Book Recipes: How to Write an Urban Fantasy

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at urban fantasy, so load up on eyeliner and edgy leather jackets. It’s about to get edgy.

 

Ingredients:

  • One feisty yet clueless female protagonist
  • One of the hot kind of supernatural creatures
  • A different (but still hot) supernatural creature
  • A token best friend
  • A cape-wearing villain
  • The Object of Power
  • One skyscraper-ey backdrop
  • Background spooky magic
  • A constant cycle of full moons

 

Method:

  1. Put your feisty female protagonist and her token best friend against your suitably urban backdrop. There, you’ve done your setting.
  2. You’ve stumbled across a mythical thingy! Hopefully this won’t be important later.
  3. Symbolic dreams!
  4. Suddenly there’s a lot more hot and brooding men about making vague allusions to The Prophecy. Huh. Tinder got weird.
  5. But no! It’s the plot. Our feisty main character is the proud owner of the Object of Power, and all the supernatural hotties want to get their hands on it.
  6. Have your first brush with death. It’s OK though – you’re immediately rescued by a shirtless vampire or something.
  7. Have sexual tension with one of the leads, then angst.
giphy angst
No-one understands. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Time for the main character to finally learn what’s been going on! Sit them down and ’splain them a thing. Make sure this covers The Prophecy, the weird supernatural world they’ve stumbled into, and setup for the conflict in the final third of the book.
  2. Wonder at all the magical stuff the main character can see. Maybe she’s pals with a dragon now! Maybe she’s made out with a wizard! Maybe she’s been to a market staffed entirely by snake-headed women! Pick a thing to illustrate this world’s weirdness and roll with it.
  3. Have sexual tension with a different lead. Think about the other lead, then angst.
  4. Here’s our first mention of our cape-wearing villain! Make sure to drive home to the reader that they are a bad, bad egg.
bad-egg
Like this. (image: gobrightwing.com)
  1. Turns out the main character has powers now. Time for a training montage!
  2. Time for another brush with death. Don’t worry, the main character is still fine.
  3. More sexual tension! We didn’t include all these shirtless werewolves for nothing.
  4. Learn some more about The Prophecy, or The Ancient War, or The Object of Power. Make sure to pay attention. We’re heading into the last quarter of the book, so there’s a 90% chance that any piece of new information will resolve the final conflict.
  5. Remember that best friend from step one? THEY’VE BEEN KIDNAPPED OH NO
  6. The villain demands the main character hand over The Object of Power or they’ll kill their best friend. This is a real and tangible threat because even though the best friend hasn’t been mentioned since step one, WE TOTALLY CARE ABOUT THEM YOU GUYS
  7. Go to meet the villain with The Object of Power. Be polite and let him monologue for a bit before you hand it over.
  8. Use your newfound powers to save your friend, get The Object of Power and save the day! Bonus points if you can get rescued by a shirtless hottie as well.
  9. Set up the next book in the series. And the next. And the next, because this will go on for ever.

THE END. Serve with plenty of moody eyeliner.

 

Tips:

  • Make sure you pick the hot kind of supernatural creature for your romantic leads – the angstier the better. Vampires, werewolves, fallen angels and demons are all solid choices, but trolls, ghouls and zombies are best left in the background.
  • Always include a love triangle.
  • In this one you’ve got the option for your main character to be secretly half-fairy or whatever. If you go down this road you’ve got three things to remember:
  1. This can’t have a bad effect on their appearance – pointy ears or an unusual eye colour is the most unique thing you can go for.
  2. The main character must be utterly and completely clueless about her heritage at all times.
  3. The reveal must be the Most Dramatic Thing
  • Don’t forget about your main character’s piece of significant jewellery! It’s almost always magical, but she’ll have had it all her life so she’s probably used to the glowing.
  • Don’t bother researching into actual supernatural lore. Just make it up! It’ll be fine.
  • Never, ever let your main character work out that supernatural creatures are real before someone else explains it to her, even if it’s super obvious. She can’t already believe in vampires or whatever, everyone knows they aren’t real.
giphy vampire
OR ARE THEY (image: giphy.com)
  • Your supernatural races should all look like human hotties, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to easily tell them apart by sight! Here’s a handy guide to get you started:
    • Vampires: wear black
    • Werewolves: beefy
    • Angels: blond
    • Fallen angels: blond, but also pale and sad
    • Demons: have piercings
  • Always have one ‘bad boy’ love interest who wears a leather jacket.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

“I don’t understand! Just tell me what’s going on!”

Byron doesn’t stop. Hand clenched around my arm, he drags me away from the goo-spattered alleyway, his jaw clenched. “You could have got yourself killed! What were you thinking?”

I try and tug my arm out of his grip but I can’t – he’s crazy strong. He leads me into another alleyway, far away from the sticky black goop we left behind. We’re round the back of a nightclub in the bad part of town, sirens blaring and a nearly-full moon blotted out by flickering streetlights and grimy concrete towers. He drags me behind a dumpster – no-one can see us from the street now – and it occurs to me that this may have been a bad idea.

Still, I want answers.

I’ve got this old necklace I’ve had since I was a baby. It’s nothing special – just a perfectly spherical blood-red gem on a chain as thin as cobwebs. I’ve always worn it. But ten minutes ago it started glowing, and then the guy that my best friend Mary was dancing with grew a lizard head, and then I chased him out into the alleyway and he exploded into this amorphous blob of goop when I touched him. If Byron hadn’t been there I would’ve been covered in the stuff, but he just waved this knife around and the goop-blob kind of dissolved.

Byron runs a hand through his dark, floppy hair. His cheekbones glisten in the moonlight. “Echo Bellereve,” he mutters, “why is it that every time we meet I have to perform an exorcism?”

“It’s not my fault that – exorcism?”

“Yes! What did you think I was doing?”

His face is white with anger – but now I think about it he’s always been kind of pale. Maybe it’s just because he’s always dressed in black. I swear I’ve never seen him without his leather jacket. I don’t know what he’s going to do when it starts getting to summer – but now I think about that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in the daytime either. Huh. Weird.

“Do those pointy ears of yours actually work, Echo? Have you been listening to a word I’ve said? You don’t –”

I pull my auburn curls around my face, covering my ears. OK, so they are kind of pointy, but he doesn’t have to be a jerk about it. “Don’t make fun of my ears!”

“So you heard that, did you? Well, listen up. You don’t belong here. Go back to your safe little world and don’t bother me any more. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”

God, he’s practically growling at me. I hate that he still looks good doing it. He’s got to have some flaws – but no. Perfect cheekbones, dark eyes, a jaw like granite. I guess his teeth are kind of pointy but I don’t think that really counts.

I glare at him. “I’m not leaving my friend behind! Now, are you going to tell me what happened back there, or –”

“You don’t know? You don’t – Echo, you could have died! It’s a miracle you weren’t –”

He stops. His pale face gets paler.

“You’re bleeding,” he says.

OK, his teeth really are pointy. Also, I can’t believe I didn’t notice this before but his eyes are kind of red. And glowing. Is he wearing contacts?

I touch my cheek and my fingertips come away bloody. “Oh yeah. But look, what was…”

He’s suddenly much, much closer now. Every eyelash stands out sharp against his cheeks. His eyes are really red now – like, properly vermillion, not just garnet – and suddenly I’m annoyed. He’s just doing this to scare me and he’s not even answering any of my questions.

“Stop being a jerk,” I snap, and shove him away. He doesn’t move. I’ve basically just slapped him in the chest and now I feel like an idiot. I did at least get to touch his pecs though, so there’s that.

He doesn’t say anything. Just stares, and now his canine teeth are like, super-sharp.

“I said, take your damn contacts out and stop being a –”

Someone slams into him.

I shriek. Byron goes flying into the wall. He hisses, eyes still glowing, and then someone – a huge someone, built like a goddamn mountain – slaps him right across the face.

“Echo!” says a familiar voice. “Are you hurt?”

It’s Rex Volkov, from school. Rex Volkov, who’s six and a half feet tall and so broad-shouldered he has to turn sideways to fit through the classroom doors. He comes running over to me, mahogany eyes wide with concern.

“Oh, Jesus,” he says, and there’s a certain amount of hissing and frantic scrabbling from Byron, “you’re bleeding. Did he bite you?”

I frown. “Um, no. Why would he do that?”

Rex stares at me. “Are you serious?”

Byron springs up again. His eyes are glowing red, his canine teeth are sharp and pointed, and he’s hissing at Rex. Rex doesn’t even turn around. He just punches Byron in the side of the head and he goes crashing down.

“He’s a vampire,” Rex says.

“Oh, very funny, Rex. There’s no such thing as vampires.”

“Jesus wept.” More hissing. “Look at him! Look at his teeth! His eyes started glowing at the sight of blood!”

“They’re just contacts! And…and prosthetic teeth, probably. You can get those, right?”

“Prosthetic…never mind. Look, you need to get out of here. He’s going to try and eat you now he’s scented blood. There’s a church a couple of streets away. If you run, I can hold him off long enough for you to –”

Byron scrabbles at his leg. Rex picks him up and throws him into the dumpster.

“Real mature, Rex. Real mature. Next you’ll be telling me you’re a werewolf!”

Rex goes very quiet.

“And that I’m a half-fairy, half-angel mythical being who’s like, princess of everything!”

Rex starts shuffling his feet.

“Yeah. I didn’t think so either. Now you’ve had your little joke, so why don’t you let Byron out of the dumpster and get him to tell me what’s going –”

Byron bursts out of the dumpster. His eyes are blazing red, his teeth have turned to fangs, and two large, leathery bat wings are poking through his jacket. Hissing, he rounds on me. Rex shoves me out of the way, rips off his shirt – and damn, by the way – and then promptly turns into a wolf.

And that’s when I passed out.

 

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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Tales as Old as Time: How Stories Age

Picture this. You’ve just picked up a copy of a classic book. It’s the kind of thing that people study in English lessons or write dissertations on. People you know can quote one or two of the lines off the cuff. There’s about seventy million adaptations of this thing, usually featuring Hollywood’s latest chiselled British darling as the leading man. Cultured and intelligent people read this book in tweed jackets and discuss it over port, and now that you have finally got a copy, you’ll be able to talk to them about it instead of sitting in the corner and hoarding all the cheese.

So, you read it. And it’s kind of disappointing.

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Apart from the chiselled British darlings. They never disappoint. (image: pinterest.com)

This has happened to me too many times to count – especially the part where I eat cheese in a corner instead of joining in a conversation. I’ve read quite a few classic books and it’s very rare that they live up to the hype. Part of this is probably because hype is kind of everywhere now, and when you’re in the middle of a constant cycle of “This feels-wrenching drama will stop your heart and set your soul on fire” -style advertising, it can be very difficult to go into stuff believing that this heart-stopping, soul-searing experience is actually going to happen to you.

But it did also get me thinking. On my Strong Female Characters series, one of the things that came up most often for classic books was that when they were originally written, their characters were ground-breaking. Now that time has passed, they’re not. The way that we receive and interpret stories depends entirely on the context in which they are read, and this includes time and place. Meanings get lost over time. The definitions of words change over the years, and implications that might have been obvious to a historical reader are lost on a modern one. Similarly, readers bring new interpretations to historical texts because we are looking at those texts having grown up with ideas that hadn’t been conceived when they were first written. Context is everything.

Plots and clichés are an excellent example of how stories have changed over time. Modern readers expect different things from the things readers expected fifty years ago, let alone a hundred years ago. Ideas that were original and unsettling when they were first introduced have been used so often that the shine wears off and they become clichés.

The perfect example of this is that classic trope, ‘The Butler Did It’.

We’ve all seen this cliché before – in fact, I had a lot of fun with it in one of my Book Recipe posts. A bunch of people are invited to a mysterious old house, there’s probably a murder or two, and our plucky detective eventually discovers that the culprit was the butler all along! What shock. What horror.

But it’s worth remembering that when this trope was first introduced, it wasactually shocking. Servants were not just people who came to a rich person’s house, sloshed some bleach in the toilet and then went home. They lived with them. They washed and dried their clothes. They cooked their food. They made their beds. They helped them dress. They helped them wash, sometimes, or helped them clean their teeth. It was incredibly difficult to have secrets from a servant, because you had to depend on them for so many things. The idea that the person who cleaned the lipstick off the collar of your shirt, who swept up the pieces of your mother’s favourite vase, who saw how many cigarette butts you left in the bottom of your ashtray could also be plotting your death – it’s kind of horrifying.

It’s not just clichés. What is acceptable in terms of plot has completely changed. This is something that dates way beyond the invention of the novel. In the original epic fantasies – stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf– storytellers would often take time out to send their heroes off on interesting little sidequests because they were fun and exciting. Sometimes these are pertinent to the plot, sometimes they’re completely irrelevant. Then, with the gradual move away from storytelling as a spoken form, there’s a trend to keep the plots more linear. You’ll still get little anecdotes off to one side sometimes, but generally these all serve a purpose for the story as a whole (probably because by this point editors had been invented). And then, later still, you have the move towards modernist fiction. In modernist fiction the idea of a plot can go completely out the window if that’s what the author wants. There’s more of a focus on mood, style and ideas, and most of the time that makes my head hurt a bit. We’ve come to expect different things from stories, and so we’ve rolled them out into new shapes.

giphy squish
Like this, but hopefully with less ruining cookies. (image: giphy.com)

This shifting definition of what is and what is not acceptable for a plot also affects characters too. Over the past few years there’s been a move towards stories that are more character-driven than plot-driven, and this changes what people expect from a protagonist. Stories where a character gets sent on a quest because of ~*Destiny*~ are slowly being replaced by stories where a character goes on a quest because they’ve decided to do it. It’s no good to have a protagonist who just sits around waiting for the plot to happen – much more compelling are protagonists who go and makethe plot happen for themselves. The classic example of this is the characters in fairy tales. When the stories were originally told the characters weren’t really much more than archetypes. You had your handsome prince, your wicked witch, your pure and beautiful girl, and that was about it. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of detail about the characters’ personalities. But when you look at modern adaptations of fairy tales, the characters tend to be a lot more fleshed out. Writers will make a lot more effort to give them goals, preferences and personalities so that they can move away from the archetype. The perfect example of this is Belle’s character in Beauty and the Beast. The Disney film went out of its way to establish Belle as a bookworm who felt isolated by having an interest that nobody in her village shared – something which is completely absent from the original fairy tale.

But this cuts both ways. As expectations move forward, some characters are going to get left behind. Details about characters are lost because modern readers aren’t reading literature in the same context as it was written. Take, for example, the first mention we have of Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. We’re told that when he was seen about town he was wearing a blue coat, and we don’t get any more detail than that. For the modern reader, this illustrates the gossipy nature of Mrs Bennet and not much else. But for the Regency reader this was a pertinent detail. Blue dye was expensive and not many people wore it. The coat itself is a piece of outerwear and worn in the daytime, so it wouldn’t be the fanciest piece in Mr Bingley’s wardrobe. The fact that Mr Bingley’s coat he wears for slouching about town is blue would have spoken volumes to the Regency reader – it’s signalling that he has mad stacks of cash.

giphy unicorn money
Holla holla get that dollar. (image: giphy.com)

But it’s not just the minor details that get lost in translation. What constituted a radical and ground-breaking character a few centuries ago is now seen as old hat. This is particularly obvious in female characters, as the social and political capital of women has changed so much over the past few hundred years. When she was first introduced to readers, Lizzie Bennet was radical by anybody’s standards. She was cheeky, she got her clothes dirty, she turned down a marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love. But two hundred years on these things aren’t radical any more. They’re normal. Modern readers go into Pride and Prejudiceexpecting a character who’s radical and game-changing, and meet someone who is pretty conventional by today’s standards. It’s not hard to see why some people might find this disappointing.

So the big question is this: how do you make a story that lasts? Well, luckily for you I have the answer right here in my new book, How to Write an Epic that lasts for One Billion Years, very reasonably priced at $99.99 per chapter…

…I’m kidding. But it is a question that’s worth asking. How come some stories have lasted for centuries while others have been forgotten?

I don’t have a definite answer, but this is what I think. Let’s jump back to fairy tales for a moment. Yes, they’re vague, and yes, the characters are basically fill-in-the-blanks exercises. In this case, that’s what works in their favour. As the detail just isn’t there, this means the reader, listener or writer can fill it in themselves. It’s easy to make a new adaptation of a fairy tale because the basic shape of the story isn’t tethered to time, place or the personality of its characters. Cinderella can be a cyborg, Snow White can be a vampire, Red Riding Hood can be a werewolf (and yes, all those stories do exist). These are stories that have got legs.

Baba_Yaga_House
Goddammit, Baba Yaga, that’s not what I meant. (image: everything.wikia.com)

More complex stories are harder to preserve because so much of a story’s meaning is enmeshed in a social and cultural context. I talked about this briefly in my worldbuilding post so do look there for more detail, but what’s important to remember is this: what informs a setting also informs its characters. This applies as much to historical fiction as it does to fantasy epics. Stories written hundreds of years ago are caught up in a framework of cultural norms and societal beliefs that probably isn’t there any more. This is why editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen novels so often come with big wodges of footnotes at the back – they’re crammed with references that modern audiences just wouldn’t get without some serious background reading. Going in blind would be like showing a doge meme to someone from the 1500s and expecting to get a laugh. At best, you’d get a ‘sayest thou what?’ and at worst, you’d get burned as a witch.

But obviously, more complex stories do last. We’ve got Shakespeare’s plays, we’ve got The Iliad, we’ve got The Journey to the West. Countless stories have outlived their authors and gone on to become beloved classics for generations of readers. There’s no hard and fast reason as to why this is. It isn’t just good writing, compelling characters and an interesting plot that makes a story get remembered. You’ll still need all those things, but there’s always something else in the mix as well – some mysterious alchemy that lets good mature into great. I don’t know what this is. If I did, I’d probably have my own island or something.

giphy money
Or just this. (image: giphy.com)

Context is everything. Unless the details of a time and place are meticulously preserved, as Shakespearean scholars have done, then modern readers will miss something and the original meaning will slip away. But modern readers bring their own contexts too, and can shed new light on old stories. Adaptations aren’t always a way for an author or a movie studio to make a quick buck: done right they can be a thoughtful and compelling examination of something we thought we knew. Readers and audiences have new opportunities to see familiar stories with fresh eyes, and that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps that’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the impact of these stories when they really were new.

Stories that have lasted have something in them that speaks to people regardless of time and place. It can be anything from a feeling to a turn of phrase. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s description of loss in MacDuff’s speech from Macbeththat speaks to you, or maybe it’s Cinderella’s message that no matter how bad things may get, things will, one day, turn out all right. Whichever classic you pick, there’s something there that has spoken to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. And whether you like or dislike the actual story, it’s always worth acknowledging that that is truly extraordinary.