A wizard, a goblin, and a fairy walk into a bar… No, not a tavern or a dusty wayside inn. A bar. One of the ones with pool tables, and dartboards, and some TV show on mute behind the bartender. The traffic roars by outside, and somewhere a cell phone rings. Welcome to the wonderful world of Urban Fantasy.
Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy that uses supernatural elements within a real-world setting, usually contemporary. Novels are often set in cities, although small-town environments work just as well; however, the ‘urban’ in question refers more to the urban nature of society than the story’s setting.
Personally, I love urban fantasy. I love the fast-paced plots, usually with a thriller or mystery at their heart. I love those wizard P.I.s, the problem-solving werewolves, and the vampire love interests. The idea that the woman next to me at the grocery store might be a fae warrior in disguise? I’ll take it. I’d even argue that urban fantasy is a form of portal fantasy, a gateway to a world of supernatural magic hidden in plain sight among the coffee shops, subway trains, and dismal stretches of suburban highway.
My lovely guest Pippa DaCosta is the author of the Veil and City of Fae urban fantasy series, besides the Girl from Above science fiction series. Adding an extra dose of adrenaline to her already exciting list, the first books in two brand new series will be out soon: look for Chaos Rises (Chaos Rises #1) on June 29th and Hidden Blade (Soul Eater #1) in July. Pippa is a busy hybrid author, expertly balancing the demands of traditional and indie publishing as she navigates her way through her different series and worlds.
Juliana: Pippa, thanks for taking time out of your hectic writing schedule to chat a bit about urban fantasy. What was the spark that led you to working in this particular genre?
Hi Juliana. I’ve always loved urban fantasy. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the interplay between magic and reality, and how those two forces mix and clash, usually producing spectacular results. Urban fantasy is an opportunity to believe our nine-to-five days might be transformed from the doldrums, to something or somewhere fantastic. Where the normal might in fact be paranormal. I was writing urban fantasy more than twenty years ago, before I knew it was a thing; scribbling on reams of paper, my Sony Walkman headphones on (showing my age!). I am an avid reader of UF too. I can’t get enough of it.
Juliana: You’re a prolific writer with several distinct storylines on the go at the same time. Where do you start when planning a new series? And how do you keep your worlds separate from each other?
I’ll answer the easy one first. Keeping my worlds separate. I use playlists. As soon as I start writing a new book in a new world, I create a playlist that builds as the book and series progresses. Every book and every series has its own playlist associated with it. This allows me to switch from writing in one world to another, and ground myself in each by listening to the playlists. I guess it tricks my brain into thinking I’m back in those worlds. My fantasy playlists sound very different to my scifi playlists, for example. If I’m writing traditional fantasy, I’ll listen to Thomas Bergersen or Two Steps From Hell, utilising those traditionally epic soundtracks. My scifi soundtrack has a lot of dance, with a typically scifi synthetic theme.
Planning a new series is a lot more difficult to answer, because it varies. I’m part planner, part pantser. I start when a new series grabs a hold of me from out of nowhere and grips me so hard I don’t have a choice but to start writing. For those first few chapters, I have no idea what I’m doing. I get the ideas out, and clean up the mayhem later (editing!). Once I have a feel for what’s really going on (usually by the time I type The End), I can then start to think about what comes next. How many books, what story arc do I have, how are these characters going to grow and change. All those answers fill out my series outline. The in-between bits might change, but usually the planned ending stays the same. So, it starts with one idea, and grows from there. There’s a quote from me floating around the internet that says, “Ideas take root at the oddest moments. Some grow into novels. The weaker ones with and die.”
Juliana: In your opinion, apart from the obvious differences in setting, what are the key points in plot and pacing that set urban fantasy apart from traditional fantasy stories?
There are debates raging throughout many a writers forum regarding what constitutes urban fantasy. Some argue it’s setting, some argue it must be told in first person point of view, or it must set in a city (not a village?!). There are no rules, but there are expectations. Urban fantasy readers expect action, adventure, usually some snark, maybe a love interest (note I say love interest not romance – romance (defined here by a Happy Ever After) treads on the close cousin of urban fantasy, paranormal romance). For me, urban fantasy simply means magical elements in a contemporary setting. For example, the Supernatural TV show is urban fantasy. You could argue Harry Potter is urban fantasy (although much of it takes place in Hogwarts, which would make it fantasy). Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series is technically a fantasy, because it’s set in an alternate world, but to me and you, it’s urban fantasy. Anything with a first person narrator (usually), and magic (definitely), set in contemporary times (for the most part) is urban fantasy.
Juliana: Love and sex often have a role in urban fantasy novels. How far can an author go before the line blurs and the story crosses over into the paranormal romance genre?
Love and sex? You can go all the way, BUT paranormal romance has expectations such as a Happy Ever After (HEA) or a Happy For Now (HFN). Urban fantasy doesn’t care about happy. It laughs in the face of happy for most of a series and may, or may not, have a ‘happy ending’. Also, paranormal romance books are usually centred around a couple, with the romance being a large part of the central plot. The next book might switch point of views to a different couple, but still be in the same series. It’s rare to find an urban fantasy that switches point of views for different books in a series. Most urban fantasy books don’t revolve around a romantic plot – they may have a love interest, but that’s not technically romance. But, authors and readers alike will always argue over these two genres and what they should/shouldn’t have. I love both, by the way. I adored Christine Feehan’s Dark series, and of course the Dark Hunter books, but these days I look for a little less happy in my ever after (Cue evil author laugh).
Juliana: One thing that fascinates me in urban fantasy is the space for the multiple re-working of mythologies and folktales. Just as I think there can’t possibly be any new angles on the same creatures, someone shows up and surprises me with a different take on the subject. Your demons and half-demons in the Veil series are certainly unique. Do you have any tips on how to avoid falling into tired old tropes when writing urban fantasy?
Actually, I sorta like tropes, they’re familiar. I know when I pick up an urban fantasy book, that I’m going to get a dash of tropes in there. And that’s okay. But the same tropes over and over get old real fast. There are so many great books out there, with so many fabulous ideas. To be honest, it’s all been done before. There are no new ideas. But as an author, the key is to put your own spin on a trope. So you have a vampire, he’s ancient, he sucks on veins—meh. Make him or her different in some way, make him unique. Or a wolf shifter? Don’t just stick to the same-old same-old in the story, rub some funk on it, make it different, make it yours. I believe the key to knowing what you can do with tropes is reading widely in the genre, so you can see what’s been done a thousand times already, and how you can make your shifter-vampire different.
Juliana: One last question, just for fun. If you could be a supernatural being from any of your books for a day, which form would you choose and why?
That’s actually a really difficult question to answer. I’m not sure I’d like to be a demon, my demons are pretty horrible most of the time. I could be a half demon for a day, that might be cool. Let’s face it, having wings would be amazing. Who cares if they’re leathery? WINGS! Yup, I’d totally be a half demon.
Juliana: Thank you for stopping by and sharing some insights into the world of urban fantasy. And yes, I’ll take a pair of wings too, leather and all. Sign me up!
Don’t miss Pippa DaCosta’s new book Chaos Rises (Chaos Rises #1), out soon on June 29th.
My monthly Spotlight series is taking a break. But I’m joining the team over at SFFWorld.com, so pretty soon you’ll be able to catch my interviews over there instead.