From My Bookshelf: Lorna Barrett

Cozy mysteries, anyone? Sometimes it’s good to sit down with a book that’s not moving at a blistering pace with graphic violence and brutal shocks. Sometimes, for me at least, a welcome alternative is a book that can tease my brain without making me feel I’ve walked in the shoes of a sadistic psychopath.

If you haven’t already encountered her, meet Lorna Barrett, aka L. L. Bartlett, aka Lorraine Bartlett, the prolific author of numerous snuggle-in-your-armchair-with-a-good-read novels.

A stroll past the mystery shelves at your local bookstore will yield up a plethora of subgenres: forensic mysteries, classic mysteries, traditional mysteries, historical mysteries, and the cozies. The latter stand out because they’re primarily published by Berkley, with a distinctive cover style and also because they have groaner-pun titles, such as Barrett’s Chapter and Hearse.

Within the cozy subgenre you will find food cozies, antiquing cozies, quilting cozies, thrift shop cozies, knitting cozies, decorating cozies, chocolate cozies, paranormal cozies, home renovation cozies, etc. If a reader has a hobby, there’s a cozy out there that panders to it.

These days, if you want to write a cozy mystery–meaning a small community, numerous quirky characters, and little if any blood–then you need to think series. You also need to create a lively setting as a reappearing character.

Barrett’s pretty good at coming up with interesting settings that hold up across more than one book. Her  cast of characters remain viable from book to book, and sometimes a repeated secondary character becomes the next victim just to put you on your toes. Her story people are distinctive without being so gol-darned quirky they’re too weird for words.

She’s had wonderful, bestselling success with her Booktown series. The tiny community revolves around downtown shops that are nearly all specialty used bookstores. The protagonist Tricia owns a mystery shop–which allows Barrett to throw in mention of current and classic mystery authors in the Carolyn Hart tradition.

Tricia’s sister Angelica owns a cookbook store, along with a lunch eatery. The two sisters have had a rocky sibling relationship in the past, but they’ve patched up many of their differences. Now there’s just enough of the old rivalry to keep up the flavor of conflict as a subplot to Tricia’s investigations.

I like that Tricia does get out and gumshoe. She has no official authority, but she’s curious and suspicious and thoughtful and active. Unlike some of the cozies that feature discovery of a body and then the characters pretty much putter along their everyday lives and chat about the victim from time to time with varying degrees of pity and/or sympathy, Barrett’s protagonist makes a real effort to uncover the culprit.

While I personally prefer the Victoria Square series written under her pseudonym Lorraine Bartlett, that’s primarily because I like its setting better than Booktown. But all her books deliver gentle entertainment that will keep you curious as to whodunnit without giving you nightmares thereafter.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Allure of Disappointment

When you’re constructing scenes, do you allow your protagonist to succeed or do you thwart her plan?

Common reasoning may convince you that your protagonist should succeed. After all, how else can she continue toward victory in the story climax?

However, if she prevails against every obstacle and challenge thrown her way, she will be mighty indeed but she will not experience an arc of change; she will not hold reader attention for long; and she will know only a hollow, phony type of victory at the end.

It seems counter-intuitive to thwart your protagonist at the ending of scenes, doesn’t it? Isn’t it wrong  somehow that she should fail them? After all, how can she convince readers that she’s clever, resourceful, and admirable if she’s not getting anywhere? Won’t she come across as a loser?

That depends.

She won’t be perceived as a doofus if her opposition is stronger and trickier than expected and if she doesn’t whine about it. A loss makes her more of an underdog, and consequently she gains reader sympathy. As the antagonist stops her, outmaneuvers her, cheats her, betrays her, and corners her, reader sympathy for her should increase. Even better, dramatically speaking, the climax will loom ahead as a bigger threat or obstacle as the story outcome in her favor grows less likely.

However, if she fails in scenes because she makes too many mistakes, or she doesn’t plan well, or she does dumb things like chasing the villain down a dark alley while forgetting to carry her gun, then yes she will come across as unsympathetic, less than bright, and a loser.

Are you frowning over this? Are you thinking, but how will she ever win if she always loses her scenes?

The true purpose of scene-ending setbacks is to force her to take a bigger risk in her next attempt. After all, when things are going smoothly for us, why change our methods? When everything is fine, we don’t learn. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t grow.

And pushing your protagonist through an arc of change in behavior, beliefs, attitude, or personal growth is really what stories are all about. Not how many vampires she can destroy in an hour.

Therefore, if you’ve been writing scenes where your protagonist always succeeds, pause and re-evaluate your plotting. Consider what would happen if your protagonist lost the encounter.

“But, but, but,” you might sputter, “if that happens, Roxie will be fanged by a vampire!”

My response is simply, “So? What then?”

“But she can’t become a vampire. She’s trying to hunt them. She hates them. They killed her mother, and she wants to destroy them all.”

Understood. But consider how much better your story will become if Roxie is bitten, or grazed. She might then escape the predator’s clutches, and perhaps she even destroys her opponent, but now her situation is uncertain, potentially dire. She will experience the terror of believing she’s been turned. Could there be anything worse in Roxie’s world than becoming the very type of monster she’s sworn to obliterate? Consider the angst she’ll go through. And maybe she won’t know for certain right away, which means you can spin out the suspense and anticipation even more.

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s delicious. See how Roxie has become more interesting?

Never be afraid to disappoint your protagonist. Never fear to make her situation worse. Never lose an opportunity to test her to her limits and beyond to see what she’s made of.

I want to know how Roxie will handle this development. Don’t you?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dreaming of Pink

Well, as if the recent computer-purchase crisis wasn’t enough to send my blood pressure shooting to the moon, guess what?

It’s time to replace my university computer as well.

AHHHHHHHHHH!

Now the trauma truly is much, much less for several reasons:  1) I’m not emotionally attached to the university equipment–well, not much; 2) I have complete and competent IT support; 3) I don’t have to so much as plug in a cable because everything is unboxed, carried to my campus office, set up, and tested for me; and 4) I’m not paying for it.

Can you tell I should have been a princess?

Still, according to that old but trusty writing principle, change is threatening. I’ve really enjoyed my campus laptop. It’s tiny, lightweight, and cute. It’s easier to carry than a heavy briefcase, although I usually end up lugging both to and from my day job. So although Pippin is an Apple and there’s no right-click mouse command, leaving me frequently baffled, I’ve enjoyed it. Replacing it, when it seems perfectly fine, hadn’t crossed my mind.

However, it has to go and because it doesn’t belong to me I shan’t be clinging to it, weeping and pleading, when IT comes to take it away.

After notification came, I consoled myself immediately with the brilliant notion that I would ask for another one exactly like Pippin.

Except there have been changes. Nothing techy is ever left alone. Sigh. So my cute 11″ laptop that I could tuck under my arm is growing to a 13″ version. Which means I’ll have to go shopping for a new case to protect it. It will take up more room on my crowded desk when I bring it home, and New Guy (still officially unnamed) will feel even more cramped in my limited space.

Still, it is what it is. I was asked to look over the options and choose which version I wanted, and I was told there were two colors: “silver” and “space gray.” Woo.

So I was following links and watching the swanky product videos without, however, any delusion that I was conducting real product research, when suddenly there it was … a pink laptop.

Not garish magenta, not baby ballerina, but something luscious and tasteful and faintly metallic called “rose gold.” It is precisely that shade of soft pink with yellow undertones that I most love. Delight exploded in my heart. The world was suddenly a better place.

Now, I am admittedly picky. Finicky. Hard to please. A perfectionist. I am also champion among ditherers. I can agonize endlessly over choices, but that’s always when and because the available choices don’t suit me. But place the right thing in front of me, and BAM! I make a decision instantly.

BAM! I saw “rose gold” and knew immediately it was the color for me. Who said computers have to come in dreary colors? I don’t work in a bank. I’m not trying to reassure anxious customers that I won’t abscond with their life’s savings.

Remember those bright, kicky colors that Apple came out with a few years ago? Vivid blue, bold orange, and … um, maybe hot pink. They were fun and youthful, but then they went away. Presently, one of my graduate students carries a bold red laptop that I think is a Dell. So I know computer color is out there, but it’s so hidden, so oppressed, so hard to find.

With “rose gold” spinning in my mind, I eagerly reread my IT guy’s email. It said firmly, color choices are “silver” or “space gray.”

Bummer.

“Space gray” is dull, dark, dismal, and depressing. Granted, it fits the current color trend of gray, gray, drab, or gray that is our world. Gray cars on the road. Gray paint on our walls. Gray cats on gray sofas. Walk into any Restoration Hardware store and you might well ask yourself, “Does Chairman Mao live here?” When I was a child, I watched TV news images of people in China, all dressed alike in gray. Drab, uniform conformity where no one was allowed to stand out.

What’s with our current besottedness with gray?

Because it’s safe?

Because it’s neutral?

Phooey!

Give me color! Give me imagination, joy, life, spontaneity, and fun! How sad that opting for color costs more these days. An acquaintance of mine waited a week and spent an extra thousand to obtain a commercial van in red because he didn’t want to look like he was driving a utility company truck.

When I was a youngster, I remember my parents buying a car that they special ordered. After specifying all the options for the auto itself, like headlights that opened and electric windows, they sat in the dealership office with huge bundles of cloth samples spread out on the desk, and chose the seat upholstery they wanted. Mom eventually selected burgundy damask. The car proved to be a mechanical dud that the family hated, and the electric windows failed about every two or three weeks, but it looked beautiful. These days–no doubt to cut manufacturing costs–car interiors typically come in dark gray or light gray regardless of the exterior color. Mom’s burgundy upholstery exactly matched the rich burgundy hue of the car’s body paint. Before that vehicle, I think they owned a teal-green car with matching interior. Then there was the red car with the red seats. Oh yes, once upon a time car seats matched car colors. It was great.

But getting back to computers, I have to say that New Guy is pretty dashing (not!) because he’s two-toned: black enlivened by gunmetal gray. So boring. If my printers weren’t white I might run screaming from the desk. As it is, I’m frequently tempted to paint my home office walls red just to wake things up.

Are you thinking, yep there she is wailing about drab colors but she’s afraid to paint her office? Not at all! I’m too lazy to shift two tall wooden filing cabinets, a massive desk, two bookcases, and a long computer table that requires unbolting to move. Not to mention the fabulous solid-maple card catalogue plunked in the middle of the room that took me ages to acquire. But oh someday, when I have hired muscle to help and no book deadline, then look out. My home office is gonna achieve some verve.

Meanwhile, I have put in my official request to the IT guys on campus: “rose gold” please, please, please.

I am dreaming of pink. I am longing for pink.

But I may have to compromise with “silver.”

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Welcome, New Guy

WARNING:  THIS POST CONTAINS MIXED METAPHORS.

Well, last week after much teetering on the edge of the pool, I finally held my nose, closed my eyes, and jumped into the deep waters of computer purchasing.

Just to kick things off, I drove to the brick-and-mortar store and looked over the selection like a hunter needing a new gun dog visits a kennel and surveys the young pups. Expecting two or three aisles of selection, I instead found a puny litter of five towers on one shelf. Three brands. Each one not much different from the next. After all, when you’re looking at a litter of yellow Labrador retrievers, you’re going to see yellow, yellow, cream, yellow, and gold. This store’s choice included HP, Dell, or ASUS. When I asked for Sony, the clerk blinked like a vacant android for a few seconds, then a brain synapse fired and he told me those were no longer made. (I wonder whether it was this decade or the last when Sony’s Vaio bit the dust.) Meanwhile, I stood there, clutching crib notes of what to mention and ask for, and trying to remember the sage advice and suggestions from more computer-savvy friends who’d kindly coached me ahead of time.

Then, like many modern consumers, I asked three questions before bolting from the store to go home and look everything up on Amazon. However, my attempt at this additional research resulted in glassy-eyed absorption of 9,000 one-star customer reviews from gamers that freak out over spotting a single dead pixel in the top right-hand corner of their mega-expensive monitors. I read countless complaints about the absence of some kind of special wall mount that’s apparently a case of life-or-death to certain individuals. Then there were discussions of glossy surface versus matte, bevel-edged versus non-bevel, too wide, too low, too much blur, insufficient refresh rates, and a long stream of additional gobbledygook that quickly had my eyes rolling back in my head.

Who knew–in the decade and a half since I last purchased a computer–that you no longer buy a bundled system in a box, complete with a piece of paper featuring nearly incomprehensible connection instructions that usually begin with the command of STOP!!!! Do not push the power button until … lest the world as we know it erupt in flames, or–worse–invalidate the warranty. Now, it seems to be that you either buy a laptop or enter the astonishing world of computer a la carte. Choose your tower, boys and girls! Pick those speakers! Do you want a subwoofer to go with them? Step right up here, and select a monitor. Do you want LCD, LED, blue-light filters, rapid refresh rates, high resolution, tilt stand? And just how BIG a monitor do you want? Twenty-seven inches? Thirty-two inches? How about two monitors? Or three?

I didn’t expect my computer monitor to rival the size of my living room TV. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, it’s analog but of such good quality it won’t die to justify my buying a new one. And if that identifies me as a Great Depression grandbaby, then so be it.) As I was leaving the store, I saw a man with a pickup and flat-bed trailer, loading a ginormous TV with the assistance of two employees, and I took a double-take to make sure it really was a television and not the latest thing in monitors.

Even so, modern monitors are certainly seductive. I’m now dreaming of having sixty inches of monitor hanging on my office wall, with the two-foot-tall words of my next novel looming over my head. After all, isn’t the saying “Go big, or go home?”

Up till now, I’ve been thinking that I was really up-to-date in my campus office, equipped as it is with an ample-sized Apple monitor. HAH! When I took a ruler to it, I found that it’s a mere minnow among the wide-mouth bass. And so, for grins, I measured Ole Faithful’s little monitor. A thirteen-inch pipsqueak. There are laptops with bigger screens. How did I ever write a dozen novels on that thing?

New Guy’s monitor is by no means the biggest on the market. Thank goodness! Because I can barely fit this monster on my desk, and even then it’s set at a slight angle so I can open the printer’s paper feed. My retinas still don’t know how to handle all this generous size.

Even the simple world of keyboards has changed. What I’ve used for years is now trendy with gamers and called a mechanical. The keys are big and take effort to push. They can come backlit with a rainbow array of colors. And you can turn on the clicking sound, or silence it.

Woo.

Or you can move with the times and use a membrane keyboard with flat little keys and a slight amount of lag time that will slow you down if you’re a smokin’-hot typist.

New Guy came with a wired membrane keyboard. Because I’m a smokin’-hot typist and in no mood to be slowed down, I intended to use Ole Faithful’s keyboard. It’s a mechanical which has held up under years of heavy use, but it needs an adapter to connect it to New Guy and even then it might not work. I think I can buy an inexpensive wireless keyboard that probably costs about the same as adapters, connective cords, and drivers capable of translating Win 10 to old keyboard; however, I must confess that deep in my heart what I really, really, really want is that expensive keyboard with the multi-colored lights glowing around the keys. Yeah, I want more than woo. I want wow. But that’s a want, not a need. I’ll wait until my wallet’s no longer smokin’ from this purchase.

As for the tower, with disk drive or without? Do you prefer that drive tray to open horizontally or vertically? As for the innards, solid-state drive or conventional hard drive? How about two internal drives? Do you want a thunderbolt port, or can you–sigh–live without it? Even the kid at the brick-and-mortar couldn’t explain exactly what a thunderbolt is or will do, once the gizmos it’s supposed to connect actually come on the market. But it’s great! It’s coming! It’s … still a mystery to me.

I didn’t get one, thus ensuring that New Guy is obsolete already.

And I didn’t order my new system online, despite potential price savings. I finished my research and returned to the store, where at least employees could follow me to my car, carrying boxes the way grocery stores used to send out a teenage porter to carry your food across the parking lot.  And guess what? No longer does any box contain a piece of paper with connection instructions. Presumably I’m supposed to perform a monkey-see/monkey-do procedure from YouTube video guidance, although how to do that when the computer isn’t online remains as logical as the Geek Squad notifying you by email that your computer is ready for pickup.

That’s fine. I can match the shape of a plug to the shape of a plug. (I think I learned that skill at eighteen months with my first set of blocks.) But I didn’t know that new computers come with an extra cord that you should not connect unless you’re going to use two monitors. This small piece of consumer ignorance caused a great deal of frayed nerves, frustration, phoned-in tech support which did NOT identify the problem, appointments with technicians that shook their head over the baby, and a great deal of bodily contortion connecting and disconnecting, plus driving back and forth across town in heavy traffic to bring the tower in, to take the tower home, to bring it back, to fetch the monitor, to bring a cable, to not bring a cable, etc.

Fourteen years ago, I went through an equal amount of heinous running to and fro with my new computer tower, trying to get Ole Faithful set up and functioning. It seems to be simply a part of the process, like ritual initiations or being hosed down with Betadine before going under the surgical knife. But, unlike torture by bamboo shoots under the fingernails, once setup is complete and successful, the horrors of the ordeal eventually fade and you resume writing.

Next I have the joy of figuring out Windows 10 and all its quirks.

What happened to the spellcheck function key?

UPDATE:  Thanks to much advice, support, and assistance from my friends out there . . . I have finally ordered a keyboard adapter as this membrane thing is sleek, cool, and w-a-a-a-y too slow. Product reviews say the adapter works great, or it glitches. I’m hoping for the former, but if the latter happens, I can order another adapter or cough up the funds for the wowza, super-snazzy, completely and utterly extravagant rainbow-hued, lighted keyboard. Which, by the way, costs as much as a monthly payment on the new machine. Alas!

 

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Memorial Day 2017

Firstly, apologies for letting my blog lapse for the past few weeks. Too busy . . . too many computer woes. Just to let you know, Ole Faithful has finally been laid to rest.

So, since Memorial Day is a time for not only honoring our heroic military men and women, especially those who have given their lives in service to us, but to remember other loved ones who have gone on–I will say a thank you here to my HP desktop. It served me superbly for 14 years, which is pretty good use of a computer. When I purchased it, I did the involved and in-depth research of eeny-meeny-miney-mo while standing in front of a store display. (In retrospect, that method seems to have worked better than long hours in a Google search, reading customer reviews.)

And although Ole Faithful’s replacement has been chosen and purchased, New Guy is not yet operational, for reasons I won’t go into today lest my blood pressure erupt. So I am writing this on a borrowed machine for two reasons:  first, to wish everyone a happy Memorial Day, and also to share a sad and–to me–shocking Memorial Day story.

liberty urn

Yesterday, I was shopping for silk flowers at a local crafts store. I had selected some red, white, and blue bouquets for a project, but there weren’t quite enough for what I had planned. Then I saw an older, well-dressed woman pushing a cart containing festive red, white, and blue pinwheels and some of the same flowers I was seeking.

I spoke to her, and asked where she found the flowers in hopes there would be more. There weren’t, but we continued to chat. She pointed at the store display of beautiful flower arrangements on sale and told me that last year she purchased a large, ornate, expensive arrangement–complete with metal flag–for her son’s new grave.

He died in military action overseas. He was buried in a country cemetery near a small Oklahoma town, per his wishes. Because last Memorial Day his headstone had not yet been put in place, his mother placed the flower arrangement on his grave. Four days later, she returned to the cemetery, planning to remove the flowers to use again on his grave on July 4th. But her lavish floral tribute had been stolen.

Subsequently, other flowers she’s put on his grave have been stolen. She and her husband began to investigate. They talked to the local sheriff, who told them that elderly women pick flowers off the graves and turn them into craft projects that they sell at the local flea market. To this grieving couple’s shock, the sheriff seemed to think it was perfectly okay and furthermore that they should support the old ladies’ efforts to make a buck off stolen goods. Well, it’s not okay. Theft is theft, whether it’s a paper clip, a flower, or a car stolen from a parking lot. I know that the next time I visit a flea market, I will view floral craft projects with suspicion.

Since then, this mother has confronted elderly people “picking” graves, scavengers that drop their stolen flowers and run.

The thieves are certainly old enough to know better. They are old enough to understand respect and decency. Have they been driven by recent years of bad economy to such depths? Or are they so hardened that they just don’t care? Why should a mother of a fallen military hero be struck during her rawest time of grief by such dishonorable behavior? This woman has been driven by her outrage to plan to install hidden cameras in the tree shading her son’s grave. She is determined to see who does this, to glimpse their faces. She wants justice, and deservedly so.

You might be thinking, all this hubbub for a few faux flowers that the wind and sun will soon turn to tawdry tatters?

No, all this for respect and honor due a supreme sacrifice.

How sad for a mother that cannot grieve–and heal–in peace.

I pity her for her plans to install cameras. I understand that her efforts will probably be expensive and futile. I know that she is channeling her frustration into taking action–any kind of action–and it is a long, sad road to nowhere.

Throughout history, war has fostered battlefield scavengers picking the belongings of the fallen. And grave robbers have in past eras done far worse than steal a few flowers. And yet, what’s the point of civilization if we never evolve or govern our behavior? We can–and should–do better than this.

Our freedom is never free. It is bought and paid for daily with American lives and American courage. We have to remember that, and honor it, or we become barbarians.

Meanwhile, in honor to this unknown soldier, I leave a floral tribute here:

IMG_3241

These lilies are currently blooming in my yard. And although his mother will never know they have been “placed” in his honor, at least this image cannot be stolen from him.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.

 

Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Building Urban Fantasy–Part II

 

Supernatural Population

A necessary element for urban fantasy is its supernatural population. Certainly the villain is going to be supernatural, but there can be other enemies or allies to the protagonist from the magical or immortal creatures as well. And diversity of supernatural entities adds extra layers to your story.

M.H. Borosin’s novel, THE GIRL WITH GHOST EYES, features a San Francisco Chinatown that’s riddled with demons, ghosts, grotesque creatures, witches, sorcerers, and shapeshifting tigers.

Daniel Jose Older’s book, HALF-RESURRECTION BLUES, is set in New York City’s Puerto Rico district with ghosts and resurrected dead people walking the streets at night.

In JACK THE GIANT KILLER by Charles de Lint, modern-day Canada is populated by leprechauns and boggarts, to name just a few.

Beyond sprinkling supernatural characters into the story world, and beyond the goals of individual characters in primary and secondary roles, how will various supernatural types interact with each other? With humans? What are their societies? What are their customs? What are their special powers? How do they live? What do they wear? Where does their money come from? How are they governed?

Which leads us into the next point of consideration:

 

Politics

So how, exactly, are your supernatural beings organized? Do your were-leopards get along fine with with the vampires? Or are they at war? Or do they maintain territories and an uneasy peace?

Who rules the vampire hive? How many vampire hives, for that matter, are in the city of your choice? Or in the country? Do all vampires get along with each other? That seems unlikely, given that predators generally have trouble in that department. So who controls them? What are the consequences if a vampire breaks the rules?

Is there a fairy queen presiding over a court? What are her laws? Who are her enemies? Her allies? How does she govern the fae? How does she enforce her will over them?

Do all the wizards belong to a union? I can’t see Gandalf joining, but then he’s not a character in an urban story. But with the modern-day settings of urban fantasy, how can wizards fit in and operate within present-day America?

Butcher’s Harry Dresden character advertises in the phone book. He tries to obey human laws as much as practical. He also lives under the strictures of the White Council. And his ethics of confidentiality toward his clients can clash with the demands of the human police department.

Kim Harrison’s Cleveland is divided between the part of the city where humans live and work and the part of the city where the supernaturals are supposed to stay.

If you want to write about vampires, is vampirism legalized? Do vampires have rights of citizenship? Are they allowed to vote? And since they naturally tend to prey on humans, what laws govern that?

Maybe in your world, all supernatural creatures live in US cities illegally, in violation of immigration laws, and have no citizen rights at all. Does Immigration hunt and deport them?

Rules of Magic

Rule #1:  magic comes at a price. It should never be free because then magic makes getting out of difficult plot problems too easy. Story tension dissipates, and your plot will collapse.

Harry Potter can practice magic at Hogwarts, but he is forbidden to use his powers when he’s not at school.

In Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series, the male wizards eventually go insane. How’s that for a future?

Rule #2:  magic must be limited. This is for the same reasons as stated in Rule #1. Unlimited use of magic destroys story tension because there can be no uncertainty as to the story’s outcome.

A sure thing kills fiction.

Rule #3:  obey the rules you establish. It’s fun to set up a system of magic at first, but then in the story’s climax when your protagonist is cornered and desperate you may feel tempted to cheat a little and let the protagonist use magic in violation of the rules just this once.

BOO! HISS! CHEAT, CHEAT, CHEAT!

Never fudge your rules to save your plot. That is the completely wrong thing to do.

Instead, you have a couple of options:

*You can rewrite your rules from the story’s beginning and give your hero an escape hatch.

Or

*You can force your protagonist to pay the price that magic requires.

The second choice is terrible and difficult. It may upset you. Certainly it will be tough on your character. But it will leave you with a stronger, more complex story. Isn’t that a good thing?

Rule #4:  magic and its use should have consequences and repercussions. Maybe this should be discussed under Rule #1, but the point here is that magic shouldn’t be thrown casually into a story without consideration of how it will affect the plot’s unfolding, the characters involved, and even everyday life.

I’m thinking of the old television show BEWITCHED, where the beautiful witch Samantha promised her human husband that she would not use magic in their home. So these sit-com plots would revolve around some domestic crisis, where she would wrestle with trying to use a human solution for a while and then she might wriggle her nose and use magic to solve it instead. Samantha always meant well and tried to honor her promise, but audiences were aware of her inner struggle and determination to go against her natural proclivities. However, it’s like leaving a dish of raw hamburger out on your kitchen counter and expecting the cat to ignore it when no one’s at home.

In the classic film comedy, I MARRIED A WITCH (starring Frederic March and Veronica Lake), the witch Jennifer is much less ethical. But her evil plan backfires and she becomes the victim of her own potion.

In the next post, I’ll continue with plotting.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized