Writing Magic with Magical Writing

March 26, 2013
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by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

April 2013

Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

"Angela Carter puts magic into every word she writes."

Writing about magic is common with all the fantasy books that are so popular. But writing about magic in a magical way, now that’s an achievement.

In an anthology, You’ve Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe (Perennial, 1994, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard), I found a short story by Angela Carter, Reflections, that has a unworldly encounter between a man walking in the woods and a young girl who leads him by gunpoint, into a strange house where he has bizarre experiences that bring gender issues into question. An unmasterful writer may have ended up with porn. But Angela Carter puts magic into every word she writes.

“A coloratura blackbird perched on a bough curded with greenish mayblossom let fall a flawed chain of audible pearl; I was alone in the spring-enchanted wood.” Her exalted language makes everything become not only alive, but ultra-alive through metaphors and exacting sensory detail. There is a hyper-focus, as if everything is being seen through a magnifying lens.

Approaching the house that the man will enter, every detail is described intensely. “Dandelions expired in airy seed heads in the flower beds; ragged robin and ground elder conspired to oust the perennials from the borders and a bright sadness of neglect touched everything as though with dust.”

Inside the house, the man notes, “Every corner was softened by cobwebs while the industrious spiders had wound filaments of geometric lace this way and that between the crumbling furniture.”

Carter’s vocabulary is one of dark magic. she refers to one of the characters as having “necromantic” hair.”

Mary Coponegro’s story, The Star Café, another in this same collection, is a modern retelling of the Eros and Psyche myth. A woman, Carol, enters this café and is ravished by the owner, or is she?

“Is it her imagination?” (Carol wonders.) “Does she look a picture of Greece and imagine that she has entered a world of gods and goddesses or has she? The author manages to sustain the magical mystery by writing it as if it were realism. All of the character’s inner thoughts teeter on belief and disbelief, certainty and confusion. The lines stutter with qualifiers.

“But how could someone really know if she had a hold on what she heard or felt was really becoming clearer, that is, truer, or more distorted? Was intensity a proper gauge? Wasn’t it the case that those who felt most enlightened were in fact the most deluded?”

"The constant questioning gets a jump on what the reader might be thinking himself."

The constant questioning gets a jump on what the reader might be thinking himself, making this strange and unforgettable tale all the more real.

One of my favorite magical writers is Alice Hoffman. I recently reread Seventh Heaven (Berkley, 1990) which is not only the story of a 1950’s suburb so new that people children go into the wrong identical house for cookies and milk, and husbands, coming home from work, pull into the wrong driveway. But Seventh Heaven is also full of magic with a haunted house, a ghost. From the get-go, we see that magic is afoot.

“Late in August, three crows took up residence in the chimney of the corner house on Hemlock Street. In the morning, they set up a racket that could wake the dead. They picked up stones in their beaks and tossed them down at picture windows; they plucked out their feathers which would surface all day in odd places, in bowls of Cheerios, in the pockets of shirts drying on the laundry lines, inside glass milk bottles delivered at dawn.”

The birds take on supernatural power, yet it’s done playfully with Cheerios and bottles of milk. She also uses words that imply magical properties—Hemlock, Dead Man’s Hill.

"When writing magic, you need to use magical language. . ."

When writing magic, you need to use magical language, yet make the reader believe, through strong description, that it’s real. A balancing act, but one that creates excitement in both the writer and the reader.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro



Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and the sequel Kaylee's Ghost (RJS Books.) She has published in the NYT (Lives), Newsweek, Moment, and many literary magazines. She teaches writing at UCLA Extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/


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