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.


A Spell For the Revolution: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

The PDF for The Patriot Witch is available here through May 2009. See other free fiction from C.C. Finlay here. Visit his LiveJournal.

41 Comments on “The Big Idea: C.C. Finlay”

  1. It is delicious historical fantasy. I must read it.

    This is an excellent write-up. I feel as excited by the premise as I did when I first heard about Naomi Novik’s NAPOLEONIC DRAGON WARS. I am so buying these books ASAP.

  2. I’m currently reading The Patriot Witch and enjoying it a lot. I have a degree in history, with an emphasis on American history, and I am truly enjoying the authentic historical background. The early section with the Battle of Lexington and Concord is wonderfully presented, and accurate as far as I’m familiar with the history (well, except for the charms and witchcraft part, which is still pretty minimal at this point in the text).

    Now that I know that the second book is in stores, I’ll have to go to my local Hastings and get it. I know that I’ll want to read it as soon as I’m done with the first. I liked Novik’s books, but I’ve never cared much for nautical books, so this series is much, much more up my alley. People should give it a try.

  3. I’m reading The Patriot Witch now and am loving it. Really hoping I’ll have time to read the other two books in the series before deadline pressures prevent me from purely pleasure reading.

    I’m glad to hear Jim chime in as to the historical accuracy of the books; it feels very authentic to me, but I’m no historian, so glad to hear it works for experts too. But I think that’s important too–that if you’re NOT a historian or even a history buff, the book is presented in such a way that it doesn’t matter, and Finlay fills you in on the necessary detail without bogging the book down in a history lesson.

  4. Awesomecakes with awesomesauce made from real awesometrees. With a side of bacon, even.

    It’s worth noting that the release schedule along with the mass market release mirror’s Naomi Novik’s books as well, and unsurprisingly those also cam out from Del Ray.

    And I know I might catch hell for this, given the last discussion, but the cover design for the Del Ray mass market Temeraire novels has a similar structure – field of abstract color, physical object in the center, no recognizable human figures. The Temeraire novels have a dragon curled around a cameo type device with an image shown in the center of something relevant to the books (a ship, a Chinese building, a cannon).

  5. In my first quick scan across the cover image, I read it as “A Spiel for the Revolution.”

    Which could lead to a Big Idea of its own, I guess…

  6. I’m reading Patriot Witch right now. It’s like what would have happened if Johnny Tremain had a cousin named Harry Potter. Good stuff.

  7. LOTS of Magic in Brooklyn Heights.

    “Where did the lucky fog come from that allowed Washington to escape with his army from the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn Heights…”

    I used to live on Montague Street

    Believe it or not, I used to live on Montague Street.
    Really. In the same building where Arthur Miller
    (Death of Salesman) lived. And in which penthouse
    apartment Andy Warhol shot one of his first films. And
    where his actress (now also painter and author) Mary
    Woronov (Rock & Roll High, Eating Raoul) babysat me. She pretended to be a witch. Burned black candles on a human skull. Kept us kids in line with threats of transmogrification…

    Yes, it’s an important street in the history of
    Brooklyn Heights, and the United States, for that
    matter. At its foot is The Promenade, and the memorial
    about George Washington’s escape by night across the
    river to New Jersey, as part of the Battle of Long

    Montague Street is the key to the whole song. Cafes,
    revolution in the air.

    I’ve written tens of thousands of words on this. Don’t
    get me started. Music — which music? Google for which
    musicians were in Brooklyn Heights when Dylan visited
    from Greenwich Village and the like. Revolution —
    which revolutionaries?

    But google some more, and you’ll see that other
    Dylanologists have latched on tho Montague Street, and
    debated it.

    Moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1952, lived there while
    it and The Village were the two poles of bookstores
    and counterculture — ahhh, the Beatnik era.
    Stuyvesant High School. Then left for Caltech at age
    16; mother died; father moved, he remarried several
    times; died. I still have a cousin and an uncle in New
    York City, but visit at most once a year now. In a
    sense, though, once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker,
    albeit I’ve also lived for years in Amherst, Mass.;
    Seattle area; and more time in Pasadena, California
    area than anyplace else.

    “You Can’t Go Home Again”; “Only the Dead Know
    Brooklyn”; “New York State of Mind.”

    My father used to gripe about traffic reports that
    referred to “The G.W. bridge” as that had the same
    number of syllables as “The George Washington Bridge”
    and thus was a fixed point rather than a contraction
    in auditory space.

  8. Damn you, Charles. Here I was, planning on waiting a couple of years for the tale to become complete before investing time and money in the series — and you reveal an evil plot to bring the whole schmere out all at once! Unheard of! Scurrilous!

    I love it! (And I’m not teaching in July and August…)

    Dr. Phil

  9. oddly enough, i just put this series on my ‘to be read’ list (which is growing ever so long atm, as i await the arrival of my kindle next month.)

    kudos for putting the first book up for free — that’s always an incentive for me to buy.

  10. *sigh* pdf format instead of any other possible format that could be read on any ereader. I’m not sure this is for me, and there’s no way I’m sitting in front of a pc to read this. I’ll pass.

  11. QueenTess:

    I’m not entirely sure dramatic sighing is required when someone offering you something for free doesn’t do it to your exact specification.

  12. Can I dramatically scream every time someone says “pdf format” or “atm machine”?

  13. “I’m not entirely sure dramatic sighing is required when someone offering you something for free doesn’t do it to your exact specification.”

    Sure it does. If someone offers me something free thinking I’ll take it as part of a marketing effort, I think they deserve to know why I’m turning them down. The dramatic *sigh* is because many publishers are using PDF’s and maybe don’t understand that many people don’t like to read novels from their computer screens?

    It’s PDF format as opposed to MOBI format or PRC format or ePUB format. Yes, I know the word “format” is in the acronym; no, I don’t care.

  14. QueenTess: The books are available in every e-format available, for your Kindle or Sony reader, from Random House, Amazon, Fictionwise, etc., but you do have to pay.

    We convinced Del Rey to give the PDF version of THE PATRIOT WITCH away only because it’s the penultimate version, the equivalent of sending bound galleys out for review. You’ll notice that it even has a different cover.

    Josh Jasper: I would scream with you but I’ve run into too many people who don’t know that PDF includes “format” or even understand what PDF is. I know that seems unreal, but it’s true: so either you have to stop to explain it to them or you redundantly include “format” so they can figure it out on their own.

    Thanks for all the great comments about the books! They were definitely made with a side of bacon.

  15. Charles – She knew. And she said it *anyway*. That’s like fingers on chalkboards. Or farting in a slow moving elevator.

    I’ll just have to think about GNU to soothe my brain.

  16. QueenTess:

    “Sure it does.”

    Actually, no, it doesn’t.

    It’s one thing to give the opinion that it would be nice to have the thing in another format. What you’re doing is akin to saying “stupid people, can’t they see that they’re doing it completely wrong?” And the fact is they’re not; I for one prefer PDFs because, among other things, I prefer reading electronic copies on my nice vasty monitor than on a cramped handheld. Not to mention that PDFs are generally supported regardless of appliance, while other formats may not be.

    So maybe it is you who doesn’t understand simply because you don’t like something doesn’t mean the dislike is universal, or that it’s being done wrong, for values of “wrong” that do not pertain precisely to you. And you might entertain the notion that the world does not always specify itself to your demands. Even when it’s offering you something for free.

  17. @ Harry Connolly – let’s hope more publishers learn from DelRey on this. It worked really well with Novik, and it builds a stable of authors any of whom could be the next Robert Jordan (sales wise, I mean, not style or quality) , which I’m told is a goal for a lot of F/SF imprints.

  18. Great books in every respect. Also, bad form to look a gift PDF file in the mouth.

    Generally, it takes two minutes to convert a PDF into Ereader format using Palm PDF.

  19. I’m reading The Patriot Witch now and loving it. Some things have that familiar Finlay stamp—how grounded the characters are, for one—but the energy of this is quite different. I’ve enjoyed your work before, but this is a really great read.

  20. Sounds pretty interesting. I’ll give the Patriot Witch a try. One thing I’ve seen in a few works of alternate history is that they spend too much time going into fine detail on what exactly is different about the world.

    Thanks for offering up the first book free (and in PDF!), hopefully its like crack and after the first free taste you want more! Delicious crack…

  21. I’m not going to complain too much about a free book in PDF format but it seems smarter to offer up the first rock of crack in a size that will fit into any crack pipe.

    I got Her Majesty’s Dragon for free from amazon and I liked it enough that I bought the next 3 books. I may not have done that if I had to deal with trying to get the PDF to work on my Kindle. So in this case offering only a free PDF could have cost the sale of the next 3 (and more) books.

    Still it’s free and sounds interesting so I’ll spend 10 or 15 minutes trying to get it to work on the Kindle.

  22. “Bringing my background in history together with my fiction was a great direction to go.”

    I think Charlie’s at the forefront of a movement (I certainly hope so at any rate) in fantasy that combines the rigors of serious research of real events interlaced with magic and the supernatural. So much of fantasy already uses historical research as a starting point that Charlie’s deft weaving of historical fact and magical fiction is so seamless that its easy to wonder if he hasn’t stumbled upon a heretofore hidden archive of historical documents that chronicle real witches at war during the Revolution.

    As for the whole .pdf/efile discussion, I prefer my reading on parchment.

  23. But…But… I haven’t finished reading the Hugo nominees yet! (Sighs- in contentment!, downloads, makes note for later purchase)

  24. Over the last couple of days I have finished up both The Patriot Witch and A Spell for the Revolution – and really enjoyed them both. Fast paced and a lot of fun with a solid groundrock of history underneath and a very sympathetic likable main character in Minute Man/witch Proctor Brown. Can’t wait for The Demon Redcoat!

    I wish more publishers would do this – release the books in a series close together (if at all possible) and in consumer friendly mass market paperback.

  25. Oh, hell. I’ve already splurged on needle felting books recently, to indulge another addiction. But these books sound just to my taste! I popped over the Amazon and ordered all three. Since I’m sure my mom will enjoy these, as well, and likely my son will snitch them as soon as I’m done, I’ll say this qualifies as inexpensive family entertainment.

  26. #31 lene:
    Both of my teenaged sons love history in general and love to read fantasy, and I think that both of them will adore these books. As soon as the third one is out in June and I have had a chance to read it, I plan on passing all three along the family reading chain.

    While they are set in a war, and therefore have some violence, they are certainly not so over the top with the violence and/or gore that they would be disturbing to most people, and should be OK for teens used to reading about subjects like warfare.

    Not sure how old your son is, but I will not hesitate passing these on to my teens.

  27. My son just turned 23, so no worries there. I actually really never set limits on what he read even when he was young. When I was growing up, our house was full of books and the policy was that I could read anything that I chose to grab from the shelves (or piles.) The summer I turned 10 was a memorable one for me, because I read Dracula, which scared the shit right outta me, and Terry Southern’s book, Candy. Both were eye-openers, in their own ways. Since I seem to have turned out reasonably well, despite the mind warping, I figured it was a policy I could follow with my own kid. He’s a great human being, so I guess my lax attitude didn’t screw him up.

  28. Zoe’s Tale grabbed me the most. It tied the whole of OMW and TGB together, and the move to Roanoke was really tight. The humanity of the story and humor bites played really well. Zoe’s four, Hickery, Dickery, Dock & Zoe’s growth and the main thread were great; the other three threads and the OBIN at the Conclave homeword meet-up -and kick+butt scene, moving. You’re every bit of good as Robert Heinlein, and I read ALL the books! CDF was Science Inventive about immortal troops with a twist. Characters so real, that I lived in the books. Only the best do that for me. The prior is an appreciation for you, your skill and the gifted author you are and the perspective to spin the web of reality in a saga so well told. Truly as if it were a future in which real folks were speaking. Sharp edges,reality,deep personal lives: really three dimensional. From an Ohio guy young for his age, but still up for the future, I really appreciate your work. Thanks. Ad Astra per Aspera.

  29. “File corrupted and cannot be repaired.” Oh woes.

    (This probably has more to do with the version of Windows and Adobe on my ancient machine than the file itself, but I just thought I’d let you know.)

  30. Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son series had a similar concept (early American history with magic). The first couple of installments were quite good (“Seventh Son” and “Red Prophet”), though I lost interest in that series after that.

  31. Just to note the other side, I actually like to read PDFs as I appreciate the professional typesetting. If I’m going to read a book at the computer I’d *much* prefer to read one built to make it easier to read. And I have a comfy computer chair and a nice big monitor. I’m still trying to figure out a way to sprawl out on the bed and read e-books on the big LCD monitor that doesn’t involve moving hardware around.

    I’d never buy an e-book reader that didn’t support PDFs, ’cause that’s just silly. I read a lot of academic articles, and many of them are PDFs.

  32. Well, there’s already a subgenre doing what Charles did, I thought – “secret history” books. _Like_ alternate histories, except they try to have the divergent parts be hidden from general history, so that what gets recorded is The Stuff We Learned In School. Of course, the further back you go, the more room there is outside of what actually got recorded and survived this long…


  33. FWIW, Adobe has a free PDF reader for Palm devices. I have Patriot Witch on my (old, but it’s MINE!) PDA for reading while waiting in offices, lines, and such.

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