Writing is like living in a fixer-upper house

“You know those people who buy fixer-upper homes, move into them, and live there while they renovate them? That’s what a story is like. You move into the story, you occupy it like a house, and you live there until it’s completely done.” –Thrity Umrigar

In an earlier post called About Waiting for Inspiration, I noted that serious professional writers work every day rather than sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That post suggested things writers can do to make inspired story ideas more likely.

Likewise, there are things writers can do once they have a story idea that will make it more likely the plot will unfold. Better to let the plot and characters come to mind naturally rather that sitting down, staring at a blank screen, and waiting for something to happen.

I like author Thrity Umrigar’s fixer-upper house analogy. First, it paints a very accurate picture about what goes on during an author’s waking hours while s/he is actively working on a short story or novel. Second, it suggests one reason why authors often stare off in space or seem not to be listening while they’re around others. They’re physically in the room, but mentally they’re conversing with their characters or chasing bad guys through a bad section of town.

Unrigar adds that when you’re committed to a story, “That means you’re thinking about your story all the time, living with it, never letting it wander too far away from you. A story is like a newborn–you have to tend to it, feed it, be aware of it all the time.”

When you’re living in a house white renovating it, you’re on the scene 24/7. You not only notice what needs to be done, but think of new ideas that didn’t occur to you when you first walked in the front door. A story is like that. Authors don’t see every detail of every character, scene, description, and plot twist when they first think of an idea.

When you’re living in a fixer-upper house, it’s easier to see potential traffic flows, floor plan changes, and value-added features than it was while the house was something you might buy. When you see what your fictional characters see–or might see–it becomes more apparent whether they’re moving in the right direction or not, wearing the clothes that suit them, or adding to the prospective reader’s excitement by doing this or that or something else.

Seriously, when you’re committed to a story, it never goes away until you finish it–and maybe, not even then. Like the fixer-upper house that’s ready to sell, you have to resist the urge to tinker after it’s time to send your story or novel off to an agent, magazine, or publisher. It takes self-confidence to know when the story is truly finished and when the fixer-upper house is ready to list with a realtor.

Either way, living in the story and the fixer-upper house is a necessity.

–Malcolm

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If you want to ‘Make em laugh,” you have to make them cringe first

In the musical “Singing in the Rain,” Donald O’Connor sings a song called “Make em Laugh” which features the advice from his dad who said he needed to be a comical actor.

I thought about this song while reading an interview with author David Swann on Daily Write. Swann said that he likes writing that’s similar to conversations at a funeral where laughter and tears form a strange mix. Swann mentions that “‘The writer Simon Brett says writers shouldn’t ask, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if A,B,C, D, happened?’ Instead, he says it’s better to ask: ‘Wouldn’t it be tragic if it weren’t funny if A,B,C,D happened?'”

The juxtaposition of laughter and tears has for centuries been a storytelling technique that makes em laugh. In a theater, or at a play or a reading, those in the audience want to laugh because they can’t help it, but they look around first to see if anyone else is laughing. When you have a book in your hands, you don’t have to check out the mood of the rest of the audience.

I can’t help but think of the scene in the movie “Cat Ballou” where the drunken gunslinger (Lee Marvin) stumbles into a funeral, blows out the candles, and sings “Happy Birthday” to the dearly departed.  Of course, the movie was a spoof just as “Blazing Saddles” was a spoof. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to think of the reactions of “every day people” to a drunk at a funeral. Maybe it’s gallows humor. Or, maybe some of us are flat nuts.

Writers, I think, are among those who see the tension of putting things together that “don’t belong together.” Laughter arises out of that tension. So do tears. And perhaps, so does a new way of looking at the world.

I enjoy watching movies or reading books where my sense of what I would do with the plot or the dialogue at one point or another lets me guess what the next line in the dialogue really needs to be. I’m disappointed when I’m wrong, but not because I like being right. I’m disappointed because I see that an opportunity was lost to drive a point home toward laughter or tears. The resolution to the tension of opposites that could have been there has been left out, rather like hearing the first part of the “shave and a haircut,” ditty without hearing the “two bits.”

Since people tend get very nervous when I say, “What’s the worst that could possibly happen?” or “What could possibly go wrong?” I say those things a lot because people are so superstitious about hearing them. As a writer, I have a license that allows me to scare people and watch their reactions. What I see, makes me a better writer.

I’m very superstitious, but not about those questions. So, I know how thin the line is between reality and fate, humor and fear, and belief and astonishment. Without shame, I exploit how thin that line is. Since I’m and old writer, I can tell you that’s an old writer’s trick that might help you when you’re trying to make em laugh.

Malcolm

 

 

If you were God, what would you do next?

Most people are scared to answer that question. In fact, they’re down right superstitious about even hearing the question.

Those who do answer the question tend to say either: (a) I would smite so and so, or (b) I would create world peace. Smiting a bad guy is easy. Creating world peace is easier said than done because there are too many variables involved for a mere human to deal with.

Okay, here’s where you find out that’s a trick question.

Those who aren’t writers often say that within any given novel, the author is a god. S/he can smite everyone who needs smiting and decree world peace without having to worry about the mechanics of it.

There are risks of acting too God like while writing a novel or a short story. Presumably, God (Himself and/or Herself) doesn’t have to worry about bad press whenever He or She manifests and Act of God. Human beings, being what they are, tend to believe that if an Act of God occurs and it’s bad, it must be their fault. They sinned, and so an Act of God paid them back.

If a writer puts an Act of God into his/her story, chances are nobody will believe it and the author will be paid back with a slew of one-star reviews on Amazon, and God help him or her if the book sells well enough to attract the attention of critics who will say, “The book was a wondrous sweeping saga until the last chapter when the good guys were trapped and suddenly–without warning or proper foreshadowing–a tsunami kills all the bad guys.”

Critics and readers alike will say, “I hate it when that happens.”

Basically, critics and readers don’t want the author to play God as s/he writes because the resulting story is unsatisfying, outside the reality of the novel, an example of the author writing himself/herself into a hole and cheating to get out of it, and other nasty criticisms.

Readers, frankly, are never willing to say that the author moves in mysterious ways and let it go at that. Authors who move in mysterious ways are variously bad, experimental, sinful, crazy, or tetched. Critics and readers typically want more order than authors want. They want the books they read to be safe and to fit within the world as they see it.

The bottom line is, the author can’t play God and has to let the story unfold however it unfolds. If you–as the author–step in and take any action whatsoever, it has to be sneaky and impossible for critics and readers to detect.

So, the author’s answer to the question “If you were God, what would you do next?” is “Little to nothing.”

That’s the reality of being an author. You have the power, but you can’t use it.

Malcolm

 

 

 

Too much interior monologue will kill a good story

“Interior monologue, in dramatic and nondramatic fiction, narrative technique that exhibits the thoughts passing through the minds of the protagonists. These ideas may be either loosely related impressions approaching free association or more rationally structured sequences of thought and emotion.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica

True stream-of-consciousness fiction can yield a lot of exciting passages about a character’s inner life (which s/he may or may not confuse with reality) as well as plot-advancing impressions that mesh well with the story line.

When I think of “too much interior monologue,” I’m not bashing well-written stream of consciousness techniques in spite of the fact that readers who don’t like literary fiction will hand out one- and two-star reviews for such novels on Amazon. When an author’s protagonist thinks about the situation s/he is in, that’s interior monologue.

Naturally, it’s normal and relevant to think about the situations we’re in. On the other hand, when this thinking does on for hundreds of words in multiple places in a novel, then it is likely to ruin the story. Writers are told that most of what they put in a novel should advance the plot. Overused interior monologue doesn’t advance the plot: instead it puts the plot on hold.

I just finished reading a novel with an interesting plot. A protagonist with a history of panic attacks which s/he manages with prescription medication (as much as possible) undergoes a traumatic experience before being put into an unrelated but more dangerous situation where her life and the lives of others is at risk.

I’m not going to identify the novel or even count the number of words in it and compute what percentage of it is plot-stalling interior monologue. My impression, though, is that 40% of the novel is interior monologue along the lines of. . .I need to keep my self from screaming. . .I need to relax. . .maybe I didn’t see what I think I saw. . .can I trust person XYZ. . .maybe if I told my story and/or got certain people to trust me, they would believe me and/or help me.

Stop Talking to Yourself and Do Something!

A little bit of this is fine. But when it goes on and on and on, there’s really nothing happening. Yes, maybe this would happen in real life, but writers are also told that writing fiction that copies real life–as a 24/7 video camera might view it–is bad because a lot of that real life stuff is trivial. In the novel I just finished, the character’s fight to keep her panic under control and her considerations about what may or may not be happening can be conveyed to the reader much faster.

When I see excessive amounts of interior monologue, my first thought is that the writer doesn’t really have enough depth in the plot to make a novel. That is, there are two few events and dialogue passages to sustain a book-length story. So, the interior monologue pads the length of the book out to the minimum number of words the author or publisher feels are necessary to call the book a novel rather than a short story, novelette, or novella.

I liked the plot of the novel I just finished. I liked the satisfactory ending and the fact that the protagonist’s experience ended up making her a stronger person ready to take stock of a lot of decisions about her life that had been stalled. I think it’s a shame, though, that the story was dragged down by the interior monologue instead of being pushed forward with a greater number of plot elements.

Dan Brown’s “Teaching Moments” Come to Mind

Dan Brown and others who write novels about ancient secrets with a modern twist to them are often criticized for stopping the action through the insertion of a lot of exposition in which one character tells another character what the ancient secrets are all about. This is a slick way of telling the reader what those secrets are about. If you were going to write a spoof of such books, you’d have one character pull a knife on another character and then–so to speak–freeze the action while the character tells somebody else why all this matters (for, say, a thousand words) and then go back to the knife fight.

That really tears apart the pacing of the action. It’s also very frustrating to the reader. Excessive interior monologue has the same negative impacts.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and other magical realism and fantasy novels.

Book Bits: Robert Hastings, Saudi Theaters, Psychobabble,’Spy of the First Person’, Roy Moore

My Facebook author’s page has been hogging many of the authors and publishers links that I used to include in my Boot Bits feature. I won’t promise to fix that until the cows come home, but for now, here are a few links:

  1. Obituary: Robert Hastings – “Robert Hastings, publisher at Black Spring Press, died November 30, the Bookseller reported. He was 52. Hastings founded Black Spring Press in 1985 to “breathe new life into neglected classics.” Its first publication was a reprint of Anais Nin’s D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study, and the press subsequently produced work by Julian Mclaren-Ross, Patrick Hamilton, Nick Cave, Charles Baudelaire, Kyril Bonfiglioli, Carolyn Cassady and Leonard Cohen, among others.” Shelf-Awareness
  2. New TitleThe Dangerous Power of Psychobabble: Ramblings of a Disillusioned Psychotherapist, by Rae Franklin – In this self-help book, Rae Franklin, a retired state-licensed, nationally certified psychotherapist, dives in headfirst to deconstruct five of the most destructive psychological myths permeating modern-day society. In the midst of her deconstruction, she offers pointers for raising psychologically healthy children and tips for healing ourselves.
  3. QuotationI always felt and still feel that fairy tales have an emotional truth that is so deep that there are few things that really rival them. – Alice Hoffman
  4. Film News: Saudi Arabia is lifting a 35-year ban on movie theaters, and Twitter is thrilled, by Jarrett Lyons – After decades of being banned from Saudi Arabia, national authorities have announced that movie theaters will once again be allowed in its borders in a landmark decision. – Salon
  5. Book Review: ‘Spy of the First Person,’ Sam Shepard’s poignant goodbye, comes to the page, by Jocelyn McClurg – “It’s hard to think of an affliction crueler than ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that, over time, renders its victims helpless. And so there’s something beautiful about the slender, cryptic, almost hallucinatory volume of prose that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who died of ALS complications at age 73 on July 27, left behind as an epitaph.” USA Today
  6. Journalism: How Washington Post journalists broke the story of allegations against Roy Moore, by Libby Casey – “Post reporters Stephanie McCrummen and Beth Reinhard describe how the story started with on-the-ground reporting in Alabama and locals in the Gadsden area sharing memories about Moore’s past. Through dozens of interviews and weeks of fact-checking, what started as a tip became a story that could shake an election.” The Washington Post
  7. Interview: Judith Flanders (Christmas: A Biography), with Lily McLemore – “Ultimately, my research showed that Christmas isn’t so much wrapped up in nostalgia, as nostalgia is a major part of the holiday. It is a way of creating a collective illusion that life was once better—an illusion we need, one that lets us believe we can get back to that state once more.” – Book Page
  8. PublishingLittle Brown Scrambling to Meet ‘Obama: An Intimate Portrait’ Demand, by Jim Milliot – “One of the early hot books of the holiday shopping seasons appears to be Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza, the White House photographer during Obama’s two terms. The $35 hardcover, published by Little, Brown, features hundreds of photographs plus a foreword by the former President.” Publishers Weekly
  9. Writing Tips: Is It Too Late to Start Writing After 50?, by Julie Rosenberg – “Today, I am over age 50 with a full-time career in a demanding corporate role. It may seem to some like far from the ideal time to write a book. In fact, several family members and friends told me that I was nothing short of crazy when I mentioned my book idea.” Jane Friedman
  10. Feature Story: Adam Gopnik: ‘You’re waltzing along and suddenly you’re portrayed as a monster of privilege’, by Hadley Freeman – “The New Yorker essayist on his latest memoir, At the Strangers’ Gate, and the problem of writing about happiness.” The Guardian

Book Bits is compiled randomly by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of magical realism, contemporary fantasy, and paranormal short stories and novels.

 

I Talked to 150 Writers and Here’s the Best Advice They Had 

  1. Neglect everything else.

“It starts with a simple fact: If you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you. Which is probably why so many of the writers I talk to seem preoccupied with time-management. “You probably have time to be a halfway decent parent and one other thing,” David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, told me. That can mean mustering the grit to let other responsibilities languish. As he put it in short: ‘Neglect everything else’.”

Source: I Talked to 150 Writers and Here’s the Best Advice They Had | Literary Hub

After getting past a really strange writing process John Irving advocated, this feature story has a lot of food. I quoted the first item on the list because I think we find it hard to neglect everything else. For one thing, everything else is easier than writing. Plus, the other stuff usually has deadlines and measurable results like, say, getting the yard mowed and not missing your doctor’s appointment.

Unless you’re a professional writer, freelance or novelist, you probably don’t have firm writing deadlines. Novels often take forever to write. So it’s easy to put off writing that novel while doing other stuff that can actually be crossed off a TO DO list.

We say our writing matters. If so, it’s got to be near the top of the list of things we actually spend time doing.

–Malcolm

Should Authors Use Chapter Titles? 

“I ran across this question recently in a Facebook group, and noted there was a lot of opinion on it. Some authors are vehemently opposed to using chapter titles, while others adore them. So, what’s best?Well, the simplest answer is that it’s entirely up to the author. However, chapter titles do tend to be more prevalent in certain genres, so if that’s one you write in, you may want to adopt them.”

Source: Should Authors Use Chapter Titles? ‹ Indies Unlimited ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

R. J. Crayton provides tasty food for thought about the use of chapter titles, noting that some genres tend to use them more than others. I tend not to use them because I don’t like to tip off readers about what’s coming up.

Fortunately, Crayton doesn’t suggest a return to old fashioned chapter titles of the sort that were (a) long, and (b) spoilers, such as: Chapter Three – Where Bob Learns That When His Ship Goes Down Near Cuba, There Are Real Sharks in the Water.

Indies Unlimited offers another good post for writers.

–Malcolm

How to become a famous writer

Years ago, ruffians from the English department posted a gag flyer on school bulletin boards showing a hopeless oaf pictured with the quote: “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell ‘writer.’ Now I are one.”

For me, that flyer began a long-time distrust of high school and college English departments. The reasons run deep and belong in another post. Suffice it to say, English departments aren’t high on my list of steps to take in becoming a famous writer. Instead, I suggest the following:

Don’t Write Good.

Readers don’t like good even though many of them claim them have to have read “the good book” and that they adore every novel that features people who helps the homeless or who starve their families while donating time and money to the Salvation Army.

What readers really want is bad. Why do you think they liked The Da Vinci Code? “Christ, you’re telling me Jesus was married? Where can I get my copy?” They like heroes who use unnecessary force (as seen on the show “24”) because those tactics bring the kinds of results that generate closure to readers fighting for simple answers that work in a complex, politically correct rules.

It goes without saying that readers also buy books with back-cover blurbs like “Nymphomaniac Defrocks Beloved Priest in Forgotten Monastery” and  “Shy Housewife Kills Terrorists in Downtown Chicago with Illegal Weapons Stolen from Wimpy Cops.”

Commit a Crime

Writers with platforms sell books. If you threw your mama from a train, you have a much better chance of writing salable books than a hapless MFA-graduate whose “platform” is (a) writing good, (b) An MFA, and (c) A resume filled with angst-ridden poems and short stories set in an unbelievable universe where angst-ridden stuff actually gets onto bestseller lists.

A criminal record shows prospective agents and publishers you know how to catch the public’s attention and produce a novel that will sell 50,000 copies or more and attract options from Warner Brothers and 20th Century-Fox. What you don’t want is a novel that might attract options from the Hallmark Channel because it produces material from authors who write good.

Caution: Judges and lawmakers generally won’t allow a person to profit from a crime. If you write a novel called How I Threw Mama from the Train, your earnings will be confiscated if you really threw your mama from a train. Write about something else, using your fame as a criminal to get the attention of agents, publishers and readers. Your stuff might sell if you write good even though writing bad is better.

Become a Movie Star

If you’re a movie star or a famous Hollywood personality who looks like a slut or a stud on the red carpet, you can become a bestselling author even if you’re illiterate. How? Ghostwriters, darling. A sure way to get a publisher’s attention is by “writing” a memoir or novel based on a true story that dishes out plenty of scandal about your co-stars, lovers, and agents. The public adores stories that tell them their favorite stars aren’t really as pure as the driven snow. A bonus for movie stars is writing a book about an issue even if an expert writes it for you. Do this, and you’ll soon be testifying at Congressional hearings even though you probably know less about the issue than the average man or woman on the street.

The famous movie star approach also works for famous senators, representatives, governors, politicians and other idiots who are smart enough to understand that readers want your name on their coffee tables even if they never read a word of the drivel between the covers.

Plagiarize, Get Caught, Repent

Create a novel with a compelling plot, multidimensional characters, and a jaw-dropping title that, under normal conditions, will probably sell only one hundred copies.  Not to worry. This novel will have a secret weapon, and the big payoff comes when the secret is discovered: you’ve stolen thousands of its words from famous novels. When people find out, you’ll deny it, of course. Your readers will hate you. As your crime becomes harder to deny, you’ll claim “fair use.” That won’t work, but it may keep the wolves from your door for a while.

Finally, you’ll issue a news releasing claiming that Satan told you to do it and that your heartily sorry and never meant to harm anyone. You’ll refund the money you’ve made off the book and check yourself into a rehab center. Several years will go by. People will forget you. That’s when you strike with a book written in your own words. Readers will buy it like hotcakes because folks love repentant sinners who reform and start walking the straight and narrow. Even the New York Times bestseller list and Oprah will love you.

Your English teachers will never share any of these secrets with you. That’s okay, because nobody really needs those people as they much one needs oneself and a plan for success that really brings in the big bucks.

Malcolm

 

So, you’re writing a novel and can’t think of a title for it

My muse tells me what my titles are going to be, so there it is.

But there are other approaches. Maybe a line out of a poem or your story’s plot in three words or the name of the main character along with a nice key word like “Joe’s Plague” or “Bob’s Dungeon” or “Mary’s Escape.”

booktitleTucker Max says, “The title is the first piece of information someone gets about your book, and it often forms the reader’s judgment about your book. Let’s be clear about this: A good title won’t make your book do well. But a bad title will almost certainly prevent it from doing well.”

Whether you’re shopping on line or in a bookstore, the title and the cover art are the first things you see. Their potential impact on sales is enormous.

Lynne Cantwell’s post in Indies Unlimited surveys a number of authors who have a smorgasbord of ways they come up with titles for their books. For me, it’s fun to see how others do this in case they have a technique worth borrowing.  Since I’m familiar with these authors’ books, it’s also instructive seeing when and how they decide on their titles.

Looking at what successful authors and teachers say about titles seems more reasonable than going to an online book title generator even though the headline of this post makes it look like a software-generated title is best: Book Title Generators: Free Tools To Help You Pick A Winning Title.

Agent Rachelle Gardner writes , “I was talking to a writer who mentioned she hadn’t worked too hard to come up with a great title for her book. When I asked her why, she said she’d been to a workshop taught by an editor at a major publishing house, who said, ‘Don’t get too attached to your title — there’s a good chance the publisher will change it anyway.’” Perhaps there’s some truth in that if you’re going with a big New York publisher. But most of us aren’t.

She quickly adds that you need to start with your best possible title even if you’re presenting the book to agents and editors who might ultimately suggest you change it. She follows that up with links to her post called How to Title Your Book.

Everyone who sees your book from beta reader to freelance editors to publishers will be impacted by your title. It shows them a lot about your intentions when it’s paired with your synopsis and/or sample chapter. So, what’s in a name?

Almost everything.

–Malcolm

Campbell’s Kindle books “At Sea,” “College Avenue,” and “Lady of the Blue Hour” will be free on Amazon on Black Friday. Click here for my website which has links to the books at the top of my home page.

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 novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”