Unicorn Horns

On December 7, 2021, Miss Maddox wrote, I’m having some trouble with setting. In one of my stories, I have a magical inn. In my head, the inn always seems really fantastical and fun, but when I try to write it down it just seems pretty normal and not very interesting. The same thing is happening with another magical location in another story, this one a house belonging to a family of witches. Does anyone have any tips for how to make the magical parts of these settings really stand out?

Two of you wrote back.

Belle Adora: Quirks! In many stories, the places that are fantastical and different feel that way because the author puts quirks into the story. For example… in The Harry Potter series, many things seem fantastical. mysterious, and exciting because of oddities. Some, like Hogwarts’ moving staircases, floating candles, and Forbidden Forest are obvious, but there are small things that change the way we see a place. Such as the Weaslys’ house, if we didn’t hear about their trouble with screaming garden gnomes and Mrs. Weasly’s clock that tells where everyone is and what state of danger they may be in, we would just assume they lived in a messy, yes quirky, but not magical home. In many of Gail’s books, the way she describes things causes the level of awe and fantasy to shoot up! I love the castle in Fairest – the courts full of singing courtiers, the birds chirping in the alcoves of ceilings, the way everything seems to be singing. And the elaborate colors all around. In Two Princesses the Fairy’s palace is perfect, it is nestled on a mountain in the clouds and everything there is simply better than it is in Bamarre. You could also make your people the quirky ones – maybe the innkeeper has a collection of unicorn tusks hidden that no character knows about, but the reader does, these are the reason the food tastes good in the inn, the beds are soft, and people continue to stay over.

Katie W.: Another way to think about this is that magical places give you an excuse to put in the really cool/ridiculous ideas that would never fit in anywhere else. If you’re the list-making person, you could go through your old lists, find the most ridiculous things you thought of, and put them in. If you want a ceiling made of moss and a floor made of clouds, go for it. Humor and detailed descriptions are your best friends here.

Belle Adora, Thanks for the shoutout to my books!

I’m recovering from a broken bone in my foot right now (the bone didn’t move away from where it belongs, so it isn’t bad). My foot aches, and I have to wear a hot and awkward boot outside. Katie W., I would love a cloud floor!

I suggest approaching this from two directions: plot and setting.

Let’s think, for example, about the unicorn horns and the innkeeper—what’s the story that goes with them? They’re brilliantly suggestive of plot. As usual, I’d list possibilities:

  • The unicorns are still alive and defenseless.
  • The unicorns are still alive and they’re angry. They want them back, and horns aren’t their only weapon.
  • The innkeeper thinks they’re unicorn horns, but they’re really dragon’s teeth, which the dragon can control even when they aren’t in its mouth. It’s biding its time.
  • The innkeeper is mistaken about being the only one to know he has the horns. A rival innkeeper knows too and has a plan to get them.
  • The power of the horns isn’t only benign. The innkeeper, without realizing, is falling under their sway.

First prompt: Come up with three more possibilities.

What about the horns themselves?

  • Each horn has a holder. If the horn that makes the bed soft, for instance, is put in the holder for the one that makes the food good, the inn’s bedding will grow green mold after a day or two.
  • The horns are tiny, as were the unicorns.
  • The horns are filled with a green vapor that makes people think they’re bears (or something else). If a horn breaks, the vapor spreads and casts its spell far and wide.
  • When no one is around, the horns speak to each other in verse.
  • The horns change color depending on who’s looking at them. To the innkeeper, they’re blue streaked with orange.

Second prompt: Come up with three more possibilities.

Surprise, in my opinion, is the secret ingredient that wakes up everything in a story, including setting, plot, and character. An innkeeper with unicorn horns is surprising, and we can keep the surprises coming. I use lists to get there, because my brain wriggles and writhes when it has to keep coming up with possibilities, and eventually it starts burping out interesting ideas.

Let’s move on to the witches’ house. Well, what would be in there? Ordinary stuff probably: beds, bureaus, kitchen table, chairs, etc. What can we do with those, and what else can we toss in?

  • The witches grow hair in their flowerpots to practice hair raising.
  • All their cooking pots are small because they want a break from cauldrons when they’re not working.
  • Each pane of glass in their windows, to an outside onlooker, reveals a different interior.
  • The pillows whisper spells in its witch’s ears all night.
  • The kitchen utensils are sentient, and the knives have anger management problems.

The third prompt, of course, is to think of three more.

The approach here is that setting will be more significant and meaningful if it links to our plot. The setting elements that sing in Fairest would be less significant if this were a kingdom of bathtub merchants. When setting works with plot, both gain power.

One more prompt: Using at least one from each list above, including your own additions, write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I saw this right before school and was so excited to see that this was my question! This really made my day!! Thank you for answering my question. I’m still working a bit on the story about the witches (and am hoping to return to it more seriously in the future) and am definitely still working on the story with the magical inn, so this is super helpful. Also, I love the knives with the anger management problems.

  2. I am so sorry about your foot! I hope you feel better soon!
    I don’t mean to pester, and I don’t know if you saw my comment on the last post, but could you please try to ask your editor if she would be okay with you may be showing me her/his email on the blog so I could get in touch?

    • Just FYI, these days you almost always need an agent to go between you and an editor at a publishing house. They don’t usually work with people otherwise, even if recommended by authors they work with.
      Freelance editors are different. They’ll give critiques, proofreading, whatever you need, but they need to be paid for it.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Delyla, I’m sorry I didn’t get in touch with you sooner. My agent has been an agent for a very long time and isn’t taking new clients. Also FYI, along the lines of Christie V Powell’s response, I don’t know if you’ve finished your WIP yet, but novelists who haven’t been published yet generally need to finish their manuscript before submitting it.

  3. Okay. Thank you for letting me know. I haven’t finished yet – I’m almost done with the first draft – and I’m a person that likes to have everything planned out ahead of time. For some reason, it makes me feel less anxious about everything.

  4. Any advice on expanding chapters? I can outline what I want to happen in the chapter (e.g. “Chapter 3: Meet X. Show characteristics A, B, and C in MC”), but end up only needing 800-1000 words to describe the whole thing. Do I need to make more things happen or just go into more detail about what I’ve already described?

    • I recently turned a short story I wrote into a (still short) serial piece. I found the choppiest transitions and best cliffhangers to divide it into episodes, but usually I ended up needing to add a couple hundred words to each piece. And man, was it brutal. I took the detail route, because I already knew what things happened, and I didn’t have enough room for more.

      I think the answer will depend on you and your story. A lot of stories can be improved by deeper point of view, and adding detail–the right detail–is one way to do that. You don’t want to just randomly throw more observations in. For instance, in one book I was reading, the text describes the blue candies in the crystal jar on the ornate patio table in the room where the main character met someone he needed to ask for help. A few of those details might have added to the story, but it was just too much for too trivial a thing. If it were in deep point of view, we’d need to know why those details are important to the main character. If he’s used to poverty, he might fixate on the luxury, but in addition to the detail, there’d be internal thought comparing the fancy setting to the bare-bones home he’s used to. Or, if he’s nervous, he might count the candies as a way to calm down. If you can add details that get deeper into the character’s mind and emotions, the scenes can be a lot stronger.

  5. I have a question for Gail; on the other part of your website, it says that if I wanted to send you something in the mail, I should send it to,
    Author Mail
    HarperCollins Children’s Books
    195 Broadway, 2nd Floor
    New York, NY 10007-3132.
    On the envelope, would I write that exact thing, or would I put your name where it says, “Author Mail?” Or would I put it somewhere else on the envelope?

  6. If anyone is looking for MG fantasy books to read, I just read Nevermore and the trials of Morrigan Crow and it was amazing!😍

  7. Does anyone have any tips on writing misunderstood antagonists?
    In my WIP, I have four first person POVs; a female protagonist, a male protagonist, a female antagonist, and a male antagonist/protagonist. He is the misunderstood one.
    I’ve written him as very insecure; he gets jealous easily and has one sided love with the female protagonist. I have grown to love writing from his POV, but sometimes I feel that he is too cliché, (for example, out of habit, I gave him a kind of tragic past) or doesn’t have enough motives to do what he does.
    One thing I do like is how he has angry and sometimes violent outbursts. Honestly, those are my favorite parts to write!

  8. Does anyone have advice on getting reinterested in their WIP? I’m still in the outlining stage, but I can’t seem to get excited about what I’m doing, even though I usually get really pumped while outlining.

    • What about this idea excites you? Think about why you wanted to write this story in the first place. What scenes and characters are you excited about? And if you get bored outlining, then you could always get started on the first bit of the story and go back to your outline later.

  9. Sharing fir Gail…I am interested in a book by an author and A POET Shana Ritter who wrote an adult novel about the same time period as A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS. I recommend IN THE TIME OF LEAVING (2018), her first novel. “It grew out of a poem which began as just a whisper in Toledo, Spain,” Shana Ritter said.

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