I’ve had this quote running through my head for much of the past week:
“It’s your world. Do with it what you want. No. That is not the way to do it.” -Tad Danielewski
A large part of writing in general, and urban fantasy in particular, is world building. Sometimes it’s overt-you’ve got dragons and spells and otherworldly portals and transports. Sometimes it’s less obvious. I would argue that all authors do it, to some extent. Lily Tuck is a beautiful example of someone who can make you see the space the characters inhabit with only a sentence or two. You see the darkened room where Nina watches over her husband’s body, the rocky beach where they go skinny dipping, the tiny cafe where they first met, all those years ago, with a minimum of words.
This minimalism is what I’m used to. Up until about four years ago, I hadn’t read a single paranormal or urban fantasy novel. The stories I read were firmly grounded in reality: real places, real people, nothing absurd about it (well, with the exception of Harry Potter). So when I started crafting urban fantasy stories, it made plenty of sense to me to make my worlds in that same vein.
Key term: my worlds.
Apparently I missed the memo where if you write urban fantasy, your world building has to be obvious.
My worlds are subtle. They’re based on the idea that if the supernatural exists, mundanes (normal people) don’t know about it. These people live in a world where if the general population knew witches, werewolves, faeries, and the like actually existed, there would be mass pandemonium and then we’d see a repeat of the Salem witch trials. They keep their abilities hidden for a very good reason: they’d really like to keep living, thank you very much.
Other authors have done this. Richelle Mead is a fantastic example, with her Bloodlines series. Humans don’t know vampires exist, and it’s up to Sydney and the other Alchemists to make sure it stays that way. In Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series, Mackayla Lane doesn’t know the fae exist until she travels to Ireland and sees one. Then she’s thrown into this whole underground world and told she’s got to figure out a way to keep the walls between man and Faerie from collapsing. Over the course of the series, Mac learns more and more about this other world, its hierarchy and what (and who) populates it. These, and a few others, are my guides to the type of world building I’m aiming for.
So you can imagine my frustration when I get notes back from contest judges telling me I need to invest more in my world building.
In my mind, I’m not attempting to break any new ground with my more subtle approach. And I feel I’ve done the best job I possibly can with making it clear my reasons for why I’ve built the world in the manner I have. Yet when I state, from the very beginning, the main character is a witch, they automatically assume there’s a lot more to the supernatural world than I’m letting on, and they want to see it. And they want to see it now, not later.
Too frickin’ bad.
It’s one thing if what I’ve tried to show wasn’t detailed enough. I would love to know if I’m being too subtle in hiding my worlds in plain sight. But if the common thought is that because the main character is a witch, or fae, or a shifter, and associates with others of the same ilk, well, they all have to be out in the open and the general population is quite accepting of them (or, like in the Sookie Stackhouse novels, some are and some are not), sorry. That’s not how I roll, and you’d better wipe that idea from your brain. It’s a form of intolerance, to me, and it’s not appreciated.
Until someone tells me otherwise, I’m going to use this editor tip from Adrian-Luc Sanders as my guideline:
The secret to complex world-building is often to keep it as simple as possible. Use nuance to guide readers through subtleties.
In other words, keep it simple, stupid.