Genres and accidents
I think I tripped and fell into urban fantasy.
Before The Shambling Guide to New York City, I wrote everything from superhero satire to humorous zombie audio drama to an epic 5 novella series about people traipsing around the afterlife and watching the world end. I knew I didn’t write epic sword and sorcery fantasy, and I didn’t write hard SF. I didn’t write scary horror. I just wrote weird stuff. And that’s essentially what I called it, weird stuff. Although “Weird’ is now its own genre, so I had to stop using that word.
I wasn’t even sure what urban fantasy was. I only got into Jim Butcher and Carrie Vaughn in the past few years, and have only read Seanan McGuire’s work under her Mira Grant pseudonym. I don’t write a lot of sex (some sex, just not a lot) or dark stuff. I didn’t sit down to say, “urban fantasy, here I come!”
But I had a thought, if monsters live in cities like people, then they probably travel like people. And when people travel, they usually buy a travel guidebook. Who would write those guides for monsters? What kind of information would monsters need when they travel? Where to sleep, definitely. Where they can eat without getting caught, that too. And what is fun for a monster to do? Would vampires visit MOMA? Would demons be interested in the Statue of Liberty?
Amused by this idea, I wrote what I ended up calling “A cross between The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.” Essentially, there are a whole lot of monstrous secrets in the city, and here’s a guide to show you where they are!
I’m not good at dark and tragic. Overly sexy makes me blush too hard. And I’m not very good with private eye mysteries. So I figured urban fantasy wasn’t my thing. But every story is a mystery, in essence, considering you are reading in order to answer a question. Who dun it? Will they win the big game? Will she marry her true love? And urban fantasy, by definition, doesn’t have to include dark and sexy. Truly, what it needs is an urban setting with fantasy elements. Urban. Fantasy. So when I was done, I realized I accidentally wrote an urban fantasy story. (Which made it much easier to pitch to editors, honestly.)
Despite my accidental step into a genre I wasn’t famililar with, I do believe in reading the genre in which you want to write, so after I figured out what I was doing, I spent some time in the worlds of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty series, Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries.
(Admittedly I like and am more familiar with True Blood more than the Sookie books, but I love Harris’ worldbuilding and mythology.)
In studying this mysterious world I found myself in, I started collecting different ideas of what makes urban fantasy. The first thing I considered was the various levels of “monsters being out of the closet/coffin” that the stories offer. (Please note I haven’t been able to reach the latest book in any of the longer series, so my comments are limited to the first several books in each series.)
- Dresden Files: All paranormal stuff is hidden from humans. Only one human, Murphy, knows what is going on, and she’s a Dana Scully level skeptic. “I don’t know what those aliens are that keep biting me, but they’re not aliens!”
- Southern Vampire Mysteries: Vampires are “out” but the other paranormal entities — shifters, fairies, werewolves — are still hidden.
- Kitty books: Werewolves and vampires are just coming “out” at the beginning of Kitty and the Midnight Hour, as she reveals the truth on her late night call-in radio show.
- White Trash Zombie: They are hidden from humans, but more humans know about zombies than you’d think, as the zombies must deal with morgues and the like to get brains.
In my series, I’ve chosen to have the monsters hidden, working hard to remain so even as they live and work among humans. But I did learn that politics inevitably come into play with the revelation of monsters. This is shown with The American Vampire League’s efforts to give vampires rights in True Blood, and Kitty testifying in Washington D.C. about werewolves and vampires. I don’t find straight political intrigue very interesting but I can’t deny that if monsters did come out, they would affect everything from estate law to citizenship to social security. And in today’s world, someone would have to be responsible for falsifying identification for monsters that work among humans – something that will have to come up in my books, I am aware.
Sexual politics are also different in urban fantasy.
- Kitty is forced to rethink sexual politics when she joins a pack, where the alpha can mate with whomever he likes.
- We know Harry Dresden has to issue a Boner Alert every time a fairy comes into his office.
- The first Sookie Stackhouse book (and season 1 of True Blood) deals with the surprisingly serious topic of slut shaming, with the slaughter of women who not only sleep with more than one partner, but do so with vampires.
- The White Trash Zombie books has Angel worried about what may happen during sex with her zombie lover, namely the horror of lost body parts.
In The Shambling Guide to New York City, my heroine, Zoe, realizes there is no such thing as sexual harassment laws in an office where succubi and incubi work, and struggles with her attraction to the very forward incubus in marketing.
I think what I love most about urban fantasy is it takes the world we understand and gives us elements that we don’t understand. I don’t have to worry about studying a map of Middle Earth and I don’t have to wonder what the heroine’s pet smeeerp looks like. I get New York. I understand cats. And when we put an overlay of vampires, or zombies, or wizards, on top of it, it’s so much better.
So I call my stumble into urban fantasy a happy accident, not only because I eventually sold the book, but because it’s exposed me to many other series I hadn’t read yet, which is in turn making my writing better. The circle of life, yo. Or undeath. Something.