I’ve been spying on my hometown for years. Oh, not in a creepy, stalkerish way, just in that constant, observational manner that all writers employ, because you never know when you’re going to come across material you’ll want to draw on later.
For me, that moment came a couple of years ago when I decided to switch literary gears and write a contemporary fantasy; the kind of work that falls under the rubric of “urban fantasy,” although the Agent of Hel series isn’t set in a city, but rather the rural Michigan resort town of Pemkowet. It’s a community that bears a marked resemblance to the one in which I live, right down to the white sand beaches, the lively harbor and the historic lumber town buried beneath the shifting dunes, although to my knowledge, the Norse goddess of the dead doesn’t actually hold court there.
It’s a big change from writing historical fantasy like the Kushiel’s Legacy series, in which I was challenged over and over with the task of bringing to life cultures that hadn’t existed for centuries, or fantastic variations of historical cultures that only existed within my own imagination. A tremendous amount of research went into those books—lots of academic research, and travel to the many locations I explored throughout the course of the series whenever I could swing it.
Now, I have access right outside my door to a living, breathing example of the culture I want to portray. So that should be a lot easier, right?
Well, not exactly.
Sure, it makes descriptions of the setting easier. It’s handy to be able to pop out and attend a concert in the park to cast a critical eye over the scene, to make notes on the mood and tone of the event like I did for Dark Currents; children playing on the grass as dusk settles, strings of sparkling white lights illuminating the gazebo, boats sounding their horns in the harbor. It’s a delightful luxury to be able to take part in the notorious 0.2 mile annual Labor Day Bridge Walk, which shows up in Autumn Bones, complete with a town crier and a refreshment stand at the halfway mark.
But then I have to add magic.
I have to see this very familiar world through new eyes, populating it with deities, ogres, fairies, frost giants, werewolves, vampires, mythological beings, and the Outcast, my much-maligned ghouls—not to mention my heroine, reluctant hell-spawn Daisy Johanssen, a demon’s daughter tasked with maintaining order between the mundane and eldritch communities.
Suddenly, it’s a whole new challenge, because although I wanted to imbue the world with wonder, I didn’t want to lose that original sense of setting, either. I wanted to bring to life the rhythms of a small Midwestern resort town—the quirks and idiosyncrasies, the way rumor and gossip spreads like a forest fire, the sometimes uneasy relationship that exists between tourists and residents, and how the entire feel of the place changes with the seasons.
And I wanted my characters to feel grounded in contemporary society, one that readers will recognize as a reflection of our own. There are a lot of pop cultural references in the Agent of Hel series, which is definitely a major shift from writing historical fantasy! Daisy and her friends are very much products of their time, which gives me the opportunity to explore questions like, say, how a twenty-four-year old raised by a single mom on a television diet of Gilmore Girls and Project Runway would really feel about the prospect of dating a six-hundred-year old immortal.
As it transpires, combining these disparate elements is something of a balancing act—but it’s an awfully fun one.
In the end, as far as the creative process is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether I’m writing a sprawling epic fantasy set on a distant continent and an altogether different era, or a more whimsical contemporary one set in my own backyard.
It takes just as much imagination and craftsmanship to breathe life into one as the other, and both are labors of love.