“Who Put the ‘Urban’ in Urban Fantasy?”

When my first book showed promise in various competitions, I became firmly entrenched in my decision to make the switch from writer to author, even if it meant I’d be forever ruined for reading for innocent enjoyment.

Oddly enough, the aspect of this business that most confounded me was genre. I couldn’t decide what niche the book fell into. At one point, I actually yelled at myself for not knowing what I wrote and for not writing a story that fit neatly into a genre. (That was before I learned how wonderful cross-genre stories can be, and how unique my story was because it wasn’t cookie-cutter genre fiction.)

So I followed some advice I read on the internet (always a wise thing to do, right?) and I walked into the bookstore, decided where my book would fit in, and even pushed a space between the books on the shelf to make room for mine. It would be right there with the books I enjoyed as a reader and thusly I narrowed it down to two genres: paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

What’s the difference between the two genres? In the beginning, I had absolutely no idea because the books I enjoyed were found in the same section of the book store. While I gradually learned there are rules for each genre—and like every other rule, there are exceptions, loopholes, and trapdoors—back then, I used a more practical approach: it came down to my choice of footwear that day. If I was wearing leather boots, I called my story urban fantasy.

The term urban fantasy was coined to characterize fantasy stories taking place in modern times (that is, not the country-bumpkined, unurbanized, and undeveloped good ole days before dragons became extinct.) Most I’ve read are city-based. So is my story, but that’s only because I live in a rural location. Instead of dragons, I have corn fields and wild turkeys and a pack of biker frogs that take over my frog pond every March for their egg-laying orgies. How cool is that?

Not very.

I get stuck behind tractors when the dirty jerks won’t pull over. I have near-death experiences with tri-axle coal trucks that lumber like oily mammoths on the charge. I get mad when a neighbor is noisy. Shut up! This is the country! Don’t junk it up with your I-used-to-live-in-town-and-I-can-talk-loud-at-ten-o’clock-at-night-if-I-want-to attitude!

And nobody—I mean nobody—in their right mind will write a story about this place. Considering you can’t pick up a wi-fi signal anywhere, there are no good coffee shops around, and I’ve never seen a single sidewalk in this twenty-three tractor town, there’s really nothing to do.

Then again, there’s no stop lights, either. The only bonus.

I mean, come on. What could happen here? A few years ago at the beginning of my research and subsequent enlightenment, I wrote a sarcastic piece and used this blurb as an example:

Internet-surfing heroine Martha Underfelderkoch discovers a sinister plot while illegally trespassing on coal breaker grounds. While speeding on her ATV through a stripping pit, she notices a strange residue. It’s not coal dirt. It’s much more evil than that.

Are the coal companies trying to open a portal to Hell?

Martha must battle incredible odds. If she wants to save the region, she’ll have to go head to head with the local Chamber of Commerce, a group of leviathan ancients who despise anything new. She’ll have to avoid a pack of Molly Maguire wannabes who always manage to show up when she least wants it. And she’ll have to figure out how to stop the coal drill from breaking the last barrier between man and Hell before the phone company drops her internet service again. . .

I promiised myself the day I read a country-based urban fantasy would be the day I accidentally-on-purpose stepped on my reading glasses. We read to escape, and some of us read more than others.

Thank goodness for writerly interventions.

I’d be irresponsible if I didn’t listen to Jade Blackwater, fellow Pennwriter and Philly expatriate, who recently pointed out the existence of popular rural-urban fantasy. Her first example was “Twilight.” Forks is no Manhattan or Chicago or St. Louis. It is (or, she says, at least was before the “literary tourism” kicked in*) a teeny, tiny, twenty-five-mph pass-through-in-a-blink logger town. All that existed prior to Twilight were some old original saw mills, a couple of greasy spoons, and some small rural homes.

Definitely not urban.

Another great example, she added, is M. Night Shyamalan, one of our own Philly hometown heroes, who did his share to keep Southeast PA at the top of the list of apparently creepy places to visit. Remember the film “Signs” and the yucky alien leg in the cornfield that you just had to pause and replay on quarter speed?

That’s right. Corn. Not urban.

Kind of made me feel a little bad, she did, for making fun of rural urbans. And to top it all off, a reader who saw the Martha Underfelder Koch book blurb didn’t realize it had been complete sarcasm and commented: hey! That sounds like a cool story! Has it been published yet?

Maybe it’s time to drop that pesky urban label, however kick-ass-admirable it may be. I don’t want to be the one to coin a new phase. (Jade can—she’s a lot braver than I.) Regardless, urban fantasy doesn’t have to be as urban as it implies. Darn those slippery shelves we call genres.

And, as it turns out, I may not have to settle for a rural-urban label anytime soon. I had pitched my agent with the genre paranormal chick lit—a genre I feel wonderful about because chick lit is one of the loopholey exceptions to the romance rules—and he is confident that it can sell as paranormal romance, after all. To top it off, if it’s any indicator of future success, I recently finaled in the paranormal category of a popular RWA contest. Looks like I’ve got a whole new genre to investigate now.

Sigh. There’s that bittersweet thing again.

*Jade provided some excellent links to info on the Twilight surge of literary tourism. See how a popular book can affect a dying town and give it a taste of immortality (bad puns intended):

Youth Looks Elsewhere — Logging Classes Are Given The Ax — Forks High School Teen-Agers Give Up On Declining Industry
September 3, 1990

Federal Aid To Help Lift Forks Out Of Economic Slump
January 12, 1994

Fans of “Twilight” vampire series pump new blood into Forks
July 27, 2008

Vampire tourism going strong in Forks
August 7, 2009

Maybe I *do* need to write about Schuylkill County, after all. It might do wonders for my property values. =)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s