Where do ideas come from?

Where do ideas come from? This question haunts every writer at some stage or another in their career, and never so intensely as when they can’t think of anything to write! People often say that ideas are everywhere, which is great when you’ve got some, but when you don’t, that answer only compounds your frustration.

Horror writers face an even more difficult task. Not only do we need inspiration for ideas, but we need those ideas to contain a seed of a fear that we can nourish and grow. Here is a list of some places where you can find ideas, but remember, it’s not what you read or hear, rather it’s case of how you receive the information and use it to your advantage.

The News:

Pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or go online. The news is a great place for finding our genre specific ideas. I’m not talking about front page headlines but those little articles nestled away in the middle. They seem a little bizarre, a little off kilter, and sometimes we wonder how they even ended up making the news, but if you sit down and think about it, there’s a story waiting in the wings. Ask yourself what made the publisher decide to place that article, and you’ll realize that it has more to do with the bizarre, macabre or downright strange aspects of the story than it has to do with its value as an informative news article. Everyone loves a little snippet of mystery now and then.

For example, I once read an article about a 71-year-old woman who went a bit nuts and started smashing her car into others. Seems straightforward enough: she must be senile. Then I started thinking about what could really have taken place, and some interesting plot ideas came to mind. Find the article at:

http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Gran-takes-out-nine-cars-20060315-2

Conversations:

If you listen with your writers’ ear, you’ll hear a tale or two worth writing about. We often write off gossip and urban legends as not worth listening to, but who knows where those stories can take you? That friend of yours who told you a story about his cousin who had an uncle who knew a guy who found a woman dead in her apartment and her cats and been eating her body to stay alive may be doing more than trying to gross you out. He could be giving you the basis of for a great story. How did she die? Who was she? And what was with all those cats?

Photos:

To some of you it will be odd to think that as a writer I have started carrying a camera around. To others it will make perfect sense. You never know what you’ll see when you leave your house, and having a camera to snap a quick scene will help you savor that information for later. Take a look at the picture above: it seems a little arbitrary, but if you take a closer look you’ll see the back of an ambulance, a couple of men standing by a lake looking bewildered. What’s going on that picture? A body found, a person lost or drowned? Perhaps they were called out to a scene or saw something from a distance but when they got there whatever they saw had gone. The options are many and intriguing.

If you don’t have a camera, then keep your eye open for pictures in magazines, books or online. If something catches your eye, then save it. You never know where your imagination will take you when let it.

What If?

Apart from being an amusing game to play, it’s a great resource for ideas. You could be at work, at school, in the shower or in a restaurant, any place at all will do. The trick is to ask yourself ‘what if…’ You’re driving in your car, it’s late at night and the road is quiet. What if you: hit someone (or something), see a body in the road, a shadow in your rearview mirror, bright lights in the sky or feel a hand grip your shoulder even though you’re alone in the car? What if your car breaks down, you get a flat tire, your phone rings, your vision starts to blur? The options are endless. Let your imagination run wild and see where it takes you…

The truth is: ideas are everywhere. They lurk inside everyday events, they’re rustling between the lines of news reports and they blatantly strut around in broad daylight. It’s up to you as a writer to take a different look at your surroundings and find the fear that’s nestled in the familiar settings around you.

On Getting to Know Your Characters


How well do you know your characters? Are they just there to advance your plot, or do they have a history, a meaning, a purpose? Getting to know your characters will help you to add depth and motivation to your characters. Writing a back story for your character will allow you to get to know some vital information about who they are, where there come from and thus why they do what they do.

Here are some exercises to help you get better acquainted with your characters:

Back-story:

Many people advise you to create a past for your character, but I suggest that you take it a step further and imagine that you are in an interview with them. Ask them where they came from, where were they born, what were there parents like, how did they do at school, etc. As you’re picturing the interview, think of how they are dressed, what they look like and how they act. By imagining their response you’ll gain information from both what they say and how they say it.

What’s in their…

Take an object such as a car, or a handbag, or a place such as their bedroom or office. What’s in it? If your character works in an office, then what does it look like? Is the room spotlessly tidy, organized chaos, or a just a mess? Are there old coffee cups lying around, or perhaps a bottle of gin hidden in the filing cabinet? What do they keep in their desk? Only work related items or perhaps a listening device to record conversations with clients? The tiniest detail can tell you volumes about their personality.

Résumé:

Design a CV or résumé for your character. What information would they put on it? Would they give references and contact numbers, or would they lie about their education and working experience? Is it handwritten, one page or ten pages? Do they make it look professional, or cover it with flamboyant borders and bright colors? Each option that your character chooses will reveal information to you much as a normal résumé will reveal information to a potential employer.

You don’t need to incorporate every aspect of your character’s back story into your plot. That much information would end up confusing and boring your reader. These exercises are designed to help you understand why your characters do what they do. Getting to know your characters is like getting to know a real person. Once you get to know bits of information about where they come from and how they got here, then you can begin to understand what drives them to do what they do and act the way they act. Understanding where your characters come from will increase your ability to explain to the reader what motivates and drives the characters, which in turn gives your readers a better ability to relate to your characters.

Gore, guts and gizzards: when to turn your insides out

There’s nothing quite like a steaming pile of intestines plopping onto the pavement to give your readers a chill. When it comes to graphic details in fiction, the question that writers are faced with is this: when is gore appropriate?

It’s difficult to give you an exact formula for when, where and in what quantity you should let the blood soak through the pages, but I do have guidelines that will help you decide when  spilling your characters guts is and isn’t appropriate.

Duration:
Which is more effective, giving your reader a glimpse of a severed hand or an in-depth descriptions of the raw, ragged flesh, the gnarled tendons and splintered bones? If you have built up the tension and anticipation to a high degree, then a glimpse should be all it takes to get your reader’s heart racing, but if your character has merrily walked around a corner and found the bloodied stump by accident, then a graphic description helps to let the reality sink while they try to recognize it for what it is.

Frequency:
Brutal evisceration’s and rapid exsanguination’s can become exquisite images when well crafted by a writer’s words, but as with all good things, moderation is key. A narrative that depicts countless limbs flying through the air as the chainsaw wielding maniac hacks his way through page after page of screaming men and defenseless women, knee-deep in pools of blood and still beating hearts, splitting heads like melons and painting the walls interesting shades of crimson splattered will flecks of teeth…. well, you see the redundancy. I advise writers to conserve their use of detailed mutilations. Timing is delicate tool, learn to judge when to let the hammer fall so as to maximize its impact.

Sub-genre:
This is probably your best guideline for deciding on the level of gore to sprinkle in your story. The gothic, soft, psychological and supernatural sub-genres rely on atmosphere and characterization, where as the extreme, slasher and noir stories are geared for maximum impact. Think carefully about how you want your plot to come across. Do you want to plant a dark seed of an idea that ferments in the reader’s imagination, or leave a blood smeared image imprinted on their minds’ eyes?

Imagine yourself as a hunter. Which has more impact for you: machine gunning a herd of buffalo, or silently stalking a single deer until the time is right for that perfect kill-shot?

Shaun Hutson is an author that creates well crafted tales with intense death scenes. The deaths of his characters are all the more prolific because of his keen sense of timing. I recommend his books for those of you hungry writers out there looking for a new read.

Always remember to be more gentle with your readers then you are with your characters! Set the right mood and vibe before you slice and dice.

What’s in a Name?

Names are an important aspect of any character. They help us point out our characters as individuals, give them life and, if we so dream, make them memorable . We can use names to our advantage as they can convey ideas or meanings and, while there are never ‘bad’ names, there are poorly suited ones. The most common mistake in naming a character is choosing a name for the sake of it and not thinking about the consequences, meanings or associations.

Rhymes?
Having Ben, Ken, Jen and Len all in one story leaves the reader confused and bored. Make sure that there are variations in your choice of names, not just in sound but in syllables. There are thousands of names to choose from, so don’t settle for the easiest or most common.

Avoid clichés:
When it comes to writing horror, we are bound to come across an evil mastermind or two, and when we do, we hate to find them called ‘Doctor Doom’ or ‘The Evil One’ or even those delightful characters who are known by such painful titles as ‘The One Without a Name” or the “The One We Cannot Name”. Give your mad scientist or crazed biologist a believable name, something that makes them seem a little more real and thus a little more disconcerting for your reader.

This applies to our everyday, ‘normal’ characters as well. John Smith and Jane Doe…? Well, they speak for themselves. Put some effort into finding a decent name and surname. When creating a character, write a back story that mentions their parents and ask yourself what this character’s parents would have named them. Those who raise us play a part in shaping our personality. Think of Johnny Cash’s song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.

When it comes to monsters and creatures, creepies and crawlies, think outside the box. Instead of ‘the blob’, look up the translation in another language, it will mean the same thing but add a little air of mystery for those not in the know.

Spelling:
Changing the spelling of a name can work for or against you. If you change the spelling and manage to keep the right pronunciation, then this can add to your character’s unique identity. However, changing the spelling too much can leave the name open to mispronunciation which can affect the way your reader interprets it.

Connotations:
It is inevitable that great names in history come with certain connotations. Let’s take a prime example: Adolph Hitler. Already thoughts and ideas have come into your mind, most of them presumably negative. Be careful if you take inspiration from the names historical figures, both good and bad, as these will lead the reader to draw conclusions about your characters that have no place in your story. On the other hand, choosing a well-known name can enhance the image of your character, providing that he or she fits the general image.

Age appropriate:
A little research can go a long way towards authenticity. The popularity of names fluctuates year by year, and names that were common in the 1920’s were not as common in the 1980’s. If your character is 80 years old, do a quick search on the Internet and see what names were common back then. Little aspects such as these can add extra credibility and authenticity to you story.

Abbreviations:
Don’t be afraid to abbreviate your character’s name, or use their surname as their predominant form of reference. We all give nicknames, drop or add part of a name or (casually or formally) drop the first name completely in everyday life, so there’s no reason why your characters shouldn’t either. A nickname says a lot about the character who has it, and the one who gives it.

Finding Names:
So what happens when you can’t find a name that seems right for your character? Don’t settle for just anything, do some looking around: names are everywhere. So where are some good places to find them?
– Fictional name generators (many are available if you do a quick Internet search)
– Baby name websites (these are useful and some offer statistics about popularity, origins and meaning)
– Watch movie credits
– Open a phone book.
– Take inspiration from history (Salem Witch Trials? Titanic?)

Never underestimate the power of a name. We can’t help but associate meanings and ideas to certain names and while we are not always conscious of this, we do it nonetheless. Giving a little extra thought when it comes to naming your characters means that you give your writing that little extra edge.

Sense and Sensibility

As writers we sometimes neglect our senses. We spend countless hours absorbed in the two-dimensional worlds of pen and paper, keyboard and monitor, often to the point that we forget the different sensations that the world holds. Our five senses help us to function in the world, but some take precedence over others. Sight and sound are our predominant means of experiencing the world around us, and so we transfer these onto our characters. But what of taste, touch and smell?

The feel of soft velvet, the taste of your favorite chocolate or the smell of a new car, all of these invoke different emotions in different people. As do the taste of rancid orange juice, the smell of a burst drain pipe and the feel or centipede crawling up your leg.They trigger thoughts, memories, emotions and reactions.

Think of fear.

It is strong, primal emotion that affects our bodies as much as our minds. When someone is afraid, their hearts begin to race, they sweat, their hands tremble, they struggle to swallow and breathe. If we step it up a notch, take it to the level of terror, then what happens? On an emotional level they feel helpless, impotent, angry, confused or even a strong sense of disorientation and dissociation from events. On the physical side, their mouth dries up, leaving a metallic or bitter taste, they perspire, they can feel their bowels loosen and smell the warm pee that’s soaking their underwear. Let’s face it, fear isn’t pretty. Don’t be afraid to mention the gritty, unpleasant details when your character has to deal with it.

From a different perspective, consider what your character is confronted with, what is causing them to be terrified. As a writer, you’ll have the image in your mind: a rotting corpse, a Lovecraftian being with flailing tentacles, a crazed killer or a child’s toy wielding a blood smeared knife. Whatever it may be, you can be certain that if that situation were real, smells, tastes and textures would flood the scene. Give your reader a whiff of the decomposing corpse, a taste of blood or make them feel the tightness in their chest as your character struggles to breathe.

Not all senses that invoke fear need to be ‘bad’. That charming little girl next door who has just dismembered your character’s cat could smell of baby powder and candyfloss. The familiar touch of a husband’s caress feels great for his wife, until she discovers the truth about him (serial killer? pedophile? victim of the body snatchers?). The first bite into a fresh apple, the sweet and tart flavors mingling on their tongue, mixing in their mouth as the chew and swallow, only to see half a worm wiggling at the core? The horror of a scene can be intensified by contrasting the every day, familiar and enjoyable with the true nature of the situation.

So go on, give your reader the full sensory experience…

Getting Feedbakck

As writers, we all like to know that we’re headed in the right direction. Online writing communities are a great resource for aspiring writers to get feedback on their work.

Having family members or friends read your writing isn’t always helpful. Often people you know will praise your work, but how reliable is their opinion? Perhaps they don’t want to offend you, or maybe they haven’t read enough to be able to give a good critique. Either way, I find that having other writers read my work helps me to get good advice, they have a better idea of what to look for, what works and what doesn’t in the fiction that they’re reading.

Be it poetry, short stories, scripts or novels, these sites will help you to get objective opinions, tips and advice on your work.

Writing.com

This is my favorite writing community. The site works on a system of Gift Points (GP’s) that encourage writers review works. The more you review, the more GP’s you earn and the more GP’s you can offer to people who review your work. You can open a basic account for free or pay for upgraded features.

www.writing.com

Critters Workshop

This site is aimed at horror, science-fiction and fantasy writers. Opening an account is free and easy, and you’re guaranteed to get critiques from like minded writers.

http://critters.org/

My Writers Circle

This is a great forum for all styles and genres. You’re able to get feedback on your writing, have questions answered and find job opportunities.

http://www.mywriterscircle.com/

Critique Circle

Another forum geared at general and genre specific writing. They have a selection of tools to help you with your writing such character generators, submission trackers and name creators.

http://critiquecircle.com/

With these online resources you’re sure to get useful feedback on your writing. Don’t forget that all these systems are based on everyone chipping in with the work load: the more you review the more your work will get reviewed. It’s not as bad as it sounds because learning to critique other writers’ work will give you a better perspective on your own.

Five short stories that every horror writer should read

Good writers read. Be it a timeless masterpiece or a trashy novel, every piece fiction has something to teach us. Below I’ve listed five examples of short stories that have something to teach every writer.

“The Lottery” – Shirley Jackson

Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a must read for any aspiring horror writer. Jackson’s power comes from her simple and subtle writing that leads to a brilliantly crafted ending. No supernatural elements here, just a look at the power of tradition in society.

“The Monkey’s Paw” – W. W. Jacobs

Jacobs’ story is a classic that will never lose its impact on first time readers. He weaves a twisted tale around a simple, foreign object and leaves a humble family to cope with the consequences. Everything comes at a price.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” – Charlotte Perkins Gilman 

This short story is a great example of how fragile the human mind is. Gilman’s use of diary entries creates an intimate and disturbing read as we are shown how quickly a person can descend into madness when faced with a simple fixation

“Green Tea” – Sheridan Le Fanu

Le Fanu is known for mixing the natural with supernatural, and this story is no exception. Is the protagonist suffering from delusions, or are there more sinister elements at work to torture this man.

“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad” – M. R. James

James is at his best with this ghost story. He mixes in a little humor but that does little to deter the ready from the creepy effect of his narrative, resulting in one of the finest examples of his work.

These texts can be found at:

http://www.horrormasters.com

Death, Superstition and Warnings

What is a superstition? Some call it a belief in fate or magic, others a coincidence, but regardless of their origin, there are many superstitions out there, particularly those revolving around death and it’s consequences. Basing your story on a superstition, or placing a few discreet portents of doom can add some depth and a sprinkle of foreshadowing to your story.

SIGNS THAT DEATH IS COMING…
A bat that flies around your house three times is an omen of death.
A dropped umbrella in a house is a sign that a murder will take place there.
A white moth inside a house is a portent of death.
When thirteen people sit down for a meal, one of them will die before the end of the year.
If you dream about birth it is an omen of death.
If you cut your nails on a Sunday you’re sure to see blood the next day.
A mirror that falls and breaks of it’s own accord is a sign that someone will die.
If a picture contains three people, the one in the middle will die first.
If you step on a crack you will break your mother’s back.
Six crows seen together are an omen of death.
If a dog howls three times at midnight, death is on its way.
A clock that chimes even though it doesn’t work is an omen of a death in the family.
Looking at your shadow cast by moonlight means you could be the next to die in the family.
When a robin flies through a window into a room, death is following close behind.
When a ceremonial candles blows out, evil is close by.
If a couple owns a cedar tree on their land, and half of it dies, then one of the couple will die soon.
If rats flee from your house, death is on it’s way.

WHEN DEATH HAS COME BUT NOT YET GONE…
The gates of heaven are left open on Christmas eve, so those who die on that night will go straight to heaven.
When a person dies in a house, all windows should be opened and doors unlocked so the soul can escape.
By holding your breath as you walk past a graveyard, you are stopping yourself from inhaling a lost spirit.
If an owl is seen swooping towards the ground on Halloween, it’s collecting souls.
When a candle flame suddenly flickers blue, a ghost is near.
An albatross that flies around a ship that is out at sea is thought to be the spirit of a drowned sailor warning of bad weather to come.
It is bad luck to wear new clothes to a funeral.
It brings bad fortune for a pregnant woman to attend a funeral.
Weeds growing on a grave are sign that that person was evil.
Funerals on a Friday are bad luck.
A woman buried in black will return to haunt her family.
If you have a corpse in the house, cover the mirrors or the person who sees their reflection will die.
A corpse whose eyes are left open will look for some one to take with them.

Now that you know what signs to look out for, will you give your characters a warning of their impending doom, or let them wander helplessly into the icy grip of Death’s hands?

Isolation

What is more terrifying than being alone? Isolation is an intense feeling: complete and utter abandonment, no one to turn to, no one to ask for help. That’s why it is often used in horror fiction, both in the literal and metaphorical sense.

As a writer, isolating your character or characters can lead to an increase in tension. Let’s say that two couples get together and go on vacation. A is married to B, and C to D but A is sleeping with C who is also sleeping with B. D finds outs and goes nuts. If the happy couples’ revelations take places in a crowded hotel, there are too many complicating factors and intervening forces. Put them on a yacht out in the ocean, or a snowed-in winter log cabin and watch how the tempers flare when there’s nowhere to go. Interesting situation with great possibilities.

Michael Chrichton’s novel ” Sphere” is a great example of how isolation can impact a group of people. Without wanting to give away the plot, a group of researchers are trapped in a special habitat miles under the ocean. They are cut off from outside assistance and as the action increases, so does the tension, because they have nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help.

A notable short story about a character in complete isolation is Stephen King’s “Survivor Type” in which a single character survives the sinking of a cruise ship only to be left on a tiny island with only a logbook, a knife and a smuggled load of heroine. This story makes for an interesting read as it explores the question of what one would do to survive.

“Event Horizon” is a particularly disturbing film revolving around a salvage crew trapped on a spaceship. Once again, it is the isolation that plays a crucial role in creating devastating events.

So what is it about isolation that gets to us? Perhaps its linked to our instinctive feeling that there is safety in numbers, or that two heads are better than one. When your characters are isolated, they have no one to reach out and all the decisions (and resulting consequences) rest on them.

An individual that has been isolated for extended periods of time can experience feelings of depression, anxiety, dislocation, sensory illusions and loss of time. Some say isolation can lead to madness. In groups, the dynamics change and so does the ‘normal’ social order.

In what ways can isolation be useful in fiction?
– it stops your characters from getting external help.
– it heightens their stress levels.
– it increases each character’s internal conflict.
– it forces decision making.
– it forces cooperation and rivalry.

We forget how much a situation can change we are alone, especially as a group. Bare this in mind when writing a horror story…

Phobias

 

Looking for a little extra something to add to your character or plot? Phobias are a great character trait for increasing internal and external conflict. A common example is arachnophobia, an intense fear of spiders. But I’m not talking about fear as in ‘ew that’s a gross spider someone grab a shoe and squish it’ type of fear. By phobia I mean a debilitating terror, an inability to function or react as your palms sweat and you struggle to breathe when confronted with the tiniest arachnid.

Another common phobia is acrophobia, the fear of heights. Think of Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo” in which Scottie Ferguson, a former police detective, is so affected by acrophobia that he quits his job and struggles to react appropriately when confronted with heights. Would this character or film have been as interesting if he wasn’t affected by this phobia? No, it would just have been another mystery film.

Phobias are interesting in that they can stem from a specific incident, or have no real rhyme or reason behind them. In the start of “Vertigo”, Scottie nearly falls off a building while pursuing a suspect and watches a man fall to his death in an attempt to rescue Scottie. This sparks his extreme fear of heights. In contrast, Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” has no specific event that initiates his fear of dirt and germs. This fear stems from his obsessive compulsive personality disorder, yet it is just as incapacitating as Scotties.

In short, phobias are a great way to spark off conflict, create primary and subplots and add another dimension to a story that may otherwise lack complexity.

Below is a list of thirty phobias that I find stand out from the rest:

Name… Fear of…
Agyiophobia crossing busy streets
Aichmophobia sharp or pointed objects
Amaxophobia riding in a car
Arachibutyrophobia peanut butter sticking to roof of mouth
Ballistophobia missiles
Belonephobia pins and needles
Bibliophobia books
Cathisophobia sitting
Cenophobia empty spaces
Chrematophobia money
Climacophobia falling down stairs
Cyberphobia computers
Eosophobia dawn
Erythrophobia red lights
Geniophobia chins
Hierophobia sacred things
Iatrophobia going to the doctor
Iconophobia of images
Linonophobia string
Lygophobia darkness
Mysophobia contamination or dirt
Onomatophobia hearing a certain word
Ophthalmophobia being stared at
Optophobia opening your eyes
Paedophobia Children or dolls
Pteronophobia being tickled by feathers
Sciaphobia shadows
Spectrophobia looking in a mirror
Symmetrophobia symmetry
Toxicophobia poisoning

Imagine what it would like to fear such a simple thing as stairs. Ever noticed how many stairs there are in the world? What happens if your character hears their child scream in terror on the third floor of the house, but they can’t bring themselves to climb the stairs? Or what about Hierophobia? Would could cause such a fear and how would it affect your character?

With these sorts of phobias you can let your imagination run wild and lead you to create some amazing, bizarre and terrifying plots.