By Juliet Blackwell
I was taken aback at a recent dinner party when an author friend referred to writing fiction as “world-building”. I had never really thought of it that way.
But she’s right.
Writing a novel is like constructing a whole new world; one that demands its own internal logic and myriad quirky inhabitants. And I can’t deny that it’s exhilarating, knowing that I’m in charge. Need a major art museum with a dictatorial director? Go for it. A sympathetic villain with a complex past? No problem. Great-looking, romantic men looking for committed relationships? Why not? It’s not fantasy, it’s fiction!
I can do this. After all, I was a whiz with Tinker Toy towns as a kid. In fact, a certain heady god-complex takes over when I’m on a writing roll… Bwah hah hah! (Evil laugh while rubbing hands…) This is MY world and it will do as I—and only I-- see fit!
Only it doesn’t. Just as in the real world, the universes I create in my mind somehow develop their own issues and problems, contradictions and convoluted situations that I then, as their author, am obligated to try to unravel.
For instance, I’m launching a new Witchcraft Mystery Series this summer (Secondhand Spirits will be released July 7, 2009). My protagonist, Lily Ivory, is a bona fide witch….So now I’m dealing not only with creating a whole new world, but one that includes several dimensions of reality, as well as ghosts, demons, and phantoms.
Talk about your world-building exercises… How do I create a universe that includes witchcraft –and makes that magical craft an integral part of the mystery and its solution--without crossing the line from “fascinating” to “cheesy”? In my humble opinion the last thing the world needs is another Bewitched redux.
First, I did my homework: I interviewed self-proclaimed witches, went to coven meetings, and researched the history of witchcraft not only in Europe, but around the globe. I learned many fascinating things: If a child is heard to cry while still in the womb, it is assumed by many cultures to be a witch; the Wicca religion is as flexible and variable as those who choose to follow it; and according to the Malleus Maleficarum, known as the Witch Hunter’s Handbook, it was a crime punishable by death NOT to believe in the power of witches.
Above all, I learned that witchcraft –and the accusation of said powers—is not to be taken lightly. Still, specific problems arise with regard to writing a paranormal mystery. For instance, couldn’t a powerful witch just read tarot cards or tea leaves or a crystal ball and figure out Whodunnit? A lot of supernatural thrillers contend that the messages from beyond are vague and often misleading, but through my research I came up with a simpler, more elegant solution: Witches are good at different things. Some are root-workers (brewing potions and salves) while others are brilliant at reading the future, and still others are gifted at focusing their intentions in order to influence the normal course of life.
My protagonist is rotten at seeing into the future, and frankly she’s a little touchy about the subject. Her life would be much easier –but the mysteries so much less interesting—if only she could look into her crystal ball and figure out what’s what. In the world I created for her, Lily’s powers put her in the unique position to help discover the truth, but she has to work for it just like your average human detective. That’s what makes her struggle to solve the crime compelling; and, I hope, what makes readers empathize with her. She’s powerful, but she’s not all-powerful.
Mystery fiction allows us to spend time in worlds where the good guys always triumph and the murderer’s always caught…sort of. I suppose there are some true noir novels that go a different way. But by and large these are worlds in which even amateur detectives blunder into situations that any sane person would avoid like the plague, and eventually, inevitably, everything turns out for the best. In most mysteries, a good heart, a sharp brain, and sheer determination can lead a person to become their best selves, and to triumph over adversity.
Now that’s a world worth building.
Juliet Blackwell, aka Hailey Lind, is the pseudonym for a mystery author who, together with her sister, wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery Series--including the Agatha-nominated Feint of Art and the IMBA bestsellers Shooting Gallery and Brush with Death. The fourth in the series, Arsenic and Old Paint, will be released in fall, 2010. Juliet’s new paranormal Witchcraft Mystery series begins with Secondhand Spirits (July, 2009), about a witch with a vintage clothing store in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.
A former anthropologist and social worker, Juliet has worked in Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, the Philippines, and France. She currently resides in a happily haunted house in Oakland, California, where she is a muralist, portrait painter, and recipient of the overly zealous attentions of her neighbor’s black cat, who seems to imagine himself her new familiar. Juliet/Hailey is two-term president of Northern California Sisters in Crime. For more information and to read an excerpt from her new novel, please visit www.julietblackwell.net.