Writing monster fiction is like a salad bar; you take servings of whatever legends you like and build the one that fits your story.
Once I started Murder With Monsters, I already had the narrative structure in my head. This was going to be CSI with more monsters and less magic. Seriously, the forensics machines on CSI stray near Clarke’s Law: any sufficient advance piece of technology might as well be magically lazy writing, but I digress. Based on my preferences, I had to build a vampire that could interact with society without just becoming a person with fake fangs on.
There were a few rules that developed in my forebrain.
1) Vampirism May Not Be Fun for My Protagonist
In some books (like Newman’s Anno Dracula, if I remember right), vampirism is just another life choice. I wanted to go someplace different. After all, my detective narrator needed something to complain about, right? I mean, aside from being stuck with a name like Mildred Heavewater. To my mind, her condition shouldn't just be superpowers with a packaged overbite.
That was the mental breakthrough: thinking of vampirism not as a curse, but with the word “condition.”
I decided the lens I’d see the vampirism through was that of a disease victim. As a teacher, I've had to show a lot of videos where STD sufferers tell their side of the story, and that was my depressing inspiration. Vampirism would be something that changes your “life;” you might join a support group or might not, but it never becomes an overall net positive and never goes away.
Life offers plenty of unfortunate examples. One of my friends looked at the manuscript and was shocked at the idea that Mildred spent her high school career banished to a portable on the edge of her school, learning in solitary confinement. That just didn’t seem like modern thinking to my friend. I hated to inform her that I based that entirely off of the life story of a middle school age AIDS victim from the 80’s.
I admit, I write about werewolves and Bigfoot because sometimes I’m sick of the reality I live in.
2) Vampirism Must Be Fun for the Readers
So while Mildred might complain, I want you all to be glad you’re reading about a vampire. I picked out a serving of the entertaining baggage that’s cropped up in pop culture. Her being strong enough to pitch mailboxes and fast enough to outrun taxis give me the freedom to write crazy little action scenes.
3) Vampirism Can’t Interfere with the Mystery
I know Lugosi chose to play Dracula as a mesmerizing hypnotist, but I’m not going to give a detective the ability to mentally control people. Try picturing a Columbo episode that ends twenty-two minutes* in with, “Just one more thing; did you kill your wife?”
4) Vampirism Needs Weaknesses
Now, here’s the tricky one.
I want these to mostly serve as a touchstone for the reader. After all, weaknesses are the most famous part of some monsters. More people know how to kill a werewolves than what a werewolf looks like. Of course, the standard questions come out.
“She’s a vampire; she has a thing for daylight and stakes, right?”
Yes, I am aware that Ol' Count D could originally walk in daylight and had more reason to fear a bowie knife than a wooden stake. Stoker’s Dracula is surprisingly far from our modern conception of bloodsucker. Still, I want sunlight and stakes. Feels classic.
It’s about standards.
So far, I’ve been building a relatively generic vampire. Deep within me flares an urge to be different, a desire to be weird. When that happens, I know I can always count on my misspent childhood.
You may have noticed from my Tumblr feed that I consumed a freakish amount of monster books as a kid. The goofy parts always stuck with me. I may not recall everything about medieval werewolf lore, but I’ll never forget the story about a lycanthrope getting defeated by being beaten with an apron. Throw in a suitably ridiculous picture, and voilà! Perfect memory maker.
In some long-forgotten vampire library book (that undoubtedly had the creative name of “Vampires” with a generic subtitle) lurked a picture burned into my mind to this day. Picture a classic Dracula knock-off on his nightly search for blood. His terrible fanged grin is contorted into a look of, “Come on, you’re killing me!” as he kneels on the roof of a house, counting a gigantic mess of seeds.
Consulting the text, I was overjoyed when the author assured me that certain European vampires were compelled to count spilled seeds until sunrise. It was a wonderfully ridiculous detail to learn for an eight-year-old who was, at max, about eighty percent sure that vampires weren’t real. Shockingly, fiction rarely makes use of this weakness. The X-Files had a wonderfully comical scene in a vampire who rose from somewhere near The Sandlot runs into this weakness.
“You’re killing me again, Smalls!”
That decision flavored everything from then on. Whether the counting compulsion became a major part of any specific Mildred mystery story, its mere existence lets my readers know that this world was weird and people have to deal with it. This is a New York City where people might wear their clothes inside out for a week if there’s been a rash of faerie muggers.
Yeah, I know, so many books and movies use the “You shouldn’t believe every vampire movie” line of thinking, but screw it. Bring on the garlic. Let’s have things get kooky and see how things roll.
Except that leaves two issues, and two biggies at that. Two weaknesses that imply significantly bad things about vampires in any cosmology.
It’s the mirror, you see. The mirror, and also the damned the holy symbol. Well, probably not damned. I mean, it could be damned, but then it’s not a problem.
You know what I mean.
Now, I had a world-building problem on my hand…
*Twenty-two minutes might seem like a lot, but I started rewatching Columbo recently with my phone’s stopwatch feature in hand. It turns out, like clockwork, Columbo arrives almost exactly twenty minutes in. Only the nastiest and most cunning Columbo murderers complete their killing within fifteen minutes.