HOW TO WRITE HORROR #1 – Eight ways you can encourage inspiration

Inspiration: an elusive creature, glimpsed often fleetingly, usually when you least expect it.

Needless to say, inspiration is not something that can be forced. But there are things you can do to increase your chances of seeing this mysterious beast. And they will work for all kinds of fiction, not just horror.

It’s probably quite an individual thing – most writers will have their own methods and habits they use to prompt ideas. Here are some of mine, in no particular order – I hope they prove useful.

1. Go walking

I’m a great believer in walking in the landscape as an essential human function. As hunter gatherers, it’s what we’ve evolved to do. For me, walking puts my brain into a productive mode and creates head-space.

You don’t need to have amazing countryside available – very little horror fiction is set in pleasant surroundings anyway! The places that inspired my latest novel, The Shade Clan, were abandoned industrial sites. And there’s plenty of horror set in very ordinary, suburban locations.

If there are atmospheric places that get your juices flowing, all well and good. If not, just walk anywhere! I think the action of walking is as important as the setting. Eliminate distractions – turn your ‘phone off, leave your tech devices at home and go on your own (but stay safe!).


Take time to walk somewhere away from distractions

2. Be a people watcher

Generally speaking, horror fiction is plot-driven rather than character-driven, but human stories and interactions are still at the heart of what really engages readers (just look at the characters created by greats like Stephen King). It’s vital to observe people at every opportunity if your characters are to have depth and credibility.

So much inspiration can come from an overheard conversation or an incident you witness. Watch, listen, absorb; in cafes, on trains, in the street, everywhere. Become a casual student of human behaviour. And it’s not just about intriguing passers-by – the people in your life will say and do things that spark ideas. Don’t be afraid to take a somewhat detached approach in gathering this material; writers often adopt the role of observers rather than participants.

3. Daydream

It may be easier said than done, but making time to let your mind free-wheel is important. If your head is full of work and other responsibilities during every waking minute, ideas are less likely to surface.

Indeed, the period just after waking, or while lying in bed before sleep, can be excellent times to let your mind wander – use that limbo between sleep and full consciousness, when your brain is in an altered state.

Spend 15 minutes sitting somewhere peaceful, or take the train instead of driving and do some good old-fashioned staring out of the window. Don’t force it – just get into the habit of letting your mind drift. The role of the subconscious is more important in horror writing than perhaps any other genre.

4. Embrace the new

Routine is the enemy of inspiration. New places and experiences, keeping your everyday life as fresh as possible, will help to energise your writer’s mind.

Of course, the reality of most people’s lives necessitates some routine, but you’ll be surprised how much difference something as simple as driving a different route home or visiting somewhere new on your day off can make.

It’s not about expensive trips to exotic locations: I would put money on there being interesting places, parks, historic sites, whole towns, within 30 miles of your house that you’ve never been to. And neither is it about ‘bucket list’ style experiences – just say yes to new people and things, however ordinary. Maybe they will never feature in your writing, but the new input will fuel ideas.

5. Read

It sounds obvious but it’s impossible to overstate the importance of reading. Other writers’ work is one of the most important sources of inspiration there is – it’s the reason most of us started writing in the first place!

And don’t just read within the horror genre, read around it and well outside it. Develop broad tastes. Read the classics – up your game by consuming the best literature mankind has produced! It has so much to teach you about plot development, suspense, character and use of language.

castle of otranto

Read the classics of the genre and of others

6. Consume media and culture

As well as reading fiction, I like to take in other media as I go about my day. Unlike reading, this is not a focused activity – I dip into things, flick through a newspaper, surf TV channels, listen to news radio in the car, look at stuff via links on social media. Often I just make a note of what interests me and forget about it. I can always look into it further later.

When doing this, I think it’s vital to put your prejudices to one side. I often pick up on a degree of intellectual snobbery when I hear writers talking about their inspirations and I despair at it. You can’t afford to dismiss anything as invalid! Low-brow, high-brow – no-one says you have to like it, but it’s all potential material.

7. Explore the edges

This one is sort of an add-on to all of the above, and one of the most important things to consider when writing horror.

It’s about stepping outside the ordinary and the safe, exploring people, places and subjects at the edges of society and what it accepts. Horror, by definition, explores what is uncomfortable, unsettling, what is hidden and denied.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is with this famous quote – Orson Welles as Harry Lime at the end of The Third Man:

 “…in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

8. Record it

Finally, you need to make sure that not a single idea, no matter how ill-formed and unconnected to anything it may seem, gets away from you. Write it down!! You may think you’ll remember it but, if you’re anything like me, you won’t!

Carry a notebook, and if you don’t have it with you, use any means – a scrap of paper, a text to yourself, whatever – to capture that thought. Make sure you have a pad and pen next to your bed for those dropping-off-to-sleep ideas.

Just the habit of writing things down can spark more ideas and make your brain more fertile. When you’ve half-filled a notebook with scribbled fragments and bits of old envelope, the chances are you will have the seeds of a story in there. Which brings us to the topic we’ll explore next time – story development.



Where would get your vote for the greatest horror novel setting of all time? Castle Dracula? The Overlook Hotel? There are many possibilities, but there’s a good chance your answer would fall into the category of ‘old, scary building’. Buildings, as containers for fear, are absolutely crucial to the darker side of literature.

Recently, I read the book that started it all. And it’s not Frankenstein or Dracula. It was written more than 80 years before Bram Stoker was born. And its author was, of all people, a Member of Parliament. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto gave us the prototype for every old, scary building that came after.

From page one, its inhabitants are terrified by surreal goings on in its shadowy chambers. The dark corridors and echoing crypts are full of whispers and shrieks of alarm. The castle is not only a setting for inexplicable and disturbing events but almost seems to be an accomplice to them.

The Castle of Otranto caused a sensation and this one short book launched an entire genre – the gothic novel, the forerunner of all horror and paranormal fiction. The gothic castle would remain the preferred setting for this kind of macabre entertainment well into the 19th century. And it’s still a powerful archetype today, even if sometimes in a tamer, friendlier form; isn’t Hogwarts just the Castle of Otranto echoing to the shouts of a rowdy school party?

Over time, the action moved into more modest, domestic surroundings. Which was lucky for writers in countries like America, where the only castles are the concrete and fibreglass ones belonging to Mr Disney. The vampires, spectres and monsters deigned to slum it in houses – as long as they were large, old and rambling. In Salem’s Lot, Stephen King places the Marsten House at the absolute heart of his narrative. It becomes almost a character in its own right, influencing events. This “beacon of evil” is not just the place where the vampire Barlow happens to end up – he has been drawn there, attracted by this powerful magnet of darkness.

So by the late 20th century horror had largely move out of the castle. Terror had down-sized. That’s perhaps because while the writers (and many of the readers) of 18th and 19th century gothic novels had occupied the upper echelons of society, modern writers tended to be ordinary people, living in ordinary houses, in ordinary towns.

This democratising of dark fiction had one very important and powerful side-effect: it brought it closer to us all; it brought it to streets and houses like our own, to our doorstep. And any psychologist will tell you that fictional narratives have a much greater impact on audiences if they happen against familiar backdrops.

Ancient battlements and secret passageways are all very well but they are not part of everyday experience for most of us. The horror that dwells in that empty house on the edge of your town is much more potent, relevant and harder to forget.