Battle Borne: J.L. Murray on Writing ‘Monstrous’

Books Geek Speaks…Fiction! GeekMom
Image: Melanie R. Meadors

J.L. Murray is known for dark speculative fiction that is poignant and insightful, and has been known to make grown men weep. Readers fall in love with her characters despite themselves, though they know at times things can’t end well. Murray isn’t afraid of taking chances with her fiction, and her fans thank her for it (through tears, sometimes). Here she is on this week’s Geek Speaks…Fiction!, talking about how setting and character can work together to pack an emotional punch.

A sense of place.

Back in 2014, I had an idea. Frankie Mourning came to me fully-formed, already tossing her hair over her shoulder and reaching for her knife. She was a lot like me, as disturbing as that seems now. She eventually evolved into a repentant killer and the protagonist in Monstrous, book one in the Blood of Cain series. But at that point, she was still a country girl who’d never had a chance to make good. At the time, I was working on a few novels already, so I put Frankie in the back of my mind and finished three novels before I came back to her.

She never really left, though. At night, I would think about Frankie Mourning, moving her around in my head like a rock tumbler, smoothing her out and finding out where she shone the most. I knew who my protagonist was, I had my antagonist figured out, but I just couldn’t decide on a setting.

One day, I was telling my husband a story about the place where I grew up in Western Montana. I said, “When I say it out loud, it doesn’t seem like a real place. It’s like something out of a Southern Gothic.” My eyes went wide, my mouth hung open, and my husband smiled.

“You’d better go write that down,” he said, recognizing my expression.

Image: JL Murray, Hellzapoppin Press

Too close to the bone.

I’ve written 11 novels, and each one is set in a place where I’ve never lived. A good many are set in Philadelphia, where we used to visit regularly as a child, but we never lived there. Another is set in New Orleans, another in an unnamed city, one starts in Chicago and goes all over the place. This book was different, though. If I was going to write Monstrous, I wanted it to get uncomfortably personal. I wanted to write Frankie Mourning the way she deserved to be written because, by that time, she was very real to me.

Frankie grew up poor, Frankie was at ease in the country, Frankie was in impossible situation after impossible situation and always came out on the other side. Frankie could recognize the beauty of where she came from while also seeing the darkness of it. I understood Frankie because I pulled a lot of her out of myself. This wasn’t just another urban fantasy heroine, this was a woman who could drink, smoke, and curse like any proper Montana girl. I knew her as deeply I knew myself, and to be honest, it wasn’t always easy. It was disquieting to pull emotions from that part of myself. I found Frankie’s darkness somewhere in the dusty reaches of memory, and all the horrors came quickly afterward.

This was a place I knew better than any other place. This was a place I could feel, even when I wasn’t there. This was a place that was a part of me. And I knew that I could make my readers feel it, too.

Shell-shock and awe.

When I finished Monstrous, I lay down in my bed and didn’t move unless I had to for three days. I was exhausted. I felt as though I’d just walked through fire. My bones and my muscles and my brain hurt. Everything hurt, and it took a long time before I felt okay again. My editor sent me back copy a week later.

“This is the best thing you’ve ever written. Write another one.”

I finished edits barely under the deadline, but I finished. Frankie Mourning was released onto the world, darkness and all, and it felt like the right thing to do. It was the grimmest book I’d ever written, and I was tired, weak, and overwhelmed with emotion.

I limped my way to my computer and started book two.

J.L. Murray is the author of the Niki Slobodian series (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, The Devil Is a Gentleman, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Devil Was an Angel, and The Devil’s Backbone), The Thirteen series (Jenny Undead and Eat the Ones You Love), After the Fire, Blood Day, Blood of the Stars, and the Blood of Cain series (Monstrous).

Murray is a firm believer that horror can be beautiful, and that good and evil are very far from black and white. She lives with her family in Eugene, Oregon and can be reached through her website at

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