Why I Write Urban Fantasy: A Guest Post by Rhiannon Held

It’s an absolute pleasure to host Rhiannon Held on the blog in celebration of the release of her third novel, Reflected. Today, Rhiannon will tell us why she writes urban fantasy:

I’ve always been drawn to urban fantasy, even back when I was just reading it rather than writing it. When I started my first real novel, I didn’t have to think twice about what genre it would be. There are several reasons for that, but even more interesting to me has been the gradual change in the opinions of the people around me.

Back in grad school when I was still plunking away at short stories, learning my craft, I visited home and my parents gave me an article they’d clipped for me from the local newspaper. It was about the surprising popularity of Twilight, which, while it was news to my parents and the national media, I was already perfectly aware of. I was kind of like yes, and? My mother told me that she and my father had thought maybe my short stories weren’t getting published because they were all weird and about vampires and stuff, but apparently that’s a good thing!

So I remember a time when someone asking why you picked urban fantasy was actually them asking why you’d picked that weird, pocket genre instead of writing a proper fantasy or horror novel. Why would a vampire be a character? Monsters should be scary and rawr, not sexy and emotionally nuanced.

But of course, making scary beasties into characters is part of what I love most about urban fantasy: it allows extraordinarily robust metaphors. And I’m all about metaphor! See, if someone has an opinion about a topic (let’s say drug addiction) and you present them with a character that’s an addict, bing! That previous opinion springs into action. You haven’t really done much to make the person reevaluate it. But if your character is a vampire, you can talk about addiction without it being about addiction, and the previous opinion says quiescent. Maybe you won’t change the person’s mind, but at least you’ve given them a new perspective while their previous opinion slept.

Beasties are great for that, because they can be about a whole range of emotional and physical states, without being about those emotional and physical states. For example, one of the main metaphors of my Silver series is using my werewolves to represent the struggle of immigrants and members of minority cultures to balance the traditions they keep at home with the ones they have to follow every day at work and school. Since my werewolves are born rather than turned, they can be born into a culture they have to keep secret from the humans around them.

There are also a few other reasons I write urban fantasy. It’s a genre that lets you hit the ground running. As a reader, rather than a writer, I love that, so I write what I love. In traditional fantasy, a talented writer can smoothly work in all the many details of the world, but there’s still a whole, entirely new world to take in and understand before you can get to the plot. Some readers like the feeling of being immersed in another place, and want lots of world details. Me, I want to be thrust into the character’s emotional arc and zoom ahead. Having a world that is somewhat similar to ours saves time explaining, and allows zooming.

I also find that urban fantasy can be fundamentally optimistic. It presents a world like ours, with very familiar problems—poverty, corruption, inequality—and then offers the characters a way to address those problems head-on. If the drug kingpin taking over a neighborhood is a vampire, you can stake him! I’ve heard some people present urban fantasy as the exact opposite, pessimistic, because there’s all the grit of the real world plus additional monsters on top. And some can certainly be written that way, but every time one of the additional monsters is excitingly vanquished, it’s giving characters in a world very like ours something concrete to celebrate, to hold them through the tough, incremental battle ahead against a non-fictional problem like poverty.

Of course, now urban fantasy has entered popular consciousness, questions about why I’d want to write in it sometimes trend more toward why I’d write in a genre that’s been tapped out, overrun by sparkling vampires. But no genre is ever completely tapped out, which is why I’ve made my werewolves different, and focused on things like their religion and culture, that most authors haven’t explored before.

But I know I don’t have to convince you guys or Chadwick, who kindly granted me space on this blog, about the fact that there’s plenty to love in urban fantasy. Since we all know it’s a ton of fun, we can turn instead to comparing our specific reasons. Now you know mine!

Reflected cover

Here’s an excerpt from her new book!

An Interview with Rhiannon Held

Creating Mythology: A Guest Post by Rhiannon Held

Rhiannon Held is the author of SILVER, and TARNISHED, the first two novels in an urban fantasy series published by Tor Books. In her day job she works as a professional archaeologist. Unfortunately, given that it’s real rather than fictional archaeology, fedoras, bullwhips, aliens, and dinosaurs are in short supply. Most of her work is done on the computer, using databases to organize data, and graphics programs to illustrate it.


Creating Mythology: A Guest Post By Rhiannon Held

I’m very happy to host a guest post from Rhiannon Held to celebrate the release of her second novel, Tarnished. I absolutely loved her debut, Silver, and I had the pleasure to interview her after its release. The unique werewolf culture and mythology that Rhiannon brings to her work was definitely a highlight, and that’s what she’s going to discuss today:

When I started building the werewolves’ culture for my books, I wanted them to feel absolutely grounded, as real as any culture you’d discover in our world. One thing I knew I needed for that was their mythology and religious teachings. I didn’t model them on any real world mythology in specific, but I did draw heavily on my knowledge of various Native American stories from my training as an archaeologist in the Pacific Northwest. I think anyone who wants to create a mythology for their own world can go through a similar process.

Now, a professor of folklore or anthropology could probably list all kinds of different aspects of mythology that are important, but I focused on a few in particular when creating my Were myths. The first thing I came up with was their creation story, but that’s really just one part of a bigger function of myths: explaining the unexplainable. Imagine a pack of Were back in history, before science. They’d want to know, where did they come from? What’s their purpose while they’re here? Where do they go after death? I’m sure you recognize those sorts of questions from plenty of human sources as well.

So the creation myth answers where they came from, and sets up the gods and cosmos so they know what they return to after death, as well. Getting into more specifics, I drew on the common theme of many mythologies, in which things were absolutely perfect until someone screwed it all up. The Were lived with their gods, the Lady and Death, until the humans came to kill them with fire. Death was forced to teach them of mortality himself, so they would know to fear it and avoid being slaughtered.

Another thing I wanted to do was fill the Were mythology with elements that reflected the Were’s day-to-day life at the point the mythology would have developed. When you’re trying to explain the unexplainable, you use things that make sense to you: like a tribe describing the sky as an unturned basket made by the gods, a bigger version of the baskets they use every day. The moon and its light are central to the Were’s mythology, as manifestations of the Lady, so they say the stars are the broken pieces of her first child, that she tried too much to make just like herself. The moon is a key part of a Were’s everyday life, so it’s how they define the rest of the cosmos.

Of course, another function of a good mythology is to teach morality. In the teaching parables that I came up with for the Were, I focused on the kind of things that werewolves would need to teach their children, like wariness of humans and pack loyalty. Then, when the subject of the parable made a mistake, I made sure the consequences were larger-than-life, worthy of a tall tale. It won’t appear until book 3, but in one of the Were stories, a woman who cannot forgive doesn’t just drive away her pack, but actually transforms into a rattlesnake, forever doomed to rattle her grievances to whoever will listen. Now those are the kind of consequences that will get a kid’s attention!

A few things, I purposely made different. Rather than have the Were define the soul in a typical way, I picked another intangible thing about people to invest with that meaning: their voice. I figured that howling is so key for wolves that the Were would already be quite voice oriented. It’s the same concept as a soul: a Were’s voice is greater than some air being pushed through some muscles by some other muscles, the same as the Western concept of the heart is greater than some red cells and plasma being pushed around by another muscle. When Were die, it’s their voices that Death takes back to the Lady.

I’ll end with the trickster. Every good mythology needs evil, whether it caused everyone to fall from the perfect world, or drives the mistakes in the parables. And even more fundamentally, it’s an unexplainable thing that needs explaining. Why is there evil? Why did someone else do something bad to me or those I love? But the world is also full of chaos, and some of my favorite characters in mythology are the tricksters who create it, like Coyote and Raven. Sometimes they have selfish goals, sometimes they want to shake things up, and sometimes they just think it would be funny. When I have Death speak to Silver in the books, that’s often what he’s channeling: a force for chaos, change, and movement. Which may well be positive in the end! After a lot of trouble, of course, which Death can laugh at.

So taking even just those few basic elements—explaining the unexplainable, matching everyday life, teaching morality, and including evil and chaos—I found myself with a living, breathing mythology in no time. I pinned down a few basics off the page, like the creation story and where the Were go after death, and then let the rest of the parables and tricksters crop up as I needed them. I get excited whenever I find a place on the page where a reference to a parable will fit, because then I get the fun of coming up with it!


Rhiannon Held is the author of SILVER, and TARNISHED, the first two novels in an urban fantasy series published by Tor Books. In her day job she works as a professional archaeologist. Unfortunately, given that it’s real rather than fictional archaeology, fedoras, bullwhips, aliens, and dinosaurs are in short supply. Most of her work is done on the computer, using databases to organize data, and graphics programs to illustrate it.