It’s always great to talk shop with another writer, so when super-agent Sara Megibow asked me to have an in-print conversation with fellow novelist Eleri Stone about genre mashups for the Nelson Agency newsletter, I couldn’t resist.
Eleri is the author of Reaper’s Touch, a Wild West-meets-zombies novel that just came out last month. We had a great conversation about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to genre mashups, just how much fun it can be to create books that aren’t neatly shelved in a single category. The conversation hit the agency newsletter today, and I’m reprinting it here as well. Enjoy!
ELERI: I’m Eleri Stone, author of Reaper’s Touch, the first book in a new series about a bio-plague apocalypse set in the Wild West. Pitting cowboys against zombies made Reaper’s Touch a mashup from the get go, but then I went a step further and added romance too.
MIKE: And I’m Michael J. Martinez, author of The Daedalus Incident and the forthcoming sequel, The Enceladus Crisis. I crash eighteenth-century sailing ships into twenty-second-century planets. As one does. Needless to say, both Eleri and I enjoy playing with different genres.
ELERI: Because it’s a mashup,Reaper’s Touch was kind of hard to categorize genre-wise. Some people say that genre isn’t really important, but I think it is. You want to get your book into the hands of readers who are looking for just the type of story you’ve written, and the genre label is usually the best way to do that. Who’s my audience? People who like cowboys, zombies, and romance. How to find them? Well, that’s the tricky part…
MIKE: I agree with Eleri. The mashup is a way to use genre to identify what we’re writing to potential readers. But I also believe a good genre mashup can actually attract a broader audience. In the case of your book, you could be attracting zombie fans, Western fans, and romance fans. I think that the readership can be more than the intersection of the Venn diagram.
In my case, I’d like to think the Daedalus series has attracted fans of Napoleonic-era adventure, traditional SF fans and folks who like historical fantasy, especially those with a steampunk bent. Not every hard SF fan will like it, but I know that those who might not give historical fantasy a try have warmed up to the books regardless.
One of the best things about writing a good mashup is picking and choosing the different elements and tropes of the genres and playing them off one another. The interaction between spacefaring eighteen-century English sailors and twenty-second-century global astronauts was just plain fun. It’s like a mad chemistry experiment. Eleri, what elements of your mashup did you enjoy pulling together?
ELERI: I actually read The Daedalus Incident after hearing it described as “Master and Commander in space.” I admit that at first I was in it more for the fantasy, but I ended up loving the science-fiction aspects as well.
The elements I enjoyed mashing? Setting a biological zombie plague in nineteenth-century America and then figuring out how that development might have changed the course of history was great fun. And cowboys…well, what’s not to love about playing with cowboys?
That’s the beauty of the mashup. So long as everything is internally consistent and makes sense within the boundaries of the world you’ve created, you can have your eighteen-century spacefaring English sailors and astronauts or cannibalistic monsters and sexy cowboys…or any other combination you want to explore. It all comes back to story in the end. Are the characters engaging? Is the story entertaining?
MIKE: I agree that it comes down to characters and story. I think it can be very tempting to invest heavily in the setting(s) and worldbuilding and feel that you have enough “wow” to cut corners on other things, even subconsciously. The characters and plot are critical in any story, and I would argue even more so for genre-benders like Eleri and me. I think if your worldbuilding is awesome and your genre-crossing is excellent, then the flaws in character and plot show up even more.
The other trick, I think, is in making sure that the setting is well woven into the story and the characters’ lives, but without dominating either. When I outline my Daedalus books, I include a “setting” item for each scene, so that I can weave in a bit about the setting here and there. Even if it’s a minor thing about Venusian plant extracts or alchemical lights or some such, it allows the world to feel more fleshed out. But again, it doesn’t replace the need for strong character arcs and a good story.
Do you feel that your setting and worldbuilding in cross-genre work aids in creating those great stories and arcs, or does it hem you in somewhat? For me, it can feel like both, depending on where I am in the book.
ELERI: Oh, definitely both. Worlds have personality too, and sometimes that can be a frustration. But then, when I think about my favorite novels, I often love the world as much as (and sometimes more than!) the characters who inhabit it.
With Reaper’s Touch, I had a very clear vision of the setting from the beginning, so it wasn’t too great a challenge to integrate that information into the story. It also helps that the setting is a somewhat stylized version of the old west. There’s a lot of historical record to draw from and adapt to suit the world…like the fort system and the airships people use to travel between mountain cities when Reapers overrun the plains.
And, so far at least, it seems like the worldbuilding is one of the main draws for new readers, especially ones who are looking for something different in paranormal and fantasy romance.