Did you ever notice how tough guys in movies and brainy guys on science shows are always claiming that a darned good bomb can be made out of the contents of a family’s medicine cabinet?
The first time I heard this I was a kid in the days when kids were still allowed to play with fire, cap pistols, bows and arrows and cherry bombs. How exactly would I make a darned good bomb? Would I mix Preparation H and Vagisil? Or, possibly hydrogen peroxide and codeine. (In those days, the feds allowed people to buy codeine, paregoric and other miracle meds).
The thing is, nobody who claimed to know how to turn a medicine cabinet into a bomb ever explained how.
I have no interest in making a bomb, but I wonder what–as a writer–I should do if a character in one of my books was fighting bad guys, needed a bomb, and ran into the bathroom to throw one together. How should one realistically describe what he does?
Look, I’ve read plenty of thrillers written by people who know everything in the world about bombs, guns, aircraft, submarines, martial arts, police procedures, &c. They never say, “Bob grabbed a gun before he got on the helicopter.” For purposes of reality–and to prove to readers they know their subject matter–they state what kind of gun in was, what kind of helicopter it was, and spout out a bunch of stats like they’ve got the owner’s manuals with them.
What about magic?
Rowling has already confessed to using fake spells in the Harry Potter books. They’re kind of cute, actually. But they don’t do squat. I’m sure a lot of people went around shouting Accio Money and Avada Kedavra before Jo told the world she didn’t give us the real stuff.
So now, I’ve got an ethical dilemma as I work on my conjure woman novella. I’m a fanatic about realism because I think it’s a wonderful foundation for the magic. If the stuff people already know is obviously real, then they’ll think the stuff they don’t know is also real. (That’s not logical, but it works in books.)
Suffice it to say, that if Rowling used real spells or if some book called “Mega-Enforcer Dude” gave a step-by-step recipe for making a bomb out out Preparation H, folks would be getting hurt. But, the details have to sound plausible because: (a) you don’t want people who know how to make spells and bombs writing bad reviews on Amazon saying the recipes were a bunch of crap, and (b) you hate being dishonest with your readers.
There’s a wonderful conjuring spell called The Whoopass Wall of Protection (not its real name). As she fights the bad guys, my conjure woman needs to use this spell. But I can hardly say she dumped “a bunch of stuff” out of a sack. Nobody will believe she knows squat or, worse yet, that I (as the author) know squat. I can use footnotes to tell readers that the real Whoopass spell isn’t included, but footnotes turn people off because they start thinking they’re reading a doctoral dissertation and, trust me on this, nothing is more boring that that kind of writing.
Perhaps I should give a few hints to satisfy those craving reality as well as those who really know the spell. “Lucy dumped a sack filled with cornmeal, coffin nails, rue and pepper on her sidewalk.” Okay, that could work, but it doesn’t really plunge the reader into the moment, does it?
This is going to require some careful thought. If you’re a writer, perhaps you can offer some advice about just how much dangerous information should be included in a novel for the sake of accuracy.
If you’re a reader, just how much do you want to know? And, if the novella included the real spell, would you promise not to use in unwisely?
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Malcolm R. Campbell, as you may already suspect, writes magical realism, fantasy and paranormal stories and novels.