Monthly Archives: March 2010

What I’m Working On

You may remember that, a while back, I posted a call for ideas on topics that you would like to see covered here.  Well, I’m finally responding to the answer I got.  Penguin, in brief, suggested that I talk more about the things that I’m working on and the things which give me trouble in my writing.

Though higher education occasionally gets in the way of my writing whenever I find inspiration, it sometimes helps, and although I haven’t had much time to touch some of my older, unfinished pieces, I have been turning out a lot of new material, and I’m currently sitting on close to a dozen pieces which are in at least ready to progress to second draft, if they haven’t already gotten there or beyond, and another big piece in the works.

My main struggle in my writing is time and inclination.  At school, I often find that the that time I have to work on non-class-related-writing is better consumed by socializing with my equally busy friends or gets wasted away doing seven kinds of nothing.  I often run into the same problems when I’m on break, minus the academic work.  Nevertheless, I have gotten better at managing my time and making sure that I do actually work on my writing.  I strive to do at least as well as I did several summers ago when I managed to turn out close to one hundred manuscript pages of text.  Not all of that got finished, and not all of it was even that good, but I got it done, and a lot of that writing is still useful to me.

Since I have about a dozen pieces of fiction that I’m sitting on right now, I’m not going to try to go into all of them in detail, but I will give some of the highlights.

For several years, I’ve had a character by the name of Marshall Celan who has been my go-to character when I have an idea for a story, but little in the way of characters.  Mr. Celan is also my main urban fantasy protagonist: a paranormal investigator from Philadelphia, circa 1970, who can see what others can’t and does his best to use this as a marketable skill.  At the moment, I have three tales about Mr. Celan which are in various stages of completion, one being out on market pending a response, one on its third draft and almost ready for market, and one in first draft with workshop notes which need to be acted upon.  Marshall also has a stack of stories which are half-formed in my mind, waiting for the right moment to spring onto the page.

Among the other stories which I’m sitting on at the moment, the ones which I’m most excited about don’t quite fit the urban fantasy mold.  One, a novelette about pseudo-Victorian technology, is more of what I’d call weird fiction, running along the lines of Lovecraft, but without any of the supernatural trappings which that normally entails.  Another piece is a retold fairytale, a Cinderella-story set in a post-apocalyptic world, while the third, a total work-in-progress is shaping into an alternate-history story with a healthy dose of mythology.

This last story, which is currently little more than scrawled notes in a few different books, is going to look a lot more like the original, broader definition of urban fantasy, as stated in my last post.  It’s also a rather large project, being assigned as a novelette/novella-length piece, and I’m going to do my best to track progress on it here as a kind of follow-up to my post on research from several months back, so you can expect at least a few posts out of me on that subject in the coming month.

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The Difference: Redux

While looking for who-knows-what-anymore on the internet the other day, I discovered a blog post from Paula Guran, editor of Juno Books, an imprint of Pocket Books which focuses on urban fantasy novels with strong female protagonists.  The post talks a lot about the shift in what folks are generally referring to when they talk about urban fantasy, a shift from the wider definition, which includes the works of Neil Gaiman and China Mieville, towards the narrower, more paranormal-romance-like definition, exemplified by the works of Laurel K. Hamilton and others.  Guran also goes on to talk about “kickassitude” and the link between urban fantasy and hard-boiled detective fiction and sword and sorcery stories.  In part, she writes,

“urban fantasy” owes more to the American hard-boiled detective genre than most may understand.Note: The literal meaning of the word hero/heroine is “protector”, “defender”,
“guardian” and is connected etymologically with the name of the goddess Hera.

George Grella, “The Hard-Boiled Detective Novel” (Winks, Robin W., ed. Detective
Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Foul Play Press, 1988):

  • heterogeneous nature of American society vs. the more formalized British
  • society of the traditional formal detective novel
  • first hard-boiled stories were seen as realistic portrayal of American
  • society, a society populated by real criminals and real policemen
  • private eye and the American detective hero:
    -deals out and receives a lot of physical punishment
    -isolates himself from normal human relationships
    -has own moral code which is usually stricter than the rest of society
    -often has inner voice that is listened to, even when it goes against traditional societal rules
    -quests for truth and expulsion of the undesirable is the guiding principle; the moral man who works in the city, the center of wickedness and perversion
  • “the urban jungle” replaces the wilderness; Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel (Criterion Books, 1960): the detective is a “cowboy” adapted to life on the city streets, the embodiment of innocence moving
    untouched through universal guilt.”
  • hero fights against the evils of society, and is left cynical and
    disillusioned in the end, his strength remaining because of his own moral code, his own sense of truth and right and wrong
  • The hard-boiled detective can never hope for full resolution of the crime and restoration of society because evil is too pervasive. He defeats only a small portion of evil while the rest of the evil continues–to be fought again

Reading this article has made me think more about my writing from a critical standpoint, pointing me towards my own influences in a way which shows me both where I can look to those influences to see how to do things better and where I need to pull back and differentiate my works from those of others.

The whole of Guran’s post can be found here (link opens in a new tab).


Opportunities (with Pictures)

Sometimes I go out looking for things to inspire me, sometimes I research a place and go there if I can, sometimes I just stumble into an opportunity to go someplace potentially inspiring.  Recently, I had that last thing happen to me, being taken to “the zombie basement,” the basement of a warehouse art-space where one of my friends does a lot of his creating.  I did have enough warning about going that I could grab my camera, and now you can reap the benefits as well.

Outside, it’s a gorgeous almost-spring day.  The sun is shining and people are sitting out on their front steps, taking in one of the first warm days after a long, harsh winter.  The temperature drops several degrees as soon as I step through the warehouse door, and begins to creep further downward as I descend the steps into the basement.  I duck reflexively as I go through the doorway, panning the beam of my flashlight across the dank room in front of me, my ears sensitive to the slightest sound, lest it be the last that I hear.  What is revealed to me piecemeal by the light of my flashlight and the bursts of my camera flash looks like the set of a horror movie or the cramped vistas of a nightmare, but the credits won’t roll on this place, and I’m already awake.

Pictures after the break.

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Zombies!

Though I’ve covered creatures before, I thought that zombies deserved a bit of special attention, partly because they have a special place in my heart as my first movie-monster love.  Other creatures may be pretty good, but nothing quite says horror to me like a shambling reanimated corpse.

Those of you who have seen the original Dawn of the Dead will remember that the movie opens in the projects in north Philly.  The movie then gets away from Philly (though staying in PA), but let’s just imagine that rather than following survivors to a mall, we stay in the city.  Where would be safest?  Where would an initial outbreak be likely to spread?

When I consider the prospect of a zombie outbreak in Philly, I think time and again that the most secure place stay, at least for the short term, would be Eastern State Penitentiary.  Certainly it’s creepy as all get out in there, but the place is built like a castle.  Yes, the primary purpose was to keep people in, but it was also important to keep people out of the place.  Another advantage is that the guard towers are good vantage-points from which survivors can track zombie movements on the surrounding streets and, if worst comes to worst, a decent location for a heroic last stand.

There are other places which would be fairly secure spots throughout the city.  The federal detention facility on 7th and Arch is another such location, although it does have the disadvantage of being full of prisoners, for it is an active facility.

When considering places where an outbreak would spread quickly, it’s a bit hard to know where to start.  Cities are terrible places for surviving a zombie outbreak because you’re at such close quarters most of the time.  This does give some clues as to the places to avoid most if you or one of your characters is trying to avoid the living dead.  The subway, especially the concourses around Suburban Station and Market East Station, is a really good place to become zombie food because there are relatively few options for escape.

Abandoned buildings, especially those which play home to vagrants, are another likely place for an outbreak to spread, and they’re one of the places where an outbreak is likely to go unnoticed for a time.  In general, anyplace which is generally ignored by much of the city except when it becomes a problem is a good place for the outbreak to spread.

One final place which is a likely breeding-ground for an initial outbreak is any of the wooded regions of Fairmount Park.  There are miles of trails in the city limits alone which run through wooded areas where someone could easily disappear or be attacked and bitten, and the woods are a good place for zombies to hide.  Remember the initial outbreak in the outskirts of Raccoon City (which, according to some versions of the back-story, is somewhere in central PA)?


Darkness/Humor

There’s a question that sometimes comes up when I’m talking with other writers and which leaves me at a bit of a loss when it’s turned on me, do you think about tone when writing?  I have trouble answering this question for my own writing because I do, but then I don’t.

When I think about tone is when I’m mulling over whether an action fits the character its been ascribed to, whether my narrator would actually say something that I’m having him or her say.  When I don’t think about tone is pretty much the rest of the time.  I don’t think, “I want to write a really dark story,” or, “this is getting too dark, I need to put something funny in to lighten it up a bit.”  I just think, “does this fit with the character or the plot?”

I write a lot of stories that have dark themes or elements to them, but they’re usually not all darkness.  Likewise, I’ve written a few really light, funny stories, but those aren’t non-stop laughs.  I try to balance my stories, even though I’m not often conscious of this balancing as I’m writing.

It should be obvious that when I say balance, I don’t necessarily mean total parity.  It’s not a laugh for a moment of darkness and vice-versa.  If I’m telling a dark story, I’ll have the odd humorous turn of phrase or snatch of dialog, but the darkness will still be the dominant theme, and, if I’m doing my job right, it’s those major bits which will stick in your mind more than the joke that found its way in somewhere on page four.

When it comes to humor, balance is just as important.  I get bored by stories or comics where it’s clear to me that the author was trying to squeeze in a laugh everywhere that light showed through the cracks.  I don’t want to be laughing every second, and the places that I’m not laughing are often as important as the laughs themselves.  Sir Terry Pratchett is the master of balancing humor with content.  No, they’re not all laughs, and some of them, especially his more recent works, have been quite dark, but he knows how to sneak a laugh in right where it will surprise and satisfy me most.

Swinging back to the darker end of the spectrum, H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe exemplify the horror genre, which urban fantasy takes some cues from.  Though neither of them has written anything that I would call particularly humorous, they both knew how to lighten up their stories to keep them from becoming overly oppressive and dark.  Yes, they did often try to make readers uncomfortable, but they could back off, too, so that readers aren’t driven away completely.

The lesson to be learned from these authors is to stay true to your stories.  A good story should know how to balance itself and should be able to tell you when you’re straying from the natural progression of things.  Likewise, your characters should know who they are, and they should keep you from putting words which are untrue to them in their mouths.  This all might take a few drafts, but that’s all part of the process.  Just don’t let your characters get away from you and start taking control; that’s another matter for another entry, though.


The Witch of the Wissahickon

In the woods near the Wissahickon Creek, just a bit north of Walnut Lane, stands a statue of a man in plain Quaker garb who looks out over the valley.  Inscribed upon that statue is the word “Toleration.”  The rock on which this statue stands, Mom Rinker’s Rock has a curious history, and figured slightly in the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War.

Stories say that, during that battle, Colonial spies received information about British troop movements from a woman known as Molly “Mom” Rinker.  This is nothing so unusual except that other stories, unconnected with the Revolution, tell of a witch name Mom Rinkle who haunted, as it were, those same parts.

I’m both sad and happy to say that I could find little information concerning Mom Rinkle/Rinker save that she drank dew from acorn-cups and could put the evil eye on neighbors; sad because there’s little historical information to inform my writing and happy because, more so than usual, I have permission to make things up wholesale.

I’m always happy to find local legends, especially old ones, and this one lends itself well to future stories.  It also gives me a reason, as if I needed one, to go up along the Wissahickon.  I hope I’m not the only Philly local inspired to do so.


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