Guest Post: Nancy Kilgore, author of Bitter Magic: The Otherworld in a Historical Novel

Today, I’d like to welcome Nancy Kilgore, author of Bitter Magic, to the blog to talk about writing historical fiction.

First, let’s check out the book:

Bitter Magic is told from Isobel’s perspective and also by Margaret Hay, a fictionalized seventeen-year-old noble woman who becomes interested in Isobel’s magic. Margaret only knows Isobel’s healing charms, and when Isobel confesses to dark magic, Margaret is shocked, all the more so when she hears Isobel name her as a witch during the trial. In this gripping and beautifully written tale, Kilgore’s characters debate whether Gowdie is fantasizing or a real witch, and whether young Margaret and the others are complicit. But their debate soon expands to consider the effects of Isobel’s poverty, being powerless, and ultimately the very nature of faith and forgiveness.

Please give Nancy a warm welcome:

The Other World in a Historical Novel

When I started writing Bitter Magic, an historical novel set in 1660 Scotland, I found myself stepping into a new world, a world where religious beliefs were a matter of life or death, with English fighting Scots, Catholics fighting Protestants, and leaders and kings changing sides unpredictably.

This was also a time when almost everyone, including the religious and educated gentry, believed in the existence of an Otherworld, a world between heaven and earth that was populated by supernatural beings – elves, fauns, and fairies – and that only those with second sight, what we’d call psychic, could see.

Isobel Gowdie, whose true story inspired Bitter Magic, was a peasant eking out a subsistence living on the estate of her laird. She was also a “cunning woman,” a psychic and powerful community leader, and she regularly visited this Otherworld.

In Bitter Magic, as in her documented confession, Isobel’s Otherworld is a place of singing and dancing, of bountiful feasts and beautiful clothing, and never being cold. She communes with the fairies and brings back their secrets to use in her healing and magic practice.

But in Isobel’s lifetime, the western world was undergoing upheavals and big change. The Catholic church had tolerated traditional earth-based spirituality, even allowing Christian prayers and invocations to be integrated into the charms and rituals of the common folk, the wise women, and healers. But the Protestant Reformation aspired to a new era of rationality and enlightenment. The church would no longer be mired in the mud of Catholic corruption or “pagan” superstition. All that had to go. Women, who were connected to the earth through menstruation and childbirth, could not be “enlightened” and therefore could not be leaders in the new era. The “wise women” had to go.

And so began the witch craze of the 17 th century. Fueled by King James I, who had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, and his treatise, Daemonolgie, the churches decided that not only were cunning women “witches,” but witches were demons in human form, who had to be destroyed.

I used to hold a stereotypical image of that era that is echoed in many witch novels: the good wise woman is suspected of witchcraft because she heals with herbs and rituals; she is hunted, tortured, forced to confess evil deeds she is innocent of, and burned at the stake by the bad Christians.

But in my research, I found a more complex picture. Yes, the church and the government did decree that witchcraft was punishable by death. But not all Christians believed this absolute, and not all accused “witches” were innocent. The moral and ethical standards that our contemporary world ascribes to the “wise women” are not necessarily factual.

The wise women like Isobel who practiced magic and visited the fairies were not thinking in terms of “good” or “bad”. Magic was not about ethics. Isobel’s magic existed in a dimension without morality. It could heal or harm and often did not distinguish between the two.

On the other hand, the Christian reformers were highly ethical as well as idealistic. They believed they were working to bring a new era of love into the world, the Kingdom of God. But with these high standards, that most people couldn’t meet, there was also a reaction against it, whether internal or external. These “others,” the “witches” were evil and to be feared as much if not more than one’s own internal sinful nature. But there were also many who did not cave into this culture of fear, and I was as intrigued by them as by the strange life of Isobel Gowdie.

In Bitter Magic, I have sought to bring alive the world of Isobel, a world of mystics, shamans, and magic, with all of its nuanced characters and complex belief systems, in an extraordinary time in history.

Photo Credit: Kathy Tarantola Photography

About the Author:

Nancy Hayes Kilgore, winner of the Vermont Writers Prize, is the author of two other novels, Wild Mountain (Green Writers Press, 2017,) and Sea Level (RCWMS, 2011,) a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year. She has published in a She Writes Press anthology, in Bloodroot Literary MagazineVermont Magazine, The Bottle Imp, and on Vermont Public Radio. Nancy is a graduate of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars and holds a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctorate in Pastoral Counseling. She is a former parish pastor, a psychotherapist, a writing coach, and leads workshops on creative writing and spirituality.