Where do we find something ‘the same but different’?
This is what publishing is looking for, above all else. That’s what a commissioning editor from Pan Macmillan said, giving a talk at the very first mystery and crime weekend held at my old college, St Hilda’s, in Oxford in 1994. That stuck with me because I was working in bookselling at the time, and as she explained, it’s what retailers and readers want too: a book offering what has already worked well – which also offers something fresh. A great many things have changed about the book trade since then, but this holds true.
So far, so straightforward, but just because something is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That’s why editors continue to reject retreads of the same ideas with comments like one of the many I received before I heard that talk at St Hilda’s: “There’s nothing to distinguish this from the six other competent fantasy novels that have crossed my desk this week”. So how did I get over that hurdle and become a published author?
I found the answer by reading, but not by reading more of the epic fantasy fiction I loved – and still do. As a crime and mystery fan as well, I was enjoying the independent-minded female private eyes who were newcomers to that genre in the 1990s; VI Warshawski, Kinsey Milhone, and Kate Brannigan to name but a few. Seeing how different the themes and classic ideas of whodunnits became when seen through those women’s eyes prompted me to wonder how a similar character would fare in a epic fantasy world? The more I though about that, all sorts of interesting possibilities occurred to me. The Thief’s Gamble in 1999 was the result, and the books that followed.
This approach continues to work for me more than twenty years later. The original inspiration for The Green Man’s Heir was a throwaway line in a short story, explaining that dryads’ sons are mortal men. The more I thought about that, the more options I saw for offering urban fantasy fans a blend of the elements they enjoy with a new perspective on that genre’s core themes and conventions. Add to that, the uncommunicative lone male is a staple suspect/red herring in murder mysteries, and the crossover between crime fiction and urban fantasy is well established. So what might happen if I put that loner at the centre of the story? What difference would it make to the established template to have a male protagonist who’s the human with one foot in the supernatural world? How about setting the action out in the countryside rather than heading down those familiar mean streets?
Once again, reading offered me answers as well as further intriguing ideas. I didn’t find these reading urban fantasy though. I turned to books of old folk tales that I hadn’t looked at since I was a kid, as well as scholarly explorations of myth that I’ve never had reason to read. I was soon reminded how often a wood-cutter’s son or the youngest of three princes ends up facing a supernatural challenge. I saw how many spirits of places, trees and waters are female in British folk tales, along with a good few shapeshifters. Everything I needed for gender-flipping so many of urban fantasy’s conventions was right there in front of me. Add to that, I realised I could draw on readers’ memories of childhood fairy stories to create unconscious expectations as well as wrong-footing them when that served my purposes.
The Green Man’s Challenge is the fourth of the contemporary fantasies where I’ve combined traditional tales with the realities of modern British rural life. This time I started by rereading those old stories about giants that we encounter as kids, such as Jack the Giant-Killer, and Jack and the Beanstalk. I found puzzles I didn’t expect when I looked to see where those stories had come from. That led me to the enduring mysteries that surround the giant figures carved into England’s chalk hillsides. The age-old history of those landscapes offered still more scope for my imagination. Once again I was able to weave these threads into a story that offers ‘the same but different’, not just to urban fantasy, but to the books so far in this series. That’s just as important.
I’m already thinking about the next Green Man novel. So far I have a handful of notions. Now I’ll start looking for the books which will offer up the people, places and stories that will combine with those ideas to create something entirely new and exciting. At the moment I have no idea what I will find, but I do know it’s going to be another fascinating journey.
Juliet E. McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy rooted in British folklore in 2018, followed by The Green Man’s Foe, The Green Man’s Silence, and The Green Man’s Challenge. She writes and comments on book trade issues, has served as a judge for major genre awards, and reviews online and for magazines. She writes diverse short stories and novellas enjoying forays into darker fantasy, steampunk and SF. She has also written murder mysteries set in ancient Greece as J M Alvey.