The magic of brooms: my new writing project

The magic of brooms: my new writing project

I’ve been working on a new project, which I can’t say too much about yet, but it’s a middle-grade fantasy book that involves brooms.

Most people think of brooms and fantasy and they automatically think Harry Potter, or, at the very least of some witch or magic-maker flying across the sky . . . but I want to approach the subject differently.

Don’t get me wrong—I love all the broom flying that happens in fantasy books like Harry Potter, The Worst Witch, Discworld or the newer Apprentice Witch series by James Nicol. My wife and I even purposely planned a vacation around spending a day at Alnwick Castle in England, where they filmed the broom flying scenes for the Harry Potter films. We took broom flying lessons there (and failed!).

Broom flying at Alnwick Castle

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But you may not know that, aside from potential flight capabilities, brooms have other magical associations in common folklore. Some of these are to do with marriage, such as a newly-wed couple jumping or stepping over a broom while holding hands to invite good luck into their home. There is also the idea that brooms can sweep away trouble or bad spirits. The overall theme is the idea of luck or success.

It’s that element of magic that I am drawing upon in my new book.

My interest in brooms far predates my lackluster attempt at joining at quidditch team. My grandfather used to make his own brooms. He grew the broomcorn, harvested it, then fastened the stalk to handles. In fact, I still have one of his brooms, made over forty years ago.

My grandfather’s broom

Grandpa's Broom

Maybe that’s why I have always noticed brooms in my travels. I see them everywhere. I’ll be strolling along and notice one perched, almost slyly, against a street pole, a park bench, a temple wall. And they are old-school brooms with often crude handles and natural straw bristles. Every time I see these brooms, I always feel that they have been up to something, something just a little bit out of the ordinary.

A few years ago, I started photographing the brooms. I never knew quite why, except my rule as an author is this: If something interests me, I record it. It doesn’t matter if I know exactly why something interests me, I just capture the detail, the moment, with my camera and/or notebook, and then let things percolate . . .

Broom at Ta Som temple, Cambodia

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Street broom, Hanoi, Vietnam

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Park broom, Qibao neighborhood, Shanghai, China

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I percolated on this idea for a long time, and was busy working on other thing, like my Zoone series. But the time came this summer to finally begin developing this idea in earnest. Part of that process means doing some research and I’m particularly lucky, because I just so happen to have a traditional broom-maker in my neighborhood.

Researching brooms

So, one crisp fall day, I headed to the Granville Island Broom Co. and peppered Mary, one of the owners, about the tradition of broom making and watched her process. It’s somewhat mesmerizing and a lot more complicated than I originally imagined.

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Granville Island Broom Co. sells and ships all over the world, and it’s no wonder—their brooms are works of art.

Here’s a photo of the broom I bought, which has a handle fashioned from manzanita wood:

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I’ll just say, for the record, that my infant son also loves Granville Island Broom Co. I mean it is a pretty enchanting place!

These days, I’m working in earnest, outlining, writing, rewriting. As I said above, my intention is to focus on brooms for what they are intended to do: sweeping. Sound mundane? Just remember, folklore says that brooms are for sweeping away bad fortune or evil spirits. Or, if you prefer, magic . . .

 

Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Inspiration is everywhere. Sounds cliché, right? Or perhaps trite or obvious—but I think the thing that a lot of people miss is that inspiration floating around everyone is pretty much useless unless you train yourself to pay attention to it and (most importantly in my opinion) record it.

It’s something that I didn’t always realize. Back when I had a 9 to 5 job working as a graphic designer, I’d race home after work and write and draw. Evening and weekends; these were my blocks when I could truly be creative and do what I want.

But now that I’ve been a self-employed writer and specialized arts educator for the last fifteen years, I’ve learned that I need to be in-tune 24-7.

To put it simply, working in a creative profession means I am alwaysworking. That doesn’t mean I’m forever hunkered down over a computer or notebook. It simply means my antennae are always circling, waiting to pick up the signals that are floating around out there.

I guess what I’m saying is that this was something I didn’t always conscioiusly realize. Or it didn’t come naturally to me. I had to train myself to, first, pay attention and, second, make sure I documented what caught my attention.

I realize this same problem in many of my students. Whether they are in elementary school, high school, or university, so many of them are extremely well-trained to think in “blocks: This is math block, this is writing block, this is history block. Yes, some of those blocks aren’t your passion and you just want to survive the hour or so that you are locked inside of them. But there are other blocks that should needle your passions! Those passions should ooze out of their confinement and seep into every aspect of your life. Being a writer (or an artist, or an actor, or a . . .) means thinking like one all the time.

To some people, this comes naturally! But, as I mentioned above, I was one of those people who came from an exceedingly practical background. Maybe it’s the case with many of my students.

That’s why I now carry my notebook (or, as I call it, my brainstorming book) with me everywhere. I have specific books for specific projects, but often things that are unconnected to that project (or at least SEEM like they might be unconnected) go in there.

I only have one criteria for recording something: it interests me. Most of the time, I don’t know what it is about something that grabs me—just that it does. In those cases, I photography, draw, and scribble notes. That means those ideas are waiting for me in the future. It might be a week down the road. Maybe a month. Perhaps years. Or, quite possibly, NEVER. But I’ve learned to honor the process, not the result.

Vacation/smacation

All of this is to say, when my family was on “vacation” a couple of weeks ago in Whistler, BC, and we learned about the famous Whistler train wreck, my Spidey-senses perked up. I knew I needed to grab my sketchbook and my camera and head there.

(Also, I tend to now just call all vacations “inspircations” because it is impossible for me to go anywhere and NOT be inspired.)

About the trainwreck

Just south of the resort town of Whistler, not so deep in the forest, is the site of a train wreck that occurred on August 11, 1956. The train had started in Lilloeet, 130 km north of Whistler and was bound for Vancouver with a load of lumber. The train was behind schedule, so was going twice its speed to make up time. When it arrived at a narrow passage carved in the rock with a sharp curve at one end, one of the engines jumped off the track. Twelve boxcars in total were derailed.

The clean up took a long time, and some of the carriages were left behind—and this is the site you can now visits. Here, in the not-so-deep woods, the boxcars are both solemn and garish, painted with graffiti after all these years.

Getting to the train wreck

The site is a short drive south from Whistler, and once Google or your satnav takes you to the appropriate turnoff, you’ll find signs marking the way into the woods.

The path is even and not at all onerous. In fact, we took Hiro in his stroller and only parked it once we arrived at the hill that led up to the final site (a one-minute walk).

The way there also features a suspension bridge and a view of the gorgeous, swirling river.

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Exploring the train wreck

Once you arrive at the site, you can explore all the different carriages. You can climb some of them (at your peril!), and one leans toward the river gorge, tempting fate.

This place certainly stirred my imagination and gave me inspiration for a scene in a story that has been percolating inside of me lately. I made sure to take as many pictures as possible and to jot down some notes, too.

The rest of the family enjoyed it as well (though I was the only one brave—or foolish—enough to climb atop one of them). Hiro loved the colors.

I think my favorite part were the couplings, painted to look like creatures. In my mind, they are train gargoyles! You can check out a few of our photos below (including those mischievous looking gargoyles). . .

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In search of the nine-tailed fox

In search of the nine-tailed fox

This past summer, I led a summer camp in Korea with the theme of magical creatures. I have plenty of magical creatures in my own books—some of them borrowed from mythology (dragon, unicorns, perytons, etc.) and some are completely made up (like Tug the skyger, who is a main character in The Secret of Zoone).

But there is a creature I’ve been becoming more and more interested in, and that’s the fox spirit, which is prominent in Asian folktales and myths. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Korea, or maybe because so many of my creative writing students in Canada come from Chinese or Korean backgrounds. And, of course, my son being adopted from Japan has something to do with it.

The fox spirit in myth and legend

Legends about the fox spirit vary from country to country, story to story, but a common theme is that it is depicted with multiple tails—often nine. In Japan, it is called kyūbi no kitsune (literally fox with nine tails), in Korea it is called kumiho or gumiho (also, literally, fox with nine tails), and in China it’s called húli jīng or jiǔwěihú. Sometimes the foxes are seeking to gain all nine tails, which will take a thousand years (gaining a tail every hundred years) and allow them to transcend to a greater wisdom or being. They are sometimes associated with being evil (especially kumiho in Korea)—they can shapeshift into beautiful women and are often portrayed trying to seduce young men, even desiring to eat their livers!

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Last summer, when we first met Hiro, I encountered many fox effigies at the temple sites throughout Japan. When we returned to Tokyo this summer with Hiro, I made a point to seek out one of the temples in the city featuring the fox.

These are the benign versions of the fox spirit. Kitsune is associated with the God Inari, who is worshiped for fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture—essentially prosperity and success. That is why kitsune can be found at so many Shinto sites.

A trip to Toyoa Inari Betsuin

On a sweltering morning in Tokyo, we headed to Toyoa Inari Betsuin to see the many kitsune assembled at the shrine. It’s not always easy to make the trek across the city with a one-year-old in tow, especially when it comes to navigating the subway system. Actually the Tokyo subway system itself is easy—finding ways in and out with a stroller aren’t, especially at the older stations.

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But that minor inconvenience was offset by the beautiful shrine.

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When it came to finding foxes, we weren’t disappointed—there were countless ones at Toyoa Inari Betsuin.

Here are just a few of the many photos of the kitsune . . . such delightful creatures! Many of them were wearing a red bib (a symbol of good luck).

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To provide a bit more information about the shrine, I transcribed the information from the welcoming sign, which is also in the photo below:

The Toyokawa Inari is in reality the Toyokawa Dakini Shinten, one of the many Buddhist saints who were Protectors of the Buddhist doctrines. This saint has a beautiful countenance mounted on a white fox, carrying the ear of rice, and is called Toyokawa Inari. It has been enshrined in the Myōgon-ji, a temple in Toyokawa City, Aichi Prefecture, since the first founder Kangan Giin received an inspiration, enshrined it about 700 years ago. Since then, it has been worshipped by peoples of all walks of life, bringing them happiness and saving them from the suffering through the generations to this day.

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I’m pondering the idea of incorporating a magical fox with multiple tails in one of my upcoming middlegrade books. I think my many students with Asian backgrounds (not to mention my son!) will like it, though I know my magical fox won’t be an antagonist, but rather a helpful character.

The multiple tails also seem to match up very nicely with another main idea I’m developing for the book. I don’t have much else to say on it at this point, but let’s see how it goes . . .

Our magical creature camp in Korea

Our magical creature camp in Korea

I’m just catching up on organizing photos after our whirlwind trip to Korea and Japan this past summer—which means I’m finally getting around to blogging about the Magical Creatures creative writing camp that I taught along with my actor/playwright wife Marcie Nestman and fellow children’s author Kallie George.

Marcie and I are used to spending time in Asia—personally, I’ve been there over thirty times, most of it to teach creative writing camps or workshops. What WAS new this time was that we took our one-year-old son, Hiro, with us. So, seasoned travelers that we are, we had a very different type of adventure!

A magical theme

Since Kallie and I both recently released books featuring magical creatures—Kallie’s Wings of Olympus and my The Secret of Zoone—we thought that would make the best theme for our camp.

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Of course, there are plenty of books and films featuring magical creatures, so this was a great way to connect with and inspire our students.

 

The magical menagerie art exhibit

In The Secret of Zoone, one of the characters references the “Multiversal Menagerie,” an art exhibit featuring paintings of different creatures from across the multiverse. I thought I would take a cue from that and have my students do a creative writing project in which they produced artwork of a creature then wrote the information card that goes with it.

You see, I have this belief that not every writing assignment has to be a proper story. I worry that my students get so focused on plot, that they forget other elements of writing—such as description, setting, character development and BEING CREATIVE. I call this “plot paralysis” because students get so caught up in that ONE part of writing that they start ignoring everything else.

Projects like the multiverses menagerie are meant to help the students wriggle free of the shackles of plot and just have fun.

Our project started with brainstorming creatures  . . .

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Afterwards, the students turned their attention to final artwork. Some students chose to draw, some students chose to sculpt, and others chose to do both.

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The Eye of the Dragon

Another project I rolled out at camp involved writing a scene in which a character finds or steals a magical gem that gives that character the power of connecting with a creature. The students got to choose the aspect of that connection—it could be transforming into the creature, controlling it, or even seeing through its eyes.

Step one, however, was painting the gem of power!

I really love this project because it is relatively simple, but produces stunning results. In fact, many of my students end up wearing their jewelry afterwards (it’s easy enough to glue the gems to a metal ring or amulet).

The gems themselves are glass cabochons, which you can get in different shapes (such as oval or round) and the paint is simple nail polish. This project is very forgiving—even those students who don’t consider themselves artistic can create abstract designs. Also, if you make a mistake, a little nail polish remover helps you start over!

Here are some of the gorgeous designs produced by my students:

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The magical market

We delivered many other projects at the camp, but there is one other event I wanted to blog about—and that is our magical market night. Our camps our long—often six or seven days, and we find we need some sort of event in the middle to help break it up and provide a “boost.”

We usually host a tournament or some other team-building exercises; this time, Marcie had the brilliant idea of putting on a magical market. This was brilliant for a few reasons—not the least of which was that we could do it outdoors and avoid the intense summer heat and humidity. Also, we corralled our older students into coming up with the ideas for the stalls, and then running them during the event itself.

So, we ended up having all sorts of fun stations consisting of games, face painting, fortune telling, and—my favorite—food! We invented a new fizzy drink by combining soda water and pop rocks and also had glow-in-the-dark cotton candy. We gave the students fake jewels to use as currency, so they got to stroll our market and decide how to spend their loot.

Marcie had led a project in which the students designed their own lanterns for a made-up magical creature holiday, so we already had some decorations ready to go.

It was a HUGE success!

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Book covers from the workshop of dreams

Book covers from the workshop of dreams

I’m just wrapping up production of the books written and illustrated by the students who took the Spring Term of my Dream Workshop program that is run through Creative Writing for Children.

In many cases, the students provided their own artwork. In others, the students chose royalty-free stock photos, but in those cases, they still had to design their cover, which meant providing instructions on how to crop the photo and which fonts to use.

I’m so proud of my students! The books will go for printing soon and will be in their hot little hands in the next few months.

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laurenliang_thetimekeeper

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gemmayin_partysurprise

sionahn_landofskies

jadenchung_candyrealm

tysonmattu_lost

iankim_secrets

emilylee_hoops

ellyyoo_anadventure

arisolkim_kingdomofenchantia

alexjang_possessionofadangerousmind

sarahpark_oneudonbowl

rickyyin_sixteenamazingstories

aidenlee_secretofportalstreasure

yoyozhang_thesecretflower

tristanmo_cursedcity

sussizhu_thewarbetweenupperandupper

felimwang_thebookofdeath

ericxu_ace

charliechen_thefencingboy

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charleswang_thehiddenworlds

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Bidding farewell to our magical creature

Bidding farewell to our magical creature

Life sometimes works in strange ways. Here I am, prepping to teach a creative writing camp next week in Korea. The theme?

Magical creatures.

And this was the week that we had to finally let go of the most magical of creatures, our cat Griffin.

Anyone who has ever lost a pet knows how hard it is. They are constants in our lives and in our homes, loyal and unwavering. For me, Griffin was not just a pet, though—he was my work buddy. Being a writer can be lonely, but not when you have a cat purring and gently pawing your elbow throughout the day.

Inspiration

In fact, as I look back on photos of Griffin, it’s almost a chronicle of all the writing, illustration, and prop-building projects I’ve worked on in my career.

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In particular, my current book series, Zoone, owes a lot to Griffin. I truly believe that I wouldn’t have been able to write it without Griffin’s inspiration.

There are so many children’s books about cats, and I find most of them depict cats as standoffish, persnickety, or mischievously clever.

But I never felt that was Griffin. He was concerned with three matters: food, sleep, and affection. Not only receiving affection, but giving it.

The neighborhood character

We constantly found out about his escapades in the neighborhood. Like the time a kid came to our door on Halloween, saw Griffin, and exclaimed, “Oh, this is where Griffin lives?” (We found out that Griffin would wander up to the sidewalk each day when school got out, sprawl on the pavement, and greet all the kids coming home. They all knew his name from his collar tag.)

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Another time, we saw a guy eating his lunch out in the adjoining courtyard and he told us that Griffin came and spent every noon hour with him so that he wouldn’t be lonely.

Then there was the time I received a call from someone who asked if I had just moved. The answer was yes, and the caller went on to explain that she was my old neighbor and that her kitten was depressed because Griffin used to visit every day. (She had my number from Griffin’s tag. She even asked if we could do a playdate, but we realized the mechanics were just too difficult.)

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When it came to our son, Griffin showed extreme patience. He let Hiro tug his tail or snatch his fur and if he ever really got upset, he batted with his paw (and not his long outdoor cat claws). Eventually, Hiro would crawl up to Griffin and greet him the same way Griffin greeted him, by bunting his head along his body.

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Griffin featured in all of my school presentations—talking about pets is such an easy and immediate way to connect with kids. And when I reviewed stories by my creative writing students, Griffin often left pawmarks on their pages. A seal of approval, maybe?

When I wrote the character of Tug the skyger (a winged blue tiger) for The Secret of Zoone, I automatically gave him Griffin’s personality. There is no cynicism or sarcasm in Tug’s personality. He’s just an earnest and loyal sidekick. When my editor at HarperCollins bought Zoone, she told me it had a lot to do with Tug—that he was, in fact, one of her all-time favorite animal characters.

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A magical creature

Griffin was with us a long time. I adopted him as a kitten, seventeen years ago. My sister was visiting me and when we brought him back to my flat, he immediately began bounding around the place like a little monster. I knew then that he should be named after some mythical creature. Then he began to fly—almost literally, bounding up the wall as far up as the light switch. (I think that’s the other reason why he inspired my character of a flying tiger.) Then I knew he needed to be named after a flying mythical creature.

No matter what we were doing around our house—making Yoda Yulefest cookies, carving pumpkins, or just watching a movie—Griffin was there.

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Letting him go

We know that Griffin had a rich and full life, but it’s still hard to let him go. He showed no signs of age really at all until last fall, when he had to get some teeth pulled and we were told we should start giving him water infusion once a week to help keep his kidneys going. But in May he stopped eating. Obviously concerned, we took him to the vet. Bloodwork came back negative, then he seemed to pick up again. But when he stopped eating again, we carted him back in and discovered that he had multiple tumors.

His time had come. He wasn’t in any acute pain, so we took a few days so that we could try to adjust to the fact that we had to let him go. So that we could say goodbye. I was down to feeding Griffin high-calorie gel from my fingertips. He stopped grooming, so I had to brush out his fur on a regular basis. I gave him steroid cream, just to perk him up and try to stimulate any sort of appetite. After a lifetime of sleeping on our bed, he mostly slept curled up in the corner of our bathroom.

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When we took him in for his final vet visit, he was light in my arms, having lost almost three pounds in his final weeks. He never complained during that final appointment—he just purred and put his paw on my wrist. I thanked him for everything that he had given us then cradled him in my arms. And that is how he went.

Now our home feels empty. I feel like a goldfish—every three seconds, I’m wondering where his food dish is or why the cat flap is closed. Then I remember.

I’ll have to finish my Zoone series without my writing buddy at my side. But I’m thankful he was there at the start. Writing Zoone is truly something that I feel is helping me cope with losing Griffin, that a small part of him resides in Tug and will continue to live on.

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Cover Reveal for The Guardians of Zoone

Cover Reveal for The Guardians of Zoone

I’m excited to reveal the cover for THE GUARDIANS OF ZOONE, Book 2 in my new series with HarperCollins Children’s Books.

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The stunning cover art by Evan Monteiro depicts an exciting moment from early on in the book, featuring portal pirates, a skyger, a cosmic storm, and one of my favourite new characters: Captain Traxx.

Another favourite character of mine, first introduced in Book 1, is also shown on the ship, climbing the ratlines. She’s got a lot to do in this sequel, and I really enjoyed spending this extra time with her.

I’m so pleased with the cover, and very grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the design. Even though I am a professional illustrator, I did not want to provide the artwork for the Zoone series—however, I did want to provide ideas, and I was allowed to do just that.

When my editor asked me what I wanted to have shown on the cover, there were two scenes from the book that came to mind. One was a dramatic chase sequence that takes place in the world of Creon and the second was when the heroes were aboard the airship known as The Empyrean Thunder.

Here is my original thumbnail that I provided to my editor:

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At first, I thought we should focus on my trio of heroes. But I also thought we could work in some of the pirates, so I provided my brainstorming pages of the pirate captain, Captain Traxx, who is the mercurial self-proclaimed “Queen of the Cosmos.”

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I also provided a photo of my brainstorming page of what the ship itself looks like:

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There’s a couple of things to point out:

1) As you can see, I took some inspiration from The Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

2) I love coffee.

3) As you can also see, many of my design ideas made it to the front cover. Instead of zooming in on the characters, the artist decided to pull back and show more of an epic perspective of the scene.

Based on the feedback I’ve received so far, it was the right decision!

Not every author gets the opportunity to participate in the cover design phase of a book. I know many colleagues who simply get shown their cover after it’s complete and are given NO say whatsoever. So, I’ll just repeat how grateful I am that I was consulted.

The Guardians of Zoone is scheduled for release in February 2020. You can find out more about the book here.