Some thoughts on RED QUEEN

Some thoughts on RED QUEEN: in ALICE, Alice and Hatcher have to confront their (completely horrible) pasts in order to survive in a very dangerous world. In RED QUEEN, I’m exploring what happens after you’ve been through something that traumatic. What interested me was how they survived, how they learned to deal with what had happened to them, and how they become whole people again – not putting it behind them, necessarily, but learning how to incorporate what’s happened into their new, changed selves. Of course there is still darkness and danger, but RED QUEEN is not nearly as dark as ALICE. It also draws more from fairy tale inspiration than the original Alice books, although Carroll remains a strong influence.

On the importance of a sidekick

When I first started writing Black Wings, I had only the vague idea that I wanted to write a book about the Grim Reaper. Then I heard Maddy’s voice in my head, and the gigantic, brooding male reaper I’d been envisioning became a short, slightly overweight female with a huge attitude.

I love to write dialogue, so I wanted to have someone around that Maddy could converse with on a regular basis. Thus Beezle, the tiny gargoyle with the mighty appetite, was born.

He loves popcorn, and chocolate and pretty much anything that’s been deep-fried. He acts like a know-it-all, which is fairly justified since Beezle is like an encyclopedia of things that go bump in the night. He knows every creature, every court, and every set of magical laws and spells. His job is to be a home guardian, and make sure that nothing creepy sneaks up on Maddy’s house, but mostly he spends a lot of time eavesdropping on Maddy’s conversations and demanding fat- and sugar-laden pastries.

Once Beezle appeared – sarcastic, crabby, and addicted to sugar – I wondered (like Maddy) how I would have ever gotten along without him. When you write in first person there’s a danger that you’ll spend too much time in the character’s head. Having another character on hand for Maddy to bounce ideas off keeps the narrative fresh and prevents Maddy from spending too much time brooding over her problems. Really, how can you brood when you’ve got a hungry gargoyle to feed?

Plus, since Beezle is a home guardian he’s pretty much always around, unlike a roommate or relative who might possibly have a life of one’s own. Beezle’s life is Maddy’s life – he delights in sticking his beak in her business – and everyone else’s business for that matter. This keeps him readily on hand for whatever I might need.

Beezle also gives me a chance to lighten the mood, no matter how dark and scary Maddy’s world becomes. He’s always ready with a snarky comment or a burning desire for doughnuts that only Maddy can provide (a gargoyle standing in line at the doughnut shop might provoke comment, especially in a world where no one knows that Agents of death and werewolves and so on even exist). This keeps the story from getting bogged down by danger and distress, and keeps the plot rolling along even when things look pretty bleak.

I never thought I’d want a sidekick for Maddy, but now I can’t imagine her world without Beezle. Long may he reign over the popcorn bowl.

On Humor and Darkness

I like a good laugh to along with my bloodbaths, which is why some of my favorite horror movies are also very funny. An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, Fido, (interesting that zombies lend themselves so well to both terror and comedy, isn’t it?) and of course, the gold standard of comedic horror, Evil Dead II.

There’s an incredible sense of release that comes with a laugh before, during or after a good scare. It leavens some of the tension without making the horror any less horrifying. The marvelous “Who’s laughing now?” sequence in Evil Dead II is a great example of this. Ash’s hand is possessed and is trying to kill him, and Bruce Campbell’s acting in this scene is wonder of physical comedy. But as the scene comes to a climax and Ash is finally forced to use a chainsaw on his own appendage as he maniacally asks, “Who’s laughing, now, huh? Who’s laughing now?” I always find myself horrified that he has been pushed to this edge. It’s funny, and it’s also terrifying, and that’s why it works.

I like to lighten the darkness in my own novels with a little humor. It dissipates some tension while at the same time heightening it. A well-placed humorous comment can take some of the edge off a scene. Later, the contrast of the humor and the horror makes the awful seem even more so, and the reader understands that Maddy wisecracks so that she can deal with the monster before her. If she didn’t, her mind and will might just degenerate into gibbering terror, and where’s the fun in that?

On the work of writing

When I was a college student I got to view firsthand the writing and reading habits of my fellow students. One thing that I discovered is that a lot of students who aspired to be published writers were just not interested in doing the work. Many of them were talented. It’s possible that many of them could have succeeded in achieving their dream but they didn’t want to knuckle down and write every day. They were waiting for their muse to strike, or ever worse, waiting until they “had enough time”.

The truth is that 1) most people have more time than they think, and 2) if you wait until you “have enough time” you’ll find that the window of opportunity has passed you by.

Before I had a baby I thought that I was a pretty busy person. Then I discovered that having a child means that there is basically a 24-hour demand on your time, and that if you don’t make a concerted effort to carve out a window for yourself you’ll never have the opportunity to do all those things you say you don’t have the time to do.

When my son turned 1 I decided to run a half-marathon for the first time. I liked it so much (crazy, right?) that I decided to run a marathon the following year. I got up early in the morning and ran when it was still dark out so that I could get my mileage in before my husband went to work. I ran when it was cold and when it was rainy. I ran when the wind was howling off Lake Michigan and blowing me sideways. I ran on some miserably humid days in August and I ran when I just didn’t feel like running at all, but I always put in the time and the distance necessary to prepare me for the marathon.

The discipline of running translated into my writing. I realized if I wanted to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a novelist I had to write every day. And that meant writing, not fiddling with and rewriting earlier pages and never getting to the end of the book. I made an appointment with myself to move forward with Black Wings every day while my son took a nap and essentially ended up writing the entire book in a month and a half.

And like running the marathon, I realized that once I did it I could do it again. I’ve since run a total of two marathons, ten half-marathons, 4 10-milers and an assortment of shorter race distances. I’ve also written the sequel to Black Wings and started working on the third novel in the series. If you really, really want to be a writer, or a marathoner, or anything else, you can do it if you want to make the time.

Writers who influenced me

I always find it interesting to find out what writers have influenced other authors, so I thought I’d post my own list for those who are curious about such things.

1) J.R.R. Tolkien – Because I read The Lord of the Rings at the age of 12 and decided that I wanted to be a writer then and there.
2) Raymond Chandler – The king of the crime novel, yes, but also the king of snappy dialogue. Words are more dangerous than bullets in his books. I learned everything I know about the rhythm of dialogue from Philip Marlowe.
3) Richard Russo – Nobody’s Fool ranks as my absolute, #1 all-time favorite novel. I’ve never read a more perfect and complete character study in one book, and I’ve also never laughed so hard while my heart was breaking.
4) Jim Butcher – He is one of the gutsiest writers going right now. Every time I think I’ve settled comfortably in Harry Dresden’s world Butcher does something completely insane. Grave Peril was a major game-changer for the whole series, and it goes without saying that after the last book (Changes) that Dresden’s world will be a lot different. When I’m writing and I reach a point where I’m not sure if I should push Maddy’s world any further I think about the stuff Butcher has done to Harry and realize I can do a lot more.
5) Charlaine Harris – I just love the way she can sum up the essence of a character in one sentence or less and her mastery of first-person voice is unparalleled.
6) Jane Austen – I read Pride and Prejudice at least twice a year whenever the itch comes on. Her dialogue, her sense of pacing, her development of character – there is a reason why this book is timeless.
7) Jim Thompson – He was writing some of the rawest noir out there at a time when American culture was still pretty straight-laced. Even in our totally violence-numbed contemporary culture his work still has the power to shock. I love writers who can do this – the ones who make me want to cover my eyes so I don’t see what happens next, but are so compelling that I have to peek through my fingers and see how it all turns out.
8 ) Stephen King – There is still no better writer out there at building atmosphere. He’s also one of the most patient writers I’ve ever read. He’s willing to take the time to build a world and the characters that inhabit it. And just when you think he’s not quite up to his past level he releases a book like Cell or Under the Dome, two of his best books ever in a catalog filled with greats.

Things are not as they seem

One of my all-time favorite writers, Jim Thompson, once said that there are dozens of ways to tell a story but there is only one plot – “Things are not as they seem”.

The qualities that make for a good story usually stem from this one central idea. Think about a movie like American Beauty – the gorgeous façade of this suburban house is hiding all kinds of turmoil and strife within this three-person family. Or even a film like Jaws – this pretty little vacation spot has a man-eating monster lurking just off the beach where kids play. Things are not as they seem.

I try to keep this tenet in mind when I’m prepping for a new book. I usually have an idea of how I want Maddy’s character to progress in the course of the novel and her character development is, of course, affected by the unfolding events of the story. The best way for me to keep Maddy off-balance is to peel back layers – secrets that other characters are hiding, events that turn out in unexpected ways, enemies that turn out to be allies or vice versa. Things are not as they seem.

On the importance of playlists

I spent part of my precious, kid-free work time this morning putting together a new playlist for the third book of this series. This may seem like a waste of work time to some but a carefully composed playlist is actually an essential part of my writing process. Once I’ve put together the correct combination of songs that particular playlist will come to embody the overall tone of the book. Sometimes the songs influence the book and sometimes it’s the other way around, but either way the playlist eventually comes to epitomize the feeling of the book to me.

Usually I start off with an 8-10 song playlist and then I add to it as I get further into the novel until I’ve got about 20-25 songs that I listen to while I write. Every time I sit down at my laptop that playlist brings me right back into the story and the overall emotional arc of Maddy’s character. When I get to a point where the writing feels stuck or stale, I’ll put the playlist on my iPod and just listen to the music while I run errands or bake something in the kitchen. If I let my mind wander while still staying inside Maddy’s world through the music the next piece of the story will usually occur to me.

What I often find when I’m done with the first draft is that all of the songs seem to address one central feeling in some way. The first novel, Black Wings, has a lot of humor and a lot of action, but I feel that the core emotion of the book is really about sadness and loss. The first song that summed up Black Wings for me was Sarah McLachlan’s “Full of Grace” and that set the tone for the pretty much the whole playlist and the whole book.

The second novel, Black Night (which is in revisions now) has a about the same amount of action and humor, but I think that there is more darkness in the story, and the core emotion of the book is jealousy. Naturally, The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” became the anthem of that book. In fact, when I was writing one particular chapter I just put that one song on repeat until the chapter was done.

So I’ve put together my playlist for book three. Now on to the writing.

Some notes on Urban Fantasy

What is urban fantasy? This is a question that I get asked pretty often, mostly because when people ask what I do I say, “I’m a writer” and then they ask what kind of stuff I write, and I say, “Urban fantasy.” And then they say, “What’s that?”

Usually I take the easy way out and say, “If you like True Blood you’ll probably like my book.” But that doesn’t really define urban fantasy.

Wikipedia defines urban fantasy as the following: “Urban fantasy is a subset of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times or contain supernatural elements. However, this is not the primary definition of urban fantasy. Urban fantasy can be set in historical times, modern times, or futuristic times. The prerequisite is that it must be primarily set in a city, rather than in a suburban or country setting, which have their own genre subsets. Many urban fantasy novels geared toward adults are told via a first-person narrative, and often feature mythological beings, paranormal romance, and various female protagonists who are involved in law enforcement or vigilantism.”

Locus magazine did a wonderful issue in May of 2009 (just about when I was signing my contract with Ace, actually) wherein various authors and editors talked about their definitions of urban fantasy. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the genre is written (mostly) by women and has (mostly) female protagonists (one notable exception, and one of my personal favorites: Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series – although there are others).

The books (generally) take place in a contemporary fantastic urban setting which may be closed (only the protagonist and the supernatural things that go bump-in-the-night know about the fantastic elements of the story, like my own novel Black Wings) or open (everyone, even the normals, knows there are vampires in the world, a la the aforementioned True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series).

I tend to think of urban fantasy as a marketing term more than anything. It seems like the definition is pretty flexible and open to interpretation and generally is used as a way for people to find other books like the ones they already enjoy. So if you like True Blood, you’ll probably like my book 🙂

Some good urban fantasy reads (most of these are the first books of series):

Storm Front/Jim Butcher
Deadtown/Nancy Holzner
Dead Until Dark/Charlaine Harris
Moon Called/Patricia Briggs
Something from the Nightside/Simon R. Green
Blood Price/Tanya Huff
Summon the Keeper/Tanya Huff
Sunshine/Robin McKinley
Neverwhere/Neil Gaiman
Dead Witch Walking/Kim Harrison