Guest Post: WEIRD IDEAS: Ways to Find Ideas for Your Writing BY Tim Waggoner
WEIRD IDEAS: Ways to Find Ideas for Your Writing
BY Tim Waggoner, Author of Writing in the Dark
In order to write effective – and original – horror, you need to dig into your own psyche and find out what scares you, what disturbs you, what hurts you. It’s what Jack Ketchum used to refer to as “writing from the wound.” Worried that no one will be frightened by the same things you are? Don’t be. As Aristotle said, the only way to get to the universal is through the particular. By focusing on your own personal fears and giving them shivery life on the page, you’ll be connecting to your audience – guaranteed.
What were you afraid of as a child? The dark; thunder and lightning; the barking German shepherd next door; Mommy and Daddy yelling at each other? Make a list of your childhood boogeymen, and write at least a paragraph about each item. Don’t think in terms of story, just write whatever comes to mind. Try to focus on your feelings and what sparked those feelings – remember, horror is an emotion.
Next – and this might be difficult – make a list of any disturbing events in your childhood. Encounters with schoolyard bullies, severe illnesses, deaths of friends and family members. Again, write at least a paragraph on each item.
Pay attention to the events in the news which upset and anger you. Collect newspaper and magazine articles and keep them in a folder. Don’t merely collect every article on murder you find. Look for stories which arouse an emotional reaction in you, stories which fascinate you.
One of the news stories I’ve collected over the years concerns an apartment house near Ohio State University which had a replica of an electric chair perched on the roof. According to the article, the building’s occupants had no idea who put the chair up there and why. It was there when they moved in. As they said, “It’s always been there.”
Now there’s a story waiting to happen!
Another area you can explore for ideas is the realm of dreams. Every morning, as soon as you get up, record your dreams in a journal. A friend of mine in college had been keeping dream journals for years. When he first started, he only remembered having two or three dreams a night. But after a couple years of faithfully writing in his journal, he routinely recalled fifteen or sixteen. And while many of them weren’t more than snatches of everyday life replayed on the mind’s dream-screen, he always had at least a couple that were quite surreal and disturbing. Added up over the course of a year, that’s a lot of potential story ideas. In our dreams, our defenses and pretenses are swept aside, and we are most ourselves. Your dreams are unique; use them to write stories that are uniquely yours.
Stephen King once said that he comes up with ideas by looking at an ordinary object and telling himself that something is wrong with it. You can do this too. Take a look around you and let your imagination run paranoid. Choose a minor aspect of your life or an ordinary event and tell yourself that something is wrong with it. Seriously wrong.
Ask yourself what’s most important, most dear to you. What do you treasure? Who do you love? Now ask yourself what if these things were threatened, removed, altered, turned against me? How would you feel? And most importantly, what would you do about it? Your answers to these questions will provide some of your best and most personal story ideas.
I get a lot of my ideas from interacting imaginatively with the world around me. I’ve always had a strong imagination, and I spend most of my time living in my head. So if I see something that strikes me as odd, it sparks ideas. For example, a couple years ago, I found a large wooden stake in my yard. I know the stake was left by people doing construction on the street, but my imagination immediately thought: This was left by a vampire hunter during the night. This is how I think all the time, so whatever I’m doing – taking a walk, reading a news article, watching a TV show – I’m constantly responding to whatever stimuli are around me. I also get ideas from misperceptions. A word I misheard, or something I saw out of the corner of my eye that I mistook for something else. Once when I was driving home, I saw a woman in her front lawn. As I passed, I caught a glimpse of her face, and it looked as if she had the skull of some prehistoric beast for a head, with long, curved upper and lower fangs. I write down these kinds of details because I experience so many of them throughout the day that I’ll forget them if I don’t. Not all of them become inspiration for stories, but a lot do.
When you walk in the world as an imaginative person, you notice all kinds of weird things, and you wonder at their origins and possible (hidden) meanings. For example, years ago, in the space of a week, I saw two different men walking backward at two different locations. I had no idea why these men would be walking backward. It was so strange! I wrote a note about it on my phone’s notepad app, and sometime later, when I was searching for a story idea to use for an anthology, I read over my list of ideas and found The Backward-Walking Men. I used that image as the basis for the story.
I try to make my stories unique – both from each other and from what other people write – in several ways. One is by drawing inspiration from the world around me, as in the above example. I was likely the only person on Earth who saw those two men in that week and wrote it down in his phone. Then I combined it with another idea, one that at first might not seem to fit. The anthology I was writing the backward-walking men story for was Heroes of Red Hook. The book’s concept was Lovecraftian fiction featuring diverse heroes. I made the backward-walking men into one man, and I chose a young autistic man as my hero. His special perception of the world allowed him not only to see the Backward-Walking Man – who was walking backward as he unmade reality – but to defeat him.
I also try to make sure each story has an emotional core. For “The Backward-Walking Man,” the emotional core is that my hero has been treated all his life as if something’s wrong with him, that he’s lesser. But through the events of the story, he realizes the way he looks at life is special and valuable, and so is he. So I guess my story formula would be Weird Observation + Seemingly Unrelated Idea + Emotional Core. If I can nail down those three things, I can usually come up with what I hope is a decent story.
In the end, it’s simple: If you want to write truly effective horror, don’t merely recycle the imaginings of others. Write the stories only you can tell. And in the process, scare the crap out of the rest of us.
Writing in the Dark –
In this comprehensive textbook devoted to the craft of writing horror fiction, award-winning author Tim Waggoner draws on thirty years’ experience as a writer and teacher. Writing in the Dark offers advice, guidance, and insights on how to compose horror stories and novels that are original, frightening, entertaining, and well-written.
Waggoner covers a wide range of topics, among them why horror matters, building viable monsters, generating ideas and plotlines, how to stylize narratives in compelling ways, the physiology of fear, the art of suspense, avoiding clichés, marketing your horror writing, and much more. Each chapter includes tips from some of the best horror professionals working today, such as Joe Hill, Ellen Datlow, Joe R. Lansdale, Maurice Broaddus, Yvette Tan, Thomas Ligotti, Jonathan Maberry, Edward Lee, and John Shirley. There are also appendices with critical reflections, pointers on the writing process, ideas for characters and story arcs, and material for further research.
Writing in the Dark derives from Waggoner’s longtime blog of the same name. Suitable for classroom use, intensive study, and bedside reading, this essential manual will appeal to new authors at the beginning of their career as well as veterans of the horror genre who want to brush up on their technique.
From Raw Dog Screaming Press, it published September 16, 2020. It’s available in hardback and paperback for pre-order before that date, and usually mail early.
Praise for Writing in the Dark –
“More than just a generalized survey of spooky stuff, this book addresses horror in all its many manifestations, from Quiet Horror to Extreme Horror to Country Horror. Beyond discussions of plotting and character, Waggoner also offers helpful advice on interacting with agents and publishers, as well as best practices for marketing your work.”—Booklist
“I was in the final edits of a novel that I believed to be solid. Waggoner’s advice suggested I dig deeper. I did and now the story feels so much more alive and relevant…Enroll in this fine course with Professor Waggoner. You won’t mind the homework—even if the monster does eat it.”—Dave Simms for Cemetery Dance
For more information or to order go to www.rawdogscreaming.com, purchase at usual online retailers, or order from your local bookstore.
Critically-acclaimed author Tim Waggoner has published over fifty novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and he’s the author of a book on writing horror fiction called Writing in the Dark. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award and been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Scribe Award, and the Splatterpunk Award. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.