Witches, Wizards & the Writer’s Craft
Happy Mabon! We welcome autumn in with a revival of the guest blog post. We’re starting off with a wonderful and informative blog from my friend and fellow writer Michelle Belanger. Enjoy the magic of the day and of the words below.
Six Tips for Researching Real Magic for Your Fiction
So you want to play with magic? More specifically, you want your characters to play with magic. That’s great. Magic is one of the key supernatural elements that helps to separate Urban Fantasy from standard noir and crime fiction. But another key element of Urban Fantasy is its setting – UF stories typically play out in a world that is recognizably our own, with well-researched elements reinforcing the verisimilitude.
When building that carefully crafted sense of reality, it’s easy to see how a writer of Urban Fantasy must school themselves on everything from the proper use of firearms to the technical jargon of computer programmers. Plenty of readers are already familiar with these as part of their daily activities, so if they run across an error in the text, that gaff will break their immersion. We are long past the days where a theater manager named Stoker [link: http://www.bramstoker.org/novels/05dracula.html ] could read one travelogue about the Carpathians and fake his way through their description in his novel. Our readers are part of an educated, global society, and they are quick to take notice if research is incomplete.
But what about magic? Magic’s not real, so how hard can it be to screw up?
It’s a lot easier than you think. Whether it’s real or not, magic has a long and storied history – from the practices of Cunning Folk [link: http://sarahannelawless.com/2009/09/17/cunning-folk/ ] working in England while Shakespeare was still writing his plays to the chi-based magic of immortal Taoist wizards. [link: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Xian_(Daoist_immortal) ] There are scores of books and even more history behind the various traditions of magic, and, for those in the know, it is immediately obvious when a writer tries to worldbuild while failing to do the proper research.
Worse than that, fudging some details about magic can be unintentionally offensive. For at least a few modern readers, magic is very real, and in many cases, it is an integral part of that person’s religion. Among modern practices, Wicca [link: https://www.circlesanctuary.org/index.php/about-paganism/introduction-to-the-wiccan-religion-and-contemporary-paganism ] is arguably the most widely recognized blend of magic and religion, but it is worlds beyond what you’ve seen through Willow on Buffy. In fact, Wicca is only one tradition within the much broader religious practice of modern Paganism [link: http://www.paganfederation.org/what-is-paganism/ ] – itself a single aspect of a worldwide magical revival that includes everything from kitchen witchery to cyber-shamanism.
So how do you, as a writer, navigate the murky depths of real magic when putting wizards and witches in your books? The first step is knowing where and how to do your research. As a writer who tackles magic both in fiction [link: http://amzn.to/2cOGV1M ] and non-fiction, [link: http://amzn.to/2cPVCjL ] I’m happy to share a few of my secrets:
- Knowledge is free, if you know where to look.
Twenty years ago, unless you had easy access to a university library, it was a real challenge to find accurate resources on magic and witchcraft. With the rise of the Internet since then, we’ve come to have ten times the Library of Alexandria at our fingertips – so long as we can separate signal from noise. Initiatives like Google Books [link: https://books.google.com/ ] and the Gutenberg Project [link: https://www.gutenberg.org/ ] have digitalized entire collections of the world’s libraries, but unless you know specific titles or authors, you may find it daunting to locate books on real magic in their online archives.
Fortunately, a number of respectable and free websites have done most of the work for you. Joseph Peterson’s Esoteric Archives [link: http://esotericarchives.com/ ] will give you a guided tour through the pertinent texts of Renaissance Europe, from the compendiums of Dr. John Dee, [link: http://www.johndee.org/DEE.html ] Court Magician to Queen Elizabeth I to classic grimoires of black magic, like the Sworn Book of Honorius. [link: https://danharms.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/honorius-versus-honorius-the-sworn-book-and-the-grimoire-part-1/ ]
If you want to cast an even broader net to include world religions, magic (both ancient and modern), mythology, folklore, and virtually everything else in between, the Sacred Texts Archive [link: http://www.sacred-texts.com/ ] founded by the late John Bruno Hare is an invaluable resource dedicated to promoting tolerance through research. If your interests lie more with cutting-edge magick and modern occulture, a site that regularly features new articles by current practitioners from a variety of traditions is Spiral Nature [link: http://www.spiralnature.com/ ] and for all things pertinent to witches and Pagans, The Wild Hunt [link: http://wildhunt.org/ ] is a solid place to begin your own hunt for knowledge.
- Some research is worth the investment.
Sometimes, browsing articles on a website just doesn’t cut it. Non-fiction books are a bigger commitment, especially in terms of time and money, but when you need something to keep by your bedside and seriously digest as you plot the particulars of your world, only a book will do. For a compendium that provides an accessible overview of people, practices, and concepts in magic, try John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of the Occult. [link: http://amzn.to/2cIqwyh ]
For those who want to delve deeper – seriously deeper – into not merely the concepts of magic but its history and sociological impact, I have two series to recommend. These are in-depth, toothsome books, but each volume is packed with information that can take your worldbuilding in intense and fascinating directions.
The first series, published by Penn State University Press, is the Magic in History Series. Each volume is under a different title and often a different author. My favorite remains Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century [link: http://amzn.to/2cGcV7o ], which is exactly what it claims to be. The second series is the Witchcraft and Magic in Europe Series, edited by the team of Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. These also are published by a college press, this time the University of Pennsylvania. Don’t ask me what it is about the state of Pennsylvania that inspires its universities to put out such in-depth tomes on magic and the occult, but I’m happy they do. The Witchcraft and Magic in Europe Series covers different time periods in each volume, and volume 5, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries [link: http://amzn.to/2dfyxXy ] provides a handy timeline for the magical shenanigans people like Aleister Crowley [link: http://www.crystalinks.com/crowley.html ] and H.P. Blavatsky [link: http://www.blavatsky.net/ ] got up to that are still having an impact on practices today.
Almost all of these titles let you dig into aspects of the Western Magical Tradition, but if you want to broaden your scope, Matthew Meyer’s beautifully illustrated The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits [link: http://amzn.to/2cQhnjf ] is a great leaping-off point for research into the yokai of Japan. For a peek into the ritual and mysticism of a living West African tradition, check out Malidoma Patrice Somé’s The Healing Wisdom of Africa. [link: http://amzn.to/2dfABig ]
Don’t limit yourself to familiar cultures or time periods. There’s a whole world out there, and every country holds untapped magical traditions, each with their own unique flavor. If you’re willing to put in the time to research them and do them the justice they deserve, they can make your fictional world stand out.
- Don’t settle for only one resource.
I ragged on Stoker in my introduction, but it’s true, and it’ a common problem. A single perspective is a limited perspective, and people who write blogs or books or newspaper articles often have an angle, no matter how credentialed they are as experts. This is especially true when it comes to resources written on belief systems, and magic (modern or otherwise) is a belief system. Neither faith nor opinion should be mistaken for fact, and a good researcher knows it’s important to study multiple points of view in order to recognize the difference. Additionally, not all scholars are equal in their research, and many resources written in less culturally sensitive times may give you a skewed perspective.
It helps to do a little research on the researcher, so you can see whether or not they may be writing from a place of bias. Sometimes that bias can yield a whole tapestry of ideas you can deconstruct and weave into your worldbuilding. The history behind the Malleus Maleficarum [link: http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/ ] (also called “The Hammer of Witches”), reveals not only beliefs about witchcraft circulated by Church officials in 15th Century Europe, but also opens a fascinating window into the motives and perceived embattlement of those officials. Spoiler alert: they really had problems with women.
- Ask a Witch About Witchcraft. They’re Everywhere.
There are way more witches in the world than you realize, and a LOT of them read fiction. More than a few – like Yasmine Galenorn [link: https://galenorn.com/ ] and Ellen Dugan [link: http://ellendugan.blogspot.com/ ] – write it, too. As such, you really should not slack on your research when it comes to presenting modern witchcraft in your works. Of course, this can be tricky. One of the greatest strengths of modern witchcraft resides in its diversity – ask three witches what witchcraft means to them and you’ll get four and a half different answers. For the researcher standing outside of that belief system, this can be maddening. Which witch is right about their witchiness?
As a writer of fiction, you don’t have to worry about who’s right so much as you have to be aware that there are differing viewpoints. When it comes to modern witchcraft, it helps to explore a variety of different practices. Good places to start include the works of Christopher Penczak, [link: http://christopherpenczak.com/ ] Selena Fox, [link: http://selenafox.com/ ] Raymond Buckland, [link: http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/witches_buckland.html ] and Deborah Blake [link: https://deborahblakeauthor.com/ ] – and these only crack the surface.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that modern witchcraft is an inherently peaceful religion, primarily concerned with a veneration of nature. The spells cast by your average Wiccan are nearly indistinguishable from the prayers of a Christian who lights a candle while asking God to improve their lives. If you need your witches to be wicked, be sure to draw a distinction between your witches’ brand of witchcraft and the witchcraft your readers might recognize (and potentially follow as witches themselves). Give readers a compelling reason why your characters have chosen to harness magic for destructive purposes or show in the course of your story how their branch of magic comes from a particularly twisted branch of the family tree. Trust me, your antagonists will be more compelling for this extra work.
- Don’t play with Voodoo. Be serious about it.
This holds true for every magical system with deep, cultural roots. These beliefs may not be real to you, but many are real to somebody. A little sensitivity goes a long way.
The Harry Potter series came under fire recently for its myopic portrayal of Native Americans and magic. [link: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160311-history-of-magic-in-north-america-jk-rowling-native-american-stereotypes/ ] When researching the magical beliefs of a living culture such as Santeria [link: http://www.religioustolerance.org/santeri3.htm ] or Andean Shamanism, [link: http://www.edgemagazine.net/2012/07/andean-shamanism/ ] it’s crucial to remember that your fiction is playing with the beliefs of real people, not some fairytale memory. How you present that magic in your fictional world can impact perceptions and even treatment of those people in the real world.
You don’t have to pander in your books, but it’s important to show awareness. Before forging ahead with something based off of a culturally-charged magical tradition, seek out a knowledgeable practitioner – ideally one raised within its root culture. Initiate a dialogue, compose respectful questions, and don’t assume their time is free. That extra mile makes all of the difference.
When it comes to Voodoo, my go-to resource is a shop in the French Quarter called Voodoo Authentica. [link: http://www.voodooshop.com/ ] Look them up – if you have well thought out and respectful questions, they will be happy to introduce you to the basics.
- Energy work is magic without the mess of spell components.
This is my final tip for researching magic: keep your definitions broad. Energy work, psychic abilities, and various aspects of the paranormal all share common borders with what the rest of the world considers magic. Many individuals within these practices never think to call what they’re doing magic, but even without the flash and dazzle of fiction, ridding homes of violent hauntings gets pretty intense. From Reiki to Feng Shui, clairsentience to psychokinesis, all those practices that edge upon magic, when researched and skillfully presented, can enrich the fabric of your magical world.
Michelle Belanger is an author and occult expert most widely recognized for appearances on Paranormal State, HBO, the History Channel, Destination America, and CNN Headline News. Michelle’s nonfiction has been published around the globe and translated into seven languages. Notable titles include Harsh Gods (Titan, 2016), [link: http://amzn.to/2dfEMuh ] and The Dictionary of Demons (Llewellyn, 2010). [link: http://amzn.to/2cPfOn8 ] Michelle’s nonfiction research earned an honorary PhD in comparative religious studies, and she draws upon her considerable knowledge of myth and magic in the crafting of her own Urban Fantasy world with Conspiracy of Angels. [link: http://amzn.to/2cBVOl6 ] Learn more at www.MichelleBelanger.com.
The last thing Zack Westland expects on a frigid night is to be summoned to an exorcism. Demonic possession, however, proves the least of his problems. Father Frank, a veteran turned priest, knows Zack’s deepest secrets, recognizing him as Anakim, an angel belonging to that hidden tribe. And Halley, the girl they’ve come to save, carries a secret that could unlock a centuries-old evil. She chants an eerie rhyme…
“HANDS TO TAKE AND EYES TO SEE. A MOUTH TO SPEAK. HE COMES FOR ME.”
As Zack’s secrets spill out, far more than his life is at stake, for Halley is linked to an ancient conspiracy. Yet Zack can’t help her unless he’s willing to risk losing his immortality—and reigniting the Blood Wars