Nicole Peeler on Fantasy Writing

We asked Nicole Peeler to share her thoughts on fantasy writing.

Dr. Peeler is the author of the Jane True series of urban fantasy novels, including Tempest RisingTracking the Tempest, and Tempest's Legacy. She teaches creative writing at Seton Hill's MFA Program in Popular Fiction.

A Conversation with Nicole Peeler

Q: How would you define the genre of urban fantasy fiction?

A: The thing that’s great about urban fantasy is it’s really a “create-your-own-genre.” Obviously, the linking factor must be a grounding in paranormal shenanigans, but other than that, it’s a bit of a pick-n-mix. I knew I wanted to write something that combined a heavy dose of mystery with an equally heavy dose of sex and humor. I also know I wanted some satire, a little action, and some mythology. Mix it all together, and you get my Jane True series.


Q: When writing about mythical creatures such as selkies or vampires, how much research do you do into the folklore surrounding them? Do you research their potrayal by other contemporary authors? How much license do you feel in your fantasy writing to alter or add to the folkloric traditions?

A: I’ve done lots of research over the years into these creatures, and my whole universe is based on a joke on Carl Jung. Jung tried to explain the idea of archetypes—or the similar mythological creatures that have sprung up in totally different cultures—by claiming that such creatures are created from humanity’s shared collective unconscious, or the primordial soup buried deep within our brains we all share. But my joke is that all these myths are real, and humans caught different glimpses, in different places, at different times in history, and that’s how our similar-yet-different mythologies were born. So I feel that I can absolutely riff on portrayals of mythological creatures, whether they’re from ancient folklore or the latest bestsellers. After all, our current published books will become our great-great-great-grandchildren’s folktales.

Q: What are some of the keys to successful fantasy writing?

A: I think one of the most important keys to writing successful fantasy is never to forget you’re writing stories about people, first and foremost. It doesn’t matter if your characters are owls, or ancient warriors, or zombies: your readers have to care about them. So no matter how fantastical you get, you have to root your stories in the emotions—the desires, fears, and drives—that we all share.

Q: What are some common pitfalls that can lead to really bad fantasy writing?

A: When I turn off on a fantasy book is where I turn off on any book: the point where something happens that’s so unbelievable I can’t get over it. Whether it be a plot hole, or character motivation, or whatever it is. Fantasy, just like in any genre, has to make logical sense, even if your logic is using different “rules” than our world’s rules. So go ahead and make people be able to fly, but don’t have a character who’s able to fly be unable to escape a character who can’t, without explaining why that happened. Everything has to be logical and make sense, so you have to know your world’s rules and your character’s motivations very, very well.

Q: You teach at the Seton Hill MFA program, which specializes in popular, or genre, fiction. How do you see the craft of writing popular fiction as being different from writing literary fiction?

A: I have a very, very long answer for this question that goes into the history of the novel, the idea of storytelling, the rise of the modernist experiment that led to postmodernism, and a bunch of other things. But that’s more appropriate for a journal-length article than an interview, so I won’t get into those issues, here. That said, I do have a “short-answer” version to that questions, and it’s all about storytelling. I think one could argue that pop-fiction and literary fiction are on a spectrum, with pop-fiction putting more emphasis on telling a rousing good story, while literary fiction puts more emphasis on making the reader engage with the ideas buried in the text. That’s not to say that pop-fiction can’t make you think, or that literary fiction can’t be enjoyable. It’s just a matter of emphasis, in my mind. So my ultimate goal when I write a book is to tell a story that keeps a reader riveted. I like nothing more than to hear, “Your book kept me up all night!” Yes, I laced my books with ideas that are important to me, but disseminating my social theories is not my first priority in my Jane True books. To entertain is my ultimate goal.

Q: The critical reception to Jonathan Franzen's novel, Freedom, has set off a literary debate about whether novels by women, and novels in certain genres, are routinely underrated by the literary establishment. What are your thoughts on this?

A: Unfortunately, this is a very old debate. The irony is that the novel has always been closely linked to women: women have historically read more and written more than men, when it comes to the novel. And yet women are continually slighted, and nothing says that better, to me, than the “genre” formerly known as “women’s fiction.” That said, I don’t really get involved in such debates. There’s no answer for them, in that they invoke a whole slew of complex, undefined, and deeply-entrenched philosophies regarding the role of art and the artist in our society. As someone who straddles that line between the Academy and the popular fiction world, however, I would argue that the literary world is oftentimes the one missing out. People are doing some amazing things in the world of popular fiction, and some contemporary literary fiction writers should rethink the use of storytelling (or the lack thereof) in their genre. I adore the “modernist experiment”; it’s what I teach, what I love. But it was just that: an experiment. Let’s learn from it, but not remain submissive to its demands.

Visit Nicole Peeler's Amazon page to learn more about her fantasy writing and the Jane True series.

Fantasy Writing - Next Steps

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