by Nancy Holzner
It started with an agent’s advice about what not to do.
A literary agent whose blog I followed would periodically post about mistakes and missteps that writers made in their query letters. She did this without revealing details about individual writers or their projects, and it was helpful to see an agent’s thoughts on problematic queries. One time, the agent ended her post with a pet peeve, saying she hated the phrase “So-and-so wrestles with his own personal demons.” Who else, she wondered, would wrestle with your personal demons besides you?
I didn’t take that as a rhetorical question. Instead, I started imagining a character who would do just that—exterminate other people’s personal demons for a living. That would be a great service, wouldn’t it? When fear or guilt or something from your past robbed you of your peace of mind, you could hire someone to make it all go away. And so Vicky Vaughn was born. As she says of her job in an early
draft of my novel Deadtown, “I’m a lot like a psychotherapist, except instead of a
couch I use a flaming sword.”
I wanted to give Vicky a history that contains a long-established enmity between her people and demons. So I started reading various mythologies. It took me a while to find one that clicked. Then I thought of the Mabinogion. Back when I was a graduate student studying medieval literature, I taught some courses in the legends of King Arthur, and one of my favorite texts was the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales and myths. Rereading the stories, I came across the legend of Ceridwen and Gwion Bach, which includes a shapeshifting contest (it’s a lot like the one in the Sword in the Stone, if you remember that movie). Shapeshifting seemed like a handy trait for a demon fighter, so I invented a Welsh race called the Cerddorion, the sons of Ceridwen. Among the Cerddorion, only females have the ability to shapeshift; they get it at puberty and lose it if they give birth. Unlike werewolves, they can change into any sentient creature at will (or sometimes strong emotion will force a shift), and they can shift three times per lunar cycle. These details were inspired by a very liberal interpretation of the Mabinogion tale.
My protagonist was taking shape. I knew something about her history, but I didn’t want her conflict with demons to be something from way back when; I wanted to make it personal. So I continued to explore and develop her past. Here’s what I came up with: Vicky’s father was killed by a demon ten years before the events of Deadtown—and Vicky believes his death was her fault. When the Hellion that killed her father threatens Boston, Vicky’s reasons for going after it are altruistic, professional, and—above all—personal.
By this point, I had some characters and a plot. What I needed next was to find my opening scene. Ignoring the agent’s advice about personal demons had gotten me off to a good start, so I decided to avoid another well-known piece of writing advice: Never begin a novel with a dream. Normally, that’s good advice you don’t want to readers to get involved in an exciting scene only to have the character wake up. It feels like a trick. But what if the story opened with the main character in someone else’s dream—not being dreamed about, but actually running around and doing things inside the dream?
One type of personal demon that Vicky exterminates is called a Drude, a dream demon. Drudes infest people’s dreamscapes to cause nightmares, feeding on their victims’ fear. So Vicky needed to be able to enter her clients’ dreams to root out the Drudes and destroy them. I gave her the technology to do this. Throw in an overeager teenage zombie apprentice and an extermination that goes terribly wrong, and you’ve got an entertaining opening scene.
Knowing when to play by the rules is important. But sometimes, ignoring perfectly good advice and blazing your own trail gets good results, too. Vicky Vaughn thinks so, anyway.
About the Author:
Nancy Holzner is the author of the Deadtown urban fantasy series, which features shapeshifting demon slayer Vicky Vaughn. Deadtown is out now; its sequel, Hellforged, will hit bookstore shelves on 12/28/10. You can read Deadtown’s first chapter here.