Swan Totems

photo by Fiona Claire
The term Druid comes from the words ‘oak’ and ‘door’—with the symbol of the door being central in Druidic teaching. Like other shamanic paths, the symbolic door offers a way to enter into a different reality. Which is why I chose the main image for this website.

Shamanic teachings in cultures around the globe usually involve totems. A totem is an animal, bird or insect with whom you develop a special bond, sensing them in your consciousness via meditation, dreams, and physical encounters.

Perhaps because I live near a large body of water, the totem animals I encounter are often water fowl—swans, ducks, geese—and less often, otters, foxes and hares.

In Druidry, animals, including birds and insects, can be allies, guides and teachers. They enter our awareness to help us discover a path to personal growth. That’s why, when I encounter one of these creatures in my walks through the countryside, I’m always delighted. It’s an occasion for pause, reflection, and gratitude. Usually, I receive a meaningful message from these encounters.

Lately, I’ve encountered a lot of swans, either on my walks by the lake or flying in formation. In Ireland, the swans are mute, but their powerful wings vibrate with a whooping sound that can be heard for miles. Swans are totems of love and beauty, and they are particularly auspicious symbols for writers. Bards, the story-tellers of Celtic tribes, wore ceremonial cloaks made of swan’s skin and feathers. Perhaps most importantly, swans represent an inner call from the soul.
photo by Steve Chilton
Last week, as I sat outside compiling a list of agents to query with my novel (which follows a legend that inspired Swan Lake), a flock of ten swans flew past my house toward the lake. I jumped up and waved at them, like an idiot, sending them silent well-wishes.

It never ceases to amaze me, the gifts natures chooses to give!

Daughters of the Night Sky

Daughters of the Night Sky is Aimie Runyan's fourth novel. It's a tale of wartime valor about a group of Russian female pilots (and one in particular) who fought the Nazis during WWII. Here, Aimie tells us about the birth of this facsinating story.

F: When/How did you find out about these pilots? What inspired you to write about them?

A: I found these women by happy accident. I was hunting to shift away from the 17th century as my focus of research, and a lot of my critique partners and colleagues knew I was on the quest for the Next Big Idea as I finished up edits on my second book, Duty to the Crown. There was an article circulating on Facebook commemorating these women (I believe the last of them may have passed away, which sparked the post.) I had multiple friends send it to me with notes saying “this is what you do! Write this book!!!” and so I filed it away until it was time to start up the next project. When I was discussing the options with my agent, it was the idea that really stuck with us.

F: Did you travel to do research? If so, where did you go? If not, how did you research this story?

A: I got to go to Seattle to the Flying Heritage Collection to see an actual Polikarpov PO-2 which is the plane the women flew in combat. These machines were built in the late 20s and made from wood and linen. Open cockpit. Just about as sophisticated a machine as your average lawnmower. But they were flying at hundreds of meters up in the air in sub-zero temperatures. I wouldn’t trust my lawnmower with that job. It was fabulous to see the plane in person and to get a sense of its history. Sadly, it wasn’t flying that day, so I found a local pilot who owns a WWII era open cockpit biplane—somewhat fancier than the Polikarpov, but not much—and paid for a joyride. It was one of the highlights of my research career. Apart from that, my research was very traditional. Lots of library texts, Youtube videos, Google Maps, and beating my head against a wall. I DID have the chance to spend some time in Alaska several years ago, and used that as the basis for my descriptions of the Russian countryside. I’ve been told by people in the know, that it was a very good analogy.
F: I love the cover image. Did you have any part in choosing that?

A: A bit. Because the cover is pieced together from bits of various photographs, I got to weigh in on the model herself, the uniform, the planes, the background, the fonts, etc. We tweaked her hair, changed the position of the planes, and things of that sort. It was fantastic to feel like I was part of the process, though the cover designer and the good folks at Lake Union are far better at design than I am! I think the end result is spectacular, if I do say so myself.

F: What’s a typical day like for you? Is it easy or a challenge to make time for writing?

A: I am the mother of two small children, so I’m not sure if any day really qualifies as “typical”. Right now I get to write for about 6 hours Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with a little smattering of time on Tuesdays. That includes drafting new projects, editing, and promotion. I’d love to have 8-9 hours 5 days a week to write, but what I have is pretty great. Next school year I’ll get Tuesdays and Fridays back, though I’ll get probably more like 5.5 hours a day, but the consecutive writing days will be wonderful for momentum. The secret is to be focused on what I’m doing when I’m working on it. It’s easy to waste a lot of time wishing I was writing when I’m doing the dishes or worrying about the kids when I’m writing, but if I am present where i am, all those things get more attention in the long run.

F: Are you working on another project now? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?

A: Yes! I am finishing up the first draft of another historical, GIRLS ON THE LINE. It has to do with the women who were telephone operators in France during the first world war, and it has been such a joy to write. I can’t wait for you all to meet Ruby!!!
If you'd like to know more about Aimie, check out her website, here: http://www.aimiekrunyan.com/

Creatures of the Night and NaNoWriMo

They creep out of the shadows at twilight, looking to eat living creatures. Little grunting noises of pleasure escape them as their sharp teeth sink into soft, slimy flesh.

They’re adorable little creatures, and I’m grateful for their presence. But as National Novel Writing Month begins, the cute little Hedgehogs that have been devouring the slugs and snails in my garden on summer nights, will now go into hibernation.
All autumn, these little balls of prickly fur have been feasting on as much grub as they can gobble—beetles, worms, roly-polies, maybe a fallen blackberry or two—before their long winter nap. During that deep sleep, their heart rate will slow, their body temperature lowers, and by March when they wake up, they’ll have lost twenty to forty percent of their body weight.

Before the winter wind and rain comes, they’re scurrying along hedgerows, gathering leaves and moss to insulate their nests. Sometimes I leave lint from the dryer under the hedgerow for them. Unlike bird nests, which are built in the spring to house eggs and babies, a hedgehog’s nest is a cozy, solitary winter home.

When they wake up, in spring, the hedgehogs will be ravenous for my garden slugs again. They’ll roam far and wide, sleeping around in every sense of the word, so they can make baby hedgehogs. They have a happy-go-lucky nature, and you have to admire their approach to life. When faced with a threat, they simply roll up into a ball.

However, hedgehogs are not native to Ireland. It’s believed they were brought into this country from England or Wales in the 13th century, probably by monks for their massive, enclosed gardens. Monasteries had kitchen gardens and cloister gardens which had to grow enough food to feed a lot of people. Since hedgehogs can eat copious quantities of plant-eating bugs, they would have been most welcome additions to monastic life.

I think of myself as a bit like a hedgehog during November. The tour industry grinds to a near-halt, and I snuggle up inside, hibernating with a new manuscript. Now, if only I could manage to shed twenty percent of my body weight at the same time . . .

Nobles of the Wood

It’s autumn, and trees and hedges up and down Ireland are laden with fruits and nuts.

Hazel nuts are part of the wild autumn abundance offering us a way to bond with the bounty of nature. The trees have grown here since the end of the last ice age, blanketing wild woodlands. Their nuts were nutritious, woody pellets of energy for Mesolithic gatherers. These days, they’re the favourite food for badgers, foxes, mice, squirrels, and I like ‘em too! Especially in chocolate. Hazel nuts contain more protein by weight than fish.

Hazel woods are magical places, with silvery bark and leaves that let through a lot of dancing sunlight. On a previous autumn, I went into a hazel wood to gather nuts with a friend. It was not far off a paved road, but very much a forgotten corner where nature was left to itself. A noisy brook cascaded nearby and prickly branches snagged my hair. My friend said that was the faeries teasing, and tempting me to stay in the wood.

Hazel trees have multiple thin rods which grow long and straight, used for ancient homes and wickerwork, they were also used as divining rods to find water or mineral veins or energy. Traditionally, Hazel has been regarded as the tree of knowledge in all Celtic countries, with legends and stories revolving around eating hazel nuts, the ultimate receptacles of wisdom.

In the old Brehon laws, the oldest European example of a sophisticated legal system, Hazel Trees were one of the Airig Fedo, or ‘Nobles of the Wood.’ Even though it’s small the Hazel was valued for all it gave, and thus was given great protection. In Old Ireland, you would be fined two milk cows (a hefty payment) if you damaged a hazel tree. If you cut one down, the punishment could be death.

I challenge everyone to venerate the old trees, as our ancestors did. Here’s a list of the mighty noble clan (in both English and Irish):

Daur – Oak
Coll – Hazel
Cuilenn – Holly
Ibar – Yew
Uinnius – Ash
Ochtach – Scots Pine
Aball – Wild Apple

And while you're here, let the lovely 'Woodbrook' by Micheal O'Suilleabhean take you on a walk through the autumn wood:

Switzerland & Ireland Merge in The Falcon Strikes

My friend, Gabrielle Mathieu, makes her home in Switzerland, but not too long ago she visited me (and the west of Ireland) to research her latest novel, THE FALCON STRIKES. The story, set in Ireland in 1958, is part of a historical fantasy series. 

Traumatized by hallucinogenic voyages to the world of the dead, Peppa Mueller would like nothing more than to spend a quiet life together with the man she loves. But she doesn't trust herself--or her powerful falcon totem. So she hunts. 

Peppa’s search for weapons dealer Sylvia de Pena takes her from a terrifying encounter in Dublin’s finest hotel, to a wretched hovel on the outskirts of Galway, to a smoky pub that doubles as a secret meeting place for the IRA.

Will she be able to set things right? Or will she die trying?

Gabrielle loves traveling to new places. Here, she chats a bit about how her journeys have influenced her writing:

"I think of myself as a traveling bard, and so there’s a lot of motion in my series. My heroine Peppa has been described as always running away from something, or to something. Not for me, the claustrophobic stage of a family drama, coy mysteries set in damp British villages, or poignant literary novels about quiet suffering. There’s a roaming peripatetic quality to my writing, combined with a curiousity about how societies work—under what common agreements they thrive. And then of course there is my fascination with those excluded by the social contract, forced to seek validation elsewhere. In THE FALCON STRIKES that’s the character of orphaned chemistry nerd Peppa. Then there’s her falcon totem, a magical guardian that makes life even more challenging.

I returned to Europe myself seven years ago, starting over in a small town in Switzerland, after an absence of more than forty years. Our last home had been the chillin’ metropolis of Austin, Texas, an oasis of Mexican martinis and liberal politics in a red sea of Budweiser. I rediscovered old crushes at idiosyncratic coffee shops and lost new “best friends “as soon as the shine was off. I felt at once charismatic and inadequate, compelling and bewildered, weighed down with ennui and then, unreasonably excited.

Switzerland is a land of few and quiet dramas in comparison to the USA, which was certainly helpful for parking myself behind a desk most evenings and actually writing, as opposed to going out for chips and novel drinks someplace entertaining and colorful. As in most of Europe, the smaller towns are a mixture of older and newer neighborhoods. The old houses were built to last, and they still line the streets where I live, reminding me of the past days of this conservative society.

I wanted to somehow connect my heroine Peppa to an actual Swiss hero of science, pharmacologist Albert Hoffman, who just recently passed away, having lived to be over a hundred despite his experimentation with LSD. Albert, named Alex in my novel, is Peppa’s guide to the mysteries of the botanical poison that awakens her protective falcon totem.

What easier way to connect them, than to make Peppa Swiss, with an Irish mother. Once I hit on this contrivance, I was off to the alps of the Appenzell, searching for a quaint village to host the moonlight massacre that kicks off the first novel in the series, A FALCON FLIES ALONE. A walk along the beautiful promenade of the Rhine river in Basel helped me visualize Peppa’s comfortable childhood home, before her father’s ambition and guilt take them abroad to Boston and Harvard. A research visit to Munich helped solidify my gentlemanly villain’s sophisticated tastes. A professor of anthropology, Ludwig lives in a lemon-colored villa adorned by cherubs, where he eats entrails for dinner, and conducts sinister experiments in the cellar.

Having had so much fun traveling to research my first book, I decided to look further abroad for the setting of THE FALCON STRIKES. With a prematurely deceased Irish mother, the stage was set for the introduction of “the old wagon,” Peppa’s grumpy grandmother, who lives in a castle near Galway. Peppa travels to Ireland with the sole intention of stopping the sale of the botanical poison as a terrorist weapon. Irish politics quickly prove to be too complicated, and she takes refuge with her grandmother, at the fictional Brandford Castle, loosely based on Cong’s Ashford Castle. Fiona Claire took us sightseeing, and helped me brainstorm. I found myriad approaches to the castle, which would enable Peppa to sneak up on the paramilitaries who invade the castle. Galway’s bookstore had the perfect book “Galway City: Snapshots through Time”, which helped me visualize the boarding house and pubs where Peppa spends her time as she tries to infiltrate an IRA splinter group. A visit to Belfast completed the research; luckily, unlike Peppa, I didn’t have to travel on the Go Quickly, the German moped that she rides all the way back to Galway in her desperation to escape a sadistic Scottish detective. My setting was perfected; my grasp of history and various political factions is still evolving. I’ve posted some thoughts

The third book, THE FALCON SOARS, set in India, Nepal, and Tibet, will be published in 2018. Our unforgettable trip to Annapurna Base Camp is documented on my blog

Where to next?

Since my upcoming new epic fantasy series takes places on the continent of Heartland, in a country called Trea, I’ll have a real traveling challenge ahead. I’ll have to close my eyes, put on some downtempo electronica, and use my brain as the vehicle.

Cheaper, though more of a challenge to blog about.