On writing fantasy
Where the wild things are

Patricia McKillip on writing magic

Bluebell path

In 2002, Philip Martin published The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature, containing writing advice from the likes of Peter Beagle, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Gregory Maguire, Donna Jo Napoli, Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen, and others. Patricia McKillip also appeared in the volume, in the section on High Fantasy. Her advice for creating magic in fiction is both charming and wise.

"If you put a mage, sorceress, wizard, warlock, witch, or necromancer into fantasy," she wrote, "it's more than likely that, sooner or later, they will want to work some magic. Creating a spell can be as simple or as difficult as you want. You can write, 'Mpyxl made a love potion. Hormel drank it and fell in love." Or you can do research into herb lore and medieval recipes for spells and write: 'Mpyxl stirred five bay leaves, an owl's eye, a parsnip, six of Hormel's fingernails, and some powdered mugwort into some leftover barley soup. Hormel ate it and fell in love.'

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"Or you can consider love itself, and how Mpyxl must desire Hormel, how frustrated and rejected she must feel to be obliged to cast a spell over him, what in Hormel generates such overpowering emotions, why he refuses to fall in love with Mpyxl the usual way, and what causes people to fall in love with each other in the first place. Then you will find that Mpyxl herself is under a spell cast by Hormel, and that she must change before his eyes from someone he doesn't want to someone he desires beyond reason.

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"The language of such a spell would be far different from fingernails and barley soup. The Magic exists only in the language; the spell exists only in the reader's mind. The words themselves must create something out of nothing. To invent a convincing love potion you must, for a moment, make even the reader fall in love."

The Magic exists only in the language. This is true. But as Pat would have been the first to tell you, the spells cast by words in black ink on the page are powerful enchantments indeed.


For more insights into the magic of language and stories, I recommend the following posts: Briana Saussy on the art of making magic, David Abram on magic and magicians, N. Scott Momaday on the ancient magic of language, Jeanette Winterson on the magic of words, Robert Macfarlane on the magic of names, and Ben Okri on reclaiming the fire and sorcery. (For the full archive of posts that touch upon magic, go here.)

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Words: The passage above comes from  The Writers Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books, 2002); all rights reserved The quotes tucked into the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them) are from Patricia McKillip's novels The Alphabet of Thorn (2004), Od Magic (2005), The Book of Atrix Wolfe (1995), Winter Rose (1996), The Riddlemaster of Hed Trilogy (1979-1983), and Ombria in Shadow (2002).   

Pictures: The photographs were taken on our hill this week. It is faerieland here during the bluebell season, with a piskies' path that runs from the Dartmoor hills to the Catskill Mountains.