Hootcat Hill really started with my son’s obsession with owls. We were doing some research on a project together, and came across the old East Anglian dialect term for a barn owl. It was hootcat, and from then on, the word swished around in my head, nudging me and asking me to do something with it. Then, one morning, I saw a place called Hootcat Hill in my head, and that was the beginning of the novel.
I’d always wanted to write something longer so that I could explore how my characters really ‘ticked’. Lots of writers start off by knowing a start-to-finish outline of the plot, and can therefore write a proper synopsis to send to their publishers. I find that really hard! So I had a vague outline, and just wrote the first 6 chapters, letting the story tell itself as I went along. Unfortunately, after that I really did have to have a synopsis to give to the lovely sales people at Orion! So I concocted one, under protest (though it was very good for me to do it!), with lots of excuses like ‘of course, the plot might decide to do something different in the end’ (Needless to say, it did!) I wrote the last bit of the book in Donegal, Ireland. Kind friends lent me a fabulous cottage at a place called Paradise Pier, right on the edge of Bruckless Bay. I typed away for almost all of one January, looking out at two swans (who I named Aonghas and Caér), with different weather rolling majestically in from the sea every hour. It was a most creative place to be, and I hope I shall be allowed back there one day to write another novel.
Linnet, as the Maiden and main character, had a strong voice from the very beginning. She’s quite obstinate, and very often when I wanted her to do something, she refused and went off in another direction entirely. Typical teenager! But, like any mother, I am pleased with and proud of the way she’s turned out in the end. One of the things she has to contend with is terrible bullying at school. This is something I feel incredibly strongly about, having suffered it myself, and having also come across it more recently too in my children’s lives. Obviously, the way Linnet comes to terms with it is unique, but I hope that reading the book might help someone who has been or is being bullied to realise that being different—in looks, or race, or religion, or sexual orientation or character or any other thing that sets people apart—can very often be turned into a strength, just by a shift in your own attitude about how you feel about yourself. Just practicing saying inside ‘I am a good person’, and believing it, can really turn things around. There are lots of great websites to help those who are being bullied, and you can find a collection of the best of them at The Anti-Bullying Alliance. It’s important that we all do something, however small, to stop it wherever it rears its hideous head.
As you can see elsewhere on this website, I love fantasy. In Hootcat Hill I wanted to use the concept of fantasy in a different way. Lots of readers are turned off by the swords-and-sorcery type of book, so I chose to write a fantasy book for non-fantasy lovers, set in a world that is nearly this one, but not quite—perhaps it is best described as ‘two worlds over to the left’. I loved the freedom of being able to take bits and pieces of ancient myths and legends from both the Norse and Celtic cultures and mix them up and shake them about till something totally new appeared. I am a terrible magpie for all sorts of weird and wonderful arcane scraps of information, and I was able to use some of them here. It was fun rewriting Malory’s Questing Beast as Gladysant, pink wings and all, and putting in a reference to King Arthur and Guinevere as Artur Mac Uthair and Jennivere, and to William Shakespeare as Shakspear, to point out only a few. Nearly every name in the book has a rational reason for being there—but I’m going to leave my readers to have fun working them all out.
Finally, my editors wanted to know why the spells in Hootcat Hill are written in Gaelic. Well, it’s a wonderfully ancient, vibrantly musical language, which originally comes from Scotland and Ireland. Long ago, Gaelic was commonly used every day in those countries, but because of historical events and the spread of English, it has become increasingly rare to hear it spoken. Luckily, more and more people (especially in the USA) are beginning to learn the language and get in touch with their Celtic roots.
I wanted to use it here because of my own Scottish ancestry, and because I wanted a magical language that was real—and that sounds great when shouted out loud! So have fun twisting your tongues with the words—and Slàinte (or good health)!
You can read Chapter One of Hootcat Hill below, some nice reviews and also my interview with ‘The Truth About Books’ below.
A MAIDEN IS BORN
‘Behind her ear a triple mole
and hair of white doth show.
By these and eyes of blue and green
The Maiden ye shall know,’
from ‘The Prophecies of the Seven’
The young badger was curled in his bracken bed, dreaming of a dragon—a black wyrm with red eyes which wove its nightmare coils around and about the heart of the world—when the cry of a newborn baby girl woke him suddenly from sleep. Startled, he opened his eyes to see a bright silhouette blazing out from among seven runes carved deep into the rock wall at the back of his cave. He looked up at the shining three-leaved shape and listened intently for a minute or so as the baby’s crying continued. Then another sound joined the crying—twining round it in a faraway owl chorus of screeching, hooting noise. The badger nodded his head, strangely marked with a golden sunburst in the centre of his muzzle.
“Hootcat Hill has spoken,” he said. “ She is here.”
Outside, in a cottage on the eastern edge of the town of Wyrmesbury a mother stared deep into her newborn daughter’s eyes as the earth shivered and shrugged beneath her feet.
“One blue eye, one green,” she said to her husband, rocking the baby to calm her.
“And a mole like a trefoil behind her right ear,” said the proud father. “What shall we call her?”
“I had a dream two nights ago,” said Nyneve Perry, looking up at him. “You know I don’t have dreams—ever—unless it’s really important. But two nights ago I saw a little girl riding on the back of a white horse made of clouds. Three birds were flying round her head singing ‘Linnet, Linnet, Linnet.’ I can’t get the name out of my mind.”
“Hmmn,” said Merrilin Perry doubtfully, listening to his daughter’s furious cries. “She sounds more like those hootcat owls squalling outside than a Linnet at the moment, but I am sure she will get better at it. And it’s wise to follow your dreams, particularly in Wyrmesbury.” He took the baby from her mother’s arms and regarded her gravely. She fell silent and stared back into her father’s eyes.
“Welcome to this world, Linnet Perry,” he said.
Sunstar the Badger waddled over to the seven runes and ran his paws over them, tracing their shapes gently. “First the Maiden’s trefoil,” he muttered, as the blazing light faded from it, “then my badger’s claw.” Leaving these two alone, he briskly tapped the five remaining runes.
“Stagman, awake!” he said, rapping an antler shape.
“Daughter of Mares, awake!” rapping a horseshoe.
“Wyccan, awake!” rapping a cauldron.
“Smith, awake!” rapping an anvil.
“Owlman, awake!” rapping a flying hootcat owl. “The Maiden is born into the world again, and the worldwyrm stirs in my dreams and in his bed.”
“Let her not be needed in our time of Guarding,” came the ritual reply from five voices inside his head.
“Let her not be needed,” he said gravely, before breaking the link. He sighed heavily and settled down on his bracken bed to remember the lore of the Guardians once more. Would the worldwyrm be woken in this Maiden’s time? Would this baby girl be the first to be needed for nearly five hundred turnings of the seasons in the world outside?
“Claws crossed, I do hope not,” he muttered, as the hootcat screeches died away outside.
There were to be no more girl babies born in Wyrmesbury for seven years, only boys. The Maiden had come into the world alone as always.
Linnet Perry woke gasping from a nightmare to find her room full of morning. She shivered. What had she dreamed? Something about Young Tom Bickerspike being swallowed by a dragon. Or was it a great yellow technomachine? Surely she had nearly been shaken out of her bed by the shuddering as they sank deep into the earth? Warm sun-dapples chased across her face, even though the sun had not yet risen, touching her with friendly fingers that wiped away the darkness of the wyrm’s belly and Young Tom’s screaming, terrified face from her mind. But Linnet did not notice. She set her feet onto the bare boards beside her bed, and wriggled them into warm slippers. It was early. Much too early to be getting dressed for school, so she went over to the low window that faced the garden and knelt down to look out at the day.
The real sun was just climbing up over Hootcat Hill, making the dark trees that crowned it look even more mysterious than usual. The hootcats that gave the hill its name were silent this morning, but Linnet had heard them last night. In her dream. She shivered briefly, then squinted her eyes and tried to see the Owlstones through the thickets of trees, but they were wreathed in the heavy mist which always surrounded them, and she couldn’t distinguish them at all. Then her eyes and her mind drifted away, as everyone’s in Wyrmesbury always did if they looked at or thought about Hootcat Hill for too long.
The primroses and early honeysuckles were blossoming in the cottage garden below, and she opened the window and leaned out to take a long breath of their sweet scent. As she looked, a large badger waddled out of the hedge that divided the garden from the fields below the eastern edge of the town and sniffed the air suspiciously. He was a huge boar, with deep black flanks, and a brilliant white stripe down the middle of his head. He had a strange golden marking in the centre of his forehead, just above his eyes, which looked like a starry sunburst.
The badger had a sett in the old mound far down in the field on the other side of the hedge, and Linnet saw him so often that she sometimes thought he was keeping an eye on her. Perhaps seeing him today was a good omen, she thought. She was dreading her Frankish test, but she was dreading what They might do to her at school even more. Her best friend Petroc Suleymann would not be there today because he had had to go and visit his sick grandmother for a few days.
Linnet felt a surge of sudden anger at the thought of Them. Why did They have to make school life so difficult for her? She thumped an angry fist on the windowsill. She was so tired of being called the weirdo of Wyrmesbury and pinched and kicked by the Vesterton kids, just because she had a funny white streak in her hair, different coloured eyes, and lived in a place with a reputation for oddness, not to mention the difficulties she had with reading and spelling. And They didn’t even know about the other stuff—the dream stuff and the secret stuff that made her really and truly weird. Only Petroc knew about that, and she didn’t even tell him all of it.
She clenched her jaw, remembering last week when They’d caught her away from Petroc and stuffed her head down a toilet, but as usual she couldn’t think of any way to change things. Whatever she tried—ignoring Them, trying to suck up to Them, hitting Them back, running away—none of it made any difference. She still came out of school either black and blue or with her books ripped and torn at least twice a week. Her friend Magret, Young Tom’s sister, generally helped her to mend any really bad book tears on the bus journey home—and she always wore trousers and long sleeves to cover up the bruises so her parents wouldn’t notice.
Linnet was too ashamed to tell her parents about any of it, though Magret and Petroc were forever nagging her to. Her Wyrmesbury-born father just might understand—he’d had to go to school in Vesterton himself and deal with his own problems—but her outsider-bred mother would either make a huge fuss with the school (which didn’t bear thinking about), or, more likely, not listen properly as usual, because she was too busy. It just wasn’t worth the hassle of explaining it all, anyway. She’d manage, like she always had, and school wouldn’t be forever.
Then the badger snorted, recalling her to the present. Linnet smiled and waved at him.
“Good morning, badger,” she whispered, feeling better just at the sight of him. The badger looked up at her.
“Hail and good morrow, Linnet the Maiden,” he said gravely, just inside her head. “Come and visit me in the mound tonight.” Linnet blinked and shook her head wildly to clear her ears. The secret stuff meant that she sometimes saw strange colours round other people, and flickering lights in the corner of her eye that she was too scared to look at properly because it might be magic—but she’d never had an animal speak to her before, let alone being asked to visit one.
“Did you really say that?” she asked him. But the badger only grunted contemptuously and waddled off back through the hedge. Linnet shrugged. “Must have imagined it. Animals don’t talk—even in Wyrmesbury.” But in her heart she knew it had been real. She felt scared again, the nightmare images of Young Tom’s screams flooding back into her head. Suddenly, beside her bed the alarm clock began to shrill and shake, ruining the morning quietness, and she rushed to turn it off.
I was interviewed about Hootcat Hill in May 2008 by Sarah Rudd at The Truth About Books – Sarah asked me all sorts of interesting questions about the book – which I answered as honestly as I could!
The simple answer is that I just like badgers. Badgers have an honourable place in children’s literature, and two of my favourite characters of all time are Badger in the Wind in the Willows (how I love the way he pretends that he’s ‘in his office’, when really he’s taking an afternoon nap – I can so relate to that!) and Brock the Badger in Alison Uttley’s ‘Sam Pig’ stories. Badgers are earthy creatures, solid and real, and yet they have a mystery and wisdom about them which fascinates me. Watching the way they move – so clumsily lumbering and yet so graceful – is a wonder and an all too rare privilege. They may not be traditionally mythical per se – but when I started writing Hootcat Hill and thought about who the Guardians might be, Sunstar simply appeared in my head and told me, ‘I’m one. Deal with it.’ So I did. His down-to-earthness and grumpiness made me laugh while I was writing it. Actually, it was more like I was taking dictation – from a badger. Now you know us writers are a weird lot!
I am so glad you asked that, because it was one of the most important things for me to get right. I wanted readers to care about Linnet – to empathise with what she was going through. Sometimes I got really angry when I was writing the bullying sequences, because I remembered what it was like to feel powerless to stop it, and that comes out on the page. I dug deep into my own memories of growing up – and I talked to a lot of teenagers including my daughter about what it felt like now (not so different, it seems). I asked myself a lot of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions about how Linnet was feeling at any one moment. There is such a lot going on, and it is all pretty overwhelming for her, so I had to remember that every minute I was writing and take it into account. Her situation (of finding out that she is The Maiden) is unique – but growing up is, of course, common to us all. I had to find a way of melding the two together to make a coherent whole. I think Linnet is a believable character – I hope she’s a sympathetic and loveable one too, with all the flaws that make us each irreplaceably who we are. It’s key to the book that she is.
Linnet lives in a world which I describe as ‘next-door but one’. It’s the same as ours in lots of ways but there are crucial differences. I didn’t want to make a huge song and dance about it being another world – I rely on the intelligence of my readers to work that out for themselves. However, I needed to indicate that old magic (the magic of Fey/Guardian/Hulda/Dwarf etc) was not the same as the casual everyday ‘magic’ modern humans rely on. That may sound odd, but if you put someone from 300 years ago down in a normal town of today, they would see all our gadgets as some kind of magic – so would today’s tribesman from an undiscovered part of the Amazonian rainforest. Things we use so casually everyday – like electricity, cars, i-pods, computers, even digital watches – would be totally alien to our ancestors. I chose the world ‘techno’ to reinforce that – if you like, it is a sort of verbal alert, a stating of the obvious maybe, but nonetheless an important marker. When I decided to use it in this way, I also made the choice to try and be consistent – hence technowatch, technotonic plates. Possibly annoying, but I felt it was necessary.
Linnet is a modern girl, living in a modern world. Every Maiden before her has managed to put the worldwyrm back to sleep – just. But it has always re-emerged. Underlying Linnet’s story is the fact that the old magic is failing, weakening – humans and their technological meddling, building and roadmaking have drained the energy out of it. So what is Linnet to use instead? Her magic is a totally new construct. It consists of human technomagic – which is defined at the beginning of Chapter 3 as “(1) …used by the non-scientific community to describe the workings of such technological machinery as…Medipods, where the techno-scientific explanation is not readily understood… (2) Slang term used to explain odd physical effects caused by consumption of some man-made foods and drinks (esp beers). (3) Events caused by humans that are not explicable by normal scientific rules. (Unscientific, unproven)” – and old magic. Linnet has a genetic talent for the former from her father, and the latter is part of her inheritance as the Maiden. Because she needs a totally new way to defeat the wyrm and send it back to sleep for once and all, out of necessity she breeds a mongrel magic made out of old and new. I suppose it could be called technomagic mark 2.
This is a long answer to a short question – in brief, I wanted to explore the conflict between shamanic nature magic, and modern technology. Technomagic came out of that questioning.
Think of Morgan le Fay, Snow White’s stepmother, Tam Linn’s Fairy Queen captor, even Shakespeare’s Titania, think of every story you ever heard of the conflict between human and fairy. There are a lot of them. Who can tell why the Fey Queen (or any Fairy Queen in any culture) began to hate humans? Maybe it’s because humans are stubborn and refuse to lie down and do what they are told. Maybe it’s because they question the (to the Fey) self-evident right of any fairy to be better and more powerful than any mortal. Maybe it’s because the Fey are scared of the naturally quixotic human tendency to wade in when the odds are so obviously against them. I think it’s a mixture of all these things – and more. Who can argue with the weight of mythic literary evidence that lies behind this position. Not me, that’s for sure. It’s an age-old, bone-deep sense of insecurity about what those tricksy humans might get up to next that makes the Fey hate us – we’re just too unpredictable for them.
A hootcat owl is where the whole book started. I was helping my son do some research for a school project on owls, with which he was obsessed at the time. We found a lot of dialect words for owls. Hootcat was one of them. It roiled and boiled around in my head for ages, and then a picture of a hill, crowned by a stone circle carved with owls popped up in my imagination. I knew immediately that this was Hootcat Hill, and that the owls in this particular place were called hootcats. Eventually this led me to the Owlman – the Guardian of this particular and seminal place in the book, where all the important action starts and finishes. I took another dialect owl word – Hullart – as his surname, and used ‘Tyto’ – the latin genus of barn owl – for his forename. Altogether, it’s a pretty owly book. I hear owls hooting around me every night where I live. I think they approve.
When I was growing up, one of my dad’s friends was this guy who never stopped brewing wine and beer out of everything. And I mean everything! Trust me on this one, if anyone offers you swede wine, or broad bean beer, refuse politely. Roy, spent a good deal of his spare time in the cellar, mixing and tasting, and sometimes there were Explosions. I never forgot him, and, looking back, he was batty, but kind of cool too. In writing Merrilin Perry, I just exaggerated him a bit, and threw in some magic. Merrilin comes from a long and ancient line of magic users – but he’s not really interested in that per se – it’s just the way his particular talent has emerged. What is really important is that he’s fanatical about his hobby. The side effects make him and everyone else laugh, but all he really cares about is creating the perfect Brew – an elusive and tricky creation, which he will spend his whole life working towards.
It has to be the Avvallon chapters. I knew where I was going in the end, but not necessarily how I was going to get there. Every day started with me not knowing the path forward and ended with me being a little further down the track. It was like being on a rollercoaster – exciting but scary – sometimes there were bits where I was hanging on by my toes upside down. And yes, I did feel sick quite frequently.
Some characters let you write them, quite meekly, without complaining. Linnet was not like that. When I say she ‘had a strong voice’, I mean simply that she was sometimes pretty argumentative in my head. Writing is an odd business at the best of times – but when your character starts to take on a life of their own and talk back at you, it’s a sure sign that things are going right. Linnet is a teenager, with her own very definite ideas about things, and there were days when there was quite a lot of foot-stamping going on. As a mother myself, I know there are times to make a stand and times to give in. We worked it out in the end!
For the original Maidens, that was the job. Once the worldwyrm was back asleep, that was it. They went back to ordinary life with the rest of the Guardians, and when they died, there was one less active Guardian in the world until the next Maiden was needed. One was always waiting in the wings – like Linnet – but many generations lived and died not having to know what they were. As for Linnet – well, she’s got different magic, hasn’t she? Who knows what she will do with it? Not me…yet.
It’s not something I am planning at the moment – I have lots of other novels in my head, all clamouring to be written. But if a flash of brilliant inspiration comes along I don’t see why not – eventually. Don’t hold your breath though, it might take a while!
“What makes this novel special is the fey, fantastical atmosphere it creates. It uses mythological treasure troves with brio…to show how a bullied schoolgirl can find unexpected reserves of courage.”
Amanda Craig The Times Saturday March 8 2008
“Midsomer meets Middle Earth in Hootcat Hill, an everyday tale of village folk caught up in strange events when old and new magic meet in the town of Wyrmesbury. There is a lot going on here, but Coats keeps a firm hand on her prose and brings a leavening humour to proceedings that turns her first novel into something more than a run-of-the-mill fantasy.”
Valerie Coghlan Books for Keeps no 169 March 2008
“This is a richly embroidered, thoroughly traditional fantasy, fizzing at all corners with ideas and imaginatively-described scenes. What shines through is the author’s honest love of what she’s writing. A child’s echoing love of magic could easily make this a favourite with young readers.”
The Truth About Kids’ Books (Part 1) by ‘Ariadne’ at Vulpes Libris—a collection of bibliophiles writing about books 20 February 2008
“The people at Orion books have outdone themselves by producing what can only be described as a modern artefact. Everything, including the cover, line drawings, font and layout have been done to thrilling perfection. This book is well written. Coats has a masterful command of language…the story is fantastic and world is well conceived. A thrilling fantasy romp!”
Jason Curley writing at The Bookbag
“A lyrical fantasy full of old, dark magic entertainingly bound up with ordinary life.” Nicolette Jones The Sunday Times Best Children’s books for Easter March 2008
“Since Harry Potter, the stigma of adults reading books aimed at teenagers and young adults has diminished and Lucy Coats’ debut novel is a perfect example of why. A coming of age tale, Hootcat Hill combines touches of Celtic mythology with personal growth, engaging characters and ancient magic. Magic and the modern world make for a thrilling tale, and the book is accentuated by talking badgers, mystical owls (or ‘Hootcats’ as they are sometimes called in East Anglia), fey folk and the essence of magic. But the story also includes real life troubles that make Linnet’s personal journey so much more heartfelt. While magic and modernity have been clashing in novels for a few years now, Hootcat Hill is one that feels more realistic. The author’s own experiences have clearly coloured her writing, making it a book to treasure for both younger readers and adults who don’t want to grow up.”
Lesley Smith, Total SciFi
“Charming, enthralling and probably suitable for almost anybody.”
Matt Warman ‘Escape to the Mythosphere’ The DailyTelegraph March 2008
“Hootcat Hill is a delightful read…this book comes highly recommended.”
Maggie Georgopoulos, Waterstones
“This is an assured debut novel, set in a familiar-but-different world, steeped in myth and legend. Linnet is an engaging heroine.”
Dinah Hall The Sunday Telegraph March 2008
“Hootcat Hill is a tremendously exciting read, brimming with all the requirements any fantasy fan could wish for… a cranky fey Queen, five Guardians with magical powers and abilities (The Maiden is the sixth Guardian), odd dwarves with tattoos that come to life and most of all a young heroine who despite struggling initially to come to terms with the reality of being The Maiden, still manages to deliver us all from certain destruction.
Coats has an exceptional understanding of what young readers want from a book – Hootcat Hill is no disappointment. Full of heart-thumping action, magic melding antics and some good old fashioned coming of age twists – this is pure entertainment and thoroughly enjoyable. Be prepared for some occasional gritty realism – not everyone makes it to the end of this fantastical tale.”
The Truth About Books April 2008
“Beautifully produced and presented by its publishers…this is a coming-of-age novel where the main protagonist is in a world much like our own so that we can easily relate to it, but where there are also very definite differences. Some of these are small and subtle, some amazing and amusing, but still more have the ability to really frighten – even our brave heroes at that. Everything is there just on the edge of normality and it is Linnet’s firm grip on what really matters that is important throughout. Like all the best fantasy fiction the magic is mixed with the mundane – like exams and worries about whether there is enough cheese in the fridge for a sandwich. No one with magical powers wastes a spell on such matters and if they do use their powers to sort out an ordinary human problem, things have a habit of going horribly wrong!
There are spells aplenty and…the whole story is rooted in Celtic mythology and traditional country beliefs – even the quality of the local beer is legendary and has a strange effect!”
Georgina Hobhouse in ‘The Corncrake’ July 1 2008
Hootcat Hill is a magnificent debut novel from a writer who gives every indication of being a very talented storyteller.
Lucy Coats has taken the many elements of a typical teenager’s life – eccentric parents, life in a small village, bullying and trouble at school – blending them with myth, folklore and magic to create a compelling, captivating novel full of excitement, action and adventure. This book is firmly rooted in fantasy and magic yet it is also a breathtaking adventure story full of twists and turns.
Lucy Coats has a fantastic imagination, and the fluency with which the story is told ensures that the reader is swept along and drawn in with ease. Hootcat Hill is fast paced, well written and easy to read. It is packed with likeable and lovable characters, some of which are pure fantasy, others that readers will be able to identify with. The story is unique yet in many ways familiar and will appeal to an audience of age 9+. It is a book that I would highly recommend reading over and again and the first ten year-old I recommended it to agrees!
Louise Ellis-Barrett Armadillo 10.2 Summer 2008
“Hootcat Hill has a wonderful heroine in Linnet Perry, with her red hair, different coloured eyes and dyslexia.”
Victoria White The Irish Times May 2008