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Ravens and riddles

In The Witches of New York, Uncategorized, Witchy Wednesday by ami

Odin’s Cove #25 from the amazing photographer Beth Moon.

I love ravens. A “conspiracy” of them dwells in the woods behind my house. When I stand on the balcony outside my writing studio in the loft of our barn, my “perch” puts me nearly eye to eye with them. I talk to them daily and delight in any squawk, chortle, tuck or caw the give in reply. They may not always respond, but they’re always watching.

It was inevitable that one of these intelligent, beautiful creatures would come to inhabit the pages of one of my novels. Enter, Perdu, the magical raven who lives with The Witches of New York. For fear of spoiling his part in the story, I won’t say much more about him here, but rather show you some of the things that inspired his character.

Grip the raven and Barnaby Rudge

Charles Dickens was also fascinated by ravens. During his writing career he had not one, not two, but three ravens in succession he called “Grip.” Grip the First apparently had quite a large vocabulary and was the inspiration for the raven of the same name that appeared in Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge. A letter to his friend George Cattermole in 1841 speaks to this: “my notion is to have (Barnaby) always in company with a pet raven, who is immeasurably more knowing than himself. To this end I have been studying my bird, and I think I could make a very queer character of him.” 

Grip the Second was dear to Dickens, but less so to his children. His daughter Mamie wrote that the bird was “mischievous and impudent.” Grip the Third was known to have regular stand offs with the family dog, a large mastiff who would back down and surrender its food to the bird.

It is the general belief of literary scholars that “Grip the Raven” from Barnaby Rudge in turn inspired Edgar Allan Poe to pen his famous poem, The Raven. Poe had reviewed a few of Dickens’ novels, including Barnaby Rudge and wrote that he found Grip to be “intensely amusing.”

A stuffed and mounted specimen of Dickens’ first beloved Grip (it once hung over the author’s desk) made its way to the U.S. sometime after 1870 and now resides in the Free Library in Philadelphia.

Grip the raven now resides in Philadelphia.

As for Perdu from The Witches of New York, he too has become a mythical figure that dwells in the imagination of more than one artist. The talented painter Holly Carr is a dear friend who is just as obsessed as I am with ravens. During the years that I was researching and writing Witches, she put together a show that featured several paintings with ravens. Her vivid, fantastical work captured my heart and I wound up keeping a small painting of one of her ravens on my desk as I wrote.

Perdu with a blue marble in his beak.

After the ARCs of the Canadian edition were finished, I gave Holly one as a gift. Because of our shared adoration for ravens and all things witchy, I couldn’t wait for her to “meet” Perdu. A few months later, just after Witches was released, she contributed several pieces to a new show at the Harvest Gallery in Wolfville, NS, called “WhichCraft.” Every piece featured ravens and magical items and one of them (my personal favourite) was simply titled: Perdu.

Perdu, by Holly Carr.

In addition to observing the real-life ravens that live behind my house, I watched online footage of trained ravens and read many accounts of human interaction with corvids. There’s loads of wonderful stuff out there concerning research with these amazing birds, but one of my favourite videos is this one. (I imagine Poe would’ve liked it too.)

Another online sensation I fell in love with while writing Witches was Merlina, one of ravens that lives at the Tower of London. Beautiful, bright and cheeky, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I freely admit that my descriptions of Perdu and his mannerisms are largely modelled after her. She and the rest of the Tower’s resident ravens are looked after by Yeoman Warder, Chris Skaife, the Ravenmaster, and I’m happy to say you can follow him, Merlina and the rest of the ravens via social media.

Merlina on Facebook, via the Ravenmaster, Chris Skaife.

But…Who is Perdu? 

If you’ve already read The Witches of New York you may have gotten to the end of the book and asked the above question. Again, I don’t want to give any spoilers. What I will say is this: the answer can be found in the pages of the book.

109-112 to be exact.

Ravens, people, places and things mentioned in this post:

Beth Moon Photography

More on Charles Dickens and Grip

Holly Carr, artist

The Ravenmaster on facebook

The Ravenmaster on Twitter 


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A picture is worth…

In The Witches of New York by ami

“An Evening of Clairvoyance” by Stephen Mackey

While working on a project, (whether a novel, play, or piece of non-fiction,) I surround myself with images that relate to the writing. This part of my process becomes especially important with historical fiction, since I’m striving to create a world that I hope readers will “experience” as they read the book.

With The Witches of New York, I wound up with loads of period photographs and illustrations that I pinned to the walls of my writing studio or kept on my laptop for inspiration. A few of the images even found their way onto a thumb drive that I carried with me during my recent cross-Canada book tour where I presented a digital version of a “Magic Lantern Show” during many of my readings. In fact, I had so much fun giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at my writing process, I’ve decided to share a few more of the images over the next few months in a series of blog posts relating to my research.

An Evening of Clairvoyance

First up is the image you see above, “An Evening of Clairvoyance” by the painter Stephen Mackey. I discovered Mackey’s work online a few years ago and instantly fell in love with the way he mixes a masterly painting technique with gothic or fairytale-esque subject matter. While I’d long been a fan of his fantastical paintings, “An Evening of Clairvoyance” (2015) absolutely blew me away. I’d already written much of Witches at that point, so when I saw the painting and how closely the woman resembled one of the three main characters in the novel (who happened to be a one-eyed witch,) I was absolutely gobsmacked. I even sent Mr. Mackey an email to let him know that I couldn’t help but think he’d somehow gained access to the wild imaginings of my brain.

“Your painting looks so much like I’ve imagined her, it’s amazing!”

I never heard back from Mr. Mackey, so I figured either I’d sent the message to an out-of-date email address or he’d made it a policy not to respond to writers who send wacky emails about shared imaginations and serendipity.

“La Tapada Limeña.” (A veiled woman of Lima.) It was popular for women in 19th century Lima to wear a veil with only one eye exposed.

Virginia Odoini 1866

I’d collected other images of 19th century women showing only one eye—the enchanting Las Tapadas Limeñas; Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione being seductively cheeky—but it was Mr. Mackey’s painting that stayed with me as finished writing the novel. (So much so, that I included it in a blog post I wrote after I’d completed the final draft.)

A short while later, as I began working on the U.S. edition of Witches with the fabulous editor, Erin Wicks of Harper Perennial, she, too, expressed her affection for the painting, even commenting, “wouldn’t it make a great cover?”

Of course I agreed with her, but didn’t think it possible. I didn’t know how such things worked and didn’t want to bother Mr. Mackey any more than I already had. So I carried on with edits and promptly shelved the thought.

A couple months later, (while still dreaming of “An Evening of Clairvoyance”) I sent Erin the photograph of Virginia Oldoini, thinking she might find it interesting and possibly of some use for the design team at Harper. The Canadian and UK covers were already set and I’d been completely wowed by both, so I was excited to see what the designer in the US would come up with for the Harper Perennial edition.

Much to my surprise, I got the following response from Erin…

“I do have something to confess: we’ve already secured rights to the Stephen Mackey painting!”

My response to her was, of course, “WOW!” (I’m still pinching myself over the whole thing.)

And now for those of you who may not have already seen it…the cover of the Harper Perennial U.S. edition of The Witches of New York. (Due July 11, 2017 but available for pre-order now.)

The Witches of New York, US edition.

People, places and things mentioned in this post:

Stephen Mackey, artist.

The history of Tapada Limeña

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione 

Pre-order the U.S. edition of The Witches of New York

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Advice for New Witches

In creativity, The Witches of New York by ami

Writing a novel can take years. The Witches of New York took five. Along the way, I learned a lot of things about the world and those around me, and above all, myself.

One of the biggest revelations that came to me while writing this novel was the realization that magic is everywhere. And the more you’re open to it, the more it will present itself to you in ways large and small.

In August, I was given the wonderful opportunity to share a night of storytelling at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. I was supposed to meet my audience around a campfire (which would’ve been lovely,) but due to a terribly dry summer in Nova Scotia and a fire ban, we had to hold the event inside. (Which turned out to be magical in and of itself.)

In the candlelit hold of an old hay barn that’s now a dance studio, I moved around a circle of eager listeners and spoke of witches past and present. By my side was Ella, my “witch’s apprentice” for the evening, who was an amazing companion— enchanting, witty and bright.

Before the audience was ushered in and the event began, we shared a few minutes of conversation between the candles and a magic cauldron. We spoke of witches and magic and fairies (all of which Ella assured me are real.) We spoke of stories and song and what can be seen when we “look close.” During my chat with Ella, I realized what lay at the heart of this novel—a firm belief that every girl and woman has a bit of “witch” inside, and that it’s up to us to “look close” so we can help each other find it.

After that night, I kept thinking about that conversation and how over the years I’ve received a heck of a lot of fabulous advice from my “sister witches.” With that in mind, I issued the following invitation to several wise women I know:

“I believe every woman has a bit of witch in her (or perhaps quite a lot.) Some of us tap into our witchiness early on, others are late bloomers. Some find it, then forget it, then discover it again when we get our second witchy wind.

This is a call to all you wise women, you agitators, you social mavens, you champions of thought…you astute observers, you creative crones, you laughing goddesses, you quiet seers, you kindly healers, you keepers of the land, you makers of wonder, you devoted wordsmiths, you bakers of kick-ass cookies, you believers in MAGIC.

I want to know…what advice would you give to a “new witch?” It could be advice you’d give to your younger self…or to a sister in need of support…or to a friend who needs a swift kick in the rear…or to a woman who is standing at the edge of something really great and needs to know someone has her back.

You can speak it, rap it, sing it, draw it, dance it, write it. You can go it alone or with a friend. It can be serious, sweet, cheeky or fierce, so long as it’s from the heart.

So grab your camera and give it to me straight…What is Your Advice for a New Witch?

Here is a montage of the first batch of responses I received. (Many thanks to Lindsey Reeder at Penguin Random House Canada for putting them all together!)

In the coming days I’ll be sharing each woman’s full advice video through social media, along with the hashtag #AdviceForWitches

Feel free to film your own advice to share with others using the hashtag. I’ll put it on the Advice for New Witches YouTube channel playlist as well. My hope is that this will be an ongoing project with a playlist that’s miles long!