Wings of Ebony author, J.Elle’s, 5 top tips for writing contemporary fantasy

Wings of Ebony author, J. Elle, shares her advice for writing a contemporary fantasy

This guest post was written by J. Elle, author of Wings of Ebony.

To celebrate the release of her phenomenal debut YA fantasy, Wings of Ebony, author J. Elle shares her 5 top tips for writing contemporary fantasy for aspiring authors.

Decide the role magic will play in the story

Will it be practical, a way to give the pages a splash of sparkle? Will it be metaphorical? Will it be the main source of mystery or intrigue? Whichever it is, give some thought to the role you want magic to play before you start writing. Magic and fantastical elements can certainly accomplish multiple things in a story, but in your earliest drafts, when you’re outlining it can be helpful to know how plot / character arcs should intersect with your magic.

Pick a few elements of the real world & flip them on their head

Sometimes all it takes to make a contemporary setting sparkle with magic is: finding a few common things in the real world, considering how they work, and giving them a magical twist. So a tree, for example, takes sun, water, and soil to grow. What if you change one of those elements? Maybe it takes blood to grow instead of water? Maybe it lives in water instead of soil? Maybe it uses moonlight instead of sunlight? Think of ways you can add a spin on the familiar.

Two of my favorite books which are extraordinary examples of this are:
GHOSTSQUAD by Claribel Ortega and;


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Ground the world in the familiar

In a contemporary world, you can help your reader feel acquainted with a strong sense of place by working to build atmosphere around the familiar. When you’re writing a paragraph of setting description, you don’t have to describe every single detail in the scene. And rather you shouldn’t because that can overwhelm the reader and sometimes stifle their imagination. What you want to try to do is give them just enough to suggest a picture in their head and let them fill in the rest. I like dotting in a few key details, perhaps it’s the way light shines on a particular surface or the way the surface has oxidized or the way a magical creature’s wings bend in a familiar way. These highly specific details are going to create a very immersive experience for the reader (when not overdone).

One of my favorite examples of this is BAD WITCH BURNING by Jessica Lewis.

Add worldbuilding in layers

It’s okay if your first or even several early drafts are light on magic or fantastical worldbuilding. There’s something to be said about constructing a story by layers, adding in things one upon another. Oftentimes this allows for deeper worldbuilding versus lots of worldbuilding. Aim for depth, not quantity. In contemporary fantasy, I have found simple, yet deep, magic that’s easy to understand is going to pull your reader in far easier than complex multifaceted magic (which can be done very well too, of course). Ask me how I know?! *wink*

Don’t be afraid to start over

To really refine your magic system and the way fantastical elements work in your story, give yourself space to try out something, see it doesn’t work, and try something else. Don’t get so locked into a particular way of presenting magic in your world that you’re inflexible. The beauty of magic and fantasy is that it’s ever evolving and changing and imaginative. So lean into that wholly even as you develop the systems in your world. Give yourself time away from the pages and the inner machinations of the worldbuilding to be able to come back and see it freshly. Perhaps a different angle or role of the story makes the most sense. Play around with all the things until you find the one that really sings!


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Before writing, in the outlining phase, give some thought to how magic intersects with the character’s arc. Why are you choosing magic to aid them in their growth? Sometimes the answer to that question can give you a lot of direction on how to use magic / fantastical elements in your story. Similarly, but a bit more obvious, consider plot and how magic compliments your story. The more you can weave it in intentionally with purpose, the more organically grafted it will feel.

For a brilliant example of this, check out SING ME FORGOTTEN by Jessica Olson.

I hope these tips help! I can’t wait to read your contemporary fantasy stories! So, get to writing.

Get your copy of Wings of Ebony by J. Elle here

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