Most fantasy has magic. Magic users, laws about magic use, magic schools, wands, curses, secret magic that only its users know exists. Maybe some sort of magical object, an unexplainable event, a slightly superhuman ability. At least some magical beings like elves or fairies. Or if not magical, at least fantastical, like dragons.
On Goodreads I have 140 books on my Fantasy shelf. Only 7 of them are also on my Nonmagical Fantasy shelf.
So. Can you have really fantasy without magic? Without even the fantastical beings?
Yes. But I might be biased. My book Beyond the Mountain is fantasy, but it has no magic, fantasy creatures, or supernatural occurrences. A made-up world without magic is still a made-up world.
Hey, Batman doesn't have superpowers, just a bunch of Bat devices, but he's still a superhero.
I recently read a few forums where people discussed whether fantasy without magic is possible (and if so, whether it's difficult to write). Most said yes, it's possible, if uncommon. But many thought it would be difficult to write. A few even said no, it's not possible--If there's no magic or fantastical beings, how is it fantasy? It's just alternate history. (Okay, an alternate history of what? Alternate history, to me, requires a real place with a real history to deviate from.)
I guess it comes down to your definition of fantasy. To me, a made-up world is enough.
I enjoy fantasy, magic or not. Admittedly, it's probably more boring if there's no magic at all. One of the things I love best about speculative fiction is the world building--the cultures, the geography, the architecture--and that can include the magic system.
But if there is magic, it has to have limitations, and those limitations have to be believable. I've read books where things happen...because magic. Maybe the viewpoint character isn't a magician, and so can't explain the mysterious ways of magic to the reader. Maybe it's a world where pretty much any ability imaginable is possible. In either case, the magic can easily become a convenient plot device, where the cans and can'ts of the universe or character abilities make little sense.
I don't hate magic. It can be very well written.
Anyhow, it's still super common in fantasy.
So is this why I wrote a fantasy story without magic?
I don't know. I don't think I made a conscious decision to rebel against the convention, though that sounds like something I'd do. I purposefully changed my setting away from Medieval-Europe-ish to something less common. For my next book, I'm considering fantasy that doesn't involve the typical wars, royal characters, or killing. And maybe someday I'll write one without romance, and one where the main character doesn't have dead/dysfunctional/absent parents.
But really, I had a story in my head, and magic simply never came up.
In all honesty, I think it would be harder to write a magical world that a non-magical one. The more magic figures into the plot, the harder you have to work to create a convincing system for it. And the harder you have to work not to let it overpower character development.
With as much as I've read magical books, the only ones that have sparked ideas for me are the very limited/subtle ones. (Think simple potions, quarry speech, or a single magical object.) That, I can work with. A whole system? I wouldn't even know where to start.
I lived in Kenya with my parents and younger brothers in the mid-2000s. It was the first time I'd been out of the country since I was 3, and besides one vague memory of a trip to Washington, DC I couldn't remember ever being outside the Carolinas or Georgia.
Kenya is on the equator, so the temperature and day/night length are pretty constant all year. Nairobi is elevated, so it's cool. I remember some sweatshirt days, but I can't remember if it ever got hot except during the week we spent at the coast.
In the city, most people walk or use public transportation. Cars drive on the left side of the road, but weave into your lane as they avoid all the potholes. Kids walk to school in collared white shirts, blue sweaters, navy skirts or shorts, and grey knees socks with stripes around the top (uniform colors vary, but these are the ones I remember).
I went to an American school that had buses, flat-front ones painted green and white, with a manually operated folding door, seat belts, and about 25 seats. Houses and compounds have gates and walls topped with barbed wire or broken glass. Bricks are larger and greyer than in the US. Roofs are reddish clay tiles. The natural world is green, like North Carolina, but a greener sort of green. There are palm trees and banana plants, and a single banana leaf is as big as a person.
Many windows are louvered glass slats 6" wide that overlap but don't seal closed. My house didn't have (or need) heat or air conditioning. The living room had parquet flooring, and the kitchen had linoleum tiles like you'd see in a classroom or a 50s diner, only they were red. No one in my family liked those red tiles. For some reason, the bathroom light switches were on the outside of the bathrooms.
Sodas are available anywhere. Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange. Some places also have Fanta Blackcurrant, but any restaurant or grocery store will have the first four options.
I don't know that there was ever a household we visited that didn't have sodas to offer us. They're cheap, and if you buy it in a glass bottle, some kiosks let you return the bottle for a small discount on your new purchase. Plastic bottles are 500mL, but glass bottles are available in 300mL or 500mL.
It seemed everyone had a mobile phone, and it was pretty cheap to buy minutes. There was a Celtel billboard near our house that showed two Masai men on bikes. At least one of them wore the traditional Masai red shuka, and both men were using their cell phones.
Part of what I love about fantasy is that anything can happen. A high school kid probably isn't going be ambushed by bad guys or lead a heist or attend an academy to learn a system of magic. But he might if he lives in some fantasy or futuristic world.
But another huge appeal to me is place. After living in Kenya I'm very interested in cultural anthropology, and after researching settings for my book I have a growing love for all kinds of climates, architecture, terrains, and everyday living.
What I love about faraway places (or long ago places, or invented ones) are the everyday details.
I recently finished, printed, read, and made notes on my third draft of Beyond the Mountain. It's both exciting, and scary. Exciting, because it was the finish of a (very large) step in the process, and a change in routine is always a bit refreshing. Scary, because now I have to do it all again, another draft--each draft seems like it should go faster, yet I still work slowly, and each draft puts more pressure on me to get it right already.
This time around is a little different from the ones before. Now someone other than me has read the book. It wasn't an ideal situation, since I gave her chapters a few at a time as I finished editing them, which happened much slower than I'd anticipated. But at least I know a few little details that might confuse readers, and I know that my story isn't hugely flawed or stupid.
By now I've figured out my characters, world, and events well enough that there won't be so much of that to agonize over during edits anymore. But I do need to tweak the pacing, and right now I have no idea what edits that will entail. I'm trying to back up the beginning of the story and add a scene before the events I already have in the book, but I work so slowly, staring at the screen and wondering why words don't come. It's been this way at least for the past 2 drafts, and I keep hoping it will get easier. Some days I remind myself that writing is slow and hard, and the process is different for every author. And some days feel foolish for ever believing I could turn this into a career.
I write because I have to. Now that I've started I can't just drop it and let this story (or the others in my head) float around forever unfinished. Crafting characters and cohesive plots is rewarding. But it definitely isn't easy.
First, writing is hard. And slow. I've been writing my current novel two years now. I'm nearing the end (I hope) but I know I have a least one more round of editing and beta readers, before I begin the process of publication.
Here are some more things I've learned about the writing process:
Some things I've learned about myself specifically:
Yesterday I sent my last chapters of Beyond the Mountain to my first beta reader. (Ideally, I would've sent the whole book at once, or at least sent the sections closer together, but I mis-guessed how long it would take me to finish this draft.)
After a few beta readers have read and commented, I'll have at least one more draft and another round of beta reading. But for now I'm setting the story aside and keeping an eye out for the next. Whatever story I write, I'm going to take at least 3 months mentally outlining it and researching before I write down anything more than my brainstorming. I'm going to go into this one with a plan.
Writers often say they don't have trouble finding ideas, they have trouble deciding which of their ideas to choose and which to ignore for now. But personally I've been having trouble coming up with a plot idea. My best ideas usually come while I'm reading a novel--the premise/situation already exists, but I don't know (yet) how that book will end. My mind brews possibilities, and voila, an idea I can develop into a plot. By the time I have a beginning, middle, and end, it barely resembles the original anymore.
For several months, though, I've been brainstorming for ideas for my next project after Beyond the Mountain is done, without results.
About two days ago, this saying came to mind, and has stuck in there. (Unfortunately, I already can't remember how it came about.) I thought a novel theme could be, "Is it stronger to perservere, or to break out? (Conversely, is it weaker to go along, or quit?)" In other words, when your life is hard, but changing it would also be hard (or make it harder for someone else), what do you choose? Is it stronger to deny yourself for the sake of others/expectations, or to stand up for yourself?
Also, today I read a novel that gave me a new plot idea. So I'm a little excited about that.
Yes and no.
A coworker introduced me to Audible last year. We're housekeepers who clean lodging units between guests, so we can listen to music or books while we work. I looked up some of the books I was interested in, which ranged from 9 to 12 hours. I thought it was a great idea. How convenient to keep work more interesting, finish books in 2-3 days, and not feel guilty spending all those hours reading in bed.
I've listened to some great ones. The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson is a fantastic series - swashbuckling, hilarious, and piratical, yet still child-appropriate. And the narrator, Katherine Kellgren only improves it.
I've also listened to others ranging from pretty good to decent. Sometimes the narrators are straightforward and a bit bland, but the stories usually keep me interested. So, to start on something positive, here's what I do like about audiobooks:
Plenty of people like audiobooks. If you're interested, give it a try. It could help you get to all the books you haven't had time for. It could help you enjoy reading again. Or for the first time. As a writer, I hope my future books have audio versions.
But 7 months after joining Audible, I still can't get into it. I can enjoy listening to a book, but it can take me weeks to get through one when it's digital rather than live. At first I thought I just needed to get used to a new format, but for fiction it still feels like a chore. Here are my reasons and speculations why:
I like the idea of audiobooks. I like their convenience. But sadly I don't enjoy them as much as I'd like.
This is the first post for this website.
I'm a writer with one (not yet published) fantasy novel.
Around 2009 I read Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl. Despite being the typical princess-in-medieval-based-fantasy-setting, and despite being a rewrite of an old fairy tale, it felt original and real to me. The settings, the traditions, even an endless pine forest and a goose pasture came alive.
I thought, I want to do that.
The rest of the series, and her Princess Academy series, are like this too. She writes in beautiful language, not stuffy or flowery, but imaginative and evocative and succinct all at once. The "magic" system--while definitely fantastical--is subtle, and actually kind of plausible, like it's just another aspect of the natural world. (And a definite plus, the romance is clean.)
I currently have one book. No magic, but of course I hope it's a magical read. It's written and mostly edited, with the working title Beyond the Mountain. I began writing it about two years ago, around the winter of 2014-15, and it's still in editing and beta-reading now. That's a long time, but I've learned a lot about the writing process and about my personal process, so next time I'll have an idea what I'm doing!
I had the story in my head for a long time, exploring possible directions the plot could take and performing scenes repeatedly in my head for my own entertainment at night instead of going to sleep, until finally I decided I may as well write it down. I used no written outline, and took my time to write well (or so I believed), thinking the editing would therefore be pretty easy.
Turns out, I way overestimated word and scenes requirements. And the writing was bad. Not to mention my world-building evolved quite a bit. The result was: a lot of story to fix, a lot of scenes to cut, and a lot of wordiness to weed.
I doubt prewriting and outlining would have helped me a lot back then. I didn't have a firm enough grasp of story structure. But now, two years later, I have a far better grasp of that, and of all that happens during the writing process, and of all the things I should know about the story from the beginning.
I hope to start a new project soon, but for now it's Beyond the Mountain.