How to create your own magical creatures: 5 top tips from Patrice Lawrence

Published on: 18 September 2022

The Elemental Detectives author Patrice Lawrence suggests brilliant ways of firing up your imagination to think of amazing magical creatures.

The front cover of The Elemental Detectives and a photo of author Patrice Lawrence

My book The Elemental Detectives is set in London in 1764. My heroes, Robert Strong and Marisee Blackwell, must follow the clues around the city to cure a deadly, enchanted sleep. I wanted my Georgian London to be sparking with magic and to hide fantastical creatures inspired by London's history.

Robert and Marisee must face the ghosts of Hyde Park, an octopus-like plague monster that lives in the Serpentine lake and a tithe-master who wears a cloak of live swans. (In real life, a tithe was a tenth of what someone produced or earned each year and it was offered to the church. My tithe-master takes a tenth of something valuable to a person that wants to pass through his tunnels – patches cut from their clothing or pieces of their footwear; a braid from Marisee's hair; a tenth of Robert's memories.)

So before I give you five top tips to create your own magical creatures, remember the two most magical of words - what if...?

1. What if... your magical creature is a combination of someone you know and a household object?

I know it sounds strange but take parts of both and add magic. Say, for instance, you think of your favourite teacher and the household object is an iron. What if your teacher is very good at telling stories or making people who've argued be friends again? Now make those talents their magical powers. So they could tell stories - happy ones or, even better, frightening ones - that become real. If they can make enemies friends again, what if they're taken into battles so their magic can stop wars? What would happen next?

And the iron? That helps you add something a little different. What does your magical creature look like? Maybe mostly human but with a face shaped like an iron? The Fumis, my air spirits, have bodies like broom handles and heads like shovels. Or does your magical creature glow? Or are they scared of touching anything because they will instantly press it flat?

An illustration of a girl riding a dragon

Pic: Erika Meza

2. What if... a magical creature is named after somewhere local to you?

In The Elemental Detectives, the Chads are London's water spirits. They are shape-shifters and often transform into a solid form linked to the river or stream that they guard. My favourite is the Fleet Ditch Chad that looks like a giant angry wild boar. It's because I read a real-life story about a boar that went missing from a butcher's yard, then emerged from the Fleet Ditch, part of the Fleet river, looking very well-fed.

Think of somewhere close to you. It can be anywhere. A building, street or estate. A hill, river or village. Imagine there's a magical creature guarding it. Why are they there? What do they look like? Are there local tales, myths or fables that can inspire you to create your character? Or can the name inspire you? (The river near to the town where I grew up is called the Ouse. It's pronounced 'ooze'. What do you think that river spirit should look like?)

3. What if... magical creatures lived in modern-day settings?

I first explored this in my story 'The After Ever After Bureau' in the Happy Here anthology published by BookTrust and Knights Of. I imagined three generations of soucouyant - Trinidadian shape-shifting flying witches - living in a tower block in Peckham, south London. The flying comes in useful if the lift isn't working, but to fly they have to turn into a ball of fire. It could make them very unpopular with the London Fire Brigade.

What if your neighbour has a unicorn in their garage, a kraken in a pool in their cellar or a family of elves fleeing their magical homeland in their garden shed?

Think of magical beings from myths, legends or fairy tales you know. Pick one. What challenges would they face if they lived near you? How long have they been there? What stories would they tell? Do they want to stay in this land or go back to their own?

An illustration of children running through a magical landscape surrounded by fiery dragons from the front cover of The Elemental Detectives

Pic: Paul Kellam

4. What if you combined an animal with your favourite film, book, TV programme or anime?

Make it more fun by choosing an animal at random. Ask someone to give you a letter of the alphabet. Write down the first animal that comes into your head. Or perhaps an animal that starts with the same letter as one of your names. So... what if my animal is a polecat?

If I combined a polecat with Doctor Who, they might be an alien time-travelling polecat. If they were combined with The Great British Sewing Bee, the polecat might be able to make wonderful clothes for anyone who needs them. If they were combined with the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away - well, there's so much choice there, as everything is magical!

You don't have to stick closely to the film, TV programme or book. Just use them as a springboard for your ideas.

5. What if... you start with you?

But the best place to start is with you! If you could be a magical being, what would be your magical speciality? Why? Where would you live and when? Would you use your magic for good things or bad? Put yourself in the middle of the magic and start telling the story!

The Elemental Detectives by Patrice Lawrence is out now, published by Scholastic.

Read our review of The Elemental Detectives

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