A hard-to-read medieval hand

A hard-to-read medieval hand


Now, last week, in Feedback Friday, we were looking at your mysteries – not detective novels, for the most part, just places in your book where a mystery intrudes, presses itself at the characters.

And one of the things I noticed was that there’s very often a sense of something sacred about the actual places or artefacts involved in these mysteries. So a letter, written in 1944 and being read by people in 1948, can have the quality of some treasured relic – a saint’s bone, a lock of Mary Magdalene’s hair.

Place too can acquire this sense of being close to something magical – inhabited by spirits. As though a deserted house gathers some of the spirits you might expect to find at Stonehenge during Solstice, or Glastonbury Tor, or Tintagel Castle.

That sense of powers that lie beyond the ordinary and known can enter any book at all. You’re likely to find those passages:

  • In portal scenes – any time that your character steps from one world into another, less known, world where the rules seem shifted. This could be a really ordinary type transition – a working class student entering some high end and ancient university for the first time, for example – in which case, the sense of the sacred clearly exists in the character’s head alone. Or it could be more clearly linked to the spiritual – a Western adventurer entering some tribal burial ground, for example – in which case, the sense of the sacred is at least partly ‘owned’ by the space itself. Either way though, there’s a transition which needs marking.
  • Where you have some kind of relic. That could be a Dark Ages sword, obviously, but is more likely to be a family letter, or a heavy iron key, or a set of war medals. But the meaning and history attached to that relic can give it weight, no matter how ordinary the object or how (relatively) recent its past.
  • Where you have a place around which some special sense hangs – a mystery, the past presence of someone important, a place heavy with memories from a different time.
  • Where you have a person that – even just temporarily – seems to shimmer with something a bit unworldly: a tiny flash of superpower, a hint of the mage.

Once you find these moments in your book, I think it’s good to ask yourself the question, ‘Am I making the most of this?’ If you’re not writing fantasy, you can’t jump straight into magic, but you can borrow some of the tones of magic. You can introduce a note of the strange and perhaps the sacred too.

A very talented kids’ author, who used to work as an editor for us, once told me that whenever he wrote a portal scene in one of fantasy novels, he always wrote it as poetry first, before tucking it back into prose. It’s that sort of attitude that I think any of us can use.

Here, by way of example, is a chunk from my The Deepest Grave. Th characters are in a remote Welsh church. They have just interrupted a robbery and are trying to figure out what the thieves had been looking to find. So far, they’ve found nothing. Then:

The light now has failed almost completely. The two men won’t be found unless they’re the stupidest or unluckiest criminals this side of Oswestry.

The uniform goes. The forensic guy goes. The church lighting somehow just emphasises the darkness. It thickens the air into something yellowey-orange. Gluey.

We regather in the vestry, just because Katie’s left her coat there.

Bowen lifts the 1953 fish-restaurant newspaper out of the wooden wall box.

‘I suppose that can go.’

He looks glumly at the mess behind the cupboard, knowing that it’ll be his job to clean it. Katie looks into the box, now missing its newspaper floor.

Glances once, then looks more sharply.

‘No, that’s not right,’ she says, and starts picking at the bottom with a fingernail.

I already looked under the newspaper and saw just the pale, bleached colour of old pine – pine that has never seen the sun – but that was me being dumb. Me not knowing how to see.

Katie picks at the bottom and it comes away.

A sheet of paper, blank on the upper side, but with writing in clear purplish-black ink on the lower.

Latin text.

A hard-to-read medieval hand.

Bowen stares. I stare. We all stare.

‘Katie,’ I say, ‘This paper? We can get it dated, presumably?’

In the gluey light, she shakes her head.

‘No. No, we can’t.’

‘We can’t?’

There’s something about this light, this thickened silence which makes everything seem slow, unnatural.

‘We can’t test this paper, because it isn’t paper. It’s vellum. A dead sheep, basically, scraped clean and stretched out thin.’

On the one hand, this is a cop and archaeologist just doing their job. But those comments about the ‘gluey’ light and ‘this thickened silence’ give the moment the quality of something like the discovery of a sacred relic – as though some other, more ancient, world were suddenly touching this. That’s sharpened up, I think, by a sense of these layers of history: from a 1953 newspaper to Latin text, from a sheet of paper to a sheet of vellum.

Those are the signals that, if you like, lie in some external reality. But the characters’ reaction also expresses their sense of transition: ‘Bowen stares. I stare. We all stare.’ The way everything come to ‘seem slow, unnatural.’

Because the characters are feeling that, the reader does too. And what could have been an ordinary moment in a detective novel, temporarily at least, wears the clothes of something deeper, older, stranger and perhaps more magical.

Poetry, then prose. The magical, in the ordinary.

That is a power you can seize, if you choose to seize it. I hope you do. There’s another chunk from the same book that operates as a proper portal moment: a transition that, in this case, involves a literal door. Again, I didn’t write that passage thinking about portals and fantasy and magic … but those things are present nonetheless. I’ve popped that chunk into the relevant Feedback Friday forum, so you can see it for yourself.

Don’t forget about that How To Write Course. I’ve done all-new videos for it, and the feedback from the first viewers has been all positive. You can take the first lesson for free now, the rest is available for Premium Members only. Details on how to join here.

FEEDBACK FRIDAY: Fantasy / Magical

Three weeks back, inspired by historical fiction, we looked at research. Two weeks ago, inspired by romance, we looked at the Absent Beloved. Last week, inspired by crime, we asked you to find mystery. This week – inspired by fantasy or any kind of magical realism – I want you to find a moment where some sense of the magical or sacred intrudes into your book. That could be:

  • Discovery of a ‘relic’
  • A portal moment
  • Some shifting sense of a character possessed of a not-quite explicable power
  • A place that has a touch of something beyond the ordinary

If you are writing out and out fantasy, then those moments will be easy to find, obviously. If you’re note writing fantasy, then those moments still probably exist.

What I will say is that you may well find (let’s say) a portal moment in your book that slightly misses or underplays its sense of magic. So do please feel free to edit / rewrite those moments before uploading them to Townhouse. Try pushing the magical gas pedal a little and see if people like the results. You could even try writing the scene as poetry first, before putting it back into prose.

I think Sofia Samatar talking about ‘the strange, the weird, the speculative’ is quite inspirational here. It almost feels more fun to me finding the strange in a book that is basically not strange.

So what I’m after this week is:



1-2 sentences of explanation, as needed

250 words where something a bit like magic intrudes into your book. Some sense of a dimension beyond the ordinary. I really don’t mind if what we’re seeing here is a trace – a hint – a suggestion and nothing more. Just something to suggest that dimension beyond.

I’m kind of interested to see what you make of this task. I’m quite interested to think what I’d find in my own books too.

That’s it from me. We’re getting our one week of English summer this week – with actual sunlight – and the kids are celebrating by running around half-naked and building barricades in the garden. Teddy told me, quite peaceably, that he needed a better weapon, and marched off (mostly naked) to find one. He came back with an eight-foot fencepost. I didn’t intervene, but am mildly worried as to what will happen next. Post yours here.

Til soon.


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