Developing Magical Systems, with Joshua Palmatier

Under normal circumstances, today would be my book launch day. Alas, that was not to be–but that means I can open up the blog to celebrate someone else’s launch:  friend and fellow DAW author, Josh Palmatier. . .

First off, I want to thank E. C. Ambrose for inviting me to guest blog here today.  I really appreciate it!  She asked me to speak about how I develop and integrate magical systems into my worlds, which is fortuitous because while I’m finishing up the third novel in the “Ley” series (the sequel to THREADING THE NEEDLE), I am of course looking forward to the next potential series.  And one of the first things that I have to do for that is to determine/develop/figure out how the magical system is going to work.  Because, for me, the world is created by the magical system, not the other way around.  In other words, the world develops from the magical system, I don’t take a world and integrate a magical system into it.  It simply feels more natural to me to have the magical system first, and then figure out what kind of world would develop around that, or because of that, system.

Cover art for Threading the Needle, Joshua Palmatier's latest novel

Cover art for Threading the Needle, Joshua Palmatier’s latest novel

For example, in the “Ley” series, I sat down with the intent of writing a world in which we’d tapped into the magic of the natural ley lines of the Earth and started using it as a power source.  Obviously, this would mean that important cities of influence would shift from waterways such as ports and rivers and lakes to wherever the nodes of the ley lines were.  So the setting for the book, the city of Erenthrall, suddenly became what used to be a mostly unimportant crossroads in the middle of the plains.  Its sole existence used to be as a central meeting place for caravans crossing the plains, since it was at the confluence of two rivers.  But suddenly it became the most important location in the world, because the central node used to control the ley, called the Nexus, was created there.  What used to be a baronial manse surrounded by a few cottages and a wide flat section of grassland where the caravans would pause to trade blossomed into a huge city with a hundred different districts and towers grown in the space of a day using the ley.  Writers need to think about how the use of magic—whatever kind of magic—might affect the economics of the world.  In this case, it completely altered the trade routes and central trading houses from shipping lanes to wherever the ley nodes were.

But magic is going to affect more than just economics.  Writers also need to consider how the magic in their world will change the everyday activities of the individual.  Will it change how the everyday person lives?  If so, how?  So once I visualized this city of Erenthrall, I began to ask myself how the ley would be used by those who lived in this city.  Would they use it for heat?  For light?  For transportation?  All of these questions birthed aspects of the city, such as heat stones powered by the ley, used not just to warm rooms but to cook food, along with ley globes to light homes and apartments and the streets at night, and ley carts and the equivalent of a subway system using ley barges.  And with these aspects added to the city, the world began to come to life for me.  Suddenly there were people moving through the streets, living in them.

These are the two extremes of the worldbuilding required when working with a new magical system—the macrostructure along with the microstructure.  There are levels that must be considered in between as well.  If someone is controlling the ley system, and people are using it on a daily basis, then someone must maintain the system.  This birthed the Wielders and the Primes—those who repair the system at the street level and those who control the Nexus, the power source itself.  Those are simple mechanical aspects to the system.  Writers also need to consider how the magic might affect the politics, government, relations with adjacent nations, etc.  And what about advancement?  Science doesn’t remain static; we’re constantly inventing new ways to use electricity and magnetism, etc.  Your world should also be coming up with new ways to use the magic to make life easier.  All of these things need to be considered when creating a new world with a magical system at its base.

So for me, the magical system always comes first.  Everything else grows from that base, and as I consider each of the aspects I mentioned above—and more—I find that the world builds itself and comes to life on its own.

Thanks, Josh!

If you want to know more about Josh and his books, check this out. . .

Author Bio:

Joshua Palmatier is an epic fantasy writer with a PhD in mathematics.  He has had eight novels published by DAW Books, including “The Throne of Amenkor” trilogy, Shattering the Ley, and Threading the Needle.  He is currently hard at work on the third novel in the “Ley” series, Reaping the Aurora.  In addition, he’s published numerous short stories in various anthologies and has edited four SF&F themed anthologies with co-editor Patricia Bray.  He is also the founder of the small press Zombies Need Brains.  Find out more about him at or on Facebook or Twitter (@bentateauthor).

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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1 Response to Developing Magical Systems, with Joshua Palmatier

  1. Thanks for letting me guest post! I hope some readers find it useful.

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