Author Toni Andrews’ Urban Fantasy Setting

May 20, 2008

Toni Andrews, author of the Mercy Hollings series of urban fantasy books (available now from MIRA), shares her real-life inspiration for the setting of her two Mercy Hollings novels, Beg For Mercy and Angel of Mercy

By Toni Andrews, author of Angel of Mercy

Real Balboa Tales and Fantasy Intertwine in the Mercy Hollings Series

This morning, while listening to public radio, I heard a discussion with three very famous novelists about revealing private stories to the public, and whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing. I listened, fascinated, because it’s a topic near and dear to my heart!

I write “Urban Fantasy,” which is generally defined as supernatural things happening to regular people living in an everyday environment. It goes without saying that the supernatural occurrences need to be extraordinary. But I have always loved novels that really convey a sense of place, like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, set in Southern Louisiana. So I wanted the setting to be at least as special as the paranormal elements.

For my current series, I chose a place where I once lived: Balboa, California. This is the older, funkier section of Newport Beach, and has little in common with the glittering environs portrayed on shows like The O.C.

The second novel in my series, Angel of Mercy, was released May 1st, and I had a launch party at the Newport Landing, a very real restaurant that appears often in the series. I got to town a few days early and spent a lot of time walking around, investigating my old watering holes and haunts, and inviting everyone I ran into from the old days to come to the launch event.

At the party, a couple of things happened that were very relevant to the topic of private stories being revealed in public. First, almost everyone who had read the first book in the series (Beg For Mercy , Mira, September 2007) started to speculate on which character was based on them. In some cases, they weren’t that far off, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I tried to be vague and mysterious. A few others were annoyed that, so far, they couldn’t find themselves in the series, and they demanded that I put them in!

The second thing that happened was that people started to recount old stories that are simply too good not to include in the books, and I found myself jotting down notes. In some cases, I’m going to have to tread a fine line to avoid liability. But I don’t think I can leave out the local bartender who was a nudist, and often hosted large barbecues at his place, during which he was known for standing way too close to the hot grill with nothing to protect his…well, you get the picture. Or the older lady who owned the diner where she was famous for loudly and profanely insulting her customers, a behavior that did not do a thing to shorten the line to get in on most mornings.

Most of the stories are fairly light anecdotes and, in some cases, the recognizable characters have passed away in the intervening years. But there are some more serious tales, too. I probably will use them because these real stories add so much authenticity. I think it’s often the authentic frame that makes the fantasy believable.

And, I love Balboa. I get fan mail from readers who say that, after reading the Mercy Hollings books, they plan to visit this unique and eclectic hamlet. I hope they’ll think of me while they ride the Balboa Island Ferry, munch on a frozen banana, and try to figure out which of the local “dives” most resembles Jimbo’s Bar!


Toni’s Links:

Watch the Book Trailer for Angel of Mercy 

Toni Andrews’ website

Toni Andrews’ blog



  1. Toni, I read Beg for Mercy and am looking forward to Angel. I’ve never been to that part of CA but felt like I had after reading the book. I loved how you made it seem gritty yet welcoming. I’m curious if you ever have to use some artistic license when it comes to setting your books in a real town. Did you have to take any liberties with Balboa in order to get your book to work? What’s the advantage to setting a book in a real town or city vs. creating a fictionalized town?

  2. As a fellow writer, I know how important it is to infuse my characters with enough quirkiness to make them memorable, yet still keep them believeable. And the more real life settings an author can use, the better. People inevitably say, “Oh, I know where that restaurant (boutique, park, shopping mall–take your pick) is. I’ve been there.” Both lend a sense of realism and identity to a work of fiction including paranormal, which deals in the not so real world.

    Read both Mercy books and look forward to number three.

  3. Choosing whether to use a real setting or an invented one can be a big decision. Easy, if it’s a big city. Not so much, though, with a small community. Especially if you’re planning scenes of the juicy misbehavior that makes fiction interesting. A big “atta girl” for making it work for both readers and the real life residents of Balboa.

  4. Hey Toni! Just checking in before I get too buried in my daily reading/editing to say hi and have fun. And to anyone else reading this: You’re going to love getting to know Mercy!

  5. Hi Toni, I loved Beg for Mercy. I live in Irvine and it was pretty cool to see a local haunt in your book. I can’t wait to ready Angel of Mercy, congratulations on getting such a beautiful cover!

  6. Oh! This is why I love your stories. I grew up in Newport and Orange County, and all the TV shows portraying this glittering wealthy enclave while part of it was never all of it. Your stories take me back to the “real” OC and Balboa. Plus they are just so much fun!

  7. The community sounds like they’ve adopted you! How fun.

  8. Great blog topic! I always find it interesting to hear how an author handles this issue. 🙂

  9. I love reading about places that I’ve actually visited. It puts me right into the story. Balboa Island is a fun area. I’ve been there and it was fun to go back with Mercy. Thanks Toni!

  10. Toni,

    I am one of those people who would love to visit Balboa someday. After reading Beg for Mercy, I searched for Balboa in the Atlas and was delighted that it was actual place. You better warn your bartender friends-they may get a run on tourists after reading your books (if they haven’t already). Great writing!


  11. It’s great when you can find a locale with its own unique personality. My mysteries are set in an affluent western suburb of South Florida, and I often set my sleuth chasing after suspects in the small towns I like to visit. Urban fantasy is harder to conceptualize, because you’re dealing with supernatural or magical elements in a contemporary setting. Adding the sensory details of the locale in this case makes the place seem more real and thus, too, the fantasy world you’ve created.

  12. Hi Toni,
    I loved Beg for Mercy and can’t wait to dig into my new copy of Angel of Mercy. You do a wonderful job with character with all your novels.

  13. Kristan, I did take a few liberties with Balboa (and apologized for them in the BEG FOR MERCY afterward) but they were small things. For example, the marina next to the ferry no longer has live-aboard boat moorings, but I have Sam sleeping on his boat. Also, the ferries are actually all moored overnight on the Balboa Island side–I had to keep one on the peninsula side so that Rocko could steal it. But most details are authentic.

  14. Maria, I agree that most people think of Newport Beach as exclusively upscale and those parts certainly exist. And there are some amazing homes in Balboa, especially as you get closer to “The Wedge!”

    I had lived there for six or eight years before my mother came to town and asked to be taken on one of those harbor cruises. Now, I’d been on boats in the Newport Harbor, but we always went straight from the slip to the inlet and out to sea. The Harbor Cruise showed those only-visible-from-the-water homes owned by sheiks and celebrities—WOW. I may have to figure out how to fit one of those into an upcoming episode. Do you think the owners might give me a tour?

    But I love the old, funky places–and so do the celebrities. John Wayne used to hang out at the Class of 47 (a bar that strongly resembles Jimbo’s) and Dennis Rodman bought me a beer at the Balboa Saloon one afternoon. I saw Joe Pesci at the Village Inn, Kareem Abdul Jabbar coming out of the Balboa Inn and, of course, Chuck Norris was always at Woody’s Wharf!

  15. as a 70 year old senior citizen and an advet reader I have truly enjoyed the 2 books in the Mecry Hollings series and hope there are more to come. Thanks for the great entertainment I’ve gotten reading these books.

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