Just as someone writing traditional fantasy (which I have done: In Legend Born, The White Dragon, and The Destroyer Goddess) faces the challenge of writing a book about guys with swords, misfits with quests, awesome sorcery, and life – altering prophecies without making it read exactly like a whole lot of other fantasy novels that use those same standard genre features, an urban fantasy writer faces the challenge of using familiar paranormal and supernatural tropes without writing a book that isn’t exactly like someone else’s book.
I didn’t really struggle with this when I wrote the first couple of books in my Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, Disappearing Nightly and Doppelgangster, because the fantasy premises I used in those two books (accidental supernatural vanishings and paranormal perfect doubles) weren’t common, let alone ubiquitous. My next two Esther Diamond books, though, brought my dread of the retread into my writing life front-and-center, since Unsympathetic Magic was a zombie novel and my most recent release, Vamparazzi, is about vampires.
Unless you’ve spent the past decade chained to the floor of an underwater cave and only emerged five minutes ago, you can presumably see my problem: It by then seemed that everybody was writing zombie books and vampire books – not only horror and fantasy writers, but an increasingly large number of mystery, romance, mainstream, and literary writers, too!
In an endless sea of zombie and vampire books, how do you write a novel about each of these familiar subjects which isn’t just like someone else’s novel?
I ignored everything that I had seen in the movies, TV shows, and popular novels viz zombies and vampires, and I focused on nonfiction books and documentaries about my subject matter. This is the way I always do research for my novels, after all; and it turned out to be particularly useful when dealing with something as done-to-undeath as zombies and vampires.
I was only a little way into researching each of these subjects when I discovered that what I “knew” about zombies and vampires was based entirely on my exposure to well-entrenched popular culture portrayals of them… And such portrayals were entirely different from religious beliefs, mythologies, and folkloric traditions recorded about such creatures.
For example, as someone who was never interested in zombies in film or fiction (the genesis of Unsympathetic Magic was my interest in voodoo, not in zombies), all I “knew” about them was that they’re terrifying walking-corpses who eat human brains.
Well, in Haitian folklore, from which the commercial concept of zombiism was derived (and then much altered), zombies don’t eat human brains. They don’t eat anything, in fact. Because they’re, you know… dead. So they don’t require nourishment.
Zombies also aren’t evil or vicious in Haitian voodoo (or Vodou) belief. They’re morally neutral, in much the way that your car is morally neutral, because they’re animated and directed entirely by an exterior intelligence. Zombies are not violent unless ordered by their creator to commit violence. They cannot act independently or react to circumstances; they’re strictly the obedient slaves of whoever raised them from the grave – typically, a bokor (a sorcerer who deals in black magic) who has petitioned Baron Samedi, the Lord of Death, to allow him to create a zombie.
And “slaves” is a key word there; in Haitian belief, a zombie is not a monster, it’s a victim. Haitians don’t fear zombies, they fear becoming zombies. In the context of Vodou, a religion founded by slaves, slavery is the worst thing that can happen to a person – hence the fear of being raised from the grave as the living dead, for the sole purpose of being a dark sorcerer’s slave.
This was all a lot more interesting to me than, “Brrrraaaaiins! WANT BRAINS!” when figuring out how to write about zombies.
Similarly, when I started working on Vamparazzi, I initially feared that when writing about vampires, there would be no way to avoid invading territory already staked out (sorry, I couldn’t resist) by other novelists. Once again, though, as soon as I started researching my subject, I discovered precisely the thing that has been the tag line for Vamparazzi ever since: “Everything you think you know about vampires is wrong.”
Or, at least, everything I thought I “knew” was wrong – and based entirely on fictional and filmic portrayals of vampires throughout the 19th and 20th century.
Here’s a good one: In European folklore, vampires don’t have fangs. That’s strictly an invention of novels and films. It’s a shrewd invention, of course – because trying to access someone’s jugular vein without razor-sharp fangs is extremely messy… as we learn in Vamparazzi, which eliminates fangs as a feature of vampirism, since I didn’t want to steal from (generations of) novelists when I wrote about vampires.
To give another example: Vampires bursting into flames or withering into ashes when exposed to sunlight is also strictly an invention of fiction and film; folkloric vampires are typically active by night rather than day, but there is no tradition of sunlight being fatal (or, rather, terminal) for them.
Moreover, I was surprised to learn there have been historical vampire epidemics. In Eastern Europe in the 18th century, for example, outbreaks of vampirism were so alarming and widespread that the Austrian Empire, which then ruled the region, sent government officials to the afflicted provinces to investigate and report on these strange events. (You can read translations of their official reports in Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality.) The Serbian vampire epidemic plays an important role in Vamparazzi – as, indeed, it played, historically, in spreading Slavic vampire lore through Western Europe.
Thus I relearned a lesson which helps me gird my loins as I approach additional tropes in my urban fantasy series which I fear have already been done way too much: Just research it.