Spooky Legends annoucement

Just wanted to let everyone know that I will be participating in a very fun blog event on October 25th. It’s called Spooky Legends and the idea is to have several authors re-tell classic urban legends from the point of view of one of their characters. I’m signed up to re-tell “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn On the Lights?”, a story that I remember hearing at sleepovers as a little girl. It always scared the bejeezus out of me.

The event is co-sponsored by All Things Urban Fantasy and Dark Faerie Tales, and you can see details for the event and the list of participating authors here.

Hope you all will come and check it out!

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