research for Spirit Willing

Filed under: Spirit Willing Flesh Weak

As a fiction writer I love the idea of creating illusion and belief out of thin air. As a romance writer I believe that even illusion can reflect profound human experience.

For Spirit Willing, I did quite a bit of research for writing Rosie Fox, who’s a fake spirit medium, and this research tended to fall into two camps: researching “real” psychics, and researching “fake” psychics.

For the “real” side, I attended several services at the Spiritualist Church in Reading. Although I’m not a religious person I find religion of any sort very interesting, and the people at the church were consistently welcoming and kind, with a strong faith. I’d like to thank them, even though they didn’t know they were harboring a writer in their midst.

Fox sisters
The history of the Spiritualist movement is, in many ways, the history of the emotional life of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and as this is a special interest of mine (I wrote my MPhil thesis on this period), I spent a lot of time researching it. (And named my heroine after the Fox sisters, who helped start it, pictured on right.)

I also went and had my tarot cards read. This was an immensely enjoyable experience for me. The reader was warm, interesting, and engaging, and it was totally worth the money to have a nice person talk entirely about me and my problems for an hour. It was sort of like therapy. She taped the session and I’ve always meant to check back over her predictions to see if any of them have come true, but the tape won’t work. A lot of what she said was wrong, and a lot of what she said she could have deduced easily from my manner, clothing, and the information I gave her. But I liked her an awful lot and I would probably pay to talk with her again.

When I was, briefly, a reporter for the Brown Daily Herald, I went and had my palm read for an article. That woman was terrible, and I’ve looked back at predictions she made and not one of them has come true in any way at all, nor are they likely to. My predominant impression of that reading was that her young son came in and kicked me in the middle of it.

I also spent several happy hours watching “psychic” Sylvia Browne on the Montel Williams show. I can’t write my opinion of Sylvia Browne here, because I think it unwise. Let’s just say I don’t think I’d pay money to talk with her. I’d rather be kicked by a small boy.

Although I enjoyed my time with the “real” psychics, my book is about a fraud, and my heart lies with the joyful fakers, the illusionists, the entertainers, the rational magicians.

full facts of cold reading

I thanked some of them specifically in the book, particularly Ian Rowland. His book, The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, was invaluable to me in learning how a fake psychic does it. It’s an outstanding book and I recommend you buy it.

My female readers may like to know that Ian is single, entertaining, could “possibly be considered non-hideous”, and enjoys the finer things in life such as treating females to exquisite food and wine. I can vouch that he is charming and an excellent writer. And hey, magicians are inherently sexy. That’s why I made my hero, Harry, good at sleight of hand.


Speaking of sexy magicians, I also spent a lot of time staring at Derren Brown, and reading about Harry Houdini, particularly Ruth Brandon’s The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Many people will think I’m weird to consider Houdini sexy, but the man escaped from manacles. Good God.

I am also consistently amused, challenged, and informed by the weekly newsletter and forum at James Randi’s website,

Cottingley fairy photo 2When I was doing my M.Phil. thesis, I did a whole chapter on the Cottingley fairy photographs. Although I didn’t use any of this case, per se, in Spirit Willing, I did use a lot of its elements. The photographs were faked–rather obviously so–but a combination of circumstance, social expectations, and very strong desire made many people believe they were true.

Finally, after I finished Spirit Willing, I read a book that made me so jealous I could hardly think straight. I love it, love it, love it, and it is called Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. It’s about magicians, trickery, and the redemptive power of love.

Any obsessions, recommendations, experiences, thoughts to share? Or would you just like to comment on The Great Houdini’s thighs?

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  1. I’ve been meaning to read “Carter…” for a while so will definitely try and do it soon!


  2. As you might know I get predictive dreams, totally random and they never give me the lottery numbers. It wasn’t till a few months ago when my dad was researching the family tree that he discovered my great great grandmother was a noted Victorian medium. Very odd.


  3. I never realised that I believed in psychics until Dear Fiona, the syndicated columnist for Australian/NZ Woman’s Day died a few years ago(my husband said she should’ve seen it coming).

    Anyway, ignoring my husband’s lame jokes, because she died suddenly, they decided to get Dr Rosie, the relationship columnist to fill in. Well, I’ve never been so annoyed in all my life. Dr Rosie was totally just guessing if Gemma from Sydney and Darren from WA would get back together, where as if Dear Fiona had still been alive, she would’ve known the answer and told them.

    Since then I’ve always believed for no other reason than it gives me more comfort than thinking people are just ‘guessing’! Though I must say I have since read a few books which are quite interesting. Sonia Choquette was definitely my favourite.


  4. LOL on Houdini’s thighs. Too funny. I think there are some people who can “see” into the future, but they are very rare. More often there are people who are very perceptive.

    I can’t wait for your book to arrive in my mailbox. 🙂


  5. Jessica, it is so, so good. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


  6. Nell, that’s really interesting! What was her name? What sort of stuff did she do, do you know? Was she part of a spiritualist church or did she do seances professionally?

    Amanda, how did you know that Dear Fiona actually knew that these people would get back together? Did they do follow-ups on all the stories?

    Michelle, you’ve got to admit…escaping from chains gives a man some fine thighs.


  7. I think there are people who have visions or whatever you want to call them. But I also think there are far more people who are faking it out there. Whew that sounds skeptical huh?


  8. I think anyone with high levels of skill can be extremely sexy. Strong confidence, skill and power is very, very attractive.

    I don’t ‘believe’ in psychic phenomena – they don’t need my permission or not to exist – but I’m happy to accept that predictions, ghosts, spiritual visits and the like do happen. I just struggle to believe they perform on demand, for the cameras, for an audience…

    The real miracle, I think, is the power of belief, and what makes Rosie so magical is the strength of her commitment to making people’s lives better. I love her so much for that, however much she lies to herself and others.


  9. Julie, I don’t know why I so completely believed Dear Fiona knew all the answers. I think it’s just because I wanted it to be so! And btw, I can’t wait to read your Rosie, she’s next on my pile!


  10. April, I’ve certainly met more people who I’ve believed were faking it, though I’m not sure they all believed they were faking it themselves, if that makes sense.

    Thanks Anna. 🙂 I do believe in the redemptive power of fiction, and Rosie was sort of an embodiment of that, even though she’s a con woman.

    Amanda, it sounds like your Dear Fiona definitely had a fan! 🙂


  11. Another good book on slight of hand (and comic books) – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – I loved it.



  12. Just had to say that I regularly attend our local Spiritualist church. I wouldn’t say I’m a Spiritualist, simply because I don’t like putting people into religious boxes, but I’ve had far too many ‘experiences’ that I can’t logically explain and the philosophy of Spiritualism pretty much matches how I feel.

    What you wrote about fairies and the way people will believe in what they want to believe in is soooo true. I think the same goes for ‘ghosts’ a lot of the time. While I believe in spirit and that some can be earthbound, I do believe that Brits typically want/need to believe in an afterlife and therefore create spirits that aren’t there.

    Fascinating post, Julie. Thanks.


  13. Thanks for the recommendation, Jen!

    I agree, Sharon; I think that people believe what they need to believe, for whatever reason. Thanks for your insight about the Spiritualist church.


  14. Some very interesting comments Julie. My best friend is a member of the spiritualist church as is her mother and they are both psychic. My friend works in part as a psychic and helps me with research for my novels through her ability to remote view – or as she prefers to call it, to ‘read the Akashic Record.’ You can read about how it works on my blog at this url.
    As to ghostly experiences. Yup, I’ve had one or two. Too long to write out now, but one definitely could not be explained and definitely was not imagined.




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