The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is garnering raves, including a Kirkus starred review: “Witchy magic, Nazi menace, and clockwork all come into play, along with an Enigma machine and spies for both the Allies and the Nazis seeking occult sources of power or protection. After the breathtaking climax, various threads of the story are tied up in a drawing-room denouement in which the characters decide to dispose of toxic magical artifacts rather carelessly—though in a way that invites anticipation (and fortuitously leaves room for sequels). An original, clever, page-turning adventure.”
And…a Booklist starred review: “This wonderfully written gothic fairy tale pairs the horror elements with a steampunk witch and mysterious staff, all while telling a war espionage tale. Embedded lessons—even including Plato’s cave allegory—from a pair of sympathetic castle teachers provide clues to defeating the evil witch. Readers will curl up and keep the lights on with this chilling page-turner.”
The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is set in Scotland for a number of reasons. First, the magic “lives” in a chatelaine (you can read more about that in my previous post) that is a European jewelry. Second, it felt right to place the children in a castle, with its dark, spooky corners, large scale, and ghostly history:
The castle loomed out of the fog at the end of the winding lane, after what seemed an age. Kat sat up straight, and Peter let out a low whistle.
Scotland’s magical coastline
It was much bigger than the picture had made it seem, a real castle with many turrets rising up through the gloom bit by bit, and it did look the sort of place that would house ghosts.
And third, Scotland is rich with magical history, from old tales to Celtic traditions to folkloric animals. Here are just a few of the latter.
Selkies are human-to-seal-and-back-again creatures. Most selkie stories are tragic love stories in which one of the lovers turns into a seal and must return to the sea, and cannot reunite with its human companion for seven years. In some tales a fisherman falls in love with a selkie only to lose her. The proximity of ocean to most of Scotland accounts for this and the many other magical creatures (waterhorses and sea monsters) attached in some way to the sea.
Changelings are creatures left in the place of a human infant. Usually elves or fairies were the culprits, taking the infant from her crib and replacing her with an ill or disabled child, or a disguised fairy child. A changeling child was often used as a way to explain sudden disease or developmental disability, with the result that the changeling could be left to die without guilt, and the assumption was that the real baby was living with the fairies. Sometimes a charm – such as an open pair of scissors left by the crib – was used to ward off the child-thieves.
Brownies are tiny creatures wearing brown clothing and looking like a little old man covered in curly brown hair. Brownies were usually helpful household creatures, working at night in secret in exchange for gifts of food, and living in attics or walls. Manor houses often kept a chair by the fire for use only by the brownie. It’s pretty certain that J.K. Rowling used the brownie myth as the basis for her “house elves” in Harry Potter.
Dobby, the brownie-like elf
Being familiar with the rich heritage of myths, fairy tales, and magical creatures that defines the world’s cultures is a sure way to add depth to stories set in those cultures. Since I’m of English-Scots-Irish descent, I felt like I was tapping into my roots when I visited the U.K. and borrowed some of its mysteries for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.
The original title of the novel was Chatelaine. You may be reacting to that title the way that the Viking Children’s marketing department reacted: What in the world is a chatelaine? Because they feared that young readers would have no clue, we changed the title.
I love the word, and it forms a crucial part of the story (although I do love the new title, too, and those wise marketing folks were right.)
Here’s what my main character Kat knows:
The chatelaine had been a gift to Margaret from her mother upon Margaret’s marriage, and Kat knew it to be a precious family heirloom. Wrought of silver and marked with the smith’s stamp, the chatelaine contained three useful items that hung from slender silver chains joined on a silver hoop.
In Kat’s case, and in the case of the other chatelaine in the story, these are objects endowed with magic – a magic that can be used for good or for ill. I was inspired to write the novel because a friend of mine posted an image of a chatelaine that was so evocative – and creepy – that it brought to my mind a story. (You’ll have to read the novel to find out more – no spoilers here!)
Originally the chatelaine (the word is linked to the French word “chateau” or castle) was the actual person who held the keys to the castle. The word evolved to mean the keys themselves worn in a cluster, and then to mean something like a charm bracelet worn at the waist.
Mrs. Hughes and her chatelaine.
The Oxford English Dictionary says a chatelaine is “an ornamental appendage worn by ladies at the waist, supposed to represent the bunch of keys, etc., of a medieval chatelaine; it consists of a number of short chains…bearing articles of household use and ornament.”
If you’ve watched Downtown Abbey, you’ve seen the chatelaine worn by Mrs. Hughes, which is a set of keys and other items.
During the eighteenth century some chatelaines became so elaborate they were almost clownish. The fad faded away in the early twentieth century as fashion changed and became simpler (check out my post on fashion in the early twentieth century for more).
Some chatelaines were much like a Swiss Army knife of practical objects. Some were strictly ornamental. Many are quite beautiful. You can think of them as physical “apps”.
What do you think – is it time to revive this fashion statement?
In the previous post, we reviewed the machines of war that influenced my novel. In this post, something about clocks.
In The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, Kat Bateson is a logical girl who idolizes her father. His hobby is clock-mending, and Kat spends her time with him learning about the inner workings of clocks, including the moment when he lets her help with a clock repair:
Her hands had trembled a little as she started, but after she’d disassembled the first layer of the works she grew bolder, and her father watched her, interjecting only a little. She’d cleaned and oiled the parts, and reassembled them, tightened the screws and adjusted the balance, and then set the clock to running. It gave a satisfying tick-tick.
Medieval clock in Salisbury Cathedral
Kat’s skill with clocks is a crucial element in the story.
Mechanical clocks may be an anachronism in the age of streaming time and digital watches, but they are also satisfying – and are resonant with meaning. Time travels in one direction. Time waits for no one. Time can be your friend, or your enemy.
My cuckoo clock
The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is a story that is at one level about time and its passage. Kat and her friends live during World War 2. The castle itself is ancient. Scotland is a country rich in history through the ages. The clocks of Rookskill Castle break down in the face of magic. The number 12 figures both in the hours of the clock and in the children of Rookskill (more on that in an upcoming post.)
When you open up the back of a mechanical clock, you’ll see a beautiful assemblage of wheels and gears all working synchronously. Mechanical clocks need mending, but they can work for centuries (unlike most things digital). In fact, the oldest mechanical clock is in Salisbury Cathedral in England. You can even make a mechanical clock yourself!
Nancy Drew and her clock
I love clocks. Our family has made a collection of clocks over many years, some inherited and some we’ve picked up along the way. All are mechanical, some chime, some just tick – and one, in my office, is a cuckoo clock, which can drive our guests crazy.
One of my favorite books as a kid was Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. I wonder now if it had a subconscious influence on my work. As a writer, I love playing with the concept of time, and what better way to suggest this than to use clocks in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle both physically and metaphorically?
In my next post, I’ll talk about the inspiration of jewelry.
When Father brought a short-wave wireless home a couple of weeks before leaving, he’d shown it only to Kat. “Here, Kitty. Have a look. I knew you’d be interested. Just keep it under your hat.”
A short wave radio
During World War 2, clandestine stations broadcast news from the Allies into Nazi-controlled Europe, and those stations could be accessed through short-wave radios which access transmissions by way of skip (off the Earth’s ionosphere) propagation. Long-distance communication using shortwave frequencies is often the recourse of governments or individuals seeking to transmit to foreign nations because it’s difficult to censor. I imagined what might happen if a short-wave radio was part of a spy’s tool kit in Rookskill Castle.
Another physical war-related item that appears in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is an enigma machine. Some models look a bit like a weird typewriter. They use rotors attached to the letters of the alphabet in several combinations in order to form encrypted information that can be transmitted. Enigma codes used mathematical cyphers as a product of permutations which made them especially hard to decode. The Germans used enigma machines with great success until code breakers were able to find the correct cyphers.
Women working in Bletchley Park
One of my inspirations for Kat was the number of young women who worked at the UK Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. You may be familiar with the work of Alan Turing through the movie The Imitation Game, but some 80% of the personnel who spent time deciphering code were women. They were not permitted to discuss the nature of their work, even after the war, yet without them the enigma codes would not have been broken.
The British were constantly monitoring the coastlines during the war, concerned that a German submarine, or U-boat, would allow for a landing and invasion, even if by a small company of spies. Abandoned fortifications remain along the coasts today.
I had a great deal of fun weaving these war-related details into the spooky mystery around Rookskill Castle. In my next post, I’ll talk about how clocks play a role in the story.
In The Charmed Children, Kat and her brother and sister are shipped out of London, as were many children, in an attempt to escape the Blitz in the fall of 1940:
The cab splashed through deep puddles and rain pelted the roof. They passed mounds of rubble, men in their clinging wet work clothes clearing flattened homes with picks and shovels and barrows. They passed St. Paul’s, rising stately and seemingly untouched from the ruins around it. Pride surged in Kat. The bustle of London—motors and buses and black umbrellas—continued as if there was no war. Londoners described the bombings as “blitzy,” as if they were some kind of nasty weather.
Londoners hunkered down in the Underground as the bombs fell.
This fall marks the 75th anniversary of the Blitz.
The Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) was a relentless bombing campaign waged by the German Luftwaffe on Great Britain and especially on the city of London. The Blitz was Adolf Hitler’s attempt to break the British spirit. But the British refused to be cowed by the German campaign, and the Royal Air Force was able to defend the homeland.
While many families sent their children to live in the country – and even to live in the United States – to escape the bombing, the British prided themselves on standing firm in the face of tragedy and deprivation.
Children who left London as evacuees.
One of the favorite sayings of the time was “Keep Calm And Carry On”, used on a poster. This and other similar morale boosting posters were created by the Ministry of Information at the behest of the British Government. The crown of King George VI, the bold colors, and the straightforward font were used consistently. (While most of the original posters were destroyed at the end of the war, you can order your own replica – and even make up your own saying! – here.)
The British did not falter even in the face of food shortages that required the government to introduce rationing. Meat, cheese, and eggs were among the foods rationed. Cottage gardens sprang up to combat the shortages, and ration books were the currency of the day.
The British held on with a “stiff upper lip” despite the great odds and the shortages until the United States, which had held an isolationist position despite its alliance with Great Britain, entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
A collection of authors with creepy/spooky/horror/mystery books like The Charmed Children is hosting the Crossroads blog tour and giveaway. I’m on Judith Graves’ blog today, and you can follow the tour path from there. There are lots of fun answers to questions, and a nice bonus if you win the prize at the end. So tag along, have fun, and good luck!
The pieces that made up Katherine Bateson’s world were scattered across the landscape and over the ocean, far and wide, blown about by the winds of war. Kat herself felt like one of the clocks in Father’s workshop, all wheels and plates and springs and pins strewn across the table, waiting.
But she squared her shoulders and told herself to hold her wits together. That’s what her father would want, and what her brother and sister needed. Especially given the urgency in Father’s letter to Mum, the letter sending the children away.
England’s entry into World War 2 was forced by the non-stop aggression of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. England formed the western front line against the German offensive; if not for English bravery and the entry of the United States into the European campaign, Germany might have taken Great Britain.
The evacuation of Dunkirk was hasty and dreadful.
In late 1938 Great Britain was led by Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. He was anxious to avoid another World War, and when Adolf Hitler’s Germany began an aggressive campaign in eastern Europe he cosigned the Munich Pact, giving Germany the go-ahead to invade Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, this Pact didn’t halt German aggression into the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by the German invasion of Poland.
The British had pledged support for Poland, and on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany.
Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940, and Churchill proved to be a charismatic as well as more aggressive leader. Later that same month the Germans staged a massive offensive, and the British Expeditionary Force had to evacuate Dunkirk in haste. Belgium and France fell to the Germans and the war gained terrible momentum.
In the summer and fall of 1940 Nazi Germany, with its deadly Luftwaffe (air force), engaged the British in the Battle of Britain. German pilots assailed Britain with almost nightly bombings, especially over the city of London. These bombings were known as the Blitzkrieg (German for “lightning war), or Blitz.
Nazi Germany was determined to rule all of Europe.
Several years ago I had the absolute joy of meeting Nanci Turner Steveson at a Highlights workshop, where I was a TA. Nanci’s breathtaking novel captured me then, and now I’m pleased to reveal the cover for her debut middle grade, SWING SIDEWAYS, due out from HarperCollins on May 3, 2016.
My next novel, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle (out from Viking 3/15/16), is a middle grade mystery that’s part fantasy, part historical fiction. It’s set in Scotland in 1940, although it also contains a parallel story in a much earlier timeline. I thought it would be fun to run a series of blog posts on both the historical context of the novel, and the setting itself, as well as some of the fantasy aspects of the story.
Here are some of the topics I’m hoping to cover in upcoming posts, all of which play a role in the story:
the London Blitz and other aspects of the early years of World War 2
some early history of Scotland, plus landscape, mythology, culture
spies, U-boats, enigma machines
mechanical clocks, mathematical algorithms
These are just a few of the possible subjects. For this post, I’d like to give you a small taste of the story. Plus…I’m running a SWAG giveaway!
First, a little teaser from the novel:
Kat stepped forward, hesitant. She unclasped the chatelaine and held it up. The three items—pen, scissors, thimble—swayed as they dangled from her fingers.
Aunt Margaret leaned toward Kat, her lips close to Kat’s ear, and dropped her voice to a whisper. “It’s quite magical, you know.”
“I’m sorry?” Kat whispered back. “Did you say magical?” Oh, goodness. Kat saw worry in the set of Mum’s face.
Aunt Margaret straightened. “Yes, my dear. I shall explain. But do remember this: be careful with magic.” She fixed her eyes on Kat’s. “Do you hear me, Katherine? Magic is tricky. There is always a price to pay for its use.”
If you’d like more, and you haven’t already subscribed to this blog or my newsletter, there’s a longer excerpt waiting for you as a gift for subscribing.
a necklace with charm (*while supplies last; one per customer)
a rook temporary tattoo
You can also preorder the book from your own indie, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble; the giveaway is only through Country Bookshelf. (But watch this space…there will be more giveaways as pub date draws near!)