Writing Fiction and The Fairy Faith

This blog is mostly about the Fairy Faith – the ancient folk religion of the Celts of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. It also tries to explore the relevance of pagan beliefs to some of the failings of modern Western societies and to the “blank spaces” that I perceive in the three religions that trace their roots back to Abraham. However, several friends who have read my novel The Never King have asked me to also use this blog to answer questions about my approach to writing popular fiction.

In a nutshell, my approach is pretty much the antithesis of how you’re supposed to do it. I’ve read that most professional novelists spend at least 6 hours a day on research and writing. I spend from zero to two hours on weekdays (but sometimes more than that on weekends). That’s because I have a day job. Of course, I write as a hobby (it’s a relatively inexpensive one) and not to make a living from it.

I’ve also read that many professional novelists begin with an outline that they gradually fill in until they have a full novel. I, on the other hand, just start to write. Once I get into it, the story seems to write itself sentence by sentence. It’s as if I am watching it unfold on a movie screen. Outlining it first spoils some of my fun and makes it more difficult to free my imagination so that it can do its thing.

The one exception to this sentence by sentence approach is that I don’t begin a novel until I have a firm idea of the ending. I once read that Nelson DeMille – a popular novelist whom I greatly admire – didn’t think of the ending (and it’s a good one) of Night Fall until he was almost done with the book. I don’t think that I’m confident enough to take that kind of chance.

I’ve also been asked how I thought up The Never King which some reviewers have pointed out is a unusual mixture of fantasy, spy drama, quantum physics, Celtic myth, improbable romance, and personal growth and discovery. Well, the Celtic myth part comes from my almost life-long interest in folk religions (a.k.a. paganism) in general and the Celtic Fairy Faith in particular. In addition, I have an extensive library on the subject (including one of two copies in private hands of the 1815 original published version of Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth which is probably the “holy grail” of Fairy Faith literature.) The imagination part is harder to account for. Let me simply say that I’ve always spent a lot of time living in my head which has helped me to develop a rich imagination. In addition, I learn from my dreams. Indeed, a fair amount of the plot of The Never King came to me in my sleep.

Let me conclude by noting that I’d written most of three other novels before I started The Never King. However, the The Never King is the only one that I’ve completed and published. You see, I’ve been writing for myself for at least 40 years.

If anyone requests, I’ll write more on my approach to writing popular fiction in subsequent blogs. However, I’ll return to the issues of paganism and fairies in my next couple of postings.

Signs Before Death

In my previous post, I referred to the fact that all of the false sightings and fabricated encounters with fairies that have been recorded over the centuries don’t negate the possibility that some sightings and encounters have been real. The author of a curious volume –Signs Before Death (1825) – put it more eloquently, although he was talking about the existence of ghosts:

“But now it has become fashionable to discredit the theory of apparitions. This may in some degree be attributed to the mummery and mysticism with which the records of such circumstances have been encumbered. They have supplied the imagery of poetry, and have been so mixed up with well-wrought fiction, so as to have sometimes parted with their matter-of-fact character.”

The author, a Mr. Horace Welby, then proceeds to document one hundred cases of “authenticated apparitions” that were involved in foretelling an unexpected death. These cases have quaint titles like “Warning to James IV, at Linlithgow, as related by Buchanan” and “The Drummer or Demon of Tedworth, Wilts, at the House of Mr. John Mompesson.” Many of these cases involve well known members of the British clergy, military, and nobility during the 16th and 17th centuries.The most interesting of these cases have an odd twist that can send a brief chill down your spine. They can also challenge your inclination to chalk them up to coincidence. The tale of the “seer and the bully” in The Never King is typical of the kind of “omen of death” story that you can find in the pages of British folklore.

It’s worth noting that Signs Before Death was written in an era in which the existence of the supernatural had been largely discredited. For example, the last witch was hanged in Great Britain somewhere around 1722 and in 1735 a Witchcraft Act recognized that witchcraft was an “impossible crime” since no one could actually commune with the devil and cast spells and charms. That act changed the crime from practicing witchcraft to pretending to practice it. As a result, it eliminated the extreme penalties of torture and death. However, you could still be fined and sent to prison. Indeed, as late as the 1940’s people were still being convicted and jailed under that law. Then in 1951 – after more than two centuries – the Witchcraft Act was finally repealed. It was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act which made witchcraft a crime only if you used it to make money by deceiving the gullible (e.g. by fortune-telling). That cleared the way for the emergence of Wicca which is a form of “white” witchcraft and a legitimate religion.

Of course, Thistle and Peter (the main characters in The Never King) would agree that most of the stories of witches and fairies and of ghosts and Second Sight are nothing but nonsense – but not all of them. Or as Hamlet said:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

As the author of the The Never King, I’ve received a number of really intelligent questions about its underlying themes and beliefs. Furthermore, several readers have suggested that I start a blog in order to address them. So here it is. In the coming weeks, I’ll try to answer your questions and also give you a chance to react to what I and others write. Furthermore, I’ll solicit your suggestions for dealing with some the issues that I’m encountering in writing the second book of the trilogy, The Gudeman’s Croft. That might well include providing you with excerpts from the early drafts.

However, I’d like to kick off the blog by commenting on the news on the Fox website that the University of Missouri recently added eight “Wiccan and pagan” holidays to their list of religious “holy days.” The purpose of the list is to designate days on which exams and other major student activities shouldn’t be scheduled. According to the article, some people have criticized the move because Wicca and other neo-pagan faiths are “fringe” religions. Although I’m not a Wiccan or other kind of neo-pagan, I take exception to calling them “fringe” religions. The truth is that nobody knows how many neo-pagans there are. One reason for that is that they generally don’t form big organizations. On the contrary, they usually practice in small groups. (There are even solitary practices.) Another reason is that neo-pagans are often all but invisible. For example, when was the last time you passed a neo-pagan church or temple in your town? When was the last time that a neo-pagan knocked on your door or approached you on the street in order to try to convert you? And if Wicca is a “fringe” religion, why does the U.S. government now allow pentagrams to be carved on the tombstones of military veterans who are buried in national cemeteries?

Yes, there are some religions in this country that have far too few members to justify putting their holidays on a list like the University of Missouri’s. However, Wicca and other major neo-pagan faiths aren’t among them. At least that’s my opinion.