All About The Magic


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 ! Rachel Griffin Coverwings, 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?


30 comments to All About The Magic

  • sagablessed

    The book of wonder that got me started? The Dragons of Pern I found in kindergarten. Not magic per se, but still worthy books. Fire lizards, dragons, thread….it fired up my mind.
    Your post almost made me cry, both in joy and sorrow. Until I began writing, and now having read this, I did not realize how much of the magic we lose as we become adults. Now I am finding it again.
    I think we as authors have a duty to share and instill that sense of wonder with our readers.
    To quote you:
    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.

    In the whole article, this last sentence was to me the most poignant.
    Thank you for such insight.
    As to you last question: a song. Not on the radio, but a random, almost glossolalia tune, turned into the breath of magic. OMG new shiney!!! Must. Resist. New shiney.
    AAARGH! 🙂

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I think we do tend to let the magic slip away…but the most wonderful thing is that we can find it again, the moment we wake up and remember. (I think that is one reason so many people like Doctor Who. He really seems to hold onto that child-like magic. 😉 )

  • Just… wow. Count me as moved to tears as well.

    The books that started it all for me passed from my memory long ago. They were thin, and brown, and told stories from the point of view of animals. I remember the feelings, but can’t for the life of me recall titles or author. Maybe that’s for the best – sometimes holding on to those feelings is better than knowing.

    The first book I still recall was Silver Chief Dog of the North by Jack O’Brien. I read that between kindergarten and 3rd grade, at least a couple dozen times. I read it again a couple of years ago – they’re not often as good as you remember :/

    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?

    It’s a rare thing for me to experience that anymore while reading, but it’s those rare moments that make it worth all the words in between. Patrick Rothfuss, more recently Stephen R. Donaldson and his Last Chronicles. And apparently you…

    Something magic… I’m going to have to steal Saga’s idea of music.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I remember reading a lot of books from the point of view of animals when I was young. They seemed quite magical to me. I remember, particularly, reading one about a fox who tried to catch a rabbit to eat and survive and, the next week, one about a rabbit, where it had to escape from a fox to survive. That really stuck with me.

    I think a lot more could be done with music and magic than I have yet seen. (I have some magical music in my latest series. Unfortunately, my poor main character really hates practicing her instrument. )

  • sagablessed

    Dave, It would not be theft. Take the idea. Run with it. Write the story, and let the magic flow from your hands to the typed words, to the reader’s mind.
    L Jagi…I recommend fur magic by andre norton. And of course Watership Down. There was also a book about a rabbit who was turned human by a witch to defeat an evil wizard. Darnit! I cannot remember the title or author. I am gonna go batzoid until I google the sucker.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I loved Watership Down! I have a friend who wrote his final college essay for St. John’s on that book.

    I have not read Fur Magic!

  • kwlee

    I know the idea is hardly new, but as a boy I loved the idea of magical doorways. I thought CS Lewis’ Wardrobe and Caroll’s mirror were brilliant. Every-day objects that could be in plain sight, but lead you to someplace magical.

    Now, I’ve grown up. I’ve moved on to subways, underpasses, caverns, and drainage tunnels. When I drive by, I still wonder where that dark corridor leads to.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    That is so cool, Kwlee!

    I bet you could write a really wonderful story about those underpasses and corridors!

  • I lost my sense of magic a long time ago — or I thought I had. I am currently starting a new series about a *magical* wood in the mountains. And suddenly the magic I’d lost as a child is back. It’s amazing. It wasn’t dead. It was just slumbering until I gave it reason to wake.

  • […] The beautiful and talented wife appears today at the fantasy writing website: Magical Words […]

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I had a moment like that, Faith, last winter, which is what led to this article. Not the moment I describe, that was actually after I started thinking about these ideas, but before this. I was walking in the woods and thinking about a scene I had written where my character walked in the woods…and I suddenly remembered what walking in the woods had been like as a child and how something had lived in every hole in a tree and behind every interesting rock…something magical and wondrous.

    I went back and entirely rewrote my sceen.

    Now I want you read your magical wood book!

  • Ken

    I love posts like this. Simply love them. They come clear out of the blue, poke you in the shoulder and, when they’ve got your attention, they whisper, “You know, you might be missing something.”

    Thanks for reminding me of the magic of the mundane 🙂

    What started it all for me? Three Books come to mind:
    1. Sir MacHinery by Tom McGowan.
    2. The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. Most of what I remember about that book was that the mouse took an ordinary toy motorcycle and made it work like a real one simply by making a motorcycle noise with his tongue.
    3. The third one, I can’t remember the title of. The gist of it was a boy somehow comes into possession of a robotic dragonfly that he can control and see and hear things with via a helmet and special gloves. The idea still strikes me as pretty cool.

    What ordinary object would I like to see woken to life? Doors (not quite like the way that Neil Gaiman did it in Neverwhere), paths in the woods, the road. Pretty much anything that involves traveling…which is odd, for me, because I could easily be a hermit if I let myself.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Ken, your last comment intrigued me. Do you think there’s a difference between what we love and want to know about and what we actually want to experience? (Like wanting to know about traveling, but liking staying home.)

    Seems like there’s an intriguing idea in there somewhere. 😉

    I had not heard of Sir Machinery. I’ll look that up.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I note I wrote it Machinery by mistake…but didn’t realize that was what it said until after I looked it up. LOL Bet my boys would love this book.

  • The first? Lost in memory, sadly.

    But the author who remains at the forefront of my mind is Alan Garner, who penned such titles as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service, The Moon of Gomrath, among others. It was, in fact, one of Garner’s books (I don’t remember which) that so evocatively described a perilous flight through constrictive underground tunnels in complete blackness that it induced in me a state of claustrophobia that remains to this day, decades later. Who says fiction can’t change your life? (Thanks a lot, Mister Garner.)

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I am pretty sure the tunnels are in Weirdstone of Brisingamen…where Colin and Susan are fleeing through the mines. (Interestingly, that is where my son stopped listening to me read the book some years ago. One of these days, I want to go back and finish reading it to him. Hopefully, he’s old enough now (15) that he will not be scarred for life! Bless you!)

    Yeah…Gardner’s books are really, really wonderful. I almost mentioned them, too. Oddly, even though I like the Alderley Edge books better, I think about the Owl Service quite often. Particularly the line: “Not owls, flowers.” It seems such a good metaphor for so many things.

    Ah. Thanks for reminding me of Garner’s books!

  • What a wonderful post. Thank you for this, Jagi. And, of course, welcome back to MW. I hope that the new series is hugely successful for you.

    I remember reading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong, a book I later discovered was targeted at young girls, and falling in love with the wonder of her world and the blending of music and magic. That might well have been the beginning for me.

    I have been writing a lot of UF recently — the Thieftaker books and my new series for Baen are both urban fantasies, filled with magic, but of the gritty variety. There is not as much wonder as what you describe. I turned to writing UF after writing epic fantasy for years and years, and now I find myself wondering when I might get back to the stuff I used to write. I love the gritty stuff. But there is also something amazing about building entire worlds; that sense of wonder becomes the driving force behind my creative process.

  • As for ordinary objects made magical, I’m writing a young MG story for my daughter, so I’m doing that already. It’s fun wondering how she would react to the sorts of situations I’m putting the character I’m modeling after her in and it’s giving me that sense of wonder. So far, she’s realized her cat can talk and is a servant of Bast, realized goblins, house sprites, and all manner of faeries are real, slept with a caterpillar for a pillow, had to put on clothes made from leatherleaf, vanquished trolls at a troll bridge (“If ya wants ta cross da troll bridge, ya gots ta pay da troll.”), realized she has a special power, helped fight off goblin spiders, rode on a crow and a fox, was chased by goblin batriders, and is now meeting with the gnoles from the Gnole Knolls. Heh!

    Books…there’s a lot. I can start with a pack that was the origins of the Hulk, Spiderman, and the Fantastic Four. I learned to read pretty early on and would read those in bed. And I started playing D&D at around 7-8. Beyond that, the first novel I begged for was The Elfstones of Shannara. Also, Piers Anthony was a big influence with the Xanth novels. And then there were the Anglo Saxon stories from Henry Treece I discovered in the school library in middle school. Not magical per se, but were definitely something that helped spark my imagination.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Thanks, David. I had been ruminating over this post for a while. I was saving it for Magical Words, because I thought you guys might appreciate it.

    You know, David…it is true that your books are more gritty, but I think there’s at least a touch of magic and wonder in your Thieftaker books. Just the wonderful way you bring old Boston to life. The touches of the thoughts and customs of the times that you include add a kind of magic that goes beyond what is found in most Urban Fantasies .

    Or…at least that is how it seems to me. 😉

    Daniel, your story you are writing for your daughter sounds like it has all the elements from my favorite childhood stories. Cool!

  • This is such a timely post for me, because I’ve recently been looking for that magic, and thinking about the influences that made me want to be a writer in the first place, and what I really want to write in my heart of hearts. The first books I remember feeling that way about were The Chronicles of Narnia – which my mother read to us first, and then I later read for myself multiple times. We had so many games as children that came from the magic of those books.

    I am also a huge fan of magical doorways, particularly the hall of doors, where each door leads to a different world, and of course the forest with all the pools in the Magician’s Nephew. I also find a lot of inspiration in paths – especially wooded paths, but paths of all kinds, really. One never knows where they might lead. 🙂

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Magical doorways seems to be a favorite!

    It would be a cool subject for an anthology of short stories. 😉

    We had a lot of Narnia games as a kid, too. I drew a huge collection of pictures of characters from Narnia, fauns, dryads, lions, etc. I couldn’t draw very well. In particular, I couldn’t draw hands. So I had them all hold plates. I guess it was supposed to be a great feast. LOL

  • quillet

    Going back really far (really really far), I remember the Raggedy Ann stories made me try many times to catch my dolls being alive when I wasn’t looking. I’d sneak up to my bedroom door and listen, then fling it open; or I’d pretend to be asleep and then open one eye … but they were always too quick for me. 😉 I also used to check corners and baseboards for evidence of the Borrowers. And I used to inspect mushrooms for signs of Smurf habitation or fairies. (I guess I had a thing for tiny magical creatures.)

    Thanks for this post, you’ve made me so happy, remembering these things!

    I’d like a path through the woods to lead somewhere other. It starts out as a normal hiking trail near a busy road, but it rounds a corner, goes down a gully, and the sounds of traffic cease…and the light changes…and the trees seem taller…and………

    Um, Faith, if you’re writing that, we WANTS it, preciousss!

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I had forgotten Raggedy Anne! My son had a pop-up book of an old Raggedy Anne story…with a boat on stilts manned by girls disguised as pirates. Just thinking about it stirs the imagination.

    I love your idea of the trees getting taller… Faith? 😉

  • Razziecat

    I don’t think I have a favorite, because I love so many authors…Carol Berg, Judith Tarr and Patricia McKillip all wake my sense of wonder. I do have a special spot in my heart for Andre Norton, who started me down this road with her Time Traders series (probably the first thing I read that said ordinary people can find themselves in extraordinary circumstances… and heroes don’t have to be perfect). And the Pern books, and Lord of the Rings, of course. 😀

    When I was a kid I used to love to read the Greek and Roman myths in our encyclopedia at home. Some of those stories still have magic for me…gods and mysterious powers can be anywhere, hidden in a hazel thicket or in a shower of golden sunlight…

  • Favorite stories the magical awe; there were a lot, but ones to capture making the mundane magical would be Pippi Longstockings. As for wonder – I still often giggle having the doors swish open before me, and water to come on simply by putting the hands under the faucet.

  • My first books of wonder were Aesop’s Fables followed almost immediately by The Wind in the Willows. Who could forget Mr. Toad? From those two books all things wondrous and awesome and magical have followed.

    I love summers because that’s when the orb weavers take over my front porch and back patio. Large red and black argiopes with their red fur-feathered legs and 8′ basket woven webs; smaller white and gold and black ones who build at dusk and tear down at sunrise. So very like, and yet not like at all, to Charlotte and her webs.

    And the two wisteria vines, who despite my most valiant attempts to control and contain them are determined to explore nooks and crannies and gaps between my fence slats and their ground runners that seem determined to reach my bedroom door! There’s magic in those plants, I tell ya!

    As for the geese and the unicorns and the dragons, and who gets to scoop the poop, well, there’re stories in the most mundane of chores, aren’t there? Remember Mickey Mouse and the Mop?

    Doorways and mirrors and tunnels and windows and trap-doors and dark wooded paths and foggy roads on moonless nights…. magic is everywhere!

    Thank you, and visit more often. You belong here!!

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Thanks Razziecat, Erin, and Lyn! It’s funny how many magical youthful things I’ve been reminded of by you all today!

    Patricia McKillip is one I should have listed. I still occasionally re-read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Miranda in my Prospero’s Daughter book was patterned a bit after Sibyl.

    I never did find the Pippi Longstocking books when I was young, even though I wanted to…because she and I had a similar hairstyle back then.

    I do like the idea of magical vines who won’t quit! It reminds me of a humorous version of Sleeping Beauty I told my son that we’ve never been able to recapture.

    (I love the movie Spirited Away (by Miyazaki) precisely because it reminds me of the stories MY mother told when I was a kid. It’s funny to think of my kids growing up to feel that way about something else.)

  • TwilightHero

    Delurking for this 🙂 The earliest ‘magical’ books I can remember were from the Magic Tree House series. Visiting all those different places and time periods was interesting, at least.

    What I remember most clearly, though, is the Heralds of Valdemar trilogy. Which, unless I’m mistaken, was also written for girls. *waves at David* At the time, the story of a girl not much older than me, being chosen by a telepathic spirit horse and thrust into a world far larger than the one she’d known, gaining new powers and responsibilities she’d only dreamed of…those books have been stuck in my head ever since. They might also be why I have a liking for characters who hear voices 😛

    Tastes change, though. I picked up a Mercedes Lackey book last year for old times’ sake, and only got a few chapters in. It just wasn’t what I liked anymore. *shrug* Be that as it may. I’ll always remember that sense of wonder.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I have always regretted that none of my kids got into the Magic Tree House series. It seemed really intriguing.

    I’ve had that happen, too…going back and finding a book one loved once doesn’t hold up. But the magic still remains!

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