atty Briggs has made a niche for herself among the scifi genre. Now she's making a splash in the urban fantasy world as well. Her Mercy Thompson books, the story of a skinwalker who was raised among the werewolves, have added to her following. The ease in which her books pull you in show a talent that is sadly lacking in some of the bigger pools of today's literary fish.
NS: I've read in some of your other interviews that you were asked to write an urban fantasy. How did Mercy come about as the character for the books?
PB: Most of my characters start out as a series of attributes and then I learn more about them as I write the book. By the time I'm doing edits, I know more about them and can flesh them out better. My editor asked me for a female protagonist with some sort of preternatural abilities. I decided I wanted her to be in her early thirties, a VW mechanic and a coyote shapeshifter. I started the story, threw her in her garage and tossed a starving werewolf in his human guise and let the story run.
I think one of the things that writers need to be very good at is decision making: you make a decision and then you think about what that means to your story. I decided that Mercy was raised with werewolves. I know that wolves (real wolves) kill coyotes who hunt in their territories. I decided that a werewolf pack would never wholeheartedly adopt a coyote shapeshifter into their midst. That meant that Mercy had to be very adaptable in order to survive her childhood. Building a character is the sum of all those decisions and the ramifications thereof.
NS: Where did the idea of Mercy being a walker, instead of the more common werewolf, come from?
PB: I love shapeshifters. Always have. But I wanted Mercy to be an outsider and I wanted her to be underpowered. The outsider part was just an impulse, but underpowered is important. Having less power than most of the people around her, makes her a more interesting character -- because her risks are greater. So, knowing that the first book was going to be about werewolves, the obviously weaker (but smarter and more adaptable) coyote came to mind. Coyotes are a North American animal -- and shapeshifting is a common theme in Native American lore. There is not specifically a "walker" in Indian legend, but a lot of stories and a lot of history of all of the tribes has been lost. Mercy's attributes as a walker fit in nicely with a lot of the stories we have left and still leave me some play room to decide what she can and cannot do.
NS: Are any of your character based upon someone you know in real life? If any are, what was it about that person that made you pull from them? Or why not?
PB: Of course all of my characters are made up of things I have observed or felt myself. I've always been fascinated by why people do what they do, and that has served me well in my writing career. So I've collected a whole metaphorical closet of motivation and attributes pulled from a lifetime of observation and speculation. When it's time to build a character, I pull a few out and shake them up.
In general, it is a mistake to base a character on someone you know. It can lead to all sorts of problems. It can worry or antagonize your friends -- I have a T-shirt that says "Be careful or you'll end up in my novel". It can lead to a variant of the Mary Sue issue where you are playing with wish fulfillment or representative revenge (where you punish someone in print because you can't in real life) -- all to the detriment of the story. And if someone else recognizes what you are doing, you can lose friends and gain lawsuits.
That being said, I have done it three times. The first time was the character Shark from When Demons Walk. My husband was working with this terrific guy who was big, handsome, and somehow looked as though you should use short words and small sentences -- and he was brilliant. It made people underestimate him -- which I thought was cool. So I took that aspect of him and gave it to the Shark -- then added a fair helping of street smarts and viciousness. In some ways, I suppose, Ward from Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood owes bits of his character to the that as well, though he's pretty far from the original too.
In the Mercy Thompson books, Zee is loosely based on our VW mechanic, Buck, who passed away a couple of years ago. As the stories have progressed, Zee has developed and changed until they have not much in common, but the core of decency and kindness that hides under a somewhat grumpy exterior is pure Buck.
The third time is in Iron Kissed (Jan 2008). I came to a place where I needed an antiquarian bookstore in the Tri-Cities. Since I have a friend who runs such a bookstore, it was either make one up or use his. He gave me permission, so I used his . . . and him with the serial numbers filed off. It was a small supporting role and I didn't see any harm in it. If he becomes a reoccurring character, I'll probably change my fictional character so he's not such a close fit with the original.
NS: Did you always want to write, or was it something you stumbled into?
PB: I am a practical person, always have been. I didn't really believe that anyone could be a writer, that was something other people did (the same ones who become movie stars and win lottery tickets). What I was, and still am, was a reader. Without my husband's encouragement I'd never have finished my first manuscript, nor sent it out to publishers.
NS: If you weren't a writer (which is a silly question, writers don't have a choice about being themselves!) what do you think you'd be doing?
PB: Training wild donkeys and long-haired, five-toed Siamese cats.
NS: How is your family taking the fact that you're one of the big names in the urban fantasy genre? Is it cool for them, or more like 'oh, Mom's got a following. That's nice, whats for dinner?'?
PB: More the latter, I think, which is better for all concerned. I've been writing for almost fifteen years, so they've never known anything different.
NS: You have a short story about Charles, the Marrok's son, coming out in an anthology in August. Was Charles one of those characters waiting for his story to be told, or did it come as a shock to both of you? Why?
PB: Charles was one of those characters that makes writing interesting to me. Here I was, trying to populate Aspen Springs (the werewolves' town in Montana) and typing merrily along . . . then here he comes. This fascinating man who had such a history from the first time I put his name in the story. Sometimes characters come like that. Most of the time I build them as the story grows, adding depth and history with each edit until they are real people to me. But every once in a while, poof, there they are. His part in Moon Called was just a walk on, so I promised him he'd get more page-time later. When my editor asked if I thought I could write a novella based on the Mercy series, I played around with a few ideas -- but ultimately, the one that spoke to me was Charles's story. She was surprised, she told me, as Charles had been just a walk on. When she read the novella, though, she asked me if I could write a series. Guess she liked him .
NS: You don't put sex right out front in your books, which is somewhat uncommon in the urban fantasy pool, but you have a definite level of tension that occurs between Mercy and her love interests. Was that intentional, or is Mercy just playing the field to find the right one for her?
PB: Right. I think sex is a very powerful thing in a story when used judiciously. Like swearing, for me, sex loses its impact when there is too much of it or if it is used casually, the power of it fading from passion and heat to, finally, a meaningless recitation of tab A into slot B with variations. There are authors who are good enough to overcome that. . . I'm not sure I am one. I am sure that I don't want to devote the pages necessary when I'd rather be writing about murder and mayhem. For me, sexual tension is a very important tool in the arsenal I use to build the impact of a novel. I use it to illuminate and motivate characters. Sex is the culmination of the tension, satisfying but ultimately climatic (pun intended) rather than a shaping force in novel writing. Useful in its own way, but rather more limited. Also, since, as you mentioned, there are a number of marvelous writers who put a lot of sex in their books, which means that I don't have to.
NS: What advice do you have for writers wanting to break into the paranormal published market?
PB: I don't know how long this market will continue to grow. There are a lot of very popular genres that suddenly died -- gothics and horror are two that come to mind. I had a used bookstore owner once tell me that one week he was selling twenty or thirty gothics a day -- and the next he couldn't give them away. So write what you love. Readers can tell the difference between a story written with passion and one written to fit into a market, and I can tell you, as a voracious reader, which one I prefer.
Steal the Dragon (1996)
When Demons Walk (1998)
The Hob's Bargain (2001)
Dragon Bones (2002)
Dragon Blood (2002)
Raven's Shadow (2004)
Raven's Strike (2005)
Mercedes Thompson Series
Moon Called (2006)
Blood Bound (2007)
Iron Kissed (Expected January 2008)
Mercy IV (No working title) (expected January 2009)
Hurog, Patty's Web Home
Patty on Wikipedia