I've just finished reading P. N. Elrod's latest installment in the VAMPIRE FILES, DARK ROAD RISING.
Dark Road Rising (Vampire Files)
It's a vampire series with a little bit of a love-interest on the side but not as a major focus.
So it's not Vampire Romance, but that doesn't keep me from loving the series! It is Intimate Adventure with a good-guy vampire.
Jack Flemming is a Reporter who had an affair with a female vampire, then got killed by the Chicago Mob (in the 1930's), and tossed into the lake, to wake up on the shore cold and hungry and unexpectedly a vampire.
He was befriended by a human Private Eye (British living in Chicago) and went to work being a detective for the Private Eye. He made some money fighting the mob with his self-discovered vampire powers, and bought a (haunted) nightclub. He's been successful ever since, but his life just gets more and more complicated because of the mob connection.
As he has mastered his Talents and used them (for good), he has been pulled deeper and deeper into the dark mists of vampirism, fighting to stay himself.
So what is this novel? It is so criss-cross-crossed genre it couldn't have been published before the Vampire Romance became distinct. It's the Vampire-As-Good-Guy, with no real HORROR genre in it, but most of the plot isn't directly about the problem with being a vampire. It's about the Chicago Mob circa 1933.
It's a historical gumshoe/chicago-mob story.
It's a hard-boiled mystery story (Flemming was a NY Reporter, and that means TOUGH).
It's a Mob Politics story.
It's a deep, complex character study via pure drama using themes about human nature.
It's an Intimate Adventure, where the plot is driven entirely by the Relationships, and the main character learns and changes because of the people he (or she) knows and cares for. You can't do that in an action novel because it's against genre rules (or used to be!)
It's an Hard Boiled Action story with lots of explicit blood and gore, but no horror. A little sex but not too explicit by modern standards.
It's Urban Fantasy in the modern vein.
In other words, this series is my FAVORITE kind of reading because it has no category, no genre, or it's a genre of its own.
DARK ROAD RISING is lightly and artistically laced with anachronisms appropriate to Chicago in the 1930's and a little maybe from Hollywood. Every once in a while, Elrod drops in a perfect bit of archaic slang that makes you feel you're THERE in the 1930's. And she avoids modern slang, and even 1950's slang.
But like really great writers, she uses this slang sparsely, for flavor, and never to confuse or confound the reader, nor to impress everyone with her scholarship. The word meanings are clear from context, and of course many readers remember anyway. All that is the ART of this word-usage thing.
There's an artistic hand behind this word usage as well as a scholar, and the blend tickles me and makes me laugh, hoot, and giggle my way through the book searching for the next word.
When a writer begins to get advice on writing, the one thing that comes up again and again is DO YOUR RESEARCH. But the truth is, the story comes out better if you don't do so much research. Writers often try to cram in ALL the neat stuff they've learned doing research, instead of carefully choosing just a bit here and a bit there to spice up the narrative but not display their scholarship.
P. N. Elrod has gotten the spice just right!
In this entire novel, I found only ONE word out of place.
On page 371 of 389 in the trade paperback, a cigarette is smoked 'down to the filter' -- after so many pages of perfect-perfect-perfect anachronisms, I almost leaped out of my chair over that one. I "knew" there were no filter cigarettes until the mid-1950's.
BUT GUESS WHAT??? She's right!
By my memory, the FIRST filter cigarette came in the 1950's.
But Wikipedia says the first filter cigarette was invented in 1927 (but uptake was slow).
Google also produced the factoid that R. J. Reynolds Tobacco produced the first filter tipped menthol cigarette (Salem) in 1958, which is what I remember.
That this character would go for this experimental and obscure type of cigarette actually reinforces his character portrait.
My problem then is the blase acceptance of the onlooker, who likely had never seen a filter cigarette (people used ivory HOLDERS back then, not a paper filter attached to the cigarette and designed to be thrown away after use.)
But I learned something, and it was only in that one spot that the factoid or anachronistic language stopped the smooth flow of the narrative for me. I rather doubt anyone else would even notice if they don't remember the 1950's.
So THE VAMPIRE FILES by P. N. Elrod is an exceptionally smooth blend of genres that reads with an easy, natural rhythm for modern readers.
If you have read anything written in the 1940s, you know the difference.
Dashle Hammet's Sam Spade is a case in point. You should try to find some of Hammet's work and read it for the flavor and style remembering it was for an audience that had NEVER HEARD any of this invective or slang. The readers and their friends just didn't talk like that, and people who talked like that didn't read novels.
Here is a neat website with loads of information about the evolution of genre.
I've written a number of posts on genre for this blog and have more to write. But recently, a connection on LinkedIn asked me to define genre, and for quite a while I drew a blank on that. Then I came up with this sketch.
Genre is a term which focuses on the reader's taste as seen by the editor, and creates a trope the writer dares not break because readers want it unbroken and editors know that.
But ideas don't come to writers (usually) in genre format.
In my previous post here,
I began to discuss finding the readership, and writing for a readership which is the key to the perennial success of the Romance genre.
I intend to take a very close look at readerships and their composition, plus the reasons why certain types of stories become popular with certain demographic segments.
If you look at that Vintagelibrary.com site about pulp fiction and think about it, you may get ahead of me in sorting readerships out.
But let's look again at the differences between genres -- this is not absolute, but just one way I have of looking at it.
To understand the explanation of differences among genres, you have to be able to distinguish what I call "plot" from what I call "story" -- nomenclature varies among writers and the reason for that is in one of my writing posts.
With that in mind, we can think about genre ingredients.
"Action Adventure" has a plot driven by "Adventure" (which is defined as the main POV character moving from inside a comfort zone (such as home) to outside that zone, (such as a foreign country).
One example is Bilbo Baggins by his fireplace; then climbing through a wilderness scared to death but brave in a good cause.
"Action" genre signature is also plot defined. The plot's basic problem has to be solved by PHYSICAL (not psychological) action (shooting people, rescuing dangling people, RISKING LIFE AND LIMB to TAKE CHARGE).
Typically the blurb for Action/Adventure (A/A) says something like "only XYZ can save ABC from WQ"
And the hero must rise to the occasion by going outside the comfort zone of home and risking "everything" to do whatever.
Vigilantes (Batman) are a perfect example -- the law says you can't touch this criminal. OK, we'll do it ourselves and risk getting caught, or we'll just defy the lazy Sheriff and get the criminal and nevermind "rules of evidence" in court. Courts fail, the argument goes, because they let real criminals go free. So it's up to the citizens to keep the neighborhood clean.
CRIME FICTION has the plot driven by the crime and the need to either prevent the crime or punish it.
Like SF, CRIME has a huge plethora of sub-divisions. The Detective and the Private Eye are only two. And there are novels that show the crime from the criminal's point of view with the criminal being the sympathetic hero.
But the thing to remember is the genre is defined by the nature of the plot.
Now you can do CRIME SF too -- Asimov's Black Widow series is a perfect example.
Gumshoe fiction. Private Eye fiction. Detective. Mystery (Murder She Wrote). Police Procedural (where the plot is driven by the need to keep the evidence trail clean and make a court case that will stick because it's better to let a real criminal go than to convict an innocent).
Each genre is named for the single most prominent plot element.
HORROR is defined by the Hero or main POV character being an innocent victim of something huge, overwhelming, unstoppable, unbeatable. The key plot element is that the Hero can NOT WIN (which is the exact nuance that turns a dream into a nightmare). It's not that the Hero is not capable or brave or strong. It's that the Evil stalking the Hero is a part of Nature and by definition can't be destroyed. At the most, it can be immobilized for centuries, (silver chains, sigils, incantations, magic jewels, djinn bottles) but never destroyed. The Hero can not win but only put off defeat to future generations.
Take a regular Action/Adventure story, but make the adversary an Elemental that can not be destroyed, and the Hero can not win. Leave out "winning" and that turns A/A into Horror.
My personal sorting definition is that genre is not defined by what you put in, but by what you LEAVE OUT.
By selectively leaving out many obvious issues, you create a genre that is focused cleanly and clearly on one thing.
Now the genre lines are changing as cross-genre like THE VAMPIRE FILES is (finally) coming into prominence. (YAY!!!)
But take Romance for example. It has to have a certain Neptune driven "mood" and an HEA ending. You break the "romance" mood if you sprinkle in a lot of really ugly issues that people feel strongly about in real life. (politics; religion; Death; Failure; Depression; Suicide).
Neptune is also the main driver of "Horror Genre" -- where "the unknown" is "unknowable" and "unconquerable" and creepy.
The feeling of falling in Love is very similar to falling into Hell. The plot dynamics of the story are also very similar which is why you get things like Jurassic Park with a love story, a scientific based puzzle, and the genie breaks out of the bottle and you have UNSTOPPABLE wild animals. The couple might escape the wild animals THIS time, but Science is still out there ready to spring another uncontrollable surprise on us.
There is a whole sub-genre of tech-phobe fiction that is essentially horror turned into SF. Star Trek: The Original Series episode CAPTAIN DUNSEL is a case in point. Technology replaces people ruthlessly. Science or Technology becomes the root of all evil.
The difference between Horror and Romance is that in Romance you can win, and you have Love on your side which conquers all evil. In Horror, you can't win because the force that conquers all good is on the OTHER side. It is exactly the same plot, from a different point of view.
It used to be that if it had a Vampire in it, a story was automatically Horror genre. Today very dark Vampire characters are Romance heroes because there is a sexy attraction to the "other."
Look again at the Pulp Fiction site. See how the sheltered and protected public embraced a sanitized depiction of some distant part of their world.
The hard boiled detective was a character who had to live on the mean streets of the city where fighting, drinking, swearing, poverty and death were all part of life. This new type of detective had to balance the day to day needs of survival against the desire to uphold the law and assist justice.
And part of the trope was the detective's ability to turn vigilante and see justice done with his own independent hands.
Since I've been talking about how we can change the world's attitude toward the Romance genre, possibly with a TV show or a film, let's note here that Dashle Hamit had the exact effect on his world that we want to have on ours, just with a different subject matter. What we're trying to do would rewrite that quoted paragraph like so:
The Soul Mates are characters who have to live on the clean suburban streets of the suburbs where consideration, folk dancing, careful speech, razor-thin financial margins and home-hospice care are all a part of life. This new type of Soul Mate couple has to balance the day to day needs of their family and neighbors against the desire to uphold the law and assist justice.
What do you think? Try a rewrite of that paragraph for yourself and see if you can invent the Romance genre anew.
Don't forget there's a genre called Action Romance that's well recognized, and often blended into Futuristic Romance.
Note how "Futuristic Romance" is not SF Romance.
SF Romance plots are driven by a scientific puzzle or scientific fact that turns the plot, and that you must understand the science of in order to understand the story.
"Futuristic Romance" can be based on any silly vision of the future with or without any scientific understanding. It's just romance set in some future. For me, these novels succeed to the exact degree that the futurology does, and so J. D. Robb's future doesn't work well for me, even though I like the In Death series.
So genre names are all about the plot driving mechanism, and what you must exclude in order to keep the mood and focus on that driving mechanism.
CRIME can be ugly as sin (True Crime) or sterile and intellectual (Sherlock Holmes).
Rarely is an author allowed to challenge the very premise of the genre within a story in that genre. Genre is based on ASSUMPTIONS that are not challenged. That's my definition. Things you leave OUT define the genre, and one of those things is the same in all genres -- don't challenge the genre premise in the plot.
In Romance, it's Love Conquers All that must not be challenged.
In SF it's Science Conquers All that must not be challenged.
In Crime it's Crime is Wrong that must not be challenged.
In Adventure, it's "the solution is not here but somewhere else" that can't be challenged. (home is not a fun place to be).
In Action, it's "There Is No Other Possible Solution Than To Kill The Bad Guys." You can't make friends with the bad guys and turn them into good guys in an Action genre story. (all the rules are changing, remember?)
I'm an Amazon Vine Voice (a pre-release reviewer) and they send out a newsletter listing books reviewers can choose from. One thing I've noticed lately is that many of the books just labeled fiction, not SF or Fantasy, have strong SF elements or Fantasy settings. SF/F has actually become recognized as MAINSTREAM. You can get away with putting a vampire, or a supernatural creature such as a djinn, into a plain fiction story and it won't be labeled Horror or Fantasy by publishing.
Since Star Trek and Buffy, the general reader/viewer has become more accepting of the supernatural. Genre barriers are breaking down. They will reform in a different configuration.
This is the biggest chance Romance has had to redefine itself as legitimate, respectable literature in decades. To pull that off, Romance writers (and readers) need to understand what is happening in genre and publishing, and not just let it happen but take charge of the direction of change. Romance needs a Gene Roddenberry.
Here's more on genre you can find on this blog. Not all these posts are by me.
Genre is a lot like style. It's very hard to explain because it's always changing. Identifying it is more art than science.
And every once in a while, a book or series becomes VERY popular, so that publishers run around trying to get authors to imitate the elements in that popular series. When the editors succeed, a genre is born, and publishers vie for the privilege of naming it.
Today new criss-crossing mixtures of genres are breeding new genres faster than they can be named, and because of the Web and social networking, publishers no longer have the sole power to identify and name a new genre.
It's vitally important that new writers (even those writing "best sellers" and general fiction) understand genre.
Only at the moment, there may be nothing to understand.
Readers create genres by popularizing certain titles, and editors create genres by trying to figure out why this title sold so much better than that title. What do readers like about a particular story? Why is it popular?
By letting genre definitions become so rigid, publishers have fooled themselves into thinking they're making more money than they could without genre requirements. Publishers have only now begun to consider (with a sense of horror) publishing books like P. N. Elrod's Vampire Files. Note her track record though with other books. That's why she gets the chance to do this series.
As a result of genre rigidification, many really magnificent books used to go unpublished. Today there are e-books, but that industry is still in its infancy (and thus an opportunity). Readers aren't accessing it well enough yet, and much of what is produced is not well written enough to be satisfying and worth the money and effort.
So Genre has been the eclectic reader's horror nightmare. "What great stories am I missing?"
Requiring writers to produce within marketable genre categories, yet being wholly unable to define those fluid categories, may make genre into any writer's root of all evil, the unconquerable adversary that can only be stuffed into a bottle for future generations to deal with.
And I'm Smiling Again!
1 day ago