PUT A LITTLE MAGIC IN YOUR MYSTERY

by Nancy Means Wright

     Last Sunday I witnessed a morning of magic with a couple who call themselves Magicians Without Borders. Looking more like clowns than Houdinis in striped pants and comical caps, magicians Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks, a husband and wife team, entertained us with the usual tricks: pulling scarf after scarf out of their mouths, tugging on a box impossible to lift until, “exhausted,” they ask a child for help and voila! the six-year-old picks it right up! And the applause brings a huge smile  to her face.

     Verner and Fredericks, we discovered, travel to the most remote, war-torn places in the world to bring laughter and hope to orphans and refugees. We watched a video of a thousand brown, white, and black grinning faces in makeshift camps in far-off lands like India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burma (Myanmar), El Salvador, Haiti, the Iran-Afghan border.   The aim is to entertain, yes. But to educate and empower as well, they insist–to teach about HIV, polio, abuse and other ills of the world. Never mind they don’t speak the local tongue. “Magic is a universal language,” Verner says. ‘We make things appear–and then disappear. And then reappear–but changed. Transformed.    

     Like the faces of those children.

     Not that everything goes as planned. A poor Iraqui mother, seeing Verner turn a fake gold coin into a dozen coins before her eyes, handed him a dinar to implore “Please. Now make me money!”  Luckily, his pockets held a few dinars that he was able to “multiply.”  But not enough coins, alas, to feed a hungry family. 

     Returning to my desk after the show, I thought of the magic we try to make in our own books. I recalled a mystery writer with a female magician as sleuth, and another writer who turned a villain into a magician. And I remembered Daniel Stashower, with whom I shared a panel at Malice when The Houdini Specter came out.  Some of us write paranormal mysteries with vampires, werewolves,  ghosts, or wicked fairies like my fellow Vermonter, Jennifer McMahon in Don’t Breathe a Word. Or Charlaine Harris, whose bestselling books feature Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress. Inspired by Harris and my own lovelorn daughter who used to make long distance calls to a psychic named Stormy, I’ve written a psychic into my latest mystery-in-progress. 

     Even the most pragmatic among us use tricks, or red herrings in our work, don’t we? Deliberate misdirections or misrepresentations to fool and surprise the reader? Characters or objects that appear, and then disappear?  And then re-appear–but changed?

     A 2011 blog by writer Margot Kinberg brought me back to my beloved Gaudy Nights by Dorothy Sayers, when Harriet Vane is invited to her Oxford alma mater to take part in a celebratory dinner. She hesitates, unsure of her welcome after her own trial for murder. Yet she can now drive there in her own car, rather than the train she took as a student, “and for a few hours more she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world.” A sort of epiphany, as it were. a magic moment. For on arrival, she finds herself more welcomed than she’d feared, and the college dean begs her to help resolve a series of mysterious events. We all know how well she did with that!

     Nor can we forget Shakespeare’s influence on us. We’re familiar, of course, with the magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In the February 10 Sunday NY Times, author Stephen Greenblatt admires magician Prospero and the winged servant Ariel in The Tempest. But he particularly notes an affinity between the monster Caliban and Maurice Sendak’s young Max, who encounters mythical beasts and exotic landscapes in Where the Wild Things Are. Greenblatt sees in these two characters “a secret sharing, an instinctive fascination with some of the same half-hidden springs of human aggression, fear and longing.” 

     Haven’t most of us embodied these “half-hidden springs” in our books? Magical moments, or epiphanies, as our sleuth “realizes” the truth after weeks and months of trying to resolve a murder?

     What moments of light have sprung up in your books? Or in your own life?

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13 Responses

  1. “Sex, Myth and Magic – The Ghost Orchid” is the title of the talk I give about the mysterious, rare and endangered ghost orchid of Corkscrew Swamp. In reality, life is magical. Ever watch the slow motion opening of a flower? Or the birth of a baby? Magic and miracles go hand in hand. Thus, the slight of hand tricks of a magician may fascinate and entertain, but looking for magic in the real world provides great moments of joy – that can be shared in our books. http://www.dkchristi.com author of Ghost Orchid and more…

    • Ah, yes, D.K. Nothing can surpass the magic in nature. And your ghost orchid is so beautiful. And I witnessed the birth of two of my grandchildren–not to mention my own four! Pretty miraculous, indeed.They’ve gone into my books, too.Thanks for your lovely comment.

  2. Hi, Nancy,

    Putting “magic” in our writing is an interesting topic. I really enjoyed your discussion here. You always write well though. I can’t think of a nicer compliment than a reader stating that reading one of our novels was a magical experience for them.

    As to placing a bit of the paranormal in our mysteries, some people are a bit stodgy about it. But I think it can add an interesting facet. In my Kim Reynolds mysteries, my heroine is a librarian sleuth and a most reluctant psychic. It provides an interesting aspect to the novels.

    • I’ll admit to having been a bit stodgy myself about the paranormal. But no longer. You do a great mix of magic and realism in your mysteries, Jacquie, and a reluctant psychic makes a fascinating character–especially hooked up with a librarian! I think, too, of the magical realism in the novels of Gabriel Marquez–the sheets hanging on the line taking on a life of their own.

  3. I’m amazed at technology. Though I can write and understand Maxwell’s Equations and beyond, I’m still in awe that they work! It was magical enough when we could see the wires that carried information; wireless is even more astounding.

    • Well, Maxwell’s Equations are beyond me, Camille! I admire the magic you do in the realm of mathematics–and how you translate it into your books. As for wireless: it is all blinding and mind-boggling.

  4. HI Nancy. A most eloquent post as always. Although there are no paranormal elements in my series, I like to think I’m creating magic with my words. A local journalist confided that she was on vacation in the Caribbean and a situation occurred where she wondered what my protagonist would do? Now that’s magic to me.

    • Great, Cindy, I love that story! I guess we all catch fire when someone sends us a spark of appreciation. And making people smile and laugh at your delightful characters definitely counts as magic for you.

  5. The sheer act of creating a story out of thin air is magic. Sometimes they just appear. This Christmas my grandson climbed into my lap, handed me his new tractor calendar, and said, “Read me about tractors.” And the story told itself, despite the limited vocabulary of January, February, Monday and Tuesday. Now that was magic!

    • Yes, Nikki! I can just imagine that tractor story and your grandson’s face hearing.it. Sometimes stories do just tell themselves, and we feel lucky and satisfied.Thanks for this. My grandkids are growing up now, but they still love stories–and tell them, too.

  6. Nancy, Magicians Without Borders came to our town a couple of years ago. They do such important work, and, as you say, they’re so much fun to watch, for adults and kids.

    I agree with Nikki that creating a world and characters that didn’t exist before feels like magic. I’m sure that at this point science can provide a rational explanation of how imagination and creativity work, but truthfully, I prefer the mystery.

    • I prefer the mystery, too, Anita. The deep well our stories emerge from is clearly a magical one. Interesting that you witnessed the Magicians Without Borders, too! They live nearby me in Vermont, but of course they travel all over the world, and bring so much joy to oppressed peoples.

  7. […] PUT A LITTLE MAGIC IN YOUR MYSTERY […]

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