I always read a genre before I try to write it. When I first discovered urban fantasy, there was a lot more sex in the pages than there’d been in the mysteries I usually read. Did I have a problem with that? It depends. I enjoyed reading it. I’m still not great at writing it. I have visions of my old Sunday School teacher picking up one of my novels and dying of a heart attack. What if my mother saw it? Or some of my conservative friends?
One of my friends asked me, “It doesn’t bother you to kill people on paper, so why do you get all repressed when your hero and heroine jump in the sack? Is murder more acceptable than sex?” The short answer, for me, is–yes. I can push a man’s car in the river and let him drown. I can use a crossbow to stake vampires at a distance. Killing is easy. Relationships are hard. Maybe it’s because I started out reading and writing mysteries. There are lots of crimes that a main character might solve, but few of them are as dramatic as murder. Killing raises the stakes. My mother and friends don’t mind bloodthirsty one bit, but they’re scandalized by satin sheets and hanky panky.
My poor mother, these days, has Alzheimer’s. She wouldn’t remember tomorrow if I shocked her today. My sisters aren’t readers, so they’ll never see it. And my friends? Well, they pretty much love me as I am, so my writer’s repression is beginning to fade. But my big hang-up made me wonder. How far am I willing to go as a writer? How far will I push the boundaries? The answer? Farther than I thought. Because it’s not me doing any of the bad things I write about. It’s my characters. And a character with no flaws doesn’t make for much of a story. A villain who’s too nice isn’t worth the bother. But still there are places my computer keys have never gone. I pull back.
I recently discovered a writer who’s new to me that reminded me of my own writing a few years ago. The words flowed. The plot was well structured. The characters were interesting, but I could feel that the author never let loose. She carefully crafted each scene. I can be too careful sometimes. I’ve come to believe that honesty and rawness bring characters to life much faster than endless scribbles about their likes and dislikes. I no longer care what their favorite color is. I care about what they’ll do when disaster strikes, who they’ll team up with, what compromises they’ll make. If I can create a book full of characters like that, I’m going to have a good story.
If my mother could still read, and if she could remember from one page to the next, she might shake her head at what I write. But that’s better than closing my book because I didn’t hook her. I’m not talking about going for shock value. That’s a cheap trick. I’m talking about making an effort to make my characters real. And I want to write with an honesty that I’m beginning to grow into. Urban fantasy helped me with that. It offered a freedom that I enjoy more and more. It’s hard for some of us to open up when we write, to show our characters, warts and all, but I think that’s one of the differences between a good novel and a great one.