The Magic of Place

I was listening to a recent Writing Excuses podcast discussing the city as a character and special guest Sarah Pinborough made an off-hand remark that set me to pondering the connection between place and magic.

She mentioned that London’s gritty and historical character made it a city particularly easy to imagine as magical.  Though it has a far shorter historical resume than London, I’ve always felt the same was true of New York City.  Where does that dark, garbage-strewn alley lead?  To a magical land?  To hell?  Could the stall at the end of the row in the bathroom at the New York Public Library be a portal to another world?  Surely there are fairies living in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park?  Surely there are.

Not only the history of the place, the sense that it’s current incarnation is built on the bones of something older and darker and different, but also it’s mood of danger, excitement, and anonymity, lend New York an air of believable mystery, of magic.

Is this true of every place, though?  Is Newark, NJ a magical city?  Could we set a convincing urban fantasy tale in Miami or Dallas, or would New Orleans be better?  Is there something about the run-down, dilapidated corners of older places that make them better suited as magical settings, or can new, shiny cities provide inspiration too?

Another question: what about urban versus rural?  The countryside is magical, isn’t?  We can picture magic lurking in the dark, cool depths of an old growth forest and sparking in the bright, sunny charm of the pastoral world, with it’s crooked fences and falling-down stiles.  But what about in the manicured limits of a suburban park?  Does the vast swath of strip mall America provide a good setting for a magical story?  Will we find Selkies bathing by moonlight among the concrete fountains of open-air malls or a coven of witches dancing beneath the glow of parking lot lights?

When we devise settings for our stories, how important is location?  To what extent does the place we choose influence the flavor and believability of the magic woven into the narrative?  Can any place be magical?  Does taking a seemingly unlikely place for magic and making it work lend your story a freshness that setting it somewhere more obvious might not have achieved?

I like to think New York is a magical place, but maybe that’s because I live here and I love the city.  Perhaps we all feel that way about places we love – be they Savannah, GA or Palo Alto, CA.

What do you think?

Can we make magic anywhere, or are some places better-suited to telling magical tales?  Share your thoughts in comments!

4 thoughts on “The Magic of Place

  1. Pat Urban

    Speaking as a reader–definitely not a fiction writer–place has character and can feature as a character. I don’t think any place is necessarily more “magical” than another, though some places do perhaps have more potential, say, Neolithic monumental site. One of the pleasures of reading is to come upon a story where one’s perceptions of space and place are overturned. Selkies in the Central Park fountain or DC’s reflecting pool could be examples–I’m trying to think of something less likely, but can’t at the moment. For novels in which the place is a character it’s hard to beat Rankin’s Rebus novels, which couldn’t be anyplace other than Edinburgh, or Elizabeth George’s mysteries–could they be in anywhere but southern England–or the Bosch novels in LA. But returning to Rankin, start with “Hanging Garden” or “Fleshmarket Alley.” I know mysteries aren’t your thing, but Rankin is a master of place-as-a-character.

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Pat!

      You know, the more I think about it, the more I think you are right. While there are some places that can really lend themselves as magical settings (and therefore might be *easier* to write), the most satisfying ones (as a reader) are those that overturn your notion of magical places, the ones tthat surprise you. I am now inspired to write a story about magic in the most unmagical setting I can think of… 😉

      I like mysteries, though, admittedly, I don’t read them as often as SF/F. Rankin Rebus sounds great, though. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the thoughts and suggestions!

  2. Stephen Buchheit

    I’m also of the “magic can be anywhere.” Having lived in small town and urban centers, there’s places in both that can hide the magical, spooky, wondrous, and weird. Right now I live in an exurban community (think rural with some patches of density). And I’ve been writing stories about a made up town where there’s a lot of magic (fairy, witches, goddesses, indian magic, spiritualism, etc). I know people who get freaked when they’re in dense urban settings, and I’ve met people who believe once you’re outside a city’s outerbelt freeways, you’re likely to be eaten by the local populace (if not lost forever in the patches of trees). Although writing both I’ve noticed subtle differences. The magic I write about in the rural areas is older, deeper, and has closer ties to traditional fairy tales. Whereas urban areas feel like they’ve recently been colonized by magic. There are wide open spaces between the pockets of magic in cities, but in the rural places it’s likely to popup anywhere.

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Steve,

      Interesting points. I think you are right that urban and rural settings can both be magical but that each inspire a different quality of magic. I live in New York now, but I grew up on a farm on an island (about as rural as you can possibly get) and I know what you mean about that sort of setting feeling more connected to traditional fairy tales and an older kind of magic – something at predates the spread of European/Western cultures into the region, whereas magic in cities does have more of a colonial/colonized feel to it.

      Huh. Does the magical world have an indigenous, colonial (and maybe even post-colonial) history?

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