If you haven't had the opportunity to meet Abie Longstaff yet, you are definitely missing out. I'm so pleased she agreed to join me on the blog today to tell us how she went about creating a modern day witch for her first Middle Grade novel, How To Catch A Witch.
My new book contains a witch. We all know what witches look like, right?
Black cloak? Tick
Pointy hat? Tick
This kind of witch outfit is commonplace at Halloween or, as the witches call it, ‘Samhain’.
But, when I created my female witch, I wanted to steer clear of the fairy-tale witch. I wanted to make someone more modern, more contemporary, more real. If I was going to put a witch into 2016, what should she be like? Surely these days a witch would be using some fancy modern technology – lasers to cut through things, funky gadgets, sonic energy, rocket-powered broomsticks? That’s the kind of thing I set out to imagine.
I began with research, looking at witches through the ages. White witches in early mediaeval times were healers – ‘wise women’ or ‘cunning folk’. They were (usually) women with a sound knowledge of plants, much revered in their communities. People would go to them for help reducing a fever, for childbirth, for aches and pains, and, perhaps less believably, for spells to make crops grow, or weather improve. But the 1400’s saw a difficult period of famines, diseases and wars. Someone had to be to blame - and witches became the target of the angry and confused. Over the next few hundred years, witchcraft was considered evil and ungodly and many women were accused, tortured and executed. Those who knew about plants hid their abilities and practised their craft in secret.
Witch-hunting died out in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and from then on ‘witches’ took the role of baddie in our fairy tales and folklore.
What about today?
In search of contemporary ideas on witchcraft, I visited Burley village in Sussex, home of modern-day white witch Sybil Leek. I looked on forums for Wicca and witchcraft and discovered that there are people today who believe in and practise elements that would be familiar to those mediaeval healers. They use herbs and spices, they keep special sun and moon days, and they say they have psychic powers. I shamelessly used their websites and forums for my research.
My modern witch began to take shape.
I deliberately took on the mind-set of witchcraft as a reality. My criterion for spells became: if someone on these forums believes this spell will work, I’ll use it. I researched every ingredient mentioned, learning that apple is good for healing, and that orange peel brings focus. I learned about sigils and shape shifting and poppet dolls and witch bottles.
I read about twenty-first century witches, how they learn their craft; what it’s like to feel different, to sense your powers growing. I learned that emerging witchy powers seem to tie into feelings of uncertainty and not fitting in; to feeling your body and views change; to ‘coming of age’. These seemed to intertwine perfectly with the themes in my book.
I imagined what it would be like for a young person to develop witch ability – how she’d have to train, how much she had to learn, how she’d google the ingredients she needed, how difficult it would be for her to combine it with normal school life. And how scary it might be to be caught and found out.
In the end, in my desire to create a fresh modern witch, I ended up going full circle – because, actually, witchcraft hasn’t changed much since that early mediaeval period. Today’s young witches still use herbs and candles and chants the way white witches did hundreds of years ago – the only difference is they share their spells on internet forums. They still have a fear of being found out (although these days, it’s fear of ridicule rather than fear of the ducking stool). And, whether you believe in them or not, they still see themselves as helpers, providing people with spells and chants to deal with problems.
They do all this without broomsticks, cloaks, cats or hats.
So if you see a dressed-up witch this Halloween, she probably isn’t the real deal. Indeed, as my main character is about to find out, magic might be a lot closer to home.
How To Catch A Witch was published by in October 2016
Charlie and her family have moved from the big city to a small country village, and everything feels wrong. Their cottage is old and creepy. Anxiety about her new school is causing Charlie's stutter to return. And the villagers are just plain weird. Not least, Agatha, who may not have a broomstick or a cauldron, but is definitely a witch...
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