Writing ‘The Laws of Magic’

When I began writing The Laws of Magic I wanted to do a number of things. I knew I wanted to write a steampunk/comedy/adventure (the romance and political elements developed later). Having chosen the quasi-Edwardian setting, this necessitated that I do some research (not a problem—I’m a researchophile) and it also meant that I had to make some decisions about what the critic John Clute calls the ‘diction’ of fantasy writing.

Clute notes that many fantasy novels use a form of writing distinctly different from mainstream novels as one of the tools in helping to create the ‘otherness’ so important to the genre. This distinctive form of writing can be just as important as the traditional map at the front in announcing to the reader that we’re in another place entirely from the ordinary world.

With The Laws of Magic, the sort of ‘forsoothery’ that piles up in many fantasy texts would be wildly inappropriate, but I knew that a careful, somewhat idiosyncratic, style of writing would emphasise and reinforce the world that I was creating in other ways.

I felt that it would be going too far to replicate Edwardian prose. I didn’t want to just be a copycat, and I also felt that it could be a case of too much of a good thing being heavy going. Aware that my readers are modern readers, I wanted to create the feel of Edwardian prose without turning my writing into a museum quality recreation.

To do that, I concentrated on a handful of devices to create the effect I wanted.

1. Vocabulary. This works in two ways. Firstly, I was a demon on excising modern words. Anything that smacked of the last half of the twentieth century was right out. This meant many trips to the Oxford English Dictionary to check when certain words were current, when they were coined, when they were obsolete. My best example here is the word ‘okay’. Now, I know that the origins of the word go back to the early nineteenth century, but to me it smacks of a time much later than the early twentieth century. In The Laws of Magic, ‘okay’ shall not pass. Secondly, I consciously use a number of words that, if they appeared in a contemporary novel, would appear old-fashioned, even archaic. By using these I’m making the point that to my characters, this sort of vocabulary isn’t old fashioned—it’s part of their living, active language. Words like ‘froward’, ‘erstwhile’ and ‘niggardly’ are uncommon enough today that they bring the right sort Edwardian tone to the prose.

2. Speech. When talking, my characters use a formality that is quite different from modern conversation. Even when they are familiar with each other, there is a politeness and reserve that is a hallmark of the manners and morals of the time. I also judiciously use the full forms of contractions (‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’, ‘should not’ instead of ‘shouldn’t’) which subtly changes the rhythms of speech, making it less casual on the ear.

3. Grammar. Language changes. What is grammatically acceptable, changes. A neat device to indicate that a novel is set in a bygone era is to use to some grammatical conventions that may appear stuffy, or even odd, to the modern reader. Again, overdoing this would make for awkward prose, so I chose just a few characteristic grammatical constructions to make my point. Firstly, I was careful to use the possessive before the gerund. Now, I know that might already sound like a foreign language, but in short it means that before certain ‘-ing’ words, I use words that indicate ownership. For example: ‘Aubrey wanted to see George’s batting’ instead of what we might consider the usual ‘Aubrey wanted to see George batting’. Secondly, I’ve been careful to use that generally outmoded tense, the subjunctive in such constructions as ‘If I were about to dive off the cliff’ instead of the more modern ‘If I was about to dive off the cliff’. Thirdly, I’ve used semicolons. Not all over the place, but enough. Semicolons are uncommon enough these days to draw attention to themselves and to reinforce the old world nature of the story.

Grammar, speech and vocabulary are all underpinning the setting, behaviour and relationships in the novel, in an endeavour to make a consistent and satisfying whole.