I’ve always had a thing for stories that defy categorization, especially if they include fantasy and romance. by Sarah Gailey magic for liars is a great example; Tamsyn Muir is captivating and beautifully weird Gideon the ninth is another; The fabulous Scholomance series by Naomi Novik is a third. When I started to write revenge is a witchOriginally, I wanted it to read like a more traditional romantic comedy, primarily a romance that revolved around two bisexual witches falling in love in a magical Salem-inspired Halloweentown. The magic was originally intended to be a background element rather than a plot focal point. Enough to add a bit of shimmer without detracting from the central romance.
The problem was that I had forgotten that I was going to be the one writing, and that I’m constitutionally incapable of stories that don’t feature Big Magic. The occult fascinates me, especially without the constraints of realism; it was never my intention to present a version of witchcraft as the most ingrained form you could find in the real life of the Wiccan and Craft communities. Once I started writing, I realized that I wanted Repayment be steeped in fantasy magic, thanks to four families of witches with very different arcane skills and histories. The Harlows would be the magically modest archivists and historians; the magnificent Avramovs, morally ambiguous necromancers; the Thorns, descendants of Irish druids and practitioners of green magic; and the Blackmoores, dazzling illusionists and elementalists.
To bring them all together, I decided on a gauntlet: a spell-casting tournament between families, pitting Scions against each other to yield a Victor who would lead the magical community for the next fifty years. I wanted the story to feel like an immersive experience in its own right – the way theater likes Don’t sleep anymore draws the audience in, engages them in the play – allowing the reader to feel they can smell, smell and even taste the spells brewing in the air of Thistle Grove.
Repayment quickly turned into something much more magical than I had originally anticipated, but was still well within my comfort zone. I had written contemporary and historical witchcraft fantasy thrillers for young adults before, with even more complex magical systems and settings – only now I was writing for adults. But for the next episode of the Witches of Thistle Grove series, I decided to try something I had never done: write a fantasy romance around a mystery. For writers trying their hand at a mystery for the first time, I would recommend starting as I did, by establishing a very basic breadcrumb for yourself; a loose plot plan subject to change unless you tend to work best as a highly structured plotter.
In From bad to cursed, I started with a necromantic curse to start the plot; a forced partnership between a targeted Thorn family member and an Avramov family member, whose necromantic abilities immediately make them the obvious suspects; and my own knowledge of the true author. From there, I planned clues that would guide reluctant partners through the kind of predicaments that forced them to rely on each other despite deep mutual distrust. It’s helpful to keep in mind that each scene should serve a plot or character development purpose, and ideally serves both.
This is where things got a little tricky for me. I hadn’t fully thought about how modern witches might investigate a supernatural crime; I didn’t want this story to read like hard noir, procedural, or urban fantasy. While structuring the mystery, I also needed to keep magic front and center, to echo its essential role in Repayment. Once it occurred to me that of course a pair of witchcraft-loving sleuths would rely on their magical abilities to solve a paranormal mystery, it opened the door to the kinds of big-picture cinematic scenes. scale that I like the most. One of my favorites is the duo’s initial investigation of the crime scene – a piece of the Thorns’ apple orchard destroyed by the necromantic curse – in which Isidora Avramov conjures up chunks of ectoplasm to recreate a timelapse in levels of gray of the events leading up to the curse. So if you’ve already mastered the genres, don’t be afraid to really lean in by mixing magic with more conventional mystery tropes. For me, this approach led to the coolest and most fun scenes to write.
Another key element was a lively backstory, a lesson I had already learned while writing Repayment. In order to raise the stakes as high as possible, I positioned the Avramov and Thorn families as natural enemies, death magic versus “green” nature magic. I also established Issa, neutral and chaotic, summoning demons, and Rowan, a loyal and good vet, as polar opposites and “sworn enemies” on a more personal level, a feud stemming from an intentionally stupid quarrel over the workplace years ago. You can use character backstory as a hack this way, to give immediate, pre-existing texture to the romantic relationship at the heart of your story. Then you can put that emotional resonance to work, to weave the separate elements of magic, romance, and mystery into a more cohesive whole.
At the same time, it is important to balance your elements by not allowing any of them to overshadow the others. In Damn, I had to make sure the fast-paced investigation and elaborate magical arsenal didn’t overshadow Issa and Rowan’s character arcs and romance. I assumed readers would gravitate more heavily toward mystery or romance, as had been the case with Repayment, in which readers seemed to fall into the #teamGauntlet or #teamEmmyandTalia camps. Although that meant I couldn’t please everyone – an incredibly difficult task anyway! – I could make sure to alternate effectively, to strike a satisfying balance between more emotionally charged scenes and the investigative work that carried the mystery plot forward.
If you still feel like you can’t find the balance between plot pacing and emotional development, rely on dialogue! The beauty of the joke is that it weaves intrigue and chemistry together in a seemingly effortless way. You can see sworn enemies cheekily shooting each other during an intense interview with a suspect, or getting a little tipsy during a debriefing session and possibly making out against a store window. Boundaries can and should blur in gender stories; it tends to be a lot more fun when they do!