The Big Idea: Diana Rowland
Posted on June 23, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 14 Comments
Sometimes writing is like a romance: You might need time away to realize how much it’s part of you. Author Diana Rowland can tell you about this. Life and other complications conspired to keep her from the fantasy and science fiction genre for years — and yet, here she is, with her novel Mark of the Demon, full of magic, fantasy and sexy, sexy demons. How did she find her way back to her genre love? Here she is to lay it all out for you.
In a way it took me almost ten years to come up with the Big Idea that led to Mark of the Demon.
I went to the Clarion West writer’s workshop in 1998, and came out of it ready and eager to set the publishing world on fire. I wrote a few short stories (because that’s what everyone said you were supposed to do) and even sold one, but soon realized that my heart really wasn’t in short fiction. I preferred the longer format of the novel, and the room it afforded for plot twists and character development. I started on a fantasy novel, but shortly thereafter made an early mid-life career change–trading my job in the casino industry for an entry-level job in law enforcement. I stopped writing fiction while I went through the rigors of the Police Academy, and when I came back to writing after graduation I realized that I didn’t have much love for the basic concept of the fantasy novel I’d been working on, and had little motivation to get back to it.
I continued to write sporadically over the next several years, but with the arrival of my daughter my writing went from sporadic to infrequent, and I still didn’t have a world or a concept that I felt driven to write about. I was also feeling a large measure of inadequacy as a writer because, after all, if I was a real writer I would have ideas pouring out of my ears and I would write even if I didn’t feel the love for it. Right?
My big wake-up call came after I won the Writers of the Future contest in 2005. I came back from the workshop ready and eager (again) to set the publishing world on fire. But now I was able to see how I’d put myself in a rut by staying so focused on writing fantasy. By this time I’d been working in law enforcement for over seven years, and everyone (including yours truly) had me convinced that I should write suspense or crime thrillers. I had a full “well” of incredible life experience to draw from and it seemed a crying shame to waste it.
I went for it. I abandoned the idea of writing spec fic and started working on a crime thriller. In a complete 180, my stubborn brain was now fixated on writing a straight crime thriller without a hint of science fiction/fantasy.
50,000 words later, I realized that I was bored out of my skull with it (and it showed). I had to face facts: I liked fantasy and science fiction and that’s what I wanted to write. Unfortunately, I was now right back in the rut where I’d begun.
Enter my new job as a forensic photographer and morgue assistant. When a body is photographed before autopsy, special attention is paid to marks, scars, tattoos, wounds, or anything else that is a deviation or that can be used to aid in identification. One day a body came in with unusual wounds on the torso. At first glance it looked as if someone had taken a small melonballer and had scooped chunks of flesh out (though it was eventually determined that significant insect activity had caused the strange wounds and that they had been caused post-mortem.) Immediately my sick little mind started jumping, and I started thinking about what the reaction would be if a body was found that had wounds caused by a supernatural creature. I began to barrage the pathologist with numerous what-if questions and, to his enormous credit, he didn’t kick me out of the morgue or tell me to shut up, but instead seemed more than willing to go along with my what-ifs and answered as best he could.
Soon after that, we had a victim who’d committed suicide by hanging himself with an electrical cord. During the process of hanging, the cord had apparently slipped which caused the victim to have two distinct marks on his neck. During the autopsy, when the skin and muscles of the throat were peeled back, the pathologist showed me the clots of blood within the muscles that clearly showed that, as the body had settled, the cord had slipped into a new position. I began to think about a serial killer who tortured his victims prior to killing them, and when I started to think about the Why?, I immediately thought of some sort of Death Magic.
And, right there in the morgue, I realized that I’d been missing the obvious. I could write a crime thriller… and make it chock full of the paranormal. (This was right about the time that urban fantasy was beginning to hit its stride and take off.)
From there ideas quickly began to fall into place. I had a serial killer and his reason for killing. I had a homicide detective with her own arcane powers, and a cast of secondary characters. I knew I wanted to stay away from vampires and werewolves, and I ended up getting some great brainstorming and inspiration from a good friend, Kat Johnson, who used to run an RPG that I participated in for years. With her help, I came up with the idea of arcane creatures that were known as demons, but were from an alternate plane of existence instead of from “hell.” And, since I’ve always disliked books where the bad guy is evil Because He Is Evil, I made it so that the demons had a completely alien perception of what constituted good and evil. I drafted up a quick outline of a story about a homicide detective with the ability to summon demons, who was charged with tracking down a serial killer with similar arcane skills. And to make things extra-interesting, I threw in a sexy Demonic Lord with his own agenda and his own concept of right and wrong.
I started writing, and about six weeks later I had a first draft. It was crappy, and it still needed loads of revisions, but it was a complete draft. I’d never written that fast in my life, and I think it speaks volumes that the story flowed so quickly once I figured out what I was supposed to write.
So, my Big Idea wasn’t so much about a plot or story concept, but more the realization that there was a perfect sweet spot between writing in the genre that I loved to read, and using all of the great experience that I’d gained during my years in law enforcement. The result is Mark of the Demon. Police procedural and urban fantasy! Cops and Demons! Sex and violence!
It was immensely fun and satisfying to write. I hope that readers will enjoy it just as much as I did.
Mark of the Demon: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Diana Rowland’s blog. Read an interview with Rowland.
Whoa, talk about surreal! I’ve never forgotten Diana Rowland’s winning entry in WotF, “Schroedinger’s Hummingbird,” after all these years. I remember thinking at the time: now THIS is the type of story I wish I could submit to the contest.
It never occured to me to see if Ms. Rowland might have a novel out. I’m going to have to check this one out for sure. I just finished reading the first book in Liz Williams’ Detective Chen series, which is also a police procedural dealing with demons — Taoist demons, to be exact. And, yes, some of them are even SEXY Taoist demons!
So Mark of the Demon sounds right down my alley. Excellent Big Idea this morning, John.
You won me over with this: “And, since I’ve always disliked books where the bad guy is evil Because He Is Evil, I made it so that the demons had a completely alien perception of what constituted good and evil.” I looooove me some interesting baddies. On the to read list!
Having done both Clarion and the WOTF workshops, I can attest to both the “full of vim and vigor and ready to take on the world” feelings and the odd expectations of outsiders that such workshops are automatic Golden Tickets which come with the secret decoder rings of success. At some point you have to write the stories — the big question one comes up with is “which stories”?
Excellent essay on how one can go back and forth over ten years and find out you were right all along in the first place, but now you have the story. And humans do such a bang up job of coming up with systems of right and wrong, for various values of right and wrong, it’s nice to see someone put in aliens/demons who see things differently.
I’m on my way to the bookstore at lunch. This sounds WAY more delicious than chicken salad! :)
Will there be a series? (Enquiring minds want to know…)
Karen–Yes, there are more with the same characters on the way! Blood of the Demon is due out Feb 23, 2010. :)
I’m in! I love crime and the supernatural. Thank goodness you decided no to vampires and werewolves. I can’t even look at another vampire cover right now.
I feel deeply, deeply ambivalent about the Writers of the Future contest, because of its ties to the Church of Scientology. It’s great to see new writers have a way to get started, I just wish it didn’t involve taking money from a deceptive cult.
Then again, I’m not likely to submit anything to them–they’ve probably already got a file on me because I keep showing up at zoning meetings and explaining why the building they bought in my neighborhood is not suitable to be rezoned to a church, not even a pretend one.
This is not the correct place to kvetch about the Church of Scientology and/or the Writers of the Future contest. If you want to do that, go here. That’s a hint for everyone else, too.
Sounds good! I just popped over to Amazon and ordered the book, as well as pre-ordering Metatropolis, and Mister Slaughter (by Robert McCammon.) I’m feeling especially self-indulgent today, you see.
Looks fairly interesting. I won’t be be buying it, though, since the e-book isn’t available outside the USA and Canada.
Sounds like Harry Dresden stories
I just read a review of this on another site and already have it on my ‘to buy’ list for when it comes out. It’s groovy to read about the author’s circular journey to get to where she could write this book. :-)
Diana, I’m looking forward to reading your work! I recently watched an anime series titled Witch Hunter Robin which has some similar plot elements to those you outline above, and was looking to feed that kick :)
The book sounded interesting enough from the “big idea” post that my book club picked it for our September read last night.