Helping a Famous Author

By Kier Salmon

Helping a famous Author who is writing a Popular Sci-Fi Novel Featuring A Witch

How cool would it be to receive an e-mail from your favorite author? And what if he asked if you would be so kind as to read his latest manuscript? Because his newest protagonist is a Witch and he wants to make sure that he gets all the details right and the evolution of the Craft congruent with modern Witches?

Beltane of 2003, I got that e-mail.

The day before, April 30th, my brother, Tarl, sent a congratulatory letter to SM Stirling on his becoming an American citizen. He detailed the books he liked. Steve wrote back to Tarl, thanking him for the good wishes and mentioning:

‘ — glad you enjoyed it! Now, just for a change, one of the p.o.v. characters in the next book is a dedicated Wiccan… 8-)’

To which my brother replied….

‘For what it’s worth, my sister (also a fan of yours) is a serious Wiccan. If you need a second opinion or another reviewer on things from the Wiccan viewpoint, she’d be delighted to hear from you. She’s actually a published author, if only of a single short story.”

By that time SM Stirling was a good 70,000 words into the novel, “Dies the Fire” where one of the three main characters is a Witch and the location is the Willamette Valley in Oregon. It’s typical of Steve that he sent me an e-mail the very next day. Tarl once observed of him… “When walking to an appointment, Steve gives the impression that walls would only slightly slow him down if they were in his way.”

Cool is certainly one way to describe what happened, and serendipity is another. Steve’s the kind of person who answers his fans. He’s the kind of person who loves to learn, and who is always ready to seize the day, looking for new things, to stretch himself. And I turned out to have enough knowledge in a number of disparate areas that I could actually be of real use to him; Oregon landscapes, roads, topology, dye-plants, Spanish language, herbal medicine, finding Wiccan and Pagan songs on the internet, the list isn’t endless, but long. Two people who both like to learn from other people and enjoy writing about imaginary worlds and have the knowledge of writing, hooked up by one’s writing a nice informative thank you to the other’s brother. Serendipity.

Novels depicting Witches exist, even in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Fiction genre. They run the gamut from decent to really bad. The resemblance to modern Witches is sporadic, patchy and sometimes we really don’t want our label on those characters. Now I had a great author willing to put in the research on modern Wicca and Pagans for a book. Who wanted to write a good book featuring us as we are, and extrapolate how we would react to an environment where we become a dominant religion. Robert Graves, in “Watch the North Wind Rise” attempted this in 1949. Other authors have so attempted with more or less success, the one that sticks in my mind was also set in the Pacific Northwest, Jean Stewart’s “Isis” trilogy. In both books a long past disaster or decision was taken to make the world different. In “Dies the Fire” Steve takes us through the process of the disaster.

I’d spent years honing my writing skills, working with a group, and alone. I could do this! I happily dived into Steve’s MS. And learned something important and new. Being a first reader is a responsibility. Being a technical consultant is a responsibility. I could no more do a sloppy job of reading that MS than I could of my mundane job. I pause here and grin. On first reading of the manuscript I thought, “That’s flat land, there! He’s got a mountain!” Fingers poised on the keyboard to e-mail Steve, I hesitated. I deleted the e-mail and headed down the highway to Corvallis and Lebanon. “Hot, Damn! There is a mountain there! Right where he said!”

After that I went on several expeditions around my beautiful state, finding new and special places that I hadn’t known before. With the help of a friend I took countless photos that I posted on the web for him. That was my first experience of not acting on impulse when reading a manuscript. I became very good at double-checking facts and figures. When Steve wrote a mansion into the book for the ‘Lord Protector,’ I went searching that particular area. I was pretty sure that there weren’t any real mansions there. There weren’t; rich houses, but houses and crowded cheek by jowl. So I offered Steve the old customs house (a lovely Second Renaissance Revival building) or the main library in Portland; with gorgeous acid etched black granite steps. Steve took the library and ran with it.

I fed Steve with every bit of history, gossip, news, books, and rituals of every coven and pagan group I had ever known. I am in touch with four separate groups, three talk to each other in this area and the other is kind of their own thing. The first months were a lot of e-mailing back and forth about Witches and how they learned, were initiated; what kinds had been in the area when Juniper putatively was growing up.

We had many discussions about certain books and authors… Who would read and use them, who would reject certain authors and take up others. How they would react to certain groups in formation in the 80’s and 90’s. I was glad to hear he read Robin Wood’s “When, Why, If…;” to my mind one of the best books on ethics we have. He is still reading new books today, and now he hears of a new book often as soon as I do or before.

When Steve was writing the second book, “The Protector”s War, he sent me the ritual he’d written for the Sutterdown Beltane and asked me what I thought of it. I wrote back that after that nobody would believe he wasn’t a Witch. I then took and read it to the Hermetic Society and challenged them to say which pieces were mine and which was his. Steve’s ability to internalize all those months of e-mails, all those books about Witches to an insider’s point of view allowed him to develop a ritual any Witch would have loved to put on. And Tom and Moira Brannigan’s reaction to the drawing down of the Gods was developed from his listening to his Witch consultants tell how it felt.

Participating in this process has been the best fun I’ve had in many, many years. Seeing how well Steve could present us, and a possible future for us is a trip. Being a first reader has many rewards… I get to watch the books grow! I get to point out little details, and occasionally big ‘oops!’ And all of my knowledge is important. In this book Steve had many Hispanic people (there are a lot of them here) and my background of 18 years living in Mexico, and speaking almost only Spanish for all those years was very useful.

My crafty background in soap making, dying and wild crafting allowed me to research what colors the clothing of the post-change people would be. Knowledge of sewing (which I do a lot of) let me mention to Steve that any sewing machine without a chip in it can be made into a treadle driven machine. Costuming also helped me put names to Steve’s descriptions of clothing. The Mackenzies ended up wearing the ‘little kilt,’ after I described to Steve some of the antics the ‘wild Celts’ in belted great-kilts got up to at Scottish Games. Those became the peripherally mentioned McClintocks.

Even though I’ve read each book again and again for months, I buy the printed book and wait desperately for it to come out. After the last eagle eye review of the completed manuscript, I don’t get to see the version that is shipped off to the publishers. Six months later I seize the book as hot off the press as I can get it and read. “Did he fix that?” “Did he take this suggestion?” “Wow! He put a whole new scene here!”

So, here it is 4 years later [this revised version has been written in 2012] and I am still reading SM Stirling’s books. (Number 9 right now). Dies the Fire was planned as a trilogy, and a second trilogy got added to the works at some point. On the Stirling list it is known as the ‘Emberverse.’ The second trilogy is set 20 years post change and Wicca has settled into a religion of a large majority of people. They are brought up in it and think nothing of how they use and live the faith… other than the fact that “other people are weird.” One scene that had me grinning happily is when a young Witch man is talking to a small Roman Catholic boy who asks him for a ‘spell.’ And young Edain says, “I think your Father Milton might not like you making luck-spells, so you’d best ask him for a prayer to your saints, instead. We’re followers of the Old Religion, which you are not.”

Ah! To read a book where Witches are a people, a unified people and the Craft is growing and the children simply are Witches and make no bones, no apologies, no explanations for who and what they are.

It’s not a Utopia, in fact it has been called the most distopian of Steve’s books, and yet… there is a certain wistfulness to think of a culture of our own.

❀ ❁ ❀