Writing Excuses 5.32: Urban Fantasy

We begin our discussion of Urban Fantasy with a discussion of definitions, which quickly devolves into an argument over what we are actually supposed to be talking about. Moving right along, we explore what sorts of things we find in an Urban Fantasy, and what sorts of rules these stories usually abide by.

Dan tells us how he set about writing the John Cleaver books, which certainly qualify as Urban Fantasy, Howard tackles the burning question of where one might start in the project of building a mythos, and Brandon explains
his own Urban Fantasy projects, including one failure from which we can all learn an important lesson.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Dresden Files Book One: Storm Front, by Jim Butcher, narrated by James Marsters.

Writing Prompt: . Give us an Urban Fantasy in which the point of origin for your crossover is big box store retail spaces which somehow breach the boundary between our world and the magical one.

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37 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.32: Urban Fantasy”

  1. Oooh, you want definitions, well I can offer you the following:

    What is UF? http://thewonderingswordsman.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/what-is-urban-fantasy-anyway

    UF: The Masquerade- http://ralfast.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/urban-fantasy-the-masquerade

    UF: Magic vs. Technology -http://ralfast.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/urban-fantasy-magic-vs-technology

    I have more but I don’t want to spam the comments with links and with things like these, you can guarantee that 9 out 10 will NOT agree with any one thing define any where when it comes to UF.

  2. Personally I love good Urban fantasy (I get the Dresden books on release day and finish them that day) but I can’t seem to find much other UF I like. Part of that seems to be it’s primarily written by women who have a bit more bent towards romance than I care for. Harry Connolly is the only other author I can think of off the top of my head who I’m really enjoying’s work (note I haven’t gotten to Serial Killer yet, it’s on the list :))

    Considering one of the ideas I’m batting around for working on at some point is UF I need to find more good stuff to read so that I have a better background in the non-PR side of things, any recommendations aside from the two authors above?

  3. FYI: the file name for the direct download is currently coming across as:


  4. @Sullivan

    I find myself in a very similar situation. I recommend the Dreg City series by Kelly Meding. I read the two published books: Three Days to Dead and As Lie The Dead and liked them both. You might want to check those out.

  5. Correct me if I’m wrong but if memory serves, urban fantasy, and how to make it work, was touched upon during episode 3.22 with Aprilynne Pike.

  6. My keyboard got possessed by typo daemons.

    It should be episode 3.02 “Keeping it real”.

  7. The Alcatraz books are very much urban fantasy. So, six UF books for Brandon.

  8. Good show guys. I love urban fantasy, and I love the Dresden Files so thanks for including Jim Butcher’s work in this pod cast. I’m happy that you “can of worms” this topic as I think many of us would like to dive deeper into the right way to write this genre. I’m currently writing a space opera, but I plan to write some urban fantasy as well.

  9. Speaking of socks in the dryer… I just returned corrected proofs to Analog for “The Sock Problem”, a hard SF twist on that theme. It’ll be a Probability Zero piece in Analog in a couple of months.

    Great episode, this. The second story I ever sold was urban fantasy, featuring both spaceships and invading aliens as well as faeries and other magical folk. If I’d realized at the time that it was UF it would have sold sooner; I wasted a few submissions to strictly SF publications. (For anyone interested, google-ing “The Gremlin Gambit” turns it up.)

  10. Explaining the magic system in UF is kinda like everything else – it depends on what kind of feel you want to give the magic.

    (If you haven’t read Dan’s book, skip this paragraph) The magic in the John Wayne Cleaver books is basically “scary demon creatures.” When you explain the mechanisms of scary demon creatures, you get something like Blade, which isn’t exactly frightening. Heck, John Wayne Cleaver himself even points this out – we fear unknowns, not knowns. Things we know, things we choose to do, etc, are not frightening; things we don’t understand, things that force themselves upon us, are truly terrifying.

    Anyway, a couple of things I’m still not sure about:
    What makes city-based fantasy books like Mistborn not Urban Fantasy? Is it just the technology level? Yes, the later books go on to fit the classic high fantasy definition, but the first takes place almost entirely within the city of Luthadel (and its satellite townships that are more or less a feudal equivalent of suburban living). Or am I fixating way too much on the technical meaning of “Urban” (by strict word definitions, and a slight extension, “I am not a serial killer” would be Rural Fantasy, and that sounds a tad silly)
    Also, on the opposite side of the spectrum, what about stories that have magic and modern technology married together? (I’ve heard the term technofantasy for this, but it may have been derogatory) For instance, instead of having robotics, you could have golems – creatures made with robotic bodies but granted intelligence via magic rather than computer programs (given that computer programs really don’t meet the standards for sapience). (And yes, I’m aware that the original golem was made of something rather inert, like clay, but how do you expect to make something that can walk without giving it an equivalent of muscles (preferably in the form of servomotors and tension cables rather than in the form of building a system to keep muscle tissue alive and attaching it to your creation’s frame). It might not be as prevalent as “the world broke, there’s magic now” and “there’s always been magic, just don’t tell anyone or we’ll have to kill you…and whoever you told,” but that kind of thing does seem to fit the definition of Urban Fantasy you were working from. (The overuse of the robot example is my fault, there are other ways to integrate magic into a modern world; you just have to realize that “if you’re writing 2011 in a world that’s known about magic since the beginning, the world you’re describing will likely not be all that recognizable. If telekinesis, for instance, existed, there would be little need for cranes to exist, and world leaders would hide in bunkers for fear of an extremist picking up an I-beam with his mind (or yanking out of the nearest convenient skyscraper) and throwing it at him.

    On that note, how about the whole latent psychological power branch of science fiction? I’ve seen and read several series in which humanity develops psionic powers of some kind (Babylon 5 had telepaths, for instance), most of which handled it more or less the same way (such people are controlled by a specialized organization and become tools of the government (or the organization goes rogue and the government becomes it’s tool)). Heck, I’ve seen it taken to an extreme case with the Cycle of Fire trilogy – it’s impossible to know it’s not actually high fantasy until about halfway through the first book (and despite the jolt of “hey look, robots…?” it’s actually a pretty decent series.) Cycle of Fire definitely isn’t anything other than high fantasy for 99% of the story, but could you apply the urban fantasy label to anything like Babylon 5 that was centered on the psychic/normal relationship more?

  11. So, did you want the wikipedia popular history of urban fantasy, or were you asking for the true secret history? You do realize that only adepts of the fifth level with a bonafide need-to-know are usually told about the secret history of urban fantasy, since once you know it, you will have to defend the human race against …

  12. @Rashkavar
    ‘Urban fantasy’ generally means that it is set more-or-less in the current day and time, in our world. Most stories attributed to that genre will have that in common in some way. So Babylon 5 would not be urban fantasy, because it is set so very far in the future, and because it doesn’t really pull anything from fantasy in general. It’s mostly space opera and military sci fi, really. As Mistborn isn’t set in our world, it’s not urban fantasy, I think. Although Brandon did say the next one, Alloy of Law, is kind of an urban fantasy, so maybe the issue is more technology-level than specific setting.

    Psychic power is kind of a grey area, I think. It probably pops up more in sci fi and stuff set in the real world precisely because it’s not necessarily a magical effect. There’s no external energies to channel, no rituals, no wands or amulets.

    Personally, I associate ‘urban fantasy’ with a dark, gritty, noirish tone as much as with the setting, so for me, Harry Dresden or Anita Blake is more obviously urban fantasy than Harry Potter. Sure, the Harry Potter books get darker, but they don’t have that same tone. They’re still a heroic fantasy.

    Likewise, there was a book I read once called ‘A Logical Magician’, and its sequel, ‘A Calculated Magic’. They were both set in the modern day, with fairytale creatures all around us. They weren’t hiding, humans just didn’t notice them properly. Like there was a dwarf working as a mechanic, and the redcaps were seen as a gang of street punks. By the basic definition, these books were urban fantasy, but they didn’t have the kind of tone I would have assocated with the label.

    I can’t help but wonder now if the label is misleading, really. ‘Modern fantasy’ might be a better one, if it’s not already in use, but even then that conjures up the concept of current writers like Brandon and Dan and Patrick Rothfuss, as opposed to authors such as Tolkien and C S Lewis and Robert E Howard.

  13. Quote from Dan describing the Serial Killer books: “Dexter in an X-Files episode.”

    Sorry Dan, they’re aliens. Anything else you say at this point will be considered an attempted cover up.

    D-mon phone hoooome.

  14. I just finished a short story and submitted it to Writers of the Future about a group of cultists who summon demons late one night in the back of a Costco like store. It was great fun.

    Here’s a short excerpt where one cultist is explaining why the ritual is happening in the big box store.

    “So why is this nexus thing inside the Mega Price Club anyway? Shouldn’t it be in some remote forest, or Stonehenge or something?”

    “Back in 600 BC I’m sure this place was a remote forest. The Lord of the Shadows couldn’t help that some stupid developer decided to build a store on top of it, now could he?”

    Thanks for the podcast, keep up the good work guys.

  15. Interesting podcast. My own ShadowChildren series may qualify for this. Other good examples are by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. American Gods, Neverwhere (The series and the followup novel) and Anansi boys.

  16. Yay, Brandon’s back. Good podcast, and I agree, the subject needs further exploration. Urban fantasy is such a broad genre, it has so many subgenres and near relatives. I agree with Jace – when I think of urban fantasy, my knee jerk reaction is noir or thrillers or magical police procedurals, like Dresden or Anita Blake. The kick-ass heroine with a gun is a trope of its own now — wasn’t there a recent tongue-in-cheek blog somewhere aobut how covers with the heroine in mini-skirt and stilettos with a sword were giving way to leather clad heroines in combat boots and machine guns?

    But there’s also, say, Emma Bull’s “War For the Oaks,” or Pratchett and Gaimon’s “Good Omens.” And what about all the children’s books where the modern day family moves to the old house and the kids find the magic book or faeries in the back yard? What about E. Nesbit’s books like “Five Children and It,” taking place in Edwardian England – it’s not contemporary now, but it was when the book was written. Or John Bellairs “The House With the Clock in its Walls” which takes place in ‘late ’40s America?

    Maybe a good place to start is how not to do this – Brandon started on this, with his story that didn’t work, at least as an urban fantasy. Or what is not an urban fantasy, but is close?

  17. Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner…Kim Mainord!

    Yeah, that’s exactly what it sounded to me. But Army of Darkness is not the only movie to use a store as a cross over point, but the others lack a certain something….like a BOOMSTICK!


  18. I don’t think Army of Darkness used the store as a crossover point. Ash just happened to work there… and really, there was only that brief bit at the end that was even in the store.

    Still, that does raise the potential for “Army of Darkness 2: S-Mart Rampage”.

  19. Am I the only one who thinks Writing Excuses should sponsor some sort of writing group index? Like a forum for finding people in your area who would have the same schedule as you? It seems like the perfect venue. Brandon, Dan, and Howard! Have your minions make it so!

  20. I was a little freaked out when I saw the topic of this ‘cast. I was looking through some OLD writing I had done for inspiration and stumbled on really short piece that looked like an intro. to a UF story. I did not remember writing it (but it was my handwriting). I decided to play with the idea a bit and turn it into a short story. I ran into the problem of “it’s been done before,” but was reluctant to give it up as the character sounded fun.

  21. I can’t claim at all to be an expert (I grew up reading reprints of old Unknown stories where it really was contemporary fantasy), but I have noticed that there are two different strains of urban fantasy, distinguished by the tropes and where they come from.

    The first is the contemporary fantasy. As a marketing genre, it’s been around for years. It was, essentially, all fantasy after Lord of the Ring until Del Rey figured out how to give people their LOTR fix by writing other fantasy set in secondary worlds. It crossbred from there and things happened, so we get the things you talked about in the podcast. (I have to listen to it again, because I got interrupted at the 8 minute mark, so I might have missed stuff relevant to my point.) Thorne Smith’s Topper books would come here, and most of Charles de Lint’s books, and Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think (though that one is also horror) and so on. Fluid boundaries, but the tropes tend to be those of fantasy of that period, and that has bred with the Tolkienesque fantasy, and we got one strain.

    The second (it might well be a more viable publishing category) comes from romance. (Not Romance in the Northrop Frye sense, but romance in the Harlequin Books or Mill and Boon sense.) Urban fantasy gets used as a marketing term to describe what is sometimes called Paranormal Romance. I think the latter is a better name for it, but if I’m being descriptive rather than being prescriptive, urban fantasy gets used for both. An awful lot of the butt-kicking-women-who-have-tramp-stamps books come from this strain. The tropes are romance tropes. The attraction-that’s-too-strong-to-be-resisted-even-though-our-love-is-wrong is pretty much de rigeur for this kind of urban fantasy. I would characterize Karen Chance’s books as this strain of urban fantasy. (It’s not my preferred brand, so I don’t know names.)

    So in my reading of blogs and market reports, the term gets used in two different ways. As a writer, you want to know which strain you’re writing so that you meet audience expectations in the good way.

    The emphasis is also different. In the former kind, the books are almost sexless; in the latter kind, it’s all about relationships.

  22. I haven’t quite read this one yet, but I’m pretty sure you could qualify American Gods and Neverwhere as Urban Fantasy. If so, they are best in the genre that I’ve read, but those books are just amazing.

  23. Dear Howard,

    You give good, candid advice, so here’s a question: How old is too old to realize that you want to try writing YA spec fiction? Be honest.

  24. @Sullivan- I’ve been reading more and more UF lately because I’m in the process of writing some to see how it goes. I definitely agree a Noir-ish aspect is common to UF in general. Also, there’s the “sword-swinging modern day protag”. I’d recommend Steven R Donaldson’s “Mirror of Her Dreams” and “A Man Rides Through” as examples of High Fantasy mixed with UF and more currently, I’m enjoying JA Pitts “Black Blade Blues”. A Noir-ish example would probably be the Nightside series by Simon R Green.

    Not sure I agree with the previous asessment of ‘most current UF being written by women authors’ though. (I’m sorry I didn’t quote it directly). I’m also not a fan of the current cover art trend of “top heavy” heroines clad in Leather in a dark alley. Can’t we veer away from the tropes in that case, too people?

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  26. @Mike: I’m talking about personal experience so far. If there are counter examples I’d love to see them, just what I’ve run into so far.

    And thanks for the rec, I’ll check those out when I do some more buying (working on Catching Fire by Collins right now, freakin’ love the series so far).

  27. Great cast and discussion. My introduction to Urban Fantasy (and I still consider him King of the genre) was Charles de Lint. Dreams Underfoot is a great collection of short stories set in his world, which is ours, but the city is a construct of his imagination. There are several collections of short stories, but also a fair number of stand alone novels within that world.

  28. I would like to see a podcast on how to know your genre. I personally don’t want to know my genre too well in case I am overly influenced by it, but then what if I’m writing stuff that’s already been covered – and furthermore, how MUCH does is matter that you’re writing stuff that’s already been done?

    Thanks :)

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