In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9. Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16
The “What is Urban Fantasy?” panel was presented by Diana Pharaoh Frances and J.A. Pitts.
(Diana Pharaoh Francis [left] and J.A. Pitts [right])
DPF: I wrote about an ugly vampire who didn’t become pretty after being turned. So what is urban fantasy? A lot of it isn’t so urban now.
JAP: I think of Charles de Lint and Peter S. Beagle. Now paranormal romance has taken over. But urban fantasy has been around for a long time.
DPF: There’s also War of the Oaks.
JAP: Urban fantasy has something magical in the recognizable world. Like Buffy or Harry Potter.
DPF: Sunshine by Robin McKinley had a different world, but it was recognizable from the day-to-day actions. Urban fantasy has a quality in the present or maybe slightly in the future and has real kinds of places like grocery stores.
JAP: And cars. There’s crossover into romance and hard-boiled mystery. Like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. There are different flavors. Usually you don’t know until you read it. It’s also marketing.
DPF: There are many contemporary fantasies that are not urban. Lisa Shearin has real stuff in an epic fantasy situation. In Kari Sperring’s Living with Ghosts, it’s not usually urban even though it has cityscapes and is Victorian. There’s an unpacking of mystery.
JAP: If the characters enter a Starbucks, it’s probably urban fantasy. You also have to look at the attitude and morals of the characters. There’s a significant amount of women point of view in urban fantasy. You can see this from all the published books listed in Publishers Weekly.
AQ: Does epic fantasy have to be non-technological with swords and such?
DPF: In my epic fantasy series, I wrote that stuff so I knew it was epic. But you can put it in the present. But you need elements like big battles.
JAP: It’s how they categorize. If you don’t have most of those tropes, they won’t market it as urban fantasy. Christopher Moore is marketed as mainstream even though he has some of those elements. I write urban fantasy because I like it.
DPF: C.E. Murphy has an epic quality in her Shaman series even though it take place in the present day.
JAP: You should worry about your story before figuring out the genre. Don’t come to the wrong conclusion. It’s usually for the editor to decide.
AQ: Can you have an urban fantasy in a non-western setting? Why does everything take place in America?
JAP: It’s because that’s where all the Barnes and Nobles are. But you do see blogs that talk about books that are set outside the US.
DPF: Marjorie Liu is a world traveler and sets her books in different places.
JAP: If it’s not contemporary, they won’t market it as urban fantasy.
AQ: Kylie Chan, an author who lives in Hong Kong, does Chinese contemporary fantasy.
JAP: You need to search out stuff if you want stories outside of America.
AQ: What about Japanese manga getting imported to America?
JAP: Nick Mamatas blogs about it.
DPF: Lauren Beukes does South African fantasy. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. There are books out there so dig a little bit.
JAP: There are different types of urban fantasy, too. There’s some with alternate histories or hidden histories which don’t alter what we see.
AQ: How do you balance character, setting, and plot in urban fantasy? Is there not as much world building since it take place in the present day?
DPF: I would disagree with that.
JAP: Some people don’t, but I like to do world building.
DPF: You need to add the details to make it vibrant. It’s a different kind of world building. Sometimes it’s all action because readers are impatient. In urban fantasy, it’s very common to have a murder, crime, or major event on the first page. For epic fantasy, you can wait for that later. In urban fantasy, you do the world building at the same time as the action. But sometimes you need to stay focused on the forward motion and mention the details later.
JAP: The number one thing in urban fantasy is character. For the primary character, it’s all about the characterization.
AQ: If the characters go into a different dimension, is it still urban fantasy?
JAP: It depends if they come back.
DPF: In Ilona Andrews’ series The Edge, the characters can cross back and forth between the Broken and the Weird, ordinary and magical dimensions. In Wen Spencer’s Tinker and Wolf Who Rules, the characters go to an alternate plane and come back to Earth. It depends on how it’s handled.
JAP: Does the magic affect the real world? In Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, it doesn’t so it’s not urban fantasy.
AQ: What if you have a story where your character becomes a computer and then comes back?
JAP: That’s probably science fiction. Write it first and then let the editor decide.
AQ: In The Chronicles of Narnia, the characters came back from a magical world, but it’s not urban fantasy.
JAP: That’s a portal story.
AQ: In a lot of urban fantasy, either the character already knows about the magical world or the character is a normal person who finds out about the magical world. Are there challenges in writing either one?
DPF: My characters start out knowing about the magical world, but they have to tell everyone else about it.
JAP: Do you find it easier than the other way?
DPF: I don’t give my characters time to react, even if they don’t know anything about magic. They have to deal with things now and can’t waste time thinking about it. That’s why kick-ass heroines are common in urban fantasy. Because you need action right away. But there’s a danger in putting in an info dump with sidekicks.
JAP: My character doesn’t believe in magic. I find it difficult because of the info dump. It’s past the point of discovery.
AQ: I’ve gone to writing classes where they’ve told me never to write a particular thing. But I viewed it as a challenge.
JAP: Break the rules or it will be boring. My writing group found out there was an editor who didn’t want anyone submitting stories about babies, vampires, or cats. So we all wrote baby vampire cat stories and sent them in. He actually took one of the stories. But then the press went out of business. If you kill a dog, do you have to be the bad guy? You can do anything if you do it right. Don’t be afraid. Practice and write every day.
AQ: Is there a science fiction writer’s group in Missoula?
Panel: You might want to check with your local bookstore or library.
JAP: Look online for writer’s workshops.
AQ: Do you use existing mythologies or something made-up?
DPF: My stuff is mostly from existing mythologies. It’s about magical things that have disappeared. What happened to them? And if they came back, what would they be like? It’s a rich area and I can pick mythologies from all over the world. But there’s nothing wrong with making it up.
JAP: I use Norse mythology, but I screw with it. You can stick enough to it to recognize it, but don’t be afraid to twist it. Is it right for the story? If it’s boring, then don’t write it.
AQ: What about turning D & D gaming stories into novels?
JAP: Lots of editors don’t buy it because it reads like a gaming session. Write to the character.
DPF: In those stories, characters are way to thin.
JAP: Make sure it’s robust.
AQ: How would you categorize Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint? It reads like fantasy, but there’s no magic.
JAP: It sounds like it’s interstitial.
DPF: Kushner is part of the interstitial movement.
JAP: It’s fantastical but mundane.
DPF: You know it’s fantasy because of the Tom Canty cover. So maybe it’s a story of a magical place that is focused on the people who don’t do magic.
JAP: Where do they shelve it?
DPF: In fantasy.
AQ: Do you have modern good and bad guys in urban fantasy or are there strictly paranormal villains who have nothing to do with real life?
JAP: In the Dresden Files and urban fantasy in general, there’s a mixture of both.
DPF: My character has superpowers so she would easily defeat the ordinary bad guy. So you need a worthy opponent for your character. It’s not interesting if the characters aren’t challenged.
JAP: If there’s a big battle scene, people should die.
AQ: Do you bring in politics to urban fantasy?
JAP: It will date you. Don’t put in specific details to date it. You don’t have to say it to stay contemporary. Unless you want it to be specifically dated. But it’s good in a thriller. Otherwise, steer away from it.
DPF: I agree. You can have place things in the background. But current events will make it seem dated.
AQ: What if it’s based on science?
JAP: Then it’s probably science fiction. Write the story, then market it.
DPF: Read Subject 7 which has magical science and altered DNA.
AQ: It seems like 90% of the urban fantasy heroines are red-headed and wear PVC on the covers. How do you reconcile writing characters and marketing?
DPF: Writers don’t write characters that way. Marketing does it.
JAP: The cover is there to make you pick up the book.
DPF: My husband says that if they put 3D breasts on book covers, men will buy the books without knowing why.
JAP: In urban fantasy, there are women on the cover, but most women don’t pose like that.
DPF: You should check out Jim Hines’ blog where he poses like women on covers.
AQ: How do you write women? Isn’t it hard for a guy to do?
JAP: It’s not true. Women are people (most of the time). I had no men in my life until I was twelve. I trust women more so I write women. I did a lot of research and got an education on privilege, white male privilege. I had good insight from my experiences and good first readers. But it’s like that for all writers. No one writes about characters just like them–unless you’re doing an autobiography. I had fans who were shocked that a woman didn’t write my book.
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Stay tuned for the final part which is all about swords.