Toil and Trouble – How do you write about something you don’t believe in?

by Abie Longstaff

I write modern fairy tales. The world of The Fairytale Hairdresser (illustrated by Lauren Beard) is one of diversity and equality. The dwarves, fairies, princes and princesses are from all nations and cultures, and come with all kinds of physical abilities. My royals have jobs and hang out in normal clothes. Girls get their hair done, and boys get their hair done. The residents of fairyland adopt a range of lifestyle choices: some work and don’t marry, some marry and keep working, some marry and are home-makers. And the criminal justice system follows a legitimate and proportionate framework: baddies go to jail rather than being danced to death in red-hot shoes, or having their eyes pecked out by birds.

So I thought I was doing reasonably well in terms of political correctness and inclusion.

(From The Fairytale Hairdresser and Cinderella, by Abie Longstaff and Lauren Beard)

Then I got this email from a practising witch:

I am a Pagan Witch and have been for 30 years.

I wondered why you chose to show the witch in your story wearing a Pentagram/Pentacle. I find this offensive to my Faith as this depicts Witches to be bad and creates a thought and opinion in the minds of people who see this Symbol. You would have had a lot of bad press if you had shown her wearing a Star of David or a Cross for example and in fact probably would not have done that or even thought of doing that. So why show the Pentacle at all?

I am aware Witches have been depicted as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or ‘wicked’ throughout literary and film history, and obviously continues to be the case however it is 2017 not 1617, times have changed, and people just like me all around the world are trying to change opinions and stereotypes of those who are Witches regardless of which tradition they follow.’

This is the image she was referring to:

(From The Fairytale Hairdresser and the Princess and the Pea, by Abie Longstaff and Lauren Beard)

The email made me stop and think. It is, of course, true that witches are traditionally portrayed very unfairly in fairy-tale fiction as malevolent, with deformities and cackles. And that this is very far from the real tradition of witchcraft, which was more akin to herbalism and environmental wisdom. My correspondent was right: I hadn’t really thought of witchcraft as a faith, and hadn’t shown proper respect for the pentacle.

At first I excused myself because I don’t believe in witchcraft. But then, as an athetist, I don’t believe in other religions either. However, I do accept that many people experience and derive comfort from a belief in something beyond the physical world. I also feel it’s important to respect a person’s individual faith and to listen to those who know about topics outside my understanding or experience.

In my new How to Catch a Witch series, I wrote about two areas I knew nothing about: stammering and witchcraft. For my research into stammering, I spoke to the Michael Palin Centre and to the British Stammering Association. Each was fantastically helpful. I had so many questions: Can a stammer come and go? How does stress affect it? How does it make someone feel? And above all, I needed to know whether it was okay that my main character, Charlie, has a stammer at the start AND at the end of the book. There’s no ‘fixing’ and no ‘self-help’ in the story. It’s not an issue book. At the end, Charlie accepts her stammer. She finds peace with the way she talks and makes friends who accept her the way she is. To my great relief, they said yes – this was a good message.

Of course, no one can deny that a stammer is a real life thing. But what of the witchcraft? It was clear from the email that, even though I didn’t believe in Paganism, I still needed to treat the topic with sensitivity.

So I scoured the internet for forums and websites about witchcraft, reading chat topics and immersing myself as best I could in its lore. I wanted to steer clear of the demonisation of witches; to create a modern, contemporary witch, someone more real, and relatable. I deliberately took on the mind-set of witchcraft as a reality, and tried to imagine that, like my character, I was a new witch with emerging powers. My criterion for spells became: if someone on these forums believes this spell will work, I’ll use it. I researched every ingredient mentioned, learning that apple is good for healing, and that orange peel brings focus. I learned about sigils and shape shifting and poppet dolls and witch bottles.

In the end, I approached my research on both witchcraft and stammering in the same way, and incorporated each with equal reverence. Both topics remain outside my personal experience, but both have a need for respect and sensitivity. They are among many experiences waiting to be explored by eager writers everywhere.

I firmly believe that we need the freedom to write about topics we don’t believe in, or know little about. I applaud the own voices movement in its aim of increasing diversity in literature and publishing, and of encouraging the sensitivity of authors to their subject matter. I don’t think writers can be limited exclusively to issues they themselves have experienced, but we do have a duty to research topics thoroughly, to ask advice, and to listen to those who know. So I wrote back to my Pagan witch emailer and promised that I would be a lot more sensitive about how I depict the pentacle in future.

This was a guest blog provided by Abie Longstaff. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG. 

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