Secrets of the Chocolate House
Continuing the Found Things series has allowed me to spend more time in the charming county of Wiltshire, and I am very happy about that. Those of you who have read book one, The Little Shop of Found Things, will already be familiar with the small market town of Marlborough, which sits among the rolling downs, surrounded by an expansive landscape brimming with ancient sites and glorious old houses. In book two we see Xanthe and her mother, Flora, settling into the rhythm of their new life in the antiques shop that is now their home. Another joy of writing this series is that it more or less obliges me to spend time hunting down treasures in antiques shops, emporiums, and markets! I try to resist buying too many wonderful things, but sometimes a particular find will be too good to leave behind. I may not hear objects sing to me, but I swear some of them pipe up with a little “take me home!” now and again.
The Little Shop of Found Things
When thinking about the first book in a new series I suppose it is only natural for a writer to be taken up with the idea of place quite a bit. My stories are always firmly rooted in real places, the landscape of the tale being very important to me. So much so that I often think of the setting as a character in itself. For a long time I had harboured a wish to explore more of the county of Wiltshire in England. It is perhaps one of the lesser known regions of the country to outsiders, that is until you start to list what can be found there: Stonehenge, Longleat, Salisbury Plain, Old Sarum, Avebury Stones, Salisbury Cathedral, and of course the fabulous chalk horses carved into the hillsides. I found the combination of such a rich history and such expansive, glorious countryside irresistible.
Discussion Questions for ‘The Silver Witch’
The Silver Witch is arguably a story with three main characters: Tilda, Seren, and the lake itself.
Llangors Lake is just over the hill from where I live, and it is a place that has fascinated me since I was a child. I used to ride my pony from our farmhouse up and across the top of the mountain. After half an hour or so of trotting and cantering through the heather and bracken I would come to the plateau that forms the summit of this hill, from where you can see down into the valley on the other side. And there, nestling in the lush lowland meadows, with the majestic Beacons rising up behind it, sits the lake, shaped like an enormous tadpole, fringed by wetlands at one end, pastures and small woodlands at the other. From so high up the water often looked like glass, with the sun bouncing off it and reflections sharp and bright. Some days it would be shrouded in mist, and trapped by the vapour the sounds of the water birds would reverberate around the valley. If there was snow, the lake would show up as a dark, almost sinister hole in the midst of the gleaming whiteness surrounding it.
It is certainly a place to stir the imagination, and setting my story there made writing it a very special experience for me.
- Both Tilda and Seren live solitary lives. Who do you think was better suited to that solitude, and why?
- Which era appealed to you more, the modern day one, or the tenth century? Do you think you could have coped happily with living in Seren’s time?
- The lake meant different things to different people in the book. To Seren it was sacred and nurturing, to Tilda it was mysterious and challenging, to the professor it was home to his beloved birds and a memorial for his late wife. On the whole, did you find it threatening or comforting? Would you like to live close to such deep water? Tilda was terrified of even the thought of swimming in it, and yet she chose to live there. Could you understand why she might have done this?
- Seren’s position in her society was a conflicted one: she was both feared and revered. Who do you think held more power, Seren, or Prince Brynach? What did you think of him?
- Animals are very important in this story. Which one was your favorite, and why?
- What were your feelings about the work of the archeologists?
- The legend of the Afanc has existed in Welsh mythology for hundreds of years. If you found yourself alone, at the edge of the lake, on a misty morning, do you think you could believe it still lived in the deep water? Why is it, do you think, that we want to believe in such things? Do mythical creatures still fulfil the same purpose as they did for people living in the first millennium? If not, why do you think that has changed?
- When strange things began happening to Tilda she first tried to ignore them or explain them away. The point when she realised she might have some control over what was happening around her changed the way she saw herself. How do you think you would have responded in her situation?
- If you could add a new character to the story, either human or animal, what would you choose, and how might this change the way the story went?
- Tilda finds she has three new men in her life – Professor Williams, Dylan, and Lucas – at a time when she is mourning the loss of her husband, and missing her father. What did you feel about how she responded to them? How did you react to Dylan?
- If you could shapeshift, what would you turn into?
- How would you continue the story?
Reading Guide for ‘The Midnight Witch’
When writing The Midnight Witch I found myself in quite a dark and unsettling place, and I think the finished book reflects this. It is my dearest wish that readers will feel some of the same mystery and other-worldliness when they follow Lilith's story.
For me, part of the attraction of exploring the world of an ancient and powerful coven was to set it against the glamour and wealth of the upper classes in early 20th century Britain. Not only did this set the darkness is stark relief to the glitter and frivolity of the aristocratic lifestyle of the time, but I felt it was symbolic of the way human nature can be so multifaceted.
Lilith is a witch who speaks to the dead, but she lives her public life in the light and privilege of her time and class.
She is beautiful, and surrounded by beautiful things, but she is a necromancer, who must deal with death and the dead in a very particular way.
She is a daughter, sister, and friend, and loves her family, but must put them second to her coven.
She is a young woman in love, but to be the lover of a Lazarus witch is a dangerous thing indeed.
Points for Discussion
I hope the following questions and points might be helpful for Reading Groups. Don't forget I can be contacted via my website or facebook page, and would welcome your feedback and thoughts.
- Who was your favourite character? Why?
- Lilith had to make some hard choices regarding her family, her duty to the coven, and her love for Bram. Do you think she did the right thing? What might you have done differently in her situation?
- Whose household would you rather have lived in, Lilith's or Mangan's?
- Nicholas Stricklend was a very single-minded character. Do you think he was evil, or merely a man convinced what he was doing was right? Or both?
- Who would you cast in the main roles of a film of The Midnight Witch?
- The Lazarus Coven had a great responsibility to protect the Elixir and the Great Secret. Do you think they should have shared their knowledge of this gift to help people?
- Lilith's life after the war was very different from the way she was brought up. In what ways do you think her life improved? How did these changes alter her relationship with Bram?
- The Midnight Witch is a dark story told in a glittering setting - did you think this juxtaposition was successful, or did you expect something lighter to be set in this glamorous era and section of British society?
- If there was to be a sequel, have you any thoughts on what you think should happen next?
Reading Guide for ‘The Winter Witch’
Writing ‘The Winter Witch’ gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore a small slice of the history of Wales. Although born in Dorset, in the south west of England, my family moved here when I was five, and I very much regard Wales as my home. I grew up on a small hill farm, where my brother and I enjoyed the freedom of the mountain, far-reaching views, wild weather, and plentiful wildlife, all of which made for an idyllic childhood. Many of the ideas I had for Morgana’s early life came from my memories of seasons spent in this magical landscape. I set her background in the Cwmdu valley, which is where I lived until I left school.
When she moves to Tregaron she finds a countryside that is subtly different, yet both places have in common a wildness that is still powerful today. I wanted The Winter Witch to tell the story of how much the landscape shapes the people who inhabit it.
Welsh mountain winter, Two nineteenth century drovers, a little worse for wear!
Points for Discussion
- What did you think of the arranged marriage between Cai and Morgana? Which of them did you sympathize with more?
- What is your feeling about Morgana’s speechlessness? How do you think it helped or hindered her developing relationship with Cai. Did it make her harder for you to connect with as a reader?
- Mrs Jones became a very important person in Morgana’s life, what did you think of her? How might the story have been different without her?
- Superstition and the supernatural (arguably!) played a much bigger role in society in 1830 than they do now – how did they impact on Morgana’s new life at Ffynnon Las?
- Did you find the landscape around Ffynnon Las attractive, threatening, or perhaps both?
- Different characters in the book use their magic in different ways. Which of them do you think more closely conforms to most people’s idea of a witch? Why?
- Did you see Reverend Cadwaladr as a victim, or a weak man who should have known the right thing to do?
- The weather was almost a character in its own right in this book – would you agree with this statement? How much were you affected by it as you read?
Material for The Witch's Daughter
I hope Reading Groups will find the following Q & A helpful.
There’s also a short essay on the writing of The Witch’s Daughter, and some discussion questions at the end.
When you start a new book, do you like to outline the entire story or fly by the seat of your pants? What about your characters? Do you figure them out entirely before you start writing or do they reveal themselves to you along the way?
An idea will start forming in the murky mists of my mind, and out of that will step my main character. I’ll spend some weeks moodling over a story before I write anything down. It has to incubate before it’s ready to fall onto the page, even in note form. It is the characters who drive the story, and the clearer they become to me, the easier it is to find the tale they want to tell.
How do you come up with your character names?
I enjoy choosing names for my characters, but it often takes me a while to find the right one. Sometimes I’ll finish a book and then go back and change the main character’s name. In ‘The Witch’s Daughter’ names were even more significant than they ordinarily are. Both Elizabeth and Gideon had to have names that could be changed, slightly or more fundamentally depending on who they were ‘being’ or where they were. Fortunately, I’ve always been quite good at anagrams.
If your book were to be turned into a movie, would your dream cast be?
I think Rachel Weiss would be the perfect Elizabeth Hawksmith. Gideon would be harder to cast, but I’m always impressed by the performances of British actor Tom Hardy. He’d make a splendid job of it. Well, a girl can dream.
Which fictional character do you have a secret crush on?
I’ll try and avoid giving you a list! I spent many weeks as a teenager dreaming about Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff. And I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both a little worrying, really.
Desert Island time. You can bring one person and one thing. What would you bring?
As I couldn’t choose between my children I guess it’d have to be my partner. He’s good at all the things I’m rubbish at, like lighting fires, building shelters, fishing, etc. He’s also a good listener, so I could construct whole new books in my head and tell them to him, while sitting next to the fire he’s just lit, outside the shelter he’s built, eating the fish he’s caught. A fair division of labour, I feel.
I’d take a fine bone china cup and saucer. I’m sure there would be something on the island we could make tea out of, but it wouldn’t have the same calming-yet-restorative effect if I didn’t have a decent cup. Now I feel irredeemably British!
What's up next for you?
My new novel, ‘The Winter Witch’, is due out in the USA in February. It’s set in a remote and wild part of 1830s Wales, and I hope readers will take my new, feisty heroine to their hearts in the way they have done Bess.
I’m currently working on a third witchy book, set in anot
her era, and with a new witch, but you’ll have to wait a while before I’m ready to reveal more about that one!
Writing The Witch’s Daughter
I have long been fascinated by the idea of Witchcraft, and wanted to write a book based on the notion - What if there are Witches l
iving among us, here and now, using real magic? This in turn set me thinking about Witches in times before our own,
and how opinions have altered down the centuries. In Bess's time (the sixteen hu
ndreds) cunning women, or those using hedge craft to heal, were often accused of malecficia, that is, the use of magic to attempt to bring about bad events or harm to others. From our twenty-first century perspective this seems like fear and superstition causing panic and injustice, and we accept that most of these women were harmless, and indeed in many cases effective healers. But then - What if some of those women were true Witches? This gave me my start point for Elizabeth's origins.
By granting her immortality I was able to place her in other eras that I find fascinating. For me, there has always been a frisson of menace about Victorian London. It was a place of so much poverty and suffering, where the poor and the desperate rubbed shoulders with the wealthy but could only dream of the comfort and security their birth had assured them. The poorest, as always, were the most vulnerable, which is why I wanted Eliza (who of course had a strong social conscience) to live where she did, helping the prostitutes as best she could. I wanted to include Jack the Ripper as he symbolises all that was dangerous and cruel about the city as the century shuddered to a close.
I was particularly keen to position our heroine in the First World War. I wanted to see her tested to her limits, and to watch how she might be persuaded to use her magic to heal, whatever the personal cost. The very name Passchendaele conjures up suffering and emotion. The more I researched the third battle of Ypres, the conditions the troops and non-combatants endured, and the grim realities of the Field Hospitals, the more I knew Elise would be irresistibly drawn to such a place.
I was born in Dorset and although I moved to Wales when I was five I have spent many years visiting that part of England. I love the quintessentially English feel of the landscape. It is Thomas Hardy, and cream teas, and thatched cottages, and bucolic life, and all that is good and quiet and peaceful about the countryside. This setting, then, was the perfect foil for the darkness that continued to pursue Elizabeth and threatened both herself and Tegan.
I found writing The Witch’s Daughter a wonderful and entirely consuming experience. My family had to put up with many long months of me going about with a distracted look on my face, or were forced to drag me away from one of the myriad books I devoured while researching. My children got used to all their bedtime stories being about Witches, or the seventeenth century, or medical procedures one hundred and twenty years ago. My son is now well informed on the weaponry of the Great War, and my daughter insists on dressing as a Witch for fancy dress parties. They are as thrilled as I am that Elizabeth's story is now going out into the world. I hope readers find themselves as bewitched as I was by the idea of secret magic being among us if only we care to look for it.
- Gideon is a dark, unsympathetic character, and yet Bess found herself drawn to him. Why is there such a strong attraction to people we can see are bad, and did you, as a reader, find yourself repulsed or intrigued by Gideon?
- How did you react to the Witch trials and surrounding procedures in the book?
- One of the themes of The Witch’s Daughter is identity and trying to pinpoint what makes us who we really are. Is there a pivotal moment or event where Elizabeth realises magic is an inextricable part of herself?
- Names play an important role in the story. How are they used to reflect this theme of identity?
- Bess never uses her magic for personal gain. What do you think about the choices she makes regarding her use of the Craft?
- Why is Elizabeth's relationship with Tegan such a crucial one, both for her and for the story?
- The early seventeenth century and the early twentieth century were both times of great political instability and upheaval, whereas Victoria's reign provided decades of growth and prosperity for many. Which period in history did you most enjoy in the book, and why?
- The Passchendaele section is perhaps the most visceral part of the book. How did you find yourself responding to the horrors of wartime Flanders?
- Put yourself in Elizabeth's place. Are there things you would have done differently?