Thursday, September 10, 2009

Honest magic: A guest blog by Clea Simon

This month, with my new book Shades of Grey, I have dipped my toe into the supernatural. Shades of Grey introduces Mr. Grey, a ghost cat who may or may not have returned to help his human out of a jam. But his human, Dulcie Schwartz, isn’t entirely convinced that Mr. Grey is real. After all, she’s grown up with a self-proclaimed psychic, her nice-but-nutty mom, and she knows how easily we can fool ourselves.
Which leads me to the same question Dulcie asks: How can you tell if the so-called supernatural is real? OK, not exactly the same question. I, after all, am not seeing ghosts. But as a writer – and a former journalist, no less – I’m very concerned with making my magic “real,” or at least believable, to the reader. After all, I spent the first 20 years of my writing career checking facts and digging up contacts. And in my first four mysteries (my Theda Krakow series), I used a lot of that research to make animal issues from hoarding (you know, “crazy cat ladies”) to feral rescue into feasible plot elements. I even went out trapping so that I could describe Theda and Violet baiting a trap to bring in a scared and hungry cat on the eve of a winter storm!
But when writing about the supernatural or paranormal, different rules apply. Does your ghost know everything, for example? Can he see the future or travel through time? Are there limits on what he can tell Dulcie? These are all questions I had to ask myself. But the answers were hard to come by, largely because I had to make them up myself.
I should explain: Journalism and nonfiction (I’ve got three books of “real” stuff out there) all rely heavily on reporting. You have to do the legwork, but once you do that – the interviews, the reading, the library and web searches, the fact-checking – then you pretty much know what your story is. You need to sift through your notes to find what’s relevant and what’s chaff, and you may need to winnow further to find a focus or angle for your story. But you pretty much know what the bottom line is, or at least where to find it. But with fiction, everything is a lot more nebulous. There is no “truth,” per se. It’s all up to you.
That doesn’t mean there are no rules. What I realized while writing Shades of Grey is that once you bend the laws of nature, you actually have to be more careful about the boundaries – it’s just that they’re your own boundaries. It’s funny in a way. I teach writing, too, and I’m always telling my students about consistency. About how when you create a fictional world, you can make anything possible – but you have to stay true to yourself. (That’s why The Matrix was so good, and The Matrix Reloaded wasn’t.) But I’d never experienced it myself. And in the case of a paranormal mystery, the problem becomes more convoluted. My spectral feline had to be able to see some things, but not communicate everything – or else, he’d solve the mystery for Dulcie, his human, and the book would be a very short one. I was lucky: because my ghost is feline, it was easy to find a way out. I adore cats, how not? But I also recognize that they can be a little, well, self-involved at times. So it made sense to have a ghost who wouldn’t bother to explain himself to his human. And, even as a ghost, Mr. Grey is prone to taking sudden, inconvenient cat naps! Supernatural? Sure, but he’s still Dulcie’s kitty!

Clea Simon is the author of the new Dulcie Schwartz mystery Shades of Grey and the Theda Krakow mysteries, most recently Probable Claws. She can be reached at


  1. Hi folks!
    I'll be dropping by all day to see if anyone has any questions for me - or just wants to talk about writing magic (or the magic of writing).

  2. Clea,
    This is a great blog and my question is do you think cats know more than we realize?

  3. Okay Terri,
    I want to know more tell us why you're SURE they do? I'm interested in what cats know and how their owners relate to this....

  4. I'm sure they do, too. After all, they've arranged to have us cater to their every whim, right? Besides, haven't you ever seen your cat staring off seemingly at nothing? Don't you know she's having really deep insights? I do.


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