Category Archives: Research

Magic Systems and Worldbuilding

There comes a time at the start (hopefully) of any fantasy project where you must tackle the question of magic.  Magic is an integral part of fantasy, and given Clarke’s Third Law, it can be argued that it’s integral to science-fiction, too.  That’s not to say that every author or every story will handle magic the same way.  There are many fantasies with no magic, formal or informal, but which still qualify because of some other fantastical element, and there are fantasies where magic is the only fantastical element in an otherwise-normal world.

Whenever I begin to consider a new story, one of the first questions I ask myself, whether consciously or not, is whether there will be magic (or magic that isn’t dressed up as science).  If the answer is no, well, that’s not what’s I’m talking about right now, but if the answer is yes, that opens up a whole host of new questions.  The presence of magic is, in some ways, just the tip of the iceberg.  Magic can be a nebulous force for which there are no explicit rules, such as the magic in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or it can be very formalized with rules governing its powers and limitations, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels (or just about anything else he’s written).  Somewhere out beyond Mistborn and its like are Dungeons & Dragons licensed properties–books where the knowledgeable and the geeky can identify the exact spell that’s being used and will complain if its effects aren’t in line with the game, and where you can sometimes hear the dice rolling if the author isn’t that good.

Then there’s this sort of stuff, which happened long ago in a fuzzy version of history. [Via Wikipedia]

In case you’re wondering, Harry Potter falls somewhere in the middle–there is a formal-ish magic system, but its rules are not deeply delved into.

No matter where your magic falls on this scale, it is important to do some worldbuilding in advance to keep yourself from running up against problems later, either in your initial drafting or in revision when one of your alpha- or beta-readers asks, “why couldn’t that character just … ?”  No matter how few rules your magic has on the page, you should know its limits from the outset.  Readers are very fond of asking tricky questions, and editors even more so.  Prepare to defend yourself.

My take on magic in stories so far has tended towards the light end of the scale.  I find the idea of building big formal magic systems to be interesting on an intellectual level, and I admire it when done well by others, but at this stage, I’ve not found myself wanting to do any of that myself.  Put me down for a bit of handwavium any day.  That approach helps me not to fall into a common trap I’ve seen when writing magic: the distraction of the cool factor.

While there are many books that balance an interesting, well-built magic system with well-developed characters around whom a plot forms, there are many many others where all those important things fall by the wayside because the author wants to tell you just how damn clever they’ve been with their magic and expect that just because the complicated system they made up held their interest for tens of thousands of words, it will carry you past the flat characters and idiot plotting.

Don’t do this.

If you’re afraid that you’re doing this, take a look at your characters.  Ask yourself lots of questions about them; questions like “what’s this character’s favorite Wawa hoagie?” or “what subjects interested them when they were in school?”  If you can answer this sort of question about your characters, you’re probably doing alright, though if you can ask someone you trust for honest feedback, that’s even better.  You don’t necessarily have to tone down the magic, though you should make a pass to cull all the inessential telling you’re doing, but you should focus more on your characters; they’re hopefully who your readers care about.

There’s more of this subject than I can really cover in one short post, so I’ll probably return to this topic periodically, but until then, I want to leave you with this episode of Writing Excuses, which has stuck with me from their first season (which makes it most of five years old now–congrats, Writing Excuses!).


Philly Circa 1886

So, first, sorry for the lack of content recently–there have been a lot of things going on that have been preventing me from spending much (any) time on this blog, but the short version is that I’m moving to the Bay Area in less than two weeks.  That doesn’t mean that I’ll be stopping this blog or that I won’t post Philadelphia-related material, it just means that I’ll probably start bringing a healthy dose of the Bay.  In the end, I’d say that this can only lead to an improvement, since I’ll have a fresh load of history to investigate.

What I have for you today is a link to a digital version of a map of Philadelphia authored by Burk & McFetridge from 1886.  The full-size version is as gorgeous as it is beefy (35 MB–seriously), but you can also check out a zoomable version on the site.

30th Street Station and the surrounding area as it looked in 1886.

One fact to note, which became apparent to me quickly as I started searching for places that I know on the map is that west, not north, is up, since back then, as now, Philly is taller than it is wide.

Since I probably won’t be blogging again for another few weeks, I’ll leave you with a link to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where you can find more information about and images of Philadelphia 120-some years ago.

The Emlen Street Ruin: History

Ferreting out the history of the Emlen Street ruin from my last post took a little bit of work, but what really ended up breaking it for me was a bit of luck brought on by this week’s warm weather.

The City of Philadelphia has its own online map site, which has filters for park trails, among other things.  While looking for a suitably nearby trail to enjoy on a warm spring afternoon, I noticed that the trail passing by the Emlen Street Ruin was marked.  While Google Maps doesn’t have a good overhead picture of the ruin–theirs was taken after the trees had started leafing–the city site showed a nice overhead view of the ruin.

When I switched the view from Aerial Photo to Road map, a name was suddenly revealed:

The Ruin has a name–a real name you can plug in to Google and get decent search results for.

While I still haven’t found any information about when the Barn burned down, I did discover that the original barn building dates to around 1812–the modern bathroom facilities were a more recent addition.  The cottage which the barn belonged to began as a six-room farmhouse, but around 1890, Henry Houston had it expanded to a 25-room summer retreat for working girls from the city (at that point, West Mount Airy was still quite suburban, and it had been positively rural when the cottage was first built).

Information on the barn is still scarce, and I haven’t yet been able to find out when it burned, though some evidence suggests that the destruction of the bathrooms may have come some time after the main building burned.  At least as recently as the 1970’s, there was a swimming club called the Devil’s Pool nearby for which Buttercup Cottage served as a sort of gateway entrance, and according to the few forum posts I found on the topic, the barn ruins already existed then (and were used as a party spot for the local teens).  That, unfortunately, is where my trail went cold.  I’m glad to have discovered some of the history of this place, but there’s still more to know.  If you have any leads, let me know in the comments, and for my part, I will be sure to post any more information I can find.

SEPTA: Philadelphia Topside

Many of the stories that I have set in Philadelphia are set back in the 1970s, and nothing says mid-’70s (or earlier, or into the early ’90s) Philadelphia quite like a PCC trolley car.

I love trolleys, even though most of SEPTA’s current fleet are the boxy white Kawasaki trams that serve Center City and West Philly on the five Green Line Subway/Surface routes, but I especially love the old PCC cars and the refurbished PCC-IIs which run down Girard.  You can imagine my delight, then, when I stumbled across Philadelphia Trolley Tracks, a site devoted to SEPTA’s trolley lines past and present.  The site is filled with photos of trolleys, some of which date back as far as the 1920s, as well as historical maps and rosters of rolling stock.

So what’s the use, yeah?  The internet is absolutely wonderful for finding information on really specific topics, but there’s a lot of stuff to troll through.  Since I began writing my 1970s paranormal investigator character, I’ve spent a lot of time researching Philadelphia circa 1970 because there have been a lot of changes.  Transit tunnels are especially interesting to me, especially historical ones, but the information I’ve been able to find has been a bit sparse, especially in the picture department.  It turns out that nobody was running around with a digital camera taking thousands of pictures of random stuff back then.  Who knew?

I’ve been thinking about the kind of stories that happen in trolleys and in tunnels lately because I’ve been looking at this site, or I’ve been looking at this site a lot because I’ve been thinking about stories.  We’ll see how things develop, but I’ve got a lot of writing coming up in this, my last semester at Wilson.

More from the Underground

Though in recent months, I’ve moved away from topics which may inspire writing somewhat, I haven’t forgotten my goals.  To that end, this cable-lacking author only just turned up a History Channel show which may be of interest to Urban Phantasy readers, Cities of the Underworld. I’m often inspired by the things which are unseen, the places that most people don’t go, and I’m always looking around for new, interesting bits of information to further inform my writing.

Part of the second series of CotU can be found on Hulu, but they lack the first-series episode which, in part, concerns Philadelphia.  Regardless, the show is at least worth a look.  Who knows, inspiration may strike you halfway through an episode and send you scrambling for a pad and pen, lest your muse abandon you.

Further Pennsylvania Folklore

During my the past week, which I spent in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania–more commonly known as The Middle of Nowhere–I discovered a series of books which should be of some interest to Urban Phantasy readers.  Pennsylvania Fireside Tales, by Jeffrey R. Frazier, is a multi-volume collection of folklore, ghost stories, hunting stories, and legends from the Native American tribes of Pennsylvania.

If I had been able to justify the expense, I might well have come away from the small bookshop where I found these books with the whole set, but that was not to be.  Nevertheless, I’m going to try to lay hands on the books.  I put my trust in the public library system on this count.

If you can track these books down, I recommend at least glancing through one or two, even if the prices seem a bit steep for each of the slim hardback volumes.

Tidbits from Underneath Philadelphia

In one of my many moments of research-induced distraction, I recently stumbled across several tidbits which should prove interesting to Urban Phantasy readers.  The first is a map which I had, until now, forgotten all about.  It used to be that there were maps around the City Hall/15th Street station downtown, which showed the extent of public underground concourse.  The last time I remember seeing one such map I think predates the turn of the millennium, though my memory is often far from perfect.

The post which I found this image in mentions a fact that I had previously been ignorant of, though it makes sense and fills in some gaps in what I know about the Penn Center tunnels.

Edmund Bacon’s concept of a hidden, weather-protected concourse connecting urban office, transportation and retail facilities was innovative at the time and influenced other cities, as well as Philadelphia’s subsequent Market East Redevelopment. Furthermore, the Penn Center complex includes an underground roadway that trucks use to service and supply the buildings. This significantly reduces the number of trucks traveling over and loading/unloading on the streets above. The entrance to this no-outlet road (called Commerce Street) is on 19th Street between Market Street and J.F.K. Boulevard.

My second discovery is a video clip from an unknown program that aired on WHYY several years ago, which took a look at Philadelphia’s underground architecture.  This particular video is of some of the subterranean portions of Philadelphia City Hall.

If you have any more information on the program this came from, let me know in the comments.  I’ll also post any more information I find on my own, for this looks like it was quite an interesting program.

Legends from (a Bit) Farther Afield

In my recent attempts to uncover more relevant legends to inform a story that I’m working on, I came across an interesting article from 1985 which strikes fairly close to home.  The article covers some of the legends which were brought to the Lehigh Valley by 18th Century German immigrants, albeit in fairly broad strokes.

Despite the overall lack of in-depth information in the article, it provides a foundation upon which stories can be built by giving readers an overview of the sorts of legends which were prevalent in the area.  This not only allows for improvisation based on suck local themes but also gives a jumping-off point for further research.  One such point is the mention of legends concerning Till Eulenspiegel, a German trickster figure.

Such legendary figures, especially tricksters, are handy to keep around to spice up stories.

Reading the article which inspired this post, I was struck by the change in attitudes towards the supernatural since the 18th Century.  In some ways, I long for an age where it is both exciting and normal to hear a tale of the devil’s buried treasure or a local spirit haunting a roadway.

In Which RPGs Play an Inspiring Part

I may or may not have mentioned before how important RPGs have been to my writing process.  Don’t just write me off as one of those people who just writes lousy stories based off of their Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, though.  That’s not me at all.  Rather, what I’m referring to is my tendency to come up with interesting story ideas when I’ve been sitting around playing our pen-and-paper-game-du-jour.  Sometimes these ideas are related to the game that I’m involved in, but more often I find that the mindset I get into when I’m really into a game is also conducive to coming up with interesting ideas that I can then expand upon with an eye towards writing something substantial.

Part of what makes RPGs such a good jumping-off point for story inspiration is that they often feature mythological creatures which can be borrowed in one way or another for a story.  This borrowing, of course, usually leads me down a long, winding path of links on Wikipedia as I look up more information, essentially getting some of my story written for me without my having to do much except for a bit of virtual legwork.

I could go on at length about stealing for fun and profit, but the guys at Writing Excuses just did that for me, and I don’t think that I can really improve upon what they have to say on the subject.

I’ll close out by saying that, while playing RPGs gets my mind ticking towards writing, I’m not everybody.  The main point is to expose yourself to as many different influences as you can.  What RPGs have in their favor is their tendency to mash lots of aspects of different cultures, especially the folklore of different cultures, into one  place, making for a diverse slice of different creatures and concepts to get you sitting with your preferred writing implements and working on a story.

Opportunities (with Pictures)

Sometimes I go out looking for things to inspire me, sometimes I research a place and go there if I can, sometimes I just stumble into an opportunity to go someplace potentially inspiring.  Recently, I had that last thing happen to me, being taken to “the zombie basement,” the basement of a warehouse art-space where one of my friends does a lot of his creating.  I did have enough warning about going that I could grab my camera, and now you can reap the benefits as well.

Outside, it’s a gorgeous almost-spring day.  The sun is shining and people are sitting out on their front steps, taking in one of the first warm days after a long, harsh winter.  The temperature drops several degrees as soon as I step through the warehouse door, and begins to creep further downward as I descend the steps into the basement.  I duck reflexively as I go through the doorway, panning the beam of my flashlight across the dank room in front of me, my ears sensitive to the slightest sound, lest it be the last that I hear.  What is revealed to me piecemeal by the light of my flashlight and the bursts of my camera flash looks like the set of a horror movie or the cramped vistas of a nightmare, but the credits won’t roll on this place, and I’m already awake.

Pictures after the break.

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