Magic and World Building with Author Edith Cohn and Editor Susan Dobinick

by Kristi Olson

Edith Cohen Susan Susan Dobinick Oct 2014Magic and world building was the focus of the October Professional Series lecture bringing us a magical author and editor team. Edith Cohn is the author of SPIRIT’s KEY, a middle grade mystery about a girl and her ghost dog. Susan Dobinick is an Associate Editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. Here are some highlights from their discussion:

Magic Must Have a Purpose

Dobinick noted that as an editor, she enjoys novels with magic, but writers should make sure these elements have a meaning to the story as a whole. “You can have a lot of fun with writing magic, but the writer has to step back and ask—why is it there?” she said.

It’s Your Island. You Can Do What You Want.

Cohn said that she had written several unpublished contemporary novels prior to writing SPIRIT’S KEY, her first attempt at a fantasy novel. The setting is loosely based on the Outer Banks in North Carolina where wild horses frequently roam. Cohn had an idea for a story about a ghost dog though, so changed the animals in her story to wild dogs that wander on an isolated island. “Writing is decision making,” she said. She told the audience how she frequently reminded herself throughout her writing process by writing in her notebook, “It’s your island. You can do what you want.”

Setting the Rules of the World

Dobinick noted the importance of consistency of magic within a fictional world and enjoyed how the wild dogs in SPIRT’S KEY served a purpose within the story. SPIRIT’S KEY also draws from legends based on Southern tales and superstitions, which helped create the authenticity of the fictional world. For example, the legends about wild dogs created strong beliefs that these dogs are evil. The mission of these dogs is to prove the legends wrong. Cohn said that some of the ideas for these superstitions originated from research she had done on the Outer Banks, which was modified and woven in throughout the story. Working with an editor helped enhance and add clarity to these areas.

Elements of World Building

Other areas used in world building include words and language specific to the fictional world of the story. Dobinick warned writers not to over use this type of language, as it may be confusing or disruptive to the reader. Cohn noted that in SPIRIT’S KEY, she only used two made up words that were important to the story’s theme. Additional types of world building elements mentioned included food and drink in the world, topography of the land, weather, and systems of communication and transportation.


Kristi Olson holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Children from The New School University. She is currently working on a young adult novel.


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