In this post, I revisit a thing I’d written some time ago as a guest blogger. As I contemplate a return to the fun and carefree days of posting my fiction on my blog (an activity that inspired me more than anything I’ve tried since), I dragged this still-relevant piece from my attic trunk and dusted it off.
I follow the lengthening shadows to my writing nook, playing the creaking floorboards underfoot. I conjure up the computer and sip my coffee. Depending on the season, there may be fireflies, dancing leaves, or snow to contemplate from my high window. It’s all quite placid, a mundane evening in an old house at the edge of an older cemetery. There is little to foretell the sprouting of fearsome worlds, like a wilderness of mushrooms fat with malice, that is about to occur. I will sit down at my keyboard and open a door to that forest of night. I will apply myself to the riddle of how to serve you, the reader, a meal of those mushrooms.
I write dark fiction – stories that fall under the black umbrella of horror, but which can be further classified as dark fantasy, paranormal, fairy tale, and fable. Every creature and trope in the horror domain is fair game, but how I assemble the materials determines sub-genre. For me as a reader, and certainly as a writer, it is not satisfactory to play with tired tropes, though. Something more than B-movie scares must infuse the stories. I’ll share my own recipe, stirred up with some success, but always leading me on toward a tantalizingly elusive feast of dark perfection. It includes the spice of beautiful language – careful construction of lovely literary complexity, even a dash of the poetic. If the words are rich and fill the reader’s mouth with the desire to speak them aloud just for the pleasure of them on the tongue, I feel satisfaction.
I add to the recipe the dazzling ornament of fully imagined setting. This requires the use of every sense. It is not enough to enable the reader to see. The stories take place somewhere, in worlds of fantastic possibility, and somewhen, in distinct eras. Close attention must be paid to details, and to smells, and to sounds. Tactile input must somehow be achieved. A world complete is one the reader can inhabit in an almost physical sense, one that is an extension of her body map. It is a world that she believes she can touch, and that (gulp) touches her in return.
So, we have a place and time to visit, we’ve not been lazy with our research, and we have a sensuous mode of communication. There must be characters, and they cannot come ready made from some market. They must be created from scratch, the words they will speak placed in their mouths with a care that could animate stone angels. They must speak and act in ways that are true to their roles as well as to the reader, and they must never fall into the dull robotism of stock action or dialogue. Keen, and even rude, observation is my friend here. I do not shy from unabashed eavesdropping in public places. I collect life stories from friends and strangers with the avidity of an interrogator. I am as enamored of the ugly as I am of the beautiful, and I accept that both live in every individual. I enjoy all that human nature has on offer, and aim to choose from the best ingredients to make well developed, round characters.
And now we come to it, that overarching, meaty thing referred to as plot. It seldom comes to me first. Most often, I begin with the others, making a savory broth that calls for this or that happening. The plot, the toothsome flesh of the story, grows like a mushroom from the interactions of the other components. There is yet one enigmatic additive I think lends the spark of real life to an otherwise partially animated tale.
I draw it from a well within me, from the lightless shaft where I keep my secret pain and terror. It is the salt of personal experience distilled from the fathomless subterranean sea of feeling and knowing that rolls its tidal brawn at the core of each of us. In writing the kinds of stories I write, I run my fingers over the slick hides of my own monsters as they slip by me in the murk, learning their shapes and boundaries. This is where the dark rises; this is where it is hauled bucket by harrowing bucket to the torchlight. This is where we gather, all together, to look at it.