Friday the 13th is the perfect day for Bookspotcentral Valentine to some wonderful women authors of paranormal fiction. Whether the label du jour is urban fantasy, dark fantasy, or some flavor of paranormal, with or without heavy romantic elements and (ahem) explicit hotness, these series can encompass high-octane thrills, layered world-creation, ensemble character development, humor, and cultural commentary. It’s that gusto and genre-bending variety that seems to attract its authors as well as its readers, and there were enthusiastic fans of both genders gathered at 2009’s New York Comic-Con to hear more about Kick-Ass Female Authors and their Killer Heroines.
This hour-long panel was jam-packed and there were 6 authors sitting on the dais. As hefty as this summary is, I’ve actually excerpted and condensed the content, trimming out pauses for laughter and some of the random bawdiness that made it such fun. I left plenty in, too. Misstatements are mine, but I’d appreciate corrections if you have them.
Moderator Michael Spradlin is the author of The Youngest Templar, the first book in The Keeper of the Grail series (hardcover from Putnam Juvenile, released September 18th, 2008). I note that it takes a good sport and a good attitude to depart so drastically from the fiction he typically writes for nine to twelve year-olds in order to facilitate a panel for books that are often rather adult in their themes and treatment. First, he introduces himself as the temporary King of Babe-a-lon, only to be good-naturedly busted down to “token male” by one of the panelists. Let the fun begin.
The panelists and their current releases:
Kim Harrison- White Witch, Black Curse
Book 7, The Hollows series about Cincinnati witch and bounty hunter Rachel Morgan (upcoming hardcover from Eos, February 24th)
Vicki Pettersson- City of Souls
Book 4, Sign of the Zodiac series about Las Vegas casino heiress and Light Sagittarius Joanna Archer (upcoming mass market paperback from Eos, June 30th)
Jeaniene Frost- At Grave’s End
Book 3, Night Huntress series about Ohio’s half-vampire slayer Cat Crawfield (mass market paperback from Avon, released December 30th, 2008)
Jocelynn Drake- Dayhunter
Book 2, Dark Days series about centuries-old vampire nightwalker and enforcer Mira (upcoming mass market paperback from Eos, April 28th)
Margaret Ronald- Spiral Hunt
Celt-influenced debut about the Hound, Evie Scelan, who supernaturally scents her quarry amid the magical undercurrents of Boston (mass market paperback from Eos, released January 27th, 2009)
Michael Spradlin launches the discussion by asking why the paranormal genre has become so popular with both male and female readers. Kim Harrison notes how much other media have highlighted it, such as in Joss Whedon’s programs and the Underworld movies. But it’s nothing new, not since Bewitched. She calls it the “comfort food of the literary world,” because we all enjoy fireside stories about the Bogey Man. Vicki Pettersson adds the universal need for escapism, especially in rough times, mentioning how strong female perspectives can be an antidote to the wilting flowers or token females who used to get routinely killed off at the beginning of books. Jeaniene Frost thinks readers especially enjoy the What If factor, imagining that what we see isn’t all that’s there, and giving names to our superstitions and fears. But another appealing aspect about this genre is that it can turn the Bogey Man into the Leading Man, showing a monster isn’t as monstrous as some of the human actors. Jocelynn Drake says she’s in it for the action, a heroine with guns blazing who kicks ass wherever she finds herself, battling the darkness and having fun doing it, even if she doesn’t come out ahead all the time. Margaret Ronald enjoys making different patterns, a stranger kind of sense out of the evidence. Rather than using Occam’s Razor to explain something, she can use Occam’s flamethrower instead. Kim Harrison finally notes the cross-gender appeal might simply be attributed to all the sexy women in leather.
Michael Spradlin asks about the heroines who are involved in tempestuous, tumultuous relationships, human or not-so, and why they seem necessarily attracted to alpha males and bad boys, pointing out that the beta males want sexy chicks, too. Jocelynn Drake’s heroine, Mira, hasn’t been matched up with anyone yet, but Drake thinks he’ll need to be a pretty strong alpha not to be dominated or steamrolled by her heroine’s personality. Jeaniene Frost doesn’t think the term “bad boy” gives enough credit to characters that have moral ambiguity. They’re not necessarily bad, just complicated, which is her rationalization and she’s sticking with it. When the heroines are strong women who won’t wait for the danger to pass before jumping in, it’s hard for Frost to imagine them with anyone but someone equally unafraid to jump into the dark. In her opinion, that quality defines a very good boy for these characters.
Vicki Pettersson likes writing hot guys, and if she has to slave for hours writing, she wants to do it with someone cute. The bad boys are also Kim Harrison’s favorite to write, and while they always have some redeeming factor, she likes them to be genuinely bad. It’s a problem for her that her bad boys have to behave well enough to survive, but then they risk becoming antiheroes. She has to remind herself to make them do despicable things. Much like women can vicariously appreciate kick-ass heroines, she believes male readers like imagining themselves in the bad boys’ role, too. Margaret Ronald’s male leads are usually quite sure they’re doing the right thing, and that’s the source of their problems. She likes playing with characters who aren’t necessarily bad, in fact, one puts on the façade of being a trustworthy, nice guy. But in her books, safe isn’t always the best thing, and that’s a dichotomy she enjoys writing.
When considering how much of their own personality makes it into their heroines, Kim Harrison notes lots of differences with hers in residential preferences and how she spends her time, but acknowledges they share deep determination and a hatred for bullies. If she saw Rachel Morgan on the street, she’d recognize her, but might not want to be her friend, because she’s scary. And all her friends die. Vicki Pettersson thinks there are aspects of her personalities in all her characters from the heroine to the bad guys. She jokes that people may not realize when they’re insulting her villains, they’re insulting her. And when they call her heroine a bitch, well, that’s a frightening thing to ponder. Jeaniene Frost isn’t like her main character, because her heroine would just never enjoy dinner and a movie, curling up with a husband and a dog. Frost’s heroine occurred to her as her own person, not as a splinter of her author, who, by the way, couldn’t handle being in constant danger with the ones she cares about. However, she did gift Cat her own dark humor and bad language. When it’s life or death, “shucky darns” doesn’t come to mind. Jocelynn Drake thinks the question revolves around whether she herself is really, really violent. And she’s not, at least not in public or on her blog. She shares Mira’s temper, impulsiveness, and sense of humor, but there are big chunks of her in Danaus’s dark brooding and Tristan’s insecurities. Margaret Ronald’s heroine Evie is a total bitch, in more ways than one, and she puts up with a lot less crap than her author, and that’s just one of the impulses Ronald channels through her.
Spradlin asks next about how each author began researching and creating the unique worlds where their characters reside. Kim Harrison admits to doing “zero research” on her critters, at least not since elementary school and junior high when she read various Big Books of Fairy Tales and authors like Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey. She lets those influences swirl in the background, rather than looking into what other people are doing, though she does quite a bit of research on her locations. When she began her series, she didn’t know how fascinating Cincinnati was. Since then, she’s learned about its unused tunnels and subways, its reputation for graverobbing, its previous history as the 4th largest city in the nation, and that you can travel from there all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by boat. As for the magical elements of her series– and she thinks it’s likely true for most of the authors,– she’s just making the stuff up. Vicki Pettersson wanted to use mythology as a way to turn the popular superhero trope on its ear. As a Las Vegas native, who actually spent years as a showgirl, the city is obviously familiar to her, but she thinks it can mean different things depending on what someone’s seeking. She likes showing off some of her own favorite locations and explaining Las Vegas’ historical identity as a tiny desert town where everyone knows each other, only with this big, bright bulge in the middle. She rediscovers her city in finding new places for Joanna to create mayhem.
Jeaniene Frost never knew her first Night Huntress manuscript would get published, so she didn’t do much world research. She’d wanted to write a book since she was twelve, so with thirty looming, she did it. As a control freak, she loves being able to create a fantasy world as she chooses, so unlike real life. She’d loved vampire stories since childhood, and simply kept the ideas she loved and didn’t use the rest. Where she did do more research was on the vampires’ circumstances and how they would have been shaped by them. Because Bones was turned in 1790, she researched 18th century London’s social and political environment to understand how his perspective would differ from, say, a 22 year-old college student in Ohio. If that research only amounted to four sentences in the final novel, it still gave her a much better grounding in the character she was writing. She also notes that if you’re writing a real, contemporary city, local readers will call you out on mistakes, so Google.
Jocelynn Drake’s vampires came from years of reading and her twisted imagination, as a culmination of everything she’d absorbed. Her heaviest research, aside from fight scenes, also involves locales. Her heroine’s always on the move and, in her debut, traveled through London, Egypt, and Savannah, meaning lots of work, since Drake hadn’t visited any of those places. By the time she was done with the internet and loads of travel books, she could’ve described any street Mira walked down, and for Dayhunter’s Venice scenes, she made sure to learn every canal. While Margaret Ronald agrees about the importance of locale research, she did investigate the legendary basis of her world. Once her heroine, Evie, occurred to her, she immediately realized she’d need to know a lot more about Celtic mythology than she did. She immersed herself in the medieval Welsh stories of the Mabinogion, plus criticism, discussions, and historical analysis, and surfaced days later, blinking. She enjoyed the process of coming up with a lot of ideas that never made it into the book, though she’s using more of them as time and the series go by.
Opening the floor, the first question from the audience is about the oft-debated, seemingly never-resolved differentiation between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Kim Harrison offers the impression, subject to correction, that it’s much easier to get a paranormal romance reader to read something labeled urban fantasy than the reverse. The needs of certain genre readers may be very specific, but romance readers tend to be quite flexible in crossing over. Jeaniene Frost calls hers “urban fantasy romance” and some call them hybrids. She says some people define romance as requiring a ‘Happily Ever After’. She advises that if you’re taking a main couple through several books, as she does and do Mary Janice Davidson and Katie MacAlister, should you decide to kill the hero in the series finale, be ready to run and hide from romance fans. In urban fantasy, there isn’t that expectation, either book-to-book or over the series arc. The heroine may end up with someone different than at the beginning or by herself. Paranormal romance bears a greater expectation that the couple will end up together in some form of happiness, though not necessarily married with children. For romance readers, she says if you let them know what to expect in the end, such as a final choice among multiple heroes or finally reuniting with the original one, they’ll happily go along and enjoy the ride. But cheat them on the anticipated resolution, and they’ll be extremely unhappy.
Margaret Ronald’s kneejerk reaction is to say she prefers to have stacks and stacks of her book in every aisle possible. And while she’s dreaming, she’d also like a pony. She tends to think of her work as urban fantasy, but considers that a somewhat arbitrary designation. The romance plot is muted in her book, not at the forefront, but she depends upon the reader to decide where it falls. Jocelynn Drake’s books are urban fantasy with light “romantic elements.” She doesn’t want to lock her heroine into anything while she’s having such fun getting into trouble. (When she observes that she doesn’t want Mira yet “shackled to a man,” several of the XY-chromosomed shackles in the crowd, like moderator Mike Spradlin, wince and “Ow!” aloud) She wants her heroine to experience all the turmoil that comes with relationships, meeting someone who she must choose either to love or kill. Kim Harrison closes the topic by pointing out if you can remove the romance from a book and still have a coherent story, it’s probably an urban fantasy. If removing the romance guts the plot, it’s a romance, and she says she can usually tell by the language and treatment from the first chapter.
Another audience member asks about the general importance of having sex in the books, both in frequency and explicitness. Kim Harrison begins by acknowledging how individual the choice is, based on storyline and author preference. She personally likes to write some in, but it won’t break her books without it. She has, in fact, gone several books without Rachel slipping into the bedroom with anyone and didn’t get any flack for it. Vicki Pettersson says she puts in sex scenes when they forward the plot, doing two or three different things in the story, and she’s not talking about positions. She wrote a draft of her fourth book without any sex scenes, after someone noted she’d always had them. But she found, for her, that sucked! For her characters’ emotions and interpersonal dynamics, she needs at least some. However, she notes that sex scenes aren’t at all sexy to write. They’re as hard to write as fight scenes, and have to be as carefully choreographed. Jeaniene Frost echoes that opinion, and says she advises writers having trouble with sex scenes to approach them like fights, involving physicality, emotion, and all the senses. She says if the author’s shying away from something, the readers can tell. If she feels a scene doesn’t belong, because she knows where she’s taking the plot and series, she’ll take it out. Her second book was pretty sexy, but her third, because of the circumstances, had more action in it. Some readers loved the increased danger, and some wanted another Chapter 32, and are demanding it for Book 4. In any case, she tries to write sex so she’s moving the plot, not just stopping to peek in a window.
Jocelynn Drake hasn’t felt compelled to add a lot of sex. So far, the pacing (she’s just finished the Book 3 draft) is so fast, she hasn’t felt like she’s had time to get around to sex. She admits that’s a bit of a shame, since she owes her heroine some enjoyment, and promises to let her have some in the future. She’ll know it’s the right time when it matches the rest of the story and doesn’t slow anything down, but she hasn’t felt pressured about it at all. Margaret Ronald hasn’t written much in the way of actual sex, showing characters’ sex appeal instead with shower scenes, drenching rains, etc. She confesses to having trouble writing sex scenes, in that sitting at the computer blushing is counterproductive. But stripping a character and rolling him in mud is no problem at all. She hasn’t felt any pressure to add sex either, but does enjoy writing the teasing, more sex-appeal based scenes. Jocelynn Drake amens the fun of writing teasing scenes, flirting with putting her main characters in interesting positions. In her throatiest growl, she discusses bringing them closer…and closer…so close that you can feel… the kiss… on the page. At this point, Mike Spradlin points out the obvious superiority of this panel over any other in the history of Comic Con. The audience cheers for hotness.
The next question from the floor concerns stereotypes of women in genre fiction and society and how that figures into the authors’ work. Vicki Pettersson addresses it straightforwardly, having a beautiful, buxom blond whose whole physical form is a mask. She finds there’s so much more behind her female and male characters than the surface, Everyone’s multilayered from the panel to the audience and even the geeks in the comic book shop. As a feminist and a woman, if there’s something she sees everyday, and it’s affecting her on some level, it goes into her books. There’s wish fulfillment there. If a guy harasses her on the street, she writes it down, and in the next book, he dies a slow and painful death. Mostly it’s just fun, and she doesn’t want to hit anyone over the head with a moral message, but she’s just saying with her fiction: Don’t’ f**k with me. Jeaniene Frost adds that to avoid stereotypes, it’s important to plug deeper into the characters. Even if they’re acting in stereotypical ways at times, digging deeper reveals their weirdness, quirks, and how they’re opinionated and very individual. The authors can show women who are able to choose their paths, not be pigeon-holed. If they want to be kick-ass or not, that’s fine, but no one should be forced into a box where they don’t belong.
This topic leads another member of the audience to ask whether any of the authors encountered resistance because of their strong heroines. Kim Harrison replies with an immediate and definite No. Jeanine Frost hasn’t experienced that either, and notes the market’s especially good now for strong heroines. She’s happy to be shelved in romance, because she’s been reading it since she was way too young to be reading it. She’s heard more traditional readers say that romance heroines don’t kill people, but hers does, and has found a lot of readers willing to embrace whatever kind of heroine’s presented as long as they can connect. Jocelynn Drake notes her focus, from the beginning, on providing balancing factors for her heroine. She wanted to have as many male readers as female, and knowing that male readers might not always be able to relate, gave them a good balance with her male character Danaus significantly sharing lots of scenes with Mira. Margaret Ronald wants to make sure does more than working out her own issues through Evie, and works to find responses that aren’t just extensions of the author. Doing so, she found she liked when her kick-ass heroine was vulnerable or messed up. Vicki Pettersson points out that the male readership likes these women who they can imagine standing toe-to-toe with. Guys like alpha chicks just like girls like alpha males. As for the publishing industry, it’s receptive, being filled with kick-ass females, her agent and editor being only two examples.
The next question is about having a master plan and potential series burnout. Kim Harrison explains that The Hollows series was originally planned as three books, and was delighted when she found out she’d been signed on to play with it for six. After coming up with the six-book arc, she found out it could extend to nine, and had to come up with something else. She could’ve folded up at that point, but gave it some thought, and asked her heroine if she was ready for more trouble. Rachel said yes. Harrison has an arc now that can extend as long as she wants, but knows at some point the story will end. She likes endings as much as beginnings. She hopes the series ends happily, and then she’ll cheerfully put Rachel down and go on. She acknowledges the trap of writing the same series on and on until the stories peter out, but if the characters are still growing and learning, the story stays strong. Vicki Pettersson paraphrases Dennis Lehane saying no one ever comes up to you and tells you the 16th book in your series was just the best. Since that doesn’t happen, an author wants to end the series on a strong note.
Jeaniene Frost has a series ending in mind for Book 7, although they might drag a couple more out of her, because a couple of the more-persuasive side characters in her world are bitching about getting their own books. After that, she’ll write something totally different in another world. Jocelynn Drake tries to answer without looking at her editor in the front row because they’ve never discussed this. There are things she wants to accomplish with the series, but it’s open-ended, and she likes to think she’ll be writing about Mira as long as people want to read about her. That said, Drake fully expects her heroine to get fed up and protest one day, and she knows how the series will conclude at that point. However, even that doesn’t mean the Dark Days world will end. She’s trying to make the landscape as lush as possible, so she can jump back into it with other characters who want face time. Margaret Ronald has a clear 3-book arc, and is early enough into her series that she isn’t worried about burnout, except in the annoying way that day jobs and writing don’t mix. She recharges with a side project that has nothing to do with the current novels and will probably never see print.
The panel’s asked whether their series can be joined by a reader at any book. Kim Harrison replies that any of hers should stand alone, but are more enjoyable read in order. That’s her intention, but it takes attention to accomplish. Vicki Pettersson demands that everyone buy and read everything she ever writes or risk an ass-kicking. Some of Jeanine Frost’s readers didn’t even register that they’d begun reading her series with Book 3, and she heard the same about Book 2. Therefore, she thinks they’re just fine read out of order, but sequential readers may get some of the inside jokes that new readers don’t. She’s working to lure readers into her web with whatever book they happen to grab. Jocelynn Drake isn’t worried, because she’s only got her first on the shelves so far, but her goal is for them to stand alone and tie together. With one book out so far, Margaret Ronald finds herself in the same position with the same goals.
Thus endeth the panel. With thanks to the authors and moderator, I hope you found this summary even half as swell as we attendees found the event.
New York area writer.