Let’s Make Some Magic

English: Sparkler, violent reaction (guy fawke...

Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. The Belgariad. The Wheel of Time. The Hollows. All of these influential series have something major in common: they take place outside the realm of “normal” human life.

Magic. They’ve got it.

For all of us over here at Spellbound Scribes, magic is an integral part of writing fiction, whether it’s in small doses or large. Here’s how I go about making mine.

Chinese floating lotus lanterns on a pond.
Chinese floating lotus lanterns on a pond. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Make Some Rules

Magic could just run around willy-nilly, but it’s kind of hard to write a story when literally ANYTHING could happen with no rhyme or reason to it. What are the basics that form your magical system? Is it earth based? Spirit based? Blood based? How do the practitioners access it? Is it inborn or can it be taught? Does it necessitate ritual or does it come from within a person?

Once you have your groundwork laid, stick with it. Make sure that if your character has to perform a ritual to do something, you don’t just have them poof it into existence later without the chanty-chanty abracadabras.

Another thing to look at here are taboos. Do most practitioners use earth based magic but abhor blood magic? Or the other way around? Taboos and forbidden corners of magic are fun to play with, especially if you can force your protagonist into using something she doesn’t want to touch. A perfect example of this is Rachel Morgan in the Hollows series by Kim Harrison. She starts out a die hard earth witch, but after a couple books, she dabbles in ley lines and then into what is essentially blood magic. Her transition causes her character to seriously question her morality. This sort of thing can be a phenomenal character developer.

Fire Dancing Treasure Island
Fire Dancing Treasure Island (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

Set Some Limits — Then Push Them

Everything has limits. Your bank account. Your patience. Your ability to tolerate Jersey Shore. Your magical system should have them too.

In David Eddings‘ Belgariad, death is one of those boundaries. The sorcerers in the books can do pretty much anything with the Will and the Word, but they have some limits that draw back on that seemingly endless possibility. One of those is bringing someone back from the dead.

One point they make with that is that if someone’s dead, they’re probably dead for good reason. Like…a sword in their heart sort of reason. Bringing them back won’t heal the wound, and they’ll just die again anyway. What does Eddings do? He pushes Garion to fight this barrier to save the life of a newborn colt.

Eddings is a great example of magical limits, because not only is death a hard limit, but in this world, doing things with sorcery is almost as physically exhausting as doing them the normal way. Find limits for your magical system, then use them to create obstacles for your characters. Magic’s great and all, but it can’t be a cure-all.

As the time goes and our watches sway, the gre...
As the time goes and our watches sway, the great magic of the urban beauty and nature stays, it observes people and brings magic into our minds! Enjoy!:) (Photo credit: || UggBoy♥UggGirl || PHOTO || WORLD || TRAVEL ||)

Mix Together that Black and White

The most fun thing about getting to write magic is that it opens up a whole other level of allegorical possibility and chances for your characters to explore their morality. Sure, maybe they can get their annoying sister to stop talking just by waving a hand, but should they? Magic is something that can be clearly abused, but sometimes it’s at its most powerful when your character has to abuse it herself — and justify it.

While I’m not a huge fan of the “magic is addictive” trope (and I think fellow Scribe Kristin will agree with me), there are plenty of gray areas to explore with your characters in the magical world you’ve created for them. The best part is that you’re God of your own world, and you get to control what happens.

Kind of like a magical power, isn’t it?

What do you think about when you’re creating your magical systems? What limits do you like to set?

Of Monsters and Cultural Appropriation

For my latest work, Oasis, I drew heavily on Japanese mythology. My main character, a shape-shifter (female) warrior named Kiana, shifts into a fox, and by moonlight can take a hybrid fox/human form.

I don’t call her a kitsune, but that’s what she is.

A kitsune is a Japanese fox spirit, a trickster or a seductress often, as well as a great protector and a source of wisdom and power. They’re marvelous creatures, and I created a race of them in my fictional world.

A nine-tailed kitsune. Kiana only has one tail, but how many does a girl really need?

I peopled my world with other creatures from Japanese mythology, from eagle-human hybrids called karura to creepy disembodied heads called nekekubi. But I altered these creatures subtly, to make them creepier or more magical, or to endow them with powers that mythology may not have given them. I also changed their names, because I did not intend to lift Japanese mythological culture out of its historical context and paint it directly onto my new novel—plus, the spelling would’ve done me in.

But I felt kinda skeevy doing it.

We’re so used to a fairly small subset of mythological creatures that we don’t really think too much about where they came from. Vampires exist in many (if not most cultures) but there’s a fairly strong Western tradition of vampire mythology. Likewise, werewolves are generally thought to be a European invention. Every culture has its small folk or fairies, and even demons exist across a variety of lands with their respective hells. Most of our supernatural creatures are public domain, part of a worldwide cultural fear of and fascination with beings more powerful than we can comprehend.

So why did I feel skeevy about stealing from the Japanese?

The answer is pretty complicated.

One, I don’t know much about Japanese cultures, and I felt disrespectful, taking their stories and twisting them for my own ends. And two, the U.S. and the global “West” have a long history of stealing things from the East and passing them off as novelties.

And third, I’m just a glutton for punishment.

At any rate, I did my research and learned about the creatures I transplanted into my world, and I tried to give them at least a little bit of authentic flavor. The fact remains, though, that I took my inspiration from a mythos I have no legitimate claim to. I found a tradition I liked, and I corrupted it and had my way with it.

That’s not so simple, either, though. Loads of fantasy novels take on other existing cultures: Guy Gavriel Kay does it beautifully, and Ilona Andrews works creatures from many nations’ fairytales into her works. No one owns the stories of myth and magic passed down for generations.

In the end, what I created is something new entirely. It’s inspired by Japanese mythology, but it makes no claim to be authentic. The Japanese stories and creatures run like a golden thread through a tapestry that I wove: they’re a beautifying part of it, but they’re not the only feature.

And if we’re respectful, does it matter if we’re using magic that’s foreign to us?

I’m not sure.

I don’t actually have a good answer to this one, readers. What do you think of folklore in fantasy? Is it public domain? Have I joined a tradition of cultural abuse and callous repurposing? What works do you know that successfully blend cultures?

The Pet Psychic

I’m sitting here thinking about the new book I’m working on and I have to say, I’m a believer. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a world where folklore and myth trickles into what we know as reality, but for whatever reason, I believe in the unknown.

A few months ago, I met Jeanne Miller, a pet medium, through one of the writer forums I frequent. We struck up a great conversation over email and she offered to do a pet reading for me. I didn’t even hesitate (who passes up an offer like that?), so of course I said yes!

Before she did the reading, I wanted to have an idea what to expect, so I purchased her book, The Pet Psychic Diaries. 

81FgrGWgSiL._SL1200_Even for those non-believers, it was a hilarious and heartfelt account on Jeanne’s life as a pet psychic. The stories that she shared brought laughter and tears.

Now, some of you know that the hubby and I lost our little Guapo last October, so I was thrilled (and scared) to have Jeanne talk to him to see if he was okay. Gus, our other pug, was also going to have a chance to talk to Jeanne and I was so happy to finally figure him out!

photoGus (fawn) and Guapo (black)

After sending my five questions and messages, Jeanne came back with her readings and if I was ever a skeptic, this would have changed my mind. Keep in mind that my questions and messages to my pugs were very generic. What Jeanne’s reading uncovered was nothing short of real.

Here are some highlights from Gus’ reading:

Jeanne said he was a real gentleman and that Gus told her that, “I’m pretty well-behaved. I’ve always been the best behaved out of all of us,” and that he was quite proud of this.

Now, of all our dogs, Gus has always been the best behaved. He’s so smart and to be honest, all he does is sleep. You can’t get better behaved than that!

“I like when Mom sings that song to me. It’s just for me.”

I never told Jeanne that I sing him songs!

One of my questions for Gus was if he minded my hugs and kisses. This was his response: “Well, I like it more than I let on, but I have to be tough too so that Daddy knows I’m a tough boy like him. So sometimes I pretend I don’t like it. Sometimes, I just need to be a big boy.”

Whoa! I’m always telling my husband that Gus wants to be just like him and be a big boy!

From Guapo’s reading:

I won’t dwell on the questions/answers about his passing, but needless to say, I feel better about him after he let me know that he knew we loved him and there was nothing we could have done for him.

Jeanne asked him if he was in a good place (one of my questions) and his response was, “Oh, it is so pretty here! And I can make it look like whatever I want it to look like. Sometimes I make it look like our home, sometimes I make it look like a beach, and sometimes the woods…”

I never told Jeanne that the hubby and I take our dogs camping. The only “scenes” Guapo knew are our house, the beach, and the woods. When I told my husband what Guapo said, he was not impressed. “Duh, those are the only places we took him,” he said. I then when reminded my husband I never mentioned that to Jeanne, he was floored.

The real kicker was when Jeanne said he showed her a bumblebee. Guapo said, “sometimes I make them up so I can chase them. They sound funny and I like that.”

Guapo ALWAYS chased the bees in our backyard. While Gus was always unimpressed by anything other than food, Guapo was fascinated by bees and other critters.

There was a lot more, but if I keep looking back to the readings, I’ll continue to cry. But what really struck me was the tone in which Jeanne related the messages. Gus’ responses were very adult-like, while Guapo’s were childlike in nature. That’s exactly how I see them and how they interacted with us.

If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll know we added another pup shortly after Guapo’s passing. This is what they had to say about Gertie:


Gus: “Well, I like her and I will like her more as time goes on. But right now, she can be a little annoying. She hasn’t learned the rules and I try to teach her but she doesn’t always listen to me. Or Mom.”

Guapo: “And the little girl and I play. Well, not so much play, as I chase her sometimes. But I think she’s getting used to me. I like her. She’s pretty.” (Guapo visits us BTW)

Now I know that when Gus and Gertie act strangely or when a bowl suddenly moves just a hair out of place, Guapo is here for a visit.

So, if you are ever interested in what your fur babies are thinking, you should definitely give Jeanne a holler. She is a fabulously kind and generous and a great person to work with. Not interested? Well at least give her book a chance. I swear it’ll make you laugh and think twice about what your pets are really thinking!

A Hankering for Demons

Supernatural creatures—how we love them. There’s something about escaping into a fantastical world where (almost) anything’s possible, isn’t there?

the-outlaw-demon-wails-the-hollows-kim-harrisonI’m not currently working on anything supernatural, but I’ve had a major hankering to read about demons. Why demons, you ask? Well, I love a character with a flaw. And what’s more flawed than, um, being intrinsically evil? It’s likely the same reason that motivates me to read about serial killers or psychopaths. It’s voyeuristic and informational at the same time. And I have to admit, I love learning bits and pieces about demonology. Constantine is one of my favorite movies EVER.

Possibly one of the most interesting things about demons and demonology is how writers create their own spin on it. For instance, in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even vampires are said to be demons. Basically these demons take over a person’s body, “evict” the person’s soul from his or her body, and then inhabit that body until they’re killed. There are also demons that freely roam around the supernatural plane and occasionally step into our plane, which makes for some interesting and kick-ass moments.

Personal Demon

As far as literature goes, I’ve read some of Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series, and I love the demons as she portrays them, too: with different types of powers, and differing levels of those powers depending on what kind of demon they are. There are good demons (oxymoron?) and bad demons, and they’re well-portrayed, for the most part.

I’ve had two other suggestions on what to read to cure my demon hankering: Kim Harrison’s Hollows series and Personal Demon by Kelley Armstrong (one of the Otherworld books I haven’t read as yet). Do you have any others to add? What’s your favorite supernatural creature?