I didn’t set out to write Urban Fantasy. Originally I was a writer of thriller/mysteries – a series about a cop who became an ex-cop after some unfortunate incidents. I only got two books in the series done before I abandoned writing for a while, but that’s another story.
But to me, the transition was a natural one. UF is usually seen as an offshoot and subgenre of fantasy in general – but I don’t see it that way. I think it’s squarely in the tradition of P.I. noir books, and of mysteries in general.
Now of course, defining UF is an exercise in futility. Everyone has their own particular take. Mine is simple – it’s like the old quote about pornography from Justice Potter Stewart, where he admitted he’d be hard pressed to define pornography, but nonetheless, “I know it when I see it.” Jim Butcher is classic UF. Neal Gaiman, who also sets his fantasies in contemporary society, is not. Rob Thurman is. Sean Stewart is not.
And that’s because writers like Gaiman come out of the fantasy tradition, while Jim Butcher is part of a lineage stretching back to Sam Spade.
Now there’s another line of UF that owes much to Romance. Rachel Caine, Charlaine Harris, and early Laurel Hamilton come out of that tradition – smart mouthed, kick ass heroines who owe a lot to Buffy, and are not to be trifled with. But the romance tradition is clear – no matter how complex the world building is, no matter how convoluted and surprising the plot, an essential element always remains about whether or not it’s a good idea to do the vampire, werewolf, or both.
But I’m talking PI books here. First, I’d guess a majority of UF books are written these days in first person, as were Hammet’s, Chandlers’s, Ross MacDonald, John D MacDonald, and even Micky Spillane. That world weary tone, that cynical take on life, that outsider status are crucial to those books, and first person is a perfect vehicle to pull that off. And that is also the typical UF hero.
Look at Jim Butcher, whose Harry Dresden books had a huge influence on establishing the current UF genre. Harry is a PI of sorts, though of the magical variety. He’s a troubled loner, certainly a moral figure, but not conventually so. He lives in a run down apartment in Chicago. He has a ambivalent relation with law enforcement – most hate him, but he does have allies. He has romantic hopes, but they’re never the focus of the books. He can take care of himself, but gets his ass kicked from time to time. He trusts no one, and in every book, there’s a mystery to be solved, and half the time he hasn’t a clue as to what’s really going on. He just stirs things up and sees what will come of it.
Harry calls himself a wizard, but he bears no resemblance to Gandalf the Grey, or Harry Potter for that matter. But take away his wizard’s staff and replace it with a .38, and voila — you’ve got Philip Marlow and Sam Spade.
UK UF writer Mike Carey’s Felix Castor would have been right at home in Chandler’s LA. Recent books by other authors have expanded on the PI character – Mark Del Franco’s Conner Grey is a Druid, for example. But he does have a cop friend, and he does have to solve murders and unravel complicated events to find the bad guy. Simon Green’s John Tayor is another cynical magical loner, again faced with solving mysteries and running up against the establishment. So UF books, no matter how bizarre the world their set in, are often really mystery novels with supernatural elements more than anything else.
My own strongest influence was not a fantasy writer, but mystery writer John D MacDonald, especially his Travis McGee series. Again, the PI trope is played – McGee operates outside the law, but is an intensely moral fellow at core, and intensely loyal to his friends. He routinely gets himself in over his head, then gets out of trouble with a combination of skill and luck.
MacDonald wrote some 21 of these Travis McGee books, (an astonishing feat — most series run out of ideas at about book six at the latest.) and most of them are brilliant. And like Chandler and Hammet, they are true standalones, with recurring characters, but little if any reference to the other books. Which is exactly what I wanted to do – write a UF series where the plots of books 2, 3, and 4 have no particular relation to book one. But there’s the rub.
It turns out, at least for me, that writing a UF series is more difficult than a PI series. The basic difference between the PI novel and UF books is obvious — the world building. And that presents a problem for a standalone series that I wasn’t aware of until I started trying to write one.
In a detective series, whether it’s LA in the forties or present day Seattle, we know the world. A new book in the series may have to reintroduce the characters and fill in a little back story, but that’s not too difficult. You can refer to that time your MC had that hassle with a biker gang, and let it go at that. But you don’t have to explain what a biker gang is, or even worse, what a biker is.
In UF, you can’t refer to anything that happened in a previous volume without including a lot of explanation. And as we all know, that does not usually make for an exciting read. And worse, you’ve spent a great deal of time introducing the rules and inhabitants of your particular world in your first book — which is a great part of what makes the book fun.
But you can’t do it again in book two, and you can’t drop the reader in the middle of an invented fantasy world with no explanation either. So you have to tread a fine line between too much explanation and too little. Don’t bore the reader who enjoyed book one. Don’t leave the first time reader of book three totally at sea. I end up wrestling with this balance on almost every page. And I’m never quite sure if I’ve got the balance right. One thing for sure — the readers will certainly let me know if I haven’t.