5 Tips to Writing Paranormal
By Jeri Westerson
Once upon a time, there were just books. It didn’t matter what they were about. The public read them, hungry for the next novel or the next serialized chapter in their favorite magazine. But then, marketing was born, and with it, categorizing. Now there are genres. There’s literary, which encapsulates all that can’t be categorized, but more often than not stands for “literature” that speaks to a universal audience. There’s science fiction, where science fact meets the “what if” of fiction. There’s the mystery genre with all its sub-genres, from cozy small town mysteries where there is no sex, graphic violence, or harsh language, to the roughest noir, to sub-sub genres like medieval mysteries, romantic mysteries, paranormal mysteries…and on and on. The romance category of books is everything under the sun, so many we don’t have time to go into them all here.
But why bring up genre anyway? Well, because it helps us readers to find just the right book. Feeling like a mystery? We know what kind we like and can plug in the very category we find most intriguing on our search engines. I have to admit, it is handy, even though authors hate being categorized.
I’m usually penning medieval mysteries myself, but I’ve made the venture into the paranormal. Not that there weren’t already fuzzy paranormal things happening in my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Mysteries, what with the religious relics my protagonist always gets involved with. But this time there is no ambiguity. My new series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN, which comes out on Halloween, is a contemporary urban fantasy about a woman who leaves California to open an herb and tea shop in a small town in Maine. But when she finds an ancient book bricked up in the wall of her shop and opens it, she literally lets all hell break loose, and its now her job—with the help of a ragtag group of local Wiccans and the mysterious and handsome Erasmus Dark, an man who claims to be a demon—to put it all right again. It’s a tale full of magic, murder, and romance.
So what do you need to pen a paranormal?
1) A likeable protagonist. Likely a she and written in first person. Is this a hard and fast rule? No, but it’s the bulk of urban fantasies and paranormal romances. And if that’s what the people want, why make it tough on yourself. Oh, and by the way, is urban fantasy and paranormal romance interchangeable? Sort of. There can be romance in an urban fantasy, just not the main focus. And if the focus is romance, make sure one of the romantic leads is paranormal. When I was working out the series, I hired a freelance editor to help me straighten out the kinks. I guess she wasn’t as versed in paranormal as I thought she was, because one of her (lousy) pieces of advice was to not let my female protagonist have a relationship with the demon. Say what?
2) Go heavy on the paranormal. Don’t be coy. Readers are tuning in because they want all that paranormal/supernatural stuff going on. Whether vampires or shifters, big bad demons or something else popping up from the netherworld, ratchet it up! Don’t let the supernatural be peripheral. Make it the reason the story exists. So maybe it might be fun for you to write the everyday life of a shifter, going to the PTA, baking cookies for the bake sale. But there needs to be a darker reason there’s a shifter in the book other than your love of extra hairy, howling guys. Falling down the rabbit hole and ending up in a different world far darker than Wonderland is a great jumping off point. Or as in the case of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, Sookie has a special power that she hates having. But when all these vampires come out of the closet, it’s kind of a relief to her. Making the paranormal normal is the key.
3) How about some romance? Do you know why the Beauty and the Beast story gets a resurgence every few years with women flocking to these stories? It’s because we like a tragic hero, and we also don’t mind a guy with a beast face, as long as his heart is soulful. Go for it. Run with it. Only this time he’s a vampire, or a werewolf, or a…whatever. A Wendigo with a heart of gold. Even Wendigos need love. Look, it really doesn’t matter what the beast is. He can start out as the enemy and grow and become a friend, then a lover. Remember Spike in the Buffy series? Man, did that ever work! That’s the bad boy making good. But still a bit of a bad boy. Don’t change the nature of your beast, because that’s what we like about him, but give him a reason to be a hero. He can have a change of heart, but maybe every now and then, he’s still gotta kill. Inner turmoil makes for interesting characters.
4) Don’t forget the side characters. Every Buffy needs her Scooby Gang. And they aren’t just there for window dressing. One of the things I liked best about mystery authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming, is her knack for writing interesting side characters, the many people who populate her small town. Yes, sometimes they are just background, but in later books, they become the focus of the story. We were already introduced so we feel we know them, care about them when they get into trouble as the series goes on. Your side characters might start out as comedy relief or for exposition purposes, but don’t leave them there. Flesh them out. If they stick with your protagonist when the going gets tough, they will inevitably get into trouble on their own. And speaking of the good guys, maybe there’s an anti-group in the books as well. In the Twilight books, there were good vamps and very bad vamps. Pit them against each other and make it harder for the protagonist to do her job, whatever that job is.
5) Setting. I love the fall. Maybe it’s because I live in southern California and it’s hot most of the year in the particular inland corner where I live, and I dream of cool, blustery days, and the colorful play of fall leaves rustling in the breeze. So not only do I set my book in a fictional small town of Moody Bog in the wilds of Maine, a picturesque and sleepy village where nothing could possibly go wrong, but I’ve set the action in the fall, just as the season turns. Just as everything dies. The books are leading up to the climax that will happen on Halloween, so my autumn is long and just as cold as I want it to be. But an urban fantasy or paranormal romance can be set anywhere. Kat Richardson set her Greywalker series in a decidedly dark Seattle. Anita Blake, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter, makes her way through a fairy and vampire infested St. Louis. It doesn’t matter where you set your stories, as long you give it your own stamp. And by the way, this is part of your world-building, so make sure you know the rules of the world you’ve built—do your vampires sparkle in the sun, or go up in flames?—and keep it all consistent from book to book. This will require lots of notes. I know it does for me. And I never quite get a handle on the characters and the story arc until I’ve at least written the second book, so I recommend jumping on that as soon as you’re done with the first. Things will change. The rules of your universe will be more fleshed out. Don’t forget to go back to the first book and correct and smooth out those changes. It will definitely make for a great series that way.
Award-winning author Jeri Westerson likes to make the fur fly in her new paranormal series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN, the first of which will be released on Halloween! See her “booke” trailer, her Pinterest page, friend her on Facebook, or read an excerpt on her website BOOKeoftheHIDDEN.com.