Monday, April 27, 2009

Guest Blogger: Jeri Smith-Ready

The winner of Jeri's book is: The Ink Gypsy! Congrats! Send me your contact information and I'll pass it along to Jeri. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Urban fantasy worldbuilding: a place like ours, or not

We usually associate the daunting word “worldbuilding” with science fiction or traditional fantasy, where an idea becomes a system of rules and details that astound us with their complexity and completeness. But the same rigor must also be applied to urban fantasy. While traditional fantasy usually involves an invented world—think Middle Earth or Narnia—urban/contemporary fantasy is by definition set in a world we recognize. It might be a well-known city like Las Vegas, or it might be a place that doesn’t exist but feels real, like Bon Temps, Louisiana.

Even in urban fantasy, these visions of “our world” can vary. They can be identical to the one we know, where the supernatural remains secret; or a parallel world, in which magic is integrated into society. As it so happens, I write one of each, so I’ll try to describe some of the challenges I’ve faced.

My WVMP RADIO series (WICKED GAME and next month’s BAD TO THE BONE) is solidly set in our world. The truth about vampires, including the station’s disc jockeys, is hidden from the public (though it is eventually used as a marketing gimmick). Therefore, their existence has not changed the world we know. The only addition is a covert paramilitary organization known as the International Agency for the Control and Management of Undead Corporeal Entities (aka the Control), which works with federal agencies in various nations at top levels of secrecy.

I incorporate real-life details such as music, technology, and even sports. In BAD TO THE BONE, the actual November 5, 2007, Steelers-Ravens football game plays a role in one of the subplots. I worked the game into the backdrop of a dramatic scene, and the final score sharpens the rivalry between Shane and David. (In real life, I was heartbroken at the Ravens’ crushing defeat, but then realized, “Hey, I can use this!” Great art comes from great pain. ;-)

The characters’ close ties to the real world allows them to step out of the books into our reality. They might even, oh, hypothetically speaking, have MySpace and Twitter accounts. They can communicate with readers about current events and music, because they share our culture.

To build this series’ world, I must decide which real-life elements to include. Which kinds of events are relevant to the characters? In BAD TO THE BONE, a single football game causes a cascade of conflict and confusion.

On the other side, how much of Ciara and Shane’s world should be brought into our domain? Does their online reader interaction enhance the world building, or could “breaking the fourth wall” make their fictional world feel less special?

My other project is a young adult urban fantasy series, which will begin in 2010. It takes place in our world (Baltimore, which many people think already exists in a parallel universe), and also mentions modern music. But this world has one major addition: the heroine (Aura) and everyone younger can see ghosts, due to a mysterious event called the Shift, which took place at her birth.

Proof of the supernatural sends shock waves through Aura’s society, even for those who can’t see them—i.e., anyone seventeen and older. The government forms the Department of Metaphysical Purity (DMP, whose agents are colloquially called “dumpers”). An obsidian-based technology called BlackBox™ is developed to keep ghosts out of sensitive areas such as bathrooms and military buildings.

To build this fictional world, I had to decide how much of our world would change over the course of sixteen ghost-filled years. Adults would be slow to adapt and accept the new reality, especially since they can’t experience ghosts directly. This reluctance would manifest in religions clinging to the old ways, or pop culture fetishizing ghosts in a cynical attempt at profit. The youngest generation would feel isolated and misunderstood by the larger world. They wouldn’t have the influence to mold their culture—yet.

So in building this world I have to think about how the two vastly different segments of society would react to the existence and presence of ghosts. One would fall into denial and paranoia, and the other would find ways to adapt, since they have no other choice.

Along with a few other individual, the heroine Aura is determined to discover why the Shift occurred in the first place, maybe even figure out how to reverse it. Until her boyfriend dies and becomes a ghost.

I hope that in my own rambly way, I’ve helped illustrate a few of the different challenges involved in urban fantasy worldbuilding. Turns out, it’s just as complicated as any other kind.


To enter to win the last Advance Review Copy of BAD TO THE BONE (release date May 19), just leave a comment below. It can be about worldbuilding either from the perspective of a reader or a writer, or a reaction to what I’ve written above.

Or, you can suggest a title for my YA series. I am desperately seeking a name, both for the series and for Book One, so any help would be very appreciated!

A name will be drawn at random on Wednesday evening, April 29, and posted here.

Jeri can be found on all the internets, including:


Blogger Unknown said...

I think world building is one of the most important parts of a book. If I don't feel like I'm actually there, I'll stop reading.

9:26 PM  
Blogger donnas said...

If I cant believe in the world the characters live in I cant fully appreciate the book. I loved Wicked Game and how I was able to place the story in the real world. Not to say I dont like a completely made up world as well. I just think it needs to go one way or the other and not a mix of 2 totally different times/places. Meaning, if there is no electricity then cars can not exist either, if that makes sense. The details no matter where it is based need to be right and believable for the world the story is taking place in.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Nonny Blackthorne said...

I love worldbuilding. One of the things that annoys me most about some paranormal romances and urban fantasies is that there is very little worldbuilding... I don't go for stories where it's obvious the writer substituted vampire for big bad businessman or whatever, because they're so popular. :P

10:14 PM  
Blogger Cybercliper said...

Wow! While I'm reading, I leave this plane and enter the author's world. Really good authors bring all my senses alive without me even realizing it. I guess I never really gave world building the respect it deserves, instead focusing on characters. Thinking about it, I realize it's a whole lot harder than I would have imagined. Gives me a whole new perspective.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Leslie said...

Hello Jeri,

Loved WICKED GAME and looking forward to reading BAD TO THE BONE.

For me in world building there needs to be consistancy throughout the series. I can believe almost anything as long as it makes sense within the context of the world that the author has created.

And your YA sounds really fascinating. I'm wondering why you picked 17 for the age at which the teens stop seeing the ghosts. I'll have to read the book to find out.

I'm not very good with titles but I'll give it a shot. :)

Maybe something like Shadow Worlds for the series title and Shifting World for the title of the 1st book. Keeping the word World in each subsequent title but changing the first word to refect what's happening in that book.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I used to read a lot of fantasy but I got tired of having to remember all the world details. That's why I like urban fantasy so much - I know the basics of the world already. :)

6:32 AM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Hey everyone! Thanks for your comments.

Bridget3420: I think it's so important, too. I admit I'm kind of a world building geek when it comes to writing, so I have to be able to come up with a solid explanation for something before I put it in my books. I give other authors a little more leeway, though, if they provide good characters and conflict.

Donnas: I'm glad you liked Wicked Game! I know what you mean about the mixing--it needs to not have contradictory details.

Nonny: LOL, so you don't like the "Open Tab A and Insert Vampires Here" method of novel-writing? ;-)

Cybercliper: I think the characters are by far the most important part. If you don't notice the world building, then the author is doing his or her job really well! :-)

Leslie: Oops, I probably muddied the issue when I mentioned Aura's age. They don't stop seeing ghosts at 17. Anyone who was born before Aura will never see ghosts, and everyone after her will see ghosts forever. Unless someone can find a way to make it stop, which is what she's hoping. Talking to ghosts is at best annoying and at worst very upsetting.

Thanks for your great suggestions! I hadn't thought about using the word "World."

6:37 AM  
Blogger Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I appreciate how many of the characters lately in urban fantasy are a part of "our world." I believe that concept brings the story closer to the reader. Adding elements of fantasy make reading such books even more exciting, allowing the readers to take a tiny step out of reality.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Gypsy Thornton said...

I guess "Ghost World" is too obvious/can't be used?

Off the top of my head:


"The Other Ones"

"Other World"

"Dead Not Gone"


"Close Your Eyes"

"Living in the Past"

"Past Living"



"Cold World"

"Ghost of a Chance"

I have the feeling some of these may have been used before...

The new series sounds fascinating! Looking forward to seeing it next year. Sounds like lots to have fun with!

By the way I remember reading you write about things you feel you have to deal with eg Aspect of Crow series was you exploring death which freaked you out at the time. What set the Aura series in motion (besides a contract I mean)? :)

7:18 AM  
Blogger housemouse88 said...

Hello Jeri,

I never realized all that goes into world building. Thank you for the education. Have a great day.

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Jess said...

I liked Generation Ghost; what happened to it? Also. . . *arches eyebrow* Hypothetically? *G*

I always think through the worldbuilding but not the history of it nearly as much as I should. The book I'm writing now takes place in an alternate 1785 and I had to think of events as early as an alternate 1680 to make it work.

I will come up with other suggestions on my break. :)

8:41 AM  
Blogger Suzanne McLeod said...

Great post Jeri, thanks :-) And worldbuilding's always a tricky one whether you go for the 'secret' or 'open' world. I really loved Wicked Game and am so looking forward to Bad to the Bone.

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Ashley Snyder said...

I cant read a book if I dont buy the world the author is building. It has to be authentic enough to think it could really be a place or I dont have an interest!

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. One of the biggest challenges I've face with world building is where to stop. Do the readers really need to know the political workings? Monetary system? Religion? Sewage? Class? It can go on and on. I tend to detail those things the directly influence the plot and characters and broad brush the rest to give a reader, I hope, a feel for the world without overwhelming them.

9:10 AM  
Blogger kmt1976 said...

I enjoyed your comments. I also agree with writermomof5 that too much information is too much! If I get bogged down in the information, I tend to lose the story line. Along that line, the only information I needed was that da Stillers won!

9:35 AM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Chris: That's a *really* good point. I used to write epic fantasy and it was a challenge, especially at the beginning of a new volume, to catch readers up and help them keep things straight of the important facts. I tried to keep it as simple as possible--how much do readers REALLY need to know, and how much is just me showing off my kooky imagination? ;-)

Jennsbookshelf: I like UF for that same reason--feeling close to the characters, like we might have walked on the same street or listened to the same bands.

InkGypsy: Those are great suggestions! I will pass them on to my editor--we are at the brainstorming point, so any and all possibilities will be entertained.

I honestly can't remember the moment I thought of this series. I have the page in my notebook that says "Ghost Lawyers--We Sue Dead People", but I have no idea what inspired it. It was at least a year after the original idea that I put together the proposal. It had to percolate and become fleshed out in the form of characters.

Housemouse: You know, I never really thought about it either until I tried to describe it. Funny how that is. ;-)

Will post this and answer more comments in a new comment, after I eat my pizza. Don't want to grease up my new keyboard! :-)

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Sara M said...

I loved Wicked Game. It was one of those impulse buys when I'm walking around Borders and I know I want to read something, but I don't know what so I pick things up at random. I was not disappointed. I can's wait for Bad to the Bone!

And here are some title ideas:
--Ghostly Shift
--Shifted Reality
--Shifted Sight

10:11 AM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Jess: Generation Ghost is definitely off the table. Too much like Generation Dead. Oh well, I'm sure between all of us we'll come up with something equally awesome.

Suzanne: I know, we could write a whole book about urban fantasy world building. (, must resist) There are WB books out there, but I think they're geared toward SF and traditional fantasy.

Ashley: It's good to know it's important to readers, too. We certainly spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. :-)

writermomof5: You're absolutely right. I think it's the little details that really build a world, not the big explanations. It's especially true for YA books, where the readers (who are not necessarily teens themselves) want to focus on the characters.

Karin: It was 38-7. The Ravens kept fumbling and the Steelers kept scoring TDs off of the turnovers. 35-0 at the half. Soooo pitiful. But things are looking good for the Ravens for next year, so maybe Shane'll be the one losing the humiliating bets.

Sara M: I'm glad you followed your impulse! :-) And I like your titles, because they use the word Shift in a way that doesn't imply shapeshifters. Good job!

10:26 AM  
Blogger Lynda Hilburn said...

Welcome to Paranormalilty, Jeri! It's great to have you here. Wonderful post.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Will Belegon said...

World-building is, for me, a large part of the fun. It can also be a source of major disagreement in a writing team, as Alessia and I have learned while exploring time-travel scenarios for the next Artifactual series book.

Jeri, I love that you are playing off an actual event. Yes, it dates your story. But that is unavoidable with the Vamps being "stuck" as they are. To me, it will increase, not decrease, the 'illusion" of reality and the immersion factor.

It also made me smile because I have an old story where a guy tracks down a girl he met at a football game in order to return her camera and lighter and, yes, fall in love.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Jess said...

riffing off some others,
Ghost Shift
Ghostly Aura(s) (*rimshot!*)
Paradigm Shift (I crack me up)
The (Ghost) Seer
Children of Night
Children of the Shift
Stay With Me

ummmm that's off the top of my head. perhaps later I'll think of something actually useful, like:

Is there a scene or character or line who embodies your theme in some way, could you riff off it?

11:14 AM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Will: Using the football game only dates the story if people know that it took place in 2007. To most people, it will appear as a fictional game. I try to avoid saying "Hey, this is 2007!" anywhere in the text, but the clues are there for people to figure out if they're curious. :-)

Jess: Those are wonderful ideas--thank you! You guys are much better at this than I am.

I've been trying the last few weeks as I write to keep an eye out for phrases or settings to use as a title. I can't believe I'm having so much trouble. Every one that I love turns out to already have been used. :-(

11:42 AM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Lynda, thank you so much for having me! I'm really enjoying everyone's comments. :-)

11:43 AM  
Blogger tetewa said...

I read and loved Wicked Game. I've been looking forward to the newest release, cool idea to incorporate a football game into the read!

11:48 AM  
Blogger gayle14587 said...

Hi Jeri,

First off I just want to say I really enjoyed reading Wicked Game and desperately hoping that my library actually orders Bad to the Bone(the small bookstore in town doesn't carry any of your books).

Anyways, back to the main subject - I really did like how you incorporated some of the real world into wicked game...especially rock music (can't go wrong at all on that one - actually that is what caught my eye for Wicked Game and I read it). When I read a book, the world has to make me FEEL that the world does exist within our world and it makes me want to be in that place of setting. If not then the book is not interesting and I lose interest very quickly. Sometimes I don't even pay attention to the world in a good book, I just want to know what is going to happen to the characters in the story. I can't think of any titles off the top of my head right now, but if I come up with any real soon I'll let you know.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Will Belegon said...

Random Comment: (invoked by football game discussion) Now I'm stuck wondering about the vampire anachronism effect re: music and sticking it on sports. For example, would a vampire created in 1906 still automatically think the Cubs were perennial World Series participants? Would the actual 100 year drought seem surreal to that vamp?

It's just proof that a) Jeri's concept is a good one and b) Will is not in the mood to edit and is easily distracted.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Jeri said...

tetewa: Thank you so much! I hope the football fandom helps reinforce the humanity of the vampires. It also proves that I can separate myself from my characters, when my most beloved hero is a Steelers fan. ;-)

Gayle: The library will probably order BTTB--it's been getting good reviews in major pubs, which is usually how libraries decide. Your little bookstore should be able to special order it if you want your own copy.

Will: Actually, one of the older vamps (who died in 1970) makes a comment about how he thought the Baltimore team was the Colts. :-)

12:45 PM  
Blogger Vickie said...

I'm looking forward to reading your next up series. It is supremely different premise than others out there. That has to be the challenge when coming up with a new series for any age.
The other is building a world that makes it believable to the reader as well as what appears to be almost effortless. It's a large part of why I like reading paranormal of all styles.
Thanks for guest blogging!

1:40 PM  
Blogger Digital Diva said...

I like when a writer incorporates a fantasy world into the real world. When both exist in the story. It makes me look at our world a little different, even if it's just for fun :)

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy aspects from both types of worlds. The 'secret' world adds the drama of remaining hidden. The 'out in the open' world provides conflict and sometimes humor, if done well. I'm chomping at the bit for more of both your worlds!
Thanks for the great blog!

4:31 PM  
Blogger Carmen R said...

Some names for the YA book.

Shifting the blinds or Raising the Blinds.

The Generation

4:41 PM  
Blogger Karen W. said...

Very interesting post, Jeri. Worldbuilding is very important to me in a
SF/fantasy book, so I enjoyed reading about it from the author's point of view.

I loved your "Crow" series, as well as WICKED GAME, and I'm anxious to read BAD TO THE BONE.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Pamk said...

what about series of
ghostly reality The shift
I really like the name of The Shift for the first book. succinct and to the point.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Vickie: Thanks! I can't really help being different. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes not. ;-)

Digital Diva: Yes, that's one of the things I love about urban fantasy--I can look at everyday things and places and see them differently.

alishsmom: Those are very good points. That threat of exposure and the potential for extermination that goes with it is definitely a source of tension!

Carmen: Thanks for those suggestions! Wow, you guys are way ahead of me with good ones. :-)

Karen: Thank you so much! I'm glad you're enjoying the books. I used to dislike thinking about world building, but now I find it really fascinating.

6:12 PM  
Blogger GingerCat said...

I agree with Chris--I much prefer urban fantasy to traditional fantasy because it's easier to keep track of everything that's going on. But I also prefer it because of the way it takes everyday life and shakes it up a little. The realism of the setting makes you believe, if only while you're reading, that these fantastical things might actually be possible. In that sense it's even more escapist than traditional fantasy, because you can truly imagine it happening.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

Hi Jeri! I've read your first two LUNA books and soon the 3rd one. They got me into reading fantasy romance more! Going to be sad for those to end! With this Radio Series of yours, is it a set number of books or will you be writing them as you go along? I'm a reader and understand a bit more about worldbuilding from reading your post here! (I learn alot on mythology and historical info from reading my romance and urban fantasy among other books too!) Often when I'm reading, I'm 'into' the world that I'm reading from being so absorbed into it. I then see and feel it all. I love it!

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Beverly G ( said...

I think world building makes the book with out it then everything is for nothing i love a good story with a world thats beautiful or dark but believable

how about Shadow Casting of Innocence for your YA title

9:59 PM  
Blogger Lori T said...

I think that world building is very important and it helps to draw me into the story.

I can hardly wait for Bad to the Bone to come out!

11:44 PM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Pam: Ooh, I like that! Sometimes the simplest titles have the most impact.

GingerCat: "In that sense it's even more escapist than traditional fantasy, because you can truly imagine it happening."
Wow! That is an amazing thought. I never considered that. So maybe in times of doom and gloom we can read an urban fantasy and think, "well, at least there's no zombie apocalypse." :-) Or just to think that there could be magical creatures around us right now.

Caffey: Hi! It's always nice to see readers from the Crow days. :-) The WVMP Radio series is technically open-ended, but my plan is to end it after five books. I can't explain why without giving away major spoilers, but I think 5 would be right for the story arc as a whole. (At least, the way I imagine it now.)

Beverly: That's another great suggestion! I like the word Shadow. Thanks!

Lori: Me neither! Only a couple more weeks. :-)

7:10 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

I have great respect for authors when it comes to world building. I think it's pretty cool how, in a lot of books, the author can explain what the world is like to the reader when the main character has been living in it for a while without interupting the plot. It's just awesome, and not something I, as a reader, really think about. It's only when the world building IS interupting the plot - say, explaining what wards are for several pages right in the middle of a fight, with the reader not knowing the outcome of said fight until explanation is over - that it's obvious. It's amazing how authors can fit both together and have the piece flow brilliantly.

7:45 AM  
Blogger Jess (The Cozy Reader) said...

Wow. This sounds very detailed! I hate that the boyfriend dies but I guess that's a good way to plunge the main character into the world of ghosts!

Nothing like having a loved one die to accept that ghosts really do exist!

It sounds wonderful yet crazy! :)

8:46 AM  
Blogger Steph Su said...

Wowza! I look forward to reading your YA urban fantasy series. The concept sounds fantastic, completely unique and thus utterly engaging.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Belle said...

Thanks for taking us through the world-building process - I've always lumped world-building in with traditional fantasy or science fiction, for some reason never coupling it with urban fantasy. Tying in real world events really does enhance the urban part of the fantasy. Your new YA novel sounds very interesting!

1:02 PM  
Blogger Vickie said...

Jeri: Different GOOD! I like different. = )

2:53 PM  
Blogger Kinochi said...

An excellent storyteller can build any type of world, parallel or paranormal, and make it believable. As long as I feel like I'm there, you can describe a hike up Candy Mountain and it's 100% real to me at that moment. Where a poor storyteller couldn't convince me the wind was blowing if I was standing in a hurricane.

You have piqued my interest in Aura and The Shift. I'm curious about the societal challenges. Teens often already feel like adults don't get them. I imagine the chasm this would create would be almost insurmountable.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Jo: I think you nailed one of the biggest challenges in writing--balancing clarity with subtlety. Every reader (and editor) has his or her threshold of what they need to be told to understand the events. I usually try to err on the side of subtlety and use my critiquers/editor to help point out parts where I haven't explained enough.

Jessica: Well, the boyfriend dies, yes, but then since he's a ghost haunting her, he's still a major character throughout the series. He's dead but he sure ain't gone, by a long shot. ;-)

Steph: Thanks! I'm working on it right now, so it's on my mind a lot. I'm having a ton of fun with it, especially the worldbuilding. I think it'll take a few drafts before I figure it all out.

Belle: You're right--worldbuilding has predominantly been associated with sf/f. I think urban fantasy readers demand just as much rigor and coherence. There are some fantastic series that have very well fleshed out worlds.

Vickie: Me, too. ;-)

Kinochi: Exactly! These teens really do have an entirely different experience of the world than those older than them. One thing I like about urban fantasy is that it can take a truth like "parents just don't understand" and take it to its extreme in some paranormal form.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Jeri said...

Congrats to Ink Gypsy, who won an ARC of BAD TO THE BONE! If you want, you can send your mailing address directly to me at jeri AT jerismithready DOT com.

Thanks to everyone who commented, and especially those who suggested names for the YA books. I'll pass them all on to my editor, and I'll report back when we finally decide on something once and for all.

Have a great weekend!

9:44 AM  
Blogger 日月神教-任我行 said...


1:00 AM  

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