Urban Fantasy

© 2010, Brian Belew

Downtown Atlanta at Night, September 2009

I used to do a fairly regular exercise that I lifted directly from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers on Amazon.com

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

I think the exercise was fairly early on in the book (like maybe even in the first few pages) and consisted of this: Every day, write one or more first sentences for stories. It can be one you don’t ever intend to write, but make it a good first line (it has to engage the reader and make them want to keep reading). For the better part of the next three years after I read that book, I made a kind of ritual out of writing (by hand in a notebook) at least one first line every night before I went to bed. Sometimes I’d have to force it; other times they’d flow like a waterfall and I’d have to just stop.

I eventually moved them all into digital format, and over time, the exercise became every few nights, then whenever I remembered it, then once in a while, and finally I just stopped until I needed inspiration.

A couple of years ago, I needed inspiration, so I sat down and wrote first lines. Several bad ones came out, followed by: “The man Nick Damon1 had come to kill was already dead.”

“Ooooh,” I thought. “I like that.” I forgot about first lines and ended up typing several thousand words of what I thought might be a short story. It’s now two novels in progress plus ideas for at least two or three more. In other words, a series.

It quickly became apparent that this was an Urban Fantasy novel. Problem: I didn’t know anything about that subgenre. I’d only read the Anne Rice books, but wasn’t sure they really qualified as Urban Fantasy.

Someone who had read an excerpt of that story pointed me at Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series. I picked them up and started reading . . .

. . . and yelled “GAAAAHHHH!”

Seems that without ever having read a word of Mr. Butcher’s writing, I had managed to “steal” one of his characters. And I don’t mean that my character sort of resembled his if you squint at night from a quarter mile. No. I mean that my character is virtually indistinguishable from his except that their names are different. Yeah. I don’t have an explanation except that perhaps we both tapped a certain stereotype and decided to deviate from it in almost the exact same ways.

Well, that’s . . . unfortunate, but I can change mine so that other people won’t just automatically assume I lifted the character from Mr. Butcher. Sure. No problem.

A friend loaned me a box of books that are all samples of Urban Fantasy series. I read a few of those and am slowly honing down what I like and what I don’t like.

One of the ones I like is Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series. It, too, is set in Atlanta in the present day (ish), only magic works. But, hey. Atlanta is a rich enough setting to support more than one Urban Fantasy series, right? Especially when they’re quite different. [And while we’re on the subject of Atlanta, take a look at that night shot of the Atlanta skyline up there at the top of this post. That was taken by my friend Brian during Dragon*Con a couple of years ago. I asked his permission to use it, and if I ever get my series published, that image will be the banner at the top of whatever dark theme I choose to use for the website for the books. I love it. And now, back to our regularly scheduled post, already in progress.]

Then I picked up Kat Richardson’s Graywalker series based on the recommendation of a different friend. I liked the first one and started avidly reading the rest of them . . .

. . . and yelled “GAAAAHHHH!”

It seems that the way I chose to visualize magic in my Urban Fantasy is almost identical in every way to the one she chose. Again, without my having read a single word of her work. Well . . . maybe we just tapped into a certain trope and both decided to use it in almost the exact same way. I mean, stranger things have happened. And mine’s only superficially similar. I can change it so it’s even more obviously different. Sure. No problem.

Last Tuesday, I was in a local Barnes and Noble for my critique group and decided to look at the latest arrivals on the science fiction/fantasy/horror/manga/gaming shelf. An author’s name caught my eye: Katharine Kerr. I adore her Deverry series. She couldn’t write them fast enough for me. I picked it up.

“Ooooh!” I exclaimed. “It’s Urban Fantasy!” I stifled a fanboy squee and quickly flipped it over to read the blurb . . .

. . . and yelled “GAAAAHHHH!”

Kerr’s main character is a secret agent in a . . . well, secret agency . . . of the Federal Government that investigates paranormal incidents.

Oh, just great. Now my underlying premise itself is going to look like I lifted it from another author. Except that after I read a chapter or two of Kerr’s book, I realized that hers is much more irreverent (so far), the agency (and therefore the paranormal aspects of the world) is so secret that not even the government knows it exists. And the readers aren’t even told what it’s called (yet). In mine, magic/the paranormal is much more open, as is the agency I created to police it. In fact, I think mine is the only one among the ones I’ve read in which the public actually knows magic exists. Although many of them don’t actually believe it.

I’m sure there are others. I haven’t read the genre extensively. Well, I’ve read it in depth, just not broadly. :) I still have a bunch of books in Terra’s Big Sampler Box of Urban Fantasy Series.

Meanwhile, I need to see if I can diverge some of these characters of mine from what apparently exists in the authorial collective unconscious.

Sure. No problem.

[Note: This is all tongue in cheek. I’m not sitting at home, gnashing my teeth and rending my clothes over how I have to ditch my characters or whatever. I just find it amusing that without having read any Urban Fantasy before backing into writing it, I just happened to come up with some of the same ideas as several published authors. Maybe that’s a good sign, right? Great minds, thinking alike? Right?]

  1. Actually, the original name I used wasn’t Nick Damon, it was something else, but I didn’t like it. Casting about for something better, I happened across this name I had used in an earlier story that I could never get to work. So I reappropriated it.

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2 Responses to “Urban Fantasy”
  1. Marcia says:

    Happy Birthday a day late :).

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