Writing Urban Fantasy: Making Weird Seem Normal

Horsehead Nebula by Trey Ratcliff from FlickrI don’t always write Urban Fantasy books. I’ve written in a few different genres, most of them trending far more towards real life as we know it. But this current series I’m working on is most definitely Urban Fantasy, and one of the things I’ve come to realize about writing in this genre is that none of this stuff makes any damn sense.

The very definition of Urban Fantasy means that you will have otherworldly elements running around in the present day. Maybe some vampires are involved, or zombies, or ghosts, or whatever. They’re going to be there. That’s the whole point. And these things are inherently nonsensical.

They can’t possibly exist in our world. A body cannot become reanimated simply because the brain begins functioning again on some level, as most zombies are described. A vampire would snap its own neck due to the forces it would encounter while travelling across rooms in the blink of an eye. And, I don’t know, you can’t go riding off into space on a pony…or something. The entire genre is built on a foundation of things that are inherently silly, and yet the genre contains some of the greatest works of fiction out there as well as some of the most moving moments in literature.

So how does one add gravitas to a world where lunacy is the foundation?

Well reality helps. Yes, in one sense reality gets abandoned near-instantly when writing in any fantasy genre. As I said above, none of this stuff can possibly exist. But there is another reality to consider, the reality of your characters’ point of view. Their reactions, or lack thereof, can do a lot to paint your world in the right hue. Take the off-the-cuff example from above of someone riding away on a space pony. If we write this in a surprising manner it won’t make a damn bit of sense. If the characters are as confused as everyone else about how a pony can ride in space, it just won’t work. Unless what we’re going for is humorous absurdity. That can be fun too. But take a look at the following:

Ranger Ramone looked over his deputies, the now-safe galaxy swirling on the comm screen behind them. “It’s time for me to go,” he said.

He turned to his pony, and rested a hand on the saddle pommel. Trying not to show any of the sadness he felt at departing, he set a foot in a stirrup and swung a leg up to sit astride his horse. With a twitch of the reigns he walked the horse towards the airlock.

Most of his deputies scattered in front of him. One was trapped, unable to move or react, only staring at the horse clopping along through the space station.

“We told you that your horse is against all safety protocols!” one woman screamed in vain.

Ranger Ramone reached the airlock. “Adios,” he said, giving one last look back at his now-former crew before extending a leg and reaching a booted toe towards the “Open Air Lock” button.

Wait what are you do-” one of his deputies tried to shout before the air lock opened, and with a ruffle of everyone’s clothing, all the air in the station emptied into the vacuum of space.

That was…well that was idiotic. Even for a passage about how idiotic something can seem. And that isn’t really Urban Fantasy seeing as how we’re in space. It’s Sci-Fi of some sort. And I don’t know why the airlock button would just open a door instead of a chamber where the atmosphere first gets regulatohwhocares whatever that’s not the point.

The point is this notion is inherently silly.

Why?

Because the reality for our characters has no room for this horse-in-space. They clearly don’t know what to do with it, have no idea why it’s there, and are generally scared of any repercussions it might bring about.

How can we fix this?

Easy. We make it normal. We make it common-place. We make it not an anomaly. A few quick fixes come to mind.

First, we make horse-space travel commonplace, which means that there will be others docking (stabling?) their horses and departing on horseback and most likely there will be a structure to facilitate this.

Second, I’ve already mentioned how our characters’ reactions can impact things. Well, they should react pretty much the same way I would react to someone driving a car out of a garage…which is not much at all. Maybe it’s an especially nice car but otherwise this is everyday stuff.

And, third, I always like to add a bit of lingo. If something happens every day, people tend to apply their own phrases to the various components of it: abbreviations, running jokes, wording that rolls off the tongue better than whatever the manual says.

So lets try that again:

Ranger Ramone looked over his deputies, the now-safe galaxy swirling on the comm screen behind them. “It’s time for me to go,” he said.

“Sir,” one man said, standing stoic at attention, unable to relax for fear of what his emotions might do to him. “Requesting permission to escort you to the Horse Docking Bay.”

Ranger Ramone eyed the deputy, a sad look drifting over his eyes as he slowly nodded.

“Me as well,” another deputy said.

“Might run into danger heading to the Ho-Dock,” another said. “You could use an escort.”

One by one all the men and women chimed in with the request.

Ranger Ramone closed his eyes as a smile, just briefly, played over his face. “Request granted,” he said softly.

He turned and walked to the HDB, his team spread out in an echelon behind him, every one of them beaming as all eyes in the space station turned towards them. The line of ponies leading off into space was sparse at this time of day and Ranger Ramone reached the Pony Request Desk quickly. He didn’t have to say anything, his pinto Lazerquark was waiting, the clerk on duty having spotted his approach from across the bay.

Ramone hooked one foot in his stirrup, Lazerquark whinnying in barely controlled fury, only calming down as Ramone patted his mane. Then with silken movement Ranger Ramone climbed into the saddle. Lazerquark stepped onto the inertia stabilizing walkway, her hooves syncing to the moving conveyor belt with no break in stride.

His deputies remained at attention as the horse rode towards the HDP portal.

“Deputies,” Ramone said, his voice gravelly, his eyes looking straight ahead, unwilling to look back, “dismissed.”

And with that he was out the portal and into space. As one, the deputies all broke stance and rushed to the comm screen. At first Lazerquark was easy to pick out in the horse-traffic moving to and from the space station. But as Ranger Ramone drew further away the horse’s characteristic gait became harder to pick out, Ramone’s sheriff’s jacket harder to see. And eventually he became just another speck on the main horse trail out of the station, lost in the blackness of space.

Now that?

Well that was still pretty dumb. I’m not saying you can cram anything anywhere and make it fit. And I don’t know why a sheriff was using military language…

But still, you can get away with a whole lot more if you approach your weird moments through the eyes of your characters and make those moments seem boring and mundane.

Remember if it’s weird for them, it’ll be weird for your audience.

And maybe that’s what you want.

But if weirdness is constantly crowding out your characters, it’s difficult to let them have any real emotional weight.

Sometimes it’s best to let your characters be bored by your strangest inventions.

Your Relationship with Your Book

The Curve of Your Spine by estonia76 from FlickrLast week I slipped a disc in my neck.

This is a recurring injury that happens whenever I get sloppy with my stretches and let my posture at my desk go. Though, actually, the slipped disk isn’t the problem. See, if you were to give 10 random people on the street an MRI, about 8 of them would have a slipped disc, but only 2 of them would be feeling anything.

Which is to say that discs, the gelatinous sacs that live between your vertebrae, slip out of place all the time.

My problem is that when this particular disc slips out it hits a nerve, causing pain and numbness and general awful feelings.

So it was impossible for me to sit down at my desk for awhile.

Thus, I had an unplanned break from writing.

And when I came back, I was terrified about how I was going to get figure out my bearings in my book again. Look at an outline? Reread the last few pages? Pray?

It occurred to me that writing a book isn’t about ordering your story to do what you want and pouring words into a pre-built mold.

Writing is more about building a relationship…a relationship with said book.

It’s about sitting down each day and having a chat with your story. It’s about listening as much as talking. It’s about asking the right questions of your characters and your scenes and taking an interest in what’s going on that day. Is the lighting interesting? How does the air smell? If you sit for awhile and everyone agrees to be quiet, what ambient noises will you hear in the background?

Of course then your characters begin to get restless, they have actions and conversations that they were working on yesterday to get back to. They were just fighting with each other, remember? Or someone just fell in love. It’s time to clock in for the day and get back to that. Maybe some of the raw power of the scene isn’t there anymore because, well, you had a better handle on it a few days ago and now it’s slipping away from you. But that’s okay. Because that day you had a handle on it you were able to write it really well, and that will carry through the scene. And when you go back to rewriting you’ll have a clear and colorful batch of words from that day to evenly spread across things so that the entire scene has that feeling you wanted.

A relationship is as much give as it is take. So it’s okay that you don’t quite feel it today. Your characters will be fine with that. See they want to get back to work, they have things to do and emotions to express and you had them all riled up not twenty-four hours ago and they’d very much like to continue that conversation. And they’d prefer to continue it, even if your attention is somewhat wavering, rather than have you not show up for work a bunch of days in a row because you can’t see them clearly enough.

And it’s nice that earlier in the week you were really able to smell the mold in the bathroom in that one building, but the mold isn’t going to mind that you can’t smell it so well anymore. It’s just happy to have been noticed in the first place. It doesn’t need center stage.

Writing a book is relationship; it needs communication every day.

That’s why coming back after a break can be so difficult.

Oddly the difficulty comes about because it isn’t all about you.

There is another entity involved, here: your book.

It’s hard to get back to that place where you listen instead of force.

It’s uncomfortable, when coming back, to let your book carry the conversation when you feel lost.

You feel like, as the author, you should be running the show.

But your book?

It’s got it’s own shit it wants to do.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to keep yourself out of its way.

Dead Tired of Traditional Horror Books

Who among us can really say whether we could face the same fears that we read about in a book? Well-written horror books can take a small piece of reality, and distort it in such an extremely believable way that we find ourselves shaking as we turn each page.  A good writer will offer an entertaining story; a great one will develop and flesh out the characters involved, allowing us to be taken along for the ride of their development.  Horror stories are especially frightening, as we all too often become attached to a particular individual; their eventual loss of life, in most stories, shocks us.

Do you have particular memories of a past event that keep recurring, or some sort of story that keeps playing in your head? You don’t have to be a Pulitzer winning author in order to give it a go; put your thoughts down on paper and write your own horror books and stories.  There is a new trend hitting the internet where the object is to write a terrifying story with just two sentences.  If you think that writing an entire horror novel is difficult, try getting a complete storyline completed with just two sentences!  It makes for a fun and interesting concept, and is a great way to take a nugget of an idea and whittle it into what would basically be a mini novel.

 
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If you aspire to be a great horror writer, consider several quick points: first, remember that horror isn’t automatically blood and gore; some of the more terrifying things in the world, real or imagined, are of a spiritual and other-worldly nature.  Another aspect is to make sure that you develop a thoughtful storyline with some unexpected twists.  It can be sometimes be very easy to write yourself into a corner, so make sure to plan your story out, and have a vision of where you want it to end.  Finally, never ever give up! You could be close to having a major breakthrough if you give up too quickly, so push through and you will eventually have a story you can be proud of.