GUEST POST: Barbara J Webb on Writing Urban Fantasy in a Secondary World

Barbara J Webb is one of the participants in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Her book, City of Burning Shadows, intrigued me partly because it was an urban fantasy set in a secondary world, and you just don’t see many of those. She was kind enough to write a guest post, talking about just that.

The truth is, I’m in it for the lizards. Everything else grew out of that.

Urban fantasy is a genre close to my heart. Like any imaginative kid, I grew up looking behind doors, under beds, around trees for any sign of magic in the real world. I wanted to open the wardrobe and go to Narnia. I wanted Gaudior the unicorn to swoop down and scoop me up to go save the world.

What is urban fantasy if not an extension of those desires? The hero or heroine moves through a world that looks a lot like ours, except that they can see the cracks, the hidden places, the magic. By the end of the book, they’re invested in the secret world, citizens of a place the rest of us can only dream of.

So if that’s the soul of urban fantasy, why would any author try to write it in a completely different world? Doesn’t that miss the point?

Urban fantasy’s roots are sunk deep in mystery and noir. Mystery is a genre all about details, about making sure the reader has enough information that when you give them the answer, their reaction is, “Of course!” and not, “What?” Noir is a romance of setting. It’s a tattered hero moving through a worn, familiar city and finding darkness in the hidden cracks.

These things are, quite frankly, easier to pull off in a setting familiar to the reader. It’s a challenge to write that kind of story in a second world. When everything starts out strange to the reader, you have to work hard to build the world in a way that they will recognize the things that are supposed to be strange and unusual within the setting verses the elements that are unfamiliar to the reader but everyday common to the characters. And if you fail, it’s not just the worldbuilding that falls apart. It’s the whole story.

All that extra work. Which brings us back around to…why?

The answer: lizards.

The not-really-a-secret secret is that a lot of the time we writers don’t know why we’re writing what we write. Ideas come (from the idea-of-the-month club, mail order from Nantucket, from the idea fairy once you leave him the proper offering of Dickens and Shakespeare) and we put them down on the page, and that’s enough work without trying to figure out their genesis.

I wanted to write about hulking lizard warriors. And bird-people. And people so made of magic that they don’t have a true shape. I couldn’t do that in the real world. So I built a city—a dying city in the desert—and into that city I placed a hero.

Ash is bruised and broken. He’s lost his family, his faith, his purpose. He’s watching his world collapse around him and feels powerless to stop it. But when he’s faced with an old friend in need and a new friend who holds the key to saving Ash’s dying city, he can’t turn away. That one act of humanity drags him into a world of lies and plots and monsters he never imagined.

A secret world.

Once I started writing him, it didn’t take me long to recognize that Ash is a quintessential urban fantasy hero, and City of Burning Shadows was going to be a quintessential urban fantasy story. Which meant—yes, a lot of work. It meant layering the world in fast and deep, so deep that it starts to feel familiar. To build it well enough that when Ash gets to a point of recognizing something isn’t right, the reader is there five seconds ahead of him. Hopefully I pulled it off.

I got my urban fantasy, my noir hero in his broken city. I got the setting I wanted to build with all the magic I wanted to give it, along with the hidden world lurking beneath.

And I got my lizards. In the end, that’s what matters.

barbarajwebbGrowing up in a house that included a library of thousands of science fiction and fantasy books, Barbara J. Webb had no choice but to become a writer herself.

A midwesterner at heart, Barbara has lived in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, but finally settled in only two blocks away from the house in which she was born. She enjoys her small-town life with her husband and her cat, and occasionally dreams of keeping horses. Or even better, unicorns.

Her novel, City of Burning Shadows, can be purchased via or B&N.

2 comments on “GUEST POST: Barbara J Webb on Writing Urban Fantasy in a Secondary World

  1. In what I’ve read of urban fantasy, their cities have all felt the same, even though in real life those cities are very different from each other. A secondary world urban fantasy is appealing–knowing from the start that you and the author will be working together to create the city in your mind.

    Good post! Consider me intrigued by City of Burning Shadows. It was a great idea to have a guest post by a SPFBO author, and I’d enjoy seeing more.

  2. Pingback: May in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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