Diana Pharaoh Francis
I want to talk about writing. Really I do, but instead I’m going to talk about stuff. Sharon Lee talked about the Levenger catalog on her blog the other day. Levenger, if you don’t know, carries really nice office supplies, furniture, fountain pens, and all sorts of luxurious sorts of office related supplies. The question Sharon has, is who buys this stuff? Who uses it? I wonder the same thing. I used to covet some of the stuff, almost as a marker of being professional. Like I would be a real grown up writer if I had some of the cool stuff. I do admit they’ve cut down considerably on their breadth of products over the years, and to me, the offerings aren’t nearly as enticing, though I can’t be sure if that’s because I no longer find things as interesting, or if their products are not as amazing as I remember them being.
The thing is, as I’ve grown into this career, I’ve learned that sure, I like a few really expensive things, like my computers, which are an iMac and a Macbook Pro. That has to do with my ability to be productive, more than anything else. I find them less time consuming and frustrating over the long haul, as compared to Windows machines. But other than that, my expensive things are my shelves and my books. For the rest, I have plebian tastes, or maybe the better term is functional. I like smooth gel pens. I like regular notebooks with paper, or better yet, yellow pads, for taking notes and scribbling out ideas. I don’t use much other stuff. Yeah, a stapler and a hole punch, and yes I have a monster expensive chair (after three back surgeries, I figure it’s a sane choice). So anyhow, I tossed the Levenger catalog with barely a look. Nothing was interesting.
But that made me think, just what might a writer want for a gift? Especially if you want that gift to be really appreciated. You want it to be fun and clever, yet useful. Let’s start super high end.
This is a walking desk. I should say it’s the Cadillac of walking desks, what with the treadmill being off to the side and the desk raises and lowers according to what you want to do. I’ve heard a number of writers talking about this sort of setup (though frankly far far cheaper) as a means to avoid stiffness, back pain, swellling, and a number of other issues. I’d try it. Course I’m not sure I could keep track of my feet. Some writers say they can’t compose while walking, but they can certainly blog or check email or do research. So if you’ve got an extra five grand laying around, you might buy this for the writer in your life.
Next let’s go with something much much much more affordable. It’s a hat. This hat: I know, it’s pretty silly. But it is a useful thing. It’s so easy to forget that in fact you are a writer. That when you are home, you are also at work. You have to remember that writing is your purpose during certain hours. Being able to put the hat on is a trick for your mind, that while you’re wearing it, you must write. It can do the trick for those writers struggling with focus and to help them stick with their writing instead of cleaning, raking leaves, cooking, or what have you.
This next one is kind of a cheap one too. But one of my favorites. It’s a Milky Gear Journal. It has black pages and works well with Gel Ink pens (so if you’re giving one of these, or two or ten, include some gel pens). Light colored, of course. So what’s the big deal, you might be asking. Who cares about writing with light, shiny pens on black paper? But writers do. It’s an artsy way of writing and all of a sudden you can jump out of a rut and write cool and interesting things because it’s like you’re writing with magic. I know, sounds silly, but trust me, it works. There’s something about the shiny on the black that just feels magical.
Noise cancelling headphones would be my next suggestion. It’s really easy to be distracted by the life that goes on around you, so they are really cool. I’m not pointing to any in particular, because I couldn’t tell you which are the best. I want some, and I’ve eyed some Bose headphones. Maybe one day.
Speaking of headphones, I personally think a good gift are headphones with a speaker for the phone. That way if you end up having to be on the phone, your hands are free to type. Maybe that’s because you have an interview and want to make notes, or you are talking with your agent or editor and need to scribble down ideas and thoughts. Maybe that’s because you ended up having to call your internet provider and are stuck on hold. Maybe you’re talking to a computer tech who is walking you through how to fix your computer. But I find headphones for the phone priceless (the speakerphone sucks). I like the kind that go behind the head instead of over the head, and that cover both ears. Over the head headsets start putting pressure on the ears and hurt over time.
This last one might sound strange, but give it a minute: Tarot cards and/or runestones and books on how they might be used for a reading. These would not be for personal use, but for character development and plotting. They can be a fun way to engage your story, or to generate a story. Do a reading for a character and discover things about him or her and make those things relevant to the story. You can go with a tradition Ryder deck, or one of the many beautiful options out there that have a particular bent–fairies, wizards, dragons, and so on.
On top of that, I still covet leatherbound notebooks with a cool designs on them. Or moleskin notebooks. I also love fun and unique pens. I also love crystal suncatchers for the windows.
What do you think? What does your inner writer want?
I can be subtle, really I can. (Waiting for the laughter to die down.) So you might not have noticed how excited I am about the release of KICKING IT, an anthology of all new stories by real powerhouses in urban fantasy who were kind enough to invite me along. I was thrilled to do a story in my Latter-Day Olympians world because a) I love it and b) I got to torture my heroine by putting her in silver booty-shorts and Plexiglas stiletto heels. She’s now out for my blood, but if you read the story, I think you’ll find it a worthy trade-off.
Those of you who haven’t read my Latter-Day Olympians series (BAD BLOOD, CRAZY IN THE BLOOD and RISE OF THE BLOOD, with BATTLE FOR THE BLOOD forthcoming in 2014) might not know that it involves Greek gods running around in contemporary times causing all kinds of trouble, stirring up magic, mayhem and murder.
One of my friends who wasn’t entirely up on her Greek mythology suggested that I put together a kind of primer on my version of the gods to help her along, and I thought you all might have fun with it as well. Not all of these figures appear right in book one, of course, but here are some of the names you’ll need to know.
The Olympians – These are the major players.
First off, the Big 3: the brothers Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, who have dominion over the heavens and earth, the waters and the underworld, in that order.
Zeus – I’d call him king of the gods, but let’s face it, we know who really wore the pants in that family (Hera). Half the time, in fact, he was sans pants, seducing every nymph, mortal, god and demigod he could get his hands on…and not always in his own form! The demented little DJ in my head is playing Queen right now, “Dynamite with a laser beam…” though in his case, it’s a lightning bolt and he really is a killer. Modern day: currently performing at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, his act billed as a “dazzling pyrotechnic extravaganza.”
Poseidon – aka Poseidon Earth-Shaker, aka Neptune, aka Percy Jackson’s dear old dad. Outside of Rick Riordan’s excellent series, he’s generally known as a cranky old cuss with a reputation for reacting badly when he doesn’t get his way, like flooding Athens with a sea of salt when the cityfolk chose Athena over him as their patron and forcing himself on Medusa when she turned him down. Modern day: still as potentially deadly as the waters he commands.
Hades – He got the short end of the stick when they were giving out domains. Still not happy about it. Still not king. (For those of you who read Cassandra Clare’s long ago Very Secret Diaries, you might appreciate the callback. For those of you who haven’t, go ahead, I’ll wait. Oh, and snarf warning!) Modern day: People are still dyin’ and he’s still sighin’.
Apollo – Hotter than the sun, which he’s the god of, BTW, along with music, prophecy and a whole host of other things. Twin to Artemis, the huntress. Pretty handy himself with a bow and arrow. Not so lucky at love. Weirdly rumored (like his sis) to be blue-eyed with a blond mane of hair. He’s been a bunch of different deities in various cultures—Hobal, Shamash, etc.—and was so popular they brought him over to Greece and even gave him some of the other gods’ attributes. (Poor Helios. He does the hard work, driving that sun chariot across the sky, but does anyone appreciate him? Oh, sure, there was that one time when his son crashed the chariot, but that was eons ago and…and I digress.) Modern day: former “adult film” actor who transitioned into mainstream theatre and is now getting into management.
Hephaestus — God of the forge, known for his amazing creations and for being the whipping boy of the other Olympians. No longer married to his cheating ex-wife Aphrodite (who’s encouraged new generations of infidelities as the current Mayflower Madam). Modern day: wunderkind for the special effects company ILM (Industrial Light and Magic).
Hermes — aka Mercury, aka Iemesh, Loki, Spider…basically every trickster god ever. Also, messenger of the gods with his winged sandals and all. Modern day: most of his flight now involves a private jet. He owns a worldwide messenger service, though he has other people to run the day to day, while he plays his alter-ego, humor columnist Thom Foolery. He knows of all the nefarious goings on and likes to share just enough to stir the pot. He’ll help out when it suits him, mostly for a front-row seat to the chaos.
Dionysus — God of the grape. Well known for his wild parties, which are as likely to show up on Dateline or Forensic Files as Girls Gone Wild. He might not show up in the series right away, but when he does, watch out!
Demeter — Mercurial mother goddess of agriculture. Her moods have a lot to do with feast or famine. Mythology has it that the reason we have seasons is that Hades stole away her beloved daughter Persephone and took her to live with him in the underworld. Because Persephone had eaten some of the food there, Demeter couldn’t recover her permanently, but a deal was struck. For half the year Persephone lives with her and the weather is fine. For the other half, she lives with her husband Hades and the weather is foul—cold, blustery, ice storms, blizzards, ecetera and so forth. I don’t know how that explains Florida and the tropics, but there you have it.
Then, of course, there’s plenty of other magical mayhem in the form of neieds, oceanids, nymphs, Fates, Muses and other gods and goddesses like Persephone herself, Hecate and Pan. I can absolutely guarantee you snark and suspense. And really, what more could you want?
I love doing the puzzles in my local newspaper. (Kids, newspapers are collections of paper that are delivered to your home each morning. They include all the interesting stuff that you saw on Twitter and YouTube yesterday . . .) I do the Sudoku, the crossword, and, my favorite, the Cryptoquote. The Cryptoquote is that puzzle that gives you an encoded quote; you have to figure out what each letter represents to discover the quote and its author. I bring this up, because this week I solved a puzzle and discovered one of the best quotes I’d ever heard. It’s from Miles Kington, the late British journalist:
“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Yes, this does have something to do with writing. In fact, it has everything to do with writing. This site offers a lot of knowledge, and, we hope, it offers even more wisdom. But sometimes distinguishing between the two can be the key to writing success. So, I thought I would focus on a few instances in which knowledge and wisdom are significantly, even crucially, different.
Knowledge: Never write a story in first person, present tense, because editors don’t like it. Wisdom: As with so many things, if you do it well, in a story that is original and compelling, it will sell. Just ask Suzanne Collins. Explanation: This is one of several tidbits of “conventional wisdom” that aren’t wise, at least not all the time. Is it true that editors will balk at stories or books that are written in first person, present tense? Yes. But as I have said before, I sold just such a story after an editor (Ellen Datlow) contacted me and asked me why I chose to write my story that way. I gave her my reason, she liked my answer, and she bought the story. The Hunger Games books are all written in first person, present tense, and they’ve done pretty well. In fact, Collins’ books are so well written (in my opinion) that I really didn’t notice that they were written this way until I was a couple of hundred pages into the first book. If you’re writing a story in first person, present tense (or some other voice) for the sake of being different, but with little thought as to how the voice relates to the story, chances are editors will object. But if the story dictates that you do something unusual, even “taboo,” go with it. If you can justify the choice from an artistic standpoint, and if it enhances the narrative, chances are you’ll be okay. When someone, myself included, tells you that you should never do one thing or another, take it with a grain of salt. Even if the knowledge is right, as it is in this case, wisdom tells us that, with precious few exceptions, an editor will buy a story that is well-written, gripping and, to their mind, marketable, regardless of other concerns.
Knowledge: Do not use adverbs. Wisdom: Adverbs are a part of the language, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. You can use them. Just don’t OVERuse them. Explanation: This is a pet peeve of mine. Sure, you don’t want to use too many adverbs. They can be — CAN be — a sign of lazy writing, because they tend to be a part of passages that tell rather than show. But Mark Twain used adverbs. So did Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Barbara Kingsolver use them, not to mention Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss. You can use them, too. When I hear of aspiring writers combing through their manuscripts, trying to remove every word than ends in “ly” it makes me want to scream. Do not use them too much — as I say, this can be a symptom of telling, rather than showing, of relying too much on a certain kind of crutch that undermines the clarity and power of our writing. But using adverbs is not a sin. Some passages call for adverbs. That’s not bad; that’s writing. Give yourself a break.
Knowledge: Self-publishing is a poor way to break into professional writing. Wisdom: Self-publishing can be the best option for some people. It carries risks and costs that aspiring writers should understand before choosing it as a career path. But it can be a terrific alternative. Explanation: I am as guilty of perpetuating this “knowledge” as anyone. I have seen too many people who know little about the business declare self-publishing to be a panacea, and I have reacted by taking the opposite view with too much vehemence. I apologize for that; I will try to do better in the future. To be sure, self-publishing does still carry a stigma in certain circles, and it can hurt the career of a young writer who doesn’t take the time to learn the business. It carries financial risks, by demanding an up-front investment that might never pay off. And it often denies the writer the invaluable experience of working with a professional developmental editor. But it also offers freedoms that the traditional route does not. It places more power over the production process in the hands of the artist, which can be a very good thing. And it has the potential to be more profitable for a fortunate author. Whatever career path you choose — be it traditional, small press, self-pub — take the time to learn as much as possible about all your alternatives. That is the wise course.
This is, I suppose, the classic “There’s-No-One-Right-Way-To-Do-This” post. That is the ultimate marriage of knowledge and wisdom, because there really is no single correct path we can follow. We all have to find our own way. The things that pass for knowledge have their basis in fact. A tomato really is a fruit. Wisdom brings perspective and context to that knowledge. It allows us to find the exceptions to all those rules we have thrown at us day after day. Those exceptions, in turn, infuse our work with originality and make them stand apart from the work of others.
What writing “knowledge” have you found contradicted in some way by writing “wisdom”? What “knowledge” do you wonder about? Ask me/us. It may be that we can bring some context to rules you’ve always found puzzling.
David B. Coe
Okay. I started to write another Then and Now post. But it was boring. So I deleted it.
Instead, I thought we’d play a bit of a game.
‘Tis the season for feasting. I’m just back from a wonderful holiday trip to visit family on the other side of the country. My mother met me at the door with a half dozen types of cookies (including her can’t-be-matched sugar cookies — heaven!) During the course of one week, I indulged in Mom’s incredible teriyaki chicken wings, her brisket, and her mashed potatoes, along with Dad’s turkey (one of my favorite “big meal” stand-outs!). That doesn’t even count my new favorite pie — Mom’s key lime, with homemade cookie crust.
All of which leaves me thinking about the food and drink in the novels I write.
It’s no secret that food is important in my novels. Jane Madison has her Cake Walk bakery (with its dozens of specialties, including the famous Almond Lust and Lust After Dark…) FRIGHT COURT has its cupcake tarot, with the characters reading their fortune through randomly-chosen mini-cupcakes. My Diamond Brides baseball books have each featured at least one meal (ah, the seductive potential of food…)
Diana Wynn Jones famously derided Stew as a prototypical Fantasyland meal (and yet, stew is a good way to stretch tough cuts of meat and less-than-prime vegetables to feed a crowd. Hobbits famously love mushrooms. The Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster is legendary for its potency.
So… What are your favorite foods in the novels you’ve read? Or have you created special foods in the novels you write? What food stands out in the magical words that have inspired you?
(For me, it was the Turkish Delight that lures Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I didn’t even know what Turkish Delight was, but it was so magical I wanted some then and there. (Turns out, I’m not much of a fan, in real life )
John G. Hartness
It’s that time of the year again. That time when you’re standing around in a lot of stores thinking “what the heck am I getting (insert difficult to buy for person in your life here) this year?” The Big-Mouth Billy Bass idea didn’t go over so well, and they’ve never quite forgiven you for the t-shirt with Kirk, Picard, Janeway and Sisko in a Mt. Rushmore arrangement. So this year it’s time to get them something they’ll actually like. And of course, here on Magical Words, we’re pretty much always going to recommend books. Because no matter what that episode of Hoarders said about me, you really can never have too many books.
I used a couple of specific criteria in selecting books for this list. First, none of the books on this list will financially benefit any of the contributors to this site. That way I can appear to be unbiased. So, even though Kicking It just dropped this week with some stories from amazing writers, you won’t find it on the official list. But I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings to receive it as a gift. And even though How to Write Magical Words is a project near and dear to all of our hearts, and an excellent gift for writers at all stages of their careers, it also won’t be on the list.
See what I did there? Ok, good, you’re still with me.
1) The first project I’m going to recommend is an anthology that does feature a story of mine, but it’s a charity anthology, so I’m not breaking my own rules. Writers for Relief Vol. 3 is a project by Davey Beauchamp and Stuart Jaffe to raise funds for the victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes last year and Typhoon Haiyan earlier this year. The antho features stories from Kevin J. Anderson, Eugie Foster, Ben Bova, Todd McAffrey, Janine Spendlove, and me! I’m thrilled to be part of something so awesome, and it was a huge boost to my not-inconsiderable ego to be listed on the cover among such giants in the field. Especially Ben Bova, who was one of the first science fiction authors I ever read when I was a kid.
2) If you have young people in your house, they should read, too. And A.J. Hartley’s Darwen Arkwright series of fantasy novels for middle grade readers is some truly awesome stuff for the kids who are all done with Harry Potter and are looking for the next thing to read. Or if they’ve seen all the movies and want to read something similar, I highly recommend the Darwen books for the young fantasy lovers in your life.
3) I picked up Alex Bledsoe’s The Hum and the Shiver at JordanCon last year in a book swap after we did a signing together, mostly because the cover looked cool and the premise of bleding fantasy with Appalachian mountain life and bluegrass music sounded like something right up my alley. I thought I’d find a light read, kinda like most of the stuff I read, you know, popcorn novels. Boy, was I in for a surprise. In my favorite book of 2013, Alex created a world as rich in character as any lit fic novel could ever hope to be, with just enough magic to keep him firmly planted in with the rest of us genre hacks. He reminds me of some of my favorite Southern authors like John Hart, Pat Conroy and Ron Rash. I can’t recommend the novels of the Tufa highly enough.
4) After Misty Massey became something like the seventh person to recommend Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora to me, I finally bought it. And of course I love it. I’m halfway through the book right now, and it’s my “couple of chapters before bed” book every night right now. The characters are charming, witty and incorrigible, just like I like them. The title character owes a bit to Raymond Feist’s Jimmy the Hand, which in turn owes more than a little to The Artful Dodger, and both are old favorites of mine. So I can’t wait to grab the rest of the Gentleman Bastards series, and I’ll probably do so in short order, since they’re all on sale for kindle right now.
5) I hate Brandon Sanderson. Let me be perfectly clear in this. I hate the fact that he’s so immensely talented, and such a nice human being, and so prolific. In short, he’s better than me on every level, and my acquaintance with him got me back into playing Magic:the Gathering, which has cost me thousands of dollars and brought me countless hours of joy over the past couple of years. So of course when he broke down and wrote a superhero novel, it was excellent. Steelheart is his foray into this genre, and he handles this with the same level of talent and skill (and if you’re on this site, you know they’re not the same thing!) that he brings to everything. But the bonus for me was Legion – with maybe the most inventive new protagonist in years. I’m not going to give any spoilers, just buy the book. It’s friggin’ amazing.
6) Speaking of friggin’ amazing, I can’t really do that without talking about Seanan McGuire and Mira Grant. The woman just has too much talent to be contained in one name, and everything she’s put out is gold. Add to that the fact that she’s hell on wheels at karaoke, and you’ve got talent to be reckoned with! I fell in love with her writing in the Newsflesh series, which started with Feed. I was a blogger long before I wrote fiction, so the book really hit home with me. I love everything about the series – the intrigue, the characters, the plot, the world-building, everything.
I’m going to stop there and tell you that you should also check out all the stuff that I and the rest of the MW crew have out, and if you’re anywhere near Rock Hill, SC next Saturday morning, come out to the BooKnack at 11AM and pick up some signed stuff.
Whatever. Anyway, Yesterday was an amazing day. Today, I am just now getting the word out and telling people and…
It’s like this. And it’s all about creating characters.
Yesterday was the release day for KICKING IT, the anthology Kalayna Price and I edited. It did well (very well) on release day, in no small part to the efforts of my PR team and my street team and the efforts of Chloe Neill who has PR nailed.
Yesterday was also the release day of the new revamped (haha) website www.faithhunter.net . It is stylish and slick and I love it!
Yesterday was the day I turned in a proposal and character for a new series.
And Yesterday was also the day I turned in my notice that, after the first of the year, I will no longer be a full time lab rat. I went on fill-in part-time at the hospital. I am now a full time writer (with one toe in the lab pool so I have a way back if I am not able to swim in this full-time writing gig). Call me chicken. I am. But I am also brave. And terrified. And excited. It has been a long time coming. And maybe — maybe — I am ready for it.
For the purposes of this site, I want to talk about character. As in the new character and new series I am proposing to my editor. This new character doesn’t mean I am abandoning Jane Yellowrock or even Thorn St.Croix. The eighth JY book (BROKEN SOUL) is due to my editor the first of January. Two shorts about Thorn St.Croix are due the end of January. The proposal for the ninth JY book is due the middle of February. All important stuff. But it’s the new and untouched that is exciting. It’s calling me like a spell whispered on the breeze. And I want to share my process with you.
In creating a character, my very first step is to decide what I hope will happen to her in a commercial sense. Not the conflict sense. That comes later. The very first thing I decide is whether I am hoping for a standalone book and character or a series book and character.
When I was writing standalones, it was easy to character-create, because a character had to live only for 120K to 140K words. But I am writing series characters now. And I wanted to quit the full-time lab job, so I wanted this book to sell to replace lost income. Like, who doesn’t want that, right?
So I approached my agent and discovered that ROC was willing to entertain a two book series set in the Jane Yellowrock world, but not about any of the Jane characters. They wanted a new character in an urban fantasy world but not New Orleans or Asheville. What this meant was that the magical system would remain the same, but the world around it would change.
That meant I needed a back story that was involved enough to be constantly revealed over the course of two books, but not so deep as to require fifteen books to fully reveal, like Jane’s character. So, with that consideration already made, here are the steps I’ve taken so far.
1) Decide on backstory depth. This is the two-book part. If I had been writing on spec, I’d probably plan on a standalone and hope for three books, so this is pretty standard.
2) Ask a pal or two (who are currently starting new series) if they are using certain names as a first person character. I had hoped to use Grace (looking for an old-fashioned name) and, yes, it was in use. So I went with my second choice, Nell. Though that may still change.
3) Chose strengths and weaknesses. Working on that. And this is part of the story that I pants a lot, allowing the strengths and weaknesses to be revealed by the conflict development.
4) Decide on magical gifts. (This is a fantasy world after all.)
5) Decide on physical description. This still eludes me. I’ll never go for classically beautiful. All of my heroines are ordinary looking women. And in this case I may go for *very* plain. But I don’t need it for the proposal.
6) Create a conflict and a proposal with all that in mind.
7) Chose a location/setting that makes sense in light of all of the above.
8) Write five pages or so and see if I feel her. If I know her. And if I like her.
Well I’ve done all that and now the proposal is in the hands of my agent, and has been turned over to my editor. I am in the waiting stage. Waiting is hard. I am now ready to dive back into the BROKEN SOUL of Jane. But it’s harder than I thought it might be. Isn’t it always when you have a new shiny?
I can hear some people say, “Well, you have it easier than the unpublished among us. You have direct access.” And that is true. But the negative side of that is that I’m already thinking in terms of commercial sale, not the creative process. Already the idea is slightly tarnished with the words work and job and paying bills. And I am standing on the outside looking in, my creative freedom hamstrung, however great the result will be if the character takes off. And … just like anyone, I can be turned down.
Share with me how you do (or would) create a character if an editor handed you a few guidelines, based on the work you already have in progress. Can you twist your brain around it? Would it be easy? Harder than with total creative freedom? Share with me!
Today we welcome L Jagi Lamplighter, a writer of fantasy and children’s stories. When not writing, she reverts to her secret ID where she lives in fairytale happiness with her husband, writer John C. Wright, and their four delightful children Orville, Ping-Ping, the Cherubim, and Justinian the Elf King. Jagi’s latest release, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is a YA fantasy series, described as “Harry Potter for girls with angsty romance”.
All About The Magic Or the Gosling of the Golden Creek Vs. The Unicorn Pooper-Scoopers
Beside the road leading to my street, there is a small pond. This pond is the favorite nesting place of a flock of Canadian geese who like to walk out in the street. The other day, I found myself sitting and waiting for the geese to depart, so I could drive home without running over them. As I watched the birds waddle by, I thought of people I knew who had expressed hatred for these creatures that stop traffic and leave goose droppings all over the sidewalk and golf courses. Their hatred added to my impatience.
After all, I wanted to get home. I had things to do, man! But then I remembered something. As a child, I had loved these birds. Why? Because at the gateway to the local county park was a river. Canadian geese used to nest on the river bank. If one was lucky, if one came at just the right time, one might catch a glimpse the tiny goslings paddling behind their august parents. These adorable creatures were the only baby wild animals visible to us as children. Seeing these little beige and yellow bundles of fluff lit our hearts. It was as wondrous as magic!
When had I lost the magic? Was it familiarity that had bred such contempt? I saw them all the time, now, so the magic had fled? This thought led me to the following question: If flocks of unicorns roamed my hometown, would the magic go away with them, too? Would I be sitting here wishing the herd of unicorns would just get off the road? And then it struck me. The difference between my current thought about unicorns and my childhood memory was like the difference between urban fantasy and stories of wonder. In a story of wonder, ordinary creatures, such as Canadian geese goslings, became objects of awe and magic. In an Urban Fantasy, people argue about who was responsible for scooping up the unicorn poop.
Before I go on, I should clarify: I am a big fan of urban fantasy. This insight is in no way meant to detract from the delight of reading about a tarnished pixy with tattered wings, a base-playing goblin, or an elf in a fedora asking questions and taking names. However, there are much better writers, here at Magical Words, than I for giving advice about writing good urban fantasy. So, I will concentrate on the subject of how to bring that childhood sense of wonder back to our stories.
If Urban Fantasy is about the magical in a mundane setting, Stories of Wonder are about mundane things in a magical setting. The first drags fairytales, folk lore, and mythology into our world, kicking and screaming. The second lifts us out of our ordinary daily life and into the extraordinary. So, how does one capture this magic when writing? How do we portray pixies up close without tarnishing their wings? How do we become familiar with unicorns and yet not grumble about how irksome it is that they have been eating our flowers? How do we turn the geeseholding up traffic back into creatures of enchantment? The key is to look around and imagine what the world would be like if it were alive…and it loved us. The marvelous world in stories of wonder is not always friendly. It can be grumpy, or angry, or tricky. It can be dangerous, sometimes terrible. But, underneath, there is a sense of something wonderful, something precious, something that makes you catch your breath from joy. If that is lacking, it is not a Story of Wonder.
So, how is it done? By looking around and imagining what the things we see would be like—if they just happened to fall into fairyland. The small stone pump house on the corner becomes a home for tiny folk who peek their little whiskered snouts around the edge of the door and peer at us with very large black eyes. Little doors into the crawl spaces of an attic become gates that transform those who pass through, so that they can fly, or turn invisible, or talk to fish. Misshapen tree trunks, with a horizontal section low to the ground, become riding trees that can pull up their roots and run though the forest during the mysterious cusp of twilight. Go ahead, try it. Pick a perfectly normal object in your environment and think about what it might be if you suddenly discovered it was a friendly visitor from the Court of Oberon. (Feel free to note your discoveries in the comments section.)
The next question one might ask is: Who does this well? Whose writing can we look to as an example? In my humble opinion, I believe the mistress of writing wonder is British author, Barbara Sleigh. (Who is that, you ask? If you missed her in your childhood, I am so very sorry! I will introduce you now, as I first met her.) Once, in the long ago dream time, I attended an old elementary school that had a marvelous library. This library was not as libraries are today—filled with new books all shiny with bright picture on their dustcovers, all published in the last twenty to thirty years. This library was filled with old books. I wouldn’t be surprised if a book bogie* had lived there as well. One day, while peering into the shadows of the dimly lit stacks, I found a slim volume I don’t think anyone else had ever checked out. It was Kingdom of Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh. It would be years before I met anyone else who had read this book. And more years before a friend traveling to England finally brought back the first book, Carbonel, for me. But these two slim volumes, in their own quiet way, remain among the most magical I have read. (I may not be the only author who has felt this way. These books were written in England in the 1950s. The villain is referred to as You-Know-Who, and there are characters with names like Tonks and Pettigrew. So it is possible that another author, far better known than I, once fell under their spell a well.) The fantasy in the books is low key. The children need to deal with mundane issues such as chores, being home in time for supper, and finding enough money to cross town by bus. Yet the magic, when it comes, seems all the more wondrous for its unexpectedness. There is a talking prince of cats, a flying rocking chair, and a cantankerous witch who is losing her powers. Yet, there is so much more. Only a step away from the roofs of mundane England is the Country of Cats, another land that the children glimpse but briefly. And when they need magic to speak with animals, they are given a prescription that causes the clerk to scratch his head and then climb up on a ladder to draw liquid from the large red bottle propped as a display in the window of the chemist’s shop. (There is even an amusing sub-plot for the poor clerk, who accidentally licks his finger after pouring out the liquid and believes himself to be going mad when he begins to understand the speech of worms and bugs.)
In this bestowing of magic to ordinary things—roofs, rocking chairs, and window display bottles—there is the curious wonder that comes from peeking into another world not meant for human kind, a world to which the children can only be temporary visitors—and yet when they leave, we know that they have been changed forever and will never again be quite as other people are, that they will always be something more.
And isn’t that, really, why we read? So we, the reader, can enter a magical kingdom that gives us a glimpse of something beyond the ordinary, beyond the world we know, in the hope that we, too, will emerge from the book changed, having been made better by the experience, so that we, too, will never again be quite as mundane as we were before? So that, while others sit in the road grumbling about being held up by “rats with wings”, we alone will behold the majesty of the graceful dancers of the sky, who once were the goslings of Golden Creek.
* — creature said to haunt libraries and help children find the perfect book.
Who is your favorite weaver of Stories of Wonder? What ordinary objects would you like to see woken to fairy life by the breath of enchantment?