Watch out, paranormal cozy mysteries: here there be dragons

Last time I talked about five worldbuilding tricks I learned from the show Grimm. I mentioned that the reason we watched the show wasn’t for the monsters or the grisly murders–it was for the cozy character development.

While going through a stressful patch in my life a few years ago, I rediscovered the mystery genre. Particularly the cozy mystery genre. These are the stories where the heroine, usually part of a knitting club or a restaurant or a bookstore, suddenly finds a dead body. This launches her into an amateur investigation, questioning the natives of her quirky hometown, and discovering the murderer before the police do a la Hercule Poirot.

There’s a whole subset of these called paranormal cozies. Here the sleuth will be a witch of some kind, or be able to see ghosts, or be psychic in some way. Often there will be cats that talk and help her solve the mystery. Also, interviewing ghosts of the murdered always has its thrills. There will be magic, usually in small doses. But otherwise it’s the same quirky characters, the same small town, the same heaping doses of good food, books, and humor.

After reading a few piles of these, I went looking for cozies with dragons in them. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought, “if the sleuth could turn into a dragon?” I’ve loved any kind of shapeshifter for years, but the shifter genre is predominantly hardcore porn these days. I’d like something lighter. Like a dragon shifter who solves murder mysteries, interviews quirky residents of her hometown, eats lots of good food, and trades zingers with her friends.

I couldn’t find any. NONE! Oh, I found every kind of witch you can imagine. I found witches + werewolves, even. But no dragons.

So I took the worldbuilding I had learned from Grimm and began building my own world.

Imagine the world of Grimm, where instead of wesen all over the place, there are a couple kinds of people who shift into dragons, or a smaller subspecies called drakes. Drakes have ice breath instead of fire. Dragons hate them, so drakes live on reservations for their own protection. Instead of Grimm, we have slayers, who can identify both kinds of shifters. But slayers don’t actually slay dragons anymore–they just see them. Sometimes they become lawyers who sue dragons, because the worst thing you can do to a dragon is to take away their horde, right?

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Male and female drake (Bruce and Tianna) looking up clues on a smartphone.

So into the middle of this interesting world comes Tianna Tokala, shy, introverted drake who takes a job in an ice cream shop in Carefree, Arizona. Her boss, a dominating dragoness, winds up dead after eating ice cream Tianna had just made. Now Tianna is not only a suspect because of her cooking skills, she’s a drake suspected of killing a dragoness, which brings in a whole extra element of intrigue. Tianna and her friends Katie and Bruce must team up to figure out the real killer before more people wind up dead. Or before Tianna winds up behind bars.

The first book, A Dragon by the Tail, will launch in a few weeks. I’ve almost finished writing the second book, and I’m mulling over the third. They’re super fun to write, and these characters and this world are totally adorable. I hope readers love them as much as I do.

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Five worldbuilding tricks I learned from the show GRIMM

Grimm’s final season aired a few weeks ago, and there was much lamenting among its fans. People are hoping for a sequel. It was a fun show for those of us who wanted something a little darker than Once Upon A Time. It was a police procedural show where the hero cop is a Grimm. That is, he has the supernatural power to see Wesen–fairytale monsters who live among us in human form. Basically, it was urban fantasy.

Each week, we tuned in to see some new wesen committing some interesting crime, and to see our sleuth figure it out while trying not to reveal his Grimm secrets to the world at large. Over the course of five seasons, friends became enemies, enemies became allies, and layers of intrigue are slowly revealed as the Royals (the princes and princesses of fairytale fame) try to take over the world. Yet somehow, the human populace at large remains unaware of the wesen subculture, even though their lives are being impacted by the politics of fairytale creatures.

The worldbuilding was great fun for a TV show that pretty much only got off the ground because of the werewolf sidekick. Here’s what I picked up:

If your fairytale monsters live in plain sight, make sure they’re tied tightly to folklore. Ghosts, aliens, Krampus, sewer gators, and the Loch Ness Monster are all various kinds of wesen. Each species has its own motivations and needs that make them sympathetic. For instance, the episode with the aliens mutilating cattle turn out to be a type of bioluminescent wesen whose women have to eat beef ovaries as they get ready to give birth. Oh, and other wesen hunt them for their glowing skin.

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The government makes sense. Over the course of the series, we meet the Wesen Council, a governing body of monsters who make sure that the monsters don’t reveal themselves to humans. The Royals, on the other hand, function like some kind of Austrian mafia. They have far-reaching dealings with humans and their governments. We also meet a secret government organization that tracks the movements of wesen and Royals and tries to neutralize threats.

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If your hero has superpowers, make sure they’re explained. Over the course of the series, Nick gains not only the power to see wesen in their true form, but also crazy powers of hearing, strength, and the ability to hold his breath for long periods. But it feels logical, because we see him go through crazy, terrible stuff, and the powers are the side effects of almost being dead. Or something.

Don’t be afraid to jump the shark. Urban fantasy, in particular, seems to revel in this. Whether it’s the wizard in the Dresden books raising a zombie T-rex, or Nick taking off his sunglasses in the middle of a wesen wedding (wesen identify Grimm by their eyes), or a formerly dead character reappearing as a brainwashed superweapon. This genre is all about following the worldbuilding to its logical conclusion. And that means finding the most bonkers, broken thing you can and slapping the audience in the face with it.

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Don’t forget the cozy elements. Every week, I’d chat with my mom about the latest episode. “It was so nice,” we’d sigh. It didn’t matter how grisly the murder had been. That wasn’t why we watched it. We tuned in each week to see if Nick was going to tell his girlfriend that he was a Grimm, or see if Monroe and Rosalie would get together, despite being different species of wesen, or to see if Monroe would trot out some obscure wesen factoid with his typical nerd delivery. We watched to see how Hank, Nick’s partner, handled wesen murders without understanding anything about that world, and if anybody would ever tell Wu, the other cop who always delivered the best one-liners. We loved the character development.

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I’ve noticed in other urban fantasy that if they can nail these particular elements in their worldbuilding, I’ll typically follow those series through hours of TV or multiple books. Sure, there’s plotholes. But we stick with it because we’re so invested in the characters that we don’t mind.

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