What comes to mind when you hear the word “occult”? Evil cults that worship the devil? Weird rituals where animals or even children are sacrificed? Wizards with nefarious aims wielding power behind the scenes? If so, you probably got those impressions from Hollywood or from fear-based religious groups. Those ideas are mostly wrong.
What Does “Occult” Mean?
First of all, the word “occult” simply means hidden, as in hidden knowledge. For centuries, people who practiced the occult arts had to hide what they knew and practiced in order to avoid imprisonment, torture, and murder at the hands of misguided authorities. It’s estimated that during the witch hunts in Europe (from about the 14th through the 18th centuries) tens of thousands of witches, diviners, cunning folk, herbalists, and other suspicious sorts were hanged, burned, or otherwise executed at the behest of the Christian Church. To avoid persecution, they formed secret societies sometimes known as Mystery Schools, passed down wisdom through symbols and oral tradition, and wrote in secret code.
Yet occult ideas and practices––witchcraft, divination, spellcasting, incantations, and magick potions––continue to fascinate us to this day. Perhaps the most famous scene in literature comes from Shakespeare’s MacBeth where three witches stir a mysterious brew while they prophesy “toil and trouble” for the Scottish king. The Bard’s plays MacBeth and Hamlet also feature ghosts, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves faery spells and shapeshifting. More recently, J.K. Rowling’s incredibly popular Harry Potter stories have captured the imaginations of millions of young people worldwide and introduced them to some of the tenets of magick work––and its possibilities.
Using the Occult in Plotting Your Story
Occult practices involve working with forces beyond the mundane, tapping into reservoirs of hidden power, and sometimes interacting with supernatural beings. Therefore, they let writers step outside the ordinary limitations of a storyline. Ghosts and spirits can also expand your readers’ knowledge into realms beyond the physical. In Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, for example, a murdered teenaged girl shares a perspective of the crime from her vantage point in heaven.
Oracles such as the tarot or runes can give veiled glimpses into the future. Is someone destined to die when the Death card turns up in a tarot reading? Secret symbols can provide clues for readers to ponder. In my mystery novels What the Walls Know and The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors, a tarot card reader sees trouble lurking ahead for the protagonist, which adds to the stories’ suspense. By including messages from divination devices––tarot, runes, astrology, Ouija boards, the I Ching, tea leaves, etc.––you can hint at forthcoming dangers and challenge readers to predict what will happen.
Using Occult Ideas and Practices in Your Novel
Instead, peruse several books on subjects that interest you and that you might want to explore in your writing. I recommend those published by Llewellyn Worldwide and Red Wheel/Weiser, two well-respected publishing houses that have specialized in occult literature for 120 and 65 years respectively. I also hope you might consider looking at the books I’ve written about contemporary witchcraft, astrology, and tarot––they’re designed for beginning readers. (If you have questions or want to run ideas by me, please feel free to contact me through my website skyealexander.com––I’ll do my best to answer your questions).
Questions to Contemplate
Is your character a seasoned metaphysician or is she a novice dabbling with forces beyond her knowledge and control, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice?
Does your character pursue a metaphysical path that leads him to a discovery or danger? How does he grow from this experience?
Is a character transformed in some way by a mystical/magickal experience?
If you’re writing a historical novel, what local customs, religious beliefs, and laws affected occultists at that time?
Would historical events, such as the Salem Witch Trials of the early 1690s, be worthwhile additions to your book? If so, how can you integrate fact into a fictional narrative?
Does your character conjure a spell that works––or goes wrong––and takes the story in an interesting direction?
Can you use signs, symbols, or synchronicities to help the plot unfold?
Do nonphysical entities influence a character’s decisions, aid her in solving a problem, or guide her into a realm beyond the physical one?
Would time travel, shapeshifting, past-life memories, or shamanic journeying enhance your story?
You experience what you’re doing as if you’re living it right now. In your mind’s eye, you see the result as if it already exists––and you’re the Creator who makes it happen. Sounds like writing a novel, doesn’t it?
Skye Alexander’s historical mystery novel What the Walls Know, the second in her Lizzie Crane Mystery Series, features a colorful cast of occultists, including several mediums, a tarot reader, an astrologer, a witch, and a wizard. She’s also a recognized authority in the field of metaphysics and the author of fifteen bestselling nonfiction books on witchcraft, magick, and the occult arts including The Modern Guide to Witchcraft, The Modern Witchcraft Book of Tarot, and Magickal Astrology.