Herbs, magical spells and copyright
When we wrote those dreaded term papers in school, we were always told to use multiple sources. This made it easier to verify facts and ascertain what kind of bias (if any) a source had. Journalism students are taught to do the same thing because some sources are more credible than others and most sources don’t know everything about a news or feature story.
Multiple sources help novelists nail down facts and come across information we might never discover if we relied on one book, website or individual for 100% of our information about a subject that’s new to us.
When I wrote my folk magic novel Conjure Woman’s Cat, I already had books on my shelves from years ago about the supposed medical, magical and cooking uses of herbs from parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme to those one only finds in health food stores and herbal shops. I couldn’t rely on these, however, because they came out of a new age environment rather than a conjurer’s environment.
Multiple sites and books describe spells and herbal uses by root doctors (conjurers), allowing a writer to verify whether an herb is, say, only used by a traditional craft practitioner in England, a Native American nation in the Northwest, or a conjure woman in the South. There is a lot of crossover here, but it’s best to make sure the spell/herb you mention in your book is one that has been shared.
Copyright can haunt you if you’re not careful. If site ABC or book XYZ has a spell for, say, bringing good luck, obviously that cannot be copied into one’s novel. I wouldn’t even list the ingredients in my novel from one source because that not only smacks of sloppy research, but can give rise to claims one has based all of one’s work on the work on a particular author. Fortunately, conjuring spells come in many forms with multiple recipes. So, you can include bits and pieces or say that your character mixed herbs A, B and C, along with X, Y and Z, taking some herbs/techniques from various recipes and possibly not mentioning every single thing in the mix.
The spell needs to look correct to somebody not versed in folk magic and it doesn’t need to look wholly wrong to somebody who is. The variety of spells and techniques makes it easy to write about them without running into copyright problems or be accused of borrowing too heavily from one source.
When I use spells in a book, I don’t put them in cookbook like passages. There’s no reason to. The reader doesn’t need or want a page with a bullet list of 30 plants. Also, for accuracy sake, I look at the year in which my book is set so that I’m using what they knew at the time while ensuring that since hoodoo and Voodoo are not the same, I’m not inadvertently using a Voodoo-only practice.
If you write about folk magic, you will find dozens of conjurer practitioner sites with many listed spells. Mix and match these, not only to get the look and feel and ambiance of your story correct, but to maintain a high degree of accuracy. Be wary of sites that jumble hoodoo, traditional witchcraft, Wicca, Voodoo and other disparate approaches into one set of rules, techniques, spells, and plant listings. In spite of crossover sharing, these disciplines are not the same.
Reading historical information about the discipline you plan to use in your story will help give you a sense of its flavor and parameters as well as a means of separating fanciful websites and books from those that are real.
My two cents for today for those who plan to dabble in magic.
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