The Big Idea: C.C. Finlay
Surprise: Everything you thought you knew about the American Revolution is wrong! Well, actually, not wrong, but if author C.C. Finlay has his way, you’ll come to believe it’s woefully incomplete. Why? Because in Finlay’s Traitor to the Crown trilogy, of which the latest, A Spell for the Revolution, has just come out, it’s not just rifles and muskets that the Colonists and the Tories used to fight each other — there’s also witchcraft in there, too.
How did Finlay weave the stuff of magic into and around existing American history? Here’s how.
A couple years ago, I was writing what I might call your standard fantasy and science fiction stories—many of them appearing, logically enough, in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—when my agent Matt pushed me to do something different.
“You did all that graduate work in American history,” he said. “Why don’t you use it? Why don’t you see if you have any ideas for historical fantasy?”
His emphasis was on the history. Naomi Novik’s books were taking off—like a dragon on a mission—and he thought that I might be able to write something in a similar vein.
It was a Thursday afternoon.
By Monday morning, I had outlined the three books that would become Traitor to the Crown. The concept was so simple: witches fighting on both sides of the war for American independence. The famous Salem witch trials of the 1690s took place in Salem, Boston, and Charlestown, all sites of early confrontations and battles in the American Revolution.
It felt like an idea just sitting there in the open, waiting for someone to pick it up. So I grabbed it and ran with it.
Imagine that the witchcraft at Salem was real, and that the witches were driven underground by the persecution. Decades later, on the eve of the Revolution, Proctor Brown—named for his ancestor, John Proctor, who was executed at Salem—is a minuteman in Massachusetts who also has a secret talent as a witch. As he gets drawn into the Revolution, from the very first shot fired at Lexington Green, he also gets pulled deeper and deeper into witchcraft. Deborah Walcott, a Quaker and pacifist, runs a farm outside Salem where witches go for training. Her own values conflict with Proctor’s, but she realizes that his talents are needed if the evil witches are going to be stopped.
At first, my plan was to write the books as alternate history. I would start from this premise and then spin events in a different direction as the magic unfolded. I dived into a stack of history books and primary sources, looking for people and situations that would make for good points of departure.
There were already plenty of unexplained mysteries in the Revolution, big and small. Who fired the shot heard round the world? Where did the lucky fog come from that allowed Washington to escape with his army from the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn Heights, which should have ended the war in British favor? How did the fire start that burned down half of New York City?
There were also, I quickly discovered, men and women in the period who believed in magic and tried to use it to change the outcome of events.
And that’s when I found New England’s Darkest Day.
On May 19, 1780, in the fifth year of the war, as both British and American forces were growing more desperate to win, a strange thing happened. At noon, the skies over New England went completely black. Not like an eclipse, but as dark as the darkest night. People thought the world was ending. With candles and lanterns, they made their way to their churches and prepared for Judgment Day.
I’m not making this up. Google it, or go check wikipedia.
That’s when I had the big idea.
What if my story wasn’t an alternate world? What if it took place in ours?
What if, on the Darkest Day, evil forces were at work and something did happen that almost brought our world to an end? What if the Revolution wasn’t just a war for independence, but a struggle between secret groups of witches with other goals?
Matt was right. Bringing my background in history together with my fiction was a great direction to go. I had more fun writing these books than anything else I’ve ever worked on. They were different enough from my earlier work that we shortened my name, from Charles Coleman Finlay to C. C. Finlay, to signal the change.
We sold the idea to Chris Schluep at Del Rey, who had a big idea of his own: bring the three books out over three months, so readers won’t have to wait for years to find out what happens. Or rather, to find out why the real events happened the way they did.
The first book, The Patriot Witch, came out on April 28. If I haven’t already tempted you into reading it, a free PDF of the whole book can be downloaded from my website until the end of May. The link’s below.
The second book, A Spell for the Revolution, hits the stores this week and follows Proctor and Deborah from the battle of Brooklyn Heights to Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. The third book, The Demon Redcoat—which takes Proctor to Paris and London and back, where he must face the Gordon Riots, the madness of King George, and the Darkest Day—will be in stores in June.