You’ve probably heard this writing metaphor before when it comes to characters: what is depicted on the page is just the tip of the iceberg, hinting at something more vast and complex beneath the surface. The vast structure beneath the surface of what you see depicted in a scene is the backstory of that character: what came before to make them who they are in the present. Even if those buried traits do not rise to manifest themselves directly in a scene of your novel, they still serve as an indirect influence in subtler ways.
I like to imagine my character alone in their bedroom. Maybe this room is a small studio apartment, or one of many in a grand mansion. Perhaps your character is a drifter staying in motel rooms or sleeping on strangers’ couches. Whatever the scenario, how they interact with that room will tell you a lot about them. Are they extremely tidy? Do they carefully fold each piece of clothing and stack it in the same place every night? Do they feel near panic at the slightest sight of dust and must clean it immediately? Why? What influences them to be this way? Did a family member from their past exhibit this same behavior? Does your main character still hear this family member’s demanding voice echoing in their mind? If the room is tidy or messy it reveals a lot about the character’s personality and backstory. Explore it.
What else can you describe about his/her private room? Does abstract art hang on the walls? If so, what does that tell you about your character’s way of thinking? Perhaps instead they like to display pictures of family. This tells you family is special to them. Why? Is their a particular family member they value most? All kinds of character revealing pathways to explore in the art and decorations throughout the room.
There’s one important question I always ask myself when exploring a character’s private room. This question really penetrates the heart of them, the juicy center: what secrets do they conceal in their room? It may be an object hidden in the closet or under the bed. What does that object mean to them? Why is it kept hidden? This question can lead to some fascinating answers about your character, and sometimes the answer is the course of a plot, which happened to me while writing a short story called “The Butterfly Girl” (unpublished). I discovered that a hat belonging to her father was very special to her, because it triggered precious memories to her mind about fishing with her deceased father when she was a child. Later she uses the hat as part of a conjuration ritual in an effort to contact her deceased father’s spirit.
The secret doesn’t have to be an object. It could also be an activity they practice alone that nobody knows about. Either way, exploring your character’s bedroom is an invaluable tool for character development and backstory.
My writing process has definitely changed in small ways over time. Some tools I’ve held onto, while others I’ve completely discarded or modified to befit my own personal needs.
Back in my early teen years I was sure I wanted to be a screenwriter. A brother in-law supported my interest and photocopied a book for me all about filmmaking. The first section of the book focused on building the script, providing examples of different ways a screenwriter will present their work to a producer: it starts with the simple “concept,” a short paragraph summary of the movie’s basic premise; the “scene outline” follows, which is a shallow summary of what occurs in each scene; the “treatment” looks a lot like a novelization of the scene outline with detailed descriptions of what happens in each scene. Finally, the “master script,” including all the key details and character dialogue. I followed these illustrations like they were a step by step process on how to write a screenplay. My school buddies and I spent hours pretending to be the next Steven Spielberg or George Lucas with the little video camera I got for Christmas one year.
Years later someone gave me the idea I could skip the production pains of filmmaking and write a novel instead. During this time someone else gave me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft.I took a very different approach to writing my first novel, diving right into composition, putting down my thousand words a day like Mr. King suggested. It was a start. Stephen King’s book definitely inspired the work ethic I hoped to one day achieve.
Throughout my college years I became somewhat obsessed with learning about how different writers approach the craft, trying a variety of methods and tools. One of the most bizarre revision tools I discovered involved making a list of the most repeated word in your story, and then sort of creating a revised spine for your second draft using the themes you derive from this word collage. It was interesting, but I’ve never used it again.
The most helpful tool came from David Morrell’s book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. I love this method for its simple ingenuity. Mr. Morrell suggests that while you’re spending all that time contemplating and focusing your idea, why not record it on paper as a conversation with yourself? Many would argue this is just like an outline, and it is technically an outline. The difference is you can sprawl. A conversation with myself on paper is informal; I’m not boxing myself in with all those carefully aligned Roman numerals and strict lists. A conversation is loose, allowing me to pick up and test ideas and easily discard what I don’t like. This sprawling freedom allows for depth and detail as well, which in my opinion is more conducive to creativity.
My writing process these days has become focused to four drafts. Before starting each draft I begin by using Mr. Morrell’s method of a written conversation, discussing plot, character, research (if necessary), structure, and viewpoint. Subsequent written conversations analyze and revise these elements in each draft. The final fourth draft is typically a line edit.
I’ve heard it said that we dream every night, but we usually don’t remember our dreams. Seldom do I remember mine. Only a handful of times can I recall the details of my dreams vividly, and the few fragments I do remember seem like they would serve as inspiration for a really good horror novel, or collection of shorter stories. I’ll tell you about them, and perhaps in my examination, further inspiration will germinate.
Back in high school much of my writing consisted of emotional ejaculations all over numerous notebook pages–free verse entries I claimed to be heavy metal lyrics. Me and a group of school chums started a power metal band called Codessa. I took on bass playing duties and lead vocals. Day in and day out, while I should have been taking notes and completing homework, I spent most of my time indulging in my teenage angst, writing songs with titles like, “Internal Bleeding”, “A Demons Crucifixion”, and “Can’t Deal With Myself When I’m Dealing With You”, and composing nauseating doggerel with lines like this, “Your hypnotizing scream. What does it mean? The confusion of this is making me insane. In this world of the mentally ill. All souls I’d kill. Kill the will to feel.” So on and so forth. Stilted bursts of trivial vexation.
No surprise, the band didn’t make it. We all graduated high school and went our separate ways, as the story always goes. Then one night I had the dream. I know what partly inspired it. Having seen the movie The Ring not too long before my nightmare, I’m sure the wretched figure crawling out of the screen in the movie played an influencing role.
I found myself in a derelict church. Cobwebs festooned the corners of the ceiling and draped over the abandoned pews. I stood at the end of the aisle, near the pulpit. Waiting. A storm raged outside. Rain and wind pummeled the building. Thunder rumbled. I saw her, a woman in a white wedding dress, face covered with a veil, slowly walking toward me, hands behind her back. I waited as the lightning flashed, highlighting the scene with flickers of electric blue. Soon she stood before me, removing the veil with one emaciated hand, revealing a desolate gray face that hissed at me with horrid anguish. No eyes in that gaunt skull, just pits of darkness. She then revealed a dagger with her other hand and stabbed me repeatedly. The last thing I saw before waking up was the sight of my bleeding body curled up on the ground.
I was stunned. I remember every detail with near perfect clarity. The dream is responsible for my renewed efforts at writing fiction. I abandoned my efforts of writing lyrics for heavy metal music after experiencing this dream. I wanted to complete the story the nightmare image suggested. I’m still seeking the answers.
Years later, another nightmare hit me like a high velocity bullet. I woke up feeling like I had been physically indented by the dream, as if something had entered me. Again I wandered about a nearby church. There was a small graveyard just behind the church building. A sickening feeling of terror overwhelmed me as I walked amongst the gravestones. All of them were marked with strange graffiti (by golly, I think I just discovered the title for this story–strange graffiti), alien symbols of crosses, swirling circles, and bizarre shapes covered each grave marker. I wanted to scream, but for some reason I couldn’t. It was too overwhelming for me. I wanted to run away, but the nightmare held me in that unholy, desecrated place. I awoke gasping, as though I had escaped a room filling with poisonous gases.
Nightmare shards, fragments of what could be. In time, my friends, these tormenting visions will be made whole.
In a previous post I discussed what attracted other horror writers to the haunted pathway. Today, I’m going to try to understand why I write horror.
It’s hard to explain why, exactly. I don’t remember a moment in my life when I stood at a crossroads, one path designating a sunnier atmosphere of flower blossoms and butterflies fluttering over green grasses–the non-horror path. Whilst the other path designated withered flowers and dead grass, most of it eerily shrouded in mist–the path of horror. It’s kind of always been with me, lingering like a shadow companion.
I remember the first story I ever wrote. This was twenty-eight years ago, when I was seven years of age. I scrawled it out on folded sheets of blank paper, even supplying crude stick-figure illustrations to aid my storytelling. The story was about my little sister and I battling a strange monster. The monster gobbles us up and traps us in its belly like Jonah in the whale. No worries, though. We discover the power of transformation and change into fire, burning our way free of the monster and destroying it in the process.
As you can see, the first story I ever wrote was a horror tale, a battle with a fierce beast from the unknown wastes clashing with my ordinary world. The horror tale has always called out to me.
But why? I get asked this question fairly often, most often by relatives who are worried about me, believing us horror writers go into maniacal fugue states in the middle of the night or something. Sometimes a joke is the best answer the horror writer can provide, as the late and great Robert Bloch did, stating that “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a little boy. I keep it in a jar on his desk.”
I’ve referenced Stephen King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre on this subject before, and dammit, here I go again, but King supplies another answer to the “why I write horror?” question that’s frequently crossed my mind. Back in 1979 Stephen King attended a panel discussing horror with other authors of the genre. One of the questioners asked, “Can you recall anything from your childhood that was particularly terrible?” (another concern some of my fretting friends and relatives express to me). None of the other authors on the panel supplied an answer to this, but Mr. King didn’t want them to be totally disappointed. He told a story of a time in his youth when he witnessed one of his friends being run over by a train. King was so traumatized by the event he didn’t retain any memory of it. All he knows is what his mother told him. She even supplied the grisly detail that they picked up the deceased boy’s pieces in a wicker basket. After telling this story, Janet Jeppson, a fellow author on the panel who was also a psychiatrist, responded with, “But you’ve been writing about it ever since.”
When I was only months old, my mother suffered a stroke and died. Of course, I have no memory of the incident, only the fragments of memories some of my siblings have been able to supply. I was told she was holding me at the time she suffered the stroke and set me on the counter before she collapsed. One of my older brothers attempted to give her CPR. My grandma said at one point after the funeral that, “I was the saddest baby she’d ever seen.”
Have my stories about monstrous possession and transformation been disguised dreams of this traumatic moment from my youth?
King’s response to Janet Jeppson’s statement: “There was an approving murmur from the audience. Here was a pigeonhole where I could be filed…here was a by-God motive. I wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and destroyed the world by plague in The Stand because I saw this kid run over by a slow freight in the days of my impressionable youth. I believe this is a totally specious idea–such shoot-from-the-hip psychological judgments are little more than jumped-up astrology. Not that the past doesn’t supply grist for the writer’s mill; of course it does. (Danse Macabre, 84).
Specious indeed. I think we’re attracted to this idea because it exhibits a clear logic: writer writes x (horror) because y (trauma) occurred. However, logic does not mean truth. One can carefully craft logical lies. I agree that past events can serve as an indirect influence to a writer’s imagination. My short story “Lights Out” is about a boy who kills his parents inadvertently by a power inside him he doesn’t know how to control. My mother’s stroke was caused by a blood clot resulting from the pangs of my birth. I was an indirect cause to her death. Could my short story be an expression of grief and culpability through the character of Tommy? Maybe. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. One thing I do know–I certainly didn’t consciously plan or realize this expression when I wrote the story. The realization came later, revisiting the story.
Trauma is part of the human experience. We can’t escape it. We live in a fallen world, susceptible to failure, disease, betrayal, and all kinds of suffering. The stories we tell reflect this reality, and the horror tale is a useful vehicle for it. I guess there’s a part of me that’s either more susceptible to noticing these hardships–relating to Richard Laymon’s explanation that the horror writer is a “worst case scenario specialist”–or I cope with the suffering of life more effectively when I confront it through symbolic form in the horror story.
Before I close, another experience comes to mind from my impressionable youth. This might have been around Halloween, because my sisters and I were enjoying the fun play of building spook alleys. We dressed up in spooky costumes, creating eerie scenarios for them, acting out horror tales, in other words. At the end of our fun, we sat down in the dark and by the dim glow of a flashlight took turns telling scary stories to one another. Who could create the scariest tale? It was a contest. I can’t remember any of our stories ( vaguely I remember my older sister telling one about a possessed doll), but I do remember ending our session feeling frustrated. My story was the unscariest of them all. My sisters laughed at it; they told me it was boring. So badly I wanted to scare them. Talk about the past haunting us. Perhaps all this time I’ve been writing horror tales in reaction to that evening with my sisters. Each horror tale I write today is my symbolic attempt to win that contest and scare the living daylights out of them. Considering the fact that none of my sisters dare read any of my horror tales, I must have finally won.
The inspiring image for this story was quite different than the final product. Just a sketch of this strange cave encrusted with lichen and moss, and the terrible rumblings from the depths. I had no back story or characters to explore the cave. I could never figure out the rest of the story, so I shelved it, and moved along to work on something else.
Months later I wrote 500 words of a new tale, this one about a school teacher named Frank who enjoys his summer vacations doing yard work and walking around the neighborhood park. Soon reading becomes his new pastime when he meets a mysterious tattooed man sitting at a park bench writing in a notebook. This new acquaintance is horror author Charlie Royal. Frank strikes up a conversation with the man and learns about what he’s writing. Frank has never been a horror fan. He just can’t understand why anyone would want to dream about horrors with so many real horrors going on in real life. Yet, he’s curious. He wants to understand the attraction. He steels himself by reading stories from classic authors in the genre, preparing to read Mr. Royal’s work in progress with the hope of helping him critique it. Matters turn very dark when Frank begins reading Charlie’s tale. The ink in those diary pages conjures something menacing, and Frank becomes possessed by it. The sketch of the cave I had made months prior turned out to be the lair for the monster that possesses Frank.
I wrestled with conflicting matters while writing this story. I love horror stories, and part of me wanted to express that love for them, to celebrate them. However, there were many other conflicting voices in my head at the time, particularly of those that expressed Frank’s opinion: “Why would you want to dream of horror when so many real horror takes place in real life?” I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and still practice the religion today. I’m someone who has grown up around the opinion that stories about demonic possession, rampaging zombies, serial killers, and the many unnameable terrors out there can invite evil influences into your life. Part of me even agrees with this sentiment to some degree, although I see the line differently than many in my community, and a discussion on the matter should be consigned to an entirely different post. Let’s just say I’m fine if evil is depicted in fiction, so long as the author isn’t attempting to promote or enact the evil.
I love the horror story, but I guess there’s a part of me that still feels a little guilty about it, because those voices from my upbringing continually echo in my head. “Hooked” was an attempt to puzzle out the quandary as well as an opportunity to explore the opposite point-of-view through the eyes of my main character. I see some maturity in this story. The characters are far more fleshed out than my previous stories. They exhibit more depth and complexity, the story’s greater length allowing for this.
A small amount guilt for my love of horror still exists to this day, and maybe that’s healthy. It’ll hold me back from becoming too gratuitous with a violent scene and prick at me if I do cross the line into the territory of promoting evil instead of merely depicting it. I sure hope I never create the monstrosity Charlie Royal does with his writing, or readers of my work will be disappearing into a dreadful place.
I published “Lights Out” back in the Spring of 2010, but I wrote the rough draft back in 2007. This story went through many incarnations. Most of them were completely ridiculous. Let me tell you why.
Beta readers can be a wonderful asset. Sometimes writers can get too close to their work, falling so deeply in love with their own writing that they miss major plot holes or wonky characterizations. Or the complete opposite occurs and the writer thinks their story is a total drag, an embarrassing mess that should be deleted to the void and forgotten about forever. The beta reader can help us writers in a few ways.
1) They can bring us to the realization that our literary darlings aren’t as dazzling as we think they are, bringing us back down to earth from our ethereal writing heaven.
2) They can emphasize what is working when we falsely think every word is dead on the page.
3) They can drive us crazy, sending us in a vicious cycle of endless revisions and editing.
Number three is what happened to me. At the time I was writing “Lights Out”, I was also taking my first creative writing class. The idea for the story had been on my mind for some time and I decided I could use it for the class and find ways to really improve the story from class instruction. Early on, the instructor for the class, a stocky bald man who went by Dr. Armstrong, emphasized the importance of dramatization, especially when writing a short story of eight pages. In the first draft I summarized too much. You know the old saying every writer gets pounded on the head with now and then: “show don’t tell.” I was telling too much. “Too much exegesis. Dramatize. Cinematic rendering.” I think these were some of the comments my instructor wrote on the first draft.
When it came to my fellow classmates’ comments, they had a far different issue with my story. Their issue had something to do with my use of enigma. “Lights Out” is a story about a detective investigating a scene where a young boy’s parents have mysteriously died. Blood seeps out their ears, darkness has engulfed their eyes. The boy feels certain he is the cause of their death, and Detective Palmer believes this troubled guilty reaction is just the trauma talking. He plans to take the boy to his grandma’s after further investigation at the police station. Matters turn very bad on the drive to town. A deer runs out in the road, causing the detective to wreck the car into a tree. Stranded and waiting for backup, the boy unveils to Detective Palmer that he has a strange light inside him, a power, an entity, that when awakened can cause devastating effects. This power is demonstrated, and when other detectives arrive on the crash scene, Detective Palmer is dead (exhibiting the same death signs as the boy’s parents), and the little boy is gone, until they get a clue of his whereabouts, a mad cackling in the woods.
Fellow classmates liked the story. They were fascinated by the concept and the eerie atmosphere of it, but the enigmatic ending bothered them. Many of my classmates deluged me with numerous ideas of how the story should end; they wanted it wrapped up in a pretty bow. Others suggested the eight pages written were the prologue to a novel (this I have considered, though I haven’t seen the rest of the story yet). I took every one of their comments seriously. I wanted to please every one of them. Let the maddening vicious cycle begin. I ended up rewriting the story nearly a dozen times, trying to correct what everyone saw wrong with the ending. My various incarnations of the story grew so out of hand that they no longer resembled the original draft.
One day Dr. Armstrong flat out told me just to ignore them. I was hesitant to do this. Wasn’t that rude? Didn’t they have something helpful to add to my story? My instructor insisted, “Ignore them.” I did.
A couple years later I returned to the original draft of this story, polished it up again, and submitted it to Dark Gothic Resurrected. The chief editor, Cinsearae S. appreciated it, replying in the acceptance letter that it was “creepy as hell.” I was glad it found a home. All these years later it has found a new home, a reprinting in Dark Dossier.
I learned a couple lessons from writing this story. Even though beta readers are invaluable for the purpose of helping you see your story in new ways, at the end of the day you’re not going to please them all. You’re the boss of your story when it comes down to the bottom line. Also, not every suggestion they make is correct. I think the enigmatic ending of my dark tale works better than a more unambiguous ending. The enigma sends that thrilling shiver up your spine and stimulates conversation amongst readers, allowing them the pleasure to puzzle over together what happened in the ending.
If you’d like the pleasure to puzzle over this dark mystery of my imagination, you can find my story in two locations below:
Story ideas can knock around in a writer’s head for a long time. Inception can happen in a variety of ways: an image of a particular character, an inspiring passage, a plot element, theme (though many authors emphasize never to start with theme), what have you. Nearly fourteen years ago inception happened to me in the form of a title and a memory: The Butterfly Girl.
I knew a girl in high school with that nickname. I can’t remember precisely, but it seemed she liked to sport butterfly hair clips, so classmates gave her the alias. As I reflected on the memory of that girl, I found myself repeatedly saying to myself her nickname. It had a catchy quality to it. I thought it might serve as a great title. There was a mysterious quality to it, suggesting all kinds of connotations. Since my imagination often wanders into the strange shadows of the horror tale, I began to imagine a transformation story, one with monstrous possibilities.
Writers will often use metaphor in the attempt to understand what they do. Thomas Williams described the writing process in his novel “The Hair of Harold Roux” akin to characters standing around a small fire, their faces barely visible in the dim light. The author’s job is to keep the fire ablaze, keep the sparks flying, or the characters will be swallowed up in the dark and forgotten. Stephen King has described the writing process as like excavating a fossil. An idea, character, or phrase is the location of a fossil. Writing the story is the work of digging up the bones. Revision then must be cleaning off the bones and connecting them in their proper formation. I’ve heard others describe the writing process as like planting a seed in the ground and giving it a place to grow. The rough draft is the hedge bush grown to its most rampant potential, shaggy and shapeless. Revision is seeing the true shape that could exist, and making the proper cuts to bring that shape to life. With my story, the title was the first spark of story-creation fire. The title was the first protruding hint of a fossil to be dug up. It was the germinating seed.
Since then “The Butterfly Girl” has now become a full-length story. Right now I’m in the process of cleaning off the fossil and realizing how it all fits together.