My fourth book, The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 has just been published and it’s been a long and lesson-filled journey. From the initial idea, to securing an agent, to securing a three-book deal and seeing all three books in the trilogy published, I have spent nine years with these characters and their fantastical world. Now, mention fantasy and many people instantly think unicorns, warlocks, swords, magic potions and special powers. But fantasy can also be grounded in reality, part of the everyday, and for me, this is where things get exciting.
I love contemporary fiction (and I have written a contemporary YA novel, Caramel Hearts) but from the beginning, my intention with the Nine Lives Trilogy was to write an urban fantasy. It felt right for the story. When I moved to Dublin, the spark of an idea came to me as I wandered the cobbled streets of my new home. Every corner and doorway felt like it was whispering stories and secrets. I felt the layers of narrative in every brick and park bench, and I began to envision another side to the city. Another tale to tell. And I wanted a feisty heroine who didn’t always make the right choices, who was new to the city and seeing it through fresh eyes.
But if my main character, Ebony Smart, was new to Dublin, she had to come from somewhere, so I also set part of the trilogy in West Cork. And so, with the city and country contrasting, I could create lots of tension and uncertainty. I could make my character completely misread situations and people, but also see things in ways other than those around her that were used to the city environment. But that was just the beginning… Ebony’s story was based on the idea of reincarnation (with themes of belonging, family, loss and bravery), and so I built in the necessary magical elements to bring her adventures to life.
Combining the real and magical is not a new idea; Harry Potter is probably the most obvious example. Harry lives under the stairs with the Dursleys in Privet Drive, but then he also his magical life in wizard school, travelling there from secret platforms in London’s Kings Cross Station. The two distinct worlds fuse yet collide. Fantastical elements surround Harry’s life, and although the story focuses on his time in wizard school, the magical and real juxtapose to deal with themes of belonging, family, friendship and choices.
So, if you’re writing urban fantasy, how do you make real and imaginary worlds work together yet contrast? How do you write convincingly but keep the pace, tension and reader interest? How do you keep away from clichés and caricatures? Here are a few tips to help based on lessons I’ve learned along the way…
Make the real very real
I purposely used well-known and recognisable landmarks in Dublin such as St Stephen’s Green, the National Library, the River Liffey, the Natural History Museum, and, in The Book of Revenge, the GPO and Dublin Zoo. But when you use real places, even in stories with an element of fantasy, you need to keep the details as truthful as you can. For instance, if you brought any of my books with you to St Stephen’s Green, you would be able to follow Ebony Smart’s route through the park exactly. Likewise, the descriptions of the Natural History Museum and National Library entranceways are exact; the focus zooms in on interesting details, perhaps things the reader might not notice otherwise, but they are recognizable none-the-less. This gives the reader a very solid base from which to begin the story and it helps them to then suspend belief.
Create Watertight Rules
The reader needs to understand the rules behind the fantastical elements in urban fantasy as much as any contemporary world that features – which means as writers, we need to know it inside out. Every world needs boundaries otherwise we don’t know what the characters are up against – and this is especially true if you’re writing a series or a trilogy.
For example, I have another realm called the Reflectory where souls go to recuperate before being returned to the world in another life, and the details linked to that world had to be consistent from book one to book three. Details such as how the magical doorway appears, the way to unlock it, the fact that it disappears behind you once you pass through it, the landscape encountered on the way to visit the souls. If these details change at any point in the trilogy, the reader will spot it and the world – and reader’s trust – comes crumbling down.
I was foolish when I began my trilogy because I didn’t record the fantastical details well enough, so when it came to writing The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2, I had to reread The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 for consistency. I learned my lesson in time for writing the last book, The Book of Revenge, and had detailed notes prepared. So do yourself a favour and record your world building rules as you go along to save time and avoid inconsistencies in later books or even the same book. It’s amazing how much you forget or don’t notice when you’re editing draft after draft of thousands upon thousands of words.
Balance Between Show and Tell
Watertight detail does not mean that you need to convey everything to your reader – sometimes it’s enough that you know what underpins the world you’ve created. But you do need to reveal anything that is integral to the story. Only think carefully about the way you convey information. It can be tempting to info dump all the fantasy world building stuff, but rather than clunky paragraphs of description, you can reveal a lot through the story and its characters.
Useful ways to convey information about the urban fantasy world you have created include through action, letters, newspapers, radio/news reports, dialogue and character behaviour. The reader will be immersed in your characters’ lives and dramas, so you can use e.g. tricky situations and challenges, heart to hearts or heated discussions, to reveal what you want your reader to know. This is not science fiction; if things get too detail-heavy, you’ll put your reader off.
Consistent Character Traits
Like any other story, your characters need to behave in ways that are consistent for them. We need to see them change over time, overcome their obstacles, but even if your character has superpowers, they still have feelings and attitudes and behaviour patterns that the reader will grow familiar with. Also make sure you avoid caricature and clichés in the fantastical realms you create; no character is completely good or completely bad, they all have e.g. flaws, vices, pride, hopes, fears, emotions and triggers. Your characters need to be unique amalgamations of various characteristics that your reader will identify with. Your reader needs to follow your characters on their emotional journeys for the adventures they undertake and the challenges they overcome to be believable – otherwise, why keep reading?
Surprises Need to be Plausible!
If you’re going for a surprise ending or plot twist, you still need to give your reader clues as to what is going to happen so that when the big reveal comes, they’re not completely confused. It’s great to have a twist in the tale or something unexpected pop up, but take a leaf out of a crime writers book and make sure your reveal is carefully plotted. Many writers feed these clues in after the story is written and the plot twist/surprise is in place; it’s a question of returning to the manuscript and examining it from a reader’s perspective – after all, the reader hasn’t been in your head from concept to finished product. They will see any gaping flaws or things that don’t quite add up. as you reread, ask yourself – is what happens truly plausible in the context of the world you have built and the characters that inhabit it?
Think about why you’re adding fantastical elements into your story. If you’re trying to follow market trends and think it’s what will sell, then I suggest you rethink – market trends have already passed by the time anyone outside the publishing world spots them. If you think it’s a good way to hide a moral, again, stop; leave the moralising at the door of your writing space and write a good story instead. But if you are writing an urban fantasy out of passion, because you think it’s the only way or the best way for your story to be told, then continue on and enjoy it. Play with ideas and let the limits lie beyond the sky, as far as imagination can take you, but make sure the world you create is watertight, the characters are believable and consistent, the plot is plausible, the real is recognizable and the story flawless, with plenty of emotional journeys and no clichés. Then, your story will soar.
(c) E.R. Murray
About The Book of Revenge:
The thrilling finale to the Nine Lives series.
Six months ago Ebony Smart was a normal girl living a normal life. Now she must lead the Order of Nine Lives against their greatest enemy in a fight that will determine the fate of the world. Faced with an enemy much more powerful than herself, Ebony must figure out what Judge Ambrose and his allies are planning, while also stopping her family falling apart. With her friend Chiyoko and her pet rat Winston by her side, this will be Ebony’s greatest adventure so far – but will it also be her last?
Order your copy online here.