A Magical World View

This post originally appeared on the Romance Bandits blog.

Sven asked me the other day how I decided to use the Okefenokee Swamp as part of my mage series world.  “Swamps aren’t the first thing most of us think of when someone mentions romance,” he pointed out.

I couldn’t argue with that.  As the comments on my post last month demonstrated, most of us assume swamps smell and are muddy and buggy and generally icky.  Not very romantic, all in all.  But swamps are also dark and mysterious and full of hidden life–spooky if not romantic.  So I figured I’d put spooky with romantic and see how that worked.

Our brainstorming group was meeting, and I explained I was tired of writing books nobody knew what to do with–historicals set in Restoration England (If you didn’t know that was 1660-1685, you have a lot of company!), contemporary romantic suspense written in first person snarky, a medieval with a fair amount of history in it.  Since paranormals seemed to be on the rise, I wanted to meld my love of fantasy with my love of romance and action and see if I could knock a ball over the center field fence instead of hooking it into the left field seats all the time.

I wanted the book to have a dark tone since I was reading a fair number of dark paranormals and liking their mood.  I wanted to set the story in the South because I’m from there, still live there, and I love the small towns and most of the people and our various rapidly disappearing accents.  Also, research would be easier.

“I’d thought of using the Okefenokee Swamp as a backdrop,” I said, envisioning dark and mysterious and spooky rather than smelly and buggy and icky.  “I haven’t been there since I was little, and I don’t remember much about it except my mom was afraid snakes would fall down on the boat. But it sounds cool.”

“The energy in swamps is very different,” Cassandra said, and she’s right.  A swamp feels different from an open field or a lake. It’s kind of something in between the two.  So we all talked about swamps and dark energy until we had a basic outline.

Sometimes I like to start with the characters, and sometimes I prefer starting with the problem.  This time, I had basic hero/heroine ideas already, so we started with the world because it was to be the broad canvas for what I hoped would become a series.

Any writer using a fantasy world has to figure out how that world works.  What is the magic based on?  What are the rules?  What is the price the user pays for wielding magic?  If there isn’t a price, I find the story pretty hard to believe.  There are various kinds of vampires and shifters on bookstore shelves today.  They share a lot of similarities because of their common folkloric roots, but they also have differences that set them apart.  I wanted my mages and their foes to be different from the others (there weren’t many at the time) in the market.

So I wanted a nature-based magic system, and we kicked ideas around for one that would require recharges.  That was as far as we went, moving on to characters and conflict, though various flying emails refined the concept over the next few months.

Earth, air, fire, and water are traditional fantasy magic components.  Add spirit, and you can find similar concepts in Wicca, which is probably where the fantasists drew inspiration.

While those are are all components of my system, they aren’t prominent yet.  They will be farther down the road.  The mages draw energy from sunlight and from any life around them, always careful not to draw enough from any one life form to injure it.   That’s a rule.

So is the requirement that they protect Mundanes (people like us) first and foremost.  That’s what gets Val into big trouble and leads to Griff rescuing her.

They like forests and swamps because there’s so much life around that they can recharge safely.  They draw power from the natural world and expend it with every magical feat they perform, some more difficult than others.  That’s how it works.  Draw too much, expend too much without a recharge, and they’re in trouble.  That’s the price part.

One thing that makes swamps and the landscape near them spooky, at least in the southeast, is Spanish moss (that gray stuff hanging off the tree above right).  It isn’t really either Spanish or moss.  It’s a plant that grows on other plants but makes its own food out of the air and rain.  It can be used for upholstery, packing material, floral arrangements, insulation, and a home for small birds.  All that’s great, but I like it because it’s spooky, even in the daytime.  I’ve also thought of some other uses for it, also down the road in the series.

There’s a popular archetype of the loner hero, an outcast from society, seeking justice.  The hero of Renegade, Griffin Dare, is hiding out, seeking to unmask a traitor and prove his innocence.  So I gave him a place out from town, on the outskirts of the Okefenokee Swamp.  The isolated location is a perfect place to take Valeria Banning, the mage sheriff (or Shire Reeve) and try to win her trust after he rescues her.

But I also wanted Griff to have a life, not to be isolated, even though he’s the mages’ most wanted criminal and keeps dangerous secrets.  So I gave him some mage allies and a small, eccentric town where he could move freely under an alias.  I grew up in a small college town, with my grandfather telling me stories about quirky people who lived there before I was born.  I treasure the memories of walking around with him and listening to those stories.

People in Wayfarer tend to be into metaphysical or New Age ideas and to accept each other’s oddities, including Griff’s tendency to be secretive.  In Renegade and throughout the series, we’ll see how important the town is to him and his friends.

Yes, I know most small town settings are cozy and generally peaceful.  I did hook that one a bit left.

Of course the mages need their own social structure, so I gave them a gathering place that’s also a base of operations, the seat of their regional government, and a school, and called the complex The Collegium.  The officials there grow suspicious of Val after her encounter with Griff and generally complicate their lives.

Every suspense/action story has to have a villain.  This one does, too, with an ongoing trouble caused by humanoids kind of based on the things we used to envision hiding in the closet on a stormy night.  They’re called ghouls, and we’ll talk more about them later.

And there, pretty much, is the world.  I thank Donna, Jeanne, Cassondra, and Joan for their input.  The swamp is mostly backdrop.  Some of the story takes place near it, but not actually in it.  Some of the action is set in a forested state park, some of it’s at the Collegium, and much of it’s in and around Wayfarer.

If you missed the blurb about the book last month, you can find it on my website.

Are you from a farm, a small town, or a big city?  Which of those do you prefer?  Would you prefer escaping into wild lands or staying in civilized places with shopping centers or coffee shops?  Do you prefer sunny or spooky settings, or a mix?  

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Jun 21 2012, 12:50 am in , , , 57 Comments


57 responses to “A Magical World View”

  1. Fedora says:

    Eeek… swamps, Nancy? They’re cool and mysterious but so… soggy. And wet. And dirty ;p

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Yeah, I think soggy’s a given, Fedora. Some swamps do smell, but the Okefenokee generally doesn’t.

      Okefenokee means “Land of the Trembling Earth.” when we were out of the boat, on what’s called a prairie, the guide jumped, just jumped in place once from a standing start. A small bush 18 inches or so away vibrated. It was way weird but cool at the same time.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Forgot to congratulate you on the Rooster. I hope he’ll behave for you.

  2. Jane says:

    Hi Nancy,
    I’ve enjoyed a few books set in the Louisiana swamplands. I’ve always lived in the big city and I guess I prefer the urban setting. I think I would enjoy spending time in the wild lands.

  3. Nancy Northcott says:

    Hi, Jane–My dh grew up in the Colorado Front Range but is definitely a city guy. I prefer a town but do okay in the city. I do like going to national parks or walking in the woods, but I don’t want to stay there. We hope to visit Yellowstone someday.

  4. Nancy, what a fascinating post. Thanks so much for sharing some of the inspirations behind Renegade with us. I can’t wait to read it – Griffin Dare sounds like my sorta hero! Actually I grew up in a tiny farming community, very isolated. We had plenty of swamps but they were mangrove swamps which really are stinky and icky and I wouldn’t even consign a ghoul to live in them! It was on the shores of Moreton Bay in Queensland which is very pretty once you get over the swamps. I have occasional ratty ideas about moving somewhere isolated but it’s all too hard in terms of life’s practicalities – an island in the Hebrides, anyone? Definitely life is easier when you’re in a population center!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Anna, thanks! The mangrove swamp sounds more like what we usually imagine a swamp to be.

      The Hebrides island would be a great place to have a vacation cottage, but I wouldn’t like to live there either. Unless maybe in a town on the island.

    • Jeanne Adams says:

      Ooooh, the Hebrides! I’d come visit, Anna, and bring provisions. Especially this time of year when it’s 97+ degrees (farenheit) and humid and buggy. I imagine the Hebrides are a wee bit cooler. grins.

  5. Mary Preston says:

    I live in a large country town. I like it. If I was so disposed I could go hiking through the bush with my canteen in hand, but I think I’d rather walk through the cultivated gardens & stop for a coffee.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Mary, I think it would be nice to know you could easily go walk in the woods, or the bush, if you chose. I like knowing the national parks are there if we want to visit. My family didn’t go camping or hiking when I was growing up, so I don’t have that habit, but there’s something about being on a mountainside, surrounded by trees, that’s soothing to me.

      Still, I’m much more likely to relax by going to a bookstore.

  6. Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

    I grew up in a small town, or to be more precise outside of a small town. I live in the city now and I really the country. Having to be careful not to look into the neighbors house is very disturbing to me. I like people okay but I don’t particularly want to see in their window.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Dianna, we have neighbors very close on one side. We and they keep the blinds closed along there. They’re great people, and we get along just fine, but it’s the privacy thing, as you indicate.

    • Jeanne Adams says:

      Hi Dianna! Like you, I grew up in a more rural setting (NC), and now live in the ‘burbs. I keep saying that the one and only thing that would make me leave my house, which I love, would be to have more land. Not a huge amount more – I LIKE being in the burbs! – but enough so that I can open the blinds all around my house and not feel the pinch of the privacy issue. Grins. I have the same thing Nancy does in that there’s one room where we seldom open the blinds on a window, as we’d be looking into someone else’s house. That’s tooooooo close. Grins.

  7. Anna Sugden says:

    Thanks for sharing your inspiration behind your fabulous books, Nancy. Can’t wait to get my official copy of Griff and Val’s story!

    I moved around a lot growing up, so I’m not really sure where I’m from. I guess, suburbs of a big city … small town. I love living in a small town/large village that has great scenery, but is close to everything. Where we live now is a large village and you can walk into the centre of it quickly. Pretty much everything is on tap and Cambridge itself is only a few miles away, with London 45 mins by train. Yet, there are fields outside my window!

    I don’t mind where I stay as long as I have certain mod cons. I’m not a camping/wilderness gal LOL. I love visiting all kinds of places from New York City to Coober Pedy in Australia. I loved both the Lousiana swamps and the Florida Everglades – like you, my mind was working overtime on story ideas.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Anna, thanks!

      Your situation sounds ideal. In the town where I grew up, we could walk to Main St. For much of my life, there was a grocery store on Main, by one of the town’s three stoplights. My grandfather and I walked there sometimes. It later became a dress shop and is now a restaurant.

    • Jeanne Adams says:

      Now see, Anna S, that’s just about perfect. :> Living in DC, but in a “burb, I feel the same way you do. There’s a little village center (not much, just a bit), then there’s DC itself, less than 20 mins from house to Capitol, via Metro. grins. I can participate in the City if I want to, but don’t HAVE to be in the bustle very often. Just the way I like it. :>

  8. Janga says:

    Fascinating post, Nancy. I look forward to encountering the world you describe.

    I grew up in a small town, attended college in a smaller one, and lived in a major city for a few years after college. I’ve lived in a small town or in a rural community just outside one ever since. I love the energy and amenities of city life, but I love the friendliness and comfort of small town living more. I like best where I am now–a rural community where neighbors are far enough removed so that I can watch bunnies hop across the driveway and listen to a bird concert as I drink my morning juice on the front porce in my pjs but close enough to town to visit easily the library, the grocery store, or the office supply store when I have the need or whim and an hour or so drive from cities in two direction when I’m hungry for bookstores, art museums, great restaurants, and major shopping.

    • Janga says:

      Umm. that would be “front porch in my pjs.” Maybe I should have had coffee with that juice.

      • Jeanne Adams says:

        Heehee. It’s okay, Janga, some of us are pre-coffee enough to have gotten it anyway. Hahah! I’m only on my second cup, so I’m not up to full spark-plug-speed yet. There’s still too much blood in my caffeine system. SNORK!!

        Where you live sounds lovely. And I love that “best of both worlds” scenario. Nancy, NYC is fun, and I love it in small doses, but like you, the constant press of people and noise wears on me after too long. :>

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Thank you, Janga. I look forward to other people reading it, too, although I’m also nervous to know my kinda-baby is going out into the world.

      I’d love to be able to sit outside and drink coffee in my PJs in the morning.

      I like visiting New York, strolling through the museums, going to a show, having such an array of food choices. There’s a lot of energy in the city. But I also like getting away from it. The hustle and bustle wear on me after a while.

  9. eilis flynn says:

    Clearly I haven’t been around a lot of swamps (only social ones — I’ve told you about my office, haven’t I?), but when I read about the swamp you were using as a backdrop, the first thing that came to mind was Pogo! As in, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Which sort of fits here. Anyway, can’t wait to read it!

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Eilis, thank you! Are you referring to the fact Pogo was set in the Okefenokee? I’ve always liked that saying and have unfortunately known people to whom it applied.

  10. CateS says:

    While I like the wilderness… it stops being fun when wild animals start visiting… oh and bugs/snakes.. no thank you… give me my screened porch with a ceiling fan!

    • Jeanne Adams says:

      Heehee! CateS, I hear ya! I love watching the wild from my screened porch too. Of course, it constantly astonishes me that there IS wild here in the “capitol of the free world” as our local radio DJ’s style DC. I see deer, coyotes, foxes, ‘coons, possums, and the usual ubiquitus squirrels, chipmunks and so on. We also have two kinds of hawks that lilke to sit on the kid’s swingset and watch for chipmunk snacks. bwahahahah! (A couple of Cooper’s Hawks and a big Red Tail)

      So, while I’m “city” I get some wild too. It’s that best of both worlds thing….grins.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Cate, I’m not so much on wild animals and bugs, either. I like seeing foxes and deer from a distance when we visit the dh’s relatives in Colorado (his dad lives on the side of a mountain with no other houses close), but I like something between me and them–a window, an elevated deck rail, something.

  11. Louisa says:

    Congrats, Fedora, on nabbing our very own “Swamp Thang” – The GR !!

    Fascinating post, Nancy. I LOVE your thought processes and I cannot WAIT to read this book!

    I grew up all over the world and have lived in a variety of places. My favorite was probably the little English village we lived in when I was a child. It was small, friendly and you could walk to almost anything you needed.

    Presently I live on five acres in a very rural setting, but it is only 8 miles to a small town where you can get whatever you need. Montgomery is about 20 miles away and it is becoming a bigger and bigger city every day.

    Like Janga, I love being able to go outside with my dogs in my PJs. I can sit on my porch and drink my tea and watch the world wake up- pastures, woods, fields and lots of wildlife.

    When I was in grad school I spent a lot of time in New Orleans and I spent many weeks throughout each year vacationing in a “cabin” on stilts in a Louisiana swamp. I say “cabin” because it really was in the middle of the swamp with two alligator “yard dogs,” but it also had air conditioning, running water, satellite television and all the modern conveniences. The guy who owned it said “I’m a Cajun, not a masochist.”

    There energy there was very surreal. Sometimes you could feel it humming along your skin in the early morning. So, I think your setting is PERFECT !!

    • Jeanne Adams says:

      Oooh, Louisa, I love how you’ve lived so many cool places. Had to LOL about the “I’m a Cajun, not a masochist” HAHAHAH!!!

    • LOL Louisa – I go outside in my PJs with the dog in the morning in my ‘burb home. Last Sunday I wanted to say goodbye to an overnight guest before she headed home so I was out on front driveway in my shortie nightgown. I figure the neighbors look out their windows and say – “There’s that crazy writer again!”

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Thank you, Louisa, for the kind words and for your interest in the book. I’ve never lived in an English village, but I’d like to have a go at it sometime. A summer in dorm housing at an Oxford college isn’t quite the same, though I did enjoy being able to walk to so many cool things in Oxford.

      There’s that morning beverage in the PJs thing again. I’d like to be able to do that, but it’s just not feasible around here.

      I remember your story about the Everglades and the watch-alligators. *g* Way cool!

  12. Nancy – I love your worldbuilding. Can’t wait for RENEGADE to come out. I may have to buy a kindle or nook just for that purpose (grin).

    I grew up in Towson, MD which is attached to Baltimore – and most would call it a big city. But when your world is limited to the middle section of two lines of row houses and the elementary school about ten minutes walking distance away – it sort of feels like a small town.

    We moved from there to various homes in the burbs but always very close to a major city – still it felt small town. Indeed, I remember my father thought my big-city boyfriend, a guy from Cleveland who later became my husband, was taking advantage of me – a small town girl.

    But I like to visit spooky places – does that count?

    • Donna, thanks! And thanks again for your contributions to that world.

      If you can use the Kindle app for PC, you won’t need to shell out for new tech.

      Yes, liking to visit spooky places counts, but I like spooky in only in terms of atmosphere, not actual, otherworldy spooks.

      I walked to school as a kid. I think any place you can do that, frequent the same shops and get to know the people around you, feels like a small town, as you say.

      I’d be happy living in a small town within easy reach of a city with arts and shopping a small community can’t support.

  13. Deb says:

    Neat post, Nancy. But, gulp, swamps? For someone, like me, who doesn’t leave the house without makeup and a ‘do and the chance of seeing snakes and other creepy animals, that sends shudders of disbelief through me. Not the storyline or the elements, but putting someone like me in a place like that. I loved your lines “most of us assume swamps smell and are muddy and buggy and generally icky. Not very romantic, all in all.” I chuckled at that and thought, “Well, um, yeah!”

    I would say I am a small town-country girl. I lived in a small city until I was 12 when my parents bought farm ground and built a house. We never had animals except cats, a dog, and cattle in winter. Now I live in a small town (pop. 950). I have a nice location because I can get to a small or big city in 30 minutes and not have to deal with traffic on a daily basis. I enjoy small town life and the closeness of the community.

  14. Gail Nichols says:

    I was born a big city girl.But,now I live in a small town(my husband’s hometown) I go back to the city every once in a while just as a change of pace. Spooky or sunshine does not matter to me if the story is good.

    • Gail, I also read sunshine as well as spooky, and I want a sunshiny tone at the end, for sure.

      “A change of pace,” as you said, is how I feel about NYC. It’s fabulous for a few days, but then it begins to wear on me.

  15. Deb, the Okefenokee doesn’t smell and isn’t muddy (because it’s peat, I’m told), but it’s partly because of the traditional swamp image that I didn’t set much of the story there for the first two books. It is buggy, alas, and the boat tour company doesn’t do sunset tours during the summer because of a creature with the charming name of “biting yellow fly.”

    Ugh. That’s why I wore long sleeves for the boat tour.

    We did see dragonflies, though, and they’re so pretty. No mosquitoes, which was a bit of a surprise.

    Your farmland home sounds fabulous. You had all that land to run around in!

    I liked living in a small town. When I was growing up, Davidson’s population was about 1200 and doubled with the students’ arrival in the fall. It’s five or six times that size now, and I don’t think I’d like living there so much. But I do love small towns and think small town living has a lot to recommend it, especially that sense of community you mentioned.

    I like shopping and museums to be close, too.

  16. Cassondra says:

    I grew up on a farm and if I could, I’d still live on one.

    Right now we live in the middle of farmland, which is as close as I can get to living on a farm without owning all that land, but we do have a neighbor about 50 feet away, and that’s WAY too close for me. My preference would be to not see any other houses.

    I like escaping to the wilderness, but I also love New York City, and I love being able to drive ten miles and work at Starbucks if I want to (which I will be doing here in a few minutes). And beyond that, I want to live not far from an arts community, and as I’m only about 40 minutes north of Nashville and it’s music industry, it’s about perfect.

    I want to visit that swamp.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Cassondra, visiting the swamp could happen. I need to go back, just to absorb more of the feeling of it, and I long to take the sunset tour just because it would be cool. After biting yellow fly season.

      If you had all that farmland, would you feel the need to farm it? The dh likes having a garden, but it’s necessarily small.

  17. Beth Andrews says:

    Loved the post, Nancy! I’m always fascinated in learning the “background” of stories/series 🙂

    I still live my small hometown. It’s rural and isolated and just a moment ago I was sitting outside with my daughter and we heard an animal in the woods – she thought groundhog but it sounded bigger to me. Probably a deer but possibly a bear.

    I love small town life but would much rather have it closer to a city. The closest small city is 90 miles away, Pittsburgh is a good 200 miles or so.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Beth, I envy you living in your hometown. Mine has changed too much for me to be happy there. The first time I got tailgated on one of the main roads, on my way to see my folks, I knew the town had changed too much for me.

  18. catslady says:

    That’s what’s so wonderful about reading – you get to go places you probably couldn’t or wouldn’t. I just recently fell in love with fantasy stories (Kathryne Kennedy) and love the creativity of it all. I’ve always like some dark in my reading too.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Catslady, the chance to travel vicariously is one of the things I enjoy about reading, too. Tell me more about Kathryne Kennedy. I’m always looking for someone new to read. Did you mention her last month? I haven’t had time to read anything because the second book is due very, very soon.

      • catslady says:

        I think I’ve mentioned her everywhere this past year. I started reading her Elven trilogy and I’ve gone back and gotten all her books (there’s only a handfull). I just totally fell in love with her writing. It’s so creative and I get lost in her magical worlds. She is extremely nice and I can’t wait for her next book to come out. I recommend her books to everyone lol.

  19. Susan Sey says:

    Ooooh, Nancy, I love the sound of your swamp! It’s just the right blend of exotic & familiar. I can’t wait to spend some time there with your mages!

    As for me, I’m a forest girl. I’m scared of the ocean, I get altitude sick in the mountains, there are large, poisonous stinging things in the desert…yep. Give me a forest any day.

    • Nancy Northcott says:

      Smoov, thanks! I love the ocean, but I refuse to go in the water when people are surf fishing. I figure whatever they’re fishing for will draw sand sharks, and I have no desire to meet one.

      The first time I met the dh’s family, I had wine at dinner–huge mistake! They live at 8000 ft., so I was destined for altitude sickness anyway, but alcohol makes it worse. When we go out there and visit in the mountains but go back down to Denver every night, I don’t have any trouble.

      I like forests, too. When I was growing up, there were wooded lots near our house. My friends and I used to go poke around there. Sometimes we picked wild blackberries from a thicket in the summer. All those lots have houses on them now, though.

  20. Nancy Northcott says:

    The dh and I are heading home after a very kind professor took the time to talk to me about the ghouls and the problem they present for the doctor hero in book 2, Guardian. I’ll check back in after I write this up, so I don’t forget. Relying on my handwriting after memory fades is no longer wise.

  21. Pat Cochran says:

    Congratulations, Fedora!!!!

    Nancy, looking forward to reading about
    mage life in the Okefenokee! I’m a big city
    girl from Houston. I was born in a section of
    town very close to ” beautiful” downtown
    Houston. Seventy-six years ago, it was a
    small city so we enjoyed what was modern
    for the day. When we moved out into the
    county it was like being in a small town, so we
    got to experience a variety in lifestyles.
    BTW, I have no plans to leave my big and
    bustling city!

    • Pat, thank you! I’ve never been to Houston. I detoured there once when a Dallas-bound flight had to wait out bad weather, and I’ve gone through GBI, but I’ve never seen the city. I’d like to some day.

      I do enjoy city amenities.

  22. Annie West says:

    Nancy, this was utterly fascinating. Thank you. How terrific that you had a group to help work through basic ideas for the world you’re developing, and to keep batting ideas back and forth.

    I found the swamp setting really intriguing, and the idea that your characters draw energy from life around them and have to be careful not to draw too much. I think you’re onto something with this!

    • Annie, thanks! I hope I’m onto something, too.

      I feel very fortunate to have a group I can toss ideas around with and who truly care whether that idea is going to work for an entire book. Or an entire series. And who will say so if they think an idea is going to trip one of us up down the road.

      All the bandits are great at coming up with needed info. When I needed a cold reading, a “does this make sense to someone who hasn’t talked about it with me endlessly,” pass through the early chapters, Anna S. turned it around fast and gave me very helpful feedback. So I feel very lucky.

  23. Jo Robertson says:

    Fascinating post, Nancy! I love saying Okefenokee; it just trips off the tongue so smoothly.

    Thanks for the background of your mage books. I find world-building very complicated and difficult (for me anyway), so I admire what you’re doing. Can’t wait to read these books.

    I grew up in a small town, too, but after leaving home have primarily lived in larger cities or near them. I find the academic and cultural opportunities is a large city very exciting!