Tuesday, November 15

Writers: Know Your Magic

By Ken Hughes, @TheKenHughes

Part of the How They Do It Series

My favorite guest authors on this site are always the ones who started out as readers, so today is a very good day. Long-time reader Ken Hughes takes the podium to talk about one of the challenges he faced while writing his new book, The High Road--dealing with the rules of magic (and science) in a speculative story. Please give him a warm welcome.

Ken dreams of dark alleys and the twenty-seven ways people with different psychic gifts might maneuver around each corner. He grew up on comics and adventures before discovering Steven King and Joss Whedon, and he's written for Mars mission proposals and medical devices, making him an honorary rocket scientist and brain surgeon. Ken is a Global Ebook Award-nominated urban fantasy novelist, creator of Shadowed's "Whisperers" series and The High Road Spellkeeper Flight series, under his writing motto of “Whispered spells for breathless suspense.” (That and, "Never play fair.") Don't get him started on puns.

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Take it away Ken...

So there I was, bent over the gaming table with some friends on a Sunday afternoon, and I actually heard someone across the room say the words: “Being able to fly would be cool, but not if you could only fly halfway.”

Of course I had to look up in the middle of taking my turn, to point out that flying without leaving the ground might be more useful than getting airborne. With a gift that showy, a way to use it in secret could be priceless

This conversation didn’t “inspire” me to write The High Road. It happened in the middle of the first months of writing it, when I already had scenes that showed the value of “not-quite-flight.”

It’s something I believe a story deserves, learned from Chris Claremont’s meticulous X-Men comics and Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic. If a tale has magic, paranormal gifts, or other fantastic tools, a writer ought to dig deep into exactly what those do, so the reader can start to feel what it’s like to have the world changed around them. How do the characters see what doors the magic opens, and what pitfalls does it still have?

In fact, take a moment to look at that last sentence and the metaphors that popped up in it. I didn’t even plan to use those words, but consider: for someone who flies, getting doors open is still vital as long as there’s a roof above. Pitfalls… not a problem.

So the first challenge I liked about urban fantasy with flying was that power’s built-in risk of being seen. (It’s one of the common arguments of the old “invisibility or flight” debate, that flying’s a better choice if you don’t have to hide it, because you almost never could. There’s a reason Smallville held back for ten seasons to “Look, up in the sky!”) That led to me structuring whole chapters around my fledgling heroes being afraid to use their antigravity belt at all because it was still broad daylight. And to add to that, their enemy is (at first) a bloodthirsty street gang whose main limit is that they don’t know they could squeeze anything more than revenge out of our heroes. Plotting in that kind of enemy tightened the need for their secret weapon to stay secret.

And all of that reflects back through how the different characters face that challenge. Mark, the viewpoint character, always has to struggle to find a move that won’t escalate the danger they’re in, and he knows it. Meanwhile Angie has her own problems making the belt work for her, but she’s actually the one with the quicker wit who usually sees the way out.

On the other hand, flying is also freedom and sheer joy, and any fantasy ought to do justice to the thrills of using its power. For Mark, some of that turned out to be the former bike courier only realizing how much he loved his city’s maps and history when he started to see the streets’ patterns from above. And that meant learning to describe everything from the graying-out sensation of flying up too fast, to the frustration of standing in growing danger and knowing escape might be only a thought away.

And then, just to double down on some of those risks and opportunities, a writer can twist in more complications to what the magic can do for a character, or to them.

For instance, true flight would let a character really maneuver in the air. But I found it was more challenging to limit the magic to different degrees of reducing gravity, not steering it… so Mark might have enough power to shoot upward like an express elevator, but then mostly drift like a balloon until he chose to drop again. He’d have more control whenever there was something under his feet, when reducing his weight let him run better and jump farther than human, without being quite obvious about it. But for him, the downside (up on the up side?) would be the nerve-wracking aerial battles with him only able to move in limited directions… sometimes against an enemy with a whole different form of magic who could fly genuine rings around him.

All of that is focusing on how well a power does what it does best, in this case move and escape and maneuver. The flip side of it is, what can it not do at all?

So some of Mark and Angie’s greatest challenges are what happens after they reach the right place but are left wondering how much they can do there. Does flying help unravel what happened at a destroyed building, or defend a hospitalized man when the enemy keep coming for him? Or would reducing gravity give them a few other weapons—and how would those compare against guns or other magic?

And again, it all has to be built up from the rules and the history behind the story, and lensed through the eyes of the characters themselves. Mark and Angie only discover the belt at the start of the book, but it’s been in Angie’s family for generations—and there are reasons it mostly hasn’t been used. Partly for all the same problems of being seen (invisibility magic would be so much more handy these days), but also because of some of the belt’s particular costs and the acts it’s tempted people to do.

The deeper I dig into that, the more I can understand Mark’s reluctant awe at the powers and risks that the magic offers him. The normally fearless Angie finds one or two moments that faze her like nothing else ever has, as she starts to see what they’re in for.

And all of that lets me add to the journeys they’re both on, by knowing exactly how the magic reshapes the path under every step they take.

(Or fly past.)

About The High Road

The sky was never the limit.

Enter a world of gangs, vigilantes, and magic that's powerful enough to kill.

Mark has never been the survivor his friend Angie is, but when he rescues a mysterious belt from the flames, it's a decision that changes his life for good. As the two tap into the secret of gravity-controlling magic, they realize the reason Angie's family tried to destroy the belt. Flying comes at a cost, to their lives and their sanity.

Fighting back against a street gang with a vendetta, Mark begins to sense that death waits around every turn. Soon he and Angie come face-to-face with the true danger: hidden masters of other magical forces. The keepers of power want the secret of flying, and they'll destroy anyone who gets in their way.

The High Road is the first book in a trilogy of street-level urban fantasy adventures. If you like heart-pounding suspense, comic-book energy, and Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, then you'll love Ken Hughes's gritty, magical series.

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