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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 Mackey, so I figured either I’d sent the message to an out-of-date email address or he’d made it a policy not to respond to writers who send wacky emails about shared imaginations and serendipity.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!

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the first day of autumn

In The Witches of New York, the writing life by ami

I woke up Thursday morning to the joyful sound of honking geese wafting through my window. Their “conversation” was filled with impatient exuberance and, as Joni Mitchell once wrote, “the urge for going.” A lone raven that often perches atop one of the spruce trees beside my house barked a string of surly caws to send them on their way. It was the first day of autumn—a time of passing, a time of new beginnings, a time of change.

The Witches of New York begins on the cusp between seasons—when the heady, bright days of summer are giving way to autumn’s dappled, magic-inducing light. The veil becomes thin this time of year, allowing the spirits of our ancestors to come close enough to beckon us to listen.

I did a lot of “listening” while writing Witches—to the characters on the page (and in my head,) to our dear honey bees as they buzzed around their hives, to the ravens that passed over our land as they flew to and from their rookery each morning and night. And when my brain needed a break from crafting story, I’d turn my attention to chasing after the stories of the people who inhabit the branches of my family tree. Filling in the blanks of their lives is immensely satisfying. A simple click here or there can lead to a mystery solved, or to another place and time.

A good way into the writing process of Witches, I followed a genealogical trail that led me to 19th century Massachusetts and several family members with the name Hathorne/Hawthorne. Wouldn’t it be amazing, I thought, if I’m related to Nathaniel Hawthorne of The Scarlet Letter fame? With some diligent digging I found that indeed I am a 5th cousin, 5x removed. It’s a distant, sideways connection, but a connection just the same.

After reading Hawthorne’s Wikipedia page it hit me…if I’m related to good old Nathaniel, then I’m also related to a man so vile it led the great American author to change the spelling of his name. John Hathorne (1641-1717) the only judge from the Salem Witch Trials who refused to repent for his actions, is my 1st cousin, nine times removed. Needless to say, clicking that wiggly leaf on was no happy moment. I was sad, upset and angry for days. I wrote in my journal:

When I’m finished, this book will make him roll in his grave.

For the next few months I abandoned my genealogical pursuits for the novel (and other diversions like baking bread, or playing Settlers of Catan.) Christmas arrived and my dear husband, knowing I was still obsessed with my strange connection to Salem, gave me a copy of The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. It’s a wonderful, well-researched account of what went on before, during and shortly after the trials. I immediately went back to my own research and found that Salem, as well as the names of other towns in the surrounding area was quite prominent in my family history. One town, Andover stuck out from the rest. I had a lot of family from there. Were they involved with the trials as well?

I soon discovered that Andover has the dubious distinction of having the most citizens (40+) formally accused of witchcraft (the majority of them women and children) and the most “confessed.” Many of the accused were imprisoned, and three were executed. I kept digging, clicking leaves, Googling until my eyes were red.

Three days after Christmas I discovered this:
Among those accused in Andover was a woman named Mary Ayer Parker—my nine times great aunt.

The 55-year-old widow was examined, tried, convicted, and then executed in September 1692. Her twenty-two year old daughter, Sarah was also accused.

What had Mary done? (What had any of the accused done, for that matter?) Where was her brother, John, my nine times great grandfather?

Both John Ayer and Mary’s husband, Nathan Parker were long dead. Widowed Puritan women were often targets for gossip and social machinations—some, simply because of their age, others due to the things they did to survive (many became healers or midwives,) and still others, like Mary, happened to own a fair bit of choice land.

There was a definite double standard when it came to “occult practices” in the Puritan communities of the day. If a woman practiced folk healing or Bible dipping or oomancy (a form of divination that employs pouring egg whites in water) then she was a witch. If a clergyman studied alchemy, then he was a learned scholar. As Stacy Schiff wrote: “Plenty of clergymen dabbled in alchemy. While inveighing against the occult popular magic was one thing, elite magic was another. A great deal of bet-hedging and base-covering went on; just because you were eminently pious did not mean you hesitated to serve up witch cake.” (A cake containing the urine of a witch that was fed to dogs or the afflicted to gauge the guilt of said witch.)

Historians have tried to dissect Mary’s case, but have found it quite puzzling. Unlike many of the accused from her community who confessed in hopes of having their lives spared, Mary denied the accusations. Maybe she was worried a confession would further implicate Sarah, or maybe she believed they’d gotten the wrong Mary Parker (there were three other women from the surrounding communities with the same name.) Perhaps Sarah had spurned the attentions of a suitor and he was out for revenge against both the young woman and her mother.

For whatever reason, Mary was accused by fourteen-year-old William Barker Jr. of having “afflicted” sixteen-year-old Mary Sprague with witchcraft. Eighteen-year-old Marcy Wardwell added to the widow’s pain by claiming she’d seen her “shape” among the afflicted. During her examination, just the mention of Mary’s name caused the afflicted girls (Mary Warren, Sarah Churchill, Hannah Post, Sara Bridges and Mercy Wardwell) to fall into fits. When she was brought in for the infamous “touch test” and commanded to lay hands on the girls, the young women were instantly “cured.” This was taken as sure proof of Mary’s affiliation with the Devil and her use of witchcraft.

On September 22, 1692, she was taken by an ox-drawn cart (along with Martha Corey, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Willmot Redd, and Samuel Wardwell) to Gallows Hill to be hanged. Some of them asserted their innocence, others recited their petitions, still others prayed. I’ve yet to find any record of Mary’s last words that day. The Reverend Nicholas Noyes II, who was the official minister for the trials and the officiating clergy for the executions was said to have looked upon the bodies of the dangling dead and cruelly commented, “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.”

It was the first day of autumn.

The executions at Salem ended that day, but the prolonged suffering they caused and our bewilderment at how any of it happened, remain. Luckily, the edict to halt the executions came down in time to spare Mary’s daughter’s life. No one knows what happened to Sarah after the trials. She seems to have simply disappeared. I dedicated The Witches of New York to Mary and I’m still searching for signs of Sarah.
Since discovering them in my family tree, I’ve found three other accused women who are also related to me. I can’t help but feel their heartbreak has always lived in my blood, leading me to feel compelled to tell tales of women who are extraordinary outsiders and gloriously “other.”

This year, on the first day of autumn, I spent the afternoon with a dear friend. We drank tea in the company of a crystal ball (and perhaps a few ghosts.) I turned cards in honour of witches past and told tales of the future.