Writing: Settings Can Hook Me On Series

My friend, Paula, and I are buddy-reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s newest mystery, The Evil Days.   Fleming’s books are as much character driven as plot driven, which we both love.  For me, that’s what distinguishes a literary mystery from a straighforward mystery.  That, and the use of language.  But the other reason we love the series is Millers Kill, the location of the stories–a town in the Adirondack region of upstate New York.

In the best books, settings become integral to the storyline.  If the author picked up her characters and dropped them somewhere else, the whole tone of the story would change.  Sharyn McCrumb wrote mysteries about the Appalachia region with its folklore and traditions.  She took the same coast as Fleming, but painted it with a Southern voice and got an entirely different feel.   Martha Grimes named her novels after English pubs, and Elizabeth George nailed the tone of the English mystery and Scotland Yard.  P.I.s walk the “mean streets” of big cities–like New York, Detroit, or L.A.  When I think about V. I. Warshawski, I think about Chicago.  They’re almost synonymous to me.

Fantasy writers have always had to create a world for their characters to inhabit, and the more real the world–whether it’s dystopian or imaginary–the stronger the series.  In Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels novels, Andrews gives us a world where magic and technology clash with each other.  Sometimes, magic rules and technology goes down.  Other times, technology hums along and magic recedes.  That creates an interesting challenge for her heroine, who uses magic, but knows that sometimes, her energy will surge, and sometimes, she’d be better off with a weapon.  All urban fantasy writers take a world, much like ours, and people it with supernatural characters.  The trick is defining the rules for each supernatural and staying true to those rules.   Some writers only let vampires roam when the sun sets.  Others let them sparkle.  If they can make it believable and consistent, it doesn’t matter.

I’m always happy when a setting becomes almost a character in the stories I write.  It doesn’t always happen, but it did in the Babet/Prosper novellas.  River City is loosely based–and I do mean loosely–on a trip I made to New Orleans.  That city had an essence I haven’t experienced anywhere else.  I wanted to incorporate that feeling in my writing, especially since I wanted to have witches, voodoo, and succubi treading its nooks and crannies.  Faith Hunter cranks New Orleans up even more to give her Jane Yellowrock series its gritty feel.

Emerald Hills came alive for me in a completely different way.  In my mind, it takes place in Nashville, Indiana–with I.U. and Bloomington close by, the Brown County national park a stone’s throw away, and wineries within corking distance.  I could picture the quaint, unique tourist shops, but those can be found many places.  What makes Emerald Hills special is the magic that seeps into the bonbons, shoes, and garden gnomes that are sold.  When I write those novellas, I can almost picture Tinkerbell’s magic dust sprinkled over this shop owner or that.

Some stories are universal.  They can take place anywhere.  The characters and plots are enough to carry them.  But I always love it when a setting sticks in mind–a place so real, I want to return to see what’s happening there.  It’s something to consider when you start your next book.

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Writing: Who are your favorite writers & Do they influence you?

I’m at the end of reading a novel that I loved–The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.  And it’s reminded me that I’ve read LOTS of dark fiction in my time.  Dark fiction, to me, is different than horror.  Horror aims to scare.  Dark fiction means to disturb.  I think “disturb” lasts longer.  But that’s not my point for this blog.  I was thinking about which authors have stood out, for me, above others.  And it made me wonder how much they’ve influenced my writing.

I’ve said before that I was a James Fenimore Cooper fan when I was in middle school.  His most famous novel was The Last of the Mohicans, but he wrote an entire series with Natty Bumppo (later known as Hawkeye) as his protagonist.  Natty’s parents were settlers, but he was raised by Delaware Indians and became involved in the conflicts of the Mohican and Huron Indians, and the white settlers and the Indians.  He developed a set of ethics that were his own and a moral ambiguity that combined his Indian upbringing and his white heritage.  And that’s what appealed to me about those books–that feeling of straddling two worlds, sympathizing with the good of both and irritated with the wrongs of both.  I like stories about protagonists that don’t fit in anywhere.   Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson was raised by werewolves, but she isn’t one.  Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels has magic and a bloodline that she tries to hide, and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock has a heritage that she’s slowly starting to remember.  That type of protagonist–the loner who struggles to live by her own rules–spilled over into my Fallen Angels novels.  Enoch is fighting a losing battle.  He doesn’t want to stay on Earth, but Caleb doesn’t ever want to go Home.

During high school, Latin and Shakespeare filled my mind with myths and legends, tragedies and political intrigue.  I enjoyed the epic battles to wrest power from one another, both on Bosworth Field and at Troy, as the Greeks tried to defeat the Trojans.  Myths have crept into many of my stories, especially Empty Altars and some of my novellas.  And as I read Prince of Thorns, I couldn’t help comparing The Prince of Thorns with Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Both Jorg and Richard decide to become villains and to excel at it–at least in literature.

The next author who captivated me–and held me for years–was Agatha Christie.  With a few deft strokes, she created characters that I felt I knew, and she taunted me with red herrings and clues as I tried to solve her mystery’s puzzle before her protagonist did.  But it wasn’t just the murders that dazzled me.  She often wrote about exotic locations, and she firmly believed…and stated…that anyone was capable of murder, if put in the right circumstances.  Christie taught me the fine art of plotting.  I followed my Christie years with books by Nancy Pickard, Martha Grimes, and Elizabeth George.  They might not be the masters of puzzles and plots that Christie was, but they took mysteries and pushed them into literary gems.  Their use of language and characterization made me long to string words together to higher levels.

The last authors I’ll mention in this post are Jane Austen and Georgette Heyers.  They fascinated me for an entirely different reason.  They excelled at social mannerisms, which was just plain fun, but they also excelled at the independent, feisty female protagonist.  I tried out a few female P.I. novels, but they didn’t give me the same sense of enjoyment.  I don’t mind sarcasm or cynicism–it often appeals to me–but the P.I.s I read felt just plain jaded.  And that didn’t intrigue me.  I didn’t find heroines I liked nearly as much until I found urban fantasy.  And those females added more.  They didn’t just have wits and smarts and a thumb-your-nose at the world attitude, they also carried weapons and knew how to use them.  A literary bonanza.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, among all the authors I found and loved, I also found a supply of short stories that became a steady stream of entertainment for me.  Every Christmas, I asked for the anthology, The Year’s Best in Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.  And I slowly indulged myself in the best twisted, dark stories available for that year.  As I said, I like dark…

What authors are your favorites?  And how have they influenced you?  Or your writing?

Writing: what keeps me turning the pages

Okay, I hate to admit this, but I started reading Gena Showalter’s The Darkest Night, the first novel in The Lords of the Underworld series, and I’ve found it seriously addicting.  I bought it because it had a Greek myth base as its premise, and I love Greek myths.  I’ve kept reading it, clicking the page button on my Kindle at a furious pace, because I’m hooked on the characters and the storyline.  Now, I like to think that luscious language, depth of character, and intriguing ideas rivet my attention.  And they do.  But obviously, some good, old-fashioned lust and violent emotion can keep me turning pages, too.

I recently finished The Debt Collector series, 9 novellas by Susan Kaye Quinn, and those held my attention with original ideas, page after page of tension, and cliffhanger endings.  You know the strategy–end every chapter with a hook.  Her nine novellas could be used as textbook examples for that.  Ilona Andrews’ urban fantasy novel, Magic Strikes, kept me up nights by upping the stakes with each and every event involved with the secretive Midnight Games–to-the-death matches that aren’t supposed to take place, but do.  Placing a protagonist in peril always increases tension and guarantees that pages turn faster.  And every reader knows that each battle until the last becomes harder and harder to win, escalating to the final showdown.

I’m still a fan of the solid, traditional murder mystery.  Those keep me hooked by offering glimpses of clues, a red herring here and there, and tantalizing false leads.  I don’t need to have the protagonist in mortal danger.  I just want to solve the mystery before he does.  (Am I competitive?  Maybe a little).

There are lots of ways of holding a reader’s attention, but after considering the novels I’ve read this summer, I still think emotional impact is one of the strongest.  Plots have to hang together.  Tension has crank so tight, the reader can’t put the book down.  But I’ve been working harder to include emotion in each scene I write, either subtly or like a sledgehammer.  It sure keeps me involved in the characters I read about and the repercussions of their choices.  And judging by the success of Gena Showalter, who uses it extremely well, I’d say it affects lots of other readers too.

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P.S.  I’m excited.  I have two, new Babet and Prosper novellas that will go online this month.  There’s just something about that witch and werebear.  Or maybe part of it’s River City’s voodoo and magic.  They’re just plain fun to write!