Werewolves and radio talk shows? Who’da thought they would be two great tastes that go great together? Carrie Vaughn, that’s who, and a good thing that she did. She’s taken that idea an parlayed it into the New York Times bestselling “Kitty Norville” series, in which a lycanthropic radio host has all sorts of wild adventures. The latest in the series, Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand, has just hit the shelves, and in this Big Idea piece, Vaughn explains how the real world informs her fantasy world — and how deciding which of two worlds is the weirdest is not always such an easy thing.
I write a series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty who hosts a talk radio advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. Your vampire boyfriend’s a pain in the neck? Call Kitty. That’s pretty much the bedrock idea for the series. I figured if vampires and werewolves really did exist, the conventional radio psychologists like Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil wouldn’t have a clue how to handle their problems. They needed their own show.
At first, I didn’t think this idea was all that big. I figured it was good for maybe a short story. When the first short story ended up being 10,000 words long, I should have known something was up. I managed to whittle that first story down and sold it to Weird Tales. But a few years later, I got a novel out of it. And several more short stories. And several more novels. I just handed in the seventh.
Kitty’s radio show turned out to be the perfect platform to examine any topic I wanted. One part of the current wave of urban fantasy novels is asking the question, what would all this magic look like in the real world? What if there really were vampires, werewolves, witches, oh my? I’ve taken that question seriously. I’ve had Senate hearings on the supernatural, an evangelical faith healer who claims to cure vampirism, vampire night shift clerks, a punk band that really is playing the devil’s music, a Broadway star who seems ageless because, well, she is (and she doesn’t do matinees). I’ve made it my mission to scrape the bottom of the pop culture barrel and squish the result through a supernatural filter. Wait till you see the reality TV show I cooked up. With Kitty’s radio show as a backdrop, I can make anything fit. And Kitty, my inquisitive and chatty main character, who at heart is an average person just trying to make her way in the world (So what if she’s a werewolf? Everyone has issues), is a great point of view through which to explore. I still haven’t run out of ideas: I want to tackle Iraqi war vets who are also werewolves, have an international conference of scientists studying the paranormal, show the Filipino vampires that suck fetuses from the bellies of pregnant women, and I’ve decided I must include the Monkey King someday. Because how cool would that be?
I set the fifth book, Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand, in Las Vegas and barely had to make anything up. There really is a production show called “Bite,” featuring a cast of “vampires.” Who knew? And of course I traveled to Vegas. All in the name of research. A-hem.
I’m very glad I did. These days, researching a novel’s location isn’t that hard. You can find just about anything you need on the internet or even (gasp) in a book. You don’t have to travel to a location you don’t know to find out about various neighborhoods, the popular coffeehouses, or where the drug deals happen. Google Earth can help you feel like you’re really there, even when you’re not. But you don’t travel to a place to learn the facts. You travel to learn what no one thought to put in a book. How else would I have learned about the roving packs of bachelorette parties? (Very easy to spot: look for the groups of twenty-something women in short skirts and high heels. The one in the middle will be wearing a plastic tiara with a veil. I counted twelve of these gangs in one night.)
Then there’s the Sirens of TI.
One of the scenes in Dead Man’s Hand depicts a sexy stage show. I thought I had it pretty far on the edge. Then I saw the Sirens of TI. A bit of background: the Treasure Island Casino has a lagoon and pirate ship out front. Pretty cool. Ten years ago, when Vegas was in its “family friendly” promotional phase, the pirate ship was the centerpiece of a slam-bang action adventure pyrotechnic show, with lots of sword fighting and cannon fire, totally free, right on the Strip. Then Vegas realized that family friendly wasn’t selling and “what happens in Vegas” was. So Treasure Island revamped its pirate show. It now features lots of women in “pirate” outfits (assuming pirates wear short shorts and push-up bras) bumping and grinding. The story (yes, there’s a story): the cabin boy of a more conventional ship has fallen overboard and swims to a mysterious, ghostly ship. He climbs aboard — and is suddenly accosted by the Sirens, a dozen buxom women swinging and dancing their way across the ship. They don’t like trespassers, so they capture the cabin boy, tie him to the mast, and…punish him. And that’s just the beginning.
My sheltered upbringing betrayed me at last. I realized the scene in my book wasn’t nearly edgy enough, so I added whips and chains. Like I said, at this rate I’m never going to run out of ideas because reality just keeps producing more.