Writing Historical Fantasy
A CRIMINAL MAGIC
Making Prohibition “Magic”
Five Things I Borrowed from the 1920s and Made my Own
I’m a huge fan of the Roaring Twenties. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, I like jazz, I watch ten-hour documentaries on Prohibition for fun . . . but perhaps most of all, I’m attracted to the frenetic excitement of that time period, the feeling that anything and everything was possible. Naturally, I’ve always wanted to use the Twenties as a setting for a novel, but I knew I wanted to include speculative elements. I also wanted a concept that allowed me to really focus on the era’s organized crime.
While under contract with Simon & Schuster, I started honing in on one particular “what if” premise: What if Prohibition had outlawed magic, instead of alcohol? From there, a million secondary questions followed, and I found myself really excited to answer all of them:
Would organized crime take over the black market of magic too?
What would speakeasies be used for?
How would the Prohibition Unit work?
How could I borrow from the many traditions of real Prohibition to further flesh out my imaginary one?
Without too many spoilers, here are five traditions I borrowed from the real 1920s, and “repurposed” in my historical fantasy novel, A Criminal Magic:
DURING REAL PROHIBITION: Secret drinking establishments called “speakeasies” opened all over the U.S. Prohibition Unit raids happened regularly at these places, so speakeasy owners got creative to avoid prosecution (like New York’s 21 Club built a revolving bar and a chutes-and-ladder system for hiding alcohol when the law came calling!)
DURING MY PROHIBITION: Illegal “magic havens” and “shining rooms” have opened all across America, where sorcerers perform and brew magic elixirs behind concealed doors. But these doors, naturally, are concealed by magic to hide them from the police (in the novel, patrons pass through a sham storefront, walk through a wall, and descend into a huge, underground performance space).
DURING REAL PROHIBITION: Prohibition allowed for the birth and prosperity of organized crime. Gangs began specializing in the importation, distribution and serving of alcohol, and often bribed or pressured Prohibition Unit officers into looking the other way.
DURING MY PROHIBITION: Gangsters have employed sorcerers in all sorts of ways to break the law, such as creating illusions to hide murders and robberies, and brewing and distributing potent magic elixirs. And the Prohibition Unit in A Criminal Magic has just as many corrupt officers as the real one did.
DURING REAL PROHIBITION: Savvy liquor smugglers would find ways to avoid the coast guard, drive out to a place called Rum Row (a spot in the Atlantic Ocean right behind U.S. water borders where international boats would park with their goods), and then purchase whiskey, rum and other liquor outside the law’s reach.
DURING MY PROHIBITION: In A Criminal Magic, sorcerers magically manipulate coast guard radio signals, cloak deals with protective shields, and aid their gangster counterparts on their way to a similar spot called Magic Row, where international magic contraband (like a Bahamian death-brew called “obi” and an Irish hallucinogen called “fae dust”) is traded.
DURING REAL PROHIBITION: The law that interpreted the 18th Amendment, called the Volstead Act, made certain exceptions to Prohibition, like the allowance of liquor for medical purposes. But this exception was extremely easy to exploit, and many bootleggers used pharmacies as “fronts” for their illegal businesses.
DURING MY PROHIBITION: The Volstead Act makes a “remedial magic” exception to the Prohibition of sorcery, which allows for the sale of medicinal spells. But in A Criminal Magic, the exception is exploited: corrupt pharmaceutical employees steal the government-approved spells and sell them into the black market.
DURING REAL PROHIBITION: Producing liquor at home became commonplace, but some of these home-brewers would add flavoring agents or coloring (like syrups, sugars, even tar!) to their liquor, in order to shortcut the barreling process and make their liquor look aged.
DURING MY PROHIBITION: In A Criminal Magic, home-brewers try to redistill stolen medicinal spells into “sorcerer’s shine” (a sparkling, pure magic, ruby-red elixir). But in order to make their knock-off products look more legitimate, redistillers add red paint.
Lee Kelly is the author of A CRIMINAL MAGIC and CITY OF SAVAGES. She has wanted to write since she was old enough to hold a pencil, but it wasn’t until she began studying for the California Bar Exam that she conveniently started putting pen to paper. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced in Los Angeles and New York. She lives with her husband and children in Millburn, New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter at @leeykelly and on her website at NewWriteCity.com.
A Criminal Magic
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Young Adult
THE NIGHT CIRCUS meets THE PEAKY BLINDERS in Lee Kelly’s new crossover fantasy novel.
Magic is powerful, dangerous and addictive – and after passage of the 18th Amendment, it is finally illegal.
It’s 1926 in Washington, DC, and while Anti-Sorcery activists have achieved the Prohibition of sorcery, the city’s magic underworld is booming. Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters’ crime sprees. Smugglers funnel magic contraband in from overseas. Gangs have established secret performance venues where patrons can lose themselves in magic, and take a mind-bending, intoxicating elixir known as the sorcerer’s shine.
Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from Norfolk County, Virginia accepts an offer to work for DC’s most notorious crime syndicate, the Shaw Gang, when her family’s home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, a first-year Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents of his own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws.
Through different paths, Joan and Alex tread deep into the violent, dangerous world of criminal magic – and when their paths cross at the Shaws’ performance venue, despite their orders, and despite themselves, Joan and Alex become enchanted with one another. But when gang alliances begin to shift, the two sorcerers are forced to question their ultimate allegiances and motivations. And soon, Joan and Alex find themselves pitted against each other in a treacherous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.
A CRIMINAL MAGIC casts a spell of magic, high stakes and intrigue against the backdrop of a very different Roaring Twenties.
Lee Kelly has wanted to write since she was old enough to hold a pencil, but it wasn’t until she began studying for the California Bar Exam that she conveniently started putting pen to paper. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced law in Los Angeles and New York. She lives with her husband and children in Millburn, New Jersey, though after a decade in Manhattan, she can’t help but still call herself a New Yorker. She is the author of A Criminal Magic and City of Savages. Visit her at www.NewWriteCity.com.
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