Monthly Archives: January 2010

Further Reinforcement from People Who Can Articulate Things More Succinctly Than I Can

Following on my last post come these words from Lockie Hunter, another of my professors, on the subject of research and creative writing.

“If you have to research something and you’re just not into it, don’t write it.”

I’m just waiting for the day that I write something truly outlandish on this blog, only to be backed up by a professor the next day.


Knowing What You’re Talking About

Recently, my father mentioned to me that he had picked up a book in the library discards which focused on the history of electrical inventions and inventors in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  He said that as far as the historical facts went, the book was okay, but when the author came to actually talk about electricity, it was clear that he knew nothing, and my father found it so infuriating as to almost make him want to throw the book across the room.  He didn’t throw the book, though; he’s got too much respect for the written word to do that.

This got me thinking about some of the things that will make me stop reading a book, and one of the top ones is being able to tell that the author knows nothing about the subject at hand.  It’s important to know what you’re talking about, even if you’re making things up wholesale.

Urban fantasy is not science fiction–you’re unlikely to find particle accelerators (unless you’re reading a story set at CERN or something), warp drives, cyborgs, or any other science fiction staples–but this doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to run across things that authors need to research.  Guns are a good example.  How many times have you played “count the shells” in an action movie or a fight scene in a book?  Not everyone will know that a Colt 1911 holds seven .45 ACP rounds in a magazine (plus one in the chamber), but if your character uses a 1911 and fires nine or more rounds without reloading, someone is going to notice.

Guns are only one example, but they’re an example that I think is especially relevant to urban fantasy, considering the genre’s preponderance for leather-clad women with heavy firepower.  If you’re going to be specific about a character using a specific firearm, make sure you know as much as possible about it.  Likewise, make sure you know the specifics of the car that your character drives.  You don’t need to put everything you know about a specific piece of kit on the page, but you need to know that information.

For those things that you make up, a good way to establish yourself as an expert is to explain something very simple.  If you can explain something that readers know, then they’ll not look as closely at the things that they don’t know.

If you feel that doing such research is nothing more than a chore, then cut back on the technical details, but remember that if you have fewer details, your readers are less likely to be immersed in your stories.  You need to strike the right balance between too many and too few details in your fiction, whatever the subject matter.

Creatures Great and Small

In my continuing series on not writing the same old same old, I think it’s well worth mentioning the role of fantastical creatures.  Certainly you can have an urban fantasy without any creatures, but they’re a nice touch.  The trick, of course, is to use them right.  You cannot rely on the existence of elves, vampires, were-creatures, ghouls, goblins, or zombies to carry your story.  They’re all so damn common, even overused, that readers will get bored quickly if there isn’t something else there to hold their interest.

George H. Scithers, editor emeritus of Weird Tales magazine, put it this way: “Werewolves and vampires can’t carry a story any more than being in space can.  You can use them as a setting, as it were, but it’s got to be ‘you’re in space and something funny happens’ or ‘there are werewolves and vampires and something funny happens.'”  I’ll freely admit to having used werewolves in stories before, but their existing in my setting wasn’t remarkable.  Rather, they were a tool that allowed me to tell the real story.

A story can only really support one fantastical element.  The Lord of the Rings has its one ring, for example; the various races are just tools for telling the story.  If they were anything more than that, they would detract from the story.

In a more relevant example within the context of urban fantasy, Harry Dresden’s being a wizard allows his stories to be told, but nobody would have read past the first book if his wizardliness were the only thing to the books.  This is an important thing to learn and apply to your own writing.  If you spend much time reading fantasy and science fiction, which you ought to if that’s what you’re trying to write, then you’ll start noticing that there’s only one real focus of any story, and everything else is subordinate to this element.

So what does this mean if you want to apply your cryptozoological knowledge to your writing?  First, don’t be cliché.  We’ve all seen enough sexy/angsty vampires, including the sparkling kind, to last us a lifetime.  Second, make sure that creatures aren’t the only thing holding your story together.  There should be some plot other than “there are zombies, OMG!”  Third, establish why there are creatures.  You don’t have to stick in huge amounts of exposition to do this, but you should have a clear idea in your mind why there are creatures, and you should put enough of this on the page to satisfy readers.  This can be as little as “there have always been creatures, people just learned to un-see them,” or as much as an entire history of where and when the creatures came from.

Whatever you do with creatures, do it deliberately.  If you’re slap-dash with your creatures, your readers and editors will know, and they’ll stop reading.

Reinforcement from People Who Can Articulate Things More Succinctly Than I Can

As a follow-up to my previous post, I have this quotation from one of my professors this semester.  “Genre fiction is generic because it reinforces convention.”

Erin, my professor, went on to say that it is our job as writers to go against that.  Genre fiction gets a bad rap from many people because of this reinforcement of convention; it should not be a dirty word.

For me, this is encouraging to hear, for it means that I’m not the only writer who has thought about the bad rap that genre fiction gets.  I hope that any of you who are writers also take these words to heart.

Breaking the Cliche

In an earlier post, I discussed the difference between how I see urban fantasy and how the world at large generally sees urban fantasy.  A lot of what makes the average urban fantasy is a collection of tropes that at least approach being cliché.  Chicks with leather pants and sawn-off shotguns?  Overplayed.  Sexy vampires and werewolves?  Killed for the next few years by Twilight.

If urban fantasy wants to evolve as a subgenre, it must move beyond these clichés.  This doesn’t mean that there can’t be werewolves or vampires, but they ought to keep their shirts on unless the situation absolutely demands otherwise, and the vampires ought only to sparkle if they’ve been attacked by some variety of glitter elemental.  We, as writers, must push the limits of what urban fantasy is to realize what it can be.

This does not require so radical a change as you might imagine, though.  I’m not suggesting that you or I must completely do away with the basic tropes of urban fantasy; without those tropes it would be a different genre.  What I’m saying is that we must understand which tropes are essential and which ones are cliché.  With that understanding, we can move forward to write more interesting stories which challenge readers to reëxamine their ideas about what urban fantasy is.

Don’t reinvent the wheel–it works well enough–make a more pure wheel.  Build from the foundations that have been laid, but don’t just build another samey-samey block house.  This is our mission, and we have no choice but to accept it.

Getting the Lay of the Land

It’s much more important to know your local geography when writing urban fantasy than it is when writing run-of-the-mill fantasy.  You do need to be consistent in your geography when writing anything, but with regular fantasy, you can make the land up.  In writing urban fantasy, it’s vitally important that you know the city that you’re using as a setting, because otherwise you’re going to get called out.  This is doubly true if you decide to write about a city that you’re not intimately familiar with.  If you must write in detail about a place that you’ve never been, be sure to get as many pictures and maps as you can, but if you can avoid the problem altogether, do so; your readers will thank you.

In this day and age, getting the lay of the land is easier than it used to be.  If you’re reading these words, you have easy access to satellite images of the whole world.  There’s a lot that you can discover about your city, even if you’re a lifelong native, by seeing it from a different angle that you can’t get just by taking a walk.  This was impressed on me recently when I was flying back to Philly, a city which I’ve lived in since birth.  Out of the window of the little prop plane I was in, I could see the city stretched out beneath me.  On the plane’s final approach, I spotted a group of houses that looked as if they had been abandoned for at least the past decade, which immediately got my mind ticking, wondering who lived there, what they did, and why they moved out.

Getting the lay of the land also means taking to the streets, though.  There’s a lot that can be discovered by taking a good long walk, and maybe even getting a bit lost.  When you’re all turned around, especially in a city you know well, you often find things you might never have seen otherwise, and that can help you as a writer.  It’s by taking chances that you discover the obscure, and therein may lie a thousand stories.  This doesn’t mean being unsafe, though.  A back alley is something totally different at night than it is in the daytime, but if you’ve seen one shady back alley at night, you’ve got enough to know what every other alley is likely to be like without putting yourself in danger.

So, my advice to you is to go out and see the place that you’re writing about, whether that means walking, biking, driving, or even flying.  It might just be what you need to push your story to the next level, and it will almost certainly make your descriptions of setting feel more realistic to your readers.

Exciting News!

My story, “Steel Yard,” excerpts of which appeared in the post From Research to Writing, received an honorable mention in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future competition (I did say it was a prestigious market).  Certainly it’s not professional publication, but it’s another step towards it.

I’m jet-lagged now, but expect blogging to resume in the coming days.

Surprise Mini-Post

In all the hubbub of London, I’ve found a quiet minute to let you all know that I’m alive and well. London is a fantastic city, and is providing lots o grist for my writing, and there are likely to be pictures and snatches of writing going up once I return to Philly.

Peace to the blagoblag.

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