Writers on the lookout for local color

Authors like me who infuse local color–legends, myths, ghost stories, oral history–into their stories are always on the lookout for books and sites that lead them to more good stuff

Historian Dale Cox who lives in the Florida Panhandle has done more than his fair share of capturing local history and local color in books and websites. This book Two Egg, Florida: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Legends and Unusual Facts is a good example of the kind of resource I look for. 

I grew up near Two Egg, saw it numerous times, and knew about half the tales and facts in this book before I bought it. But Cox’s research helps nail everything down, providing new wrinkles I wasn’t aware of as well as tales I hadn’t heard.

Since I write magical realism, I see the location and its legends almost like one of the characters. Of course, my human characters treat the myths and legends as real because that’s how magical realism works.

They really believe Bellamy Bridge has a ghost, that there might be some truth in the notion that the bluffs along the Apalachicola north of Bristol might have been the Biblical Garden of Eden, and that Two-Toed Tom and the Swamp Booger are out there in the dark waiting for an ignorant person to stumble into their clutches.

My library includes many books like this one by Dale Cox, and for the realism side of my novels, books about north Florida’s flora and fauna and history. Sometimes the research is even more fun than the writing.

Malcolm

Soon, I’ll release a new novel (“Lena”) to go along with “Conjure Woman’s Cat’ and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Writing magical realism: step-by-step suggestions

When the magic within a story is accepted as usual within an otherwise realistic setting, you’re probably reading or writing magical realism. It requires a light touch: if the magic becomes too overt or too over-the-top in terms of Hollywood special effects, then you’re out of the magical realism genre realm into fantasy, occult or science fiction.

Here’s an example

gardenspellsIn her novel Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen tells a story about a woman named Claire Waverly living alone in the family’s old house in a small town. Her family has always been viewed by others as odd or unusual in some way. She runs a catering business that’s in high demand because she’s not only a great cook, but uses the products of her own garden to enhance her dishes in ways that seem to help those who need to be helped: their luck or their emotions improve, they feel better, find their lives improving. She doesn’t advertise this: if she did, it would sound like an unbelievable health food scam and would no longer be magical realism. Each member of the Waverly family has a special gift that causes others to see them as slightly odd and/or highly talented.

The novel works on many levels as magical realism because: (1) We’re not seeing Harry Potter magic, (2) The small town setting lends itself to local legends and gossip that create an eerie overlay of maybe and perhaps that’s never quite analyzed in the light of day, (3) The magic is low key, not the kind that in other novels would turn into a thriller, witchcraft hysteria, (4) Her characters do what they do without overtly using “magical techniques” that require practice, meditations, or the stuff of either fantasy or dark arts novels.

If you  want to write magical realism, it helps if you’ve read a lot of it and have a feeling for the genre as well of being comfortable leaving a lot of things unsaid or hinted at rather than approaching the unusual in your story with a full-bore emphasis on “creepy stuff” as  Stephen King might approach similar material. Here are a few suggestions

Tips for Writing Magical Realism

  1. This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn't.
    This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn’t.

    Unlike fantasy, magical realism has strong plots and characters that would draw readers through the story if there were no magic at all. It’s hard to imagine the Harry Potter books without wizards and their magic. Garden Spells might work as a story in a small town even if the Waverly family didn’t have unusual talents.

  2. Choose a setting that lends itself to magic, unanswered questions and unusual events without attracting the attention of, say, the news media or the police or others who might shine a strong light on it. Small towns and rural settings both have legends and myths (whether you make them up or do a riff on those of the real place where you set your story).  Since a lot of people in today’s society get spooked by swamps, remote mountains, piney woods in the moonlight–along with the real or imagined creatures that might be there–going off the beaten track for your story gives you a lot of opportunities for implying that, say, the land is conscious or that birds and animals have unusual motives, or that keeping on the “right side” of folk beliefs is the healthy thing to do.
  3. The people who create the magic seldom talk about their magic; if they do, they don’t see what they do as any different from the way anyone else uses the tools of his/her trade to do or to create what most people cannot do or create. If you borrow from a real magical tradition such as Voodoo, witchcraft or hoodoo, research (or your own knowledge) will bring you a lot of ideas about ways of living a magical without turning the practitioner into a caricature.  As the author of a magical realism story, you never ever demean the myths, legends, beliefs, spells and practices of your magical characters or the enchanted landscape in which they live.
  4. If you use a real wilderness or other remote setting, your book will be more believable if you research the flora, fauna, weather and people who live there now–or lived there in the past.  For one thing, you need realism to play off against the magic. For another, it’s hard to show characters moving around in an area if you don’t know what it looks like. And finally, natural magic uses things from the land that witches and conjurers grow, harvest or find. Don’t make this up: it will kill your story. Find out what kind of leaves are used for the spell you want, research what the plants look like and whether they grow in the area where your story is set, and make that a natural part of your narrative.
  5. Refer to an area’s legends and myths. For real settings, you’ll find these from folklore societies, books with titles such as “The Ghosts of Quincy” or “Florida Legends” and “Creation Myths of the Sunshine State.” Your job is usually not to retell any of these stories, rather to refer to them the way people in a city might mention in passing the day the trolley car first came by the house or the fact that some accident happened years ago in a certain place. For example, in my novel in progress, one character tells another not to eat gopher tortoises because they were created by the devil. The legend about that is longer than this post, but in a magical realism book I can simply refer to that as a fact and move on. I always prefer to use nuggets out of the real myths and legends from a place rather than making them up from scratch. For one thing, they fit the place well. For another, they convey a folklore truth that many people living there have heard before and/or a bit of folklore I want to help keep alive.
  6. Certain events/feelings that are told as metaphors in a mainstream realism novel can be told as though they actually happened. Be careful with this, or it won’t seem believable within the story’s context and the character’s beliefs. For example, in realism, a character who needs to apologize to another might say, “I felt as though I was so small, I could hide under the dining room chairs until my parents left for work.” In magical realism, you don’t include the words “as though” or “as if.” You state it like it’s temporarily the case. Interior monologue and/or lyrical propose are two ways you can do this so that a typically unrealistic event suddenly seems plausible within the magic of the moment. For example: “When my conjure woman is angry, she is taller; she doesn’t look smaller when she walks down to the far end of the beach.”

amfolklore

There’s no recipe here. In a sense, you have to feel it and sense it before you can do it. Once you practice the genre a lot, you don’t have to consciously think about the components any more than a person with years of experience thinks about what s/he does to make a bicycle work. It also helps if you have an open mind and a sense of wonderment or even magic about people and the natural world.

At any rate, I toss off these suggestions as ideas that might work. Or might not.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novel “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

How a writer sees locations for prospective stories

In How to be doomed as a writer, I mentioned that author Stephen King prefers to look at story possibilities as situations rather than plots.

Over time, a writer becomes attracted to certain kinds of settings and the kinds of situations that might occur there. I’m attracted to natural wonders, especially mountains, as well as old buildings. My novels The Sun Singer and The Seeker both arise from a natural wonders setting, Glacier National Park. When I contemplated writing about the park, my first thoughts were about the kinds of things (situations) that might happen there. My Kindle short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” came to mind when I looked at an abandoned building near the house where I grew up.

Suppose you’re in a writing class and the instructor shows you the following picture obtained from the Florida Division of Historical Resources. All you’re told is that it’s an old and restored opera house in a small north Florida town.

PerkinsOperaHouse

Perhaps the instructor has influenced your brainstorming about this picture by showing you the building on a sunny afternoon with cars along the street. If s/he had shown you a photograph of the same structure as it sat on a moonlit night with the trees missing leaves during December, you’d come up with a different set of situations.

  • If you’re a fan of TV police shows, perhaps this looks like a place where a crime is committed.
  • If you’re drawn to opera and/or to theater, maybe you’ll think of stars, set designers, directors, little theater groups, professional “theater people” or amateurs coming together to put on a play that somebody hopes will fail.
  • Maybe there’s a secret about the building, some old legend or a will uncovered in a dusty attic that describes how, when the building was constructed, several hundred bars of gold were hidden beneath the box seats.
This picture gives you a very different feeling about the building.
This picture gives you a very different feeling about the building. – Florida Division of Historical Resources.

Okay, I’ve withheld some information, so with a few more facts, are your prospective story situations the same or do you change them?

  • The Opera House, which consists of a large second-floor theater and first floor shops, was built in 1880.
  • Traveling productions, including vaudeville groups, put on shows at this theater for a number of years. But then, when the railroads re-routed their lines and there was no easy way for out-of-town visitors to get to town, the theater fell into disuse.
  • Ghost hunters claim the owner died of a broken heart and still haunts the now-restored building. Purportedly, the former owner has been “seen” by the ghost hunters and a glowing orb of light.
  • The building is now used as a venue for weddings, local-area stage productions, and other functions where a seating capacity of 600 is desired.

If your instructor asked you to write a short story about this building, would you see it as just a building where anything might happen, a setting for a theater-oriented tale filled with clashing egos and temperamental stars, or would you try to link the local legends and the history of the building into your story? The only catch is, the instructor will expect you to convey–one way or another–a sense of the building. So, it can’t be a generic structure.

Well, unless you know the building already and/or are a historic preservation specialist, you’rre at a disadvantage when you try to describe it. If I were the instructor, I’d have several information sheets prepared as handouts.

  1. Those who wanted to use the building as a place setting would get a general description of the interior and some architectural information about the architectural style of the building, it’s size, etc.
  2. Those who wanted to use the location for a theater-oriented story, would receive information about the stage, the seating, the lighting, and the dressing rooms.
  3. Those who didn’t know yet what was going to happen but wanted real background, would be told about the building’s history and the ghostly legends.

What do you see here?

Interior as it looks now. - The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida photo.
Interior as it looks now. – The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida photo.

In a classroom exercise, you’re “research”–if you think any is needed–is limited by what you see in the photograph and what the instructor will tell you either in a lecture, a question and answer session, or via handouts. Since I am attracted by legends, especially paranormal stories, I’m going to see this as a place where something ghostly will happen.

How you tend to view real locations, whether they’re lakes, mountains, buildings, or city streets, will influence what “your muse” draws you to consider. Your inclinations may suggest that the instructor should have had several more handouts about the building. One might be how the building is used today. Another might be the kinds of businesses on the first floor and on adjacent streets.

As writers, we look at locations as places where something might happen or where something did happen. Whether you like tying in real history and legends or whether you see locations in terms of what’s happening there in the present day, once you’re attracted to a setting for who knows what reason, story situations may come to mind as you Google (or go to) the setting.

When I first saw pictures of this building, my first thought was, “Good, here’s a cool old building in the Florida Panhandle where I’ve been placing many of my recent stories.”

As I learned about the building–its history, its ghosts, its restoration–ideas began to float around for prospective stories. As this process unfolds, we may never write a story…unless we’re in a classroom and have no choice. If a story comes out of it, the setting was the catalyst and the result was a marriage of the real and the writer’s imagination.

Malcolm

P.S. If the actual building intrigues you, you can learn more about it here.

Creating Magical Animals in Fiction – Part 2

“The Twa Corbies”, Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Some British Ballads – Wikipedia

In Part 1, I suggested that magical animals in fantasy, magical realism and folktales should start out on your imaginary drawing board as factually accurate as possible. Real-world facts make your animal believable.

Whether your animal can perform overt acts of magic, such as my flying horse Sikimi in The Sun Singer and Sarabande, or mysteriously appears on the scene when important things happen to the characters, such as the crows in Verlyn Flieger’s The Inn at Corbies’ Caw, you can add great depth by linking it to traditional myths and superstitions, American Indian creation myths and real or imaginary local stories and beliefs. When you do this, you are building either on what the reader already believes (ravens hang out in grave yards and bring bad luck) or you are layering the story with information that, while probably new to the reader, helps  make your magical animal three dimensional.

In a recent short story about the rare Florida panther, I noted that according to Seminole myth, the creator placed all the animals into a birthing shell from which they emerged when the time was right. The first animal to come into the world was the panther, and she had certain qualities that made her special. Since my story is set in a long-ago time period before humans arrived, the animals view the birthing shell as real. They mention it in an off hand way because my short story is not retelling the myth; the mythic backstory gives my panther a larger than life ambiance.

Many writers turn to Nature-Speak and/or to Animal-Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small by Ted Andrews for a comprehensive introduction to a large number of animals as they are seen in myth and folklore. The books are especially valid for stories set in the United States since they have an American Indian flavor. I prefer to find out about my prospective magical animals before I start writing so I can build their characterizations and actions around the myths and superstitions rather than pasting a “surface-level” set of qualities on top of an otherwise realistic creature.

The Internet is an amazing resource as long as one double checks everything from multiple sources to: (a) insure the myth or legend is widely known rather than being one writer’s imaginary story or religious belief, (b) locate enough detail to keep your account (including the adjectives and phrases you use) from sounding too much like the one source you located. When setting a story in a real location, a you can start with such online searches as creation myths of the Seminoles (insert appropriate tribe for the region) , panther (insert appropriate animal) myths and legends, and Florida (insert state, city, park, forest or resort) animal legends.

How Magic Do You Want Your Animal to Be?

Magic has to be used carefully, for if you make your main character (human or animal) all powerful, then you won’t have a way to build an exciting story. When your animal is all powerful, then you can build in understood “rules” that keep it from solving all the challenges in the story the minute it arrives. My flying horse, for example, is on the scene to transport my human characters from place to place. But he allows them to decide where they’re going and what they’re going to do when they get there. While he occasionally takes strong action, he generally doesn’t interfere in the fate, destiny or logical plan of the humans.

You can, of  course, make all of the magic indirect. That is, if an character’s totem animal is the raven, the raven need not have Superman-like powers to play a role. He can appear in dreams and visions with cryptic messages, can be seen flying in a certain direction as a hint to the characters to go that way, and can be placed in trees or in flight overhead when things are beginning to get frightening. This approach works well in contemporary fantasy and magical realism where your magical animals generally don’t have the capabilities of science fiction and fantasy animals in other worlds where the rules are different.

In “real life,” an overtly magical animal would attract attention. Of course, if that attention and how the human and animal deal with it, is important to your story, then hiding the animal’s abilities wouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, magical animals tend to be more overt when they appear in parallel worlds, spooky uncertain regions, and deserted places. You can also blur the level of reality by opening up the possibility that the magical things a character saw and/or took part in, might have been the stuff of his imagination and dreams. You will see when you do your research into animal superstitions and tales, that magic tends to happen in places where the whole world cannot see it. This not only makes the magic potentially more frightening (it happens at midnight where two roads cross, for example), but keeps it from getting out of control in your story.

If your protagonist is a human, the rules of storytelling (depending on the genre) generally call for him or her to have more control over the direction of the plot than the animal. When placed within a dangerous situation, you character—knowing or not knowing the magic that’s “available”— will make choices to run, to hide, to fight, to be heroic, to find hidden strengths, or perhaps to fail. The magical animal cannot run in out of nowhere and “fix” all of the character’s problems. If so, the story become very anticlimactic.

In most fantasy, there are various “rules in place” in the parallel universe and in adjoining or overlay worlds that contain or restrict all the magic. This also makes stories more suspenseful and mysterious and keeps them from ending on the first page. Even Superman can’t do everything and be everywhere at once: the fact that he can’t, is what makes the story a story. The same is true for your magical animals.

Malcolm