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!

Readercon talks cities

I’m pilfering internet access at the Boston Logan airport on my way home from Readercon and thought it might be a good time to share some thoughts on the more compelling of the panels I attended.

A number of the Readercon panels this year focused on the role of cities in SF/F.  Topics ranged from the way cities (be they real or imaginary) function as characters in their own right, living and changing beyond the confines of the narrative, to how we can create imaginary cities that feel real and authentic to readers.

This latter issue really struck me as interesting.  I doubt there’s one of us out there who hasn’t tried their hand at creating an imaginary city, just as I’d bet most of us felt the frustrating two-dimensionality of those places as we tried to breathe life into them.  It seems no matter how hard we work at it, there’s a strange, metallic flatness to them, a sense that something is off, a knowledge that they are fake.

One reason for this may relate to the fact that real cities exist for a reason, not just as a location for a story to take place.  Real cities sit on harbors that, two thousand years ago, sheltered the first traders in the region.  They are located at the confluence of rivers, one gushing down from the mineral rich mountains, the other gliding stately towards the sea.  They build up around religious sites, beginning as little more than a cluster of pilgrims’ tents, or are oases in the desert where nomads stop for water, news, and trade.

Very old cities have grown in unpredictable, organic ways.  Their streets wander into places of darkness and light, and many parts of them defy logic.  They are palimpsests of social and historical intersections and interactions, the character of their neighborhoods shading from one thing to another, malleable in the face of time, economy, and whim.

And cities are much more diverse, complex, and illogical than the imagination of one writer sitting alone at their desk could ever create – no matter how many voices live inside our heads.  What brings people to cities, what makes them stay, and the interactions that change and give shape to their lives is diverse and driven by as many different reasons as there are city dwellers.

The shape, feel, and history of our imaginary cities should reflect all this.

So, when you think about it, it’s no wonder we find it hard to bring imaginary cities to life.  As seems to be typical at convention panels, few suggestions for defeating these difficulties were offered at Readercon.  Just honing an awareness of the complex factors shaping real cities, though, can help us build more authentic imaginary ones.

When shaping words into the illusion of place, we can now start at both ends – at the idea of the city we have in our heads and at the place of its origins.  Why did this city come into being?  What has shaped its long history, put graffiti on its alley walls, caused its main square to house a gallows rather than a park, or created not just a jewelers row but also a street where, for two hundred years, vendors have hawked ferret’s teeth as a cure for gout?