I’m a huge fan of the Roaring Twenties. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, I like jazz, I wear fedoras unironically… but perhaps most of all, I’m attracted to the frenetic excitement of that time period, the feeling that anything and everything was possible. Naturally, I’ve always wanted to use the Twenties as a setting for a novel. But I wanted a concept that really let me explore the many quirks and particularities of the period—it couldn’t be just any story.
After a couple years of toying with potential 1920s fantasy concepts, I started honing in on one particular “what if”: What if Prohibition had outlawed magic, instead of alcohol? From there, a million secondary questions followed, and I found myself really excited to answer all of them:
Would organized crime take over the black market of magic too?
What would speakeasies be used for?
How would the Prohibition Unit work?
How could I borrow from the many traditions of real Prohibition to further flesh out my imaginary one?
Without too many spoilers, here are five traditions I borrowed from the real 1920s, and “repurposed” in my upcoming historical fantasy novel, A Criminal Magic:
During the real Prohibition secret drinking establishments called “speakeasies” opened all over the U.S. Prohibition Unit raids happened regularly at these places, so speakeasy owners got creative to avoid prosecution (like New York’s 21 Club built a revolving bar and a chutes-and-ladder system for hiding alcohol when the law came calling).
During my Prohibition illegal “magic havens” and “shining rooms” have opened all across America, where sorcerers perform and brew magic elixirs behind concealed doors. But these doors, naturally, are concealed by magic to hide them from the police (in the novel, patrons pass through a sham storefront, walk through a wall, and descend into a huge, underground performance space).
2. Organized Crime
During the real Prohibition there was opportunity for the birth and prosperity of organized crime. Gangs began specializing in the importation, distribution and serving of alcohol, often bribing or pressuring Prohibition Unit officers into looking the other way.
During my Prohibition gangsters have employed sorcerers in all sorts of ways to break the law, such as creating illusions to hide murders and robberies, and brewing and distributing potent magic elixirs. And the Prohibition Unit in A Criminal Magic has just as many corrupt officers as the real one did.
3. Rum Row
During the real Prohibition savvy liquor smugglers would find ways to avoid the coast guard, drive out to a place called Rum Row (a spot in the Atlantic Ocean right behind U.S. water borders where international boats would park with their goods), and then purchase whiskey, rum and other liquor outside the law’s reach.
During my Prohibition in A Criminal Magic, sorcerers magically manipulate coast guard radio signals, cloak deals with protective shields, and aid their gangster counterparts on their way to a similar spot called Magic Row, where international magic contraband (like a Bahamian death-brew called “obi” and an Irish hallucinogen called “fae dust”) is traded.
4. The Volstead Act
During the real Prohibition the law that interpreted the 18th Amendment, called the Volstead Act, made certain exceptions to Prohibition, like the allowance of liquor for medical purposes. But this exception was extremely easy to exploit, and many bootleggers used pharmacies as “fronts” for their illegal businesses.
During my Prohibition the Volstead Act makes a “remedial magic” exception to the Prohibition of sorcery, which allows for the sale of medicinal spells. But in A Criminal Magic, the exception is exploited: corrupt pharmaceutical employees steal the government-approved spells and sell them into the black market.
5. Home Brewing
During the real Prohibition producing liquor at home became commonplace, but some of these home-brewers would add flavoring agents or coloring (like syrups, sugars, even tar!) to their liquor, in order to shortcut the barreling process and make their liquor look aged.
During my Prohibition in A Criminal Magic, home-brewers try to redistill stolen medicinal spells into “sorcerer’s shine” (a sparkling, pure magic, ruby-red elixir). But in order to make their knock-off products look more legitimate, redistillers add red paint.
Lee Kelly is the author of A CRIMINAL MAGIC and CITY OF SAVAGES. She has wanted to write since she was old enough to hold a pencil, but it wasn’t until she began studying for the California Bar Exam that she conveniently started putting pen to paper. An entertainment lawyer by trade, Lee has practiced in Los Angeles and New York. She lives with her husband and children in Millburn, New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter at @leeykelly and on her website at NewWriteCity.com.