Monthly Archives: December 2009

Temporary Pause in Updates

For those wondering at the large number of updates, I’m currently on break, but my life is going to be a lot more busy in the coming days. After Christmas, I’m going to Scotland for two weeks, and will not be using the internet much if at all during that time. Updates will resume following my return on the 11th of January. Thank you all so much for reading, and please spread the word.


From Research to Writing

I’ve never been to Chernobyl, Ukraine.  I’ve never even been to Europe.  Did that stop me from setting a story there?  Hell no.

I know that the intent of this blog, as originally stated, is to show off Philadelphia as a prime setting for urban fantasy, but my secondary intention has always been to discuss the craft of writing.  To that end, this post is about going from researching a place to capturing it on the page.

Chernobyl; Pripyat, the adjoining city that housed the Chernobyl workers; and the 30 kilometer Zone of Alienation that surrounds them are the ultimate abandoned places.  You can’t just not go there, staying there too long can kill you, albeit slowly.  I thought that these locations would make the perfect setting for a short story.

The following is an excerpt from the story “Steel Yard,” which I wrote after being inspired by pictures I found of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

The streets of Pripyat were completely quiet, quieter than the streets of a small town in the dead of night. The sun shone down onto the cracked asphalt, nourishing the trees that sprouted here and there that created great rifts in the middle of the road. The stillness among those broken gray Soviet apartment blocks was unnatural. Although I knew that nobody could live here anymore, I imagined that I was being watched through the broken windows of any number of identical concrete buildings.

In the distance, the bright yellow gondolas of the ferris wheel in the city’s center looked incongruous against the trees that had grown undisturbed for almost twenty years. I turned, taking my thoughts from the sort of carefree summer’s day for which the ferris wheel begged. Beyond the endless rows of concrete buildings, the faded red and white cooling tower of Reactor 4 loomed, casting its shadow out in all directions for thirty kilometers.

I didn’t use everything I saw in pictures, and I didn’t see everything that I wrote about in the pictures that I could find.  This is important.  Without artistic license, you and I could only write about the things we knew everything about.  We would only write memoir, and that would be boring (not to say that memoirs are inherently boring, but that it would be boring if that were all that anyone could write).

Place, though, is not sufficient catalyst to write a story.  Place is setting, you need characters to populate your setting, and their interactions should drive your story.  For “Steel Yard,” the catalyst was the Russian Woodpecker, an installation known as Duga-3 by the Soviets, given the NATO code-name Steel Yard.  Duga-3 is an enormous over-the-horizon radar array that was in place to detect U. S. missile launches for a time before it was overtaken by satellite technology and eventually the end of the Cold War.

I won’t give away any of the plot, that would ruin the fun (and I’m still waiting to hear back from a certain prestigious market about “Steel Yard”), but I will give you a few more pictures and another excerpt.

I wondered who would be crazy enough to spend more time in the Zone than they had to. I had only been beyond the fence for half a day, and I already felt uneasy. I remembered seeing wisps of smoke rising through the trees once or twice during my drive, and once I had seen a rutted gravel road going off through the trees; there were still some people living in the area. Although I knew better, images of mutated freaks with five eyes and glowing green skin sprang to mind; I pushed those thoughts aside quickly, and tried to concentrate on where I was going.

The corridors in the bunker all looked the same, only occasionally differentiated from one another by indecipherable strings of Cyrillic characters that I tried to keep straight in my head in preparation for my eventual exit. For every time that I had been thankful for the simple uniformity of Soviet design in the outside world, I now cursed the confusion that it was causing within the confines of the dingy bunker. Every time that I thought I was making some progress, I found myself at another dead end.

So what did I actually do for this story?  Much of the plot planted itself in my mind at the very start, brought on when I first learned about the Russian Woodpecker.  From there, I spent a lot of time reading everything that I could find about the array,  looking at lots of pictures, researching related subjects (Wikipedia may not be the best for academic research papers, but it’s more than good enough for me as a writer, and points me in the right direction for the information I can’t find with my own simple searches), and watching TV shows about the area, all the time keeping an open notebook at hand so that I could jot down any ideas that came to me during my research.  I kept a lot of pictures on hand while I was writing so that I could best capture an area I have never been to, and I often spent as much time looking at pictures as I did writing a particular scene.

SEPTA: The Philadelphia Underground, part III

When I wrote my first two posts on SEPTA, I was still in WNC, six hundred miles from my beloved Philadelphia, and could not provide the pictures that I wanted, but no more!  In the past few days, I was able to snap a few decent pictures (and quite a few awful pictures of nothing but darkness) while under the streets of Philly.

The tunnels beneath Philadelphia City Hall are some of the dingiest pedestrian tunnels I’ve been in the city.

The area under City Hall is also full of these exit only turnstiles.

This was the only decent pictures I was able to get of an actual subway tunnel, which is a shame, for there were some pieces of tunnel that I passed that would have made good pictures if only I had been in the tunnel itself, rather than going past in a trolley car.  The next time you’re riding in any sort of subway, keep an eye out for dark, unmarked doorways in the tunnel walls.  The sensible part of me knows that they’re access doors for the people who have to do construction and maintenance in the tunnels, but the interesting part of me can think up a million better purposes.

It’s rather difficult not to look shady when walking around underground taking pictures of random things.  There were several pictures that I didn’t get because I was being stared at by people, including a few of the restricted access areas that I’d stumbled into in the past by accident but had specifically aimed myself towards with the aim of taking pictures this time.  If you want to take some better, more daring pictures, feel free, but, as always, I’m not at fault for what you do to get yourself in trouble with the authorities.  Still, try to send me some pictures if you can get them.

Some Things NOT to Do

In addition to avoiding bad moons, here are some other things to avoid doing in your writing.

Avoid Tom-Swifties/Said-Book-isms.  These are those exciting dialog tags that you were probably taught to use in grade school because “said” and “asked” are boring.  Your dialog should indicate mood without having to use “he screamed,” or “she whimpered.”  If, in taking these out, your dialog stops working, you need to reevaluate your dialog.  The one exception is that you may use fancy dialog tags if the mood of the speaker is contrary to the mood of what is being said.  “Thank you,” she snarled.

Don’t use adverbs.  In general, if you must use an adverb, you’re using the wrong verb.  Strengthen your verb and the adverb will become unnecessary.  Instead of “walked quietly,” use “tip-toed” or “crept.”  Some editors will cross out all of your adverbs as they read, while others are more lenient.  Avoiding adverbs will, in general, make your work stronger.

Don’t be “The Eye of Argon.” Just don’t.  If you can read this without seeing any problems with it, you need help.  If you can read it out loud with a straight face, find a science fiction convention; you can win a drinking game that way.  Do read “The Eye of Argon,” though, for it’s one of the best lessons on what not to do as a writer.

I am Asking if the Moon is in the Sky Tonight?

With all the hullabaloo about werewolves, I think it’s important that writers know about how the moon behaves.  Too often they don’t, which is just sad, especially when works with bad moons get published.  Tolkien did his moons right, and he did them so consistently that you can track events to the day using his moon.

The moon rises in the east.  Always.  If a crescent moon looks like ), it has no business being in the sky at dawn, for such a crescent is waxing, meaning that it rises early in the evening.  Likewise, a waning crescent, which looks like (, rises late at night, and will be seen during daylight.  As the moon approaches full, it will rise progressively later at night, and a full moon will culminate (be directly overhead) at midnight.  The phases of the moon are, in order

  1. New moon
  2. Waxing crescent
  3. First quarter
  4. Waxing gibbous
  5. Full moon
  6. Waning gibbous
  7. Third quarter
  8. Waning crescent

Now you have no excuses for having your moons behaving badly.  If I read a new story that has a full moon one night, and no moon at all the next night, despite clear skies, I’m going to be pissed.

So, who can tell me what’s wrong with the moon in my banner image?

The Difference

Often, when I hear people talking about urban fantasy, I hear words like Twilight and paranormal romance.  I resent this.  I don’t have a problem with paranormal romances, just so long as I don’t have to touch them.  Neither do I have a problem with strong female characters and romantic subplots, which are seen by some as part of what defines urban fantasy.  I do have a problem with vampires who merely sparkle in the sunlight.  Were I a vampire, I would be embarrassed to leave my crypt until the sparkling thing blew over.

I bring this up because I think there’s a difference between the perception of what urban fantasy is and what it actually is.  I agree with Genre Bender that the difference between urban and regular fantasy is that urban fantasy is that urban fantasy takes place in a modern setting, and I have noticed that the line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy is blending, but I don’t think that “a kick-ass heroine (often wearing leather pants and wielding a semi-automatic)” is a necessary part of the formula.  There is merit to said kick-ass chicks, but urban fantasy, as a whole, can take them or leave them.

What urban fantasy needs is the fantasy.  Magic, monsters (though you might want to steer clear of vampires and werewolves until people get over this whole Stephanie Myers thing), strange happenings in general.  Romance, hard-boiled detectives, and leather pants are all optional.  Hell, strong female protagonists, no matter how much they feature in today’s urban fantasy, are optional.  The reason that people are seeing these elements are non-optional is that they’re some of the most common elements.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s interested in seeing more urban fantasy that isn’t chick-lit.  I’ve devoured Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, but that’s about all the urban fantasy that there is that isn’t targeted at women.  I’m not saying that books targeted at women are bad (except for Twilight, though that’s because it’s Twilight, not because it’s targeted at women), I’m saying that I’m not normally interested in reading books targeted at women.

This is part of why I write.  I can’t be the only male who likes urban fantasy and wants to read non-chicky urban fantasy that doesn’t star Harry Dresden.

Examining the Why

An important thing to do in your writing, no matter what you write, is to examine why the events of your story are taking place.  Is it just because the plot dictates that it is so?  Is it because of characters interacting as they naturally would?  Whatever the reason, you, as the writer, need to know.  Whether or not you tell readers is entirely up to you.  In some cases, you don’t have to tell readers directly; your story should show readers the why without your having to go out of your way to spell it out.  Your characters should show readers the whys of their interactions through their personalities, and if they don’t, you should go back and revise to strengthen your characters so that they do.  Setting, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult.

One of the questions that I always ask myself when I’m writing an urban fantasy is “why is this world the way it is?”  This is also a question that I ask myself when I’m reading urban fantasies by other writers.  It’s a question that I ask pretty much every time that I write or read.  Sometimes, the answer is unimportant.  I wrote a novelette about two people and a computer, and the why of the setting almost didn’t matter, for the whole of the story was about the interactions of these characters with each other, rather than with the world.  On the other hand, I’ve written several stories about a paranormal investigator living in Philadelphia in the 1970s, and I’ve spent many hours coming up with a compelling why for the magic in the world that seemingly only he can see.

You shouldn’t stress yourself too much about the why, though.  It can be something as simple as “there has always been magic in the world, but most beings with magical abilities try to stay incognito.”  This is a gross oversimplification, but this is how the world works in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books.  Certainly he goes more into it, establishing a governing body for all things supernatural, but at the heart of it, it’s pretty simple.  Lovecraft does something similar, establishing his mythos throughout much of the body of his work.  Certainly in the case of Lovecraft there are instances where the mythos does not explain what’s going on, but readers don’t come out of a story still wondering why the events that take place in the story take place.

Knowing the why gives your writing confidence, and that confidence will come through to readers, even if you don’t show it to them.  Once, one of my alpha-readers asked me why my paranormal investigator character could see the things that he sees.  My answer was a sheepish “I don’t know,” and that made me go back and think about his history.  You don’t have to show readers your whole hand, or at least not all at once, but if you know the whys of your story, they’ll come through in your writing and leave readers more satisfied.


Whether you’re in Philly, or some other place on the east coast of the U.S., you’ve probably been hit by this blizzard.  I was driving north from Western North Carolina, pretty much following the storm, and whenever my mind had a second to think about something other than my driving, I was thinking, “Man, I want to write about this.”

Snow is a near-universal experience, one of those things that does your work for you in fiction, bringing readers farther into your setting, and hopefully your narrative.  Snow is also very evocative, and it’s evocative of many different feelings.  Snow is wonder, mystery, but it’s also danger, cold, suffering.  Snow conceals the city, hiding the litter, making the dirty streets a winter wonderland.  Everyone bundles up, hiding under coats, scarves, and hats.  Snow is atmosphere.

I think that these pictures say everything.

Finding the Way

One uncommon aspect of Philadelphia culture which bears special consideration in stories set in a modern version of Philly is the LARPers.  Live-Action Role Playing exists wherever a handful or more of semi-active nerds gathers, but Philadelphia has a thriving LARPing community centered around the Wayfinder Experience, an organization founded on the principle of interactive, all-inclusive theater.  Wayfinder runs long camps several times a year in Philadelphia and elsewhere, but more importantly, they run weekly games of capture the flag in several parks scattered throughout the city.  This isn’t normal, run-of-the-mill capture the flag, though; this is CTF with foam swords.  Don’t write this off as a shameless plug, though, I do have a point to make.

Any place which has an active LARPing community is uniquely prepared in the even that fantasy breaks out, for regular LARPers are well-versed in the tropes of fantasy and science fiction.  This bears taking into consideration when using Philly as the setting of your urban fantasy, especially in cases where fantasy breaks out suddenly.  These people are your survivors; they will be more likely to keep a cool head when the whole world starts turning upside down.

One of the expected things that can be done when you have a group of LARPers, or any other role players, is to throw them into a fantasy world.  Hijinks ensue.  You’ve seen it in movies and TV shows too many times; you know better.  The canny thing to do would be to use them sparingly, or if they’re going to be the focus of your story, flip the convention.  Show readers that the skills that your group of LARPers has acquired are of no use to them in a real fantasy world.

Of course, to use this second option, you must tread carefully, for many have gone that way before.  Better to use your LARPers sparingly, but remember that they are there, for they are still a useful resource.  My mantra is always “do the expected poorly and you will lose your readers, do the unexpected well and they’ll beg for more.”

If you find yourself in west Philly on a Saturday afternoon, head to Clark Park between 1:00pm and 4:00pm, and you may well find me there, wielding foam with wild abandon.

Abandoned Places

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, as far as I’m concerned, set the groundwork for urban fantasy.  The area known as “Lovecraft Country,” encompasses both countryside and urban areas, and anyone living in the north-eastern United States has, undoubtedly, passed through Lovecraft Country at least once in his or her life.  Even those who have haven’t read any of Lovecraft’s works (and if you have an interest in urban fantasy and horror, you really ought to stop reading this right now and not return until you’ve read some Lovecraft) have likely gotten a bit of the uneasy feeling that Lovecraft communicates to his readers when passing through parts of rural New England.

But Philadelphia isn’t in New England; what does this have to do with anything?  Plenty.  Some of Lovecraft’s best pieces have to do with abandoned places, and any city is bound to have its share of abandoned buildings and other areas.  Focusing on Philadelphia, two of the places that spring to mind are Eastern State Penitentiary and the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry.  Just thinking about going into either of these places gives me the heebie-jeebies.

These places, of course, are just two of the better-known examples of abandoned places in Philly.  Another abandoned area in the city that I discovered through the magic of Wikipedia is the Reading Viaduct.

Visiting, or simply seeing pictures of abandoned places can help you capture the sort of atmosphere that is essential for urban fantasy.  Everything you can do to establish the total other-ness of a world that is both known and unknown will help your work and help you immerse your readers.

In the course of my research, I also found a listing of abandoned and interesting places in and around Philadelphia.  Even if you don’t go off and explore these places for yourself, the pictures alone should be inspiration enough to get your creative juices flowing.

One of the problems that I have with such research is that my principal urban fantasy arc is concerned with Philadelphia in the mid-70’s, so I often find something really interesting and inspiring, only to learn that it didn’t exist, or didn’t exist in its current incarnation, at the time that my stories are set.  I sometimes find it frustrating to write about an earlier era when such problems arise, but I find it rewarding because I don’t have to worry about modern technology mucking things up.

I would like to note, before signing off, that although I have posted links to sites concerned with the exploration of abandoned buildings, some of which may be located on private property, I do not endorse trespassing.  If you get hurt or arrested exploring a really cool abandoned building, don’t come crying to me.

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