I love fantasy. I love a good epic fantasy – Sanderson, Rothfuss, Jordan, and of course Tolkien. But a good urban fantasy is just as satisfying. Simon Green, Jim Butcher, and Anton Strout are all great writers.
It was Jim Butcher’s storm Front that made me want to write an urban fantasy novel. I had been struggling with an epic fantasy for some time and finally realized I wasn’t a good enough storyteller to do that particular tale justice. It was a depressing experience. But I decided I’d try my hand at UF and see if the change would do me some good.
Did it ever.
The main difference I found about writing UF vs EF is that the world building process is a heckuva lot shorter. Since I’m working in the “real world”, I’ve got a bunch of parameters already established. That lets me focus only on those things I care about – my characters, their powers, their relationships. I don’t need to build the whole planet from scratch.
Now, don’t get me wrong, world building can be fun, but I found I’d get bogged down and discouraged by minutiae. Case in point. Let’s say I’ve set my epic fantasy in the stereotypical medieval Europe-esque kingdom. My main character, Dirk Manly, is having breakfast at an inn, and orders a cup of coffee. This simple act sets off a massive plague of minor, unimportant details. I need to make sure my kingdom’s climate is one that can support the growth of coffee beans. If it’s not, then I need to determine where the coffee beans are grown. How far that location is from my kingdom? Then I need to establish the trade routes that get the coffee from there to Dirk, and spend some time fleshing out the cultures and political climates that may influence those trade routes. Then there’s the question of stability and security along the routes – are they patrolled and well maintained, or does Juan Valdez get robbed every other trip? I also need to explain the technology that allows the coffee to be brewed, the people who perform that process, and the cost of coffee itself, taking into account that it could well be a luxury item, and if that was the case, could Dirk Manly afford it?
That’s just too much crap for a cup of coffee.
Contrast that with an urban fantasy set in Boston. Here, Dirk Manly goes into a Dunkin Donuts, gets a large coffee with cream and sugar and that’s it. I can focus on who Dirk is, what he does, and trade routes be damned.
Unfortunately, Epic Fantasy tends to get bogged down because the author has to explain every detail of how his or her world works. There’s a point in the Wheel of Time where Nynaeve and Elaine are traveling with a menagerie. One particular scene details the mechanics of Nynaeve *brushing her teeth.* I love Robert Jordan, but I was like “ok, I get it, she’s brushing her teeth, let’s get on with life.” Just the same, I understand why he had to do it; it’s not like Nynaeve can just pop into CVS and pick up a new Reach toothbrush and a tube of Crest. But having to work stuff like that into my stories was frustrating because I felt it was taking away from the tale I was trying to tell.
In UF, all that mundane stuff is taken care of for you, courtesy of the real world. I think that’s part of the appeal of UF, it’s easier to get into because the setting is immediately familiar. As readers, we only need to focus on how Harry Dresden’s magic words work, how Shaman Bond’s golden torc operates, or what insights Simon Canderous’ psychometry reveal. As writers, we only need to worry about defining those things which set our characters apart from normal people; we inherit our world from the real one and then tweak it, instead of starting out with a totally blank canvas and saying “In the beginning…”
I know I’ll go back to that epic fantasy someday, but for now I’ve got some pretty big plans for my urban fantasy series and its hero. Future posts will talk more about my version of Boston, my hero, and the role he plays. I’m glad to have you along for the ride. Stay tuned, it should be fun.