Featuring an excerpt from The Shade Clan, I created this short film for Whirling Chair Publishing’s ‘Tea Toast and Ghosts’ event in December 2016.
“Uncle Clive was talking and crying in his sleep again.
‘Snowdrop,’ he sobbed. ‘…It’s waking up!'”
October 1979: Sent away from home after a mysterious incident at school, Daniel Edwards knows something is wrong the moment he arrives at his uncle’s house in Eversley. It’s not just the eerie deadness of the suburban streets – it’s Uncle Clive’s odd questions, the overwhelming dread Daniel feels when he looks at the tall oak trees in the garden, and the stranger at a railway station who insists she knows him.
He wanders the streets to escape from the house, and finds a large woodland in their midst – an ancient idyll, where he meets a beautiful young woman who pleads for his help.
Has Daniel been brought here for some reason he hasn’t been told? How real are his feelings for the girl? And why is Uncle Clive so interested in the incident that led to him being here in the first place?
The answers lie in the notebooks of Sylvia Critchlow, the local doctor in 1944, when Eversley was just a village, and something malevolent came to that remote community.
The Girl in Wildnerness Wood is a supernatural mystery, told between two time frames that overlap, to unravel the darkest of enigmas.
Available on Amazon in 2018.
My photographs of locations that have inspired me, many of which are in the post-industrial and marshland landscapes of North Kent.
Selected images will be appearing in an exhibition called The Uncanny, taking place in Folkestone in late October and early November.
Click to enlarge.
Warning – this article contains plot spoilers.
As a writer of supernatural mysteries and horror, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what will scare my readers and why. I’m happy to admit I’ve looked to the work of great writers to see how they’ve done it, and there’s no-one who has a better track record of terrifying his audience than Stephen King. He’s made the hearts race and the palms sweat of generations of readers since his debut, Carrie, in 1973.
One thing I have learnt is that what is frightening can be quite individual – what has one reader afraid to turn the page will leave another completely unaffected. One of the keys to King’s popularity is that he employs a lot of different tactics to scare – so if he doesn’t get you one way, he’ll get you another!
Here are just some of the techniques I’ve observed the great man using across his amazing literary output.
There are certain themes that flavour all of King’s work, which mirror things that we are all afraid of: death, disease, addiction, abuse, madness, loss, loneliness. Sometimes these universal fears walk the pages of his novels naked and unabashed. Sometimes they come in the guise of something else – an event, a character, a monster, even an inanimate object.
One of King’s undoubted masterpieces, The Stand, plays on a number of these interrelated fears in a veritable symphony of terror. When the disease known as Captain Trips lays waste to civilization, its survivors have to battle the effects of the disease, their own bereavements, and their own isolation, as well as the elemental forces of evil that try to seize the opportunity to prevail in the new world emerging.
2. He creates a familiar world
Imagine someone gave you a Stephen King novel, one you hadn’t read, but removed his name from the cover and the pages inside. What aspects of his style would immediately identify it as one of his books? For me, it would have to be the texture of the every day that he renders through reference to familiar things – objects, brands, music, TV, food, drink, all the minutiae of life.
A Stephen King character doesn’t just grab a beer, he grabs a Utica Club. And as he drinks it we find out what his favourite Creedence song is, what brand of radio it’s playing on and where the distinctive dent is on his yellow VW. What’s the point of all this detail? Simply this – believability. King colours his worlds with the mundane, the things we all know. That way, we are nicely settled into somewhere very much like our own lives when the horror kicks off and everything starts to get strange.
3. He let’s us guess what’s coming
There’s no doubt that it should be the horror writer’s job to keep people guessing. A good mystery, with lots of twists and turns, is a good way to keep readers turning the page. You want readers to say, ‘I didn’t see that coming!’
Or do you? Sometimes, letting readers work out exactly what’s coming can be just as powerful as a clever twist, particularly when what is going to happen has a horrible, desperate inevitability about it – one of those ‘Oh no, please not that!’ moments.
The best example of this I’ve come across in King’s reportoire (and perhaps anywhere) is in Pet Sematary. From the moment that Louis Creed’s young son Gage is hit by a car and killed, there is a horrible predictability in what is to come. You know that he will not be able to stop himself from using the burial ground to reanimate the child, with dreadful consequences you will hardly be able to bear to read.
4. He takes us to unsettling locations
As a writer I’m hugely inspired by places – from buildings to towns to whole landscapes. The atmosphere of these locations, how they made me feel, has been the starting point for entire novels, and I think I can see the same thing going on in King’s work.
There are too many great settings in his novels to list here, so I’ll mention just two:
The first is the Marsten House in Salem’s Lot, which was the first Stephen King book I read, aged just 13. I still remember the vivid descriptions of this ultimate example of the menacing house – the lair of Straker and Barlow. I can still feel the sense of smothering menace and of wrongness that it embodied.
The second location is The Barrens, the area of wasteland, gravel pits and rubbish dumps at the edge of the town in It. This unsettling edge-land, where kids roam and hidden dangers lurk, particularly speaks to me because it’s very reminiscent of some of the abandoned and post-industrial landscapes that have so inspired my work. The power of such places is that, in an age where most people live in urban areas, we all know places like this – run-down ‘bandit country’, overlooked and unmentioned, somewhere you’d think twice about going alone.
5. He gives us protagonists to root for
I would think every book ever written about how to write will tell you to create sympathetic characters – in particular your main character. Protagonists must be likeable, relatable, perhaps flawed, but trying to do the right thing and overcome the odds. King is an absolute master at this.
I have always particularly related to Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot and Andy McGee in Firestarter, but for me the ultimate King character to root for is a woman – housewife Rosie McClendon in Rose Madder. As Rosie walks out of her abusive marriage on the spur of the moment, you could not be more on her side, more engaged with her story. You know, with horrible inevitability, that her violent, ‘bad cop’ husband is going to track her down. And you’re also pretty sure the mysterious figure in the painting she finds a pawnshop is going to protect her when he does. Norman’s comeuppance is as delicious as it is inevitable.
6. He creates antagonists to hate and fear
Even more than a main character to sympathise with, a horror novel needs a potent enemy, whether real or supernatural (or perhaps a bit of both). They must be dark, evil, utterly terrifying, yet hatefully fascinating. King has excelled in this area perhaps more than any other, creating baddies and monsters so potent they will surely live forever as some of the greatest ever conceived. From the shape-shifting uber-monster in It, to the twin evils of Barlow and Straker in Salem’s Lot, to protagonist turned monster Jack Torrance in The Shining, King’s antagonists never let you down.
But for me, his most repugnant creation is George Stark from The Dark Half. Not only is Stark a heartless, sadistic murderer, who revels in the brutality of his killings, he is of course the shadowy alter-ego-come-to-life of protagonist Thad Beaumont. What a simple, brilliant idea. The reveal of Stark’s true origins – something between an unborn twin and a tumour with teeth and a malformed eye – has to be one of the most disturbing moments in modern horror.
But what about…?
I hope you’ve enjoyed my own personal trip through the macabre craft of our greatest living horror writer. There are so many other books and characters and locations I could have talked about, and this points to perhaps the most important impressive thing of all about King’s canon: the sheer scale of his work and the worlds he’s created in 43 years of writing, of being the King of our darkest fears.
In my previous post in this series, covering story development notes, I talked about the very earliest stages of writing The Shade Clan – the process of gathering ideas and trying to grow those seeds into a story.
In this post I’m going to look at the next stage – drafting rough story outlines. Horror novels are usually very plot driven, and this is where you will start to shape the foundations of a story that will keep readers turning the page. These tips and techniques will, I hope, also be useful for writers in other genres.
The essential difference between development notes and a rough outline is that while development notes are fragmentary, a rough outline should have something more like a narrative structure. It may have a lot of gaps, and places where it could branch off in different directions, but it will have a kind of continuity. It is a first attempt at actually writing down the story, as far as you know it. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but here are some points to bear in mind:
- Keep it brief – write in note form, use bullet points and don’t be afraid to sum up something important in a few words. In an early outline of The Shade Clan, the final scene was represented as just one word!
- Don’t worry if the outline only gets so far then peters out. It doesn’t matter if it just describes the first few scenes. Get it written down then take time to think some more about the following chapters. Once you’ve made some progress in your mind, go back and carry on writing or start afresh from the beginning.
- If you do get from beginning to end, don’t worry if some parts are quite fleshed out but others are extremely sketchy. It’s unlikely that any novel ever written was outlined in full at the first attempt.
- Keep your options open and consider multiple directions the plot could go – my outlines are peppered with the words ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, and ‘either/or’. In horror, readers expect the unexpected, so you may want to take the option that’s least predictable. But beware – don’t sacrifice credibility for shock value.
- You are not writing something that is finished or definitive or will ever be read by someone else – this is the first of many versions and, like the crew of the Nostromo, it’s expendable!
- You may feel what you’re producing is insubstantial but it can be very helpful to be able to look at a whole story on just two sides of A4. You can see the pattern of events and incidents, so this is a good stage to start to think about the rhythm and pacing. You may decide to go for a slow burn, with building tension – my favourite horror writer, Peter Straub, is an expert at this. Or you may favour throwing your characters into an adventure with non-stop action. You could so worse than looking to Suzanne Collins for a master-class in getting on with the action.
- In structuring your plot at this early stage, start to think about creating suspense and scary moments, how you will hint at things (the darker the better) that will be revealed later, where to bring in unexpected twists, introduce jeopardy and how to build up to a terrifying climax. It will be much easier to manipulate things in this way now than at later stages.
- Think about structure, for example devices like alternating between different locations, characters or timeframes. In The Shade Clan I used short ‘Interludes’ focused on a mysterious character to break up the main story.
- Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to make drastic changes or even scrap an outline completely and start again. Don’t be precious about particular scenes, ideas, events – the story must work as a whole and you have to be prepared to make sacrifices.
- Start to try out some of the plot lines on people you know (they should be trustworthy of course, and if they read a lot and will always give an honest opinion, then so much the better!) They will see holes in the story you won’t have thought about and may suggest solutions to problems you can’t get past.
Here’s an extract from my first rough outline of The Shade Clan, which at this point had the working title ‘Shade Island’.
“They go back. Much harder going through industrial wasteland. Harder crossing point – fell a tree and cross. Make their way into interior of island. Plan is to camp 2 nights then get off. Weird stuff. Girl uncomfortable. As darkness falls they take a photo’ of themselves on timer. That night there is a storm.
Next day more odd stuff. Then they look at photo’ – figure in background watching them. They decide to leave. Make their way back to crossing point. Tree has washed away in the storm.”
This bears some resemblance to scenes in the finished book, but not much. The scary moment of the group selfie revealing someone watching with the camera flash was one I liked and kept. Note how sketchy I am at this stage about some of what will actually happen – ‘weird stuff’ is all I needed to say at this point. Events outside characters’ control, like the storm that washes the tree away, are always good for introducing peril. Self-contained settings such as an island cut off from the shore are always good – they can make events easier to contain and force characters to confront dark forces.
But things change. By my third attempt at a rough outline, the main setting had become a quarry and, while there were many familiar elements, just as many were dropped, including using loud noise from off-road bikes to ward off the creatures that live there! I had as many bad ideas as good ones – and I ran a lot of them past other people before I realised they were bad! I was still a long way off the final shape of things, so my key tip for this post is…
KEY TIP: PATIENCE! Take your time and don’t start writing before you’re really ready. Sit on ideas for a while – days, months if necessary – and come back to them; you may find they won’t work and you need to think again. So many books with plots that don’t hang together are probably the result of the writer’s impatience and things that don’t seem believable could have been dropped or improved with more work in the development stage.
Once you’ve got some sort of shape for your plot, it’s a good idea to develop your characters and settings a bit more. So in the next post I’ll be looking at character studies.
“Once upon a time, a man planted what he thought was a sunflower seed, but it grew into a carrot. The end.”
This little tale encapsulates the key thing I always try to do when developing a story: stay flexible and embrace change.
Story development is the journey from the moment you have your first spark of an idea (see also my article on inspiration) to the moment you start a first draft. For some writers this journey is very short – they start to write with only a vague idea of how things might unfold. But for me, and many other writers, it will mean A LOT of planning, thinking, discussing and note writing. And during this, concepts may change a great deal.
So adaptability is key, but what else can help you negotiate what can seem a daunting process? What techniques can you use? This series of short blogs will look at the stages I went through in developing my second novel, The Shade Clan, and also highlight what I think are important related tips that will help you to get to the point where you are ready to start writing.
Firstly we look at…
1. Story development notes
Here’s the very first thing I wrote down about what eventually became The Shade Clan:
Isolated area, long cut-off. Island or woodland with no access. Small group of characters who deliberately trespass in areas like this. What’s in this place? A strange beast? Shape shifters? The group go there and are warned off by a mysterious man.
In my story development notes I started to grow this seed of an idea into a story. I thought about:
- how the plot might develop – the ‘what happens and why’ of the story; I thought from the start about twists, surprises, and how to keep the reader in suspense;
- who the characters are, how they interact, their motivations; with supernatural/fantasy characters, I defined what they were, what they could and couldn’t do, how they lived;
- the background to the story – what has led to the point where it starts – creating mystery and things to reveal to the reader;
- pivotal events in the narrative and how to make them tense or scary;
- themes I wanted to explore – things I wanted to express through the events of the story.
Some of these notes were very short. I made a brief note about why my characters first come to the area where the action takes place: “What first brings them to the area is standing stones.” Others were a page or two long – I wrote at length about how and why the main antagonist in the book comes into the story, what his motivations are, how he infiltrates the group of main characters.
A good technique for me was to ask myself questions and write down my thoughts. A particularly crucial question for The Shade Clan was “What is the shape changers’ relationship to humans?” Another, on a similar topic, simply asked, “Are they evil?”
I also tried giving myself a topic heading and writing a short piece about it. I have notebook pages headed “The Clans and what they do” and on the theme of “Light and darkness”.
The purpose of these notes was not just so that I didn’t forget my ideas – the process of writing sparked new ones and fuelled creativity.
I’ve kept notebooks of ideas for a long time, so I also looked back through the old ones, hoping to find things I could bring into my new project.
As I wrote about characters, locations and events I created the beginnings of the world of my story, but was careful not to get too wrapped up in it. I tried not to forget about the most important person in this – the reader! This brings me to my first tip…
TIP 1: From the start, put yourself in the reader’s shoes and think about how you will entertain, scare, surprise and intrigue them. How will you give them reason to keep turning pages? What will be hidden from the reader but hinted at? Will they know things that the characters don’t know?
Once I’d been making notes for a while, my story started to take shape and I felt ready to write a rough plot outline. That’s what the next post in this series discusses.