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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Writing something new and different

I am going to be giving my online writing workshop, "Beyond Fangs: Creating new and interesting paranormal characters" over at the FFnP (Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal) site starting June 28th. They asked me to write a blog on how I came up with the idea for my current series (and from there, the workshop). And here is what I said:

As writers, we all want to write the book of our hearts. But we also want that book to sell. As someone once said: “Writing is art; publishing is a business.” And nothing illustrates that better than the publishing industry’s tendancy to fall in love with trends. Everyone who has ever been told, “We want something that is just like what is already out there—but different,” raise your hand. I thought so. Okay, you can put them down now.

The vampire craze is a perfect example. You can’t sneeze in a bookstore without bumping into a book with vampires in it. Don’t get me wrong; I like vampires. But when I set out to write an Urban Fantasy last year (after reluctantly setting aside my two previous humorous paranormals because agents kept telling me that humor was OUT), I made the conscious decision to write something different. No vampires. No werewolves. And no zombies. Definitely no zombies. I wanted to write something that was in keeping with the current trends, but different.

Easy peasy. Not.

Luckily, I had a starting point. A few years ago, I had a short story published in THE PAGAN ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT FICTION: 13 PRIZE WINNING TALES (Llewellyn 2008). That story, “Dead and (Mostly) Gone,” featured a protagonist who was a witch-cop in a world much like ours, except that witches were another race and finally accepted in society. This protagonist, Donata Santori, worked as a Witness Retrieval Specialist, talking to dead crime victims. Since everyone who read the story asked for more of Donata and her world, I knew I would use this character and the bare bones I had laid down in the short story.

But there wasn’t much there. So I set out to do some serious world building. I knew I wanted to come up with paranormal characters that were different and interesting, so I started out by reading piles of Urban Fantasies by authors I respected—C. E. Murphy, Kim Harrison and the like—so I could see what was already out there. After all, if your intention is to do something completely different, you have to know what already exists.

Then I sat down with a stack of reference books. I’ve published five books on modern witchcraft for Llewellyn, so I have all sorts of interesting books on the paranormal that I use to research the nonficton; many of which came in surprisingly handy for creating my new world. In the end, I narrowed down the major paranormal races in my world to six, along with a number of minor ones. These included Witches, Dragons (who aren’t exactly dragons), Ghouls, Fae (who aren’t like most of the Fae in other books), and the Ulfhednar, based on a Norse shapeshifter legend. Okay—yes, you’ve counted correctly. But to find out about the sixth race, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the books to come out. It’s a secret…

But you’ll note that there’s not a vampire in sight, and that the shapeshifters aren’t your traditional werewolves at all. (And the Ghouls turned out to be almost aas creepy as the zombies I was trying to avoid, but that’s not my fault. It’s theirs. Don’t you hate it when the characters have minds of their own?)

One of the things I knew I wanted to have in the books was a cool sidekick. For this role I needed a minor paranormal creature, one that could garner some respect but still be good for the occasional bit of comic relief. Enter Ricky the Kobold. Kobolds are among the races of “little people,” in this case, ones who were said to live in caves and low places, and moved into basements and such when people came along. According to legend, Kobolds could be quite helpful if they liked you, and downright annoying if they didn’t. Perfect.

Needless to say, there was a lot more worldbuilding involved before I was done. Backstory and history, and the plot “hook,” and such. And I spent hours creating in-depth profiles on each of these races, and how they each tied into the main backstory. But I firmly believe that part of what made this manuscript succeed when the previous ones didn’t was my approach to “the same but different.”

And it did succeed. (Yay—dontcha love a happy ending?)

This manuscript, PENTACLES AND PENTIMENTOS, is the one that finally got me an agent; the wonderful Elaine Spencer from The Knight Agency. With any luck, it will be the one that kick-starts my fiction career.

So take heart. There is no need to let “We want something that is just like what is already out there—only different,” make you crazy. Well, crazier, anyway. If you’re a writer, you probably need a certain base level of crazy to keep you going. Just figure out what you like that is already out there, do a lot of research so you can come up with an interesting twist that no one else has come up with yet, and write, write, write.

Easy peasy.

Note: if you are interested in the workshop, you can get more information at my website http://www.deborahblakehps.com/olc.html


  1. I think that's a lovely idea. I write traditional fantasy but want to branch into something a little different, more along the lines of urban fantasy. Then I thought? Why not combine the two? I came up with a story idea that combines dragons with demons...and if I can get it to work it will be interesting, to say the least!

  2. Thanks for sharing a bit of your writing journey. I love the way you went about with your world building, and I especially like the concept of the Witness Retrieval Specialist. Very cool.
    If only!