When an author writes a novel or short story in the magical realism genre, magic is always a natural and unquestioned component of the characters’ lives and the environment in which they live. As an author, you’re more likely to write a believable story if–while you’re writing, at least–you assume the magic is real.
This doesn’t mean you must personally subscribe to the philosophy and practices of the magical system in your story whether that system is a known collection of beliefs such as hoodoo or Voodoo or a fictional system you built from scratch.
I prefer using practices based on actual belief systems because they already have a rich, varied and somewhat known lore that is often much deeper than anything a most of us can make up.
When I wrote Conjure Woman’s Cat about a root doctor (another name for a conjure practitioner), I began by reading books and web sites written by people who practice hoodoo. When I had a question, I asked them, usually making it clear that I was researching a novel rather than following the belief system myself. (You’ll see some of the sites/books I consulted in the folk magic category of my Myth and Magic Resources post.)
At times, I’ve read paranormal and magical realism books by authors who take a known system–say, witchcraft–and have their characters doing things that are completely outside the realm of the practice whether it’s Wicca or the traditional craft. Hollywood has done this a lot, but I feel more anger about it when I find it in a novel by a known writer who can look stuff up and talk to experts and keep the magic within the realm of what a system claims is possible. Witches do not worship the devil nor utilize spells that look like they originated in the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings.
Yes, we all take liberties when telling a good yarn, and even when we don’t, it’s probable that (in my case) a real conjure woman will find things in my book that are unrealistic. I try to make the material as accurate as possible for a fiction writer–as opposed to a real practitioner who writes a novel based on their own experiences.
One way to make your story accurate is through the use of multiple sources. This helps you understand the magical approach well enough to write about it in your own words.
Of course, if you make up the magic from scratch, it helps if you set limits on it (so that your characters aren’t all-powerful) and keep it consistent. Don’t state a magical rule on page 25 and then have a character successfully ignore that rule on page 250.
For your readers to believe, you have to believe. Most of them will believe while they’re reading the story. That’s how you need to feel. I didn’t become a conjurer after I wrote Conjure Woman’s Cat, and I don’t expect my readers to do so either.
If you don’t believe while you’re writing, the story won’t ring true because your author’s point of view is that it isn’t true.
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that a fair number of people believe witchcraft, hoodoo and Voodoo work. Frankly, I don’t have an opinion about that and did everything possible while writing to refrain from judgement.
What we hope for when we write magical realism is that our readers will be carried away by the story as though everything in it is absolutely possible, maybe not in their own lives, but in the lives of our characters.
When magicians like Penn and Teller walk out on the stage in front of you or when you see them on TV, you know that what they’re doing is an illusion. You’re in the audience to be fooled and when the magician carries off a trick perfectly and you can’t figure it out, you laugh and applaud and ask for more.
A magical realism short story or novel is also an illusion. If both the magic and the realism in the story are done well, you’ll be fooled into thinking everything you read did happen or could happen. Neither the stage magician nor the writer dares approach his or her audience with any doubts about the effect s/he is trying to achieve. Doubts kill the performance, on stage or in writing.
And then, too, sometimes that stage magician and that writer include a bit of real magic under the guise of illusion. We always want you to think, “hmm, I wonder.”