Monday, October 31, 2011

Writing the Dark

I know, we're in the middle of the story elements for Nano, but it's HALLOWEEN, people!

I love - not just the day. October is my favorite month of the year. Always has been – the wind, the lengthening shadows, that subtle chill in the air. I guess that speaks to an early taste for the dark. Is that nature or nurture, I wonder?

I suspect that pretty much every single darker writer of us has at some point gotten the question: “What’s a nice girl/boy like you doing writing stuff like THAT?”

Well, first of all, “nice”? Um… responsible, sure. Compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful. Kind, even. But “nice” isn’t the first word that comes to my mind.
Still, much as I may disagree with the word choice, I know what these nice people are trying to ask.

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm big on identifying THEMES in your work. This is hard to escape when you write horror and crime fiction and are always being asked what life incidents led you to choose this dark genre of ours (some of us darker than others….).

For instance, I realized after seeing the movie ZODIAC that the Zodiac killer was a huge early – influence? Inspiration? Impression? What I mean is, I grew up in California and even years after this guy had dropped off the map, we kids were scaring ourselves senseless by telling ourselves Zodiac stories around the fire at Girl Scout camp. He was our Boogey Man.

A lot of the blame I can put squarely on my father. Dad loved horror and suspense -- books, movies, plays, anything – the house was full of mystery and horror and sci-fi classics, so early on I developed a taste for being scared senseless – possibly in self-defense. Also, Dad grew up in Mexico and that country lives with spirits in a much different way than we do (don’t you just love this month for all of the Dia de Los Muertos art?) Dad had a passel of terrifyingly realistic ghost stories that he’d pull out around the campfire to scare us with. Come to think of it, I had a lot of campfires in my childhood…

Also, since Dad was a scientist and Russian, and attended a lot of scientific conferences that got turned into family road trips, I have early memories of us in the family station wagon being followed by the CIA because, you know, Russians were out to destroy the world at the time. All that ever happened was that they followed us around but naturally I’d spice the whole thing up in my imagination – my first attempts at thrillers.

It’s also only recently occurred to me that perhaps I write ghosts because I went to a haunted high school – specifically, the grand and decrepit old auditorium where I spent most of my high school, rehearsing choir programs and plays, was supposedly haunted by a girl named Vicki who died the night of her prom back in the 20’s. Yes, yes, I know that’s a classic urban legend, but we all believed in Vicki, and there were parts of that auditorium where you just didn’t want to go, alone or with others. Cold spots. Strange noises. Disappearing props.

(But somehow it never once crossed my mind while I was writing THE HARROWING that I was writing about a haunted school because I went to a haunted school. And THE SPACE BETWEEN features a school haunted in an entirely different way.).

Also when I was a teenager I experimented with the paranormal, as teenagers do - ESP, dream interpretation, Tarot, spending the night in graveyards, all that fun stuff (that shows up in everything that I write: And you know, there's a lot more in heaven and earth, Horatio! It never ceases to fascinate me.

I have to admit, though - to me those otherworldly experiences are never as horrifying as the evil that people can do. From the time I was a very young child I was very sensitive to the fact that there's a lot of weirdness out there, and a lot of danger from unstable people. My family did quite a bit of traveling, so along with all the good stuff - great art, ancient cultures, different mores and political beliefs - I was exposed to disturbing images and situations: poverty, desperation, oppression, madness.

I had some pretty scary experiences early on in life that made me convinced that there is actual evil out there – in the form of people who have something terribly wrong with them, who actively want to hurt and destroy. A child molester who’d been trolling the streets around my elementary school tried to grab me one afternoon when I was walking home from school. He was a small and creepy man, and even though I didn’t have any concrete sense of what child molesting was at the time, I knew there was something wrong and dangerous about him and I ran. That was my first full-on experience of what evil looks and feels like, though certainly not my last - and it’s not something you forget or let go.

And I had friends, as we all do, who were not so lucky about escaping predators, and I’ve taught abused kids in the Los Angeles juvenile court system, and my anger about what I’ve seen has fueled a lot of my writing.

There’s more, of course, and once you start thinking of influences, it’s pretty fascinating how much you uncover about your motivations.

But the great, cathartic thing for me about good mysteries, thrillers, horror, suspense - is that you can work through those issues of good and evil. You can walk vicariously into those perilous situations and face your fears and - sometimes - triumph.

So, all, I wondered - what kinds of experiences from real life have made the dark writers of you the dark, twisted souls you are? And for the readers of you – why do you think you seek out this dark, twisted genre?

And it you AREN'T one of those darker souls, have you spent some time thinking about the themes of your work and why you write what you do?

As it's Halloween, there are treats. I just got my author copies of the UK version of my poltergeist thriller, THE UNSEEN, with this fabulous cover (It actually gave me a bad nightmare, and I almost never have nightmares.)

And in anticipation of the e book release, I'll also give away a signed copy of THE HARROWING to a random commenter. Yes, the comment can be a question about Nano!

Happy Halloween, everyone!

- Alex


Kate Higgins said...

The veil thins. I've been re-reading all your blogs about writing. I did this last year and want to thank you for helping me reach 50,000 words. 30,000 of them I might actually keep. I'd love to read The Harrowing and even if I don't win the copy, I will read it...just to get goose bumps.

Chelle said...

Thanks for another great post. My childhood was rather dark, so I guess the explanation of why I write "dark" is pretty obvious. Better to write it than to live it, right?

Janet Kerr said...

Hello Alex,

That is an absolutely wonderful cover! It makes me want to read this book.
I have one of your books sitting right in front of me. Your work is great. And, you are a great storyteller.

Okay, I have a question on Nano. I am writing a story based on a true crime. Would it be a good idea for Nano to just write the story linear & perhaps weave in the backstory of the killer in a chapter? Any suggestions are greatly appreciated as this is the first time that I do Nano.

Thanks so much,

Jan K.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Chelie, I couldn't agree more!

I'd bet that most of us who write dark experienced the dark pretty early.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Janet - thanks so much for reading!

I always think it's a good idea to weave backstory in as you go along. But remember, the only rule about Nano is to write. If you feel like writing the killer's backstory one day, then just do it. You can figure out where to put it later.

I can't stress this enough, for everyone - if you feel stuck on a scene, just write a few lines, even "Something big happens here", and then just go on to the next scene. Your creative brain will figure out the other scene for you later.

Mary said...

My characters often battle external controls. I blame my overbearing brother. :-)
Thanks, Alex, for all the writing advice. I'm trying the index card method for the first time, and I have made more progress in two days than in two months.
I appreciate your willingness to share your expertise.
Mary Renkly

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LOL, Mary. I was the overbearing sister, but my brother had his revenge (he grew up to be 6'5'' - hard to dominate...)

I am thrilled to hear the index cards are working for you like that. It really is magical, isn't it?

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

The second and third chapter of my novel Broken but not Dead scared the beegeebees out of me. When I told my BF that, she shook her head. She loves me, but she still thinks I'm nuts.

Recently at a reading a gentleman asked me how a "nice" lady such as myself could write such horrific scenes. I got stumped over the "nice" word too. LOL.

Jenni Legate said...

Hi Alex,

I'm a bit behind today - just finished reading your last week's post as well - lots of info to absorb.

Great post! And, yes, a great cover - very creepy. I loved that book, especially learning about the Zener card experiments.

I have been thinking for years about the themes from my childhood that I want to tackle in writing fiction. I sometimes think it would be easier just to get therapy instead!

I started with writing memoir, which is pretty cathartic, but there are so many tricky issues with that, that I decided it would be better to focus on fiction for a while. I'm finding your card method really useful (even with memoir). And being able to shuffle the cards around helps me figure out where certain parts of the story fit best.

Happy Halloween!!


Eric James said...

This morning I watched a television interview with William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist. Blatty spoke of his surprise when readers of his novel made of it something he had not intended. Blatty stated he intended to write a simple morality tale. He never envisioned his book as the thriller his readers made it out to be. Blatty further complained that reader reaction stunted his intention to become a writer of humor, causing him to make unexpected life changes. The fact is, if material is written with authenticity of purpose and execution, it breathes a life. That life may be experienced by others in unexpected ways. After all, does any one of us really appear to others as we appear to ourselves?