The Death’s Head Watch

I had a lot of fun writing The Artifact Hunters, partly because, well…artifacts! I could use real items from history, and things from legends, and things from fairy tales, because just about anything could become a magical artifact – an item that could be endowed with magical properties.

The very first of these is something I discovered by accident.

A Creepy Skull

Scary-looking but also fascinating, a Death’s Head Watch that happened to pop up in my research immediately inspired the story of The Artifact Hunters, because I wanted my story to have something to do with time.

And, mind you, this watch is a real thing.

Watches were invented in the seventeenth century, and word as pendants, what we would call today “pocket watches.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, certain of these pocket watches were housed in a silver case that resembled a human skull. Yes, a skull.

These watches are creepy, but that was the point – they were meant to remind the user that death is always on the horizon. Hence some were inscribed with the words memento mori (“remember that you will die”, in Latin). About the size of a small apple, they are also often elaborately decorated with engravings that made the message even more plain: images of Adam and Eve, images of Death with his sickle, images of castles next to huts to remind the user that wealth doesn’t prevent one’s eventual demise. The skull encased the watch face and movement and the watch is viewed by opening the jaw.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Legend has it that Mary Queen of Scots carried a Death’s Head watch. Upon her execution it was reportedly given to her favorite lady-in-waiting, but the watch disappeared for centuries. Recently a London museum has tried to verify the identity of a Death’s Head watch as the one owned by Queen Mary. The mystery and history of this watch gave rise to my idea that it was a Witch’s Watch, and was cursed.

To find out more about the particular watch in The Artifact Hunters you’ll have to wait for the story!

Resources

“The Macabre History of Death’s Head Watches”, Timepiece Chronicle, October 7, 2015. 

Also, if in London, visit the Clockmaker’s Museum. Reportedly, the Death’s Head Watch in their collection is the one owned by Mary, Queen of Scots.

Shhhhh!!!! A Secret Revealed!!!

The Artifact Hunters

Many of you already know that I have another book coming out August 25. It’s called The Artifact Hunters. Now, my publisher wanted me to write a “stand-alone” novel. Although Artifact Hunters is mostly set in Rookskill Castle (home of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle), and although some of the characters from Charmed Children appear in Artifact Hunters, my publisher is calling it a “companion novel.”

But I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m calling it a sequel.

What’s It About?

There are some differences between the two books. For one thing, Artifact Hunters takes place two years after Charmed Children, though World War 2 is still raging. For another, this new story is told from the point of view of a Jewish boy named Isaac Wolf, who has escaped Nazi-occupied Prague, and arrived at Rookskill Castle carrying a box containing…something magical. Mysterious. Scary.book cover

And Isaac is being pursued by…well. It’s kind of creepy, as you’ll find out.

And here’s the coolest part. Time travel. Yup – there is time travel in The Artifact Hunters, so you’ll see some really neat places in the past.

If you’ve read Charmed Children, you’ll also see familiar characters, like Kat Bateson. And you’ll find some answers to what happened to others, like the magister, and even Lady Eleanor.

And what about that weird castle itself? Are there other creatures about, ghosts and such? Hmm.

Ah…Artifacts!

You may wonder about artifacts, about what they are. Here’s what Amelie (remember her? She’s Kat’s sister in Charmed Children) has to say:

Amelie said, “Kat saved everyone in Rookskill from a monster who was using a magical artifact.”

“What does this mean, a magical artifact?” Isaac asked.

“An artifact is an old object, of any kind,” Amelie said. “Jewelry. A sword. A mirror. A potion. But a magical artifact is infused with power. Some of the stuff of legends, like, you know, Excalibur. Or Aladdin’s lamp with the genie inside or the Chinese emperor’s nightingale. Other objects may have magic but no stories about them. Yet.” She paused. “A magical artifact can be just about anything.”

I’m going to be discussing some of these artifacts and some of the historical aspects of World War 2 and such over the next few weeks. I made fascinating discoveries during the writing of this book, and I really can’t wait to share.

Because I believe there is magic in this world.

Please stay tuned, and check out The Artifact Hunters, available for preorder now – thanks!! – at any of these fine booksellers:

Country Bookshelf (signed copies! With fun stuff included!)

Amazon

Bookshop

New Author Visits For New Times

Teachers, librarians, and parents of homeschooled kids – I’ve revised my “Speaking” page to reflect the fact that I won’t be traveling for a while. I hope you’ll check out my offerings to breathe a little “authorly” depth into your school program.

It seems that life has changed for us all, and isn’t going to go back to normal for a long time.

In response to this new normal, I’m revising my author visits and presentations, and going “all virtual”. You’ll see on my speaking page that I’ve generated a set of packages that will hopefully meet your class or library group needs.

I’m open to modifications, as we all need to be flexible. But I hope you’ll contact me. Let’s build a better world for your students together!

Here is a video of me reading from THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. Enjoy!

A Respite in Yellowstone

In these troubled times, I hope this brings you some respite, as a tiny mini-vacation. This video is especially suitable for young kiddos, ages 5-9.

I live not far from Yellowstone National Park. It’s a special place to me. My son and I spent many days when he was little wandering through the Park’s thermal features, watching the animals from a safe distance, and enjoying the natural beauty and wonder of the place. My first novel, FAITHFUL, is set in Yellowstone.

And so is my first picture book: VOLCANO DREAMS: A STORY OF YELLOWSTONE.

I know that lots of you may have had plans to visit Yellowstone this summer, and now you can’t because of the pandemic. I made a short video to show you some of the beauty of Yellowstone, and take you on a mini-vacation.

I hope you enjoy this partial reading of the book, with its wonderful illustrations by Marlo Garnsworthy, and some of the photographs I’ve taken in the Park over the years.

You can learn more about Yellowstone, the super volcano, and do some fun activities here. Also check the book page for downloadable resources.

Big Picture Story Coach – Now Open

This may seem like a strange time to open a business. Social isolation, social discord…it’s confusing, horrifying, often overwhelming. And we all feel helpless, much of the time.

Creating a Safe Space For Readers

But I think so many have so much to say, whether in story form or memoir, fiction or non-fiction. As a writer I use the deep well of emotions that come from responding to times like these to frame stories that I hope will help. As a writer my life’s mission is to create a safe space for children to deal with complex issues and emotions of their own.

I think it’s a natural extension of that mission – to create a safe space – that I decided to take on another role, and learn to become a book coach. Thanks to everything I’ve learned (and am still learning) from Author Accelerator, I’m opening a business, Big Picture Story Coach.

Creating a Safe Space For Writers

If you are a writer who is struggling with a manuscript, or a wishful writer wanting to begin to express your ideas on the page, book coaching may be for you. Book coaching is holistic, developmental, and my mission as a coach is to create a safe space for you as a writer to either learn the skills or conquer your current project.

Take a look at the link above to my coaching business, and feel free to contact me with questions.

Using insight and a dose of magic to change the world, one book at a time.

An Interview with Angie Smibert

I’m delighted to host Angie Smibert, whose next spooky book, THE TRUCE, is out today! I’m going to dive right in…….

Please give us a brief summary of THE TRUCE.

This is probably a bit more set up than summary. (Don’t want to give away any spoilers.)

In the third book of the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series, it’s December 1942 in the small coal mining community of Big Vein, Virginia. By now, Bone Phillips (12) is growing accustomed to her a Gift, a family Gift, as her Mamaw calls, and maybe even begun to embrace it. Bone can see the stories or ghosts inside ordinary objects. But there’s one object her beloved Uncle Ash has forbidden her to touch: his dog tags from the first World War. He came back from that war a changed man, and every year about this time, he needs to escape for a while. He packs up the truck and his dogs and asks Bone to declare a truce with her dreaded Aunt Mattie while he’s gone. Reluctantly, Bone does. However, the truce is soon threatened by a discovery in the mine:  a body—wearing Uncle Ash’s dog tags. Bone has to use her Gift to solve the mystery. And that’s all I’ll say for now…except there is a ghost dog involved.

I love the premise of Bone’s gift. And Bone is such an interesting character. Tell us how you think of her – is there a bit of you in there?

The story started with a sense memory of swimming in the New River as a kid, much like Bone does in the beginning of Bone’s Gift, the first book in the series. I remembered the feeling of being that kid who didn’t want summer to end or to particularly grow up and be the ‘little lady’ that other people expected. Bone was born out of that feeling.

This is the third novel in the series. Will there be more?

That’s it for now! I’m playing around with a short story, though.

These three novels are set in rural Virginia, where you live. How do you feel about the connection to place in your writing?

Actually, I live in a city—Roanoke—in Southwest, Virginia. However, I grew up in Blacksburg, a small college town west of here. And my mother’s family is from McCoy, a rural area outside Blacksburg along the New River, where there were coal mines until the 1950s. One of them was called Big Vein. My grandfather and his brothers were miners there—until he got hurt. Then he took over his father’s store. In fact, I kept that store in the books. In many ways, writing these stories has been an exploration of this place that I came from. And as Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”

You weave folklore into the story. Talk a bit about that.

Appalachian folklore is part of the place, the characters, and even the plots of the books. Bone loves stories, from folktales and legends to movies and books. However, she doesn’t like real-life stories—so, of course, that’s why I gave her the Gift of being able to see those.

In each of the books, Bone or one of the other characters—like Uncle Ash—is always telling a folktale or ghost story from the region. Plus I also used a particular story as the “spine” (for lack of a better word) of the plot. For instance, in Bone’s Gift, Bone’s life mirrors a story she’s telling called “Ashpet”—the Appalachian version of Cinderella. In Lingering Echoes—which is set at Halloween—the ‘spine’ tale is Stingy Jack, the origin story of Jack O’Lanterns. At the heart of The Truce, there’s a ghost dog story.

Ghost or spirit dog stories are popular in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. (And also found in many other folklores.) A ghost dog might come to warn someone about an impending death. Or the big black dog might actually be there to claim a wicked person’s soul. However, in a few stories, the dog is protecting someone or some thing, such as a fabled silver mine. And as I said, in the Truce, there is a ghost dog and he/she might be near a mine.

The Truce is set at Christmas, which might not seem like a time for ghost stories. But it is! (Think A Christmas Carol!) An old Appalachian custom (as well as old Celtic/British one) was to tell ghost stories, particularly on Christmas Eve. (I won’t get into the whole Old Christmas day thing here!) This is probably a holdover from pagan Winter solstice practices of telling scary stories and making noise to drive away the spirits. So, of course, Bone is excited to tell some spooky tales for Christmas, but she also gets to live one involving a ghost dog.

For more on folklore and history in the series, please see my resource page: https://www.angiesmibert.com/blog/?page_id=1861#ghostsresources

What’s up next for you?

I’m working (slowly) on a spooky magical realism-type story set in the early 1970s in Appalachia that involves (so far) an old resort turned into an artist commune and a ghost or two. I’m also still teaching writing. That takes up a lot of my time lately. 😉

Thanks, Angie!

What I’m Learning When Starting Something New

In my last post I wrote about how I’m opening a new business, Big Picture Story Coach. This is the first time I’ve even thought about becoming a business owner. I know this might be a strange time to be starting something new but I’m excited. (Fortunately, this business is freelance and home-based.) I’m learning a few things along the way that I thought I’d share, as you might like some of these resources.

Taking a Course

Taking the Author Accelerator course was the most important step on this new path. For one thing, there’s a tremendous amount of craft-based knowledge in the program, so even if I hadn’t decided to become a book coach, I got my money’s worth. But Author Accelerator also provides templates for building a coaching business, everything from how to handle client needs to what to/how to charge. I took the additional Business course for an even deeper understanding, and I’ll be signing up for future masterminds and other add-ons. This was the most expensive investment I’ve made so far, but it’s already paying for itself in client fees.

Building a New Web Presence

My new business needed a URL, so the next thing I did was go to GoDaddy (where I have an account already for my other website URLs) and look up several possible names to find one not taken. I settled on Big Picture Story Coach because it said everything about my new business – that I am a story coach (not an editor) and that I work on the holistic side (not copyediting or ghostwriting). Purchasing that domain cost almost nothing.

I’m also a writer with a long-standing website in my own name, and I didn’t want to have to manage a brand-new extra website, or pay to build one. It turns out that I just need to add a page to my existing site, and link that URL to the existing site. That happens this week, with my favorite web designer Websy Daisy.

Managing the Business

After conferring with my accountant I decided to obtain a state LLC for the business, which gives me some protection and separation from my personal finances, and doesn’t cost much at all. As soon as I can get back to my bank (thanks, coronavirus) I’ll open a separate bank account and manage it through QuickBooks.

Designing For Fun

Nothing has to be fancy. You don’t need a logo. Hiring someone to design you a logo can cost a lot of money. I’m sure that if I went to the designer I use for my bookmarks, etc. he’d do a spectacular job. It’s a local business, by the way, and I love them and their quality results.

My homemade logo

But to save myself the hundreds of dollars and still have something fun, I made my own simple logo using Canva. Because my URL/LLC name doesn’t have a good visual, I added Fox Tales to my business name, and was able to create a logo by using my existing fox logo (that fox is an image that came from my husband’s family). I used the fox’s tail to represent a quill feather and added a drop to represent ink. Simple and clean, and Canva made it easy. I use Canva for all sorts of things, from Twitter posts to Facebook headers to posters.

From there I could design a letterhead, business cards (I love Moo for their quality and price), and templates for the forms to send to clients.

There are lots of other business tips and tricks that Author Accelerator taught me, and I can’t say enough good things about this group. If any of the things I’ve shared here helps you at all, let me know!

Stay well, be safe.

Books Have Never Been More Essential

Books are essential. I’ve always felt this way.

I was an avid reader as a kid – it was a family joke. If I couldn’t be found it was because I was hiding with my “nose in a book”. I’ve wanted to be a writer since third grade, when my teacher sent a poem I’d written into the town paper and I saw my name in print for the first time.

So it’s no surprise that I stuck it out, through many, many rejections, through many, many years learning the craft of writing, through going back for my MFA in writing, through the ups and downs of publishing, through changing agents, through books that failed and books that did well, through books that went out of print, to books I’m deeply proud to have written. I believe in the power of story to affect lives.

I believe in books.

And I think now that books – stories, whether true or imagined – are more essential than ever.

Last fall I embarked on something that came to me from out of the blue. I enrolled in a course with Author Accelerator that would teach me how to become a book coach.

This speaks not only to my love of reading, but also to my love of teaching. For many of my writing years I’ve been teaching at conferences and in workshops, on a monthly basis in my local SCBWI group, and I’ve taught language arts at the middle and high school levels. With book coaching I feel I can use all my skills in one-on-one interactions that are both greatly satisfying to me – and also to those I coach.

Book coaching is a bit like developmental editing. It’s reading and working with a client on a manuscript from start to finish, and helping that client reach their personal goal for their work.

I’m thrilled that after six months of taking the course, and completing the Practicums, I’ve been certified through the Advanced level of Author Accelerator’s Book Coach Certification Program.

In a few weeks I’ll be opening my business – Big Picture Story Coach – right here, as part of this website. Please check back after June 1, and do let me know if you’re curious about what I’ll be doing.

Making Trouble (For Your Characters)

This writing craft tip might feel a little too uncomfortably familiar at the moment. I know a lot of writers right now can’t find focus, and I hear you. Some days it’s like walking through wet cement. Navigating a terrible situation requires processing.

I hope this post helps you when you’re ready.

Our Stories, Ourselves

As I’ve said repeatedly in my craft discussions, the best stories are those that come from deep emotions, and the deepest emotional well is the one we tap from inside ourselves. But that task carries a conundrum.

As we connect with our characters in order to tap our own emotional resource, we tend to feel tied to those characters, and we can become protective. We don’t want Belle to suffer, so we build a wall around her. We keep her from getting hurt. We don’t let her do anything dangerous – she marches through the things that happen on the page and comes away unscathed and not responsible. We won’t let her heart be broken by that cute guy. We won’t let her be the murder suspect. We won’t take away her family, or drop her unarmed on that alien planet, or push her headlong into the dragon’s lair.

We sure won’t let her feel the effects of a pandemic.

And while that makes for the life we all want (especially right now), it makes for very poor fiction.

What Readers Need from Fiction

Readers search for a number of things when reading fiction. Escape, certainly. We want to leave the world behind for a few hours, get lost inside a world that is not our own. Language, often, as we enjoy the beauty of articulate construction.

But we also search, albeit mostly without realizing it, for lessons.

Why do you suppose that a lot of people right now are gravitating toward pandemic fiction? Albert Camus’s classic The Plague has risen from the past, and the more recent Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel recounts a viral epidemic much like our own, though deadlier than our own (we hope). Readers finding these books are looking for answers. They need to know how to behave, what to do, what to expect, and how to feel for those going through these difficulties.

Fiction is fiction, but the best writers who tackle subjects like these do extensive research and think broadly about the “what-ifs” and potential outcomes and emotional impacts. And that’s why their stories are so good.

Writing Tough Topics for Young Readers

Because I write for young readers my approach to writing about a difficult subject is tempered. I don’t want to terrify; but I do want to inform. Informing means making trouble for my protagonist because only by getting her into trouble will readers see how they can get themselves out. And just as importantly, they will feel empathy for a protagonist in a tough situation they have not experienced.

One approach to a tough topic for young readers might be to create a metaphorical story, which is one reason kids like “scary” or “spooky” stories, and mysteries, and fantasies, and science fiction. But we can’t lay off the difficulties our protagonists must face. If we do, we run the risk of not only creating a boring story but more importantly a story that cannot inform.

When you go back to writing, or if you’re fortunate enough to be writing now, do keep making trouble for your protagonists. You will connect with your readers, and they will find what they need from your stories.

How are you doing?? Are you able to write? What do you think will be the right topics for young readers?

We Can Change the World*

Last week I wrote about how artists struggle to work in the face of something terrible like this global pandemic. This week I want to write about a broader artistic issue. And don’t worry, I’ll get back to the minutiae of craft soon! But the world feels too…big right now. So please forgive my “big” talks.

Making Purpose-Driven Art

Last week I wrote:

Artists need to make art that will make people think – think about these disparities, think about the astonishing lack of governance from our national leaders, think about this economic division that has been a long time coming and we haven’t fixed it. We need to make art that will make people feel – feel empathy, feel guilt, feel motivation.

We need to make art that will shake the very ground on which we stand.

Here’s Eric Clapton to listen to while you read the rest:

The Generous Spirit

Writing from a place of emotion and empathy – making purpose-driven art – requires that we artists walk the walk.

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and she talks about all manner of things but this one struck me. In her list of creative exercises/how-tos is one called “How to Be Lucky”.  And her answer is, be generous. It struck me because all of the “lucky” talented people I know – the ones who have made the best seller lists, found the right agents, reached audiences – the ones that many aspiring artists look up to – are truly, deeply generous.

By that Ms. Tharp means, when you are giving of your creative self, you are giving away good fortune. You are manifesting good karma. And good karma has a way of ricocheting back to the benefactor.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that artists sacrifice their income by giving away hours of hard work and thoughtful effort. We all need to live in this world. I do school visits and I coach writers to supplement my income, as do so many colleagues. The kind of generosity Ms. Tharp is talking about (and I hope I can relate this truly) lies in the small moments. Directing someone to an article that speaks to their craft issue. Looking a child in the eyes and smiling and engaging as they hand you a book to sign. Being there for a colleague who needs encouragement or boosting. Small moments that add up to big movements.

I think what Ms. Tharp is talking about is kindness.

An Empathy Movement

There’s a lot going on today in the world that sucks away kindness. We are a world divided on many issues, some all too real, some wildly misguided. As artists we can have a role in changing the world.

I think the world has never been more fragile.

…i.e., the world has never been more ripe for change.

Art is powerful. By reaching into deep emotions – by building story lines that raise questions – by creating purpose-driven art – yes, we artists can make a difference.

An empathy movement is one in which we, artists, open the doors to reflection. We set choices before our audiences and let them decide. We create safe spaces for audiences to enter that allow them to examine themselves and societal constructs, without condemnation or evaluation.

An empathy movement has the power to go the distance.

An empathy movement also connects artists to one another, and I think that’s one of the best things that I’ve observed happening in the face of this current crisis – artists coming together to support one another and the world at large.

If you are struggling, I hope you will reach out. I hope you will find comfort. I hope you will be able to work – especially, to work, because we need your work – and to live.

For, all of us together, we artists, we generous and kind spirits, we have the power to change the world.

*With credit to Eric Clapton.