Writing Dark Stuff

Writing Dark StuffAmanda recently wrote a post on getting rid of our writing filters and I’m still thinking about the topic.  My writing friends are not surprised when I pull a twisted, blackened story out of the stuff between my ears, but my relatives are always taken aback. I’m the responsible one, the nice one, the compassionate empathetic one. I laugh easily and smile often (regardless of my perpetual RBF). I look harmless.

But there’s a part of me that is happy to write stories that horrify my mother and make my children a little nervous. I research serial killers and psychopathology. I spent several months learning all I could about long-term captivity and Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t mind talking about autopsies and the Body Farm at dinner (I assure you they very much mind listening).

Joanna Penn has commented several times on her videos that people ask how such a happy, smiling woman can write about things like corpse desecration.  I understand how she feels. There’s something about the dark side that feeds my inner storyteller. I wish I could remember who said this (if you know the reference, please let me know), but someone commented that comedians are often quite depressed and people with bad childhoods often learn to entertain. He or she posits that people with normal lives or happy childhoods might wander into the blacker side of storytelling. I suspect most horror writers are quite normal. I don’t think, if you met me in person, you’d suspect I’ve written about a serial killer’s first time or the calculated revenge of pets.

My filters are to avoid writing anything that might offend family and more delicate friends. For the most part I don’t write gruesome, but turning off that filter on occasion has led me to a few pieces I’m quite happy to have written. The freedom to write what comes to mind is the best writing gift I’ve ever given myself (and credit is due to the Muses for encouraging it).

So why am I telling you this? It’s because I hope all writers will allow themselves space and time to write what comes. You don’t ever have to show it to someone or publish it, but putting the words down is a gift to your inner writer. I think there are two reason for that. The first is that you are getting beyond your filters and thoughts of “I can’t write that!” The second is  that, since writing begets writing, you are opening yourself up to other story ideas if you let yourself go.

I do have hard lines I don’t cross. Ever. But they are a choice rather than a filter imposed upon me by someone else. I hope that makes sense. This post is as much my reaction to Amanda’s encouragement as it is my hope for fellow writers. It’s written in first person because I believe we are not alone in our anxieties when it comes to the words we write. It won’t kill me to be vulnerable, right? And if it helps someone, so much the better.

What I want to say is to write what is in you to write. If that’s zombies, cannibalism, human experiments a la Dr. Mengele, or (insert squeamish thought here), then write it. Leave it in a corner of your hard drive forever if you want, but all writing is good practice and opening yourself up to writing without filters teaches your writer brain to be more forthcoming.

Have you written anything you feel might horrify someone close to you? How difficult was it to write?

Senses Enrich the Story

Senses Enrich the StoryWe all know senses are important, right? Sight, scent, taste, sound, and touch are as important to our characters and stories as they are to us. Our senses allow us to take in the world around us, but they also help transport us into memories.  What does the smell of rain or the sound of a train mean to your character?

Senses enrich scenes

Just as beats help break up and give flesh to the bones of dialogue, senses give clues to atmosphere and the character’s state of mind. “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair as her hostess poured tea,” is clear enough. But “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair, hoping the proffered tea was pungent enough to mask the  medicinal smell of the sick room” gives us a completely different impression. Or “Elsa perched on the chair as her hostess poured tea, the scent of which brought her back to her grandmother’s kitchen.”

Other senses could work the same magic. Perhaps the hostess has tremors our character notes, or she’s wearing a floral dress that reminds our character of someone from her past. Is there a mantle clock that chimes or does the heated porcelain of the tea cup trigger a response?

Senses invoke memory

Some great flashback scenes begin with a sense that sweeps the character into a memory. “Tom remembered that day clearly” is a statement. “The heat from the asphalt rose through Tom’s oxfords and  produced a shimmer on the horizon, just as it had that day when…” Or “The hot pavement and heated air brought her face clearly to mind. “Let’s go swimming,” she had said.”

Scent is a major player in memory recall, but so is music. The right song or snatch of lyrics easily transports me to a moment in my past and does so for characters as well. A certain touch can also bring the past sharply into focus, especially if the memory is an unpleasant one.

Senses improve recall

Police and therapists use a technique called “the cognitive interview” to help victims and witnesses to access their memories with greater detail. In this type of interview, the person is put into the scene by recalling what their senses were registering at the time. Once the memory of time and place is firmly established, the recall of the interviewee is usually sharper and smaller details are more easily remembered. You can try this yourself by recalling what your senses told you in a particular memory before the main event happens. If your character is a witness, victim, or investigator, this is a tool you can use.

Other senses

I would argue that there are other senses important in the scheme of things. The sense that air pressure has changed could indicate a door or hatch has just been closed or opened. Temperature, air flow, gravity, motion, and others also affect your character. We are aware of more than we realize and adrenaline heightens that awareness.

Try to give a specific when using a sense. Rather than tar smelling hot, does it smell oily, burnt, or heavy? Tea can be delicate, flowery, herbal, pungent, earthy. Touch can be grazing, reassuring, frightening, directional, or emotional. A sound can be grating, grinding, soft, metallic, sighing, startling, or out of context/unexpected. Taste doesn’t only relate to something put on the tongue. Defeat can taste bitter. Fear might taste metallic. Lemonade could taste like childhood.

Sight is the sense we use most often with our characters since we are essentially reporting what they are seeing and doing. But sight is richer when not used alone, and how your character process what is seen is unique to them as well as mood dependent.

If you (or your character) had to lose one sense, which would you choose and why?

What Writer Anxiety Looks Like

Photo credit: Vic

Photo credit: Vic

Some anxiety is normal for all writers. Knowing which is “normal,” or anxiety we can work with, and which is potentially crippling, is important. It helps us locate areas to work on.

Fear looks different for every writer and we all find our own “original” methods for placating that anxiety. In last week’s post, Writer Anxiety, we looked at the kinds of fears writers face.  But what does writer fear look like? Honestly examining your writer’s life for signs of anxiety that hold you back is key to moving forward.

I like to organize when I’m not ready to write, so I spent a bit of time organizing into categories what writer anxiety looks like in my world. For me there are three basic branches: preparing, distracting, and pretending.


Preparing can feel productive. It can feel as if we’re moving forward, but it isn’t writing.

Examples of avoiding writing through preparation:

  • You spend all your writing time doing research and developing back story but never progress to actual prose.
  • You tell yourself you’ll write after another writer conference or a coveted grant or fellowship.
  • You insist on having your writing space (or notes, research, etc.) perfectly organized before you can write.
  • You outline and plan your writing instead of writing.
  • You promise yourself you’ll write as soon as you get a new computer, keyboard, laptop, <fill in the blank>.

Distractions are the devil in the best of times, but for an anxious writer, distractions grow to fill our field of vision until they become obstacles to overcome. While part of us works to scale these mole hills, another part of us is secretly satisfied we have avoided words for another day.

Examples of avoiding writing through distraction:

  • You find too many other “urgent” things to do during writing time.
  • You “sacrifice” writing time for the perceived needs of others.
  • You continually seek the right environment or right circumstances before you’ll put a word down on paper.
  • You don’t maintain a regular writing practice or often miss scheduled time.
  • You’ve used the words “someday” and “write” in the same sentence.
  • You tell yourself there’s no point sitting down to write until X happens, or Y is resolved, or Z arrives because you just can’t give words your whole focus.

Pretending can also feel productive, but with a twist. We’ve written enough to gain entrance into the world of writers, but only just, and we go no further.

Examples of avoiding writing through pretending:

  • You work on writing or editing the same scene over and over instead of writing new material.
  • You abandon one writing project for another and do this over and over instead of finishing any.
  • You talk about writing instead of writing.
  • You attend writer’s group, conferences, and classes, often trotting out the same short story, instead of writing.

The best part about writer anxiety is that most writers go through it, so it’s not too difficult to find a friendly ear and a little commiseration. The worst part about writer anxiety is that so many people get stuck there.

Anxiety is not a bad thing by itself. Anxiety can clue us in that something is important or personal. It can indicate our story is going off track (or possibly that it should). The only bad anxiety is the one that keeps you from writing all together.

Next week: Some ideas for overcoming (or at least getting along with) fear.


Did anything in the above lists feel familiar?