you on some interesting journeys. ;o) I wouldn't trade my imagination for the world.

Next week I'm going to talk about why the laws on witchcraft came to exist, the grip they held on society, and when they were broken down. My Taskill novels are set towards the end of the period covered by the laws governing witchcraft. That's because I wanted to write in the time when change was afoot. Often the prospect of change makes things more difficult at first, it's not black-and-white any more and the muddied waters make it hard to know who to trust. By the early 1700s people had begun to question the laws on witchcraft. Perhaps if you were gifted with the craft and wanted to help someone who was sick, you might ask yourself can I trust them? Especially if it was someone in power.

Until next Witches on Wednesdays I'll leave you with some resources about Fife, where I was so thoroughly inspired. :) First up is some footage of the East Neuk from talented enthusiast Andy Campbell. In the first video you'll see the villages of the East Neuk, including Crail, which is the model for the village of Craigduff in THE HARLOT, the village where the hero, Gregor Ramsay, hails from.

In the footage below you can virtually-visit St Monans, which is the model for Carbrey in RAMPANT.

Here are some useful links for more info on Fife:

You can find excerpts from the books here:


Sonya Clark said...

I have a signed copy of THE HARLOT that I won from you through a contest when it was first released on the Spice imprint. I'm thrilled the series is finally continuing through HQN! This blog series promises to be fascinating too, thanks for the added background.

Saskia Walker said...

Hi Sonya, thanks so much for calling by and for your lovely comment! I hope you'll enjoy books 2 and 3. You'll meet Jessie and Gregor again in book 2. Lennox has been looking for his sisters for a long time but he finds Jessie when he least expects it. ;-)

Casey Sheridan said...

That was a fascinating post. I can't wait for next weeks continuation.

I loved Rampant. It's one of my favorite books.

Saskia Walker said...

Casey, thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed the background info. Lots more to come. :)