Creating a Wiccan Tribe

By SM Stirling

©2006, SM Stirling

How the Series came to be: “Dies the Fire” and afterwards

Oddly enough, the original idea for this series came to me in a dream; I saw a red-haired woman playing a guitar by a campfire at night, with a traveler’s wagon and some horses in the background, and I knew she was a witch. When I woke up, I knew that a story was brewing — it often happens that way with me. Other characters came to me in a waking dream — a black-haired man trying to land a small plane on a river, for one.

I had the bones of characters and had to build them; imagine childhoods for them, growing up, habits, tastes, quirks of personality, events terrible or glad that had helped to form them. That’s a half-conscious process. Sometimes you think things through in a linear fashion; sometimes something goes click and you know that the singer and her best friend used to ride their bicycles down riverside paths singing Beatles songs at the top of their lungs in the early 80’s when they were in their early teens.

Then I had to make a world for the character in my images to inhabit. That came from wherever inspirations do; I suddenly thought what if everything stopped? What if all the high-energy technologies of production and communication, of peace and war, suddenly went away? How would we readapt to the world our ancestors know, and how would what we are make it different from anything that went before? And who would do best in such a world?

That made some things obvious; a lot of people were going to be in very bad trouble. Since I wasn’t going to write a horror story — they’re not my style — that meant it wasn’t going to be set in a big urban area.

So, I had a witch who was also a singer, and it occurred to me that the Pacific Northwest would make an interesting setting… I’ll call her Juniper Mackenzie, and more comes to me in the way it does as the characters take on more and more of their own life, that she sings Celtic music and that her mother was Irish — a Gaelic speaker from Achil Island in the west of that country. How did she end up in Oregon? Well, her father was stationed in England in the USAF in the 1960’s. A life… a dreamy child who listened to her mother’s old stories and took them further.

She’d be a lover of the countryside and the wilderness; so say that her paternal line came over the Oregon trail, were farmers until a few generations ago, and that a grand-uncle keeps the family place in the country, and that she visited him often and inherited the land when he died. She spends much of the year there, and knows it intimately — its life and its seasons.

Juniper also travels the circuits where her type of singing would be popular; Renfaires, SCA events, conventions, busking and playing in pubs — student hangouts would be ideal. She’s interested in her mother’s people as well, and keeps up the language and becomes learned in the legends and tales. It would be natural for her to come into contact with the Old Religion, and find it fitted her soul.

I did a little research on the area and settled on having her singing in Corvallis near the University of Oregon when the Change — the abrupt end of our technologies — happened. And since I knew she’d be a witch, I’d have to do some research; I knew only what any well-informed layperson knew about the Craft. How much could there be to learn?

Oh, well, you can guess how that went. Most of a decade later and I’m still researching!

And still having fun doing it. It started with a few books leant by a friend who has my other car is a broomstick on her bumper, and then through the wonders of the Internet I met other real witches, Kier Salmon among them — and as a bonus, she happened to live just where I was setting the stories, and provided invaluable help on Wicca and on any number of other things.

I find that where possible you should go beyond books, though I’ve been working my way forward from Gardner and Valiente ever since. There’s no substitute for someone who can see things from the inside. For a writer has to do that him or herself — get inside the head of people who are different and see the world through their eyes, smell it with their nose, feel it with their gut. My informants turned out to be very helpful and usually delightful people as well.

The series involves the end of one world and the birth of another. Technology (or to be pedantic the high-energy kind) is gone and its world-view with it. The survivors are scattered and traumatized. They’ll have to gather into groups and work out ways to live in the new-old world; not necessarily recreations of the past, but owing a good deal to it — and even more to our dreams of the past, our perceptions of it.

A thousand little communities would be born in the ruins of our world; a lucky small city here, a group around a farm there, a ranch in the remote hills, and the refugees and fugitives they’d take in. Old skills and new solutions would have to be learned. Human beings being what they are, there would be clashes and conflicts, the power-hungry as well as the gentle and well-meaning.

Juniper has a cabin in the western foothills of the Cascades, and a Sacred Wood, and her coven meet her there after the Change; it’s the natural place for them all to head, since there’s nothing but chaos and hunger in the larger towns. There’s land there that can be farmed, though it hasn’t been in a while, and there are the riches of field and forest.

What happens then? What happens to Wicca, when it’s the majority religion — even if the community it dominates is a small one to start with? What happens to it when it’s the religion of farmers again, not of urbanites? What happens when those attracted to Juniper’s group start to join her faith as well, even though she never pushes anyone towards it?

Some things would happen by accident. The founders of a new society, though few in number, have a gigantic effect on those who come after them. Hundreds of millions of Americans speak English and call their peace officers ‘Sheriffs’ because the small settlements which later became the United States started out with people from Kent and Shropshire, and later-comers adapted to those patterns.

In Juniper Mackenzie’s case, when she greets her coven — and already they’d taken in some others, a group of children found abandoned in a school bus, some friends of Junipers and a person or two chance-met along the way — she tells them that to survive they’ll have to live as a clan, as it was in the old days.

She meant it as a metaphor for pulling together and sharing work and risks. One of her friends decides, after they come across a load of tartan blankets and need new clothes anyway, that it would be fun to run up some kilts and plaids. Juniper’s away when he starts it, and before she knows it it’s the national dress of Clan Mackenzie.

To herself (or ‘herself herself’ as the friends start to call her) it’s a bit of a joke. To the children growing up among them, it’s just the way their life is. Of course they’re clansfolk, and Lady Juniper is the Chief!

Her faith also grows into the new world. Once more it’s a hearth religion, a thing learned by the fireside and in the fields by children. And it fits the life they live, and grows and changes and expands. Juniper is a bit startled just how much it grows, and the way it develops in ways she hadn’t anticipated at all, now that rather than a subculture within a larger environment it is the mainstream. Subsequent generations take it — and the penumbra of stories, songs, tales and legends — and run with them, in a development no longer shaped by the pressure of the surrounding culture.

Other people have other dreams. My pilot turns out to be an ex-Marine from a family of hard-rock miners and countryfolk in Michigan; but one of the passengers he brings through the crash is a girl who’s besotted with a fantasy she reads obsessively, The Lord of the Rings. As it happens, she has a bow with her because elves are archers, and she’s practiced that almost as much as she’s read. A great deal springs from that!

Then of course, they have to have a villain…

❀ ❁ ❀ Progredi persevera! ❀ ❁ ❀