How to Tell You’re In a Nan Monroe Novel

Recently I got some disappointing news. My publisher closed its doors. This means I’ll be hunting for a new publication home (be it indie, self, or traditional) for my existing works as well as my works in-progress and to come. As part of that process, I’m moved to consider my “brand.” So many, many writers, both published and aspiring, turn out new fantasy novels every day. What makes me and my work special?

When I heard the news, I made the choice to temporarily shelve a project I’d been working on for over a year, which formerly I’d felt obligated to finish. It should have been my dream novel, with a dragon shifted unwillingly into human as its female lead. Yet somehow I never could finish a draft of it. I’d stop somewhere in the middle of it and say to myself, “Oh, this is what it needs,” and then I’d go back to the beginning. Rinse and repeat. Just what was the problem? At one time I thought my heart was still too engaged by my previous work, Nightmare Lullaby, and if I could just force myself to commit to the new project, it would come out fine in the end. At another time I thought I just needed to change the characters’ names, to give the same story a different world and tone. Yet neither of these was the source of my difficulty. It wasn’t until a newer idea awoke and set my imagination singing that I realized what was wrong.

I was trying to be something I’m not.

As a reader I love nothing more than a good high fantasy series, a sweeping epic with a cast of hundreds in which the fate of nations is at stake. Political intrigue, battle sequences, mighty clashes of cultures — give me more of that wonderful stuff! Just as long as a woman appears at or at least near the center of the story, I’m happy. My project was a high fantasy involving high-stakes tension between religious, with my shifted dragon caught in the middle. Since I love such grand tales, I should be able to write one of my own, right?

Well… no. The story I wanted to tell needed a high fantasy author to tell it. Yet I kept on writing it like me.

As much I might love and admire high fantasy, I write low fantasy. I’m most at home with a smaller canvas, a smaller cast of characters with no more than four POVs. I can’t write a battle scene to save my life, and I much prefer to create characters affected indirectly by politics rather than the movers and shakers in the rooms where it happens. My bent is toward fairy-tale retellings, and I strive for a style that evokes both the light and the darkness of those old stories.

The world of the project I shelved felt alien to me; I struggled to visualize it, and so I could never manage to make it vivid on the page. The world of the project I’ve begun feels natural and right. It feels like me. A good friend and adviser of mine once identified my work as “cozy fantasy.” I’m good with that. There’s a place for fantasy that doesn’t involve kings, princes, and soldiers, and that’s the place where my work lives.

A few days ago, a question was making its way around my Twitter feed. Addressed specifically to authors, it asked us to point out how our readers can tell they’re in one of our novels. Rather than Tweet my answers, I figured I’d save them for a blog post. So, how can someone tell they’re in a Nan Monroe novel?

  1. The bulk of the action takes place in a small setting — an estate, as in Atterwald, or a small town, as in Nightmare Lullaby.
  2. The central character is female. At some point in the future I may try my hand at a male protagonist, but right now I’m busy writing the stories I didn’t get (or didn’t know about) when I was younger.
  3. The female lead is set apart from the Norm in some way, either a nonhuman or a human with unusual abilities. It’s left to other characters to represent the world’s version of “normal.”
  4. She has at least one woman in her support system (e.g. Ricarda in Atterwald, Valeraine and Mennieve in Nightmare Lullaby).
  5. She has at least one good non-romantic relationship with a male character (e.g. Ailbe in Atterwald, Pierpon in Nightmare Lullaby).
  6. She has a rich interior life and a strong imagination, though the ways in which she puts her imagination to use may vary.
  7. Music and the arts play a substantial role. My female lead is more likely to be Bard-Woman than Warrior-Woman.
  8. Fairy-tale elements are present, though their adaptation may be very loose indeed.

I want to thank all of you who follow my blog and who have read and supported my work. And if you’re anxious for my shifted dragon, don’t be. She’s still in my head, and one day she’ll make herself at home in a setting that’s just right for both of us.

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