[GUEST POST] Jaye Wells on Bathtub Alchemy: Updating Established Magic Systems
Jaye Wells is a USA Today-bestselling author of urban fantasy and speculative crime fiction. Raised by booksellers, she loved reading books from a very young age. That gateway drug eventually led to a full-blown writing addiction. When she’s not chasing the word dragon, she loves to travel, drink good bourbon, and do things that scare her so she can put them in her books. For more about Jaye’s books, please visit www.jayewells.com.
by Jaye Wells
When I set out to write my new Prospero’s War series, I had a character-a cop named Kate Prospero — and I knew she busted people who used magic. What I didn’t know was what kind of magic.
The first thing I decided was that I didn’t want my characters to be able to just raise their finger or a wand and zap people. I wanted the magic to be more physical so it could be sold like narcotics in our world. That’s where the idea to make the magic center on potions came about.
But then I needed to figure out how those potions are made. I’d been interested in writing a story with alchemy for a while, so I began there. It helped that there is a long, established alchemical tradition for me to use as a template of sorts. It gave me enough structure to give me lots to work with, but also allowed me to take liberties and twist things as needed. But I didn’t just want to focus on alchemy. I also added blood magic and sex magic because those were juicy traditions that suited themselves well to this world.
The other major component was that I wanted there to be good and bad magic — much like our world has pharmaceuticals and illegal narcotics. I felt the white and black magic thing had been done to death, so I came up with the idea of there being clean and dirty magic. Clean magic is cooked in sterile conditions with the best ingredients by Adepts with credentials. It’s not supposed to be addictive, but, well…that wouldn’t be so fun, would it? As for dirty magic, it’s called ‘bathtub’ alchemy because coven wizards cook it in kitchens and bathrooms in the tenements of the Cauldron, a magical slum in Babylon, Ohio where the series is set. Dirty magic is cheap, highly addictive, and dangerous. It’s also the source of a lot of income for the criminal wizards who run the covens. And when you put all that together you get yourself a War on Dirty Magic, which is one of the wars the series titles alludes to.
So we have clean and dirty magic. We have wizards. But where do people learn to cook magic? This is where one of the central world-building conceits occurs. In Kate Prospero’s world, the ability to change mundane ingredients and turn them into magical potions is a genetic trait. People born with this trait are called Adepts, but they still have to learn how to cook properly. Clean magic wizards learn their craft through universities. Dirty magic wizards learn their craft on the streets. The genetic marker for being an Adept is tied to the same marker that makes a person left-handed, so Adepts are also called ‘Lefties.’ Not everyone born left-handed is an Adept, but it’s dangerous to be a Lefty in a Mundane part of town because Mundanes are highly suspicious of Adepts — even the ones who work in government sanctions labs that create special laundry detergent, medical potions, or special potion-fueled cars.
But all of this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating a world. From these few decisions, dozens-maybe hundreds-of other details had to be sorted out and decided upon to make Kate Prospero’s gritty, magic-soaked world come to life on the page. For a writer, the world creation portion of the process can be as much if not more fun than writing the story itself.
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