“There is a rule for fantasy writers: the more truth you mix in with a lie, the stronger it gets.” – Diane Duane, via A Writer’s Path
Anne Leonard offers some great advice for fantasy writers in the current io9 that echoes Diane Duane’s invaluable maxim:
I still really like epic fantasy, and especially the world-building part. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that for me world-building is necessary but not sufficient to suck me into the story; for the epic to be epic, it needs to be set against the mundane. By “mundane” I mean “worldly as opposed to spiritual,” rather than the more colloquial usage implying boredom and dullness. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about “exoticizing the domestic,” and I think that concept is what makes for really good fantasy and speculative fiction. The writer takes the ordinary and twists it, or puts it into a different context.
The term “exoticizing the domestic” brings to mind Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, one of the greatest fantasy stories ever. The movie will rattle you, and the book will make your head explode. What makes it so relentlessly creepy is the way it piles on odd but apparently explainable details that, by themselves, appear ordinary, but add up to a tsunami of horror. In the opening, a helpful elderly man shows Rosemary and her husband Guy around the exclusive Bramford apartment building. He taps the elevator button, and Rosemary notices he’s missing part of his finger. They find a beautiful apartment where they stop and puzzle over a massive dresser blocking the door to a closet. When they manage to move the dresser and open the closet door, they find … nothing out of the ordinary. They take the apartment, and feel lucky to get it. After all, this is Manhattan.
Weeks later, at night, Rosemary hears the neighbors through the walls. She thinks they sound like they’re chanting … but Guy doesn’t believe her. And then … well, you know what happens next: a cultural phenomenon.
I rejected the idea of introducing the magical elements of Aztec Midnight in a prologue for just that reason. Not only would that have made the story less accessible, it would have been overkill. The interior of Mexico is a haunted, brooding place alive with tragic stories and populated by a stoic, courageous people. I wanted to capture the region’s dark magic, and the best way to do that was to show its effects without heavy-handed explanation.
Anne Leonard’s point is that a smart writer positions the ordinary into stories to lure the reader into a recognizable world. Once they’re in, the magic you unveil will be more believable.