Modern Urban What?

I did a book signing last week, and I had several people ask me, “So what is modern urban fantasy, anyway?” as I chatted with them about my book. (This was often followed by, “I don’t read fantasy.”) The short answer is, “You take a modern setting and plop down a fantasy creature and see what happens.” That worked for most people.

The long answer is a little more complicated. It’s almost easier to say what modern urban fantasy isn’t.

It isn’t classic sword and sorcery. It isn’t mythology. It isn’t Lord of the Rings or Narnia. You can have elements from stories like that – the magic, the magical creatures, the mythology, the supernatural – but you have to put them in a modern urban setting. The story evolves from the interaction of the mundane with the fantastic in the here and now.

It isn’t romance. You can have romantic elements, but if that’s the main purpose of your story about the ordinary and the unreal, then you have paranormal romance.

You may say, “Huh. I’ve never read any of that.”

You may not have read it, but I’ll bet you’ve watched it on television. Ever watch Grimm, or Once Upon a Time, Supernatural or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Then you’ve experienced modern urban fantasy. It’s a very popular genre on TV right now.

I find the potential for conflict between what we see every day with what might be around the corner, just out of ordinary sight, to be fascinating, with endless possibilities.

So step into my world for a little while, and enjoy a few stories about the unexpected that winds up in everyday life.

There Goes the Neighborhood is available on Amazon as either a paperback or an ebook. The Door, a novella, is available as an ebook, and Dreaming of a Zombie Christmas, a set of three short stories, is also available as an ebook.

What would you do if you found out that a troll lived under the bridge in your local park – and charged exorbitant interest rates on unpaid bills for crossing it?

 

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Sometimes, There’s This Book

Sometimes, there’s this Book. You know the one – it’s a book that you remember reading all your life. The one that you finish in record time, reading in great gulps, and then exclaim over, and pass along to someone else – all the while madly scrambling to see if the author has written anything else.

I was in high school, and I was on a Gothic-reading binge. Gothics had mystery, romance and a touch of suspense to them, all of which appealed to me. More importantly, they were readily available on the spinners and magazine racks in the stores of my hometown. And better yet, my mother would read them too, which meant that I could usually count on her to fund some of my reading habit.

One day, I found a book called Ammie, Come Home, by Barbara Michaels. It looked interesting, so I picked it up.

It was one of those Books.

In addition to the mystery and romance – which I had expected – Michaels had woven a deep stream of the paranormal into the book – which I had not expected. I loved it. In those days when urban fantasy did not exist as an official genre, Michaels was writing it.

Witch was the next of her books that I found. It confirmed that Michaels was an author I wanted more of, and more and more.

And the hunt was on. A book here, a book there – I found just enough to keep me tantalized and searching for still more.

It wasn’t until I got to college, with many bookstores available and larger libraries, that I found most of the rest of her books. I finally ran into that wall of having read everything I could find by a particular author, and was stuck waiting for each year’s new offering. A year is a long time to wait when you want that next book.

And then a librarian asked me if I knew that Barbara Michaels also wrote as Elizabeth Peters.

An orgy of reading followed.

Her Elizabeth Peters books had more archaeology and less of the supernatural, but they still sucked me right in and told a story that kept me there until I had consumed the entire book. Then they spit me out with a dreadful book hangover (that mix of rapturous oh-I-loved-it and miserable I-can’t-believe-it’s-done).

At least this time, when I hit the read-it-all wall, I could look forward to two new books a year.

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Mertz (her real name) died this past week, at the age of 85. There will be no more new books to wait for.

I will miss opening up the new adventures of an old friend from past pages. I will miss meeting a new character ready to dazzle with me with humor, intelligence and just enough quirks to make them seem like a real person I would like to know better. I will miss the plot twists Michaels/Peters tossed at her readers, and the romance – not heavy-handed sex or erotica but simple, sweet romance – that was in many of her books. Her regular use of older heroines appealed to me, particularly as I reached maturity myself. It was nice to see that you didn’t have to be twenty-something to have adventures!

Michaels’/Peters’ strong female characters – who could rescue themselves, thankyouverymuch – and her touch of the Unknown  – these things drew me in from the first book, kept me coming back for more for four decades, and have strongly influenced my own writing.

I could go on and on about my favorite Michaels/Peters characters and books, but if I got started, it would be hard to stop. Suffice it to say that she created many, many favorites of mine over the years.

So here is a huge thank you to author who not only entertained me for many years, but helped shape the path of the writer I have become.

Rest in peace, Barbara. You were a wonderful story teller – the highest accolade I can give an author – and an incredible influence on me.

Evolution of a Geek-Girl

I saw a video on Facebook today that I immediately identified with. I reposted it, and then started thinking and writing. Here’s the video, and the results of the thinking and writing.

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My first steps toward geekdom were small ones. I grew up in a small Southern town in the 1960’s and 70’s, and there really wasn’t a lot of fodder for geeks there at that time. Comic books, three channels on television (and an early bedtime) and a public library that ran to mainstream fiction were all I had at my disposal. Still, I showed potential early on; I spent weeks being a cat at age two, with a tail safety-pinned onto me (role-playing and cosplay, anyone?) until my dad brought home a kitten for me, and at age four, I had a fairy-tale character as an imaginary friend. (I reluctantly dismissed her when my mother questioned whether or not she was a “good” imaginary friend. Okay, fine, so she was a four-year-old version of Maleficent, the evil witch from Sleeping Beauty, but it was before she became evil, I swear! I just liked the name and the cool clothes she got to wear! I mean, purple and pink robes? Way cool! And well, magic, but like I said, it was totally before she went to the dark side.)

I did have comic books. My grandmother, who was a teacher who understood the value of comic books in getting kids to read for pleasure, had a large stack of them, which eventually filtered down to the vacation cabin on Black River, (where we spent most weekends) for my cousins and me to read on rainy days. I started with Casper and Ritchie Rich and worked my way up through Archie to Superman and finally into the realms of scary comics that told Twilight Zone-type stories. (My mother tried to steer me away from these, telling me they were too scary, but I loved them – partly because they were a semi-forbidden fruit.)

My mother was an early geek. She taught high school math and read what science fiction she could find in our small town. I still recall seeing Isaac Asimov’s books in paperback around the house. She also watched the original seasons of Star Trek. (It was on way past my bedtime, but on a few occasions when I could not sleep, I remember hearing the haunting sounds of the theme music.)

When I was seven, Mom got me seven of the 14 Oz books, by L. Frank Baum, setting my feet firmly on the path of fantasy and geekiness. Several years later, she gave me D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I read over and over again. There wasn’t a lot of fantasy available for kids in the 1960s, so I did not read a lot of it besides Oz, myths and fairy tales. But I was ready and waiting, and read everything else I could get my hands on.

As I reached the middle and high school years, fantasy and science fiction became a little bit more mainstream, and therefore, available. Star Trek was in reruns, and I watched it faithfully. I found a few more books – the Narnia series, Watership Down (which was mainstream enough to appear on the book spinners at the drugstore) and the Asimov anthology Tomorrow’s Children, which the public library, for a wonder, actually had. During that era, Zenna Henderson’s short stories about The People were turned into a TV movie of the same name, and when I watched it, I wanted more. (Imagine my delight when, in college, I found the books this movie was based on!)

I sampled the harder science fiction my mother had around the house, but never found the right book to really draw me in. An aunt (who knew me better than I knew myself) gave me a boxed set of Tolkien one year, but I (stupidly) left it unopened on the shelf until I was in college, when I finally read the books. (I could have kicked myself to the bottom of the mines of Moria for ignoring it all those years. But at least I finally understood the graffiti “Gandalf Lives!” that adorned one of the buildings I saw every day on the way to class!)

I was the loner, the outsider, the girl who wrote poetry and got good grades and read a lot. The one who worked in the school library and took care of her parents. I wasn’t popular unless someone was looking for a person to torment for a while. And since what interested them did not interest me, I really didn’t care, except when they bullied me.

But something was missing. I just didn’t know what it was, yet. Dribs and drabs, drops and hints of what was to come for a lonely geek-girl who didn’t know that she was a geek – I was a butterfly still in the cocoon.

Then I went to college.

The University of Colorado in Boulder, in 1976, was a whole different world from the one I had grown up in.

Culture shock? Maybe a little. Okay, maybe more than a little. I had never even eaten a taco before. I had certainly not lived in a town with a real bookstore, let alone multiple bookstores!

I hadn’t been in the dorms more than a few weeks when someone introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. I was hooked, immediately. Planning adventures with fantasy creatures and treasures, or playing a character who traversed someone else’s creation? Heady, heady stuff. (I still have my first D&D books – the set of three little books in a little white box, plus the first expansions of Greyhawk and Blackmoor.)

I read my Tolkien books, finally, and I found Anne McCaffrey’s first two Dragonrider books on the shelves of the university bookstore. The second semester I met a guy who liked games, science fiction books and comics, and he took me with him down to Mile High Comics and Science Fiction on Pearl Street when he went to get his comics.

Oh myyyy, to quote George Takei.

I was set loose in a veritable feast – at that time, the store had nothing but new and used science fiction and fantasy books and comics. Anything you could want was in there.

I ended up with a part time job there.

And I married the guy who took me there.

Star Wars came out during the first summer I was in college. I will never forget the first time that Imperial Cruiser rumbled overhead on the huge screen, with surround-sound vibrating the theater. Just, wow.

Within a year of leaving that small town I grew up in, wondering what else there was in life, I was set free as a geek and loving it. I had friends, I had hobbies, I had passions. It changed my life.

Geek-girl? From the bottom of my heart, and proud of it.

Ideas of Seeds

Yellow pansy from my gardenMy mind knows that, despite the warm-ish (above freezing) days during the past week, spring in Laramie is still very far away. My mind knows that, and reluctantly accepts it. My heart, however, is just sure spring is near.

It didn’t help that GeekMom had an entry about heirloom seeds today. That set me off. A quick perusal of several linked websites had me salivating. Vegetables, flowers and herbs, oh my! The pictures and descriptions flowed around in my mind in a heady mix of color and potential.

Now, it’s still January. It’s also Laramie, with 7200 feet of altitude. I know that we are in for snow, days and days of below freezing weather, possibly some below zero weather, and a whole lot of just plain cold before spring actually starts sometime around the middle of May. (Yes, it comes late here.) But the idea of brightly colored growing things that smell good won’t let go of me. All I can think about are the starter flats hoarded in my back room, and seeds germinating in the warmth of the sunshine coming in through the windows, ready to be transplanted when frosty days are almost done.

I have some seeds already. (I know they aren’t as good the second year, but I should be able to get enough to germinate for my purposes.) Pansies, petunias, lavender and several other flowering plants will be started as soon as it is feasible.

I want to get a few new plants, too. Some Russian sage – it is beautiful, does nicely with our dry climate and very poor soil, and attracts bees like mad. I will need to get that as plants-already-begun from a nursery, though, because it is apparently a very slow germinator. Two or three of those will be lovely in my front yard. And I want to try borage. I haven’t had that before, but it is a flowering herb that, once again, attracts bees. I like bees – I learned long ago that the little honeybees and big bumblebees generally won’t hurt you unless you hurt them first. (Yes, I learned this the hard way as a very small child. Do not kick the nice bumblebee in the clover with your bare foot. He doesn’t appreciate it.) And we can’t – acutally can’t – do without them to pollinate the crops that feed us.

I am also looking at short-season vegetables like early tomatoes (they go in a huge pot on my back deck) and lettuces of different varieties. Maybe I’ll have some peas this year, too, and one website had some early melons that looked delightful. You have to be careful about growing seasons when your last frost is usually in June and your first one is in September at the latest. Starting plants inside well before the last frost and picking quick producers is a no-brainer where I live.

I have bulbs that come up in all of the flower beds first thing in the spring. Daffodils, mostly, with some tulips and a few other flowers. But mostly daffodils because I love them. The wildflowers start blooming not long after the bulbs put in an appearance; most of my garden is actually given over to wildflowers. They are amazingly hardy and drought-tolerant, both necessities here.

I have a few places where I will put the annuals that I plan to start inside, and a few places I can grow some select veggies.

I also have some areas that I am slowly dedicating to hardy perennials; just a few each year, the varieties dependent on my budget and inclination at the time.

Gardening is an ongoing thing, and plans change and evolve from year to year. A garden grows like a good story, building from one thing to another until you have something beautiful and fulfilling. Unlike a written story, though, it is never done. There is always something to change in a garden, and that just makes it even more intriguing.

Last year, I had a busy March and forgot to start the seeds. Boy, was I mad at myself when June rolled around and I didn’t have bedding plants to set out. I know I can buy them, but it’s more expensive that way, and not nearly as satisfying. This year, though – this year, I will start those seeds and my garden will glow with color.

So I will wait and dream through more than a few additional weeks of cold, snow, and deceptive days that get my hopes up, and plan a bit more, and then I will start my flats of seeds – new life, new potential, in a new year.

Well, I Did It

I did it. Despite doing some serious cat-vacuuming (no, we don’t really have a cat – it’s just a way of saying I did some heavy-duty procrastinating), I managed to get my 50,000 words done this month for NaNoWriMo, ahead of schedule. My progress chart does not look like a nice, tidy set of steps, with an equal amount added each day, the way it’s supposed to. It look more like a series of cliffs, looming over broad plains. This is because I tend to write in large chunks when I get rolling, and then stew for a day or two, trying to tease out the next bit in my head.

The story is one I’ve had simmering at the back of my mind for a long time (read several years). It needed to come out to play, and making it my NaNoWriMo project just made me fight through the parts that were not clear to me before. The story and I can both breathe better now that it’s out in the open. And the Skink, my main character, who has hung around with me for the last few years, doing battle with my inner critic, is delighted to have his story told. Now I just have to go back, tie up a few loose ends, and clean up/expand on things/cut out the garbage that ends up being included in any rough draft. It’s the writing equivalent of sanding, using wood filler in the cracks, sanding again, and then putting a shiny finish on your project. You just hope you don’t have to do any major reconstruction on it.

It took me a while to remember that I wasn’t writing a short story, and to adjust my writing style accordingly. But once I got going, it was fun – and I love my characters and my storyline. I’ll be excited to work on revising it during the next month(s). Writing a longer work allows you to really get to know your characters, and to make sure you drop them into plenty of hot water which they will need to fight their way out of. It’s interesting to torture your main characters. (Although they may not agree. But even they wouldn’t like a boring story, now would they?)

The novel I wrote needs a lot of work to make it what I want it to be, but that’s okay. I have more than just a framework now; I have a story with a beginning, middle and end and lots of details to flesh it out. Revising is what December (and if necessary, January, March, April, May and so forth) are for. That’s where I’m heading next, along with some short story projects that I put on hold for the month.

Did any of you try out NaNoWriMo this year? If not, there’s always next year. It’s a great way to prove to yourself that you can do it, and to show you what regular writing can do for both you and your writing.

Now, I’m off to write some more…

Ghosties for Halloween

tombstones in Prince Geoge Winyah graveyard

These tombstones from the 1700’s are in the graveyard of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church in Georgetown, S.C., where I grew up.

People who know me know that I am a huge fan of ghost-hunting shows. I make no secret of it; in fact, I was openly put out that I had to miss the season premiere of Ghost Hunters a little over a year ago when city workers accidently dug up our power lines. I had been looking forward to that for weeks! I was, frankly, more annoyed about that aspect of losing power than any of the others, at the time. (Well, except the food in the freezer. No one wants to have to replace food.)

I myself have had very few experiences that could be thought of as paranormal, and most of those could probably be debunked quite easily. However, people I have known and trusted not to stretch the truth have had personal experiences, reinforcing my idea that there is a lot more out there than that which we can see and touch.

What ghosts are and how we can experience them is something I do not presume to know. Science tells us that time may not be linear – are ghosts the result of time slippages? Science, string theory in particular, also tells us that there are multiple dimensions – are ghosts echoes from those? The religion that I follow tells us that we have souls – are ghosts souls that have not yet found their way to whatever comes next? Whatever their source, I find the idea of ghosts interesting.

I suppose my interest in ghosts partially a product of where I grew up – the South, where if ghosts were rocks, you’d trip over one every time you turned around. The town I grew up in, Georgetown, South Carolina, was established in the early 1700s, and has many historic buildings, more than a few of them supposedly haunted. (Again, my personal experiences were minimal, and might be explained by faulty wiring and that sort of thing, but it was always fun to thing I might have annoyed one of the ghosts by sitting in the chair he was currently occupying.)

The clock tower of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church in Georgetown, S.C.

Looking up at the clock tower of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church. Both church and the surrounding graveyard date back to the 1700’s. History and ghosts are part of my cultural upbringing.

My childhood included the stories of the Grey Man of Pawleys Island, who supposedly warns people of hurricanes, and Alice of the Hermitage, who still searches for the ring her fiancée gave her, among others. Every child in the region knew those stories, and many had walked around the grave of Alice 13 times backwards in hopes of seeing her ghost; ghosts were very much part of our cultural heritage. Then, when I was in high school, I  took part in a project of collecting local ghost stories by interviewing the people whose homes were haunted. The flame of interest was fanned, and I have been interested in ghosts and ghost stories ever since. The advent of ghost-hunting shows on TV has kept me happily occupied for the last few years.

For Halloween this year, I treated myself to a paranormal presentation on campus. I abandoned Pat to the mercies the neighborhood ghosts and goblins, and went on a parking-spot hunt near the Wyoming Union building – no easy task, since there was trick-or-treating for the Laramie kids on campus. But I finally found a space at the far end of the parking lot, and dodged small costumed people all the way up to the Union.

The group presenting was Haunted Explorers, out of Denver. They had a guest speaker/investigator whose name had caught my attention right away when I saw the presentation announced on the University of Wyoming news website – Karl Pfeiffer. I knew who Karl was; I had been quite pleased when he was on the ghost-hunting TV show Ghost Hunters Academy a few years ago – someone from Ft. Collins, Colorado! Someone from my part of the world! Cool!

Karl Pfeiffer

Karl Pfeiffer, paranormal investigator and author

I watched Karl first on that show and later on Ghost Hunters International, so I was delighted to have a chance to see and hear him in person. (I’m afraid I was a bit of a fan girl; oh, well!) These days, he is guiding ghost tours at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. (This is the hotel that was used as the setting for Stephen King’s The Shining, and it has a reputation for being quite haunted.) Karl also has a new novel out, Hallowtide, which I promptly bought and got signed – I will be reading it over the next week or so.

The presentation was interesting, including some photos and EVP’s (Electronic Voice Phenomenon, for those of you who are uninitiated) from several sites the group had investigated in Colorado. Karl spoke next, and he is a very articulate and interesting speaker, bringing a lot of both practical ghost-hunting experience and theory to the discussion. It was over too soon for my liking, but the investigators had ghost-hunting to do.

After the presentation was over, Haunted Explorers, along with a group of students, was going to be investigating one of the buildings on campus. (I hope they had fun and found things – I know people who have worked in that building and had experiences there!) This was a student activity, so I took my employee-self home at that point. I’m not sure I could have stayed awake to hunt ghosts on a week night, anyway!

I had a wonderful evening, attending a presentation on a subject that fascinates me, and getting a chance to see someone in person that I have enjoyed seeing on ghost-hunting shows. This was my idea of a fun way to spend Halloween!

Text and photos (c) 2012, Jane W. Wolfinbarger

It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

NaNoWriMo participant badgeIt’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean autumn, although it certainly is (and occasionally winter, here at 7200 feet). And I don’t mean almost Thanksgiving, although that is true, too.

Nope – it’s November, and that means NaNoWriMo.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. A misnomer, that – it’s really international. People from more than just the United States participate. That aside, it means that for the month of November, people sign up –  for free, mind you – and they write. And write. And write. The expected word production for participants is between 1600 and 1700 words per day.

The goal is to end up with a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. Is it possible? Definitely. 50,000 words is actually on the small end for novels – about 150 pages. And some folks end up with a published work, after a bit of revising.

It’s not necessarily about a publishable novel. It’s about the writing and the challenge to oneself to finish something big. It’s proving to yourself that you can stick to a project, work though problems and blocks and come out the other side with a (slightly punchy) smile on your face. It’s realizing that you can work regularly on your writing, and finding the reward in finishing something.

For me, it’s also a way to grease the gears. When I am writing regularly, I write more on everything. I won’t just end up writing on my NaNo piece, I’ll end up writing on lots of things. Productivity leads to more productivity. And that feels good.

I have done NaNoWriMo before. Several years ago, I finished. And the book I wrote – well, let’s just say that I had too many characters for the size of the book. But I got my words done, and I had a plot and everything. That one still exists – it just needs a complete overhaul. But for my first longer effort (short stories being my usual genre), it worked. I realized that I could work out a plot in a longer format, and found that I enjoyed the more leisurely character development.

I began NaNoWriMo last year, but did not finish for various reasons. (And all of them were, in retrospect, pathetic excuses – the sort of excuses that if anyone else had uttered them at me, I would have given them that raised-eyebrow mom-look that always causes a hasty and embarrassed retraction of whatever has been said. Ahem.) But the ideas and the work done still exist, so only harm done was to my pride.

Tonight at midnight, east coast time, people will start to write. They will have tossed around dozens of ideas, or hoarded one idea greedily in anticipation of November. They will have thought about characters and plots and complications. They will have sharpened pencils and charged computers.  Finally, the clock will tick over to November 1, and they will be able to sit down and write.

Over the month, they may closet themselves in a quiet place, hiding from friends and family, snarling at interruptions, or they may meet in coffee shops and write in groups. They might take a pad and pen outside in the fresh air. But no matter where they choose to work, they will write. They will groan when they can’t think of what to do next, but they will still write. They won’t revise, they won’t rewrite – that is for next month. They will just forge on through and get it done.

And at the end of the month, they will have a shiny new novel and a sense of a job completed.

I intend to be one of those finishers this year. It’s fun, it’s productive, and it’s just something that I like to do.

Want to join in the fun? You may have to play catch-up with the word count, but hey, what’re a few more words, right? Come on over to NaNoWriMo and be a part of a very big, very cool thing. And then write.